Siena: City of Secrets, by Jane Tylus

Discover the Tuscan metropolis in a study suffused with all the vitality of the Palio, says Philip Cooke

May 28, 2015
Book review: Siena: City of Secrets, by Jane Tylus

Built on three hills, Siena inevitably invites comparisons with Rome. Indeed, the Tuscan city’s foundation myth traces its ancestry to Senio, one of the sons of Remus. In the 13th century, when the story of Senio’s flight from Rome to Siena began to circulate, parallels with Rome were not too wide of the mark. The city was, as Jane Tylus shows in this elegant and captivatingly interdisciplinary book, a major economic centre, the powerhouse of Italy’s successful banking industry, and politically and socially advanced. In 1260, Ghibelline Siena, a supporter of the Holy Roman Empire, defeated Guelph Florence at the Battle of Montaperti, although victory was achieved only as a result of an act of treachery by the Florentine Bocca degli Abati. After receiving a signal, Abati attacked the Florentine standard-bearer and cut off his hand. The flag fell to the ground, the Florentine troops fell into disarray, and the battle was lost. For this sin, Dante placed Abati in the ninth circle of Hell.

Culturally, too, Siena was a centre of excellence, and over long periods defeated the Florentines in those contests – without the need of fifth columnists. Sienese art of the trecento was extraordinarily impressive, if not sumptuous, and Tylus discusses these achievements with great sensitivity and sophistication. Duccio’s Maestà, a complex polyptych painted on front and back, was carried in triumph through the streets of the city by the Sienese when it was completed in 1311. Although the original composition no longer survives, many of the panels have been conserved, including the central front panel, which remains in Siena. Others are in galleries around the world, such as The Annunciation from the lower predella sections, which is in the National Gallery in London.

Duccio was followed by the likes of Simone Martini, whose own monumental Maestà, which depicts the Virgin seated under a canopy decorated with the black and white colours of Siena, is in the city’s Palazzo Pubblico. The same building houses Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Buon Governo fresco cycle, an astonishing and much studied panorama of an entire society and the city upon which it depended. In terms of literary figures, the Sienese poet Cecco Angiolieri, to whom Tylus, a great expert on Italian poetry, devotes less attention than I feel he merits, produced a canzoniere devoted to the vicissitudes of his love for Becchina, his tortured relationship with his mean-spirited parents and his fondness for drinking and gambling, “la taverna e il dado” as he puts it. And unlike Petrarch, Angiolieri had a sense of humour.

But by the beginning of the 14th century, things were starting to go wrong for Siena. The Ghibelline cause collapsed, as did the banks (who did not learn their lesson, as the recent problems of the Monte dei Paschi, the giant Sienese bank, demonstrate). In 1348, the Black Death ravaged the city, and it would return at regular intervals. From the late 15th century onwards, Siena was subject to the rule of tyrants, foreigners or, even worse, the Florentines.

Although it became part of the Italian nation in 1861, there has always been a sense that Siena is cut off from the rest of the country and has continued to lose out to Florence. Whereas it was, in its glory days, a major waypoint on the Via Francigena, only tourists (and the intrepid Tylus) walk that way today. Florence, on the other hand, is connected to the North and South by Italy’s largest motorway. To get to this road from Siena you have to travel along the less than super superstrada. Although a railway line connects the two cities, it is notoriously slow and most people prefer the bus (when it runs). Florence is now one of the cities on the Italo high-speed train network; Siena is not. And perhaps the Sienese like it that way – certainly my own experience there as a young student in the 1980s was that it was not a place that welcomed outsiders, an impression confirmed by the Sienese poet Mario Luzi’s line: “This is a city in which it’s impossible to live as a stranger.”

Tylus’ latest book, which successfully mixes a wide variety of genres and in many ways defies categorisation, has its origins in her highly praised study of Catherine of Siena, a work that opened up a new interpretative framework based, above all, on a series of subtle, nuanced and suggestive readings of the saint’s letters. Having immersed herself in the city for the writing of Reclaiming Catherine of Siena, she has taken the bold step of attempting to reclaim not just its most famous saint, but the whole city, and above all its medieval and Renaissance facets.

The result is an outstanding volume, which demonstrates all the qualities the author has shown in her earlier works, and more. On the face of it, the book seems to be made up of a series of loosely linked excursuses, in which Tylus variously reflects on pilgrims, saints, neighbourhoods, money, earth and water. This impression disappears on a closer reading, which reveals a complex pattern of parallels, associations and signposts that give the text an overall coherence and logic. It is reminiscent of the swirl and vitality of Siena’s famed twice-yearly horse race, the Palio, to which she dedicates a short section – although I need to say that I have never understood the appeal of the Palio to anyone but the Sienese. At the book’s structural heart lies the Santa Maria della Scala, or Spedale. One of the first hospitals in Europe, it began by welcoming pilgrims and then the sick. One of its last patients before it reopened as a museum was the writer Italo Calvino, who died there in 1985 after a stroke, and from whom Tylus seems to have learned not a few lessons in terms of the simplicity and lightness of her style and the intricate patterns of her textual architecture.

