Tag Archives: Italy

Italy: Hanging about in Siena

Tuscany is like a Renaissance painting; its beauty and mystique enthral those who step inside its frame. Take your pick, each city has its own story: Florence, Pisa, Pienza, Lucca, Siena. And that’s where this story lays its roots, in Siena, the bejewelled brooch that clasps the tapestry of Tuscany.

Siena rooftops

Siena rooftops

There are many things to love about Siena. Further down the palio track I’ll write more about its medieval charisma, but for this story, Siena’s black humour is my focus.

Had I been squeamish, I might have continued walking through the gloomy Vicolo del Bargello and into the bustle of Siena’s enchanting campo to enjoy a coffee in the sunlight. But the combination of the medieval laneway, the meaning of bargello (a zigzag stitch resembling flames) and the macabre blurb on the poster outside the Museo della Tortura (Museum of Torture) “these instruments show just how much human fantasy knew no limits …” reels me in, hook, line and tongue cutter.

a highwayman's coffin

a highwayman’s coffin

A skeletal hand reaches out from the Highwayman’s Coffin and points to the museum’s first dark chamber. This weathered wretch has been hanging around in his iron cage for centuries. He’s been swaying in the breeze outside town halls, ducal palaces and cathedrals, through winter winds and summer storms until his bones have fallen apart.

Not too far inside the first cold stone and brick cavern, reality sobers me to the horrors of human cruelty. It puzzles me to think of the hours of creativity that went into designing and decorating these devices of humiliation, oppression and torture. Take the iron sandals with the bell at the toe that was fitted to clumsy servants. Every time the bell rang, the master tightened the heel.

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

stained clothes of a penitent of the Inquisition

There are many gruesome original and reproduced items on display that reflect the time in history where public hangings and punishments were seen as entertainment. Behind a glass panel I examine a beheader’s sword. It looks like an oversized butter knife. It took a long apprenticeship to become professional beheader. With each victim, the apprentice had three goes to get the decapitation right. Who was going to worry about the occasional severed shoulder, arm or brainpan?

No detail is spared of how each instrument worked, which orifice the device was meant for, which limb was dislocated and who was the usual customer.  Women were particularly well represented with breast rippers, shrew fiddles, scold bridles, chastity belts and the ornately designed Pear of Anguish, a disturbing device inserted and expanded in the offensive orifice.

a prickly medieval occupation

a prickly medieval occupation

Rioting prisoners would have been well ventilated, as the wardens in those poxy medieval dungeons wore leather jackets pierced with iron spikes in Hannibal Lecter fashion.

The wry comment on the Inquisitor’s Chair bridges the gap of centuries. “Often a brazier of hot coals was used to heat the spikes before the victim was placed inside. Today, updated versions are used, improved by electricity to minimise tell-tale marks.”

I’ve spent about an hour examining racks, iron maidens and head crushers that inflicted pain and death on heretics, blasphemers and the promiscuous. You may think that the idea of a visiting a torture museum is no better than attending the public spectacle of torture in the past. Yet, it’s the professional display and insightful (often tongue-in-cheek) explanations that make me question how civilised we are meant to be today.

Buonanotte bella Siena

Buonanotte bella Siena

 

 

Italy: The Medieval Metropolis of San Gimignano

Perhaps I have the haunting look of a pilgrim. Footsore and parched, I have just walked the three kilometre semi-circle around the double walls of San Gimignano. After skidding down a rocky path, I dust myself off next to the stone-arched vaults of the 9th century wool-washers’ baths.

where the wool washers worked

where the wool washers worked

A Spanish hiking party is picnicking along its damp, stone edges. As an offering to a fellow traveller who is pulsating in the midday Tuscan sun, they present me with a glistening wedge of watermelon.

the generous hikers

the generous hikers

I savour its sweetness in the shade next to a stone villa that tumbles into the Chianti countryside. Its backyard is an artwork of fig trees, grape vines and tomato bushes splashed with zucchini flowers. A clothesline is strung between two olive trees. Its bounty of blue and white underpants catches the breeze like bunting.

the best of the breeze

the best of the breeze

San Gimignano, in the ever-popular region of Tuscany, is often described as the Town of a Thousand Towers, even though it only ever had 72. Up until the 14th century, tower building kept warring families busy as they tried to outdo each other – Shakespeare got it right with the Capulets and the Montagues. Then came the Black Death in 1384. The towers fell into disrepair and three-quarters of the townsfolk died. The town’s economy, made wealthy on the saffron that grew on its hillsides, soon collapsed. Nearby Florence rerouted the pilgrims who were making their way to Siena and then Rome along the Via Francigena. San Gimignano became a ghost town. Now, it’s 21st century pilgrims who are the wayfarers.

honey-stoned high rises

honey-stoned high rises

Tuscany is touristy and San Gimignano is part of the hype – Franco Zeffirelli filmed Tea for Mussolini here. It is a romantic hill town filled with ceramics shops and if I could have wheeled and sailed one of its sunflower table tops home, I would have.

lead me not into temptation

lead me not into temptation

Taxidermied wild boars greet you at several shop entrances. Lethally-tusked and motley-bristled, their shiny, piggy eyes invite you to buy a net of wild boar salami, a couple of trotters or a hairy flank. Further into these Aladdin’s caves there are batons of crusty bread, tempting wedges of pecorino, local honey to drizzle over it and bottles of locally produced Vernaccia. All the ingredients needed for a picnic on the hillside.

one-stop shop

one-stop shop

There are must-see churches, palaces, museums, art galleries and a medieval hospital, but it’s the stumble-upon treasures that give that richer dimension to any town. I veer off the main drag and find a clutch of tourist-less shops. A door is framed by photos of the Tuscan countryside and I’m drawn inside. The owner is sitting at his desk and behind him are award-winning shots that I’ve seen in spreads in National Geographic. It’s Claudio Calvani – winner of over 250 awards. He kindly shows me his work. I ask if he uses filters. ‘Only with three,’ he confesses, ‘the rest are a gift of the Tuscan sun.’

Maestro Calvani with his work

Maestro Calvani with his work

The heat of the day calls for gelato and I head back to the main piazza. Gelateria di Piazza has a queue four-deep behind its glistening, pastel mounds. It’s won the Gelato World Championship four years in a row. The walls are lined with testimonials from actors, artists and politicians. My favourite is a 1993 photograph signed by Russian novelist, Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

it's worth the wait

it’s worth the wait

As the medieval towers cast criss-crosses over the piazza I find a cool spot overlooking the watercolour hills and combed vineyards of Tuscany. With my waffle cone of fig and passionfruit delight melting, I imagine pilgrims sitting here in the shade and eating gelato.