Every medieval city had its castle – a dense shadow with pennants bearing complex ancestries and windows shaped like black crosses. Yet at the same time these cities distanced themselves from such symbols with cathedrals. Reaching high enough to touch the throne of God, built on such a scale that buttresses were needed to hold up man’s holy ambition – they proclaimed a population’s declaration of worthiness and hope for salvation.
The Cathedral of Siena is a 13th century design of pinnacles and portals, of lunettes rising over pediments; carved with Gothic mysteries and biblical fears and promises. Granite philosophers, apostles and gargoyles observed from carved recesses the developing city below them; the peculiar route of history it would take.
According to legend, Siena was founded by Remus’ sons, Senius and Aschius. When they left Rome, they rode horses that thundered through myth and across the dry plains of central Italy. The symbolic colors of the city were taken from the flanks of their horses – one black and one white – and are seen on the marble flanks of the cathedral.
By 1263 construction on this monument to belief and legend was finished. A countryside of domes, towers and columns had finally come together in a Gothic wish for earthly deliverance. In 1339 further building was planned, which was to begin in 1348. But it didn’t. All that remains is a striped shell; there is no ceiling to be carved and gilded; the windows were not blessed with stained glass: there were no miraculous births of colored light.
1348 was the year of the plague, the Black Death. What began as a rumor of pestilence fouling the silk and spice routes of China, Lepanto and Egypt, became reality as trade ships came to port in Europe, bearing caches of a ferocious invader. No one blamed the rats living in the dark corners of the ships. No one blamed the streets streaming with filth. They blamed the devil, sowing disease across Europe like an awful crop. They blamed an angry God, not impressed with their cathedrals. They blamed the sins of man. They blamed the Jews.
Siena Cathedral was never finished. But do the microbes continue to live – taking sanctuary in a web of breathing spaces within the marble? Are they suspended, caught like tiny dinosaurs in amber? Do they circulate within the architecture, worlds of bacteria that had changed man’s world – his way of living? Is it suitable imprisonment – or is it life – or is it proof of a terrifying history?