Lucky me. I’m artist-in-residence at the Siena Art Institute in Italy, for the month of June. I accepted this residency (turn it down? are you kidding?) for multiple reasons—because it gives me the chance to immerse myself in Sienese painting (which, like most artists, I love), because it generates an intensity in making my own art that can only come about when I’m pushed by an end date, because it lets me escape the quotidian patterns of my own life in New York and see if something exciting and new happens out of that, and finally, because I get to taste once again what a real, non-Monsanto tomato tastes like.
Since last Friday, I’ve been ensconced in a beautiful top-floor apartment (a healthful climb of 103 steps) in the center of the old city. My studio is located but a 10-minute walk from here, within the Institute itself. From the window in the apartment near where I sit typing, I have a clear view of the black-and white striped Duomo and its black-and-white tower (Siena’s colors are black and white), rising proudly above the red-tiled roofs of old Siena’s hundreds of huddled brick buildings.
Siena is the city where one of the greatest experiments in republican government took place. It is hard for me to miss the irony in being here at the moment when my own country is entering an election in which powerful, wealthy corporations and individuals, and SuperPACs, with the blessing of the Supreme Court of the United States, have wrested political power from ordinary citizens. Long ago, in the 13th century, Siena faced the same problem we face in America today: how to weigh the welfare of ordinary citizens against monied interests. In 1287, after seizing power from the feudal lords and bishops, Sienese citizens set up the most radical of the self-governing city-state republics in Italy. For a brief but incandescent moment—the moment when the deeply populist, vernacular Sienese art would flourished—Siena exercised such responsible self-government that its citizens actually thought it good.
From 1287 to 1355 Siena found a way to solve the tensions among its classes. It was ruled by the “commune” consisting of “The Nine”—a group of governors chosen by lottery from among the general populace, who served in rotation for two months, and then left office, ineligible to return for about two years. This complex system was an attempt to defend the state against the domination of any small group or class. Its balanced communal approach to governing led to a situation in which neither the rich and monied classes (landowners and bankers) nor the middle class (merchants, small traders and artisans) dominated. It was a compromise that led to a city where commerce and art both flourished, and where the way of life celebrated vernacular, middle-class values.
My apartment happens to be just a few streets away from the Piazza del Campo. The Piazza was founded during the commune as the city’s place of “peace,” where no one could bear arms, nurse babies, or eat figs. (Go figure that last one.) In his travel journal, Montaigne called this piazza “the most beautiful in Italy.” The Palazzo Pubblico (what we would call the “Town Hall”) is set at the bottom of the Campo. Its very shape and setting offer an architectural expression of the Sienese communal experiment. The piazza is shaped like a large half shell, but most important, it slopes gently downward toward the Palazzo, which is built with a gently curved facade. Most government buildings in most cities and states are imposing edifices, often set atop a hill. This building, located at the bottom of the city’s broad and sloping public plaza, welcomes all of its citizens.
Had the plague not struck in 1348, wiping out almost half the city’s population, Siena might have continued to flourish. That great catastrophe, however, led to Siena’s permanent decline. By 1450, Siena had become a subject of larger, despotic Florence. But the Piazza del Campo and the Palazzo Pubblico remain to remind us of the wonder of those 70 years of the Siena commune. There’s a combination of political humility and visual beauty in this unusual public space that I wish, with all my heart, we had in the United States.
Return to Top