Located with sprawling sienna buildings across three hilltops and their valleys is the Italian city of Siena. The city was founded by two men on black and white horses and a statue of a she-wolf (capitoline wolf) in hand. Their names—Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus and the nephews of Romulus. Now, Remus and Romulus are another story, they are the main characters in Rome’s foundation myth (We can talk about them a little more in a few weeks, when the class visits Rome). Real quick, a condensed version of Remus and Romulus’ story to help us understand how Senius and Aschius ended up founding Siena: Remus and Romulus, sons or Rhea Silvia(daughter of Numitor, king of Alba Longa) and Mars (yes, the god), are twin brothers who at birth are abandoned to die in the Tiber river; The river carried them to a she-wolf who found and suckled them as infants; a shepherd and his wife found them one day and fostered them into manhood as simple shepherds; when they discovered the truth about their birth they went off to found a new city. So, what does this have to do with Senius and Aschius? Other than the fact that they are the sons of Remus and nephews of Romulus. Basically, in the thrilling end to Remus and Romulus’ story and the founding of their new city, Remus doesn’t get the happy ending he wanted. Remus ends up dead. He is killed by his twin, Romulus, in a bloody brawl about where their new city should be built. Remus no longer gets a choice, and Romulus builds his city on the Palatine Hill and names it, Rome, after himself. Charming, huh? It is said that when Remus was killed, his sons Senius and Aschius fled the city riding the black and white horses and with them a statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants Remus and Romulus. They came upon the three hilltops in the middle of Tuscany and founded the city of Siena. This story is important because it gives us the origin of the cities symbol, the she-wolf, and Balzana or coat of arms, with a white band atop a dark band, which we saw all over the city as we roamed the three sienna hills.
Our first stop upon arrival was the Duomo di Siena or the Siena Cathedral dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta or Holy Mary, Our Lady of the Assumption. The cathedral is noted as one of Italy’s finest gothic churches that combines elements of French Gothic, Classical, and Tuscan Romanesque architecture (remember from Pisa) from the inside and out. Can you find elements of these architectural styles in the picture to the right? The cathedral began to take its current form in 1215 on the site of an earlier church that dates back to the 9th century, we had the opportunity to walk through the remains of this church which now houses late 13th century frescos and sits under the choir of the Duomo.
When walking into the cathedral you can’t help but to feel as if you stepped into another world, the bold dark and light marble, a symbol of Siena, is carried to the inside in a dramatic yet elegant way as the stripping geometry climbs into the heavens and meets the ceiling decorated in a rich blue spangled with gold stars. Looking up to the rounded arches of the nave your eyes meet busts of Christ and 171 popes from St. Peter to Lucius III, and in the spandrels of the arches you meet the busts of 36 Roman emperors. You get to meet a lot of important people if you take the time to look around!
I can’t help but to imagine Duccio’s Maestà, a piece of work we studied in our Social History of Art in Italy sitting under the dome as the sun shines in through the windows. In 1311 Duccio’s Maestà, an altarpiece composed of many individual paintings was installed. The front panels make up a large enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels, and a predella of the Childhood of Christ with prophets. The reverse has the rest of a combined cycle of the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ in a total of forty-three small scenes. Unfortunately, the Maestà was dismantled and several panels are now dispersed around the world, damaged, or lost.
As we walked through the cathedral we happened upon a library, again it was as if we were walking into another world, with an atmosphere that was so different than that of the buildings we interact with on an daily basis. The library, The Piccolominin Library, is dedicated to Enea Silvio Piccolomini also known as Pope Pius II. The library was in memory of Pope Pius II and meant to conserve the rich collection of manuscripts the pope had collected. For me I couldn’t stop looking up, I don’t know if I actually took a peak at the manuscripts. I honestly was fascinated by the blues, reds, and golds that made up the luxuriously dressed figures, the fine indoor settings, and the detailed landscapes on the frescoed ceiling in the Piccolominin Library.
As we leave the Duomo someone asked: So what’s up with this wall over here? In 1339 a huge expansion to the church was planned, the expansion would make the Duomo di Siena Italy’s largest Gothic building. The plan was to make the existing church the transept and build a whole new nave that would intersect in the middle. Think about a cross, the existing church would make up the smaller section of the cross as the new construction at over 100 meter long would make up the larger portion. Unfortunately, the foundations could not handle the added weight and the black death came by and took with it the cathedrals craftsmen and much of Siena’s population. The church was never completed, the incomplete nave today is used as a viewing tower to look out into the sienna landscape and rolling hills beyond, another part is used as a museum that hold some of Duccio’s Maestà panels.
After a quick lunch of Panini and espressi we walk over to the Piazza del Campo, where the three hills meet in a shell like town square.Looking around we see; the Palazzo Pubblico, the or the town hall; the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower of the Piazza del Campo; and several palazzi signrili or the nobleman residences. Here we talked about the significance of the she-wolf and Siena’s coat of arms, as they relate to the founding of Siena by Remus’ sons Senius and Aschius. We also began a conversation of Siena’s government at the time of the 13th and 14th centuries. Looking aorund the piazza we notice that the square is divided into nine different sections representing the rule of the Noveschi, or the Nine leaders, we can talk about them more when we visit the Palazzo Pubblica. We also notice that surrounding us are stunning palazzos with matching rooflines and brickwork, these are the palazzi signrili. The palazzi signrili in Siena stands out from other palazzi in Italy at the time being that all the building stand at the same height, where as in other cities around Italy families often competed to have a higher and better tower than their neighbor!
Inside the Palazzo Pubblica we come across many beautiful and vibrant frescos, that tell the stories of Siena. The one that stuck out the most was a fresco we studied, in our Social History of Art in Italy course, was a series of three fresco panels titled: The Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government. The frescos painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti cover three large walls in the Sala dei Nove, the council room, in the Palazzo Pubblica. The three walls capture six different scenes: Allegory of Good Government, Allegory of Bad Government, Effects of Bad Government in the City, Effects of Bad Government in the Country, Effects of Good Government in the City and Effects of Good Government in the Country. Basically the room is painted in a way that the council of nine is being reminded of what a good government looks like and the effects a good government has on the people and landscape that makes up the city, they are also reminded of what a bad government looks like and the effects a bad government has on the people and the landscape that makes up the city. On one wall we see Siena ruled by a tyrant and the people and land in a ill and hell like state, but on the opposite side we see Siena ruled by the commune of Siena and a lively and bright city.
Stayed tuned for a post about our weekend in Venice