Three years ago, I had the good fortune to be in Siena, touring with fellow architecture students. After seeing various neighborhoods and churches, we visited the famous Palazzo Pubblico, the historic seat of the government of that historic city. Inside the palazzo is the masterpiece fresco, The Effects of Good Government (with its complement, The Effects of Bad Government). The painting sits on the walls of the council chamber and was intended as a lesson and warning for the men holding office in Renaissance Siena: today it helps us understand the values and perspectives of their culture.
Good Government shows a city that looks very much like Siena with the figure of the good ruler surrounded by representations of the virtues. The painting shows all of the citizens working hard at their trades – it is an industrious city with no laziness or vice. In addition to showing the city itself, Good Government deliberately demonstrates that the city is situated in a bountiful landscape. Clearly, the artist thought one of the effects of (and possibly conditions for) good government is harmony between the city and its countryside.
Walking upstairs from the council chamber, I reached a large and gracious loggia (a sort of balcony partially enclosed by grand columns) and the fresco of Good Government began to make more sense. From the loggia I could look out at the countryside receding into the horizon, and like a fourteenth century Sienese artist, I could see the harmonious relationship between the city and its agrarian landscape. For centuries, the elite of Siena, councilors, bishops, and Signori, enjoyed the same view. Sometimes, no doubt, the scenery was frightening, and it showed how closely roamed outlaws, wild beasts, or even an enemy army. But there must have been many times when the effects of the good government of Siena were clearly visible from the loggia where I stood.
The view was beautiful, the architecture inspiring, and the history engaging, but as lunchtime came, it was time to turn my attention to other matters. I joined two classmates, Philip and Peter, and we wandered off to find a place to eat.
Siena is shaped like an up-side-down Y, the three arms as the sites of three Terzi, or districts of the city, which are joined in the middle by the central plaza, Piazza del Campo. The Campo, the site of Siena’s famous Palio horserace, is at the heart of the city geographically, but if you walk down a street to the south, you quickly come upon the city’s boundary. The Palazzo Pubblico sits along one edge of the campo, and so, though we began our walk at the city center, we soon were descending a road into what appeared to be a garden just beyond the city.
It wasn’t a complete accident that we were walking out of Siena. We had started off by looking for a restaurant rumored to be on the edge of the city, but as we walked, Peter and I were separated from Philip and began looking for him. When we finally sighted him, he was walking down the hill, and so, before I knew it, I too was in the garden, getting farther away from any chance of lunch.
Calling the place a garden might be a little misleading. While there were some beds of flowers, it was more like a small farm, with vegetables and rows of fruit trees set in a small green valley. There was even a chicken pen and coop with goats grazing around it. Once again, Peter and I had lost track of Philip and so gave up finding him, preferring instead to enjoy the change of landscape. We approached a brick building, the only building, which seemed to be a farmhouse of some sort. As we rounded the corner, we were surprised to see a beautiful patio covered by an arbor, and tables set for dining. And there, perusing a menu, sat Philip. He looked up nonchalantly and invited us to join him.
The hand-written menus suggested there was no fixed selection, but each day the chef chose something new based on what food was fresh and available. As we enjoyed soups and pastas, we realized the produce was all grown in the garden surrounding us. The food was simple but excellent, the wine was good, the conversation memorable and the price surprisingly low. We noticed that the waiter and chef sat down with large party sitting behind us.
Other people at the table were dressed in the coveralls of the city street cleaners, and one man kept the livestock that was grazing nearby. He kept jumping up to drive the goats back to the pen. These were all local workers, citizens of Siena, like those in the fresco of Good Government.
Slowly I began to realize the whole experience in the garden was straight out of the painting in the palazzo. We were enjoying the harmony between the city and the countryside that is depicted in Good Government. At the same time, though the garden was pleasant and fruitful, it was hardly the open farmland of Tuscany. Rather, this was a transitional area, mediating between Siena and the country. The garden was surrounded by two of the city’s hills, with only a narrow valley leading to the farms beyond. It was as if Siena had embraced a piece of the countryside, tamed it, and then used it as the go-between with the countryside. This similar to another common feature of cities: a harbor. Harbors form the mediating zone between the sea and the city. Even the shape is similar, for a harbor usually looks as if the city had reached out the two sides to frame the bay. The garden in Siena, though not a part of the rolling plains fading into the distance, was a domesticated piece of countryside, and as such, helped to bring about the harmonious relationship of the city to its surrounding landscape.
