I have always given myself permission to regard townscapes and cityscapes as coming within the overall definition of “landscapes”. They will, therefore, feature from time to time in this blog. It’s my view that towns and cities sculpt and pattern our world every bit as much as, and often more than, mountains, moorland, coasts, etc, none of which we’d omit from a definition of “landscape”.
For this chapter, we’re back in Italy.
As a kid, I had a succession of water-colour paintboxes whose little coloured blocks had very evocative names: Prussian Blue, Postbox Red, Emerald Green, and so on. One name, however, always puzzled me. It wasn’t a colour I used very often in my childhood paintings. The paintboxes usually labeled it Burnt Siena.
I can’t claim to have obsessed for years over what might have been behind the name. However, about twenty years ago, I first visited the Tuscan city of Siena, and on a bright autumn afternoon, standing in the Campo, the strangely shaped “square” which twice a year hosts the Palio horse race, deep memory reminded me of those paintboxes. The realization dawned that I was looking at the origin of that particular shade of orange-brown.
A few years after that, I began to visit Siena quite regularly. This was almost always “out of season” and often at Christmas or New Year. It is somewhere I have now come to love deeply and which I have photographed from many different angles.
The skyline of Siena is dominated from many points in the city by the black and white marble tower of the Duomo – the city’s ancient cathedral – and by the rather higher, slender brown brick bell-tower called the Torre del Mangia, which is the city’s highest point. The photograph above is a view from one to the other, from the Torre to the Duomo. To me, it is a view that is quintessentially Tuscan, steeped in centuries of history, and utterly Sienese.
There are many Italian towns, particularly, though not exclusively, in Tuscany and Umbria, that I love for their haphazard design – the Romans left little or no mark on modern Siena, for example – and what I simply call their “crumbliness”. Walk around Venice, Urbino, San Gimingnano, etc and you will see what I mean. I regard Siena as being in a similar league of crumbliness to Venice, albeit without the canals, and on a slightly smaller scale.
The white marble from the quarries at Carrara, near Pisa, laid with alternating black marble bands typifies central Italian cathedrals, including those at Pisa and Orvieto, and many smaller churches and public buildings. Being set high in a hill top city, the Duomo of Siena is visible for many miles around. You can read more about it in this Wikipedia piece, which also sketches out the reason that the Duomo is aligned north-south, rather than the traditional east-west of Christian churches.
My photograph adds colour to the information there. To the left of shot is the huge brick arch that was once intended to mark the eastern end of what would have been a truly huge building. What is now the body of the Duomo would have been nothing more than the transept (the crossbar of traditional cross-shaped European churches) to this mega-cathedral. Whether it was lack of finance, fear of earthquakes, poor foundations, or the realization of the sheer size of the undertaking envisaged, this leviathan was never completed. In very Italian and Tuscan fashion, what was built was never dismantled either, and it is only from this sort of semi-aerial view that Siena’s missed, or abandoned, opportunity can really be understood.
The complete jumble of buildings that huddle up to the Duomo might at first glance look like post-Blitz London, but many are smart Renaissance palazzi, lording it over some of the best shopping streets in any of the many Italian towns and cities I’ve visited.
If you go to Siena, my tip is to go out of the tourist season. I’d also recommend staying inside the city walls if you can. Visitor car-parking on the outskirts is very limited and fiendishly expensive. Oh, and if you’re a painter who does watercolours, take an extra supply of that Burnt Siena colour, of course.