“And behind door number 3…”
Often we imagine how grand it must be to sit in a piazza eating gelato, while enjoying the rushing sound of water as it cascades down an enormous carved horse, water nymph, or sea god. But those sights are for the masses, the peasants, the common rabble, as they hurriedly get about their lives.
Behind weathered, ancient walls, out of sight of the public’s purview, there exists a peaceful, calm, and private oasis. For all of Italy’s very apparent public beauty, there is a hidden world even more decorous. It is a private world of interior courtyards, porches, and loges.
Tucked away behind an unassuming set of doors along a very busy street in Siena, a cobblestone courtyard, complete with a wellhead and a very ornate loge, waits to be discovered. Busts of men fill niches that are staggered throughout the covered loge, the ceiling of which is frescoed within an inch of its life. Birds, fruit, creatures of mythological origins, and twisting vines are painted in plaster to capture and inspire one’s imagination. Here is where private beauty exceeds what is offered to the general public. These kinds of private treasures are abundant in Italy. But how can they be discovered?
Walk along the busy neighborhood streets of Rome and look for a flashing yellow light next to a weathered wooden door or gate. The flashing light warns the passerby that the door will be opening to let a car exit, providing a brief glimpse of the private beauty within.
Initially, when the light would start to flash, I would scuttle ahead of the slowly opening doors, hurrying to get out of the car’s way as it pulled forward and joined the bustling Roman traffic. Soon I learned to stop and wait before passing the opening door—giving me a chance to lean into the doorway, as the car passed, to see what hidden gem might be behind this door. Sometimes the Peeping Tom at the door—me—would see tall courtyard walls thickly covered in ivy, or a palm tree centered in the doorway, or statuary and a fountain surrounded by large terracotta pots overflowing with multicolored flowers.
At first, I found myself slightly ashamed by my brazen public peeping, but soon I got over that, and acted as if the exiting car and the people inside were a nuisance to me, an obstacle barring me from a pristine view. There were times when the hidden courtyard, or porch, or loge that came into view was so beautiful that I, for a moment, became indignant that the owners of this property were keeping it hidden from me.
I wanted to raise my fist in protest and shout at the tinted windows of the car, “How dare you lock up this beauty with its spouting water, potted flowers, vines, and nymph statuary?!!”
But I knew that might look too threatening and get me into trouble—some of the opening doorways were actually government buildings, and now is not the time to be screaming at a motorcade as it passes. I don’t imagine prison showers to be too enjoyable.
In Siena, I have walked along the same streets year after year; never realizing what was hidden from view. Richard and I happened upon the opened doors of the courtyard pictured above in 2006 and we have yet to discover it a second time. I am not certain why the doors were open to the public that day in particular. Each year, we walk the street looking for the opened doors, but for as individually beautiful as all of the doors are, once closed, they soon become a sea of sameness.
“Wait, I think it is over here,” I’ll say to Richard.
“No, it was farther up this direction.”
He stands in the middle of the crowded pedestrian street pointing uphill, while moving out of the way for the occasional car that is now slowly pressing its way through the throng. From above, I imagine this sight as resembling ants moving a large leave across the rainforest floor. A mass of ants moves like flowing water while a large green leaf slowly inches its way in the opposite direction, giving the illusion that it is swimming upstream against the rushing tide of ants. That is how a car inches through the ancient streets of Siena.
“Are you sure it isn’t here?” I reply, frustrated, as we continue our trek up and down the hillside avenue failing to rediscover our lost courtyard.
Someday, maybe, the owner of the courtyard will buy a car and install a flashing yellow light and, if they do, I hope I am standing there to peep as it opens!