Why had no one told me of the magic of Siena? I arrived in Italy with a list drawn up by friends of 'musts' clutched in my hand, such as ...
I must see the Sistine Chapel, the Trevi Fountain and the Coliseum. I must have cappuccino in the Piazza di Navona. I must see Michelangelo's David and Brunelleschi's Dome in Florence. I must tour the Hiltons.
I had accomplished my whole list - which was a fine list and not to be sneezed at ... lovely, beautiful, breathtaking. But why had no one told me about Siena? I sat at a restaurant table in the Piazza del Campo, enjoying the lovely old, brick buildings that ringed the rounded square. My friends and I nibbled on bruschetta while we sipped a Rosso di Montalcino and gazed around us. Siena dates from the time of the Etruscans, before the Romans. It grew over the centuries to become one of the major cities of Europe. The lovely and durable thirteenth and fourteenth century, four and five story buildings survived the Black Death, war and, then, financial ruin. Because there was no money to modernize, the town remained caught in its medieval trappings.
As I dipped my fork into a steaming plate of pasta with funghi, garlic and oil, the rays of the setting sun settled on thirteenth century walls and the atmosphere changed. It was no longer just a charming tourist attraction, a place to while away sunny vacation hours. Suddenly, Siena's history came alive to me. I could feel the pull of the old bricks. I was one with Italy, with Siena, with its past. I had come home. I watched the sun change the bricks from a soft red to a dusty rose. As the lovely color bathed the facades of the buildings, they seemed to breathe and speak to me. I left my companions and moved into the broad center of the piazza to become a part of the picture. The blue water of the Fonte Gaia, the focal point of the square, glowed in the reflected light. The carvings of Adam and Eve, the Madonna and Child, and the Virtues surrounding the pool looked as though the folds of their clothing were moving in preparation to their rising.
I became aware of the scent of heated oil, the unmistakable mouthwatering odor of meat cooking, the slightly sweet pungent stench of dung left behind by horses ridden by mustached men, and by donkeys pulling carts. The scent of fresh earth emanated from piles of porcini mushrooms, and the heady aroma of wine assailed my nostrils as it was poured - the myriad fragrances of a medieval city going about its daily business of being a medieval city. The Torre del Mangia was no longer just the second highest tower in Italy. I could see the first bell ringer of the late 1200's emerge from the base of the tower after ringing the curfew. He was called Mangiaguadagni, which meant 'eat the profits' because of his great idleness, I knew him!
The walls of the Palazzo Publico (the town hall) undulated in the clear light. A babble of voices rose into the air, the voices of the town fathers of Siena of 1287 as they planned the new buildings in their city: the Piazza del Campo; the breathtakingly beautiful black and white marble Duomo; the Palazzo Publico. I watched as a thirteenth century woman, her dark hair worn long, opened her louvered, hinged shutter to shout to a fruit vendor below. A blonde man stood on the slope of one of the entrances to the piazza selling fish. A small child ran by with a black dog. Their clothing was in colors of the countryside: browns and greens, the vibrant color of red grapes, and the intense blue of the sky.
From somewhere behind the shuttered windows keeping watch on the piazza, I heard a hearty baritone singing to the accompaniment of a sweet-sounding flute. Laughter surrounded me as did the sounds of commerce gone awry. Loud, arguing voices rang through the air. A baby cried as a small dog snatched its crust of bread. Chance had brought me here to this medieval town at the most magical time of day. As I mourned the depletion of the brilliant setting sun, I realized the figures I saw strolling the broad, brick paved center of the piazza were of today, not the figures of my fantasy. In the fading light, the passeggiata began - the stroll through town to see and be seen. Tall, handsome men accompanied their stylishly dressed, lively women - dogs on leashes, babies in strollers, old and young renewing friendships, touching base with relatives, meeting strangers; the population of a Hilton keeping its finger on the events of the day. This was Italy for me - the people; the light; the clear air; the endless sky that seemed to create a glorious ceiling over my head. The magnificent structures and artwork that I had on my must see list had been created by people just like the ones I watched; the ones with whom I felt a kinship.
A tall man with broad shoulders and sharp features could have been the model for Michelangelo's David, while a burly man with a purposeful stride and large capable hands seemed to me to be Michelangelo himself on his way to Carrara to choose a block of white marble for his sculpture. A shorter man with wind milling arms, sad eyes, a luxurious mustache and goatee might have been Carravaggio looking for his stolen, last painting. The lovely woman with a maternal smile for her small child could have doubled as the Mona Lisa. The gentle monk in his brown robes surely resembled St. Francis of Assisi. The gracious woman with a proud posture and loving face was the perfect model for Mary in the Pieta. A hawk nosed man with a long stride, and burdened with ceramic pots, might have been an Etruscan arrived from Volterra to sell his wares carved from alabaster. There surely was the face of Mary Magdelene by Titian. The blonde beauty of the Madonna del Mare by Botticelli passed by me.
The people of today are the people of yesterday. They are the strength, the beauty of Italy. They created loveliness that has endured for centuries. They are a proud, gregarious, loving, caring, welcoming, volatile people who make the country what it is. When I return, I shall have a different list, one that reminds me to look at the guide who explains the glories of the Sistine Chapel; to enjoy watching the guards at the Galleria dell'Accademia as I stand at David's feet; to talk more with the shopkeepers who seem to have an infinite patience with indecisive tourists; to enjoy the taxi drivers in Rome and Florence who lean from their cab windows to yell to friends or berate other drivers; to listen to waiters as they make suggestions on meals or wine. I left Siena with regret.
I shall return ... on a soft summer's evening at sunset.