The Unbought Grace of Siena
Casella and I were struggling up a staircase in the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s city hall, this afternoon when I looked to my right and there, on the plaster wall, was this fresco of the Madonna and Child (I’ve highlighted just her face). It stopped me dead. It was at eye level, on an ordinary wall, like graffiti or something. This unspeakably beautiful work of art. It was then that I realized that Siena is ridiculously, helplessly beautiful, and that we should return to Florence as soon as possible because, like Dante stalling out in a lower heaven of Paradise, I am not strong enough to withstand all that light.
Siena went into decline in the 14th century, dwelling in the shadow of powerful Florence. This was a good thing in that the Sienese were too poor to tear down their medieval buildings. Result: Siena is Italy’s most well-preserved medieval city. It is a Tuscan hill town of narrow, winding lanes, and scenes around every corner that make you catch your breath (and not just from huffing and puffing up and down the steep slopes).
Rolling into town on a bus from Florence at noon, Casella and I made our way through the winding streets. He noticed on the side of a church a plaque quoting these lines from Purgatorio V:
“Oh, please remember me! I am called Pia.
Siena made me, Maremma unmade me…”
Pia de Tolomei was murdered by her husband, who, it is said, believed her to be unfaithful, but really wanted to marry his lover. The Tolomei were a great family of Florence. You can still see buildings with their name on it. Pia was a real person. The heart leaps to realize such things.
We found our way by happy chance to the Taverna San Giuseppe for lunch. Let me tell you, with no fear of contradiction: after the meal we had today, this place is holy ground.
We put ourselves in the hands of our waiter, and told him we wanted to eat typical Sienese food. He seemed delighted (it helped that Casella speaks Italian and shares southern Italy heritage with him). I figured I would be able to find the menu online when we returned to Florence, but no such luck. We started with a tasting plate of intense chicken livers stewed in what tasted like an intense mushroom broth and truffles, an eggplant and porcini dish, and a pillowy spinach pie topped with sliced fresh truffles, which are in season now in Tuscany. Here is Your Working Boy eating these things; the look you see is the look of contentment:
Then they brought us the primi piatti, the pasta course: for Casella, a dish involving wild boar and porcini, and for me, something similar. I’ve never had wild boar, but it’s an autumnal thing in Tuscany, and I can’t seem to get enough of it. Then came the entrées. I couldn’t tell you what Casella had, though I’m pretty sure it was a filet of beef en croute. Me, I had wild boar in a cream sauce seasoned with rosemary, sage, and bay leaf. It was, I kid you not, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten:
Casella told the waiter, in Italian, that I was an American writer here working on a book about Dante. The waiter’s reply made Casella smile. “He says that you can breathe Dante here.” Yes, you can, and yes, you do.
Dessert was espresso and slices of fig cake. Casella and I could hardly believe we had been fortunate enough to taste such things in our life. We also could hardly believe that we could walk after all that (plus a bottle of red wine). Yet walk we did, plodding up the steep streets of Siena, feeling very fat and middle-aged. We wended our way around to the Duomo, and spent about an hour inside. It troubled Casella, who is a committed Catholic. Last time he was here, the cathedral could be prayed in. Now it functions as a museum, for the most part. It was a place of transporting beauty, but I could feel my friend’s sorrow over the decline of the faith here. After that, we went over to the Palazzo Pubblico to see the famous Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. They were indeed remarkable — especially the cobalt blues — but equally amazing were the frescoes throughout the rooms on that level, depicting Christ, the Madonna, and the saints, as well as Greek gods and historical figures.
The only false note was the room depicting events in the accession to the throne of King Victor Emmanuel, in the 19th century. Said Casella, “It’s interesting to see how these personalities become so flat in the modern age.” He was referring to their artistic depiction, and he was right, but I think there’s more to it than that. The saints and the figures of old appeared so deep and substantive. The modern figures just looked funny.
I was overwhelmed by the colors of the Sienese frescoes, and by the marbles. And then, walking up to a loggia, I saw the Madonna of the staircase. That was it; I was undone. We left the Palazzo Pubblico shortly after that, and slogged over to the church of San Domenico to revere the reliquary head of St. Catherine of Siena, and then catch an early bus back to Florence. Casella slept all the way back, while I prayed my prayer rope. As he said later, “It just gets to the point when you’re overwhelmed in your senses.” Yes, true. I told him that I felt like Dante ascending into Paradise, but stuck in one of the lower heavens, because I couldn’t absorb all that light.
As Casella dozed in his seat, I looked out the bus window and marveled at the passing Tuscan hills robed in vineyards, mitred with ancient farmhouses, and glowing under the golden autumn sunset. Once, behind a stone wall, we passed a grove of olive trees stippled by black fruits. I didn’t ask God for anything; I just worshiped and thanked Him for it all. There is grace everywhere in this place. In Florence, around every corner there is a votive niche on a streetcorner in which you see a fresco of Mary and Jesus, like a streetlamp, reminding you to be grateful. I thought about how only a few years ago, I would have consumed as much of this as I possibly could have, greedy for the experience. Not any more. If I had to get on the plane tomorrow and go home, I would be grateful, and would always cherish these memories. How did this happen? It’s all grace. As Piccardà said, “In His will is our peace.”
True. It could all go away tomorrow, but I would have had this, not deserving any of it, and for that I am grateful. I can hardly tell you how grateful. It’s too much sometimes. Dante teaches that there is no way to work yourself to heaven; all you can do is work to make yourself open to grace when it appears. This is also true, and not only true, but important.