24 hours in…Sumptuous Siena with AHA alum Frankie Dytor

Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!

The famous Campo: night time haunt of young revellers

 

AM:

The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.

Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra

This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.

PM:

The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The  font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.

The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself.  The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains.  The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body.  The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.

Words can only do injustice to the beauty of the crypt

Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto

In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will  soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.

Dine in Italian rustic style

 

Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8

The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners  at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.

AM:

Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.

Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51

This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.

Munch and enjoy a spectacular view from the Piazza del Mercato

And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.

 

An Exploration of Material Culture by AHA alum Julia Turner

For many, an interest in material culture grows from an aesthetic perspective. It was with the simple aim of spending as much time as possible staring at Botticellis and Berninis that I chose a paper on Early Modern Material Culture as part of my history undergraduate degree.

Botticelli's Angels

On studying the course, it soon dawned on me that I was still expected to consider wider structural and political issues, and Botticelli’s angels were probably far too busy drinking too much nectar to whisper the answers in my ear. Yet by considering the content and context of works of art as part of a wider catalogue of objects and buildings, and by exploring how their value and meaning are subject to their function as much as their form, the study of material culture can be as viable a form of historical study as the more traditional focus on written documents.

Federico da Montefeltro and His Son Guidobaldo by Pedro Berruguete (c.1475)

It was on the basis of early modern inventories revealing a widening range of social groups buying non-essential goods that German social-historian Werner Sombart argued that the birth of capitalism took place in the fifteenth century. In turn, the elaboration of goods reflected the proliferation of wealth through society, as more people could afford luxury items. Already by the late fifteenth century, nobleman Federico da Montefeltro felt compelled to surround himself with references to his higher status in his portrait, including polished armour, a weighty book and an exotic shell.

Indeed, the content of material culture can bear powerful political messages: the radical sans-culottes of the French Revolution refused to wear the fashionable silk knee-breeches of the moderate bourgeois revolutionaries. In contrast, the nineteenth-century jeunesse d’oree wore seventeen buttons in their jackets in reference to the deposed Louis XVII and even sported wigs reputedly made with the hair of guillotine victims.

Le Stratageme Amoureux, ou la Toilette a la Mode, Anon. (1770s): A Frenchwoman is kissed by her elderly husband , while a procession of cupids climb a ladder along her ridiculously tall hair arrangement to deliver letters to her young lover above.

At the same time, material objects can reveal wider cultural trends, as well as contributing themselves to cultural norms and practices. The increasing criticism of the formal fashions of the French court as ‘feminine’ in the later seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries formed part of a shift of political power away from the court, as well as perpetuating the patriarchal gendering of political virtue as male. Similarly, the layout of cities reflected the interwoven nature of religious and secular life in the early modern period. For example, large, central and elaborate baptisteries, such as that adjacent to the Duomo in Florence, reflected not only their role in welcoming people into the Christian Church but also into the civic community.