I have an aversion to city tourist guides, illustrated maps and instruction manuals of any kind. The sort of literature that reduces a place to landmarks only, and coincidentally those with ticketed entries. The experience promoted is predictable, sterilised, and reduced to little short of a shopping excursion.
I also have a fear of being disorientated or lost, a perverse contradiction for someone who doesn’t like maps, but that is because I feel cities should be navigated by instinct. Our intuition or unconscious reasoning grounds us if we let it take hold, and we can move ourselves freely by sight, smells, momentum, spirit and curiosity.
My visit to Siena – an artistic merger of planned urban form and the surrounding landscape – was part of a Tuscany tour, a short loop including Cortona and Florence with a Perugian country house both serving as a port and retreat. It was a short break with temperamental weather. I arrived in Siena by car and parked in a peripheral location, the heavens opening as I alighted. It was not the moment to give up on the excursion, so I purchased a €10 tourist umbrella, passed through the wall and began to walk.
Siena’s Y-shaped urban form, deriving from its setting on three hills, set a precedent for many Italian cities The direction of travel was obvious, led generally by the direction of the tourists’ footfall in descent. As the rain intensified the tourists quickly got washed into the many cafes along the narrow streets.
I followed the direction of the water. Easy on my legs, my umbrella arm aching, the weather drawing me to the centre”
The city edges are made up of 17 ‘contrade’, or districts – beautiful haphazard clusters densely inhabited, predominantly brick, with cobbled streets, and doors and windows positioned according to necessity. Streets full of character, the overriding unity of material serving to amplify the paraphernalia defining residence – gardens, washing lines, post boxes, personalised entrances. The districts are indistinguishable in character or street hierarchy, but rather by a peripheral merger of roof and street in broken form.
The journey towards the city’s centre descends slowly, so there is an obvious and intuitive route. On this day I followed the direction of the water. Easy on my legs, my umbrella arm aching, the weather drawing me to the centre. I had the surreal sense of walking in axonometric, descending with roof and walls always visible in front of me, each vista terminating at a wall directing me towards the city’s heart.
Eventually an open vista. I had arrived in the valley at the Piazza del Campo, with the Fonte Gaia – a monumental fountain – right in front on me. So, I already understand the geography of the place and its evolution without a street or district name. I am not stressed, and I do not feel the pressure to absorb the city in tourist fragments. The city is easily read; its two tallest members – the Torre del Mangia, a civic bell tower, and the cathedral stand proud, competing for attention.
The Palazzo Pubblico – the town hall – was the obvious destination, the rain still teeming, tourists still sparse. How dare Italy rain? Inside, the clay and cobble is exchanged for decoration, beautiful fabrics and frills. Still in a slightly dreamy state I enter the Council Room. ‘The Allegory of Good and Bad Government’ by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, cinematically consumes the walls. It is a hugely important fresco with much academic and historic interpretation, produced in the fourteenth century as a series of predictions of the city. ‘The Effects of Good Government in the City’ catches my attention.
I was struck by the colours, the distorted perspective, the topology, the architectural detail, the characters, the positivity and the ease of reading. It was a moment of reinterpretation, of understanding what I had just navigated. I didn’t feel like I needed to know or see any more.