A medieval fortress, arising on three hills in the heart of Tuscany, Siena is a city of art surrounded by ancient walls, where narrow streets lined with splendid buildings all lead to Piazza del Campo. No matter how you describe it, Siena is a true medieval burg, a genuine open-air museum alike Toledo in Spain or Arles in France. Siena is located in the very heart of Tuscany, about 60 km south of Florence and only 200 kilometres south of Rome. The nearest airports are located in Pisa and Florence and Siena, from where you can get to Siena by train or by bus. The car traffic inside the city walls is limited, especially in the old part of the city, yet there are parking lots outside the central area.
Siena is a classic medieval town, famous throughout Tuscany for its large fan-shaped piazzas. The history of the city dates back from antiquity, being founded by the son of Remus. Yes, that Remus, whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome. Obviously, Siena had to have a great destiny. Siena registered its peak development in the medieval period, at the end of the third century and early fourth century, when it became one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. This is also the time when many of the buildings that stand today were built, offering the city a fairy tale aura. However, unlike the Renaissant Florence, Siena flourished during the Gothic period – Siena cathedral and the numerous palaces are architectural monuments built in Gothic style here.
Declared by UNESCO a world cultural heritage site, Siena is one of the most beautiful towns in Tuscany that has retained its medieval charm unspoilt by modernity for hundreds of years. The same historical atmosphere can be felt while wandering the medieval narrow and crooked streets that lead to the historic center, the place where the most beautiful places to visit are located. From romantic little piazzas where you will often find pigeons on the buildings dating from the 14th and 15th centuries to beautiful modern villas, there is always something to admire in Siena. It is a city quite unlike other Italian tourist destinations. Much smaller than Florence, Rome and Milan, the main tourist attractions in Siena are focused on a relatively small area, thus making it a comfortable place to visit. The historic center, a witness of Italian culture for centuries, with its charming streets, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage, as mentioned above. As the downtown traffic is severely limited, being mostly a pedestrian area, a walk here will bring you back in time in the medieval world. The main attractions are historical ones here.
Major sights to visit in Siena
The entrance to the old town is near the church of San Domenico, whose construction began in 1225 by Camporegio being offered to the Dominican monks of Fortebraccio Malavolti. The works were completed in 1265, yet the church was greatly enlarged in the next century by the addition of new Gothic elements. In this church Saint Catherine has had her visions. Here, in the "Cappella delle Volte", the painting "Pious Santa Caterina" by Andrea Vanni, a contemporary of hers, can be found. Inside the Chapel of Saint Catherine (approximatively in the middle of the nave on the right) you can admire a magnificent marble Renaissance tabernacle, sculpted by Giovanni di Stefano in 1469, which contains the head of the Saint, brought from Rome in 1384. The walls are covered with frescoes, depicting episodes from the life of Catherine, the work of Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), known also as Sodoma. Church of San Agostino, perhaps the most beautiful one of Siena, features numerous art works attributed to Manetti and Vanni, while in the 15th century chapel can be found frescoes by Martini and Signorelli.
Going up on Via della Sapienza and further on Via Santa Caterina, you will reach the most famous fountain of Siena, Fontebranda; in its proximity, the house where Caterina Benincasa, the daughter of Jacopo di Benincasa and Mona Lappa Piagenti, was born on March 25, 1347. After deciding to not get married ever at the age of 7, Catherine embraces Dominican rule, having many visions and bringing its contribution to the return to Rome of the Sovereign Pontiff, who transferred in 1309 to Avignon in France. On April 29, 1380, Catherine Benincasa dies in Rome, being canonized by Pope Pius II (Piccolomini), born in Siena, in 1461 then proclaimed co-patron of Rome in 1866 by Pius IX and co-patron of Italy in 1939 by PiusXII. In 1466, the house where she has lived was purchased by Siena City Hall, transforming it into a true sanctuary dedicated to Saint Catherine with wonderful works of art. From here, you immediately give into piazza Salimbeni, which was designed by the architect Giuseppe Partini in the late 19th century, being closed on three sides by the buildings whose architecture belong to three distinct styles. In the middle, the Salimbeni Palace is located dating from the 14th century built in Gothic style; on the right side, there is the Spannocchi Palace from the15th century in Renaissance style, and on the left there is the Tantucci Palace, from the 16th century in baroque style.
