“It’s not me, it’s all Him”

(This post is from the evening of September 17th)

Last night, we experienced similar linguistic calisthenics to those from the dinner in Monteriggioni, but it wasn’t quite as joyous or friendly an affair.  Lorenz, Florian, and I arrived back at the Accoglienza at 8:15, the time we were instructed to return for dinner.  A sister let us in, gave us the familiar “self-service” instruction and sent us into the kitchen.  We fixed our plates of rice, some strange, unidentifiable meats, and collard greens, and returned to the table to begin our meal.  The three of us sat down and were joined by the “knowledgeable” old man, the young, Italian pilgrim, and another, older Italian who seemed to already know his compatriot.  There were no sisters joining us, and the pair of women was conspicuously absent, lending an air of calm which had been missing over the past few meals.  We all started in on our food, and after about 30 seconds, the old man turned to me and angrily said, “A meal in a convent should begin with a prayer, but we live in an age of pagans.”  I wasn’t entirely sure how to react to this, and looked up at Lorenz and Florian—the only others who would have understood what he said—for some help.  They seemed equally at a loss, so we continued on with our eating.

A few minutes later, as the two Italians were chatting with each other, the old man again turned to me and started pointing at the younger of the pair, accusingly.  I had no idea what he was going on about and again turned away, confused. Seemingly upset that no one was sharing his outrage, the old man then left without saying a word, and disappeared upstairs.  The Italians finally included me in their conversation and we discussed a little about the history of the Via Francigena and what pilgrimages they had done in the past.  They seemed to be experts on the subject, and shared the opinion that I had heard so often recently about the growth of the Via Francigena pilgrimage.  Many authors on the subject point out that the Via Francigena is no Camino de Santiago—a well-established and well-traveled pilgrimage route with all accommodations necessary for the thousands who walk there each year.  This view may soon be out of date, however, as the Via Francigena gains in popularity for pilgrims on the way to Rome.  Especially in Tuscany and the more southern regions of the route, pilgrims have been growing in numbers over the last few years.  Sister Ginetta—the nun who was in charge of the Accoglienza—told me that so far this year, over 700 pilgrims had stayed in the house provided by the sisters in Siena.  Over 700 pilgrims, and it was only mid-September.  This represents a huge increase from when the Accoglienza first opened 14 years ago.  Back then, they only got 30 pilgrims a years.  With the increase in the number of pilgrims, the size of the Accoglienza has grown as well, into a rather large facility that can sleep—and feed—about 20 pilgrims each day.

The two Italians at dinner shared this view on the increasing popularity of the pilgrimage.  They thought that this shift was obvious; after all, Rome is more important than Compostela, they said.  Although the new-found popularity of the Via Francigena brought the Italians a certain sense of pride, Lorenz felt a little more ambivalent about the change.  He said that he enjoyed the scarcity of company along the road to Rome.  It made the whole thing seem more special, he thought, and he feared what an increase in the number of pilgrims—on the level of the Camino di Santiago—would do to cities like Siena.  If you take all the tourists in Siena, he said, and add to that number all the pilgrims coming to Rome, you would end up with a completely overcrowded city, ruining it for everyone visiting, whatever the reason for their travel.

After venturing out into Siena at night to sit in the Piazza and enjoy the atmosphere, Florian, Lorenz, and I returned to the Accoglienza to go to bed.  The Italians had somehow managed to get a room to themselves, so the three of us were left with the angry old man who was already sleeping, half naked in his underwear.  When we came in, we could hear that he had already begun to snore heavily—something that all of us had feared would happen during the night.  I got into bed, and was fortunate enough to fall asleep easily, the sound of motor scooters outside drowning out the noise of the old man.

In the middle of the night, I woke up briefly to a strange scene.  I opened my eyes and couldn’t see anything, it was so dark, but I heard a frustrated voice in the darkness say, “Could you please stop snoring?”  I wasn’t sure who had said it, and quickly fell back to sleep, but I knew who the question must have been directed towards.

