Written: October 2010
Occurred: July 2009
Florence gets more attention, but my Italian and I prefer Siena to Florence by a huge margin. The tourist hordes can keep Florence.
According to legend Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus; the symbol of the wolf feeding the twins Romulus and Remus is as ubiquitous in Siena as it is in Rome. The city was probably of Etruscan origin, although it wasn’t until the 1st century BC, when the Romans established a military colony here called Sena Julia, that it began to grow into a proper town. Even so, it remained a minor outpost until the arrival of the Lombards in the 6th century. Under them, Siena became a key point along the main route from northern Italy to Rome, the Via Francigena. The city was next under the control of local bishops before power passed to locally elected administrators.
By the 13th century Siena had become a wealthy trading city, producing textiles, saffron, wine, spices and wax, and its traders and bankers did deals all over Western Europe. Its rivalry with neighboring Florence also grew proportionately, leading to numerous wars between Guelph Florence and Ghibelline Siena, each intent upon controlling ever more Tuscan territory. In 1230 Florence besieged Siena and catapulted shit and rotting donkey flesh over its walls in an attempt to spread the plague. Siena’s revenge came at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260 – but victory was short-lived. Nine years later the Tuscan Ghibellines were defeated by Charles of Anjou and, for almost a century, Siena was obliged to toe the Florentine line.
Siena reached its peak under the republican rule of the Consiglio dei Nove (Council of Nine), an elected executive committee dominated by the rising mercantile class. Many of the finest buildings in the Sienese Gothic style were constructed during this period, including the cathedral, the Palazzo Comunale and the Piazza del Campo. The Sienese school of painting was born at this time, with Guido da Siena, and flowered in the early 14th century, when artists such as Duccio di Buoninsegna and Ambrogio Lorenzetti were at work.
A plague outbreak in 1348 killed two-thirds of the the city’s 100,000 inhabitants and led to a period of decline (even today the city still has a population of just 53,900).
At the end of the 14th century, Siena came under the control of Milan’s Visconti family, followed in the next century by the autocratic patrician Pandolfo Petrucci. Under Petrucci the city’s fortunes improved, until the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V conquered it in 1555 after a two-year siege that left thousands dead. He handed the city over to Cosimo I de’ Medici, who barred the residents from operating banks, thus severely curtailing Siena’s power.
Though the residents who endured it may not agree, Siena’s centuries-long economic downturn in the wake of the Medici takeover was a blessing that resulted in the city’s present-day attractiveness. Its predominantly Gothic surroundings have survived largely intact as no one could be bothered to undertake (or fund) demolition or new construction. Furthermore, unlike the battering endured by neighboring cities in WWII, the French took Siena virtually unopposed, sparing it discernible damage.
The city today relies for its prosperity on tourism and the success of its Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank, founded in 1472 and now one of the city’s largest employers.
Siena was the first European city to ban motor traffic from its heart (in 1966) and so it is quite pleasant to walk through the snarled lanes of the historic center, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Entering the city…
Scenes of Siena:
Piazza del Campo and Palazzo Comunale… Piazza del Campo has been Siena’s civic and social center ever since it was staked out by the Consiglio dei Nove (Council of Nine) in the mid-14th century. The piazza was the site of a former Roman marketplace and its pie-piece paving design is divided into nine sectors to represent the number of members of the ruling council.
Dating from 1297, the elegant Palazzo Comunale was conceived by the Consiglio dei Nove as a nerve center for the republican government, uniting the offices and courts in one building, thus greatly reducing the symbolic and actual power of the feudal nobles:
Fonte Gaia (Happy Fountain)… Water first bubbled forth from Fonte Gaia in 1346, so consider how many of this pigeon’s ancestors have also drank from this fountain:
You can easily see the Palazzo Comunale rising above the rest of the city here:
The interior of the church in the preceding picture:
I liked the way this “window” looked:
The picture below requires a little explanation… The boy is practicing for Il Palio – a spectacular event, held twice yearly on 2 July and 16 August, in honor of the Virgin Mary, that dates back to the Middle Ages and features colorful pageants, a wild horse race around Piazza del Campo, eating, drinking and celebrating in the streets.
This is one of very few major medieval spectacles of its type in Italy, which has survived through the sheer tenacity of Sienese traditionalism.
Ten of Siena’s seventeen town districts compete for the coveted palio, a silk banner. Each district has its own traditions, symbol and colors, and its own church and palio museum. Along the streets you’ll notice the various flags and plaques delineating these quarters, each with a name and symbol relating to an animal. Competition is so intense that fights sometimes break out between districts and Il Palio jockeys often live in fear from rival districts.
On festival days Piazza del Campo becomes a racetrack, with a ring of packed dirt around its perimeter. From about 5 pm, representatives of each district parade in historical costume with their banners.
The race itself lasts for about one exhilarating minute as the ten horses and their bareback riders tear around the Piazza del Campo three times. Even if a horse loses its rider, it can still win and, since many riders fall each year, it is the horses in the end who are the focus of the event. There is only one rule: riders must not interfere with the reins of other horses.
It’s worth a visit…