Art students would recognize this city instantly by the earthy color pigment that they use. Burnt sienna comes from clay from this region and can be seen in old stone buildings of the city. Siena in the region of Tuscany, Italy is surrounded by olive groves and the vineyards of Chianti. Nestled among three hills, the city is connected by winding alleyways and steep steps. Famed for the Palio, it is also home to one of the oldest Universities in Europe. The city is a tourist haven and a market for the wine and marble produced in the area.
Siena is said to be founded as early as the third century B.C., when the Etruscans founded what the Romans called Saena, a small castle at the top of the highest hill in town, now called ‘Castelvecchio’. Legend says that twins Senio and Ascanio, fed by a she-wolf, founded the city and named it in honor of Senio, favorite of the gods.
Dante in his literary masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, describes Siena as it was in the 14th century. The walls of the city narrate infinite stories of past glory—palaces by the Piccolomini and the Tolomei families, the Medici family’s economic and cultural contribution, and the traces of flourishing Renaissance period.
The variety of environment that surrounds Siena is spectacular. To the north is the rich Chianti landscape, with vines and olive-trees. The Chianti area is one of the most beautiful countrysides in Italy and produces some of the best wines. Beautiful towns like San Gimignano and Monteriggioni with old walls, winding streets and incredible views are nearby. The Arbia valley in the south leads to the quaint town of Montalcino, home to the famous Brunello wine. La Crete with its harsh rock formations and unique landscape enthralls visitors. And captivating coastline towns like Castiglione della Pescaia, and nature reserves like Maremma attract more tourists every year.
The city of Senio
Siena, like many other Tuscan hill towns, was founded around 900 to 400 BC during the time of the Etruscans and was inhabited by a tribe called the Saina. The Etruscans were quite advanced for their time and changed the face of central Italy through their use of irrigation. Later, during the time of the Emperor Augustus, a Roman town called Saena Julia was founded on the very site. The town's emblem—a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus (founders of Rome) accounts for the Roman influence. According to legend, Siena was founded by Senio, son of Remus.
Siena was not prosperous under Roman rule since it was not near any major roads, therefore missing out on opportunities for trade. It was not until the Lombards invaded Siena that it slowly prospered. The old Roman roads of Aurelia and the Cassia passed through areas exposed to Byzantine raids; hence the roads between the Lombards' northern possessions and Rome were re-routed through Siena, giving it the much-needed exposure to become an important trading center.
The city’s feudal system failed in 1115 and the city broke up into several autonomous regions. Siena prospered even more under the new arrangements, and it became a major center for money lending and wool trade. It was governed at first directly by its bishop, but during the 1100s the bishop was forced to concede power to the nobility in exchange for their help during a territorial dispute. In 1167 the commune of Siena declared its independence from episcopal control. By 1179, it had a written constitution. It was during this time that the Duomo, Siena's cathedral, was completed.
In the early 12th century, a self-governing commune replaced the aristocratic government. The consuls started to include the poblani (common people). In the 13th century, the city republic was predominantly Ghibelline and defeated the Florentine Guelphs.
Prior to the battle, the entire city was entrusted to the Virgin Mary. Legend has it that a thick white cloud settled over the battlefield, covering the Senese and aiding their attack. They defeated and massacred the forces of their enemy.
Siena was devastated by the Black Death, or the plague epidemic, in 1348, due to which it also suffered from serious financial crisis. In 1355 the population suppressed the government of the Nove (nine), establishing Dodici (twelve) nobles assisted by a council with a popular majority. This too however, was also short-lived and was replaced by the Quindici (fifteen) reformers in 1385, then Dieci (ten), Undici (eleven) and finally Twelve Priors.
Again in 1404, a government of Ten Priors was established, in alliance with Florence against the king of Naples. The Sienes government was defeated at the Battle of Marciana in 1554 and after 18 months of resistance, it surrendered to Florence marking the end of the Republic of Siena. The new Spanish King ceded it to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, to whom it belonged until the unification of Italy in the 19th century.
Siena, with its preserved medieval architecture, satisfies every art lover. From tiny piazzas to stately 14th century buildings, there is something to admire for everyone. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the historic centre of the city is protected and conserved as a ‘site of outstanding cultural importance to the common heritage of humankind’. Siena is the embodiment of a medieval city. Throughout the centuries, the preserved Gothic appearance, acquired between the 12th and 15th centuries, still remain.
Il Campo has only one ‘piazza’ and the other squares are referred to as ‘campi’. It is also refered to as the Piazza del Campo. The Campo slants and has a shell shape with a very simple, central, layout that is more of a decoration than a symbol, in nine sections that represent the Council of Nine that once ruled the city. Shaped like a medieval Roman amphitheatre, it is regarded as one of the most beautiful public spaces in Europe.
