Just one hour away from Florence, Siena is a classic well-preserved example of a Tuscan Renaissance hill-town. We get there on an organized bus tour that also visits San Gimignano.
Siena is ideal for walking, so the main activity is to stroll through its narrow pedestrian lanes and find the main artistic and cultural highlights, including the cathedral, the main piazza, and several small museums. Most of the buildings here were constructed between 1200 and 1500, and really give you a feeling for life back in those days, especially since automobiles are excluded from the historic center.
Siena is a very livable city, built to a human scale covering just one square mile. It is small enough you can easily walk from one end of town to the other, with an endless variety of interesting things to see along the way. Small, but criss-crossed by dozens of little lanes that provide many miles of picturesque strolling opportunities for the ambitious trekker. You will find the typical European mix of homes, shops and businesses in the same block, with the locals gathering in the outdoor theater of the streets.
Life is concentrated but peaceful here: cars and even bicycles are not allowed into the historic center, making for a quiet atmosphere where people and the historic environment are centers of attention.
When you look at the town, you see a dense concentration of old brick houses built on top of each other, completely covering several hills. A major reason for this tight squeeze was the frequent warfare of the Middle Ages with attacks that might come from enemies in Florence, Pisa or Genoa, or perhaps from within the city itself with feuds between competing factions. This threat forced towns or competing factions to protect themselves by building walls around tight clusters of homes, creating virtual fortresses.
They occupied all the precious space that they could inside the walls, and over time this grew into a compact town that makes for a fascinating place to explore. Another reason the homes are built so close is to hold each other up, since there are no deep foundations to support them.
13th century Siena had a population of 50,000 people, making it one of medieval Europe’s major cities, the same size as Paris or Florence, and bigger than London. This gives you a quick hint of the importance of Siena at that time and why it is worth visiting today. The population declined in later centuries as Siena slipped out of the mainstream of Italian history -- which left its precious old buildings undisturbed, preserving for us a vast, living museum. Only recently has the town’s population grown back its earlier size, with a healthy economy and the nation’s fifth most expensive cost of living.
The two main attractions you will want to begin with are the main square, a semi-circular piazza called Il Campo, and the nearby Cathedral. Additional sites to cover the first day include the main shopping streets and a museum; then your second day can be devoted to exploring the rest of town, strolling along the many picturesque lanes and visiting a few more churches and museums.
MAIN PIAZZA AND PALAZZO PUBBLICO
The main public square in the heart of Siena is Piazza del Campo, nearly 500 feet wide, and surrounded by shops, restaurants and the towering Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall. Like most of the rest of town, the surface is slanted along the slope of a hill, adding an unusual dimension to this beautiful gathering place.
The space is so large that it never seems to get crowded, no matter how many people are buzzing around the edges looking for souvenirs and a good meal in one of its many restaurants. After the narrow confines of the rest of town, you are surprised to enter into this grand open area. The Campo dates back to the 13th century, when such large piazzas were unheard of because governments feared giving their people a large gathering place for political protests and possibly revolution -- so of course, many such protests did take place here at this choice location in front of the city hall, over the centuries.
The piazza symbolizes the government in various ways. One message the leaders proclaimed with this large square was they would rule the city properly and were therefore not worried about revolution. Nine lines in the piazza divide the space into sections that represented the governing Council of Nine, which some feel today was the best government they ever had. Nine merchants and bankers ruled, desiring to make themselves and everyone else rich, and with the theme that all were welcome to participate. The Council of Nine presented a very new kind of democratic message for the Middle Ages, and it worked so well that Siena became one of the richest cities in Europe.
Construction of Palazzo Pubblico began in the late 13th century in classic Sienese Gothic style, built of stone on the bottom level and brick on the upper floors, with crenellations, turrets and the tall tower giving it the appearance of a fortified castle.
MAIN SHOPPING STREETS
Leave the piazza through any exit along the curved edge to enter the main shopping street of town, which circles all around the outside of the Campo. This busy pedestrian lane changes name from Via di Citta on the west side to Via Banchi di Sotto on the east. The other main street, Via Banchi di Sopra, branches where the other two meet, forming a busy pedestrian intersection. These three are the widest of the pedestrian lanes in the historic center and are lined with many large buildings from the 13th through 15th centuries: palaces, churches, banks and civic structures. Of course you will find shops and restaurants throughout their lengths, which total less than a mile altogether. This is the neighborhood for easy strolling and watching the locals in action, although it gets quite full of tourists during the busy summer season. Escape the crowds by ducking into the side alleys, as we described in detail for your second day’s itinerary.
At the far end of Via Banchi di Sotto you will find the Siena University, one of the first in Europe when it was established in 1240, and across from it the large Palazzo Piccolomini with its impressive white travertine façade in the Florentine style, now housing the city archives. Most palaces are not open to the public but are worth viewing from the outside. Towards the far end of Via Banchi di Soppra you will find a pretty little square, Piazza Salimbeni, surrounded by three palaces in different styles from the 14th and 15th centuries: they house Europe’s oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi that was founded in 1472. Just beyond is Piazza Matteotti which leads to Piazza Gramsci, the regional bus station with service to Florence and other Tuscan destinations.