Leaving Piazza Salimbeni and heading towards Banchi di Sopra, one will reach Piazza del Campo. Originally a Roman Forum, Piazza del Campo also known shortly as Il Campo, represents the heart of Siena, with all the medieval narrow and winding streets leading inevitably here. Paved with brick and surrounded by cafes, restaurants and historic buildings, Il Campo offers great views. Taking the form of a shell or fan, Piazza del Campo is one of the most beautiful piazzas in the world. On its basis, the long facade of the Palazzo Publico extends, from which eight radial white lines start that divide the field into nine parts, a symbol of one of Siena's government bodies, the Council of Nine, expression of the petite bourgeoisie, craftsmen and bankers. On the superior part of the piazza, the Gaia Fountain is located, being called so to express the great joy that broke lose from its inauguration in 1348, by that time the wells being a symbol of power. In 1419, the piazza was adorned with sculptures of Jacopo della Quercia, yet many of them had been damaged and were replaced with copies.
Nearby, tourists can find the famous the Palazzo Publico and Torre del Mangia. The tower offers a splendid view of the city and its surroundings, while the Palazzo Pubblico is a classic example of Gothic architecture in Tuscany, being decorated with frescoes made by great artists such as Simone Martini and Vecchietta. The Palazzo Publico is one of the most beautiful buildings in northern Italy, dating from the second half of the 13th century. The palace was built between 1297 and 1310, suffering a series of additions later on. The Palazzo Publico is an edifice of rare elegance, with a slightly curved façade, featuring on its central part a large circle of copper with the monogram IHS - Iesus Hominum Savior - Jesus Savior of Mankind, which has been the symbol of St. Bernardino. In Gothic style, the palace is built of brick, except the ground floor, entirely of stone. The columns and arches serve for purely ornamental purposes, enhancing the elegance of the building that exudes a certain sobriety at the same time. To one edge stands Torre del Mangia, which is 88 meters high and designed by Lippo Memmi. Slim and stylish, the tower was built between 1338 and 1348. It is one of the highest towers of this kind in Italy. The tower has not been built for defense purposes. It is said that the name of the tower "Torre del Mangia" comes from Balduccio di Giovanni, nicknamed "Mangiaguadagni" due to his tendency to spend all his money on food. The tower ensures the palace a privileged position, as it can be seen from far away, from any part of the town. On the ground floor, there was built a small chapel, expressing the transition from Gothic to Renaissance. The palace, seat of several governments that have succeeded over the centuries, has been decorated by the great painters of the Sienese school. In "The Hall of Maps" the famous work "Maestà" can be admired, the first known work of Simone Martini dating from 1315, together with the portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano, attributed to the same artist, a renown painting for the striking contrast between the realism with which the character is drawn and the irealism of the landscape. "The Peace Hall" contains numerous paintings drawn between 1335 and 1340 by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, while in the the chapel there can be admired Taddeo di Bartolo's frescoes with scenes from the life of Our Lady, and the art work of Sodoma "Holy Family".
Leaving Piazza del Campo and heading towards Via di Città, visitors will reach Piazza del Duomo, which several monuments of rare beauty can be found: the Duomo, Baptistery of St. John and Duomo Museum. Duomo di Siena is a beautiful cathedral, a harmonious mingle of Gothic and Romanesque architecture, with a splendid facade decorated with white and green marble. The Siena Cathedral was built in medieval times, between 1215 and 1263, on the site of an ancient cathedral dedicated to Our Lady and it is the beautiful expression of religious Roman-Gothic Italian architecture. The Duomo was built in the shape of an octagonal cross, and has a bell tower. This new edifice was inaugurated on November 18, 1179. It suffered a few changes during the 13th century performed by Nicola Pisano (1220-1283), and it had been greatly enlarged since 1316 in the transept, as well as in its apse parts. Yet, the most important works had been carried out since 1339 by Agostino di Giovanni (1310-1370), known more as a sculptor rather than an architect. The dome was completed in 1263 and was later rebuilt in 1667, while the Romanesque Campanile is built in 1313.
