Monday, 3 September 2012

A day with the saints in the heart of ‘Chiantishire’

The vines, groves and terraces that have given Tuscany the name ‘Chiantishire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

We travelled south on Sunday [2 September 2012] to Siena and San Gimignano to visit the heart of that part of Tuscany that is known to many people in England as “Chiantishire.”

Tony Blair has stopped taking summer holidays in “Chiantishire” but this part of Italy is still a favourite haunt of British celebrities – Prince Charles was once interested in buying the Villa Tegoni, a palazzo near Siena with an inner courtyard, private chapel, 120 acres of farmland and a price tag of £1.3 million; Antonio Banderas, Sting, Bryan Ferry, Sir John Mortimer, Richard Gere, Mary Wesley and Dame Muriel Spark all have homes here too.

Unesco has declared the centre of Siena a World Heritage Site. This is one of the most visited tourist attractions in Italy, and is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, mediaeval streets and buildings, and for the Palio – a horse race held in the centre of the city twice a year.

We were here not for princes and rockstars but for saints and history, and our first stop was to hear the story of Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) in the Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana.

The Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana, is key to understanding the life of Saint Catherine of Siena (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Saint Catherine of Siena was a Dominican nun, a theologian and a scholastic philosopher. She also worked to bring the papacy of Gregory XI back to Rome from its exile in Avignon, and sought to bring peace to the feuding feudal Italian city-states. She was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1970, and is one of the two patron saints of Italy, along with Saint Francis of Assisi.

Our first stop on Sunday morning was the Basilica of San Domenico, which is closely associated with the life of Saint Catherine.

The brick-built church, with a lofty bell tower, was begun in 1226-1265, but was enlarged in the 14th century when it received it present Gothic appearance.

At the west end of the church, the Cappella delle Volte was used for the private prayers of the Dominican nuns, and is the location of many stories about Saint Caherine’s mystical experiences.

On the south side of the nave of the church, the main focus for pilgrims and visitors is the Saint Catherine Chapel, with the saint’s head and thumb. Il Sodoma painted the Fainting and Ecstasy of Saint Catherine and the Death of Niccolò di Tuldo for the chapel, while Francesco Vanni painted Saint Catherine’s Exorcism.
Unesco has declared the centre of Siena a World Heritage Site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Given the associations of Siena with Saint Catherine, who was born near the basilica, it is surprising that Christianity did not reach Siena until the 4th century AD. Some archaeologists assert that Siena was controlled for a period by a Celtic people known as the Senones. But, like other Tuscan hill towns, Siena was first settled by the Etruscans, and was inhabited by a tribe called the Saina. A Roman town, Saena Julia, was founded on the site in the reign of the Emperor Augustus, but the first document mentioning it dates from AD 70.

The Roman origins gave rise to the city’s emblem of a she-wolf suckling the infant twins Romulus and Remus, and Roman legend said Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus and nephew of Romulus.

Later, the constant streams of pilgrims passing through Siena on the way to and from Rome provided Siena with a valuable source of income. The place prospered as a city state, became a major centre of money lending, and was an important centre for the wool trade.

At first, Siena was ruled directly by the bishop, but as episcopal power declined in the 12th century the bishop was forced to concede a greater say in running the city to the nobility. In 1167, Siena declared its independence and by 1179 it had a written constitution.

The Duomo or cathedral was completed in the early 13th century. At the same time, the Piazza del Campo grew in importance as the centre of secular life, and new streets were built leading to it.

Siena struggled with its neighbouring great rival, Florence, and the 13th century conflict between Ghibelline Siena and Guelph Florence forms the backdrop for some of Dante’s Commedia. In 1260, Florence besieged Siena and attacked by catapulting dung ad dead donkeys into the city. Siena’s revenge came in 1260 at the Battle of Montapetri. But true disaster came when Siena was devastated by the plague in 1348; two-thirds of the population of 100,000 was wiped out, and the city capitulated to Cosimo de Medici of Florence.

The city slowly recovered, and in 1472 the Republic of Siena founded the Monte dei Paschi, a bank that is still active today and is the oldest surviving bank in the world.

From the Basilica of San Domenico, we made our way past the convent built on the site of Saint Catherine’s family home and through the streets leading down to the Piazza del Campo to the duomo or cathedral.

The cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Siena’s cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta was begun in the 12th century and is one of the great examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. Its main façade was completed in 1380.

The duomo is unusual for a cathedral in that its axis runs north-south. The original plan was to build the largest cathedral in the world, with a north-south transept and an east-west nave. But the black death, architectural and design problems, and shortage of money put an end to grand plans when only the transept and the east wall were completed. The outer walls and abandoned remains of the Duomo Nuovo can be seen beside of the cathedral on the Piazza Jacopo della Quercia.

Today, the planned transepts serve as the cathedral, and the magnificent faced at the north or liturgical “west end” is in white, green and red polychrome marble, designed by Giovanni Pisano.

The Piazza del Campo is the venue for the Palio horse race run twice a year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

From the duomo, we made our way back down to the Piazza del Campo or city square, which houses the Palazzo Pubblico or Town Hall and the Torre del Mangia, but is better known as the venue for the Palio horse race.

After a disappointing lunch overlooking the Campo in a pricey pizzeria where the staff was rude but still added 20 per cent to the bill, we travelled on to San Gimignano, the walled hill town about 50 km north-west of Siena. It is best known for its mediaeval architecture and more than a dozen tower houses.

San Gimignano has conserved 15 of the towers that have become the trademark of the town (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

San Gimignano was founded as a small village in the 3rd century BC by the Etruscans. But historical records only begin in the 10th century, when it adopted the name of Saint Geminianus, the Bishop of Modena who had defended the town from Attila and the Huns. In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, the town was a stopping point for pilgrims on the way to Rome along the Via Francigena.

In 1199, the city declared its independence from the Bishops of Volterra. The feuds between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines also brought disaster to the people of San Gimignano. On 8 May 1300, Dante visited San Gimignano as the ambassador of the Guelphs.

The city continued to flourish until 1348, when the Black Death wiped out most of the population, and forced the survivors to submit to Florence in 1353.

San Gimignano has conserved 15 towers of different height that have become emblematic of the town. They dominate the surrounding countryside and can be seen for miles around.

From the Porta San Giovanni, we strolled up the Via San Giovanni to the Piazza della Cisterna, with its cistern or well and a collection of towers, and then on to the Piazza Duomo, where the principal buildings are the Communal Palace, where Dante addressed the town council, and the Duomo Collegiata o Basilica di Santa Maria Assunta, the Romanesque former cathedral that later became a collegiate church with a college of priests.

A mediaeval parade through the streets of San Gimignano (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Behind the Collegiata, in the Piazza Pecori, there is a small Museum of Sacred Art, and a house selling produce in aid of mission work and a church project in the Third World.

Back in the Piazza Duomo, there was a taste of mediaeval San Gimignano as a colourful procession of guild members and drummers made its way up Via San Matteo to the duomo.

We walked back down Via San Giovanni to the Porta San Giovanni, and stopped to admire the Tuscan countryside and the vineyards of “Chiantishire” before returning to Monetecatini Terme.

A T-shirt explains why many tourists see Tuscany as ‘Chiantishire’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)