Like Calvino, Tylus has an eye for detail. The starting point of her analysis is a fragment of a fresco, which is painted on the walls of the pilgrims’ quarters at the Spedale, depicting the life of Tobias from the Book of Tobit. It is a remnant of an early fresco cycle, now “squeezed between two massive paintings dedicated to the early years of the Spedale”. Tobias is setting off on a journey but “cranes his neck to look behind him even as his boots are pointed resolutely forward”. He went off on a long and difficult journey but on his way picked up many riches. As this is a literary book, with various moments of self-consciousness, I do not think it is too adventurous to suggest that Tylus is, or sees herself as, a modern-day Tobias (the names are strikingly similar). During the course of her journey, she too accumulates many riches, which she generously passes on here. Her discussions of the art are a highlight: not just the familiar works (the pages on Martini’s Maestà are compelling), but also the lesser known (and in my case unknown) frescoes by Guido of Siena (Duccio’s teacher), which were sealed up around 1500 and rediscovered only in 1999.

The last time I went to Siena was in 2002 to attend a concert in the Piazza del Campo by the rock singer Gianna Nannini – just one member of a massive Sienese dynasty. She belted out Bello e Impossibile and California – and it was free. I will now go back, with Tylus as my guide, and take another look.

Philip Cooke is professor of Italian history and culture, Strathclyde University. He is author of The Legacy of the Italian Resistance (2011) and co-author, with Anna Cento Bull, of Ending Terrorism in Italy (2013).

Siena: City of Secrets
By Jane Tylus
University of Chicago Press, 256pp, £18.00
ISBN 9780226207827 and 7964 (e-book)
Published 4 May 2015

The author

Author Jane Tylus

Jane Tylus, professor of Italian and comparative literature at New York University, grew up in Parsippany, New Jersey, 30 miles west of New York City.

“My parents were both teachers and always encouraged us to read and ask questions. There were lots of books in the house and my mother had the stereo on at all hours – classical music, Broadway musicals, Barbra Streisand. I was shy as a child and reading and playing piano were wonderful escapes.”

Of Parsippany, Tylus observes that: “My father and many of my parents’ friends were first-generation immigrants, and in the 1960s the Jersey suburbs were where you went to raise your children in a calm, safe place. And it was very safe and very calm.

“But you needed a car to go everywhere and there was no town centre – not even a town. Just housing developments and shopping malls, although we were lucky to have woods and ponds for ice-skating behind our house.

“I would lie in bed at night and listen to the soothing sound of the train whistle, knowing there were exciting places out there I could go to when I grew up. I think I’m attracted to small towns like Siena – and big cities like Rome and New York – because you can walk everywhere and there are so many places people can spontaneously congregate.”

Asked why she thinks "Lei di dov'è?" is such an enduringly essential question for Italians to ask almost immediately upon meeting someone for the first time, and whether campanilismo is broadly a charming and positive, or narrow and divisive, aspect of Italian culture, Tylus says, “Most of our Italian friends of our generation still live in the same town – some in the same houses – where they grew up. They have an understandably ferocious pride in their cities; cities so rich in history and culture that it would take a lifetime to get to know all the towns in Tuscany alone.

“Their children, though, are for the most part living elsewhere, because they can’t find jobs in Italy. On the other hand, an unprecedented number of immigrants have moved to Italy in recent years. The Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, who moved to Rome several years ago with her family, has just written her first novel in Italian. She no longer has books in English in her home, so strong is her desire to master the language.

“Italians have always left Italy to go elsewhere, but probably not since the Roman Empire have so many foreigners come to live here. The Roman Empire was unique because it offered citizenship to everyone, quite different from the way the Greeks ran their empire, as Eva Cantarella has recently pointed out. The natural hospitality of Italians perhaps follows from this historical openness. Still, times are difficult right now, and it will be interesting to see how things emerge.”

Tylus took her first degree at the College of William and Mary and her doctorate at Johns Hopkins University. What sort of undergraduate was she? “I am paying for my many lapses as a college student by now teaching college students…Social life always trumped academics.”

Nevertheless, her undergraduate years did introduce her to the subject that would become her passion and field of research.

“I was an English major. Only when in my last year I took a comparative literature course with Peter Wiggins did I suddenly realise that Spenser and Shakespeare weren’t all they were cracked up to be: the Italians had come first. That plus a trip to Italy after I graduated, when I found myself riding in a third-class train car from Rome to Brindisi with four elderly Italian women who didn’t know each other before they boarded the train but were sharing food and stories and laughing their heads off when they got off, as though they’d known each other for years. Both the beauty and expressiveness of the language and the inherent sociability of its people made me decide then and there to study Italian,” she says.

