Siena is often described as Italy’s best preserved medieval city! The streets are steep and narrow with the fan-shaped sloping Piazza del Campo (known as il Campo) and the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s subtly curved town hall since the 1300’s at the historic center. The Palazzo Pubblico with its Torre del Mangia, the second tallest medieval 330′ tower in Italy soars over the Piazza del Campo in one of the finest public squares in all of Italy constructed near the end of the 12th century. You can walk to the top of the tower with commanding views of the city. The city itself is very modern with many famous designer shops.
We had a wonderful guide here in Siena (Donatella- named after the famous Donatella) who made the city come alive for us! I cannot stress enough how valuable it is to hire a local guide. You miss so much if you are just trying to follow along in a guide book although they do provide some great information. If you need help planning your trip send me a note and I can connect you with a wonderful agent who can arrange a trip tailored just for you. Be prepared to walk and in comfy shoes and in June it was very hot so we went thru almost more water than wine, ALMOST!!!
Of course, if you have ever heard of Siena you have heard of The Palio. A famous crazy horse race that takes place twice a year on July 2 and August 16th representing the Medieval Contrade first run in 1310. All over the city you see the Medieval Contrade banners of the 17 neighborhoods which have divided the city since the Middle Ages. When we were there a few days before the Palio they were in evidence everywhere. Loyalty and rivalry runs deep in these neighborhoods. This is a crazy, insane event and the festivities kick off 3 days beforehand. The il Campo is transformed into a horse track, if that is what you can call it. The race is over in just a matter of minutes when the wild celebrations commence. There are 3 laps and it takes about 90 seconds! We spent time in the Contrade neighborhood of the Chicciola (the snail).
Catherine was the Patron Saint of Europe and her Cathedral was in Siena. The Duomo’s Gothic baptistry was built in the 14th century and is certainly one of the finest Gothic churches in Italy. The stripes you see on the Cathedral were influenced by Constantinoble and one of the most detailed facades anywhere. There are magnificent Renaissance frescoes here in excellent condition.
The inlaid marble floors in the cathedral are covered up most of the year for protection. The floor is full of stories created with yellow marble which is the most precious and was mined in the surrounding area. The painter created the design on a piece of paper first then with a hand chisel the lines were filled in with black marble dust. The stories were 15th century Pagan philosophies and had never been seen before in a Christian church. Fascinating stories surround the marble carvings on the floor depending on your point of view.
After the Palio all come there and the archbishop waits for them commencing 2 months of celebration but first they give thanks to the Virgin Mary. There will be restoration going on here for another year. It is very difficult due to the different kinds of marble and dirt and figuring out how to clean it.
The Duomo’s interior has black and white striping throughout with a coffered and gilded dome. There are panels of stained glass and is the oldest example of stained glass in Italy finished in 1288.
Two popes paid a fortune and created a crypt that was never used but the frescoes in there are in remarkable condition having never been restored and have maintained the vibrance of the colors since there was no dirt from people breathing and candles. Twenty two years ago the room was opened and people can only go in and out.
Before starting the David, Michelangelo had begun 4 other sculptures that he started 4 months before but never finished since he left and went to Florence. It seems the alcoves were not deep enough to accommodate his style.
Siena was an essential stop on a prominent medieval road that went between – Scotland and Rome used by thousands of Christians on their pilgrimage from Europe to Rome. Thus Siena grew to great wealth and power, developing a banking system, with one of Europe’s oldest working banks in the world – Monte dei Paschi, still in business. Siena dominated the wool trade, and became an art, textile and trade center establishing itself as a rival to Florence until it succumbed to Florentine rule in the mid-16th century.
In the architecture they were influenced by the French which we see in the pointed Gothic Arches. Many individual homes were created as forts where oil and arrows protected families were released from the top of the crenelation on the houses. We saw this also in Florence.
San Martino is a Roman Catholic church located in central Siena. The Baroque facade hints at the beauty within. Take time to stop in and visit if the doors are open. You will not be disappointed. A church stood on this site by the 12th century but was rebuilt in the 16th century. The Bell tower was completed in 1738. Adjacent to the church is the Renaissance style Logge del Papa erected in 1462.
Chiesa di San Pellegrino alla Sapienza – There was originally a hospital founded in the middle of the 13th century on this site. The 18th century Gothic style facade is home to a Roman Catholic church.
Since Siena is one of the best preserved medieval cities it has a network of medieval tunnels that feed water to Siena’s fountains and until recently provided the only supply of running water. These tunnels are called ‘Bottini’.
Here in southern Tuscany the windows are often closed as the sun is so strong and ruins the furniture. A funny antidote we heard was when they hang laundry out is how you know what is happening in a family, like the birth of a baby. Too funny!
This area of Tuscany is perfect for growing and is planted with vines and olives.
Many famous painters and sculptors worked in Siena including Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo and Pisano who was the creator of some of the greatest sculptures in the world in the 13th century. They were the forerunners of the Renaissance. They started to show expression in their works. They were all in Siena but the masterpieces were in Florence and Rome.
Sadly in 1348 the city was decimated by the Black Death and then fell into decline thereafter.
In 1995 its center was declared part of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Are you loving stories about Italy? Did you miss Venice, Florence or Chianti. Click on the links! Next up we continue in the Val D’Orcia region. Stay tuned and be sure you are following the blog so you don’t miss any upcoming stories!