I landed at Pisa airport, Italy, in the late morning, in the very last days of January 2020. Miles to the north of me a few hundred people had begun to cough their guts out, and a few medics had begun to become concerned at a strange new disease that appeared to be spreading quite rapidly - and killing people. I didn't know any of this at the time. None of us did. And it would be weeks before I understood that I had just walked in to a biological war-zone. I was happy just to be in northern Italy, despite it being the depths of winter, and with the prospect of some seriously interesting archaeology in front of me.
A few hours and a slow train ride later I had left the coast and headed inland, up through the Tuscan hills to the medieval city of Siena. If this were a travel blog it's at this point I'd start getting all overly descriptive; telling you about the picturesque medieval buildings, the wonderful plazas, fine restaurants, and beautiful accommodation. I'd wax lyrical about the famous 'Palio' - a twice annual horserace that verges upon the insane - the stunning museums and galleries, and undoubtedly mention that the entire city centre is a Unesco World Heritage Site. I would tell tales of late night wanderings through narrow medieval streets, overhung by balconies. Balconies from which, only two months later, the locked-down residents would nightly serenade their own beloved and Covid besieged city. I'd also undoubtedly include an implausible and amusing anecdote concerning a local, or a lavish description of a meal in some hidden-away gem of an eatery. However, this isn't a travel blog, so I won't.
So we will skip all of that. You can go and look for yourself someday I hope. I was heading instead for one of the most intriguing medieval buildings in a city. A place packed full of medieval wonders. The cathedral, or Duomo - a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque/Gothic architecture that dominates its own quarter within the city.
The guidebooks will all tell you that the sumptuous façade of the Duomo was completed about the year 1380. However, as with all these things, that is a bit of a simplification. Like just about every cathedral or great church ever built the Duomo was a constantly evolving building. Changes in fashion and the requirements and aspirations of the population mean that these structures were never the static artefacts that would, if it were true, make an architectural historians life just a little too easy. Instead they grow, they shift, they alter, and they evolve. And as they evolve little pieces of space, small fragments of a specific moment, become fossilised in the architecture.
There are few religious buildings that demonstrate this more clearly than the Duomo. In the late fourteenth century there were plans to expand this already impressively large structure, with the creation of a massive eastern transept. If completed it would have made the Duomo the largest basilica of its time. However, as is so common with big building projects, the ambitions of the locals were larger than their pockets were deep, and the lack of funds in the wake of the Black Death and local conflict brought a halt to the construction. Only the outer two arcades were built, leaving a massive area of the plaza enclosed by the outline of a building that never was. A phantom structure whose soaring empty arches scream thwarted ambition, and now a useful place to park your car.
Despite the many and varied wonders of the Duomo - and I could ramble on for many hours about those (buy a guidebook if you are interested) - I was there to look at the graffiti. I know. Boringly predictable. The Duomo is covered in ancient graffiti, both inside and out. Deeply cut inscriptions and coats of arms sit alongside sketched lines of music, and vibrant little caricatures of knights on horseback. On the outside can be found carved a rare ROTAS square, and pelta designs just litter the stonework. Indeed, there are probably more pelta designs on that one building than have so far been recorded in the whole of the UK. And the graffiti covers all periods, from the ancient to the very recent, from visitors of all ages to the site - some of whom were far more welcome than others.
In terms of medieval graffiti the real value of Siena isn't inside the main building itself, but rather beneath it, in an area described today as a crypt, but originally a series of chapels. The crypt is actually a relatively new discovery, only being found by archaeologists in 1999, and not opened to the public until 2003. It is believed that it was first built in the second half of the thirteenth century, but was subject to extensive changes and alterations associated with the enlargement of the cathedral in about 1317, before finally falling completely out of use at around 1355. The main body of the crypt was then filled with sand and sealed - as it remained until 1999.
When excavated the walls of the crypt were found to be covered in wall paintings, which have been tentatively dated to the 1280s. And what stunning wall paintings they are! Having been in use for only a few decades before being filled with sand, the crypt paintings are in an incredible state of preservation. The colours really are almost as bright as the day they were painted. There really is nothing like it in the UK. And from my perspective what is really special about the crypt is the fact that those same wall paintings are absolutely covered in graffiti. Hundreds of examples of graffiti. And that makes the crypt very, very special indeed.
The graffiti in the crypt represents one of the handful of examples of graffiti having been created in a sealed and securely dated context. Any graffiti cut through those paintings HAS to have been created between the 1280s - when the paintings were made - and the 1350s - when the crypt was sealed and filled with sand. It is unquestionably medieval graffiti. It cannot be anything else. So, whilst it may not be from the UK, it does give an indication of the subject, scale, and quantity of graffiti that was being created within a highly regulated religious environment during a very short and precisely defined period in the later Middle Ages.
The most obvious feature of the graffiti in the undercroft is just how visible it is. Cut through the medieval pigments to reveal the pale plaster beneath, it stands out white against the bright colours of the religious scenes on the walls. It is obvious to anyone who walks into the room. The biblical scenes and their borders, lovely though they may be, are covered in graffiti. There really is no getting away from the implications of this.
The most obvious thing is that the graffiti is still there. Still very visible. It hasn't been painted over, and no attempt has been made to cover it in any way. Coupled with the fact that a vast amount of the graffiti there is religious or devotional in nature, it all rather confirms the concept that these inscriptions were not only tolerated, but were accepted and acceptable. A physical manifestation of the piety displayed by those who visited these spaces. It also gives a clear indication of how the walls of our own English parish churches would have once looked. No naughty choirboys creating graffiti in dark corners - but masses of highly visible inscriptions literally leaping out at you as you entered the church.
There were other insights too. The way in which many of the numerous heraldic inscriptions utilised the coloured borders of the paintings, adding pigment and a colour scheme to heraldry that we normally only encounter in the UK as bare and empty outlines. Carefully placed on boundaries between pigments, the little shields allow the walls to take on the form of a crude Roll of Arms. Can this too then be translated to English church walls, where the medieval pigment has long since been lost? Can we in fact use the graffiti to outline and identify these areas of lost pigment? A reversal of the usual trend.
Perhaps most importantly the graffiti in the crypt is a sealed little moment in time. A fragment of the past - a few brief decades of peoples hopes, dreams, and fears - that have been fossilised in the graffiti. They didn't leave their names, so we will never know who they were. We will never know if they were knight or priest, cleric or commoner. We will never know if they went on to have long and happy lives, or died weeping and alone in the agony of a plague year. But what they have left us is what they deemed important enough to leave behind them. What they cared about most - whether it be a prayer, an echoing fragment of music, or just the briefest of outlines that tell us the most important message of all - 'once upon a time I was real - I lived, I loved, I made this mark - and I was here...'