the architecture and layout of siena -- 4/7/19

Today's selection -- from A Month In Siena by Hisham Matar. The author comments on the architecture and layout of Siena, the modest building exteriors contrasting with elaborate interiors, and Siena's world-famous town center, the Piazza del Campo:

"The play of understated exteriors and magnificent in­teriors, of calm serenity on the outside and deliberate care and thoughtfulness on the inside, of a modest or moderate face concealing a fervent heart, is a Sienese habit, a magic trick the city likes to perform. It does this not only out of the desire to surprise but also, I felt during those early days, to demonstrate the transformative possibility of crossing a threshold. We often never think of this, of how our sense of being is subtly changed by walking into even the most inconsequential of buildings or transitioning from one room to the next. In our age we have come to underestimate architecture by exaggerating its utility. We often think of buildings not as spaces where human life takes shape, but rather as sites for certain functions and activities. Siena resists this. It is as though the wall that encircles the city like a ribbon is as much a physical bound­ary as it is a spiritual veil. It is there to keep out invading armies but also to keep in and intensify Siena's sense of itself. Independence here is not merely a political concern, but a spiritual and philosophical one, aligned with the sov­ereignty of spirit, with the right to exist in accordance with one's own nature as well as the need not to lose sight of the self. ...

"The twisting lanes meandered with their own secret pur­pose, governed less by a town planner's master plan than a spontaneous temperament. Or so Siena led you to believe, until you suddenly reach its crescendo, which lay at the kernel of itself, a square like no other, the Piazza del Campo, simply referred to by the Sienese as 'Il Campo.' This is where Siena reaches the middle of itself, where it pours out completely. But here also is its source. This is the end and the beginning, the location of the twin tides, de­clared in the open. And it was as though Diana and I had entered a space that was ours, one in which we had all along been anticipated and where, we suspected, once we left we would continue to be expected. Isn't this at least one definition of happiness, I thought, to be anticipated? But, of course, it was not ours alone. Here we had to keep our manners and perhaps even our wits about us. No mat­ter where we were in the square, we were able to see the entire place. Not one person was hidden. This strange ef­fect was made possible by Il Campo's unusual fanning shape and by the way the ground dips dramatically toward the long side where the civic and secular heart of the city, the Palazzo Pubblico, raises its tower high to compensate for the hill and achieve its ultimate goal, which is to be the tallest building in the city, taller than any church. It was as if l had become, by simply walking into the square, an all­seeing eye. But, because I could see every person in the square, this meant that each of them could potentially see me too. It was a space of mutual exposure. Whatever it is that creates that elusive bond between strangers taking ac­count of one another in a public space was present here but in such a criss-crossing of currents that the whole place seemed electrified. And so, although we had entered a recess, a sort of giant pit, Il Campo also appeared, like a lit-up stage, to be suspended. To cross it is to take part in a centuries-old choreography, one meant to remind all solitary beings that it was neither good nor possible to exist entirely alone."



Hisham Matar


A Month in Siena


Random House


Copyright 2019 by Hisham Matar


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