The question you ask is: where, if I had to choose one place, would I put all my money, in a time of general uncertainty? I have an answer that isn’t Switzerland.
No, don’t laugh. And I don’t really mean Italy, or even a region of Italy. I mean…
Let me explain.
Siena is a medieval town on hills, surrounded by dry, stingy, beautiful countryside. Though thronged with tourists, it is scrubbed clean each day, discreetly but strictly policed, and largely free of crime and beggary. (If you want more “edge”, grimy Florence is only an hour away. Knock yourselves out!)
A thousand years ago, little Siena got rich by serving pilgrims. Who knew there was a buck in that? And you might well ask how she stayed rich.
It’s hard to enter the town centre by vehicle; if you do, it’s impossible to avoid having your entry and departure registered electronically. A local bank you haven’t heard of – which sponsors the very successful Mens Sana basketball team, and the dismal A.C. Siena – might indirectly own the shipping terminal or airport near your home, back in Canada or Australia. You don’t get to know.
Someone tells you what a bank is worth. But a bank in Siena is as unknowable as those Knights of Malta, who glide through its streets – in black tie, black suit and sunglasses – in their black sedans. They particularly haunt a crumbly little church in the centro, an ex-Templar property absorbed by their order seven centuries ago; but these Knights may also appear on the outskirts, entering or exiting a lavishly renovated Carthusian monastery, not crumbly at all – oh, no! Discreet banks, discreet Knights, discreet citizens – Siena has been practicing discretion for all its history, to disguise its lust for prestige, independence and profit.
Yet its security does not lie in police, Knights, or even in the power of those financial institutions that have long preferred Siena as a base for the heavy end of their wealth. Certainly, with such limited vehicle access and extensive controls, it would be a hard place to rob; but without its very unusual social system, Siena would be uneasily safe, at best: a petty police state, battening off its banks and tourism, surrounded by that picturesque but meagre landscape, good for wine, pecorino cheese and villa holidays for Poms.
That’s not Siena. Curiously, the real Siena is what’s on show – as a show. What visitors take as tourist promotion and historical re-enactment, would go on unabated if there were not a single tourist to observe. The real Siena is not masked by parades, costumes and the Palio horse race. The show is real. Those things are Siena, for reasons unique to that city and a few nearby towns which have absorbed its social system.
Much of what’s wrong with Italians is also on display here: the social rigidities, the insularity, the North-South racism, the corrosive mistress culture that makes juveniles of old men and paint-caked nubiles of matrons. Yet there is so much that is right.
Without resources of any kind, Siena was merely a defensive position for Etruscans, Romans, Lombards and the like. Then she became a stage on the main pilgrimage route known as the Via Francigena. Through centuries of varying governments and degrees of independence, Siena got rich in the most modern way: it backed up consumer goods and financial services with tourism and a reasonable paid health care system. It welcomed all, took anyone’s money, but it was always Siena for the Sienese. Nato senese means far more than “born Italian”, and, though keen supporters of Garibaldi, the senesi feel no great loyalty to abstractions such as Italy and Tuscany. Apart from Dante, there is still little love for Florence or things Florentine. Actually, they loathe each other, those two cities.
As Siena gradually became something of a backwater again – and was thus preserved as the town I love – much of the wealth and services remained. And something else remained.
The wealthy of Siena had bodyguards, which were effectively extended families. Siena became the most factious of cities. Factions formed within factions, and brawling, murder, skullduggery were the frequent outcome – as well as competitive sport. The bodyguards, after many mergers and transformations, morphed into what we now know as the contrade. Each contrada is legally established and specific to a part of the city, has its own symbols, animal mascot, colours and (unequal) chance to triumph in the Palio.
Those contrade! There are seventeen of them now, some richer, some with more members, some covering more area, some with more prestigious streets and buildings. The Porcupine, or Istrice, has the most money and members, and is thus frustrated by the greater success of the Goose in the Palio. Along with other contrade, it is happy to spend its money to undermine the Goose. The Tower is the best hater, with the Goose as its official enemy, but with malice enough left to maintain a second official enmity with its neighbour, the Wave.
Outlying towns like Asciano have their own contrade, but the whole town will also affiliate with a single Sienese contrada…Enough! Explaining the contrada system is exhausting. I might leave it for the moment.
