The city of Siena is surrounded by ancient walls dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. There are even older walls located in the inner (older) layers of the city. Back in the day, walls were important for preventing your neighbor from entering your city with an army, lighting it on fire, and taking what was left.
Walls, however, are not an infallible defense technology. Most humans, given time and resources, can figure out all kinds of ways to breach walls. In Siena’s case, the walls did their best to protect the sovereignty of the Republic of Siena under constant pressure from their rival, Florence but eventually, Florence would end up dominating not only Siena, but much of Italy (before it was actually Italy). While the walls can’t be to blame for Siena’s stolen independence they stand as a symbol of resistance.
Today Siena and Florence are not the mortal enemies that they once were. The rivalry lingers but doesn’t go much farther than the football stadium and the occasional discussion after a little too much Chianti. Both Siena and Florence’s walls still stand but in an ironic victory for Siena, the walls surrounding it are the most in-tact and longest stretching in Europe (from the late-medieval period). They are in fact protected by the UNESCO World Heritage organization along with the rest of Siena’s medieval center. Florence’s walls are no longer fully in-tact and are only protected by regular Italian laws. So there.
You would think that Siena’s walls would be an attraction on the list of things to see when visiting the city along with the Piazza del Campo and the Duomo. The reality is that most of the visitors to the city only see a tiny fraction of the walls. In fact, the majority of the native Sienese have not seen every meter of the 6km circle of walls. Much of Siena’s walls are covered by decades-old ivy and it takes a keen eye to spot them from afar. If you get close to them, of course it’s easy to see the ancient bricks behind the thick, climbing roots. However, it’s difficult to get close to large stretches of the walls as the access to them often runs through private property. Many of the owners of properties that are adjacent to the walls are wary of the risk of damaging a UNESCO site while others use this as an excuse to not put in the necessary work to keep things pristine. To complicate things even more, the walls themselves are actually property of the state of Italy so the city administration always has a few extra bureaucratic hoops to jump through to make any progress concerning the walls. The situation has been at a standstill for multiple decades. Unfortunately the ivy hasn’t.
So here we are, because of property issues, bureaucracy and vegetation running wild, a key component of a UNESCO site goes mostly unseen. Kind of silly for a city that depends greatly on tourism, right? Three years ago I saw that a group of locals aimed to create an organization with the goal of creating access to the walls and to draw attention to the hidden treasure surrounding Siena. I volunteered as well and, was asked to be on the board of Le Mura, which in Italian means the walls. Yeah, it’s not that creative, but it works. Our little, volunteer organization spends a lot of time on Saturday mornings climbing through jungles of vegetation with chainsaws and other lethal weapons, liberating areas of the walls that many people born in Siena have never seen. I help with the coordination for our volunteer events and that means that I often involve my students (Siena Italian Studies).
This means that many students, living in Siena for only a few months, have seen areas of the walls that those born in Siena never knew existed. Our organization also spends a significant amount of time working with the local administration to figure out ways to make areas safe and accessible for more people. We’re also proposing creative ways to use the space surrounding the walls as well as the walls themselves. We’ve made a lot of progress, but for now our impact is only in its beginning stages.
For the past few months, one particular comment has stuck with me. We were hacking away at ivy and someone drew the rather obvious parallel between an American (me) and his American students working to save an ancient wall from falling down while another American talks a lot about building a brand new wall. If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you can probably at infer some of my opinions regarding the current president of the US. I don’t want to get too far into political debate here nor do I want to offend anyone (too much). So what can an American on the board of an ancient wall restoration group say about the proposed billion dollar wall that Mr. Trump wants to build along the thousands of miles of border between Mexico and the US? Well, I can say a number of things. For instance it sounds like the kind of idea that my three-year-old Son, Sean would have. Sean is pretty sharp, but he’s not accustomed to fully thinking through his ideas yet.
Stabs at the intelligence of the US presidents and the shortsightedness of those who loyally support stupid ideas aside, let’s examine how the wall in Siena fared over time. Did it keep the enemy out? Nope. The enemy came into the city over the walls, under the walls, and many times right through the gates in the walls. I suppose that they could have avoided the gate issue by not building any but that seems like another underdeveloped plan. Siena’s enemies had simple technology. Ladders, shovels, disguises, etc. Right now in 2017 people can fly around on drones. Also, both ladder and shovel technology have been vastly improved upon. I’m afraid that the effectiveness of walls is probably as weak as ever.
Many border wall enthusiasts pose the argument that building a really long wall would create jobs. Indeed it would! Spending billions of dollars on anything will create jobs. Spending billions of dollars fixing the decomposing infrastructure might be a better way to create jobs. Infrastructure is just a fancy word for stuff that we already built and that is now falling apart. Fixing stuff that we already have is not the symbolic gesture of nationalist dominance that is building a concrete wall (or is it just a fence now?). I understand that it’s a political play. Making our existing constructions safer and more efficient may be a better long-term political play. It’s obvious that Trump isn’t interested in the long-term. If he were, he might take look at a place like Siena. It and the rest of Europe have a lot more experience with fixing what they have. The house where I lived previous to now was 600 years old and it acted as a functional house like any other. Who knows how many renovations it has seen or how many jobs it created over the years? That’s just one tiny, little apartment of millions in Europe. My point is that I don’t buy the “It’ll create jobs” argument.
I could go on and on, but I’ll spare the rant. Much as I disagree, he’s the president and there are a lot of people think that he’s got great ideas. Maybe we’ll end up with a really fantastic wall along the southern border of the US. What about Canada though? They might start selling weed to people in North Dakota! But I digress…. If Trump were to get his fancy fence inevitably people will climb over, under, and through it and inevitably it will become obsolete like all walls as nations and people evolve. Maybe one day, long after its obsolescence is confirmed, some volunteers will take pity on the failed defense system and create an organization to restore it and reuse the space surrounding it for the benefit of all. Or, maybe not. Maybe future generations will see it as nature’s role to rip down all of the walls that we’ve built between ourselves.