Wednesday, June 3, 2009

You're really Pisa-n me off. Sienna later.

The first part of the album is all about Florence, but if you skip ahead you'll see an iconic tower or two.

At the end of my last post I said we had polished off Florence in a day. This was an overstatement. We had one more museum that needed our attention and non-discounted ticket money: The Bargello Museum. The Museum houses sculpture from the Greeks through 1900. Nearly every significant sculpture was on loan. Donatello’s David was temporarily in Milan. Mercury was in Munich. But we still got to marvel over ivory sculpture and ceramic friezes until our museum-weary feet lead us back to the train station.

Pisa: The town is frozen in time. Well it’s eroding a bit, but it looks like people in tights and goofy hats should be strolling the streets still. In the 14th century it was a major trading center and political power. Then the money dried up and the city was preserved with winding medieval streets and a really famous tower that’s fighting a losing battle with physics. We wound through the city, past flea market booths and university students and suddenly saw an Italian icon peeking over a dilapidated church. We hurried to see the rest of it. Josh and I can confirm that it is, in fact, leaning. Like, leaning a bunch. At one point it was 15 feet out of true. This was calculated to surpass the critical point, so an army of engineers and hydraulic lifts were employed at the beginning of the millennium to set it at a more stable 11.5 feet off center. We can also confirm it’s beautiful. The lacy columns and Italian Gothic colored marble would make it notable, even if it were sitting squarely in the dirt (I think, anyway). The tower is actually the bell tower for the neighboring Basilica, so after sitting in the grass and doing our best to help keep the thing up, we wandered inside.

Modest dress is required, so no shorts and no shoulders. The Pisans provide fashionable ponchos for ignorant tourists though.

The lectionary in the cathedral consumed most of my time as the choir practiced in the background. I really have no idea how tough it is to shape a block of rock into a human figure, but I imagine it’s a pretty difficult undertaking. This lectionary was a master’s tour de force. Hundreds of faces and flowing folds were on display. The time and effort required to produce such a work is beyond my comprehension.

The other key artifact in the Cathedral is Galileo’s Lamp. The swinging oil lamp suspended over the pews inspired a young, bored Galileo to contemplate the movement of a pendulum, setting him on a scientific quest that knocked the Earth from the center of the universe. It was a pretty cool lamp.

And that’s about all there is to see in Pisa. You see the tower, and move on, so we did.

But not very far. We needed to transfer trains at Empoli, a town east of Pisa and west of Florence, somewhere in the neighborhood of Purgatory. Our train transfer to Sienna never came. We waited, and waited. No trains arrived. None were announced. No one moved. I have experienced two hours in a physical, spiritual, emotional no-man’s land. I would prefer to make this a one-time event. Pray for my soul. I don’t want to go back to Empoli.

Sienna: Sienna is an ancient city perched on a hill that once competed with Florence for Tuscan supremacy. The locals trace the foundations of the city to the son of Remus, someone who needed to leave Rome behind thanks to a fratricidal uncle.

When we first left the station we were at a loss for what to do next. There were no busses and no signs to the city center. Rick Steves assumed we had a car. We started walking up hill. It didn’t seem too far off. The city aged as we got closer to the center, finally giving way to narrow alleys connected by steep staircases.

I flashed back to Marburg and instantly felt comfortable. As we strolled past fashionable shops, following contradictory signs towards the cathedral and town hall, we heard the rolling of snare drums.

We turned a corner and were confronted by a battalion of flag-waving youths in red and green tights accompanied by a platoon of percussion. We ducked the swinging poles and creeped along the wall, searching for a safe vantage point. None existed. We attentively watched the parade, occasionally ducking a concussion-inducing dowel. These things don’t happen in Deutschland.

Apparently Sienna is divided into 15 neighborhoods that compete for civic bragging rights. The neighborhoods stage these parades in Renaissance gear to instill the next generation with a sense of pride in their district, and every summer the neighborhoods mount a horse race in the middle of town to figure out who’s really the coolest neighborhood in Sienna. I think we should adopt such a system in Cincinnati pitting Price Hill, Blue Ash, Colerain etc. against each other in some kind of sporting event…on second thought, high school football gets the same job done pretty well.

The heart of the city is the city hall where the municipal bell tower stands higher than any church steeple, revealing a city proud of its political distance from Rome in the 15th century. The piazza surrounding the hall is a sloped, brick amphitheater, perfect for those neighborhood horse races and demonstrations. It’s also rimmed by great cafés. We settled in to people-watch and ordered pasta with wild boar sauce and plenty of grease. Paninis, wine, and tomato salad also appeared. It was a full Italian spread.

When I ordered the tomatoes, I was envisioning a tomato, mozzarella, and a little basil. I got a bowl of fresh tomatoes. They were delicious (especially with a little balsamic vinegar and olive oil) but it was an interesting moment to imagine Italy without tomatoes. The vegetable (or fruit, depending on your favorite definition of fiberous, savory foods) was introduced from the New World. Before 1493, there were no tomato sauces, no tomato and mozzarella salads, and no V8. This is not an Italy I would want to visit. I enjoyed my slices and felt satisfied my continent produced such great food.

It was time to leave. The last train was arriving in half-an-hour, requiring a quick peak at Sienna’s cathedral that is apparently breathtaking. The door was locked, and we needed our breath to hustle down the mountain to the station and our beds in Florence. With that, we closed our first week in Italy feeling like we had been in each city long enough to see its famous sights and eat its famous foods without becoming bored. The adrenaline-rush of confronting history and beauty all-day, every-day fueled our feet (limited bouts of sleep certainly didn’t get that job done). It was time for a brief, well-earned trip to the beach…


The album for those who like to delay this link.

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