The Palio, the famous horse race round the Campo, is perhaps more comprehensible to a Sydney follower of Rugby League than to a follower of horse racing. Like the working man’s rugby, the tribalism, history, sledging and grudge-carrying last all year – though the two races only last a few minutes each. This is not a tourist thing. Stop at a cafe in the hills beyond the city where no tourist goes, and there will be coffee drinkers arguing or fretting over the Palio supplement of the local newspaper.
When a contrada wins a right to celebrate, particularly for a Palio victory, streets can be blocked off for several days, with official approval of the Comune, and to the fury of rival contrade. And this is what makes Siena function as it does: most feel a connection to a set of streets and several institutions contained in those streets. The outsider walks a few paces and does not realise that he has entered a new contrada. A few minutes slow stroll and he has entered a third. But you are never just on the street or in Siena, you are in a contrada. A piece of litter dropped, a crime committed – it happened within a contrada.
However farcical the puffery and politics of these gaudy ancient factions, they have become a way of belonging to something stronger than a family but kinder than a government. The contrade have wealth, and can use if for welfare, as well as for hiring the best fantini, or jockeys. All are loyal to the city and each will defend a hated contrada to uphold the contrada system. One local historian assured me that no contrada, however factious, had ever betrayed the city itself, not to the Florentines, not to the Pisans, not to the French or Spanish.
Siena is porous, geologically and by human operation. In one private home, I was shown down to a basement below a basement. It was estimated by the scholarly gent who escorted me that we had started in the twelfth century and reached the pre-Roman period in our little vertical excursion. To illustrate, he showed me some Etruscan shards lying in the dust. Needless to say, the scholar and house must not be identified. The senesi don’t want cultural authorities and governments knowing what they own in the way of compromising heritage.
A further example. Be careful not to flood the bathroom in any upper floors of the medieval centro istorico. There could easily be a ceiling fresco somewhere below. The owner may be willing to make public his fresco in order to sue you for a hundred thousand euros. Unless you are willing to fund an unauthorised private restoration – which the fresco needed in any case – for considerably less than a government approved restoration? Va bene?
Look, just don’t leave the bath running in Siena!
To compress the spirit of a city in a single character is not usually possible. In Siena’s case, it is possible.
The Fontebranda is the city’s best known fountain. Water being a scarce resource in Siena, fountains tend to be troughs, and there are few of them. Still, it’s an enchanting spot, set low in the powerful contrada of the Goose, directly under the Basilica of San Domenico. Ascending the hill from the Fontebranda, you come to a large house and shrine, where a dyer once plied his trade.
In 1347, he had yet another daughter, Catherine Benincasa.
The girl quickly became the scariest of medieval mystics, from an early age practicing the most extreme forms of self-denial, experiencing visions and hallucinations through fasting, self-flagellating, and overwork. Permanently underfed and exhausted, she won fame for her ministrations to the sick, much of it done at Siena’s renowned hospital, now the Church of S. Maria della Scala. She became controversial and popular in the way of such zealots. So far, an heroic but extreme figure, fitting a popular conception of the term “medieval”. (Though an interesting variation from the scary norm was her monopolist’s tendency to advise others to go easy on themselves.)
But in little Benincasa we see also the product of Siena, the independent and capitalist dynamo. Every report of Catherine refers to her irresistible personality, her urbanity, her sly charm, and blithe, almost shocking, confidence around men of power. The worldly half of this unique character would prove as extreme as the unworldly half.
For, incredibly, Catherine, in her late twenties, stepped into public life and became a political figure, a negotiator, an author and incessant correspondent. The Sienese Catherine felt completely free to use her ability to write (whether directly or by dictation) to anyone on the European scene, including an illustrious pirate. It’s clear that there was as much relish as duty in crafting these constant and varied communications. Would she blog? Would she what.
In the twisted affairs of those days, she became an ambassador both of the pope and the Florentines, and a consultant to the Church of Rome. Though one of her solutions to Christian disunity – a new crusade – never came to pass and has stayed permanently out of fashion, her nagging for reform was finally heard in some quarters. It is easy to believe that the papacy returned from France to Rome because the time was ripe, but we would have to ignore the fact that the pope defied the French king and most of his cardinals in taking Catherine’s advice. Gregory XI, a Frenchman, returned the papacy to Rome on the advice of the dyer’s daughter from Fontebranda. Independence is infectious.
