Il Campo, Siena. Germans drinking beer.
Today we went to Siena. Lots of traffic on the way, not helped by the fact that I missed the turn-off and, as people who’ve driven in Italy know, it is 850 kilometers between any two autostrada exits.
Siena is way cool. Coolest Firenze day trip yet. Liked Fiesole, liked Lucca, liked Arezzo, but Siena is the place.
Siena is medieval. None of this namby-pamby Florentine Renaissance thing. Medi-freakin-eval “You want some rebirth? Talk to my mace, mutha-ravager!”
You walk the streets of Florence and you picture guys in tights and pointy-toed elf shoes slipping poison in each other’s wine and slitting the occasional throat with a jeweled dagger while quoting Shakespeare. (The Italian translation, of course. ”Uscita, uscita damn-a spot!*) You walk through Siena and you’re seeing guys wearing greaves and braining each other with war hammers while quoting Conan the Barbarian. (Italian translation again. ”I’m-a crush-a my enemies, I’m a drive them-a before me, and then, maybe a nice macchiato.”**) They didn’t slip poison in the wine, they slipped rabid badgers in the mead.
The key difference between Medieval and Renaissance periods, aside from the main methods of mayhem? Art. Renaissance art is suffering Jesus, heaven-gazing Mary, and whatever rich guy was paying the bills. Medieval art is the same, but flat. And so was medieval Mary. (Badumpah!) And medieval Jesus? No muscle tone.
(A quick note: if you are a student using this blog as a reference to research your paper on either the middle ages or the Renaissance, you’re going to want to start planning your career in lawn maintenance.)
So, anyway, it seems Siena was the precocious sibling, way ahead of Florence in the important things: heretic-torturing, Jew-purging and banking. Siena thought it was the shit. (La merda.)
Then, in the fourteenth century three quarters of the city died of the plague. Which caused one hell of a drop in property values. (Almost as bad as Orange County!) The Sienese leadership would have cut interest rates and passed emergency legislation to keep major mortgage lenders solvent but, unfortunately, they were distracted by the giant blackened, pus-draining buboes in their groins and armpits. Plus the whole blood vomiting thing. And what with the dragging the dead bodies into the streets and the self-flagellating and whatnot, fiscal policy was somewhat neglected.
Which explains why even today Siena has not managed to create its own unique tourist kitsch and must borrow glass, paper and creepy masks from the Venetians. Seriously, this is a town badly in need of special tchothkes.
You know what they need? A mascot. Buboe Boy. He would stagger around through crowds of tourists crying out to heaven for mercy while smearing himself with bat dung and attaching leeches to his tender bits. Disney’s Medieval Land.
Every year they hold a big horse race called Il Palio. From the Wikipedia description of Il Palio:
On the dangerous, steeply-canted track, the riders are allowed to use their whips (Nerbo - a stretched, dried bull’s penis) not only for their own horse, but also for disturbing other horses and riders. …
There is some danger to spectators from the sheer number of people in attendance. There have also been complaints about mistreatment of horses, injuries and even deaths, especially from animal rights associations and even from some veterinarians. In the Palio held on August 16, 2004 the horse for the Contrada of the Bruco (Caterpillar) fell and was badly trampled as the race was not stopped, despite possible additional safety risks for other horses. The horse died of its injuries, raising further complaints from animal rights organizations.
So it’s pretty much like driving any road in Italy. Let me just tell you: it is not easy parallel parking when some guy is whipping on you with a stretched bull penis.
*Alternate selection: “From-a inferno’s heart I’m-a stab you!”
** I know, it’s bad. But not nearly as insulting as my California version of Shakespeare. ”Horatio. Dude. You’re like . . . dead or whatever.”)