On Saturday, June 29 the St. James’s Choir tour left Florence for Rome by way of Siena. Although Siena was merely a stop on the road to Rome (don’t they all lead there?), we experienced more than we expected. Read on to vicariously explore the fun of Siena.
Set in the Tuscan hills, Siena is a medieval city that once rivaled Florence for power and prestige. Like any good city-state back then, the city desired a more impressive cathedral than its rival’s, and Siena set out to top Florence’s Duomo. The grand plan was to build the largest cathedral in the world, beginning with a north-south transept which you see below, left. The rest of the plan was to build an enormous east-west nave (the long center aisle leading to the altar), but it remains unfinished today due to lack of funding to complete it.
The interior of the cathedral is stunning with its soaring ceilings, horizontal stripes of black and white marble, the masterpiece pulpit by Nicola Pisano depicting the life of Christ from the Annunciation to Last Judgement, and elaborate inlaid marble mosaics covering the entire floor. We toured the Piccolomini Library which contains the cathedral’s illuminated manuscripts, as well as breathtaking frescoes and ceiling.
We continued our walking tour of Siena, climbing the hills
and ending up in the city center at the Piazza del Campo. Serendipity intervened here, as this day was the beginning of the Palio de Provenzano, the semi-annual horse race and surrounding festivities held in the Piazza. To understand the Palio (think Mardi Gras meets the Kentucky Derby) is to understand the culture of Siena.
In a nutshell, the Palio is a 3-lap race of 10 horses ridden bareback by jockeys, and sportsmanship is NOT the name of the game here. There are 17 contrade (districts that comprise Siena) and only room for 10 horses, so an allocation system has developed over the years: the 10 slots are filled by the 7 contrade that didn’t compete in the previous race, and the remaining 3 slots are drawn at random. A horse is assigned to each contrada by lottery on the same day. This day, the Piazza was filled to the brim with residents of the 17 contrade anxiously awaiting the drawing and lottery.
As we made our way through the winding and hilly streets of Siena, we’d periodically hear the cheers, singing and chanting of the celebratory parade of a contrada, lead by its horse, then jockey, and finally its fans wearing the contrada’s scarf. One of my companions called it a massive parade of testosterone. Ha ha.
I can’t imagine anything more Italian and would love to see a movie made called “Siena’s Ten” with George Clooney in the title role … kinda like his Ocean’s Eleven? But I digress. The actual race is run on July 2. The winner was the L’Oca Contrada (the Goose) on a horse named Guess. For a real Italian treat, click here to see the video of the race.
As we convened at a gelato shop to begin our bus-boarding drill, we felt it might be time to flash mob a spiritual, but our maestro Mark Whitmire considered the raucous crowd and wisely decided against it. We would not leave our choral mark on the citizens and tourists of Siena.
I decided to give Rome, The Eternal City, its own post, a grand finale if you will. Look for that this Monday, July 15. Arrivederci!