Asked why she thinks Siena has to produce a poet as important as Dante, and invited to say which Sienese writer is, in her view, most unjustly underrated, Tylus observes: “Siena has always thrived as a place of community – academies and confraternities; contrade or neighbourhoods; the great social network of the hospitals that supported orphans, the poor, and pilgrims; committees that ruled and still rule the city.

“This isn’t to say that individual talents aren’t cultivated and appreciated, but the city’s enforced sociability may make it sometimes difficult for writers to find the solitude they need. And it is the case that one of the great works of Sienese literature – the play Gl’Ingannati or The Deceived, which is one of the sources for Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – was a group effort, by the Accademia degli Intronati. That said, the Sienese have produced vigorous and idiosyncratic writers: Saint Catherine of Siena, Federigo Tozzi, Mario Luzi. (I have to admit, though, that they did most of their work outside Siena.)

“Of these three, Tozzi is by far the least known abroad. I’d like to try translating some of his novels, perhaps starting with his playful “Beast fables” (Bestie), recently published in a new edition in Italy with fabulous illustrations by the artist Antonio Possenti – who kindly gave me permission to reproduce his playful image of a maiale  – a hog – in my book.”

Tylus has translated the work of the 16th-century poet Gaspara Stampa into English, and proclaims her “racy, transgressive, flippant. As a musician she had a marvellous sense of rhythm and timing, and she was unbelievably well read; thanks to her brother she was able to take advantage of the university culture in nearby Padua, and Venice was the centre of the publishing industry in 16th-century Italy. Others may not agree with me that she’s Italy’s best woman poet, but they would have to concede that she’s one of the most varied and interesting ones. She is not yet part of the Italian high school curriculum, but women writers are increasingly taught at universities, and so hopefully she and others – like St Catherine, Lucrezia Marinella and Matilde Serao – will soon be household names.”

Invited to point us to a poem of Stampa’s – or more usefully Tylus’ English translation – that conveys the power and beauty of her work, Tylus says, “I particularly like Sonnet 28. I’m convinced that Maria Bellonci, who edited Stampa’s poems in the 1970’s, is right: there’s an echo here of a ‘celebrated fragment of Sappho’. Both musicians, both poets, both women leading unconventional lives. I’d like to think that Stampa was familiar with this fragment of Sappho’s (#31) and imitated it here:

When thanks to good fortune – all too rare in this world –
I come before those bright and shining eyes,
my style, my tongue, my daring, and my talents,
my thoughts, conceits, all sentiments

are weighted down or completely spent,
and I’m overwhelmed and almost mute:
it may be out of reverence for those bright eyes
or because upon the light they’re so intent.

It’s enough that I don’t know what to say
so fatal the divine self that steals
my force together with my soul.

Rare wonder, one of love’s miracles
that a single thing, this beauty alone,
both gives me life and takes all thought away

Turning back to Siena, what is her personal view of the Palio: much ado about 90 seconds, a curiosity of merely local interest, or a thrilling social, cultural and historical event?

“As you can read on the green and orange T-shirts sold one summer in our favourite contrada, the Selva: ‘Il Palio e’ vita’ – Palio is life itself. So much goes in to that race, and Palio is the culmination of not just a year’s planning, but the many ways that members of the community genuinely look out for and care for one another. We’ve stood in the Piazza del Campo for two Palios and for those 90 seconds (maybe more like three minutes), there is an unbelievable amount of tension and excitement; during the second Palio, I thought I might be pushed out into the racetrack by the swelling force of the crowd. But the instant that it’s over and it’s clear who’s won, the 50,000-plus spectators, the vast majority of them Sienese, calmly disperse and go about their daily lives. All, of course, except the members of the winning contrada. For them the fun is just starting,” she says.

Tylus and her husband live “in New York during the school year and Barnard, Vermont in the summers – and in Italy whenever someone will invite us. We have the good fortune to be living in Italy right now, until the end of June, in the lovely little town of Ponte a Mensola outside of Florence. It’s not far from where Michelangelo and Desiderio da Settignano carved out pietra serena in the quarries of Maiano, and you can still follow the sentieri degli scalpellini or trails of the stonecutters into the hills.

“Our household is now down to the two of us – one son has an Americorps position in Austin, Texas, the other goes to Oberlin College/Conservatory in Ohio.  No pets, much to the chagrin of our sons. But on the property here in Ponte a Mensola there are lots of pheasants and hares, and occasionally we see a wild boar.”

What gives her hope? “My students, my sons – their curiosity, their compassion, their drive.”

Karen Shook


Review originally published as: Every nook and cranny (28 May 2015)

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