Monday, July 20, 2009

Monteriggioni's History & Magic

Monteriggioni is a pretty special place, by all accounts. Only a lovely 12-kilometer walk north of Siena, on a well-marked path through the forest, punctuated by information signs along the way indicating historic events and monuments of yore, it’s a gem that’s endured 800 centuries. Like a piece of coal that’s undergone extreme heat and pressure to become a diamond, Monteriggioni has extracted itself from its militant beginning to something to be treasured as priceless today.

The via francigena began as a military road - and what a great story this is… - Julius Caesar: “Build me a road to the North Sea,” he told his road engineers when he became leader of Europe, “I’m going for that rock on the opposite shore.” Those orders were bellowed in 58 BC and in 55 BC he succeeded in his goal. That road, because they all led to Rome in his day, was dubbed the via francigena, the road originating in the land of the Franks.

Skipping ahead, Sigeric, a 10th-century Saxon monk, walked the same route in the year 990 on his way to and from Rome to pick up his Archbishop stuff to take up his new post in Canterbury Cathedral. It was still the primary north-south conduit through Europe. The blessed little guy left a travel journal behind, naming all of the places where he stayed. Today, the via francigena is not so much a paved path as a list of all of his way places, identifying the route originated by Jules. How colourful a story is this?! There are still many many miles of the original Roman road to walk on… the actual paving stones that Jules and his troops marched along… huh. It’s the route that Hannibal took on his way to destroy Rome and that, much later, Napoleon took to conquer Italy. Lot’s of action along this path… did Jules have any idea of what he created? Go figure.

Skipping ahead a couple of more centuries, business and trade associations were getting pretty influential and caused a lot of significant cultural evolutions - not to mention a sideline of art and architecture as the rich guys felt competitively compelled to outdo their rivals - and so the big towns of Tuscany became enormous merchant centers based along the via francigena, still the main trade route between northern and southern Europe. The exhibition of their rivalries can only be described as a guy thing, but Monteriggioni resulted from a rivalry between wealthy Sienese merchant/brigands and wealthy Florentine merchant/brigands.

Siena fortified the hamlet on the hill known as the ‘round mountain’ with an incredible encircling wall with 13 towers, with one gate opening to the south, toward Siena, and the other, more difficult approach, to the north, toward Florence. The purpose of this militant action was ostensibly to protect the merchants travelling with their wares along the via francigena, but there’s an argument put forth by the local monks of nearby Abbadia Isola that the hamlet wasn’t rightfully theirs to begin with, so in effect, they were no more than invaders and occupiers. Whatever. It’s history now.

The fortified castle hamlet wasn’t a stopover of Sigeric the Archbishop/monk - as it didn’t yet exist, and Sigeric walked right by the conical hill of the countryside and stayed with the boys at the Abbadia (abbey) not ever seeing the unique towered architecture that was to come. It was a thriving place when Dante did his thing in Florence a few centuries afterwards. He wrote about it in the Inferno, deservedly so, being built for defensive purposes and with a sullied history and all.

When I arrived a few weeks ago, the village was in the midst of its annual Medieval Festival, in which the defining battle between Siena and Florence is re-enacted, complete with jousting, troubadours, and pigs on the spit. Lots of fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. Every year, a few dozen actors play various Medieval roles for days (and take over the pilgrim house, I can add without much glee). I spoke with the guys portraying pilgrims of the day, sporting scallop shells instead of crossed keys and living out a stereotype rather than the real thing. They didn’t even know real pilgrims still exist! Actors!

In the late afternoon, I sit in the crypt of the diminutive church of Santa Maria Assunta, built at the time the walls of the town were raised - 1213, and await pilgrims. There’s a small exhibit about the via francigena for tourists to enjoy while simultaneously benefiting from the coolest place in the village - I mean cool as in temperature… the thick-walled crypt is on the east side of the church, below the altar, and because the town is the crown of a hill, every entry floor from the square, has a floor below it that walks out to the gardens interior to the wall. Such is the crypt, with north- and east-facing windows, well lit, but well protected from the sun and the heat of the summer day - hot hot hot, too, in July (I don’t know how any pilgrim can survive in this heat!) But the crypt is cool and bright, isn’t at all creepy, and has an enjoyable little exhibit along with some religious and secular hand-crafted items for sale to raise funds for missionaries in the Philippines and Brazil.

In English, French, and German, and still oh-so-pathetic Italian, I’m here to share with tourists the rich history of the via francigena and what it is to be a modern pilgrim. When pilgrims arrive, I greet them, help in any way I can, and later prepare them a simple Tuscan dinner from the local gardens, supplemented by the local Co-op. This hamlet, presently with 24 inhabitants, has greeted pilgrims since its origins, and the current priest, Don Doriano, has a colossal and genuine passion for the tradition to continue.

1 comment:

Rita said...

Very nice little history indeed. I have been to both Sienna and Florence, but missed Monteriffioni and the lovely 12 km walk you talked about. I will be sure to put it on my long list of places I must see and walks I must take.
Thank You