Siena 2009

During our trip to Italy in the Fall of 2009, we fell in love with Siena at first sight. Finding the couple of images from Siena for this new WordPress theme brought back flood of fond memories…

Piazza del Campo

Biccherne Covers

Gui suggested Siena as we were planning our trip. She reminded me of its appearance in the book we both loved: “Winds of War” by Herman Wouk.

He took a bus to Siena, a three-hour run up a rutted scary mountain road. Twice before he had visited the bizarre little town, all red towers and battlements and narrow crooked streets, set around a gaudy zebra-striped cathedral, on a hilltop amid rolling green and brown Tuscan vineyards.

Since the fourteenth century – so Byron had learned – nothing much had happened in Siena besides the Palios. A rich city-state of the Middle Ages, the military rival of Florence, Siena in 1348 had been isolated by the Black Death, and frozen in its present form as by a spell. A few art lovers now drifted here to admire the fourteenth-century paintings and architecture. The world at large flocked to Siena twice a year to watch the mad horse races, and otherwise let the bypassed town, a living scene out of an old tapestry, molder in the Tuscan sunshine.

Coming from the tourist swarming Florence, we loved seeing all the university students and locals walking around town when we got off the bus at Siena(an hour and 15 minutes bus ride away from Florence). We loved going into churches and museums and finding ourselves the only visiters and we could linger in peace without being asked to pay at every door way like in Florence.

The only drawback was our visit coincide with a sudden chilly spell that literately froze the town. It was not so bad during the day when the sun was out. But in the evening, the temperature dropped to 2-3C. The first night we put on every single piece of clothing we had in our luggage and braved the evening streets. We quickly admitted defeat. Grabbed two sandwich from the nearest deli and returned to our hotel room for some warmth.

We also encountered our first pleasant surprise of the trip: Biccherne Covers at “Archivio di Stato Siena” (Siena State Archive).

Biccherna is the Italian term used to describe small painted panels, named after the chief financial office of Siena, were initially created as covers for the state ledgers or administrative balance sheets between the 13th and 17th centuries. The biccherne provide a fascinating window into the daily life of an Italian city-state and evolving republic at the dawn of modern economic thinking.

In 1257 the Office of the Biccherna, …inaugurated the custom of commissioning panel paintings from the best artists in the community to function as the covers of its semi-annual collection of public ledgers.

The layout of the boards remains unchanged: at the top there is the painting and at the bottom the inscription bearing the date, the names of the main components of Biccherna, the arms of their families.

We first encountered these covers on our first walk to the Duomo (the “zebra-striped cathedral” described in Winds of War). A young man sitting in a small shop painting his version of these covers. They were fantastic. I then found out about the free tour at the State Archive where hundreds of such cover has accumulated and being preserved.

I loved the combination of the painting, the inscriptions, and the binding materials: gold plate mixed with jet-black inky background, metal studs, leather strips. They looked like those magic books from Harry Potter! ZM loved the varied and vivid arms from different families.

Who would have thought something so beautiful could have been created for tax records! Only in Italy!

The two books on the left were from the State Archive. The two on the right were done by the young man in the shop.

No photos allowed during the tour, so i only managed to snap a couple of not so well preserved books in the display case prior to our tour.
No catalog of the covers can be found in any of the bookstores in Siena. I only managed to get a thin little book with Italian and some small photos of these covers before we left Siena.
But i managed to find a few more digital copy of the cover (most of them are not of very good quality) and made a Picasa collection. It is a shame this treasure remained so little known:

Biccherne Cover – Siena

Here are a few more photos from our trip.

People enjoying the sun at Piazza del Campo. I loved this Piazza, it is so airy, lively, and peaceful. It reminded me of the square in front of Pompidou at Paris.

I loved this photo that ZM took at the back of the tower of Siena. Real people actually live here! It is the biggest disappointment we had of Florence, there don't seem to be any real people living in the center of town anymore. It feels like a theme park.

We were the only visitors to this Church on top one of Siena's three hills: Santa Maria dei Servi. We ran into an old couple from New Mexico on our way out. They insisted on taking this photo for us.

"The Zebra-Stripped Cathedral"

One of many pathways leading to Piazza del Campo

A good meal at Antica Trattoria Papei.

Our hotel receptionist recommended Antica Trattoria Papei to us. It is one of the local’s favorit restaurnts, too. The meal was good. The view was fantastic. It was tucked away in the back of the Campo, but it has a view open up to the valley and half of the town below. On our second and last night in Siena. We walked across the Campo, through the narrow medieval path way, toward the open terrace where the restaurant was located. I loved the church bell echoing through the valley. The bell tolled for the slightly fading dusk light, for the green valley opened up in front of us, and for the last shade of pink in the horizon.

I love Siena.