It seemed fitting for today’s “Postcards” to explore one of the oldest and most popular pilgrim routes to originate in the Middle Ages, connecting Canterbury to the Eternal City. Known as the Via Francigena, it transits the North and South of Europe passing through France, the land of the Franks, hence its name. I like to think of it as the Medieval Route 66!
At various times, I have walked portions of this pilgrim route that passes through the heart of Italy and reveals a trove of artistic, cultural and natural treasures. It is a different pace of traveling—and a wonderful way to rediscover and appreciate the value of slowness, deliberation and simplicity.
We begin today south of Lucca in the charming village of San Miniato al Tedesco with its scenic panoramas.
No worries about getting lost, the route is well marked with various sorts of signage!
Our next town is San Gimignano, best known for its iconic skyline of tower houses owned by the wealthy families who errected them as symbols of their wealth and power. Although only 14 have survived, San Gimignano has retained its feudal atmosphere and appearance. The town also has several masterpieces of 14th- and 15th-century Italian art.
Here are some highlights.
This is an unusual secular fresco of a married couple sharing a warm bath in an antechamber of the Sala Dante in the Town Hall, now a civic museum.
Here are some frescoes from the city’s cathedral located next door— scenes from the passion and a fresco depicting the Martyrdom of Saint Sabastian.
The town is tiny but has some marvelous restaurants with breathtaking views of vineyards growing Vernaccia di San Gimignano … with its characteristic bright, crisp and citrusy flavor.
As we walk further south, the charming walled castle of Monteriggione elegantly dominates the surrounding landscape. The castle was built by the Sienese between 1213 and 1219 for defensive purposes, serving as a lookout for any approaching armies.
Which brings us to Siena, not only home of the famous Palio horse race, but also some of Italy’s most dazzling artistic treasures. The Republic of Siena existed for over 400 years, from 1125 to 1555. Helped by its location along the Francigena it was one of the major economic powers of the Middle Ages and one of the most important commercial, financial and artistic centers in all of Europe, initially eclipsing Florence. A combination of economic decline, sparked by the Black Death, and political instability led to its annexation by rival Florence.
Here is the Duomo.
Its zebra-striped columns accentuate the sense of height grandeur .
To the left of the entrance of the cathedral you will see a separate entrance to the Piccolomini Library. Piccolomini was a noble Sienese family that produced two popes. The library was built by Cardinal Francesco Tedeschini Piccolomini, archbishop of Siena (later Pope Pius III), around 1492 to honor the memory of uncle Enea Silvio Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) and to preserve the rare books and illuminated manuscripts that the pope and humanist had collected.
These eye-candy frescoes and ceiling were painted with a wealth of enameled colors, accentuated by golden pastille inserts, by Pinturicchio and his workshop (1503-1508), depicting ten episodes relating to life and pontificate of Pius II.
The one the Cathedral’s most extraordinary treasures is its spectacular inlaid marble mosaic floor—described by Giorgio Vasari as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made.” Crafted by about forty artists and artisans between the 14th and 16th centuries, the 56 panels that constitute the floor vary in size and shape and are made mainly with two different techniques: graffito (tiny holes and cutting lines created in the marble and then filled with black stucco and mineral pitch) and marble intarsia (black, white, green, red and blue marble employed in much the same manner as wood inlaying). Most of the year the floors are covered but they can be viewed between mid-August and the end of October.
Housed in the nearby Cathedral Museum—Museo dell’Opera—are works of art created for the cathedral including sculptures by Giovanni Pisano, Donatello and Jacopo della Quercia, and painted masterpieces by Duccio, including his Maestà altarpiece, among other Sienese treasures.
From the Museum, there are great views of the surrounding countryside and the scallop-shaped Piazza del Campo.
The Palazzo Pubblico was the seat of Siena’s government. Nearly every major room contains frescoes, unusual for the time since they were commissioned the city rather than by the Church or by a religious fraternity. They are also unusual in that many depict secular instead of religious subjects
The most famous of the secular frescoes are in the Hall of the Nine (the Republic’s governing body) painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and known as The Allegory of Good and Bad Government.
Here are portions from both the “good” and “bad” government frescoes.
Tyranny is personified as a devil with fangs.
Leaving Siena we head to the Italy’s largest inland body of water, Lake Bolsena, a super deep volcanic lake about 10 miles outside of Orvieto.
Orvieto’s magnificent cathedral houses a relic related to a miracle that took place in the town of Bolensa. In 1263 a pilgrim priest, Peter of Prague, stopped in Bolsena and said mass in a small church. When he consecrated the host it began to bleed on the corporal— the small cloth upon which the host and chalice rest during the mass. The appearance of blood was seen as a miracle affirming the doctrine of transubstantiation— that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Today the Corporal of Bolsena is preserved at the Orvieto Cathedral.
Approaching Rome, we arrive in the town of Viterbo, another medieval gem. It is best known for being the seat of the papacy for two decades during the 13th century and for hosting the longest papal election (or conclave) in the history of the Catholic Church during this time, lasting nearly three years. The city is also known for its thermal springs that have been celebrated for centuries.
At last we arrive in Rome. Pilgrims often include visits to Rome’s “other” cathedrals. Here is Saint Paul Outside the Wall, built on the site where the saint was martyred.
Here are two “postcards” from Santa Maria Maggiore, whose mosaics never cease to astonish me.
Final we approach Saint Peter’s, the pilgrimage route’s ultimate destination, crossing the Ponte Sant’Angelo with its Via Crucis sculpted by Bernini.
And here is Bernini’s immense colonnade in Saint Peter’s Square that receives pilgrims, and all visitors, in what he described as “the welcoming arms of Mother Church.”
As we enter, we see one of the finest works of Baroque sculpture, the Baldacchino di San Pietro—a large Baroque canopy sculpture in bronze that marks the tomb of St. Peter, situated below.
And finally, the Throne of Saint Peter a wooden relic that belonged to the apostle and first pope. The relic is enclosed in a sculpted gilt bronze casing designed by Bernini.
Even today’s secular “pilgrims”—both locals and tourists—cannot help but be moved and transformed by the miraculous sites along the glorious Via Francigena.