Discover the captivating frescoes in one of Italy’s most handsome secular Gothic buildings, the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena.
A splendid example of Sienese Gothic architecture, Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) is the architectural centre-piece of Piazza del Campo and one of the symbols of Siena. Slightly concave, it merges perfectly with other buildings that surround the square, and focuses all attention on itself. The ground floor is built on pale travertine and opens up through a series of arcades and pointed arches, while in the upper storeys, mullioned windows add a touch of elegance to the red brickwork.
Reading history in the stones
The city’s black and white coat of arms or “balzana” can be found underneath every arch and enriches the contrast between light and dark.
When the Palazzo Pubblico was built at the end of the 13th century to give the government a stable seat, Siena was at the height of his splendour and wanted to show it off through its architecture. The stone coat of arms with the six balls sitting in the centre of the facade is instead a reminder of the Medici rule from 1555 onwards. By this time, Siena was in a state of decline.
Climb the tower of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena
The elegant bell tower built between 1325-44 rises high above the square. The second-highest in Italy, it was built to reflect the pride of the Sienese Republic. Climb the 400 narrow steps to get to the top of the tower, the Torre del Mangia, and you’ll get a 360 degree view of the city and surrounding countryside; one that’s more than worth the effort.
Only 25 people are allowed in at a time in high season, so expect a wait. You’ll be asked to leave your bags in lockers on the first floor.
The Civic Museum and its Medieval frescoes
If you like frescoes, the Civic Museum (Museo Civico) hosted in the Palazzo Pubblico is the place to visit, together with the Piccolomini Library in the Cathedral. You can step into the courtyard without paying but there’s a ticket for the Museo Civico.
The museum has a few rooms that are wall-to-wall with frescoes. The Highlights include the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (in the last room known as Sala dei Nove, also called “Sala della Pace”), and the lavish Maestà by Simone Martini, that depicts the city’s patron, the Virgin Mary, in all her splendour. Martini applied lavish amounts of gold leaves, jewels and glass to augment the sumptuous quality of his work. It’s a striking example of Gothic painting and one of the most important of the Sienese school. A few flights of stairs get you to a loggia with a view over the Piazza del Campo and the hills beyond.
Did you know?
The Torre del Mangia’s name comes from the first tower bell ringer whose nickname was Mangiaguadagni or “he who eats all his earnings”. Apparently he was very idle and loved his food. A little worrying considering his job was to warn the town if it came under attack.