Andrew Lambirth

Strolling round Siena

Andrew Lambirth delights in this Tuscan hill town as he explores its countless treasures

Text settings

We were fortunate with the weather in Siena. At first it was warm enough to sit outside having a drink, a treat in early December, but then the temperature fell rapidly and freezing northerly winds buffeted the ancient edifices in this most compact and beautiful of Tuscan hill towns. The cold did not affect the passeggiata, the ritual evening perambulation, in which everyone takes part in order to see and be seen. In fact, there now seems to be no particular hour sacred to it - it takes place all day long and into the night, or did when we were in Siena, with different generations gossiping and strolling at different times of day. The only concession to the weather was the appearance of warm wraps (plenty of fur to be seen) and flannel overcoats for the pet dogs. (With so many dogs around, how are the streets in the centre kept so clean? What an example for tatty old London.)

The days were from then on cold but bright, with glorious blue skies and nights brilliant with stars and a waxing moon. From our hotel at the bottom of the town near the railway station, we ascended to the top of the town by a perfectly placed series of no fewer than five subterranean escalators, and emerged at the corner of the Piazza San Francesco. A basilica dedicated to St Francis dominates the square, its lofty brick fa'ade giving no indication of the distinctive grey-green horizontally striped walls within. (Painted, perhaps, in emulation of the gloriously striped marble of the Cathedral and Campa-nile?) The vast structure is echoingly empty apart from an elaborate crib and some superb frescoes by the Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro. In the side chapels we gazed in wonder at various scenes from the Franciscan narrative cycle ' martyrdom and conversion being the twin polarities of the day ' and at Pietro's extraordinary Crucifixion, painted on a shocking blood-red ground. This new naturalism was stern stuff.

One of the reasons for going to Siena at this time of year (apart from avoiding most of the tourists) was to see the large Duccio exhibition divided between the old hospital by the Cathedral, Santa Maria della Scala, and the Museo dell'Opera. The exhibition is on for only another week or two (it ends on 11 January), and from the crowds and queues when we visited, you'd be advised to book tickets beforehand if you've set your heart on seeing it. Actually, for me the whole experience was ruined by the extent of the crowds, and the brassy vociferousness of the tour guides, all women of a certain age, who never drew breath as they harangued equally and unstoppably the knowledgable and the ignorant. Too many small rooms choked with people, and too many comparative paintings by lesser masters ' such as Ugolino di Nerio and Segna di Bonaventura ' though the Lorenzettis and Simone Martinis are well worth seeing. Also the sculpture of Gano di Fazio, a contemporary of Giovanni Pisano, previously unknown to me.

'The Maest'', or 'Virgin and Christ Child Enthroned in Majesty with Angels and Saints', is a huge polyptych painted in tempera and gold leaf on panel for the high altar of the Cathedral (1308'11). It is Duccio's masterpiece, but was dismantled in 1771. Most of it is now kept in the Museo dell'Opera, and perhaps because more familiar was less mobbed by visitors. The narrative scenes, originally painted on the reverse of the altarpiece and intended for the amusement or enlightenment of the clergy who alone were privileged to see them, are now separated from the parent panel, and repay careful study. Here can be seen to full advantage Duccio's powers of invention, his delicacy and precision of drawing, his gift for narrative and his emotional range. Deftly applied colour and pattern come together to create innovative naturalistic effects. A master at work.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (first recorded 1278, probably died 1319), to give him his full name, is celebrated as the founder of the Sienese School, though it's quite possible that the school's roots in Byzantine art went in fact more directly to the source. In the 'crypt' of the Cathedral, fragments of frescoes possibly dating to the 1270s have recently been discovered ' the chambers having previously been filled with earth to prop up the building above. In fact, it's not properly speaking a crypt, being more likely a pilgrims' vestibule or gathering place. And what colours ' such blues and oranges! There's quite a lot of geometry on view here (particularly beautiful abstract decoration on a surviving column and capital), stylised expressiveness and even some Greek lettering on a Madonna and Child. Could not these frescoes be the work of an itinerant Byzantine artist who found his way to the city? The debate remains open.

There's so much else to see on a brief visit: the Basilica of St Catherine and the Dominicans, which despite the most hideously disfiguring modern stained glass contains good work by Matteo and Benvenuto di Giovanni, either side of a Maest' by Guido da Siena; the seashell grandeur of the campo in front of the seemingly cardboard cut-out castellated fa'ade of the Palazzo Pubblico (and within the astonishing glories of Ambrogio Lorenzetti's great allegory 'The Well-Governed City' and Simone Martini's recently restored Maest' of 1312'5, both of which we were able to examine uninterrupted ' a considerable luxury after the Duccio exhibition); the great, bright cycle of frescoes by Pintoricchio for the Piccolomini Library in the Cathedral, his second most famous work after his luxurious decorations for the Borgia apartments in the Vatican, full of good figure and landscape effects, with a particularly fine storm scene and a rainbow arching out of smoky clouds; and then there's the gorgeously decorated Baptistry, with famous reliefs by Donatello and Ghiberti, and poignant predella panels by Giovanni di Paolo.

Yet if I had to single out one painting which particularly moved me it would be the 'Madonna del Bordone' by Coppo di Marcovaldo, dating to 1261, in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi on the south-eastern flanks of the city. More than 25 years ago I wrote my first art-history essay ever on Coppo as an important proto-Renaissance figure (I think I ended up comparing him to Stanley Spencer). It was very good to renew our acquaintance in so much more friendly a context.