29 March 2013

Siena, Tuscany

The Best of Italy

Monte Paschi Media Chief David Rossi Found Dead, Police Say [March 7th 2013]

All is not well in Siena.  For 541 years the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena SpA has been Siena's largest employer and biggest patron.  It has sponsored the medieval costumes for the Palio - the bareback horse race in the central Campo twice every summer - for fifteen years (at €11m a year) and supported charities and civic works.  But now it has had to be bailed out to the tune of €4.2 billion.  In February it announced that its assets would be reduced by €730 million.  Then on March 5th prosecutors opened an investigation into insider trading.  The troubles may have begun with the acquisition of the Banca Antonveneta, in which it was assisted by JPMorgan which helped Monte dei Paschi raise about €1 billion with securities which were good as long as the bank was profitable.

David Rossi, aged 51, was the communications chief of the Bank and was found dead at 9.00pm on March 6th having apparently fallen from his office window.

Dealings with the Deutsche Bank and Nomura are now being investigated, as is the Chairman, Alessandro Profumo, who was brought in last year to restore confidence.  Unfortunately Profumo had to announce its third straight quarterly loss (of €1.5 billion) yesterday.  Profumo was previously, for thirteen years, head of Italy's largest bank, Unicredit, but resigned after clashing with shareholders over Libyan investments.

Until this I always felt that Siena was the perfect city....  It is thirty-five years since I first visited, and stood high above the Campo on a friend's terrazza to watch the violent excitement of the Palio, and through the years I have loved every visit, getting to know the canyon-like streets that curve and fall towards the centre.  

The architecture, predominantly created in ochre brickwork, but adorned with gleaming marble, is thrilling in its gothic bravura, especially around the central Campo with the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.

The art, from the giant frescoes inside the Palazzo Pubblico by Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini, to the more delicate works by Pinturicchio in the Libreria Piccolomini, to the wonderful Madonna of the Franciscans by Duccio di Buoninsegna in the Pinacoteca Nazionale is as impressive as anywhere in Italy - at least to my taste.

The Cathedral, or Duomo Santa Maria, is a candy-striped feast of light, which literally crowns the city at 346 metres above sea level, and with the remnants of even greater design (building was curtailed by the Black Death at the beginning of the fourteenth century, or it would have been at least twice the size) allowing visitors magnificent views across the roof tops to the Tuscan countryside.

Inside it is cool, and tastes of peppermint.  The Pisano brothers were responsible for much of the finish, with Giovanni completing the facade in 1297 and Nicola providing the superb pulpit which stands on imperious lions in the nave.

For me Siena was perfect.  The food, especially in trattorie that think of themselves as on the periphery, is superb - meaty and robust, accompanied by great vegetables and finished off by tangy cheeses or honeyed cakes.  Local wine is great as well, tending towards the darkest red with a purple stain, but Siena also holds a special treat for the oenophile. Deep in the old powder stores of the Medici fortress lies the Enoteca Italiana, where you can savour a glass or bottle of any Italian wine you choose.  

Siena can be cold, when the blasts of winter drive you into bars begging for grappa. In summer it can be baking, and you have to smother yourself in lemon and pistacchio ice cream to survive. In spring it is at its brightest and best, with flowers singing to the sounds of violins from high windows in the academia musicale. In autumn the sharp sting of woodsmoke rouses your appetite and you crave porcini mushrooms and fennel sausages.

I thought Siena was perfect.  I have slept in Palazzi (such as the Pensione Palazzo Ravizza) but also in the open air on the roof of a modest pensione near the cathedral, dreaming of bells clanging in my head.  I have seen the horses for the Palio blessed in the contrada churches and the flag wavers practising in their courtyards.  The people are open and straightforward, striking looking and looking to strike if need be.  It is a place of study, both academic and musical, and there are students around who would not have been out of place in Paris in '68.  And there are ordinary workers as well. On one trip not so long ago I got caught up in a march along the main street.  

Not all is perfect in Siena.  The Monte dei Paschi bank has had to be bailed out; its communications director has fallen to his death.  Alessandro Profumo is cutting costs and purging political connections from the management.  Hundreds of branches of the bank throughout Italy are to be closed and about 4,000 jobs will be lost.  He has said that he cannot rule out the possibility that the bank itself may be sold.

Times are hard.  Money, the love of which is the root of all evil, is in short supply and one of the oldest and most revered banks in the world is closing its doors.  But Siena, wonderful Siena, home of San Bernardino the benevolent preacher and Santa Caterina, martyred on the wheel, will survive this shock and it will continue to be, for me at least, the very best of Italy.

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