Siena under the Spell of Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Back in Siena after many long months, in time for the great exhibition dedicated to the city's famous 14th-century painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti ! 

Siena 1712-n120

Beside the exhibition itself held in the old hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, other sites in the city are involved in this great celebration of Ambrogio Lorenzetti, such as the church of Sant'Agostino and the basilica of San Francesco below, where Lorenzetti's frescoes have been restored for the occasion.

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Siena 1712-n123
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Bologna and Morandi

On our way to Tuscany, we stopped in Bologna. We hadn't been there for a long time and took great pleasure walking through the city's old medieval centre.

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Piazza Santo Stefano with its porticos – a trademark of the city – and old merchant houses.

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Bologna 1712-n096
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Via de' Pepoli, where – starting in the 1340s – the Pepoli family came to possess several buildings, creating a real urban neighbourhood of their property that allowed the coexistence of the different branches of the family.

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Being in Bologna, we wouldn't have missed the opportunity to visit the museum dedicated to Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964), a native of the city.

  Still Life,  1956, detail, by Giorgio Morandi, Museo Morandi

Still Life, 1956, detail, by Giorgio Morandi, Museo Morandi

  Still Life , detail, by Giorgio Morandi, Museo Morandi

Still Life, detail, by Giorgio Morandi, Museo Morandi

Shibuya Cityscapes

Based in Shibuya for a few days in Tokyo.

 Shibuya, Tokyo August 2017, photo Marie Servais and Sylvain Boursot (

Observing the famous Shibuya Crossing : daytime / nighttime.

Shibuya, Tokyo

Staying at the Cerulean Tower offered us great views of the surrounding cityscape.

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The Shibuya area is currently undergoing a huge redevelopment plan: construction sites everywhere working night and day.

Shibuya, Tokyo

David Hockney Retrospective in Paris

After the Tate in London, and before the Met in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris is hosting the retrospective exhibition organized to celebrate David Hockney's 80th birthday.

  Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures ), 1972 by David Hockney

Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972 by David Hockney

Ever since we discovered his work almost 20 years ago, in the 1999 Paris exhibition ("Espace/Paysage", already at the Centre Pompidou), Hockney has definitely been one of our favourite contemporary artists. I remember being struck at the time by the scope and colours of his West American landscapes.

  My Parents , 1977 by David Hockney, Tate

My Parents, 1977 by David Hockney, Tate

Since then we have come to love his quiet and airy portraits and, above all, the Yorkshire landscapes he painted in the 2000s.

  Bigger Trees Near Warter , 2007 by David Hockney

Bigger Trees Near Warter, 2007 by David Hockney

Related: The 2009 exhibition in Schwäbisch Hall ("Just Nature", Kunsthalle Würth) which was exclusively dedicated to the latter.


  Peonies , 2017 by Marie Servais and Sylvain Boursot

"In the stillness, between the arrival of guests, the peonies."*

Buson (1716-1784), in Haiku, vol. 3: Summer-Autumn, ed. by R. H. Blyth, 1952.

* 寂として 客の絶間の ぼたん哉 。 (せきとして きゃくのたえまの ぼたんかな 。)

Palio in Siena: "Cappotto" for Lupa

As we arrived in Siena in the evening, Lupa was celebrating its double victory in both the 2 July and 16 August Palio races – what is known here as "cappotto" –, triumphantly carrying the two freshly-won banners round the Campo.

"Cappotto": double Palio victory for Lupa, Siena #1608-i052

The joy of this double victory was all the more deeply felt by the contradaioli since Lupa hadn’t won a single Palio for 27 years, which had made it the “nonna” (lit. grandmother) of Siena’s 17 contrade

"Cappotto": double Palio victory for Lupa, Siena #1608-i049

Lupa won both races with the same horse and same jockey, which hadn’t happened to any contrada in Siena since 1933.

"Quercione delle Checche" by D. Bollinger

  Quercione delle Checche , 2012 by Dominique Bollinger

Quercione delle Checche, 2012 by Dominique Bollinger

In San Quirico d'Orcia we visited French photographer Dominique Bollinger's gallery and bought this black-and-white picture of the so-called "Quercione (or Quercia) delle Checche". For years, we have been driving almost daily past this monumental oak tree while on holidays in Val d'Orcia, each time admiring its imposing presence. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2014 it lost one of its huge branches (broken by careless climbers), and with it part of the spectacular beauty it had acquired over 360 years and still had – intact – at the time of the photo was taken.

Jean-Etienne Liotard Exhibition in London

Off to London for a few of days to see the unique retrospective exhibition devoted to the great Swiss master Jean-Etienne Liotard (1702-1789) at the Royal Academy of Arts.