The next morning, the old man was gone, leaving just Lorenz, Florian, and me in the room.  First priority was securing a place to stay the night because there was some doubt as to whether the Accoglienza was going to be able to host us for a second evening. We went downstairs to find breakfast prepared for us by the sisters and ran into Sister Ginetta, whom I asked about the possibility of staying another night.  She said that she was very sorry, but there was a group of 11 coming to stay at the Accoglienza tonight, as well as a couple of New Zealanders who had been walking all the way from Canterbury.  The only space available was on the floor.  After apologizing profusely, she suggested a place where we might look for a room.  It was just down the road a little bit at Santa Maria dei Servi.  There was a convent there that took in pilgrims and she told us to ask for Padre Antonio.  Since it was so close, we decided to try there first, setting out without the burden of our packs, which the sisters had graciously let us leave at the Accoglienza for the day.

We arrived at Santa Maria dei Servi, and I was tasked with ringing the bell and talking to whoever answered at the intercom.  “Hello, we are pilgrims who are looking for a place to stay,” I said.  “We are looking for Padre Antonio, is he here?”  What seemed like a secretary was on the other end of the line and answered me by saying, “No, Padre Antonio won’t be back until tonight.”  The connection then went dead.  That was very welcoming, we all thought.

We walked back to the Accoglienza to see if Sister Ginetta might know someone else to call for help.  She explained that Padre Antonio does not have a cell phone and she wouldn’t be able to get in touch with him before the afternoon when they might be attending the same prayer service.  We thanked her and decided to look around for other places to stay before trying at Santa Maria dei Servi that afternoon.  The three of us walked to the Piazza del Campo and Florian asked at the information office about the youth hostel just outside the city.  There was no such luck, however, as the hostel was closed until May while undergoing renovations.  We decided to take a look at another religious hostel I had listed in my book, but when we arrived, were informed that it did not accept pilgrims any more.  A poster outside was advertising fancy hotel rooms inside the convent, and it seems that all the pilgrim housing had been converted to this expensive holiday accommodation.  This seemed to be a common theme among the religious hostels I had run across along the route.  The convents and monasteries need to find a way to raise money and apparently pilgrims don’t provide enough in the donations they leave for the room and food they are provided.  The monks and nuns have discovered that they can convert some of their housing to nice and attractive rooms providing a unique “hotel” experience for travelers across Italy.

My book was out of affordable suggestions and we didn’t really know what to do.  Lorenz seemed rather unfazed, after his pilgrimage experiences, understanding that these things always have a way of working out, and a religious hostel won’t actually turn you away if you have no other options.  We agreed to meet back at the Accoglienza that afternoon and to try again at Santa Maria dei Servi.

Duomo of Siena

Florian and I decided to go to the Duomo and take a look inside.  When we arrived, we skipped the line by showing our pilgrimage credentials to the person selling tickets.  We got them stamped and were let in for free.

The cathedral in Siena is truly a beautiful and impressive work.  I must admit that I didn’t like it when I first saw it in photos. Multicolored and with such intricate detail, it initially seems a bit over the top.  When you see it in person, however, you really can appreciate the craftsmanship and artistry that went into building it, and understand the elevated position Siena held in the political landscape of Italy at the time of its construction.

The Duomo of Siena was planned to be much larger than it ended up.  You can see evidence of this coming out of one of the transepts—a large, unfinished wall extending far out from the boundaries of the actual building.  This marks the space that the cathedral’s planners were originally hoping the building would occupy, but the plague devastated the city so much in terms of population and economics that the structure had to be downsized quite a bit.  The Sienese cathedral would have rivaled that of Florence, and even St. Peter’s in Rome, but even as it is, the Duomo remains an impressive sight.

