Art of the matter

Art of the matter

Whenever you go to Siena make straight for Il Campo, that great scallop-shaped sloping ‘square’ to find what is in every sense the true heart of the city. Close your eyes and listen for the tumultuous roar of the crowd, the insistent clamour of the drums and the pipes and the whinnying of horses as a great ceremonial procession approaches.

The Palio horse race is about to commence. Much more than just a race, the Palio is a supreme expression of centuries of tradition, of civic pride and of a distinctively Italian machismo.

Race for glory

Months of preparation in the 17 designated contrade (or districts), each differentiated by sporting its distinctive colours, is about to come to its climax.

Rivalry is intense; after all, this is Italy and this contest has been taking place for nearly 700 years, always attended by everybody who is anybody in Siena, in full ceremonial attire.

The tape falls, the shouting reaches a frenzy, the horses and bareback riders set off at breakneck speed, going three times round the Campo, hooves thudding on the mixture of sand and tufa covering the paving and with bone-crunching falls inevitable.

In less than two minutes it’s all over, the winner is being hoisted from his mount by the ecstatic crowd.

Focal point

Of course, you might be either lucky enough or sufficiently well organised actually to be here on August 16th for the Palio or on July 2nd for a similar but subordinate contest, in which case use of the imagination won’t be necessary.

But even without the excitement of the Palio, the Campo is a wonderful focal point for the city, indisputably more impressive than any open space in rival Florence.

Those wishing to discover the many treasures of Siena will no doubt have a guide book; but for now here are just a few of the outstanding features.

Firstly there’s the Pinacoteca Nazionale, an art gallery housed in an elegant palace, displaying the range of Sienese painting from the 12th to the 16th centuries, including works by the celebrated Lorenzetti and Sodoma.

Back to the Campo, where the Palazzo Pubblico is a magnificent town hall, with a tower 102m (335ft) high. Construction of this great Gothic building started in 1288, with many later additions.

Artistic masterpieces

Of the many churches in the city, one of the greatest is San Domenico, near the stadium and the fortress to the north of the centre, a likely car parking place for Bondholders. Pre-dating the commencement of the cathedral by three years, this huge building is Cistercian Gothic.

As a possible antidote to the overwhelming historic and artistic ambience, Siena’s attractive shopping area is compact and close to the Campo.

Local shops predominate; of particular interest are the Nannini traditional cake shops. As would be expected in Italy, informal eating and drinking are well catered for in the many restaurants and cafes; those around the perimeter of the Campo are quite irresistible.

Truly, Siena is a city to be enjoyed by those staying at Stigliano.

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