In the time since that day, I have enjoyed thinking about that lunch and the serendipitous discovery of the restaurant. It was clear to me that it was experiencing the perfect balance of the city and the country that made the occasion so memorable. What is more difficult to understand is why I felt the balance so strongly there and not in hundreds of other places. Was it just a combination of good food, good talk, a nice setting, and an allegorical painting to put it all into perspective? Or is there something about the place, something physical that actually makes Siena special?
While Siena shares characteristics with many other cities, what makes Siena outstanding is the way it articulates the relationship between the city and the country. (Later walks along the northern edge of the city revealed a decline in the built environment: the unfortunate phenomenon of Italian sprawl. However, most of the city retains its historic form, and that part is what makes the city exemplary). The people who live in Siena enjoy the best a city can offer, without being far removed from the best of the country. Unlike a typical American suburb, Siena does not blend the two together to form a hybrid environment, but it allows both to exist in their purity. As a result, the city requires less than it would take to accommodate the same number of people in suburbia. Because it is small and compact, there are churches around every corner and shops and restaurants down every street. A concentrated city means a concentrated investment, and so public and private funds can either be used more sparingly or used to achieve a greater result as demonstrated by the beauty of the architecture and the public spaces.
In a small city, the countryside is never far away. Because Siena limits itself to a compact area, it allows the countryside to remain intact: the city does not consume it. A trip to the farmland does not require a vacation but can be accomplished in an after-dinner stroll. With so much agriculture so close, the city can more easily depend on its immediate environs for fresh food than it could if it had supplanted the farms and banished them to other regions. As the interest in locally grown food increases, Siena is positioned to be a step ahead of the curve.
The proximity of the city center to the city edge brings into sharp focus the lessons of the compact city and makes it a textbook example of the relationship of urban to rural. In Siena, the two environments sit side by side, not separated by the flood of suburbia. The suburbs are usually considered (by both advocates and opponents) to be an attempt to have the best of the city with the best of the countryside while incurring none of the negatives. The garden I found at the edge of Siena was a much more blissful place than any suburb I’ve ever seen because it was used as a transition, a means of passing from one to the other, and not a hybrid of the urban and rural. It had its own character and so reinforced the respective character of the city and the country it joined. It was not residual, leftover land, but an intentional gateway between two distinct environments and a way in which the city stays in harmony with the surrounding land.
In America, we often hear two contradictory messages. The first is usually something like, “We are the most advanced society: we can do anything”. The other goes, “That’s very nice for them, but you just can’t do that here”. When it comes to places like Siena, people will tell you it would not be feasible in our society or with the twenty-first century market. Well, why not? Is our culture, with all of its achievement, incapable of going toe to toe with the Middle Ages? But if ability is not the issue, is it that we are unwilling to make such a place today? Is Siena a step down from Houston, Phoenix or Charlotte? Does it compare poorly to your local subdivision, outlet mall, or big box retailer?
There is a long tradition of considering a city as a work of art, like a church, painting, or sculpture. In fact, cities are called the most important cultural artifacts of a society. Seen in this light, the people who built Siena deserve our respect and emulation. So do the people who built Boston, San Francisco, and other big cities and small towns all across America. However, more recently, we have built very little to be remembered. It is not because cities like Siena aren’t good enough for us today or because we aren’t good enough to make them. We are capable of making great places and grate places are worth making. And that is really the most important part – it is not about ensuring that history praises us for our innovative city designs but about making great places so that we can live well – now. That is what the Sienese understood so well, and that was what made my adventure in their city perfect.
Will Dowdy works in the trenches of architecture and urban design, trying to make livable places and beautiful cities in Northern California. He lives with his wife and daughters in Chico, CA. He is an alumnus of Notre Dame and Thomas Aquinas College, and a native of Western Massachusetts.
Credits: the article originally appeared in Catholic Men’s Quarterly – www.cifundraiser.com