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Sunday we woke to find our usual view of Florence buried under a blanket of fog. There was only one thing to do.

Road trip! We headed for Florence’s ancient rival, Siena.

How is San Francisco like Siena? They say, “When you get tired of walking around in San Francisco, you can always lean against it.” Same with the narrow, semi-vertical streets of Siena.

According to Siena’s origin legend, twin brothers Aschius and Senius, sons of Remus, were forced to flee when their uncle, Romulus, murdered their father. As their father and his twin had been suckled by a she-wolf before founding what became Rome, the city of Siena laid claim the she-wolf symbol, linking them to an ancient pedigree. Also, because the founding twins supposedly rode in on one black horse and one white horse, the colors were echoed in the stripes of the Siena Duomo cathedral and bell tower (as well as the traditional flag of Siena).

Inside, the Duomo Siena (Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption, constructed between 1136 and 1382) also echoes the stripes, framing a magnificent display of Renaissance art by masters such as Michelangelo, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Pinturicchio, and Ghiberti, with a dome lantern designed by Bernini.

Across from the Cathedral is the ancient 15th century Santa Maria della Scala hospital (now museum), with its magnificent frescoes covering the walls of the wards, once lined with patients’ beds. The top image shows one of the hospital’s roles as home to foundling girls. Babies are brought to the hospital, provided care along with religious and job training, and eventually a dowry as the young woman on the center right is shown getting married.

In addition to the murals, the museum houses a magnificent art collection. With the pandemic limiting tourists, the empty museum halls felt oddly intimate, as if all that splendor was on display for only me.

The Madonna della Misericordia by Domenico di Bartolo 1444, known locally as the Virgin of the Cloak, is a superb example of the frescos for which Siena is famous. This was originally on an outside wall, and was moved into the Santa Maria della Scala (along with its entire wall) in 1608. Because the new location didn’t have enough room for the entire fresco, surviving bits were placed outside the frame on surrounding walls.

Madonna with child, angels, Saint John Baptist and Saint Andrew By Taddeo di Bartolo, c. 1400. [NOTE: I’m particularly fascinated by what appears to be Mary surrounded by a bunch of miniature KKK clansmen in pointy hoods, gazing up at the cross she’s holding as if contemplating burning it. I had NO idea they went back that far…]

Lorenzo di Pietro, known as the Vecchietta Arliquiera, 1445-1446. Stories of the Passion

Plaster casts of works by sculptor Tito Sarrocchi (5 January 1824 – 1900)

With the one-way system strictly enforced due to covid restrictions, the path wound down and down. Finally, four flights below the entrance, I emerged into a back lot. The guard tried to explain. I would have to circle the museum, and climb four steep flights of stairs to return to the entrance where the Hub and dog were waiting. My fitness watch—the Hub’s idea of the perfect birthday present—had long ago acknowledged that I’d met my daily steps goal, and as far as I could tell, had gone back to sleep. I desperately wanted to join it, but this was Italy. Somewhere, somehow, gelato was waiting for me.

In a country that perfected the piazza, Siena’s Piazza del Campo is often called the loveliest, serving as marketplace, setting for civic events, executions, bullfights, and celebrations. At its center is the Palazzo Pubblico, with its medieval fresco-covered walls (including Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government (1338-40) where the city flourishes under good civic practices while under bad ones the streets are covered by trash and ruined buildings). Through the Palazzo is the entrance to the 330-foot high Torre del Mangia (bell tower). The piazza itself has a unique pattern of bricks radiating out in nine fan shapes meant to echo the Madonna’s cloak. Medieval merchants businesses have given way to restaurants, bars, shops, and…

The perfect gelato.

The other event the Piazza del Campo is famous for is Siena’s freewheeling horserace, the Palio. Sadly, this year’s Palio was cancelled for the first time since WWII due to the pandemic. Normally, ten jockeys mounted on horses drawn by lots race three times around the edges of the Piazza in a display with only one rule: a rider can’t interfere with the reins of another horse. Bribery, treachery, guile—it’s all allowed, expected, and rewarded. Riders whip horses and each other with crops made of stretched and dried bull penises (which is so NOT a line I ever imagined writing…) Horses can win if they cross the finish without their rider. (I don’t have a picture, but this scene from the 2008 Bond film, Quantum of Solace, will give you an idea.)

Gelato accomplished, masks back in place, and the sun sinking low, we knew it was time to head down to the car. (The operative word, here, is DOWN.)

As we walked down…

…and down…

And further down through the medieval streets of Siena…

We came to the Fontebranda, Siena’s oldest remaining fountain. The original fountain was around in 1081, was enlarged into its present form in 1246 by the Wool Guild, and was mentioned in Dante’s Inferno. The three gothic arches mark what were once separate basins for drinking water, animals, and laundry. My dog was delighted to confirm that the famous water still tastes wonderful almost a thousand years later.