Strada dell'Osservanza, Siena, Italy


With our stay in Siena extended by two months because of my wife's emergency surgery to reattach her retina, I knew I would go crazy if I wasn't able to do some work while waiting for her eye to heal.

On Sunday morning, July 9, I took a walk to the Basilica dell'Osservanza. To get to the church from our apartment on via Giuseppe Garibaldi (the general, revolutionary and father of Italy), I went outside the medieval wall of the city and took the 68 steps down the steep embankment to via Domenico Beccafumi (Siena's own Renaissance-Mannerist painter) that has an S-curve of bends. Beccafumi junctions in with a strada named after Siena's even more famous artist, Simone Martini. This street descends past La nuova Pasticceria and two roundabouts later you come to SP408. The highway goes under the railroad tracks and up a sharp beautiful walled-in bend. As you come out of the bend, the quiet strada of dell'Osservanza immediately turns right and crosses back over the highway. You are suddenly in the countryside. The dirt road leads to a rocky shaded trail that takes you up to the church. It is a short twenty-minute beautiful walk from the door of the apartment to the basilica, moving from the hectic traffic outside the city walls to the climb past gardens, olive groves and a wheat field. 

Ever since we started coming to Siena, I have been attracted to the stones beneath the city's geologic foundation, which is built on a hillcrest consisting of sedimentary deposits overlaid with clastic sandstones and conglomerates. Despite its silty marine base, the substrate is sufficiently strong enough for the city's construction that began during the Etruscan period. These hard, smooth stones are poorly cemented into the underlayer. Fist-sized, they look like potatoes and spill out of the hill's steep flanks during heavy rains. From a superior view looking down, the hill with its various ridges and ravines has a bird's foot shape. The ridges are indented with narrow, deep slopes covered in plant life that abate erosion. Private terraced vegetable gardens step down to the valleys below.

When I arrived at the church just before the eleven o'clock mass, parishioners were gathering. I lingered, and stood in the back listening to the service. Sweat dripped down my forehead, my shirt competely wet from the climb up. Once the nave emptied, I admired the Andrea della Robbia altarpiece in one of the side chapels. The Madonna at the front of the nave is especially striking. (The Renaissance terracotta works by all of the Robbias, starting with Luca della Robbia, his nephew, Andrea, and Andrea's two sons, Giovanni and Girolamo, have all become some of my favorite art in Italy.)

Walking back down the gravel road, I noticed a bench built into the church's brick retaining wall. It was covered in leaves and dirt. I swept and cleaned it off with my hands, including hundreds of ants and their eggs underneath the debris. Buried in the corner of the bench was a small plastic container. I unscrewed its lid. A geocache.

On July 11, I returned to the rocky trail, surrounded by the loud and constant cicada chatter and began collecing stones along the trail leading up to the basilica. My idea was to gather the stones and then handwash each one of them. This idea felt necessary, especially after finding a foam scrubbing pad, as if it had been left there for me, lying by the side of the trail.

For the next three days, I returned to the shaded trail at least four more times, collecting stones, cleaning them, and  making a small pile on the brick bench below the basilica. This became my work, my creative process. Waiting became work, the work my art. Waiting became no longer a burden to endure, but work to enjoy, despite the heat, humidity, sweat and heavy carrying. And although the meaning behind this piece is my relationship with living in Italy since 2011, the work became my art. The process of moving over the same path, selecting and picking up stones along that path and carrying them to the bench, and then scrubbing them clean. The labor and sweat involved in the work and its creation, and the feeling of joy and satisfaction in doing the work.