Wednesday we explored two distinctly different but equally stunning hill towns, Cortona and Sienna, neither of which we had ever seen, although we have seen a number of others and have been charmed by them. Nor were we the least disappointed by these jewels.
Cortona will be familiar to many of you as the town which first charmed Frances Mayes and led her to the fateful decision to buy a beautiful but decrepit villa in its outskirts and, along with her husband, invest three years and hundreds of hours of backbreaking work to resuscitate it. Obviously the investment paid off royally, not only in a whole new lifestyle for these displaced academics but in a whole series of books which have introduced many Americans to the delights of Tuscany. If you’ve been living under a rock and never sampled them, do yourself a favor. Mayes is a skilled and perceptive journalist and writer who pens just the kind of highbrow fluff that I love to escape to after hours of slogging through student papers or some ponderous academic tome.
Cortona defines one of two prototypical hilltown we visited this trip, one built along the side of a mountain ridge, where the fortress is placed at some high knob and then the rest of the town cascades in a spreading delta down a series of terraces and zigzag lanes to create a sort of long, skinny isosceles triangle. Assisi is another. Cortona, due mostly to the political dominance and consistent neglect of its neighbor, Florence, has perfectly preserved its Medieval persona. It’s simply amazing: tier after tier of brownstone buildings, set at odd angles along narrow, cobbled lanes. Seen from above, it is a sea of terra cotta roof tiles, weathered to a beautiful gray by the ravages of time and the little lichens that love to settle down and colonize Italian tiles. Here and there a taller building and a campanile mark one of the churches of the town.
The bus was parked in a lower lot outside the town and we huffed and puffed up a steep viale into the main piazza. After a brief introduction from Oshri, Sandy, Carol, several students and I strolled down to the western gate of the town for an eye-popping view over the valley below and beyond. Overhead literally thousands of swallows swooped and dove in a twittering chorus. We were amazed at the sheer number of these birds, a hoard which reminded one of the students, Kelsey, of the movie, “The Birds”. But there was nothing sinister here, as we soon discovered. Looking back toward the town, I noticed hundreds of holes drilled into the stone walls of the buildings, about four inches in diameter and so regularly spaced and dimensioned that there could be no doubt they were man-made. From one I noticed a tiny head appear and a swallow took flight. These were nesting holes! Our little friends were out having a morning feast—the time was bit after nine—on the local zanzari, mosquitoes. In the distance we saw the western end of Lago Trasimeno, one of central Italy’s largest lakes and the historic site of Hannibal’s devastating defeat of a Roman army in which the Romans suffered some 15,000 losses through sheer tactical stupidity. Trasimeno, which we explored on our first trip to Perugia, is swampy in many of the reaches of its western end, perfect breeding ground for the little malaria carriers. Cortonesi and swallows have been living in a happy symbiotic relationship for over 500 years.
Retracing our route, we took another road, this time up, up, up and around the western perimeter of the town, the vistas of the town’s rooftops and of the valley below growing more dramatic every time we stopped for Shutterbug to click some more. After several switchbacks we came to the remains of the fortessa at the top of the town, now little more than the stumps of two large ramparts. Another switchback took us out of the town, through a beautiful pine grove and, suddenly, into a large piazza which faced the Chiesa di Santa Margherita della Penanzia. Wow! The church was no monster by the standards of a Florence or Sienna, but in tiny Cortona, which can scarcely house more than 5,000 souls, pretty darned impressive. A Romanesque marble-inlaid facade. Inside, a classic Gothic interior with a nave and side aisles and a corss-vaulted ceiling. Renaissance paintings and frescoes on the walls and a glittering high altar.
By now I’ve seen this disparity between town and church enough to suspect the presence of a pilgrimage site centered around some especially popular relic. Big, expensive churches are often the product of a wealthy community, but we forget that often they are also the producers of that wealth, a focus for a thriving tourist trade, so to speak. And there beyond the high altar was a gorgeous silver casket with glass panels, which contained the mummified remains of St. Margaret herself. St. Margaret had lived in the convent located behind the existing church and there she served the poor for many years and died and was sainted soon thereafter.
I mean no disrespect, but I’ve often wondered exactly what the tour books mean when they refer to the ‘uncorrupted’ bodies of saints, protected as they are thought to be by their divine aura. But in several cases, including this one and a sainted pope we had seen three days before at St. Peter’s, the body has shriveled to a leathery covering and head and extremities are little more than covered skeletons. And the whole skin has taken on the most unsettling shade of moldery green! Geez, how much more ‘corrupted’ can you be than a green, skeletal mummy? But I’ve no doubt the blessed saint fully deserved her sanctification for her benefits to the poor, both before and after her death. Strolling through the central part of the town later we saw a charity hospital established in her honor, so she does her good work still.
Once we had descended by a series of zigzag lanes to the central piazza, we ambled along the corso (main drag), peeking into shops, admiring the rustic charm of the church of San Francesco, and made our way to the eastern extremity of the town where we enjoyed the oozing luxury of great gelato in a small belvedere park which provided more spectacular vistas in yet another direction.