  Julie de Thellusson-Ployard,  1760, pastel on vellum, Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur

Julie de Thellusson-Ployard, 1760, pastel on vellum, Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur

  Issac-Louis de Thellusson , 1760, pastel on vellum, Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur

Issac-Louis de Thellusson, 1760, pastel on vellum, Museum Oskar Reinhart, Winterthur

  Still-life: Tea Set , c. 1770–83, oil on canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum L. A.

Still-life: Tea Set, c. 1770–83, oil on canvas, J. Paul Getty Museum L. A.

"Central Park Four" by Pep Ventosa

  Central Park Four , 2013 by Pep Ventosa

Central Park Four, 2013 by Pep Ventosa

After buying photographs for some time, we realized we were often drawn to pictures of trees. The last one we bought was at the Paris Lumas gallery in the Marais and is a fascinating work by San-Francisco-based Spanish photographer Pep Ventosa, entitled Central Park Four. It consists in the overlay of several photos of the same tree taken while walking in a circle around it. We like the depth and transparency this gives to the picture, the rich and subtle texture, the warm and light colours, the vibrancy and airiness of the whole. A portrait of a tree with life going on around it.

Rome Summer Visit

Via Margutta, Roma, � MS&SB, August 2015

Before heading north to Tuscany, we've decided to spend a few days in Rome. In the scorching heat of the Roman summer, Via Margutta is so tranquil and charming.

Castel Sant'Angelo, Roma, � MS&SB, August 2015

Across the Tiber, Castel Sant'Angelo: Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum turned into papal fortress.

Pantheon, Roma, � MS&SB, August 2015

Every time we come to Rome, we are always drawn to the Pantheon: "temple of every god" initiated by Agrippa, completed by Hadrian. Despite the disheartening mass of tourists pressing their way inside the venerable building armed with selfie sticks, the lofty cupola and the soft light coming from the oculus retain all of their strange fascinating power.

Portrait of Vibia Sabina, Roma, Museo nazionale romano Palazzo M
Portrait of Emperor Hadrian, Roma, Museo nazionale romano Palazz

At the Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Massimo, the busts of Emperor Hadrian and his wife Vibia Sabina.

Monumento a Cola di Rienzo, Roma, � MS&SB, August 2015
Monumento a Cola di Rienzo, Roma, � MS&SB, August 2015

On our way up the Capitoline Hill to the Palazzo dei Conservatori, we pass the 19th-century bronze statue of Cola di Rienzo (1313-1354): the unique and tragic story of this man – who in the chaos of medieval Rome, as tribune of the people, wanted to restore the grandeur and authority of the antique city and set up a new Roman Empire– has kept me wondering for years.

Palio in Siena: Celebrating Victory

Previously: The Race

The fever of the preceding days and night still lingers in the air as, early on the morning following the race, municipal employees bustle about to bring the Piazza back to "normal", taking down the tribunes and washing the earth off the Campo.


A single flag now remains on the façade of the Palazzo Pubblico out of the seventeen that were initially there: that of the winner, Civetta.


The victorious contrada, meanwhile, sets out for a triumphal parade throughout the city.


Whereas the other horses have been returned to their owners, Istriceddu has been kept for the day to be paraded through the streets by his "barbaresco". A number is painted on both his hindquarters: that of the total number of victories won by Civetta through the years – which amounts to 36, counting back to... 1581!


Victorious contradaioli march through the city with drums and flags, some of them in costume, triumphantly carrying the freshly-won Palio banner (once the festivities are over, the Palio banner will be kept by the winning contrada and proudly displayed in its museum along with previous ones and other precious artefacts). Many of the marchers either carry baby bottles or suck pacifiers, expressing thereby the feeling of having been reborn through victory...


Many more parades will be staged in the following days and weeks. The most notable one will take place in September and be followed by the official "victory dinner". On this occasion, a special publication, called "numero unico", commemorating the victory in many details, pictures and anecdotes, will be presented, to be later treasured by many contradaioli.

Festivities will actually last through the fall and well into the winter, reluctantly coming to a close only to enable a new Palio season to begin... Indeed, as the Sienese justly say, "il Palio dura tutto l'anno!" ("the Palio is raced all year long!").


Palio in Siena: The Race

Previously: The "Corteo Storico"

After the two-hour historical pageant, the eagerly awaited moment has finally come. The last entrance left open on the Campo, at the "Bocca dell'Onda", is closed. The square is now packed with tens of thousands of people, pressed in the center of the Piazza, squeezed on the tribunes, massed on the balconies, peering out of the windows, some even perched on the roofs.

The "mortaretto" is fired, as a signal to clear the track. Startled by the blast, dozens of pigeons take their flight, followed by the eyes of many Sienese: the direction they take at this moment is believed to be an omen, indicating the location of the winning contrada; others look at the direction given by the weather vane placed on the top of the Torre del Mangia.