One can see that the building is a product of an intense pride that marks the Tuscan city.  A design which some might deem propagandistic incorporates the black and white colors of the city, as well as the Sienese she-wolf that serves as the area’s emblem. Siena often sees itself as a second Rome—mythically founded by Romulus’s nephew Senius.  On one of the town’s many gates, you can see a reference to this belief in the letters “S.P.Q.S.”—a play on the famous Roman legionary emblem replacing the larger city’s name with its own.  On the heavily decorated floor of the cathedral is a mosaic depicting Siena and nearby cities, using each place’s patron animal.  Siena is placed center-most and larger than the others, indicating its citizens’ views on the city’s elevated position in the region.

This sort of perspective was not uncommon for Sienese artists and architects.  Inside the Palazzo Pubblico—former seat of the Sienese city government—are two fine examples of this early use of propaganda, identifying Siena as a center of power and prosperity.  The fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano on display in the Palazzo’s “Map of the World” room depicts the Sienese general leading the city’s conquests of the foreign castles in the 14th Century.  Da Fogliano is the focus here, perched on a horse and much larger than the scenery behind him.  You can see the prosperous town of Siena—where the leader has come from—in stark contrast with the surrounding wilderness and desert.  Siena is seen bringing civilization to these desolate areas with this conquest, and the construction of the painting suggests that the city’s reach extends even further than these nearby castles.  The horse’s front hoof seems to extend below the boundaries of the rest of the fresco.  Below this painting is another of a stylized globe, and the horse’s hoof almost touches the surface of the world, indicating Siena’s worldwide aspirations.

The second—and more famous— are the frescoes of Buon governo and Cattivo governo. Painted on opposite walls, Buon governo represents the well-governed city.  In the painting, you can see happiness and prosperity, both within the city walls, and extending to the surrounding countryside.  On the other side is a representation of a city under bad government.  Death and pestilence are rampant and all the buildings seem to be falling apart.  These paintings were meant to show that Siena was, in fact, a well-governed city, avoiding the pitfalls and failings of its lesser neighbors.  This is where Sienese leaders would conduct business with visiting ambassadors, and its placement was no accident.  Entering the Palazzo Pubblico, a foreign envoy would be made keenly aware of Siena’s power across the region and of the affluence and happiness it enjoyed at home.

After visiting the Duomo, Florian and I went to San Dominico, resting place of the head of St. Catherine of Siena.  St. Catherine is a doctor of the church, who, with her persuasive letter writing, is famous for having convinced Pope Gregory XI, while in residence in Avignon, to move the Papacy back to its rightful home in Rome.  On the way, we visited an important place in St. Catherine’s life—the spot where she broke her leg.  Next to the Duomo, there is a set of long and slippery marble steps where Catherine fell and was hurt.  The spot today is marked by a cross on one of the steps—a small piece of history that many tourists miss on their way to visit the Duomo.

Along the way to San Dominco, we passed by Fontebranda, one of the old medieval fountains that provided the city with water until as late as the 20th Century.  Each of the fountains in Siena is fed by a series of underground aqueducts called bottini which bring in water from miles away in the countryside.  The engineering and construction of these things is remarkable, considering that the precise work was all done in the middle ages with very primitive equipment.

After climbing the next hill we reached San Domenico, a church very different from the one we had just visited.  The large, Romanesque building is sparsely decorated and contains only a few chapels along its sides.  The main attraction is Catherine’s head, which is kept—rather well preserved—in a glass case within one of the chapels.  Her right index finger is kept in another case to the right of the chapel—along with the whip she used to flagellate herself on a daily basis.

After seeing her head, Florian and I went to the house of St. Catherine, just down the road from the church.  This area was a medieval nunnery, but the outside portion was redone during the 1930’s while Italy was under control of the fascists.  You can see Mussolini’s hand in this more recent work: it’s a little too perfect, indicative of the fascist aesthetic ideals.  Once you go inside, however, you can see what the nunnery really looked like.  Inside, there is a nice old chapel, but the real treat is going down to Catherine’s cell itself.  Outside of her plain and tiny room is another sort of chapel with paintings depicting various scenes from the saint’s life.  While a child, Catherine was able to fly up stairs in a fit of religious ecstasy.  Early on, she turned away from an external life to devote herself to the church.  Eventually, she had a vision of marrying the infant Christ and received the stigmata.  They take great pride in Catherine here in Siena, but her cell is not visited all that often by tourists.  It is on a quiet side of town that affords beautiful views of the city that few are fortunate enough to see.