While her work with the down-and-out went on, she spent her last years in Rome as an advocate for unity during the Great Schism. Her achievements may seem a blur to us now because of the remoteness and complexity of the politics of the day, but she gained and retained many painful inches in the struggle to end wars and foster reform. Above all, she wanted a church that was independent like her native Siena (much of the time). Catherine felt at liberty to talk to whom she wished, when she wished. Her familiar tone and frank criticisms were simply accepted. Being unaffected by her own or others’ celebrity, she could confer a special freedom on the conversation.
And Catherine could charm without flattery. When she called the pope babbo (daddy) he was instantly disarmed. Coming from a huge clan in a fiercely independent republic, she knew how to manufacture familial ties on the spot. (Also, when you’re the youngest of two dozen or more siblings, you learn how to be cute!) The only person this terrifying self-disciplinarian never charmed was herself.
The woman encapsulates her town, and the Sienese know it. The Goose (or Oca) attribute their pre-eminence in the Palio to the fact that Catherine’s home is in their contrada. They just can’t say it too loudly. The art of being Sienese is that of being discreetly contemptuous, discreetly triumphalist.
I spent a few weeks there in the middle of winter. High Tuscan towns in snow may be a cliché, but I doubt I could ever tire of Siena and nearby Colle Val d’Elsa or San Gimignano, silent and blanketed in white on a January morning. In the evening, you can sit in the trattoria between San Domenico and the Fontebranda, eating pici while watching the flakes drift down on to Saint Catherine’s house. Siena in snow! See that at least once.
Through contacts, I was able to get access to many closed places in the off-season. In the course of inspecting yet another semi-secret fresco in that crumbly little church owned and frequented by the Knights, I fell into conversation with the black-suited gentleman who had admitted me to the shabby back room with its Saint Francis mural. It turned out he had spent time in Sydney, for reasons not to be divulged, of course, and that we had mutual friends in heavily Catholic Randwick Rugby – of all places!
An invitation to dinner that very night was the result of our meeting. I felt a touch uneasy about dining with a Knight of Malta. High ranking members of the order are unmarried laymen, having made either vows or promises of chastity. That made me uneasy. Also members of such special Catholic orders tend to have agendas, tend to be intense, always on the job, far more than your lonely, beery parish priest.
Nonetheless, I accepted the invitation to dine at Signor Lucari’s home, an apartment overlooking the Campo, the central piazza of Siena, where the Palio is run. He was, as he explained, both resident and member of the Tower contrada – it’s common to live in one contrada but belong to another – and his family had always been such. Though the Campo is neutral ground, the Tower has the longest boundary along the piazza. Needless to say, this is an occasion for pride and all kinds of ancient envies.
Dinner turned out to be a straightforward affair with just Signor Lucari and his mother, a reserved matron who prepared typical, rigidly simple Tuscan fare. It consisted of white beans dressed in finest olive oil and flavoured with some fresh sage; and, again, pici, the fat, chewy noodles of the region, made only from the flour of a desert-like area to the south of the city, the Crete Senesi. The noodles were dressed with ground boar flesh and wild porcini mushrooms of the stunted oak forests to the north.
With typical discretion, the family offered no prayers before and after the meal, though brief blessings and crossings occurred. About the rooms, various pictures, symbols and vestments connected with the Knights were on display.
The apartment had a stark Tuscan interior, all hard floors, polished furniture – and much of the famous glassware blown in Colle Val d’Elsa, a town within Siena’s municipality, but which hates Siena and is affiliated with Florence.
I was not invited to see any secret frescos – perhaps that sort of intimacy is for second visits.
Much of the conversation was about Rugby. Signor Lucari had ties to a club in Lombardy, where he also did business – unnamed business. He expressed contempt for the vaguely rugby-related code of calcio fiorentino, an historical relic of a game, played only in detested Florence. At the very mention of that city, his mother sniffled her disgust.
The signora explained more intricacies of the contrada system. She surprised by conceding that her side of the family had not always been of the Tower, but, only two centuries ago, had been prominent in the faction of the Viper, which was forcibly merged with the Tower at that time. Yet it was an occasion of great pride that both sides of Signor Lucari’s family had been of the Tower ever since – a rare thing, since nearly all Sienese have intermarried and moved about the city to different addresses over the centuries. (There are even a few senesi who shun the whole system, particularly wealthy ones who can spend much of their time in villas on the Isle of Elba, living da signori.)
