Ferragosto a Siena

(As I finish up my thesis this month, this blog will be temporarily transformed into Garlands in Florence with a guest blogger: my university-aged self. You will find posts about the summer I studied in Italy, living in a 16th century villa and falling in love with art history.)

As August 15 is Ferragosto, a holiday in Italy, I was worried that everything would be closed . But then I read that the Palio race was going to take place tomorrow in Siena, so I figured there might be things open there for us to do today. 

The Palio is an ancient horse race in the heart of Siena in the Piazza del Campo where the city's 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, compete for glory.

Each contrada has its own animal emblem and colors, which decorate street signs and flags, so you always know whose turf you are on. This, for example, is the Oca (goose) neighborhood:


Upon our arrival in the tiny town of Siena, we walked to the Town Hall and happened upon a costumed parade with lots of flags, government officials and boys dressed up according to their neighborhood. It turned out that even though the race was tomorrow, a trial was going to take place this evening!


You can climb the main tower in Il Campo. On the ascent up the spiral stairs, we saw pinky brown rooftops, curvy roads, Tuscan hills, and mist. The colors of the stones in Siena were so different from Florence (pinks and burnt sienna).


Then the noon bells rang, three feet from us! We watched the bellringer ring the giant bell for five whole minutes. Amazing. 


We got Sienese cookies (ricciarelli), biscotti cookies, and panaforte margherita from a lovely bakery.


We walked on and saw flag wavers practicing with a drummer (in the Aquila, or double-headed eagle, neighborhood).


Went to the Duomo museum with lovely sculpture and amazing circle stained glass windows. The reliquary of San Clemente Martine consisted of bones decorated with gold ribbons and clear acorns and pears on top of the box. Another reliquary had a jaw with bows on either end of it. 

We climbed to the top of what would have been the end of the nave of the Duomo if the plague had not interfered with construction. We could see Il Campo and the Cathedral, but we heard thunder and saw rain on nearby hills so we went down.


The crypt had exciting colors and blues. It was the preparatory room for pilgrims entering the Duomo, but it was buried and not discovered until later so the frescoes are perfectly intact. The color was intense.

The cathedral was visually exciting, both inside and out.


It had an amazing library with frescoes, an ornate pulpit, flags from every neighborhood, a wall where people who had been in near-death accidents left motorcycle helmets, the flags where the horses come into the church and are blessed. There were two Bernini sculptures.


We exited and looked again at the ornate façade, but thunder and rain started.

We ran to the Baptistry, with beautiful ceilings, Donatello’s Feast of Herod, and Ghiberti panels in bronze. There was an image of an alligator eating people.


The next church we saw was San Domenico, where the head and thumb of St. Catherine reside. 

We went to a restaurant that first seemed like a bar, but then there were stools with a table overlooking Il Campo! We had perfect timing, because only five people could sit there. It started pouring, but we were fine. We sipped on yummy prosecco. We watched the mud drain down the nine section floor of the piazza.

We contemplated staying for another two hours to watch the trial races (from what would have been the Duke’s view himself). I went to the Tourist Office to see if the races were still on, and they said a green flag on Town Hall would mean the race was off. So we lingered at our perch and people watched. Of course, a green flag came sadly out.

On our way back to the bus to Florence, we stopped and peeked in another little church where a mass was being said for Ferragosto. August 15 also celebrates the Assumption of the Virgin in the Catholic calendar.

We couldn't leave without buying our own Palio scarves (fish, owl, porcupine, ram). The woman helping us spoke to us incessantly, as if we understood Italian.