After leaving the house of St. Catherine, we headed back to the Piazza del Campo.  On the way, we walked through the contrada l’Oca—the goose.  Under each window, was a flag of the contrada, signifying that it had won the most recent Palio, the famous horse race that takes place in Siena twice each year.  Dirt is brought in to form a track around the Piazza del Campo, and all the town’s citizens and tourists fill the piazza to watch the contrade—or neighborhoods— compete for the prized Palio, a banner for each race’s winner.  The event is a huge affair and occupies the minds of Senesi for the better part of the year.  Each contrada takes great pride in its victories, and the winner celebrates for weeks after the event.  We arrived at the Piazza del Campo to a surprising and welcome site—an historical car parade.  Traffic is not generally admitted in the Piazza, but they had made an exception this time for the line of old automobiles.  The surprise combination of two things I love in one place made a great day even better, and the Piazza served as a great backdrop to photograph the cars.

Unfortunately, it was time to go back to the Accoglienza and renew looking for a place to stay the night.  We met up with Lorenz and walked back to Santa Maria dei Servi to see if Padre Antonio had returned.  No one answered at the intercom, and we went inside.  An old woman told us that all the ministers were out for the moment but that they would return soon.  We went back outside to wait and enjoyed another magnificent view of the city that few are fortunate to see.  Returning again, we reached a man whose answer about accommodation was not good: “Unfortunately…we are full, full, full.  I’m very sorry, but we can’t help you.”  We were out of luck again, but at least we got a friendlier answer than we had earlier in the day.  Not knowing what to do, we walked back to the Accoglienza and buzzed at the door.  Sister Ginetta answered it with a friendly, “Oh, it’s my boys!”  “I’m very sorry, Sister,” I said.  “We have searched the city, but found nothing.  The hostel is closed, and they have no room at Santa Maria dei Servi.  Can we please use your floor here?”  She looked at us for a moment as a scolding mother would her children, but then said, “Of course you can.  Let me just organize things a bit.”  Immediately, the spry old woman leapt to action. She went into one of the side dining rooms and started moving tables to make a space for us.  She grabbed my wrist, and led me upstairs to a room where three fold-out beds were waiting.  The diminutive lady began grabbing the heavy pieces and carrying them downstairs on her own.  I was so impressed by the woman’s strength and quickness, and she refused my offers of assistance every time I offered.  After she had prepared everything for us, we thanked her again and again, but she kept saying that it was no problem at all.  “It’s not me,” she said, humbly.  “It’s all Him,” pointing to a painting of Jesus on the wall.  We thanked her again and left to get out of her way before dinner.

When we returned, we expected to encounter a horde of people eating at the Accoglienza.  After all, they had so many pilgrims tonight that they tried to kick us out, but we were the only ones at the table.  Apparently the group of eleven had gone out to eat, and the others were either out, as well, or were planning on eating later.  I felt bad for the sisters who had provided so much food, which was to be eaten only by the three of us.  I tried to eat as much as I could, but we didn’t make much of a dent in the supply.  We were all incredibly grateful for Sister Ginetta and what she had done for us.  Experiences like this give me faith that things work out along the road, in large part thanks to the kindness of those who care for pilgrims.


~ by pminnig on September 25, 2011.

One Response to ““It’s not me, it’s all Him””

  1. Oh Peter, i love your story about our days in Siena! You found the right words to describe Sister Ginetta and our stay in this wonderful place! Sister Ginetta was so great and helpful, i am so glad that we met her. And i am also glad that i met you!!! I really enjoyed your companionship, you are a very kind and friendly person! Thanks a lot and i hope you have some more great experiences in italy! Have a nice time! Send you greetings from cold germany! Florian

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