Midterms are over, and somehow I survived. I cannot say I came out of it unscathed—multiple cuts, scratches and the like have appeared over the course of the week. Of course, midterms here are nothing like the ones at Fieldston. And I only had two, Italian and Photography. This morning I was listening to High Renaissance art history students complain about their two-and-a-half hour, all-writing exam, and my three-hour Advanced Topics in Biology final I took at the end of the first semester of senior year came to mind. Now that was something to gripe about.
Now, on to better and more interesting anecdotes—this past weekend I went on my second school-sponsored field trip, a day in Siena and San Gimignano, with Early Renaissance art history. Personally, I prefer Early Renaissance to High Renaissance art. Additionally, the differences between Rome and Siena are similar to and as striking as those between the paintings, sculptures, and frescoes of the two periods. Siena has a much calmer, laid-back quality whereas Rome is far more busy and frenetic.
Our day started, as was to be expected, at the ungodly hour of 7:15 a.m. At around 6:30, the student collective wandered, zombie-like, over to the Santa Maria Novella station. At around 8:30, we arrived in Siena. Our first destination was some church or other. Quite honestly, at this point, all of the chiesas and the basilicas and the piazzas and the palazzos are blending together in a haze of towers and paintings of the baby Jesus.
However, at this particular church, Helen Watterson treated us to a long and unfortunately detailed lecture about the altar from which the face of Saint Catherine stared back at us. She then mentioned that some digit or toe of hers was several meters in that direction (my not knowing the location has something to do with the nausea I was already feeling far too early in the day). Somehow, up until this point in my life, I’ve remained blissfully unaware of the actual contents of relics. I knew the word, sure, but I had no idea they retained the body parts of people long gone. Over the past month or so, I’ve seen more than a lifetime’s share of preserved jawbones and bent fingers that should have been allowed to decompose in soil just like everyone else’s.
The trip itinerary we’d been provided with prior to departure claimed we were to have a coffee break near the famous Piazza Campo at “circa 8,30 A.M.” Much to my chagrin, said break did not occur until roughly 9:20. By that time I could have passed for an extra in 28 Days Later.
After I finished my far too expensive cappuccino, the group headed over to a different Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Helen concentrated on two important works—the Maestà, a complex, painted altarpiece—which depicted, surprise surprise!, the life of Jesus—by Duccio and a set of statues by Giovanni Pisano. I found the statues fascinating, so naturally we spent about two hours on the Duccio and ten minutes on why it was important that Plato and Aristotle were included in Pisano’s set.
From there we went to the actual cathedral, which was a veritable minefield of art. If you didn’t pay enough attention to where your feet were going, you could literally trip over art—roped-off sections of the floor contained vastly intricate marble inlays.
As the daughter of a self-proclaimed “lapsed Catholic” and a Jew, I know little to nothing about the Bible or any other ancient scriptures. And the more I learn about the Bible, the more I wish I didn’t know about the Bible. At this particular time and place, I discovered the murder of the innocents. Both a marble inlay and a bass-relief by Michelangelo showed infants being slaughtered. Dear God.
Other places of interest were the library in which many old manuscripts are kept and a small side chapel containing two Bernini statues—one of Mary Magdalene and the other of Saint Jerome. The Mary Magdalene was particularly striking, although in a different, far more pleasant way than Donatello’s interpretation of her post-resurrection at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Firenze.
Our last stop in Siena was the Palazzo Publico, home to the origins of the most heated debate in the art history world to date. We were led to a room full of frescoes, all in different stages of restoration, and were plopped down in front of a large painting of a knight on his horse and the surrounding countryside. For the next hour, we listened to Gordan Moran, a central art historian in the battle over the origins of this particular painting, tell us why he believed the Guido Riccio da Fogliano was not done by Simone Martini, but by multiple painters over the centuries, and how many of Moran’s colleagues continue to argue that it was done by Martini in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Naturally, this is yet another story of human fallibility and human denial of said fallibility. Having claimed for years and years that this was a verifiable Simone Martini, many art historians had no desire to go back and change all the textbooks. Or admit they were wrong. One or the other.
In my opinion, there is no way Moran is wrong. Uneducated as I am about Renaissance art, I immediately thought there was something peculiar about the large size of the horse and rider when juxtaposed against the small size of the buildings in the background. Additionally, no apparent effort had been made to integrate the main subject into the rest of the painting whereas a skilled artist such as Martini would have done so.
Our next stop was charming San Gimignano, one of the many cute little hillside towns in Tuscany. Having visited a remarkably similar township in the summer before ninth grade, I was convinced this was the very same. When I made further inquiries into the matter—that is, calling my mother on the cell from the bus—I learned I was very much mistaken; that town was called Roccalvecce.
On the bus ride to San Gimignano, Helen Watterson informed us that the town’s nickname—“the Manhattan of Tuscany”—stems from the tall towers that create its skyline. As a New Yorker, I thought that was a bit of a stretch. If San Gimignano’s the Manhattan of Tuscany, then I’m the Queen of England. Or some other equally preposterous, less stereotypical claim.
Thankfully, we only made one art stop—the Collegiata church, home of a chapel containing frescoes illustrating the life of this local female saint whose feet had been nibbled by rats (I apologize for imparting this gruesome information to you—especially Woo—believe me, I didn’t want to hear that either), and, after she died, three miracles resulted from her funeral, which gave her the Sainted status. Additionally, in the main body of the chiesa, there were some pretty risqué images portraying a drunken Noah and scenes behind the gates of Hell.
It was finally time for the reason I wanted to come on this trip in the first place—a wine and cheese (and sausage for the meat eaters) tasting atop a tower. Our ascent to the tower included a stroll through a peaceful park and a wonderfully (and thankfully) maintained staircase.
The forty or so of us were all crammed into a fifteen-by-fifteen foot circle, but no matter—the sun was setting, the weather was perfect, and the view was gorgeous. Resting my elbows on the ageless stone, holding a cup of deliciously fruity Vernaccia white wine in one hand and a slice of cheese in the other, I really felt life just couldn’t get any better than this.