In the square, the tension, brought to a peak by the long wait in the stifling heat, is palpable. The Palio banner has now been placed onto the judges' stand. Everything is ready. The Piazza holds its breath.


Finally the jockeys, mounted bareback on their horses, emerge from the courtyard of the Palazzo Pubblico and slowly make their way towards the starting line, greeted by the cries of the crowd. Their relative positions at the "canapo", determined by chance and in the greatest secrecy by the means of a complicated device, is still unknown to everyone. Suddenly, the unabating clamour of the crowd ceases, all noise disappears, and an incredible silence settles on the Campo as, one by one, the horses are called in to take place at the starting-rope.


Lining up the nine horses (the tenth horse does not line up with the others at the starting rope; it is said "di rincorsa", meaning it will start first, from behind, and will begin the race at full gallop) in the prescribed order proves an extremely difficult and nerve-racking operation, not only because of the nervousness of the horses, but also because some of the jockeys deliberately manoeuvre and jostle neighbouring horses in an attempt both to obtain what they consider an optimum position for themselves and to block the rival/enemy contrada.


On three occasions, trying to anticipate the start in order to get the jump on the others, the jockeys have obliged the "mossiere" to drop the starting rope prematurely so as to avoid any injury to the horses, thereby causing a false start and bringing the whole agonizing process of the "mossa" to start all over again.

This has now been going on for one hour and twenty minutes, and night is falling fast on the Campo. The horses are getting increasingly nervous, and the crowd in the square is growing more impatient by the minute. The race is about to be suspended and put back to the following day, when the "canapo" is dropped for the fourth time. Probably anticipating another false start, Onda and Pantera are not ready and are left behind as the other horses shoot forward. Nevertheless, the start is considered valid, and the race is finally on!


Civetta takes the lead, followed by two close challengers, Lupa and Aquila. The first turn at San Martino is to be fatal to Giraffa, the third one to Aquila. It takes Civetta's jockey Andrea Mari and horse Istriceddu no more than 1 minute and 15 seconds to complete the three statutory rounds ahead of all the others, and thus make the Civettini's thirty-year-old dream come true!


The winner has not yet passed the finish line that delirious contradaioli already flood the track. The "mortaretto" is fired again, this time confirming the end of the race. Horse and jockey are mobbed by an exultant crowd, and flags unfurl all over the square. From the judges' stand the Palio is then handed over to the victors, who carry it off in triumph, rejoined by allied or "friendly" contrade.


Leaving the Campo, the parading contrada heads for the Duomo, where a Te Deum will be sung as thanksgiving for the victory. From there, amidst the cries of joys, the waving of flags and the rolls of drums, the winners will get back to their quarters for a night-long celebration. The bells of the contrada's church will be heard far into the night, until the early hours of the morning.


Continued: Celebrating Victory 

Palio in Siena: The "Corteo Storico"

Previously: Blessing the Horses

Shortly before 5pm, all entries on the Campo are closed, except the one at the "Bocca dell'Onda" which will remain open until the last minute before the race. The track is cleared of the crowd which presses into the centre of the Piazza or onto the tribunes around it. It is time for the parade to begin. A detachment of mounted "carabinieri" enters the Campo. After having completed a first round of the Piazza at a slow trot, they suddenly break into a charge at full gallop, all swords drawn, for a spectacular second round.


The "carabinieri" then exit the square, and the "Sunto" or "campanone" - the huge bell on top of the tower of the Mangia - begins to toll, announcing the arrival of the historical pageant.

The successive groups forming the pageant enter the Campo from the "Bocca del Casato" and progressively spread all around the Piazza, proceeding at a slow and solemn pace. The whole progress will take a full two hours, during which the bell of the Palazzo Pubblico will continue to sound in its characteristically low tone, marking the advance of the various delegations.

The first group to enter the Piazza is a deputation representing the Comune of Siena and the various towns, territories and castles that belonged to the former Republic of Siena, each with its own standard-bearer.


Occupying a place of honour within this delegation of the ancient Sienese state are the communes of Montalcino and Massa Marittima.

Then comes a group representing the former military organization of the Sienese Republic. The Captain of the People, mounted on horseback, is followed by the standard-bearers and centurions of the three historic "terzi" of the city - Città, San Martino and Camollia -, and finally by the captains the Masse.

Following them is a delegation of the venerable University of Siena, founded ca 1240, with its rector followed by four lecturers and four students.


Immediately after the Studium come the representatives of the ancient guilds or corporations of the city: merchants, painters, goldsmiths, blacksmiths, shoemakers, carpenters, bakers, leatherworkers, apothecaries, wool carders, notaries, masons, wool vendors, potters, bankers, silkworkers, weavers and dyers.


It is then the turn of the contrade to make their entrance, greeted by the cheers of their respective contradaioli. First come the 10 contrade taking part in the race.

