Siena is one of those towns in Italy that looks like it has stepped out of a postcard. Some say it’s almost too perfect and manicured. Others swear eternal love to its picturesque Medieval streets.
We think that its ancient red brick buildings, stunning Piazza del Campo, and the Gothic Cathedral make it an endlessly fascinating place. And an absolute must for anyone travelling to Tuscany, Italy.
Siena, Italy – A Medieval jewel and UNESCO site
Siena’s city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage site. One the best preserved Medieval towns in the whole of Italy. The most important attractions are the shell-shaped main square Piazza del Campo, known simply as Il Campo by the locals, and the Cathedral square, dominated by a stunning Gothic Duomo that is a real feast for the eyes.
The main sights are gathered in a maze of narrow streets and steep alleys. The Cathedral sits on the highest point, while the Campo is set in a hollow that links the hills of Siena.
What makes Siena unique?
The city of Siena is like a Medieval wonderland. Once you’ve visited the top sights, one of the best things to do in Siena is getting lost in the side streets. Look carefully and you’ll discover all sorts of glorious details and unexpected views. All around the town you’ll see little plaques emblazoned with coats-of-arms and the colours of the contrade, or city districts. These are reminders of a distant past that is brought to life once a year in the city’s annual Palio horse race.
Once you leave Piazza del Campo, the crowds tend to thin out. Expect a lot of walking up and down steep streets. You can see the main attractions in a day, but spending the night will allow you to enjoy the city atmosphere in the evening, and explore the lesser known museums like the Museo Ospedale S.Maria della Scala and the Pinacoteca, a treasure trove of Medieval art.
To round off your Sienese experience, try the local specialities such as pici (a thick artisan version of spaghetti) , pecorino cheese, cinta senese salumi and meat, and the sweet ricciarelli and panforte. You’ll find plenty of opportunities for shopping in one of the many souvenir, pottery and boutique shops.
See the highlights of Siena, Italy
Piazza del Campo in Siena – A Medieval jewel
The Campo with its red brick and travertine design is the heart of Siena. You enter it via narrow passageways that open onto this elegant square. The impressive town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico, steals the show with its slender bell tower, the second-highest Medieval tower to be built in Italy. At its base is an open chapel, a reminder of the plague which ravaged Siena in the 14th century. The collection of buildings that borders the square is mesmerising, with its attractive red brick facades and elegant pointed arches.
The Gothic Cathedral and its treasures
The curved facade of the elegant Palazzo Chigi-Saracini in Via di Citta’, links the Campo to the Cathedral square, the religious soul of Siena. The Cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The story goes that the Virgin Mary was responsible for Siena’s famous victory at Montaperti in 1260 against Florence. Since then the city has been devoted to her.
Siena Cathedral’s highlights include a marvellous marble pavement, the frescoed Piccolomini library, a statue by Donatello and Pisano’s marble pulpit. But it’s the overall effect that is marvellous with the black and white columns and striking decorations. It seems like there’s not a single spot of blank space. You could easily spend a few hours exploring the interior of the Duomo, and visiting the Baptistery and the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (a museum devoted to items removed from the Duomo).
In the same square the unique Museo Santa Maria della Scala, an ex hospital, gives you the opportunity to learn about the history of Siena and this important institution.
Medieval art, paintings and frescoes in Siena
Fans of Medieval art, you’ve come to the right place. The first place to go is the Museo Civico hosted in the Palazzo Pubblico in Piazza del Campo. Here you can admire the fascinating frescoes by Lorenzetti that form one of the most important series of secular frescoes from the Middle Ages.
The Pinacoteca Nazionale is a fine gallery that contains an unsurpassed collection of paintings by artists of the Sienese school. This school of paintings flourished in Siena between the 13th and 15th century, and for a time rivalled Florence. The style was more conservative, more influenced by the decorative beauty of late Gothic art , and less interested in naturalistic representation.
The story of Siena – the Roman she-wolf as a symbol of Siena
Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus. When Remus was murdered by his brother Romulus, his sons fled and settled on the hills where they founded Siena. You’ll come across representations of the lupa or she-wolf all over Siena. She was the foster-mother of Remus and Romulus.
Siena reached the height of its power and wealth in the 13th and 14th century, something that can be seen in the city’s architecture. The Via Francigena passed through the town bringing trade and prosperity with it. Siena had one of the first banking systems in Italy and Europe, and was a strong rival to Florence.
At its peak, Siena was an independent comune ruled by nine magistrates who were known as the nove or “the nine’, drawn from the city’s powerful oligarchy. This period of peace and prosperity was interrupted by the plague of 1348 that decimated the city’s population. After this Siena entered a period of slow decline until it fell under Medici rule in 1554.
Siena, the town of Saint Catherine
Siena’s patron saint is also the patron of Italy. Catherine (1347-1380) was the daughter of a cloth dyer. At the age of 7 she devoted herself to God and was said to have had many visions, and believed herself to be married to Christ. She was an extraordinary character, and though she couldn’t write, she managed influence the decision of the Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome after 70 years of papal residency in Avignon.
In Siena you’ll find the house where St. Catherine grew up, now decorated with paintings showing events from her extraordinary life (she received the stigmata in 1375). The Church of San Domenico has kept the preserved head of Saint Catherine, guarded in a gilded tabernacle, in the frescoed chapel dedicated to her.
Header photo: Sebastiano Iervolino @iessephoto on pixabay