Over coffee and home-made limoncello, we watched the snow fall and gather in the Campo, which was still lit, and where small numbers of young people defied the weather to sit or even lie in clusters. The Campo is seldom deserted, but at that late winter hour, it had an air of romantic desolation.
As we chatted and sipped, something in the Campo was drawing the attention of both mother and son. They exchanged the odd knowing glance. Then Signor Lucari excused himself and walked to a dark end of the room, stepping behind a curtain which formed a small separate space near the wall.
Soon, he beckoned me over from the table. When I stepped behind the curtain, he made a gesture, more of a command, toward an elaborate telescope trained right on the Campo. A bit uncertain, I looked through it. To my surprise, I found it was trained on a group of young people, one of whom was a resident in the guest house where I was staying. Her name was Gwennie, and she was a spoiled young American girl who had been sent to Siena to do a leadlight apprenticeship with a local artisan. She was bright, pretty and very adept at her work, as I had learned on visiting the artisan’s shop at her invitation. Yet she was troubled and the trouble was clearly centred on drugs. Twice in that month she had disappeared to Florence, and her employer, born Sienese and thus careful of his obligations, had been forced to come looking for her at our guest house.
Thanks to the quality of the telescope, I could see how Gwennie was talking intently with a sly-faced young man who seemed neither local nor tourist. Guessing the subject of conversation was not hard.
“Signor Lucari, I know that young girl. She’s one of our residents in the Casa Duccio.”
“Yes, I knew as much. Those boys she is with are Albanians, no doubt they’ve come in from Poggibonsi for the evening. Now that Italy is part of Europe – whatever Europe and Italy may be – we get more and more of such visitors. This is the third time I’ve observed these boys…
“But come, I have a quick phone call to make while mother pours one more limoncello for the evening. Ah, look, she’s made us some of her superb ricciarelli! You can never buy them as good as this, pay what you like.”
I rejoined the signora while her son went to an adjoining room. The ricciarelli, almond biscuits made without leavening or flour, were miraculously good and subtle in that stark Tuscan way. When I complimented the lady, she explained:
“They say ricciarelli are of Siena, but the good method is really a special trust of our contrada. I know of women in the Wave – those buildings just down there to the left – who put flour and baking powder in their ricciarelli. Such pollution would not be tolerated here in the Tower. Ah, signore, all contrade are not equal, regardless of what they say. And yet…there are women in the She-Wolf and even the Caterpillar who know the true art of baking ricciarelli. The Tower is not the centre of the world, signore – we do not claim to be centre of things. Only the Goose, who believe they own our Catherine, have that degree of arrogance.”
Signor Lucari returned the table and, just as he sat down, a burst of multi-coloured light surged through the window, accompanied by screaming sirens.
Out on the Campo, a dozen or more police vehicles had converged on the tiny group of youths. Police – how many? thirty? – were surrounding them, finally obscuring them from our view.
I looked in amazement at Signor Lucari. He smiled.
“Oh, it wasn’t me. Someone over the other side, in the Owl – silly little contrada! – actually alerted the police before me…”
I could only gape at the scene out on the Campo, where the spotlights were blazing through falling snow.
“Mind you, the Owl is not taken seriously. It was I who arranged for an extra strong presence – with many lights. We Sienese can be discreet – yet emphatic. With sufficient rehearsal, a large force in the Campo is not clumsy. On the contrary, it can make for a quicker, neater trap.
“Don’t worry. The police will only warn your friend, and make sure the Albanians learn to stay in Poggibonsi – or sell their filth in Florence where it will be appreciated.
“All contrade are not equal, my friend. How can they be? They say the Campo is neutral, but it is, of course, in trust to the Tower. All the contrade loathe this contagion of drugs. Only the Tower understands that policing of the Campo must be done not only with promptness and discretion. Something else is needed, if Siena is to continue as Siena.
“Only the Tower understands that the Campo is a grand theatre, where other contrade are allowed to parade and perform and bribe their way to Palio victories. But long after they have gone to their homes, performance goes on. Ceremony goes on. All things must have ritual, must make their impression through sound, through colour, through movement, through surprise.
“The Campo is our theatre, it is my theatre!”
Getting back to the original subject…
The rest of you can leave your money in Switzerland.
My bank will be in a contrada. Maybe I’ll use a branch watched over by the Tower, the illustrious contrada della Torre.