Siena and Tuscany: A Tour From Florence

While I was in Florence I did a couple of tours with Walks of Italy: their day long tour of the city and its museums and the day trip out to Siena, San Gimignano and a gaggle of Tuscan wineries. That trip had several photo locations that are worth mentioning.

The trip, like everything Walks of Italy does, was nicely organized. We all met at the Piazza della Repubblica and got to know each other. This was a 2 van group, so there were about 15 of us. All of the participants were interesting and no one who was a total wack job.

Our first stop was in Florence, the Piazzale Michelangelo. This site is on the far side of the Arno River at the top of the hill. It has a great view of the city and river. Not quite as high a view as you get at the top of the Duomo, but with the river stretching out into the distance, this overlook is better laid out for photographing.

A couple of the younger tour folks knew I was a photographer and told me I should come back to the overlook at sunset. They had been there the night before — along with 300 of their closest friends. I ended up taking their advice. And it’s definitely a better sunset shot than a morning one. But even the 10 AM shot isn’t bad.

Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo

Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo

After that, it was on to Siena. Siena is about an hour south of Florence by bus. The two had been rival city-states in the Middle Ages before Florence conquered it. But that may have been blessing for modern visitors because the city center hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years.

Siena still has a ginormous center square surrounded by a clock tower, ancient 5 and 6 story buildings and restaurants. The town was two days away from the big event of the year, a no-holds-barred horse race they do around the square. But the place still has a classic Medieval look — in you have a wide enough lens to capture it all.

Siena town square with a dirt track added for the big race

Siena town square with a dirt track added for the big race

Our first stop in Siena was a church dedicated to Saint Catherine. The church isn’t much to look at on a good day. But the insides were filled with scaffolding when we were there. As a result, the only real thing of interest photographically was the place they keep the head of Catherine. Yes, they keep this saint’s head in the church. I guess worshiping body parts of holy people confers some sort of spiritual power. Yup, it’s kinda creepy – but fun.

Catherine's head

Catherine’s head

But equally weird to me, the rest of her body is in a church somewhere in Rome. Deciding who would get what body parts must have caused some hard feelings back when.

After the Saint Catherine church and town square it was onto the main event, the Siena Duomo. The Duomo is the city’s primary church and the name relates to it’s importance as well as to the fact that it has a huge dome.

Siena Duomo

The place was built between 1220-1340. (Yes, they had cost overruns in the Middle Ages as well.) An additional section of the church was started but never finished because of the Black Plague. But even as is, the place is amazing. It’s not as large as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome but in my estimation this church is more interesting for a photographer than either St. Peters or the Florence Duomo. It just has so many design elements a good photographer can work with.

When I find a church as interesting as this one, I approach it with the same compositional thinking I would a great landscape. There’s a vastness to the place that’s similar to what you find at a great landscape. And you can shoot the location from dozens of differing angles to pull in different foreground and background elements. — The place has a ton of great paintings and sculptures to use for this and an architecture that can set them off.

The final design element of churches, the one I find most intriguing, is how the building shapes the light. These early church architects were quite brilliant in how they funneled light into a space. Their idea was to use light to suggest the vastness of the spiritual universe and the precious nature of the teaching — and encourage a deeper sense of reverence in the community.

So light from the stained glass colors the light in the area behind the alter. The light coming through the dome windows filters down from above and lights the gold leaf on fire. And of course, each of the side alcoves and arms of the church has its own unique lighting environment you can play off of.

For a photographer who like working with light, this church has lots of design surprises. But to me, the key principle is using the design elements and the light to take the viewer on a journey into this sacred space.

Main section of the church with the unique blue and white striping on the columns

Main section of the church alter with the unique blue and white striping on the columns. Notice all the different light sources.

Using the light from the dome to evoke a sense of sacred space.

Using the light from the dome to evoke a sense of sacred space.

With this shot I was consciously using the columns and statues to lead the eye to the obvious goal, just as the architects planned. I also did some Lightroom adjustments to give the gold lit dome a different texture from the stuff below.  I also needed to pull back some of the blown out color in the dome’s skylight.

Another take

Another take

Here I zoomed in to capture one of the more unusual design touches. Busts of every single pope (there’s over 200) line a row along the top section of the interior. I used their faces to contrast with the blue and gold of  “Heaven” that can be seen behind the arch leading the eye into the church’s left side corridor.

And again, having so many superb design elements to choose from makes this church a must see. Plus, unlike St. Peter’s, I don’t believe this church has a single cherub. That’s an art atrocity that got popular during the Baroque and one I just don’t get.


After Siena, we drove higher into the Tuscan hills for a lunch and wine tasting. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was a perfect choice for sampling Tuscan cuisine. After the obligatory tour of the wine cellar (that included a tasting of seriously aged balsamic vinegar), we sat down to eat.


