Panforte is Siena’s contribution to the confectionary world. Somewhat like a fruitcake (though nothing like the American kind), it is dense and chewy, containing nuts, fruits and spices and is sweetened with honey. But, for our money, we much preferred the cookie known as ricciarelli, a heavenly combination of almonds, honey, confectioners’ sugar and egg white, the latter lending it the most sublime, lightly chewy, definitely ethereal texture. It was our misfortune that we didn’t purchase a box of them to take with us to eat during our long bus rides.
The most striking and imposing architecture in Siena is its Duomo. We were taken there by our guide Annalisa. After some background information, she left us there to explore it on our own. Like any religious structure of this size, it took many years to complete. It’s difficult not to be impressed by its scale, ambition and sumptuousness, its decoration consisting of great works of art and masonry.
Because the façade was being repaired, it was sheathed in a false one of fabric painted to look like the real thing (top image). Facing due west, the façade, considered one of the finest in Italy, has its own interesting history during which construction was begun in 1285 and halted a few times under the supervision of different architects, spanning over almost 100 years, with the result that several architectural styles were incorporated, an odd yet unified combination of Romanesque, French Gothic and Classical.
Here is one place where, not only do you look upward and marvel at architectural and artistic achievements, but down as well. The entire floor space is covered in mosaic tile that is the combined labor of about 40 artists, evolving from a drilling technique (graffito) to inlaid marble (intarsia) over the almost 200 years it took to complete them. The pavement is so valuable and fragile that much of it is covered up with drop cloths throughout the year, except for a brief time between August and October. Once again, we were fortunate to have seen more than most tourists, even if great sections of the flooring still were gated off to prevent foot traffic. There are 59 panels altogether, representing biblical scenes and important moments in Sienese history.
Looking up in the nave, you can’t help but notice the plaster busts of 172 popes along the horizontal molding above the arches, although a closer examination shows a repetition of about ten different faces. In the spandrels below them are the busts of 36 Roman emperors. The roof is decorated with a pattern of gold stars against a blue background.
The pulpit is an octagonal structure sculpted by Nicola Pisano using Carraran marble, topped with panels of carved reliefs depicting important Biblical events.
There are many other masterpieces in the Duomo, but an interesting adjunct to the cathedral is the Piccolomini Library that commemorates the life of the sponsor’s uncle, Aeneas Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II, and stores his uncle’s book collection. The tribute takes the form of brilliant frescoes along the walls to which a young Raphael is said to have contributed. Combined with the paintings of classical mythological figures and themes in the vault, the effect is stunning on first entry.
The Duomo was so impressive that we returned there after lunch.
We arrived in Siena around 4:30pm. The bus had to drop us off outside the city walls from where we walked to our hotel, only 15 minutes away. Siena is a medieval city. Many of its old buildings have been preserved and its streets are lined with reddish brick (sienna). There are very few automobiles to be seen, adding to its allure. Though it relies heavily on tourism, Siena feels more inviting than nearby Florence, a political rival in medieval times, by feeling more intimate and laid back, still a city of only 60,000 residents.
One of the great spectacles of sports takes place here twice each year in July and August—the Palio horse races. So, when we arrived, our tour missed the last race by less than a month. The track circles the Piazza del Campo, the large square in the middle of historic Siena, dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre de Mangia, the 330-foot tower that can be seen from anywhere in the city.
The main street outside our hotel was lined with restaurants, bakeries and expensive shops. We had a group dinner near the square at Ristorante Guidoriccio, having the entire restaurant to ourselves, it seemed. Tasty courses included pappa al pomodoro, porcini risotto, and penne with tomato sauce and sausages, with ample bottles of local red and white wines.