The true heart of the city leads into the Via di Citta, Banchi di Sopra and the Banchi di Sotto. Walking up Via di Città, visitors can see, in a space of a few meters, the Duomo, the Spedale Santa Maria della Scala, the Palazzo del Magnifico and the Museum dell’Opera Metropolitana. Not far from here is the National Art Gallery, rich in architecture, art and alternative attractions.
Siena was originally divided into areas, called ‘terzi’ meaning thirds; the first one, called ‘Terzo di Città’ was the earliest inhabited area of the city. Here you can see the Piazza Postierla, which features the smallest window in the world. You can also got to Via di Castelvecchio where Remus took refuge according to legend, and the Cappella delle Ceneri di Sant'Ansano, where the city 's first martyr is said to have been jailed. In Via di Stalloreggi, there is the Madona of the Crow, built where it is believed a crow fell in 1348, spreading plague through the city. The area also has the Duomo, an imposing cathedral of black and white marble, and the museum of Santa Maria della Scala, set in the structure of one of Europe's first hospitals, as well as the Center for Contemporary Arts. The Duomo of Siena contains works by many artists, including Donatello, Pisano and Arnolfo di Cambio. One of its main attractions is the marble-inlaid floor, to which many artists contributed.
Here you have to dedicate at least one day to the Chianti region, in order to taste wine at its source, in season. The town of Chiusi, of Etruscan origin, has the cathedral and the Etruscan museum that are popular attractions. In Montalcino the Civic Museum and the Diocesano and Archeological Museums are well worth visiting as are the local wine cellars which produce Brunello di Montalcino, one of the best red wines in the world.
If you are one to find solace in the lap of nature then too the city has many offerings for you. The two and a half hectare Orto Botanico, or the Botanical Garden is a good place to start. Various plants are displayed in three different sections of the garden. The origins of the garden date back to the 17th century, when it was used for the cultivation of plants with medicinal properties. La Lizza public garden offers views of Siena and the surrounding fields from the height of the bastions of the 16th century fortress. The fortress is also home of the Enoteca Italiana, the Italian Wine Cellar.
If you are flying in to the city, Siena's Ampugnano airport is located just 9 km from the city, although there are more widely connected airports in nearby cities that people prefer generally. Buses are by far the easiest way to get to Siena from Florence, and the most scenic.
Siena's historical medieval city is accessible only on foot and cars are strictly prohibited. There is a minibus called Pollicino that covers some streets located in the centre. For those with vehicles, they can park outside the main city walls. Siena may be the only city in Mediterranean Europe where parking is not a big problem.
Siena’s attractions apart from the Piazza/Duomo area are a bit spread out. And since the city is built on three steep hills, hard walking is almost a necessity. Although the terrain does not make it a town for easy bike riding, it does offer a range of challenging roads and trails, and an opportunity to admire one of Italy's most romantic towns and surrounding countryside—filled with country roads, farmhouses, vineyards, cypress trees and landscapes of endless beauty. Scooters can also be rented, for those who want to cruise around Italian style.
Siena's cuisine is pure and simple and its meats, vegetables and herbs are of excellent quality, with generous helpings of olive oil (which in this region is of the highest quality).
The oak woods around Siena are still home to the Cinta Senese swine, a native breed reputed for the excellent flavor of its meat, and the Val di Chiana area for the Chianina breed of cattle. Sienes cuisine has ancient origins, first Etruscan, who introduced the simplicity of herbs, and then Roman influence. Spices, a valuable commodity of the past, give distinct flavor to Siena's typical dishes such as panforte (a unique kind of dense cake, made of honey, flour, almonds, candied fruits, a secret blend of spices) and cavallucci (anise cookies). Soups are an important part of Tuscan cuisine, along with roasted meat, wild game, and several types of handmade pasta. It is also known for its gelato variety of ice cream.
The Palio, or rather the Palio di Siena is a horse race held twice a year in the city. The competing horse and rider represent one of the 17 Contrade (city wards), but only ten compete at a time. In 1590 when bullfighting was banned, races were organized on buffalo back (bufalate), donkey back (asinate) and then on horseback. Before the races begin, spectators are treated to a spectacular pageant. Detonating an explosive signals the start of the race, which is basically three laps of the Piazza del Campo. The jockeys ride bareback and the street has room only for nine riders. The tenth, called the rincorsa, stands behind them.
The track is steep and riders are allowed to use their whip, not only on their horses but also on other competitors. The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line with its head ornaments intact—the rider does not necessarily need to finish, and often does not. The loser in the race is considered to be the Contrada whose horse comes in second, not last.