Thursday, May 14, 2015

The towers of Siena

One April I cycled to Siena, the rose-red gothic metropolis of central Tuscany that, of all the many beautiful medieval cities in Italy, is perhaps the most beautiful.

I arrived from Florence. In that city, apparently, they have a traditional proverb about Siena:

Di tre cose e piena:
Torri, campane,
E figge di putane.

I shall leave it untranslated. Let it be a warning to anyone here who’s thinking of visiting this most charming of Italian cities. It should also be a warning about Florence. For a city that for 500 years has prided itself on speaking the purest Italian (except Siena, see below), and producing the best poets (or at least Dante, who counts as more than one), you’d think they’d be able to come up with something better.

Or maybe the point is to express maximum contempt with the least possible effort. I lived in Toronto for a long time, and it makes me wonder: are there poets in Hamilton or Windsor right now, sharpening their pens?

Back to Siena. Norman Douglas summed it up in one word: "hell." I can only say that of all cities I’ve visited, except Venice, it is the most beautiful. Now if only we could get rid of the Senese, who profit from the immigrant labour of southern italy, but refuse to speak to the labourers. Or so I was told by an indignant Sicilian I met on Via Fiorentina.

In Siena they speak, tourist books claim, the most pure and refined Italian to be found in the country, but I’m sceptical. Someplace or another has to have a title like this one, but why is it always a town full of money and visibly smug in its affluence? But this is just predjudice on my part. My command of the language is not sufficient to enable me to judge for myself. All I can say is that in Siena Italian is much easier to understand than in the Veneto, and that here all the women enunciate every letter in ciao, stretching the word out so that it rhymes with meow, like a cat. It’s an enchanting habit.

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