Today we’re heading into the hills of Tuscany to the charming historic town of Siena – a Medieval crown jewel waiting to be explored.
A little history:
Siena was originally an Etruscan settlement (people before Roman rule) and later was transformed into the Roman city of Sena Julia. This settlement disappeared after the fall of Rome, but a newly established city of Siena re-emerged during the Lombard rule in the early Middle Ages.
By the 12th century, Sienna was a self-governing commune and proudly proclaimed it’s freedom and independence as a self-governing city state.
*a commune in Medieval and Renaissance times referred to a self-governed city or territory.
The Sienese economy was strongly tied to banking, which no doubt caused an economic rivalry between Florence. Sienna and Florence were often at odds. One of the greatest days in Sienna’s history is when in Sept. 4, 1260 the Sienese army crushed the Florentines at the Battle of Montaperti. This battle is still remembered nearly 800 years later!
Siena reached its height of power in the 12th and 13th centuries, and was known for its progressive government, care for the poor (state run orphanage and social services) and a center of artist genius.
Sadly Siena was one of the worst hit cities in Tuscany when the Black Death terrorized Europe in the 14th century. It is estimated that 4/5th of the population died or evacuated.
While Siena continued to create great art in The Renaissance it never fully recovered from The Black Death.
The silver lining is that it is one of the best preserved Medieval cities in Italy, which gorgeous Medieval architecure and charm that invites weary travelers to take respite in the graces of Siena’s beauty.
The heart of Siena is it’s Piazza del Campo, a gathering space to relax and enjoy the Tuscan sun. The Piazza is lined with restaurants and shops. You’ll often see students and tourists sitting in the Piazza enjoying conversation with their Aperol Spritz.
Fun fact: the clay and material that make up the Piazza stones is made from the earth around Siena and is a unique color. The color is a unique brownish red that is used around the world under the moniker of ‘burnt sienna.’ I use this Sienese brown in many of my paintings as a base layer or accent color. Check out my art here.
- Italians love an apertivo – or light happy hour around 4 o’clock. While there are many apertif cocktails – the Aperol Spritz reigns supreme. I fell in love with this drink in Italy because it is light and refreshing – usually it is made with Aperol drink mix, prosecco (or wine) and seltzer water. Learn more here.
Planning your Trip to Siena:
Siena is an amazing city that has a big heart and provides an authentic Tuscan experience. It is a popular tourist spot, but often not as crowded as Florence.
It would be easy to plan and entire week in Siena and use it as a base for your Tuscan adventures, but if you only have a day or two you MUST SEE:
The Siena Duomo (Cathedral)
I recommend booking skip the line tickets on the official Duomo website here or using a tour company like Viator to get a in depth guide to the Cathedral.
- Duomo (means dome), refers to a house of God or a church in Italy. Depending on the city, the main cathedral may be abbreviated to be called il Duomo.
This Medieval Church is one of the most astounding architectural gems in Italy. Pilgrms from around the world make their way to Siena to visit this holy church, which was the hometown of one of Europe’s Patron Saint’s – St. Catherine of Siena.
St. Catherine was a learned woman who was not afraid to hold the church accountable in truth. She helped to end an odd and distressing period in The Catholic Church known as The Babylonian Captivity.
About the Cathedral:
- This is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in Italy
- Built on top of a former church on the site, the present structure was initially between 1196-1215, when it was initially consecrated, with additions and embellishments completed from 1229-1264, and the early 1300s.
- Father (Nicola) and son (Giovanni) Pisano were heavily involved in the architectural vision and completing the heavenly church facade.
- Fun fact: Nicola’s assistant, Arnolfo de Cambio was the original architect behind the Florence Duomo
- The church was intended to be expanded as one of the largest churches in the world (after Siena heard it’s rival Florence was planning their Duomo).
- You can still see the unfinished arches as a testament to the original vision for the Duomo and a reminder of the Sienese spirit of art and architecture. This is a city that faced adversity and persevered even if the Duomo was not fully expanded as they originally planned.
The Beauty of this Cathedral.
- Dedicated to The Assumption of the Virgin Mary (tradition in which Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul after her earthly death), the church delights the soul with its intricate colorful facade and interior.
- Though Gothic in style, The Cathedral has an architecture all its own. The use of color, sculpture, art and mosaic storytelling is purely Sienese.
- The exterior and interior is constructed of white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes that reflect Siena’s colors in their coat of arms
- The facade also includes the beautify red marble of the region
- The facade includes a gorgeous Rose window and Venetian style mosaics with green, red and white marble inlay.
- The glory of the facade however are the 35 statues designed by Giovanni Pisano including prophets and patriarachs around the Virgin Mary.
- As you step inside the church you will be overwhelmed with color, light and sculptural euphoria. This church most certainly humbles a spirit to sit, pray and ponder heaven in awestruck wonder.
- The ceilings are a mix of rich blue painted sky with stars.
- Stars representing God’s creation, but also Mary who is known as Star of the Sea and often seen with 12 stars above her head for the 12 tribes of Israel.
- Perhaps the greatest highlight of the interior of The Cathedral are the inlaid mosaic floors, which artistic, architect and historian Giorgio Vasari called….”the most beautiful…largest and most magnificent that was ever made.”
- The floors include 56 panels in different sizes telling stories from the Old Testament, allegories, virtues and placing Siena at the center of life in the region.
This image of Siena at the center of ‘the world’ shows the city represented by Romulus and Remus… “legend has it that Siena was established by Senius, son of Remus and nephew of Romulus. Therefore the symbol of Siena is a she-wolf breastfeeding Romulus and Remus. This symbol has been repeated in different parts of town and pieces of art. (credit)“
The Cathedral features master artworks from a ‘who’s who’ of artists including:
- Nicola and Giovanni Pisano
- Nicola Pisano’s Pulpit
- Ghiberti – who created the famed Baptistery Doors in Florence
- Feast of King Herod Relief
- St. John the Baptist Statue
- Michelangelo- Piccolomini Altarpiece
- Bernini (Baroque era master of sculpture)
Highlights on the tour:
- The church and adjoining chapels
- The Bapistery (which is unique in that it is underneath the church)
- The crypt
- Duomo Museum
- Facciatone Viewing Terrace
- Piccolomni Library – featuring vivid and bright frescoes by Pinturicchio
The other MUST-SEE Attaction in Siena for History and Art Lovers is….
- Palazzo Pubblico – built between 1297to 1344, this was the center of GOOD government in Siena. I emphasize good because this building is home to the famous Lorenzetti frescoes of Good and Bad Government.
- Siena longed to show itself as a Good Government for the people that was humble and strong, caring for the poor and needy.
- Take the tour to learn about the history of the Sienese Good Government
- The Republic of Siena consisted fo the Podesta and Council of Nine, the elected officials who performed executive functions
- It’s tower (campanile) The Torre del Mangia is one of the tallest in Italy and exactly equal in height to the Duomo at 252 feet
- Plan you visit here
Siena has other treasures and wonders, including a visit to the University of Siena which was founded in 1240 AD!
Siena has a wonderful collection of art and history museums including
Pinacoteca Nazionale – Art Museum featuring Sienese artists
Finish off your day with a glass of local Chianti wine and a taste of sweet and fruity Panforte.
Next time on Italian Adventures we’ll roam the Tuscan countryside towards Pisa.
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