Siena may have been descended from the ancient Etruscans, but it embraced its glory days during the Middle Ages. This was a time when architecture and art flourished. Located just 70 km (43 miles) south of its one-time rival Florence, this Tuscan town is a magnet for travelers who want to absorb outstanding medieval architecture and magnificent art. Everywhere travelers turn, they’re sure to come across an ornately decorated church or art gallery with masterpieces from Siena’s greatest artists. This charming walled city lends itself well to wandering on foot, though stay off the streets directly around the Piazza del Campo or risk being trampled during the twice-yearly Il Palio horse races. Here’s a look at the best things to do in Siena:
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From the street, Santa Maria della Scala appears to be a simple building, as befitting a former hospital. Walk inside, however, to find an ornate interior filled with great works of art. Built in the 12th century across from the Siena Cathedral, Santa Maria della Scala was one of the first hospitals in Europe. It cared for abandoned children initially, fed the poor and offered food and lodging to pilgrims. It was supported by donations from Siena’s wealthy. Today, this complex of buildings houses several museums on such subjects as art and archaeology. A series of frescoes highlights the walls of the Pilgrim’s Hall.
Much of the nave and interior roof, including beams, remain of the original Basilica di San Domenico that dates back to 1226. The church was heavily damaged by fires and an earthquake over the centuries. The basilica is sometimes referred to as St. Catherine’s since she lived most of her life here; she was canonized in 1461. Her head and thumb are contained in a gilt case; the rest of her body is in Rome. One chapel contains her portrait, while another presents frescoes of her life. This Siena landmark also contains notable paintings, including a couple of the Madonna and Child, throughout the basilica.
Two old palaces are filled with outstanding works of art that certainly befit their stature. The Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena, considered one of the most important museums in Italy, occupies the 14th century Brigidi palace and the 16th century Buonsignori palace. Inside, visitors will find a treasure trove of paintings by Siena’s greatest artists from the 13th to the 17th centuries, including Lorenzetti, Fredi and Besozzo. The museum is especially known for its 14th and 15th century paintings with gold backgrounds. Previous visitors say the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena is a great place to view medieval art.
Fonte Gaia is a joy to behold, which is appropriate since “gaia” means “joyous.” This ornate fountain dates back to the mid-14th century, with water being piped in from 24 km (15 miles) away. The side reliefs, sculptured from marble, depict scenes from Genesis. Wolves spouting water represent Romulus and Remus. Two columns originally featured statues of nude women, but they, along with original marble reliefs have been moved to Santa Maria della Scala museum. The center section contains a statute of the Madonna and Child. The fountain can be seen at the center of Siena at the Piazza del Campo.
More than 700 years later, the Palazzo Pubblico & Civic Museum still serves the purpose for which it was built: to be a seat for the government of Siena. This prime example of Gothic architecture was originally used by the Council of Nine, made up of middle class residents who served two months at a time, and functions as Siena’s city hall today. Visitors can see the room where the nine stayed during their stint in office. The palazzo’s crenellated top gives it a castle-like appearance. The civic museum is stunning inside, with magnificent frescoes that depict Siena life in centuries gone by.
Is it a cathedral or is it a museum? In the case of the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, it started out to be part of a cathedral but construction stopped with the Black Death in 1348. Today, this magnificent building is a museum centered around cathedral art, including statues carved by the cathedral’s architect, Pitano, in the 13th century. It contains part of the Duomo and outstanding works by Donatello and Ducci, whose glittering alter piece, Maesta, is considered a masterpiece by early Siena artists. Climb winding and narrow steps up to the terrace for great panoramic views of Siena.
One of the most famous sights in Siena is the Battistero di San Giovanni, which is dedicated to St. John the Baptist. The interior of this early 14th century Gothic church is nothing short of awesome. The baptismal font is what most travelers come to see. Considered a masterpiece of early Renaissance art in Tuscany, the hexagonal font sports gilded bronze panels that tell the life of John the Baptist. These panels as well as statuary throughout the church were made by Siena’s most famous artists, including Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Jacopo della Quercia, who also designed the font’s marble shrine.
The Tower of Mangia soars over everything in Siena, save for one building: the Siena Cathedral. At 102 meters (334 feet) high, it was supposed to be the same height as the cathedral, but is actually taller. Standing next to city hall, tower builders wanted to send the message that church and state are equals in power. Construction started in 1338; when it was finished 10 years later, the tower was the second tallest in Italy. Statuary and a bell top the tower, which provides panoramic views of Siena if you have the energy to climb the 400 steps to the top.
People visit the Biblioteca Piccolomini not to check out ancient books (not allowed) but to ogle the magnificent interior of this early 16th century building. Situated inside Siena Cathedral, the library was built for Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, who later became Pope Pius II. His nephew, who oversaw the library’s construction, later became Pope Pius III. Some decorative manuscripts are on display, but the main thing to see are the wonderful frescoes painted by Pinturicchio. The colorful frescoes, with a unique perspective, represent the life of Pope Piss II, from ambassador to cardinal to pope.
The Palio di Siena is a famous horse race that draws huge annual crowds. It has religious significance and is run in Siena’s city center, with dirt hauled in to cover the streets. Il Palio dates back to the 16th century when early racers rode buffalo and donkeys. It’s run twice a year, with colorfully garbed racers from 17 different districts taking about 90 seconds to gallop three times around the Piazza del Campo. The first race, on July 2, is dedicated to Madonna of Provenzano; the August 16 race is run in honor of the Assumption of Mary. On rare occasions it may be run a third time.
Ornate inside and out, the Duomo di Siena is a massive church that dates back to 1245. In the 14th century, church fathers wanted to enlarge it to make it even bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the Black Death put an end to those plans. The half-finished walls in the new cathedral are a reminder of this. Also known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary because it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the duomo is an outstanding example of Italian Gothic architecture, from the striped columns and the ornately decorated arcades to the decorative flooring and works of art.
The Piazza del Campo is THE place to visit in Siena. Located in the heart the historic center, Piazza del Campo is considered one of Europe’s best medieval squares. (It had its origins as a 13th century marketplace where three roads came together.) Visitors who have only a short time to spend in Siena will find many key sites surrounding the square: the Palazzo Pubblico, Torre del Mangia and the Fonte Gaia. Other Late Gothic buildings surround the city’s premier square. Even back in the late 1200s, Siena had city planners who insisted buildings be constructed to certain standards.