If there are any blog readers out there who aren't well acquainted with '80s cinema, the title of today's post is a famous quote from the 1985 classic Back to the Future. Why am I writing about Marty McFly's adventures with a mad scientist? Partially because I relish any opportunity to reference 80s movies, but mostly because walking around Siena felt like falling back in time. It was almost as if our passenger bus was Doc's old DeLorean!
A City Time Forgot
If you've read the other blog posts for this class, you probably remember that Siena and Florence were not on the best of terms. At one point the former was rapidly gaining power and wealth, which did not please the latter and the Medici family. A furious battle broke out between the two cities from which Florence emerged the victor, and as punishment the defeated Siena was not allowed to erect any new buildings. The once thriving economy grew crippled, especially after the Black Plague claimed 50-60% of their population soon after in 1348. Thus, with a dwindling number of citizens, the ban on new construction, and the presence of an occupying power, Siena lost the means to advance itself the way Florence had.
Take a stroll through the city today and you will find that Siena looks much the same as it did in the Middle Ages. In fact, if you look at paintings of the city commissioned before the plague hit, you'll notice that many of the buildings depicted therein still stand!
Please do not misunderstand me and think that I am accusing Siena of being a primitive city --it most certainly is not. All I mean to say is that this beautiful pocket of Tuscany has managed to retain and preserve so much of its Medieval and Rennaisance history, and this makes it unlike any other place in the world.
The Council of the Nine
Neighborhood pride has always existed, but Siena took it to an entirely different level. The brickwork that covers the ground portion of the central plaza, the Campo, is divided into nine sections (some of which you may be able to see in the attached pictures), and each section represents a certain district or canto of Siena. Nine representatives from each district came together to form The Council of the Nine, and this became the city's government. Grievances, proposals, and everything in between was brought before the Council.
Though these districts were all part of the same city, there were clear and distinct divisions between them. It was expected that you remain and marry within whichever district you were born into, no exceptions. At one point in history, tensions between the districts ran so high that fighting and dueling often broke out in the streets. This fierce animosity became an epidemic, and thus the government and the Church banded together to place a large piece of art featuring the Sign of the Risen Christ on the civic building at the center of the Campo. It was difficult to justify so much hatred when a symbol of peace and the power of God was so blatantly visible, and thus the violence slowly quelled.
Relationships between the districts are much more amicable now than in the 1300s, but there is still a friendly rivalry between them. Each district has its own flag, and these are still sold by street vendors and souvenir shops today. However, tourists are not the only ones who buy district flags, Sienese citizens wave them proudly as well during the city's annual horse race: The Palio. One rider from each district is entered to represent their neighborhood, and the object of the race is for the horse --not necessarily the rider-- to complete a lap around the plaza as quickly as possible. Because of this, the competition can be rather dangerous, but year after year hoards of people from Siena flood the square to share in the excitement and cheer on their horse.
You might remember that Florence lays claim to the Duomo di Firenze, the largest standing dome on Earth, but did you know that Siena would have been able to boast an even larger and more impressive dome had they not been defeated by their rival? Siena had begun work on what would have been a massive structure to dwarf Brunelleschi's Duomo, but after the loss to Florence the building was left unfinished. Its beginnings are still visible to the public and can be climbed to yield incredible views.
We may never know what the great Duomo of Siena would have looked like, but thankfully the city did finish building a much smaller cathedral and duomo before the fateful battle with Florence.
There were quite a few similarities between these rival cities until Siena's construction industry ground to a halt. The cathedral that houses Siena's current Duomo is The Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, whereas the church attached to the Duomo in Florence is the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore. The Cathedral in Florence might receive more visitors than its counterpart in Siena, but the latter has a much more lavish interior. The floors are some of the most intricately decorated in the world, with many sections devoted to the depiction of biblical stories and religious motifs, such as the wheel of fortune (not to be confused with the game show with Vanna White). Even the stone pulpit is so detailed and complex that it is difficult to take in everything that it features!
The church's walls and pillars are comprised of alternating black and white marble, a nod to the founding legend of Siena, wherein a man on a black horse and one on a white horse create the city. If that story sounds unfamiliar, Siena's other creation myth (which is related to that of the two horsemen) might be more recognizable: The tale of Romulus and Remus. Though the story is often attributed to the founding of Rome, the Sienese were actually its original authors. In true Roman fashion, however, the myth was adopted its Sienese origins forgotten. Today there are still numerous bronzes and paintings of a mother wolf and two young boys beneath her spread all across Siena, so that even if the rest of the world gives Rome credit for the legend, visitors to Siena know the whole story.
The cathedral is a breathtaking sight, but what is most intriguing about it is that it seems to transport its inhabitants back in time. Professor Merritt, as fascinated by the building as we were, told us that "these buildings are basically time machines. There were meant to transport your soul to another place and time entirely, and that's why they're decorated like this." I've spent plenty of time in gaudy gothic churches in my day, but I had never considered them time machines. Now, the more I think about Professor Merritt's words, the more I agree. When you're in a place that pays so much attention to detail and holds so much history, it's hard not to feel as if you're going back in time.
We bid Siena farewell and made it back to the future, and since then have made it through a few countries along the way! Jacque posted earlier to inform you all that we arrived in Strasbourg safe and sound. I hope that you enjoyed reading about our time in Italy, we certainly enjoyed writing about it. Now we've begun a new chapter of our trip, stay tuned to hear about France and Germany!
Thank you for reading!
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