After our trip to Florence we had an extra day before we had to make our way to John and Joey’s wedding in Cinciano. A quick check of the map and transport possibilities afforded us the chance to visit somewhere that was on the Bucket List – the medieval citadel of Siena.
We departed the City of the Flowers and our train travelled parallel to the River Arno west until we reached a point beyond Empoli before taking a sharp left turn and travelled down the Chianti mountainous region until we reached Siena – at least the train station. The old town of Siena is a walled city hill fort so we would need to get a bus to Piazza del Sale before wheeling our cases down some cobblestone streets to our accommodation – located near the central Piazza del Campo.
Very near in fact, the B&B Il Corso Siena is only 131 feet from the Piazza and located in a 16th century building. Traditional furnishings and exposed beam ceilings made it a great place to stay combined with expert local knowledge from the owner Alberto and a really great dining room we could access all hours of the day.
Tales of Antiquity
Siena was first settled by an Etruscan tribe called the Saina before the Romans came and built a town on the same site in 27 BC – Saena Julia. Legend has it that it was the two sons of Remus – Senius and Aschius, who fled Rome after the murder of their father, by their uncle Romulus. The symbol of Siena – a she-wolf suckling of infants is thought to be derived from a statue that they stole as they fled to the Tuscan hills. The statue, which originally stood in the Temple of Apollo in Rome can be seen today opposite the Duomo in the piazza. The Balzana, or town colours of black and white comes from the white and black horses they rode in their escape.
The town did not prosper under the Romans due to its location. It was not near any major trade routes or roads. It was only after the Lombards invaded in the 6th century and re-routed the main trade routes towards Siena – thus avoiding Byzantine raids – that the city became wealthy and powerful. So much so that it spent a good deal of the Middle Ages in fierce rivalry with Florence across many subjects – art, finance, warfare.
Siena has a very interesting topography. Straddling a number of hills and valleys, the old town feels more like Edinburgh with a topsy turvy set of slopes, steps and stairs although it’s narrow streets are more claustrophobic than the Royal Mile.
The big attractions are in the piazzas. The Piazza del Campo is the main public square. With it’s shell like shape and surrounding buildings it is very beautiful. It was paved in 1349 with fishbone patterned red brick to give it it’s modern day appearance. Before that it was a marketplace. The surrounding Pallazos of the wealthy families are uniform – maintaining a standard conformity not normally seen in Tuscan piazzos.
The focal point in the square is the Fonte Gaia (‘Joyous Fountain’) was built in 1419 and marks the endpoint of a complex system of water tunnels underneath the city. The marble bas-reliefs were built and designed by Jacopo della Quercia. The main occupant of the square has to be the Palazzo Pubblico and its Torre del Mangia. The town hall was the seat of government for the Republic of Siena (1125 – 1555) whose executive were called the Council of Nine. This is why the piazza has 9 sections of brickwork. The tower was built to be taller than that in Florence and at the time of it’s construction was the tallest building in Italy.
Work In Progress
A few streets uphill from the square, through a warren of narrow alleyways is the Duomo di Siena. Built in the 13th Century it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Like most major churches in Tuscany it is chock full of work by famous artists (Donatello, Michaelangelo are both featured) but unlike many others it is unfinished – as we were to discover on the Tour the next morning. The original church on this site was the host of a synod in 1058 that saw the election of Pope Nicholas II and the deposition of the anti-pope Benedict X
The exterior and interior walls are constructed with white and greenish-black marble to mirror the Balzana, with the Western facade the most ornate.
Next to the church stands an wall – the unfinished nave of the church – the construction of which was halted during the Black Death and never resumed. Today it stands as a reminder of the reach Siennese power once had and an added bonus on our tour – one can climb on top of it to get a great view across the city.
Oldest Bank in the World
As one enters Siena’s old town, after being dropped off by bus you walk down Via Bianchi di Sopra. About half way towards the Piazza del Campo there is a smaller piazza (Piazza Salimbeni) located to the left. Its your standard small slice of Tuscany, a statue in the middle and a fashionable Palazzo behind it. There are so many here that you just take it all in your stride but this little square has a unique claim to fame – being the host to the Oldest Bank in the World (maybe) the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
Founded in 1472 as a mount of piety (Institutional Pawnbroker run as a charity) it has existed in it’s current form since 1642. In between these two dates the Berenberg Bank was formed in the Holy Roman Empire city of Hamburg which is the reason for the maybe.
The statue outside the bank is that of Sallustio Bandini. A true renaissance man – he was an archdeacon of the church, an economist and a politician whose work on free trade economic theory was widely accepted. On his death he also donated his entire private library to the University of Siena.
To the window to the wall
We spent the rest of our time in Siena walking around its labyrinthine streets, exploring it’s piazzas and discovering a number of churches and features of the medieval town that UNESCO deemed worthy of World Heritage Status back in 1995.
Starting in the Giardini La Lizza with it’s ubiquitous statue of Garibaldi we sampled some local produce at a market and caught a glimpse of the Stadio Artemi Franchi nearby.
Passing through the Piazza del Campo once more we meandered down the long and curving Via Roma – all the way to the southern gate of the Porta Romana – a 14th Century portal within the city walls. Within the gatehouse was a fresco of the Madonna but this was transferred to the Basilica of San Francesco in the late 1970s due to decay. We visited this church as well.
Five Euro Fun
That evening we took some sunset photos before heading out. Pre-dinner drinks were at a local brewery bar called Sindie – which had 5 euro Aperol Spritzes as well as a decent selection of beers – including Scotland’s Brewdog for sale. As it was a nice night we decided to eat Al Fresco at a restaurant called La Sosta di Violante (the English translation is “Violante’s rest before the road” and alludes to Princess Violante who divided Siena into districts back in the 18th Century).
We couldnt finish up a blog post about Siena without mentioning it’s favourite sporting event. Florence may have the Calcio but Siena has the Palio – a twice annual inner city horse race where the Piazza del Campo is transformed into the Circus Maximus and the winners receiving just as much fame.
The contestants are picked from each of those districts (contrade) that Princess Violente created. She created 17 of them with each one having it’s own animal, flag, motto and sense of community.
The eagle-eyed travel to Siena will note the shift in markings and flags as you move through the city and cross from one contrada to another. It is not just the Palio that defines their competition but all manner of game or feat is deployed. While we were in Siena we noticed duelling trumpets being played between two of the contrada – for you see each one has a cultural ally and a cultural enemy that underpins their daily drive.
The pre-title sequence of Daniel Craig’s second outing as James Bond, Quantum of Solace, provides a glimpse into what the Palio looks like