Churches and ponies

Duomo of Siena
Duomo of Siena

There are churches that are overwhelming or impressive or quiet and holy. I wanted to write about Siena’s Duomo, Romanesque-gothic and striped inside and out, but before I had the chance, we are in Florence and in that city’s duomo. A comparison is striking although the both were built as shows of powerful cities. I forgot that there is no internal foyer in Siena. You step through the doors and you are engulfed, enmeshed, given over to the overstimulation that is that church. There is no calm surface to rest eyes-wall, ceiling, floor all cry out for attention. I find it hard to focus, almost hard to breathe. It is like drinking far too much, like an intense and almost painful love at first sight, like the dessert of an already over-rich meal that cannot be refused. Is this what it feels like to be unable to filter priorities? Is this an autistic-like experience for the typically minded? It is glorious and debilitating. I don’t know if anyone else feels thee same way about the place. I felt it 30 years ago and again two days ago. I don’t think I could comfortably worship a deity or sit in meditation in that place but it makes an impression like nothing else. I love it and find it amazingly uncomfortable.

We did a tour inside the Duomo has only existed for three years. We were escorted up a winding stairway that is concealed behind a painted door at the main entrance to the Duomo. This was a passage once reserved for those who worked on the building and decorations. We walked high over the floor between the outside and inside walls and were able to look at both the inside of the church and the roofs of Siena at a few points. Both views were breath taking. Seeing the church from so high above put the decoration in context for me. It also removed me a little from the stimulation of the surround of the Duomo and I could see.

The Duomo of Florence is different. Truthfully, for me, every other church in the world is different from Siena’s Duomo. Again, the church is a statement of political, business and cultural power. (Imagine paintings of Donald Trump and Mayor de Blasio in St. Patrick’s) and by comparison to Siena, Florence’s Duomo is a huge bare cavern that is sparsely decorated. Paintings and statues are certainly lovely but each is placed a respectful distance from its neighbor. I especially like the picture of Dante amid the description of his most famous work. But the paintings are more likely to be of significant leaders of guilds or generals than saints.
However! Moving up the nave and reaching the space under the altar an incredible dome opens up. It’s beauty and detail made more precious and surprising by the grey stone that is the inside of the cathedral. I did not remember this dome at all and wondered why until someone mentioned that it was restored for 15 years beginning in 1984 . So, either I saw the unrestored dome or the work had just begun (much like we saw the unrestored Sistine chapel. They were just starting restoration when we were there in ’84.). Now, it seems like a surprise and a delight. I am fascinated by all the ceiling art. Too bad we don’t do some of it now. Even in the convent where we are staying, the ceilings of the common rooms were painted long ago with decorations. Perhaps I should start a style.

It is mid afternoon of our first full day in Florence and hot. Very hot. A wonderful tour of the palace del vechio behind secret doors and up hidden stairs plus the general tour of richly decorated rooms filled with painting, frescos and ceiling paintings kept us busy until one. The tour is billed as for children and indeed the kids on the tour enjoyed it but the small secret rooms, hidden panels and doors and rich history that the guide delivers is certainly not just for kids.

I think of our culture as one of indulgence in stimulation. Movie chase scenes and what to me is gratuitous violence everywhere in the media, rides in amusement parks that spin faster, drop from higher heights and a myriad of ways to enhance the frightening experience that are always being ‘improved.’ But all of that are just the vehicles for stimulation in our time. 500, 800 and 900 years ago the rich and powerful had painted, etched, engraved and molded decorations in homes and churches that were similarly stimulating. Have humans always chased intense stimulation? And why?

We went to lunch and I indulged in my own order of pasta for the first time this trip. After that we should have gone back to the convent for a nap.

However, we pressed on.

The Pitti Palace’s costume gallery and Boboli Gardens. The costumes were worth our pushing ourselves but it is too hot to see the gardens and we’ve reached tourist overload. We are sitting in the shade, Julia drawing, me tapping, hoping for energy and a breeze. At the moment neither is assured. Perhaps I should snap a picture and call it a day.

We sat in the shade for a long time.

Two lovely kindnesses happened today. Yesterday, we passed a fashionable store that had a display of very fashionable dresses on manikins posed next to big stuffed My Little Ponies. The store was decorated in many different sized ponies. We went in but I felt uncomfortable. Clearly, this was not a toy store and they were trying to close. Julia wanted her picture taken in the store but the pictures did not look very good. So that night I promised that we would go back to the store. Julia wanted pictures and she wanted to buy one of the army of tiny plastic ponies that were displayed with jewelry. Today, I could not find the store, the street that it was on or the the place that we were trying to get to when we found the store. We walked up and down long street in the extreme heat, hoping to find it again. After a terrifically long time, I needed to give up. It was time to eat and our water bottles were empty. Julia was not happy but she didn’t want to walk further either. We passed a fancy toy store and I thought we might ask there. Explaining that we did not want t buy pony stuff in the toy store and had no a clear idea of what we were looking for, the staff of three tried to help. They may have been calling me crazy in Italian but they kept smiling. Finally, one of them remembered that there was a special fund raiser going on. Designers were invited to ‘dress’ ponies that would eventually be auctioned off for some worthy cause. The sales person remembered the store and directed us there. Just that much was miraculous.

We got to the store just after it closed. Julia was disappointed but I promised we could go the next day now that we knew where it was. Someone who worked in the store was standing there and listened to us. He assured Julia that she could visit the next day. I knew that she wanted to buy a pony and I thought I would ask if that was possible so I could prep her for the answer. He was not sure but thought not. Julia gave a big sigh. He told us to wait and he would find out for sure. He went back in and we saw him chatting with one of the high fashion sales staff. She looked us over and he talked some more. She then opened one of the jewelry cases and extracted a pony and our friend brought it out to Julia who was overjoyed. The frustrating search had a happy ending.


Later in the evening, we walked to a pizza restaurant that had been recommended. I had not thought f making a reservation for a pizza place but clearly one was needed here. The hostess was turning away parties of 6 and 3 and 4. I was in line for a refusal and so thought I would just ask. When I did, she said to wait and she would find us a table. Which she did in about 15 minutes apologizing that it took her so long. The pizza was very good and the kindness ….

2 thoughts on “Churches and ponies

  1. Suzanne, thank you for taking me along in your backpack. I have loved every minute.

    Curious — how did Julia react to the overkill of design inside the Duomo of Siena?

    1. Thank you so much for coming along. I have needed the company! Julia took the visual stimulation in stride. No negative reaction at all.. In Florence, however, the crowds of people, narrow sidewalks and traffic in the pedestrian only parts of the city were hard. In Uffizi, she was not able to take in some of the most popular works due to crowding. Drawing breaks and the audio tour head phones helped some.

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