These three shopping lanes are worth walking from one end to the other and back again, which can be done in one or two hours, stopping for a bite at one of the attractive little restaurants along the way. Late afternoon is always the ideal time for a stroll in any Italian town, with the locals out in force enjoying their “passagiatta” promenade, so plan to come back here when you have finished the day’s touring. Save the smaller back lanes for tomorrow. Your next goal is the Duomo.
Three blocks west of the Campo and atop one of the town’s three hills stands the great cathedral of Siena, the Duomo, one of the world’s most beautiful churches. The piazza in front is much smaller than Il Campo, an indication of the greater importance of civic life in the past, so for a good view and photo of the façade, you want to stand as far away as possible to fully appreciate this masterpiece. The Sienese took 200 years to build the Duomo, starting at about the same time as Notre Dame of Paris in the mid-12th century, and spending many more years to fully decorate the edifice. This is one of the grandest cathedrals in Italy because the most famous artists worked on it:Pisano, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Donatello and Bernini.
Unusual for Italy, the Duomo is built primarily in the Gothic style, which is rarely seen elsewhere in the country. Siena is considered the City of the Gothic in Italy, with its most famous art works and economic peak dating to that time. Romanesque and Byzantine styles are also part of this complicated structure, which is symbolic of the important role of Siena in medieval commerce: The merchants were trading with northern Europe as well as the Near East. The main street of Siena, which today is a quiet pedestrian lane, was a major artery in the global trade network, with riches pouring in from Asia and being shipped north. Many new kinds of jobs were created during this great expansion of trade, with banking and money-changing becoming important industries for Siena in order to satisfy Europe’s growing need for commerce and common currencies.
More than just a religious structure, the Duomo is an economic symbol of wealth, international trade and cultural influences -- the only building in town constructed entirely of marble. The Sienese had hoped to expand it into the world’s largest church during the Middle Ages, but the Black Death wiped out most of the population in 1348 and the ambitious work was halted.
Entering the cathedral, you will be overwhelmed with its size and striking design of black and white horizontal stripes throughout the columns and walls. The zebra-like stripes are a surprise that you don’t see very often in Italy but might expect to find in Istanbul or Cordoba in the Muslim and Byzantine styles. Round arches of the Romanesque stand near pointed arches of the Gothic, continuing the mix of styles. At first it seems dark inside, as there are very few windows, but your eyes will gradually adjust.
The remarkable floor contains 56 large mosaic pictures made from many types of colored marble and is considered by many to be the building’s masterpiece: it is unique in the world. Bold three-dimensional, geometric designs frame the pictures and extend throughout all dimensions of the floor. You can have the singular experience of walking on a marble carpet picture gallery instead of looking at paintings on a wall, but the unwary could easily overlook these mosaics while gazing around at the Duomo’s many other powerfully attractive features.
One aspect you cannot miss is the huge dome that soars overhead. This is a mysterious and magical feature, for experts are not quite sure when it was built and it is not what it seems to be. The dome may have been part of an older church and certainly is earlier than the larger, famous dome of the Florence cathedral, but records of the Duomo’s construction have been lost. The dome appears to be coffered with square recesses, but this is an optical trick painted on in the 16th century. Slightly asymmetric, the blue dome with golden stars is a stunningly attractive sight representing the Kingdom of Heaven.
Another masterpiece is the elaborately carved 13th-century pulpit by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, a father and son team considered the most important Gothic sculptors in Europe whose animated styles paved the way for the Renaissance. They carved many great works, but their most important are this pulpit and the one in Pisa. As a platform for preaching, the pulpit was a focal point of great interest to the congregation during the sermon, and this one rises to the occasion with many elaborate, flowing scenes from the life of Christ. The Baptistery, underneath the nave, has another important carved structure, the baptismal font, created in the 15th century.
Rome’s greatest Baroque sculptor, Bernini, is also represented in a side chapel he designed containing two of his statues of saints -- Jerome and Mary Magdalen. It is rare to find any works by Bernini outside of Rome, so this is a special treat. Michelangelo, a native of Tuscany, has a marble statue of St. Paul here, which is not one of his best -- but is noteworthy because it was to be part of a larger series of 15 statues that he was paid for but never finished, resulting in a lawsuit that dogged him for much of his life.
A most delightful surprise in the Duomo is the series of brightly colored frescoes painted by Pinturicchio from 1502 to 1509 on the walls of a side room: they depict scenes from the life of Pope Pius II. This Piccolomini Library is named for a noble family who produced two popes and many other important officials. The viewing experience is astonishing because you are completely surrounded by the painting, totally immersed inside it rather than just looking at it. The walls are filled with deep perspectives showing vast landscapes and elaborate architecture that frames extremely detailed scenes of religious celebrations, depicting hundreds of people in decorative Renaissance dress interacting with the pope. Most visitors are unaware of this hidden treasure, but it is well worth the small admission fee to go inside. Pinturicchio is not very famous because most of his work was done here and in his native Umbria, although he did some work in the Sistine Chapel’s lower walls, and a few of his paintings are in important American museums.
We return to Florence with the tour.