Each "comparsa", or parade unit, consists of a drummer, two "alfieri" or flagwavers, the "duce" or leader, with two men-at-arms, the principal page carrying the large flag of the contrada accompanied by two standard-bearing pages, the jockey mounted on a large parade horse, and finally the horse that will run for the contrada, led by his "barbaresco".


Each "comparsa" will make several stops at fixed points along the track to allow its "alfieri" to show off their skills, executing complicated figures with their flags.


Following these first ten "comparse", and separated from them by a group of young pages bearing festoons of laurel, come those of the seven contrade not competing for this year's Palio. Their composition is similar to the preceding ones - except for the horses and jockey, since they do take part in the race.


Next is an impressive and somewhat mysterious group of masked horsemen representing the so-called "contrade morte": Gallo, Leone, Orso, Quercia, Spadaforte and Vipera. These six contrade disappeared or were suppressed in the course of the 17th century, and their territories divided between the seventeen surviving contrade.


They are then followed by a group of armed guards, crossbowmen for the most part, preceding the Captain of Justice mounted on horseback.


The climax of the parade comes with the entrance on the Campo of the "carroccio", the triumphal cart of the Commune, evocative of the one captured from the Florentines at the famous battle of Montaperti (1260) - and thus a symbol of Sienese liberty and independence. The cart is drawn by four white oxen and bears the Balzana - the black-and-white flag of the Sienese Republic - and the new Palio banner to be won. Seated on the chariot, beside the trumpeters of the Commune, are the Four of Balìa, ancient magistrates of the city.


Riding just behind the "carroccio" are the representatives of six ancient noble families of Siena: the Pannocchieschi d'Elci, Salvani, Piccolomini, Salimbeni, Ugurgieri and Tolomei.

The passage of the "carroccio" followed by the knights marks the end of the "corteo". The Palio banner is taken down and brought to the judges' stand where it will remain for the duration of the race. The low tolling of the bell that has been going on for two hours finally stops. The moment everyone has been awaiting is finally at hand. It is time for the race !


Continued: The Race

Palio in Siena: Blessing the Horses

Previously: The "Prove"

Early in the afternoon on the day of the Palio, spectators begin to take place in the centre of the Campo for the evening race. Shade is still rare on the Piazza at this time of day, and long hours of wait in the scorching sun lie before them.

Meanwhile, for those contrade that will participate in the race, it is time for an important ritual: the blessing of the horse. The ceremony takes place simultaneously in the oratories of the various contrade.


Each horse, escorted by members of the "comparsa" (the contrada's parade unit), is taken to the contrada's church. There, in the small oratory packed with tense and anxious contradaioli, the animal is blessed by the contrada's priest in the course of a brief but intense ceremony.


Addressing the horse, the priest concludes his blessing with the traditional formula: "Vai e torna vincitore !" ("Go and return victorious !").


After this divine invocation, all minds are now free to turn to the final preparations in view of the historical pageant preceding the race.

ContinuedThe "Corteo Storico"

Palio in Siena: The "Prove"

Previously: The "Tratta"

Only a few hours after the horses have been assigned to their contrade, in the evening of August 13, these same horses are back on the Campo for the first of 6 "prove", or trial races, that will be held before the Palio itself.


The other five "prove" will take place in the morning and in the evening of the following days, with the last one (also known as "provaccia") held on the very morning of the Palio, August 16.


The aim of these trial races is not only to familiarize the jockeys with the horses that have been assigned to their contrade, but also to familiarize the horses with the particular conditions of the Palio : the crowd and the excitement, the sound of drums and the waving of flags, the difficult line-up at the starting rope, the clockwise track around the Campo and its two dreaded curves at San Martino and Casato.


Exactly the same rules apply during these trials as will prevail for the race of the Palio. The jockeys, however, will mainly be "testing" their horses, trying to avoid injuries or unnecessary strain for their mounts. Victory at a "prova" in effect bears no real importance, only winning the Palio does actually count.

Contrary to the jockeys, who can change up to the last minute, the horses, once they have been assigned to the contrade, cannot be replaced whatever happens. Any injury or accident occurring during the "prove" will therefore have a direct bearing on the chances of the contrada to win the Palio, and can even, in the worst cases, prevent the contrada from taking part in the race - as happened to Civetta in the Palio of July 2009 !


But despite the fact that they are, in essence, merely "rehearsals" before the real performance, the "prove" are nevertheless followed with great assiduity by the Sienese and attract an important crowd of spectators. This is particularly true for the 5th trial, known as "prova generale", which takes place in the evening of August 15, on the eve of the Palio, and is followed by a special dinner organized in each participating contrada, the "cena della prova generale".

The regular and rapid succession of the "prove", morning and evening, in the very few days preceding the Palio is an important factor in the process of growing excitement and building suspense that leads up to the final race.

Continued: Blessing the Horses