These folks put out an amazing spread: cheeses, breads, their own olive oil and honey products plus a steady flow of reds and whites to taste. I’m not a wine guy so I can’t remember any of the names — except there were several that they called “Super Tuscan.” No, I’m not sure what the superhero reference means.

The main course was my favorite. They served a lasagna that was to die for. Generally the problem with lasagna is that the pasta itself is so thick, it dominates the other flavors. But these guys made their own lasagna and it was about half the thickness of the stuff we’re all used to — tender with a subtle flavor. That was the best I’ve ever had.

San Gimignano

After lunch (and some major wine purchases by most of the tour), we headed further into the Tuscan hills to a quaint Medieval town called San Gimignano. The place is even more fairy tale Medieval than Siena. The old town is on top of the hill with gates and a high wall. The place is mostly one main and a few side streets that wrap around the steep location.

San Gimignano main street and a high tower

San Gimignano main street and a high tower

The most interesting element in the town are these high towers. The town has over a dozen of them. They go up 3 or 4 stories above the rest of the town buildings and are clearly used for fortification.

The story is that between 1200-1400 the town had some intense fighting between different families. And the families that could afford it, built these high towers so they couldn’t be attacked by rivals. Originally there were over 70 of these structures. Six hundred years later, there’s still enough left to make the place a World Heritage site.

Piazza with photogenic well

Piazza with photogenic well

I spent quite a long time at this location trying to get a good composition. But the square was so overrun with other tourists that this is as good as it got. This is the kind of place that gets inundated with tour buses from about 10-5 every day. So the only way to capture the mood is before or after that time. Here’s a classic San Gimignano shot:


More Wine

After regrouping and leaving San Gimignano, we had one more wine tasting just down the hill. The second winery tour  was overkill as far as I was concerned. How about a cheese tasting for a change or a chocolate tasting, even a pesto tasting would have been more fun.

But the vineyard did have a nice view of the town — if you had a good enough zoom. We were too far away for a camera phone to be effective. I finally got a shot of the old town with the sun drenching the high towers in late afternoon light.

San Gimigano from the distance

San Gimigano from the distance

All in all a great way to get a taste of Tuscany away from the crowds and heat of Florence. And the tour also fulfilled my deeper purpose, to get an idea of what parts of Tuscany to come back to later without the tour buses.

Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: San Saba

Today I wandered down to the most out of the way church I’m likely to visit here in Roma. San Saba is about a quarter mile northeast of the Piramide subway station, several stops southwest of the Colosseum in a quiet neighborhood.

No sign, you just see some steps leading into a walled off area…


… and a building that doesn’t look much like a church.


I got there before 9. No tourists, no one at the door to collect money, in fact, no place to make your donations that I could find. Just a quiet spot with a few souls making peace with themselves before starting the day.

And the place is perfect. The original church was started by St. Sabas monks who fled their monastery in the Judaean Desert after a massacre by Persians.

The monks came to Rome and started an Orthodox Christian monastery in the countryside in the early 600s. The relations between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches went sour after a couple of centuries and the site was used for a new church built in the 10th Century. The interior with the rafters and old style architecture is all from that era. The mosaic style floor is also typical.


The place changed hands over the centuries and was given a Baroque facelift. Then it was returned to it’s original shape (more or less) with a few newer art works added. The alter and apse area look like this:


There’s a 13th century throne behind the main altar.


The apse wall has frescoes from the 13th century. The upper register has the Madonna and Child flanked by the apostles, and the lower one has a fresco of the Crucifixion flanked by saints. They’re all in the old Medieval/Byzantine style.


On the left side of the church, a fourth aisle preserves several other frescoes from the 13th century. They’re all in fairly rough shape. This one shows the Virgin and Child with St. Sabbas.


It’s a simple church, off the beaten path. And the quiet charms of the place are more appealing to me than the fanciness and crowds of St. Peter’s.

Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: Santa Maria della Vittoria

One of the more interesting churches in Rome is Santa Maria della Vittoria. This small church is about 8 blocks north of the Termini train station. The church is open until noon and then from 3:30 to 6 or so (time is of casual interest when it comes to church visiting hours).

Vittoria is the church that has the Bernini sculpture, Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. And the place is a classic example of  a little church with a world-class art work. The church itself was built in the early 1600s and the interior came together later in that century. It’s not much to see from the outside:

Santa Maria della Vittoria

This is the Baroque era and the church has some of the overbuilt feel from that era. But it’s nowhere near as over the top as the Gesu or as ornate as St Peter’s Basilica.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Typical of Baroque, almost every inch of surface area is covered with decoration or highly detailed marble. The alter features a Bernini starburst and a fresco.

