Tuscany: Siena in an hour
Coordinates / 43°19'07.0"N 11°19'54.0"E
Country / Italy
Region / Tuscany
Population / 54 646 people
We continue the exploration of the significant cities of Tuscany in combination with the annual visit to the concert Teatro del Silenzio conducted by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli. To read previous entries click here.
Traditionally, we have only a long weekend for this trip. The morning of the first day was spent sightseeing San Gimignano. By lunchtime, we had arrived in Siena and had only one hour to get acquainted with the city.
Siena is considered a rival of Florence. It is like a lady in a medieval dress it keeps its personal stories, passions and secrets to itself. In the past, Siena was the capital of the Republic of Siena and is now the administrative centre of its own province.
The wide popularity of the city has endured since the Trecento era, the «Middle Ages». The painting school of Siena was established here. A special feature of this school is a mixture of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance elements. Perhaps the most significant artists of this school, were Duccio, Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and many more. Most of the paintings and frescoes of the period are available to the public to see in the churches and art galleries of the city.
Many of the artists of the late Middle Ages obtained their inspiration from the life of St. Catherine of Siena because of her extreme spiritual morality. She was an influential religious activist and writer of her time, posthumously canonised by the Catholic Church for her service to peacekeeping and her political influence. Italians consider her as a patron of the country on a par with St. Francis of Assisi. During her life, she was permitted to read the sermons in the church, which is contrary to the covenant of the Apostle Paul.
Being born in a family of artisans in Siena, Catherine showed an irrepressible interest in religion from an early age. To the great sorrow of her father, who envisaged the daughter being engaged and married at an early age, he saw his daughter unwilling to be subjected to the will of her parents and she chose a different path from childhood.
Now, part of the relics of St. Catherine are kept in the Basilica of San Domenico, where tourists can see the painting "Baptism of St. Catherine" by Mattia Preti. However, the only authentic portrait of the saint painted during her lifetime is considered to be the fresco work by Andrea Vanni, which is located in the chapel delle Volta.
Siena Cathedral was considered to be the principal building by all the former republics of the time, built in honour of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary during the 13th century. Presumably, it was built to replace an old Roman Castrum or previous church. It was built in a Gothic style, designed in the shape of a Latin cross, its facade is decorated with Carrara marble.
By the 14th century, together with the enrichment and growth of the political influence of the Siena Republic, its citizens formed grandiose plans for the re-planning of the cathedral so that it would become the largest in Europe.
Divine Providence decided otherwise by sending the plague to the townspeople which killed a large part of the congregation of the holy monastery. The failure of the hopes and aspirations of the people of Siena is now only represented by the incomplete nave which can be accessed using the marble steps from the east facade of the building.
Tourists love to make a little pit stop with a light snack on these steps on a hot muggy day sheltering from the stifling sun in the massive shadow of the Cathedral of Siena.
It is common to find seats which are set out for concert audiences in the Piazza Duomo which is adjacent to the front of the Cathedral of Siena. There, music events for guests and residents often take place.
Do not be surprised by the wolf breastfeeding twin’s statue in front of Dome or elsewhere in the city. Despite it seeming to be Roman mythology there are some slight differences. Unlike its Roman version, the wolf's gaze is directed ahead and not to the side. The names of the babies at her breast are Senia and Askia.
Everyone who has visited Rome knows the legend about the founders of Rome – Romulus and Remus. But this story continued in Siena.
The sequel says: “ There were two brothers Askia and Senia who were the living joy of their parent’s home in Rome. But fate is known to be a villain. Suddenly, Romulus, blinded by the lust for power killed his only brother Remus – the father of two boys. Now, orphaned and forced to leave their father’s house juveniles Senia and Askia running aimlessly and hiding from Romulus, for some reason they took with them the wolf statue. Finally, they reached the river Tress where the boys caught their breath, looking around they noticed an attractive hill. Here they founded the city of Siena inviting the local woodcutters and shepherds to become citizens.”
The bizarre bestiary of Siena is not limited by only one wolf. Looking closely at the facades, gates, and other elements of the urban buildings, anyone can see the different animal characters. Each animal has its own territory. There are fifteen different species, plus two inanimate objects in the form of waves and towers to be seen on the facades. These seventeen characters represent the number of district communities, named “Contrada”. Historically, each Contrada supplied troops to Siena to deter the aggression of the Florence neighbourhood.
When the thread had disappeared, the citizens decided to leave things as they were. And now, twice a year, they provide the spectacular Palio di Siena. The Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna di Provenzano takes place on the 2nd of July and involves ten Contradas. Palio dell'Assunta, in honour of the Dormition of the Mother of the God, takes place on 16th of August and involves the remaining seven. Due to their colourful action, these events attract large numbers of tourists from around the world. All 17th Contradas have their own jockey, who incidentally rides only unbroken horses dress up in special costumes according to the Contradas corporate colours and heraldry.
The wide del Campo square forms a semicircle. During the event, it is covered with sand. All the windows of the Palazzo Comunale are filled with Contrada flags while the city streets are packed with spectators. The average duration of each race being approximately one minute and consists of the several laps on the square. The winning Contrada is the horse which finishes first, in the unlikely event of the jockey still being mounted on the horse at the finish, he will leave the field of battle with a valuable cash prize. After the winning ceremony the fun begins, the winning Contrada is honoured around the entire city through the night and into the next morning. Until the next Palio di Siena arrives, those of our readers who wish to understand the heady atmosphere of the festival can watch the Italian comedy «The Grumpy» which stars Adriano Celentano which is set in this wonderful Italian tradition.
Piazza del Campo is a calling card of the city, together with it the Palazzo Publico, «Public Palace». In the days of the republic, the Council of Nine was set here. This building was built between 13-14th centuries from brick and white travertine stone and has a very recognisable design with the 102-meter tower called "Torre del Mangia". It is possible to climb to the top of the tower, with its 332 steps and to see all Siena and its surrounding neighbourhoods at a glance. There is also the National Gallery in the Palazzo Buonsignori and the Gaia Fountain located in this square.
The oldest fountain «Branda» is situated about 200 metres from Campo square. It resembles a fortress with its battlements and three arches. There is a pool inside the arches, the water here comes from the ancient Bottini underground nature reservoir.
In the Middle Ages, this pool met daily drinking water needs of the residents and their livestock.
The fountain got its original Gothic appearance in the 13th century thanks to the architect Giovanni di Stefano. However, the fountain was first mentioned as early as the 11th century.
During the life of St. Catherine, the Branda fountain was surrounded by shops and craftsmen’s houses. One of these houses was St. Catherine's home, her father used the water source for his dyeing fabric business.
The famous Italian poet and writer of the early Renaissance, Giovanni Boccaccio, mentioned the fountain in his works.
The main street of the city is Via di Citta. It is surrounded by impressive and elegant buildings, such as Palazzo Patrizi which dates back to the 14th century, its neighbours include Academia degli Intronati, Palazzo Marsili and Loggia della Merkanzia - a modern analogue of the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the Chigiana Music Academy, founded by Earl Guido Chigi-Saracini in his own Palazzo Chigi-Saracini.
That's how much we found in only one hour, strolling around the cool pavements of the medieval city of Siena.
Our next scheduled stop is the Castellare di Castellina vineyard in the Chianti Classico region. To follow us, click here.