The short bus ride to Sienna provided time to rest the weary feet, recharge our batteries, and ooh and aah together over beautiful Cortona. Sienna defines a second prototype hilltown, one built at the apex of a mountain, providing maximum protection for its Medieval citizens and a dramatic approach from twenty miles away for us modern gawkers. The apex of Sienna’s mountain is actually defined by three knobs and Oshri explained that after centuries of bloody internecine fighting, followed by more of brutal papal suppression, the liberated citizenry had had all the orneriness beaten out of them and were now famous for their serene, congenial demeanor. After the citizens had ousted the papal forces they decided to build the political hub of the new polity in the crotch in the middle of these three knobs, which had previously encouraged, in a sense, three mutually jealous polities. And all the street are cleverly arranged to bring the populace, by simple gravity flow, to the new focus of the town, a huge piazza, an irregular hexagon, before the Palazzo, the center of Republican government.
This square is now one of the most famous in all Italy because it is the site of Il Palio, an annual horse race among representatives of the town’s districts. As you can imagine, located as it is amidst three hills, the square has a sort of undulating topography, with a sort of perimeter street in front of the surrounding buildings and a large ‘bowl’ in the middle. During Il Palio the perimeter street is filled with several inches of sand, barriers constructed on both sides, and thousands of spectators crowd into the bowl to watch horses and jockeys, decked out in lavish Medieval garb, run three times around the square. Three circuits of the square, a minute and a half of sheer terror, danger, exhilaration, death, injury, tragedy, mayhem, glory, and despair. Followed by a solid week of hard-core carousing. There’s just nothing else like it in all Italy. On our first visit over we had planned to visit Sienna during the week of Il Palio but couldn’t find a hotel room anywhere within a thirty-mile radius.
The other jewel in Sienna’s crown is her Duomo, or mother church. For centuries Sienna competed for political and military dominance of Tuscany with her powerful neighbor to the northeast, Florence, and one way to show your municipal machismo, I suppose, is in building the biggest and most elaborately decorated church. “See, God likes us better, nanny, nanny, pooh pooh!” No doubt about it, it’s a gem, a huge Romanesque basilica with facade and side walls in local white and black marble, the facade decked with an incredible array of pedimental sculpture and a gorgeous rose window. And the interior is equally elaborate. The pavement is completely covered in marble, much of it in the technique of opus sectile, what we call intarsio, that is, pattern of cut marble of varying shades to create patterned marble ‘mosaics’. At regular intervals across the pavement, marble reliefs of sibyls, philosophers, scientists, a “Who’s Who” of the ancient and Renaissance world. Everywhere around the walls of the nave and side aisles masterpieces of Renaissance painting and sculpture. A soaring vaulted ceiling, another huge rose window in the apse of the nave, an incredible altar and high altar. The whole thing is so over-the-top it takes your breath away.
For me the highlight of the visit was a brief stroll through the Piccolomini Library, located in a bay of the western side aisle. Here were displayed around the perimeter of the room huge, lavishly decorated antiphonaria and graduales, the ‘hymnals’ of antiphonal music. Think of the psalter at church, only the priest sings the verse and then the choir sings the response. The pages of the books were easily two feet wide and three tall, the musical staffs (treble only) a good six inches tall, with the notes marked with squares instead of our familiar little ovals. And the decoration! Wow! Each page that was displayed had a miniature masterpieces, most about 6” X 8”. To my uneducated eye the works of Giovanni de Verona were the most gorgeous thing in this indisputably gorgeous church: exquisitely rendered ink drawings of biblical scenes were painted with brilliant hues and the borders embossed and then gilded to create a sort of parchment bas relief. And since the gold used was pure 22K, it is every bit as brilliant now as the day it went onto the page.
But perhaps the most spectacular thing about this church is the part you don’t see. Oshri explained that the church as it exists today was originally designed as merely the transept of the proposed basilica! Had the original nave been completed perpendicular to the existing church, the church created thereby would easily have eclipsed the later St. Peter’s in size and therefore would have been the largest Christian church in the world. But after centuries of struggle and suffering, Florence under the Medicis finally established undisputed dominance of the region and Sienna began slowly to retract. Fortunately for us, of course, since, once again, its Medieval character is now almost perfectly preserved.
The third prototype hilltown is one we did not visit this time around, that is, a town built on an escarpment, what our neighbors in Arizona call a mesa, with a complete circuit of sheer cliffs, often 200 feet high or more. Such towns were literally impregnable and often nigh impossible to access even in peacetime. You can imagine the sheer determination it takes to build narrow access roads up the side of sheer cliffs, switching back and forth to create a zigzag course up the mountain. Today the most practical way to reach such towns is by funicular, the little cantilevered trams that you see in many places in Italy such as Capri and Orvietto. Their cousins in America are ski trams. Orvietto is in fact an example of this type hilltown we’ve been fortunate to visit. Something about that mesa just jutting out vertically from the stump of a mountain is breathtaking. On our way south in the car this time we passed another which may be even more dramatic: little Orte, some thirty miles north of Rome. Orvietto has a large tourist trade because of its locale and its huge duomo (pilgrim site again), and little Orte has no such basilica. But if Orte has no tourist industry, I can guarantee it’s only because the Ortans prefer their tranquilita´ to the temptations of filthy lucre.