The ceiling is a bit of a trompe l’oeil that looks like it’s about the fall of Icarus. But the actual content celebrates a battle between the Church and some pesky Protestants that’s called “The Virgin Mary Triumphing over Heresy and Fall of the Rebel Angels.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

But we came for the Bernini sculpture and that’s off to the left in an alcove. Bernini was a devout Catholic, one who understood the deeper teachings better than most. And the writings of St. Teresa of Avila seem to have inspired him, this is one of his greatest works.

Teresa was a true Christian “mystic” — not the type who was weird and incomprehensible. No, Teresa was the real deal. Her autobiography and other writings give a cogent and detailed analysis of her spiritual practices and her experiences.

One of my buddies, Evie Toft, did her dissertation comparing Teresa’s experiences with enlightened folks from other traditions. It turns out that there are lots of similarities in these Unity experiences once you strip away the differences in vocabulary.

And Bernini clearly knows Teresa’s writings. His sculpture shows us the key moment in her autobiography when she feels an angel penetrate her heart. The shafts of gold suggest her experience of union with the Divine.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

You can see the almost fiendish glee of the angel. But the real drama lies in Teresa’s body and face. Somehow Bernini manages to get it just right, that mixture of pure bliss, pure openness, floating in the cloud of Unknowing. It’s a feeling that clearly overwhelms her with joy beyond her rational brain and her ego. Teresa’s connection with this experience is almost sexual in its totality.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Close Up

The rest of the church is nice. Bernini’s sunburst alter piece seems to me to be an extension of the Teresa experience but seen as an abstract explosion of grace. But maybe he just had some extra gold leaf to get rid of.

Santa Maria della Vittoria

Photo Pilgrimage in Rome: Santa Maria sopra Minerva

I’ve been traveling recently. Taking lots of photos. But not having much time to post. Hopefully I can free up a block of time now. We’ve been doing a cruise of the Greek Islands (with a stop in Athens) and I will post some of those shots soon. But let’s start with where I am right now, Rome.

I’ve been to Italy before but wasn’t as prepared for the experience then and didn’t have much time. Now I have a week in Rome and my best discovery has been the churches. Obviously Rome has more than it’s share of churches. Most travelers will hit the Vatican and swing by the Sistine Chapel and St Peters. But to me, that’s just scratching the surface.

Savvy travelers know that some of the best travel experiences come when you wander into a church you’ve never heard of and discover impressive works of art and a place for reflection.

But on this trip to Italy I’ve decided to go one step further, researching holy sites that would appeal to my artistic and spiritual interests. I did some reading and looked online for images of churches that seemed special in some way. Here’s the first of my favorites.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva (let’s just call it Minerva) is one short block south of the Pantheon and just a few blocks east of Piazza Navona. It got it’s name because the site was the site of a temple to Minerva in Roman times.

The first church was built on the site in the 8th Century. It was totally rebuilt in the 1200s. You can see that in the general layout of the place, a long central area and not much in the way of side chapels — special alcoves are an architectural element that gets more developed in later churches.

The interior got a major renovation in the Baroque era. So like lots of other Roman churches, Minerva is a living history. And if you look closely you can see how these ancient sites are reimagined every few hundred years.


The exterior of the church is fairly simple. It’s a cream-white that has a Bernini sculpture you can’t miss, an elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back. Quite cool. The entrance faces west.

Step inside and once you get used to the light, you notice how long the church is. The ceiling isn’t like many Baroque churches, no dome, no trompe  l’oeil ceiling painting. Instead you have this deep blue firmament trimmed in gold.

Santa Maria sopra Minerva

Santa Maria sopra Minerva in later afternoon

The alter area is fairly simple as well. But behind it are some tasteful stained glass windows and the blue ceiling gets more elaborate frescos here.

I shot this using the candles as foreground elements against the stained glass and blue ceiling.

I shot this using the candles as foreground elements against the stained glass and blue ceiling.

To the left of the alter area is a statue of Christ, thoughtful as he stands there holding a small cross. The statue is by Michelangelo. Not one of his major works but beautiful.

I generally avoid shooting art works on their own as you’d do in an art catalogue. That’s a popular approach with first time photographers. But I find that just capturing a photo of a sculpture or painting can lead to a static approach that tends to bore the viewer. So I shot this one from the side and pulled in the southern section of the church as my background element.

Minerva, Michaelangelo Christ

Minerva, Michaelangelo Christ

From this vantage, you can see an alcove. It holds a painting by the great Medieval artist, Fra’ Filippo Lippi.

Lippi alter painting

Lippi alter painting

In closeup

Minerva, Lippi Painting Close Up

Lippi is pre-Rennasaince so you don’t get a true perspective. But his work has a purity and sense of wonder that transcends the era.

The alcove on the other side has no art by anyone particularly famous. But I liked the way the entrance sculpture and the painting played off each other.

Minerva Alcove

Minerva Alcove

Minerva is worth a stop if you’re visiting Rome.

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