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Off the Beaten Path: Italy Part 3: Siena by Juliet Martini

After touring around Italy for awhile, you can’t shake the feeling that this is a country of odd contradiction, both physically and rationally. This theory developed while moving from city to city, region to region and even museum to museum; contradiction is all part of the Italian genetic DNA. Seriously, consider this philosophical conundrum.

Initially the Italians developed from a culture bases imbedded with thousands of years of genetic material beginning on how you look at it, with the Romans. These first bad boys of excess took the concept of ‘divide and conquer’ to new levels. Next enter the Christian religion in the form of Catholicism, and it goes about offering not only the people of Italy, but the world a whole new level of conquering aimed at the ‘sinful soul’ providing its own twist on excess.

Mix these two very different views of philosophy, culture, history, and sprinkle with man’s search for the truth and you’re left with a glorious mixing of people who possess a decadent flair for the artistic and the intellectual often ostentatious in its excessive presentation. While visiting Italy, what better place to see this struggle of contradictions but in its hundreds of cathedrals, churches and ancient medieval cites all over Italy; especially in the city of Siena.

The city of Sienna is located practically dead center in the Tuscany region and is one of the most visited areas of Italy. Famous for its medieval cityscape, art, cuisine, architecture and twice yearly horse race called the Palio, (more on that later), the ‘Duomo di Siena,’ (Siena Cathedral), isone of the top ten churches in Italy you must tour.

Today’s Cathedral is not the first structure to rise on its spot. During the 9th century, records show the first structure being used to electing Pope Nicholas II in 1058. The current structure we enjoy today was finished in various stages between 1196 and 1370. The exterior and interior are constructed of white and greenish local marble in alternating stripes, with red marble on the façade. Black and white is symbolic of Siena’s name linking it to the black and white horses of the legendary city founders Senius and Aschius.

Laid out in the form of a Latin cross, the cathedral is unusual due to its axis runs north-south. Once destine to be the largest cathedral in the world, with required north-south transept and an east-west nave, after the transept and east wall were completed (which still exists as part of a municipal parking lot), money ran out and the rest of the cathedral was abandoned. (Though it is more likely the town was running out of workers because of the ramped Black Death in 1348 and errors in building). When construction began again, the cathedral’s size was scaled down, with a papal dispensation allowing for the reverse axis and transept layout we have today.

The magnificence of its architecture features a mix of French Gothic and Tuscan Romanesque. Its three entrance façade feature gable mosaics crafted in Venice. Inside there are unique artistic touches such as the horizontal moldings around the nave containing 175 busts of the popes dating from the 15th and 16th centuries starting with St. Peter and ending with Lucius III. The vaulted roof is decorated in blue with gold stars and the stained-glass round window in the choir dates to 1288 making if one of the earliest examples of Italian stained glass; also the four sculptures in the lower niches of the altarpiece are by a young Michelangelo .

But the most exquisite feature of this cathedral is its inlaid mosaic floor, one of the most ornate of its kind covering the whole cathedral.Consisting of 56 panels in various sizes, it represents oracle scenes of the Old Testament using allegories. Using a technique of marble inlay of various shapes and sizes, the result is a vivid contrast of light and dark giving each scene an almost modern feel of something we might do I our own homes today. The fully uncovered floor can only be seen for six to ten weeks in September and October, because for protection it is covered with a wooden floor for protection the balance of the year.

Besides it Cathedral, Siena is also know for a local racing tradition that dates back to medieval times. Still run twice a year in July and August the ‘Palio di Siena’ horse race is held in the main piazza of the Siena. Originally begun as a public festival featuring public games, boxing matches,jousting and bullfighting, the event changed into an organized race of honor on the backs of buffalo and donkeys, along with its own colorful pageantry of colorful costumes and banner waving.

Today, thousands of spectators come from around the world can still come to watch ten of the seventeen city wards horse race bareback, dressed in the representative colored medieval garb of their region on the dirt track circle around the Piazza del Campo. Though the race is three laps, and usually lasts no longer than 90 seconds, it is not uncommon for a few jockeys to be thrown from their horses while making the treacherous turns of the piazza, where often times unmounted horses finish the race without their riders.

So it is safe to say with the traditions still alive and flourishing in Siena, you can help but still see a bit of divide and conquer when it comes to witnessing first hand all the wonderful contradictions the Italian culture.


Photo #1:  (Siena) ©  mr. donb

Photo #2: (Exterior Church) ©  nfranano

Photo #3: (Church Floor) ©  Alaskan Dude

Photo #4 (Piazza)  ©  256_colors

Photo #5 (Medieval costume) ©  FreddieZB




Juliet Martini is an aspiring romance writer in the contemporary and romantic suspense genres, seeking fame and publication (hopefully), in the near future.  Currently, she is working on her second book, the first in a three book series centered on passion, wine and Italy.  By day, she hides out as Margaret Hren, a marketing and fundraising consultant, and when time permits, she is building her author website and planning her next exotic travel get away.  She also hopes to also launch her travel blog, The Travel Savvy Chick, later this year focusing on travel tips and personally acquired destination information.


Mary Preston - August 23, 2013 - 4:36 am

Thank you for sharing – just fabulous!!

Debbie Kaufman - August 23, 2013 - 5:42 am

Wow, Juliet, how fascinating! Being from Kentucky originally, I appreciate a good horse race and that one is certainly unique. I am fascinated most by those cathedral floors. That has to go on my “see while in Italy” list. thanks for sharing!

Marilyn Baron - August 23, 2013 - 7:05 am

I’ve been to Sienna while I went to college in Florence, but really had no idea (or I don’t remember) about all the history. Lucky we have you to fill us in. This, as usual, was a wonderful blog. You are so talented. I would like to travel around the world and write about it, too. Thank you again for all this interesting information.

Pam Asberry - August 23, 2013 - 9:12 am

Juliet, I am loving this series. I’ve never ben to Sienna but it sounds fabulous. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us!

Sandra Elzie - August 23, 2013 - 9:16 am

I’ve been to Italy…and enjoyed my visit so much. Thank you for filling in a bit more of the history…and thanks for the memories. I’ve really been enjoying this series.

Maxine - August 23, 2013 - 11:34 am

I love everything about Italy. Thank you for sharing. I missed Sienna last time, but hopefully will make it there.

Juliet Martini - August 25, 2013 - 1:04 pm

I’m so thrilled to to hear you are all enjoying this series! If you haven’t noticed, Italy changed my whole process and outlook on creativity and writing. Sometimes it helps to know a little bit of the history (backstory :)) of the place to give it more understanding — and if it is something unique and trivial, all the better! Now I realize its time for a return trip! I wonder if my bank account can afford it — oh wait, I have to visit my sister in Northern Ireland first! So my never ending travel planning begins! :drink: Ciao Bellas!

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