But the main attraction of the Duomo remains its richly ornamented façade. Its inferior part has been completed by Nicola's son, Giovanni Pisano (1245-1314) in 1285, author of several statues of great expressiveness. The upper part of facade was completed in 1376 by Giovanni di Cecco, following the façade model of the Duomo of Orvieto. Both the interior and the exterior of the cathedral have been finished in white and black-greenish marble, placed alternating, in tune with the colours of the city. On the façade there can be distinguished some red marble too. The floor dating from the 14th-15th century is unique in the world, representing one of the main attractions here. Inside, you will find a great collection of art works of famous artists such as Donatello, Pisano and Arnolfo di Cambio. The Museum of the Cathedral contains several statues by Pisano, brought here to be preserved and restored, as well as the art works of other artists, including "Maesta" by Duccio di Buoninsegni. Near the cathedral there is located also the former hospital Santa Maria della Scala, a museum complex nowadays, with frescoes, paintings and various objects in its collection.
Baptistery of St. John (Il Battistero di San Giovanni) was built in the 14th century, its construction being initiated in 1316 by Camaino di Crescentino and later in 1355 the work was continued under the supervision of Domenico di Agostino, yet the facade, designed in Gothic style, has remained unfinished in its upper part. The interior is decorated with frescoes attributed to Vecchietta, most of them being made in 1450. In the center there is a "Fountain of Baptism", whose drawing is attributed to Jacopo della Quercia, who has apparently been helped by the famous sculptors of the Italian Renaissance: Donatello and Ghiberti. Besides Palazzo Publico, Siena also features one of the oldest universities in Europe dating from 1240; the Palace Bosignori from the 14th century, with Pinturicchio Piccolomini Library founded in 1495 by Francesco Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius III; numerous churches dating from the 13th and 14th century.
In order to discover the lifestyle of the people of Siena, beyond the museums and works of art, the best place would be the market. The most important of these is the central market, held every Wednesday morning in La Lizza. By afternoon the streets are full of people, merchants and buyers, and the product range is huge, from clothing to food and flowers. For those interested in antiquities, the best antiques fair is organized in the third Sunday of each month in Piazza del Mercato.
Travel advice while in Siena
Siena offers tourists throughout the year a lot of promotions for the entrance tickets to various attractions, which means you will not spend a fortune to enjoy the culture, architecture and history of the places during your stay. In case you have a limited budget, it is best to avoid such weekends as Il Palio, with the famous horse race that takes place several times a year. During these weekends, accommodation and food prices will be at least two times higher than usual. Also, many of the churches here are opened to visitors free of charge, so if you are not concerned with seeing the most important tourist attractions (however Duomo is a must). It is absolutely possible to spend a few days here without spending a single euro on entry fees. Most hotels in Siena are located outside the old city center, yet you will be able to reach Piazza del Campo very easily by walking.
Siena is also a great starting point from which to explore the Italian rural areas. If you have a car or you choose to rent a car, you should think about the possibility to spend a day outside the city and see San Gimignano, known as the city with the best ice cream in the world. If wine is more than a small pleasure, go to the Chianti region and book your place for a wine tasting tour. It is not that expensive, plus you will have a guide from whom you can learn what types of food go perfectly with Italian wines.
Main festivals in Siena
Festivals play a very important role in Siena, and the most important festivals are two religios ones, organized to celebrate the saints that patronize the city: Santa Lucia on December 13 and St. Giuseppe on March 19. In Siena. There are also other festivals held, many based on the traditions of agriculture, to celebrate the harvest of olives or grapes. The most important event of the year is the much beloved festival “Il Palio di Siena”, a horse race that takes place in Piazza del Campo twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. The race is held between caregivers of horses from different neighborhoods, being extremely competitive. Winning the Palio is a great. Although it is sometimes risky for both the horse and the rider, the Sieneses consider Il Palio one of the greatest things about the city, as important as a football derby. It is that important due to the fact that inside the museum in Siena there are a lot of paintings representing the winners of the competition, because each year an artist is called to capture the race. The event is now one of the most anticipated in Italy, being broadcasted on national television.
By Maria Morari
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