Siena: Never Enough Time
by Marla Norman, Publisher
You’re planning to visit Siena – UNESCO World Heritage site and Italy’s best-preserved medieval city, filled with architectural treasures and early Renaissance art – all of which have made it one of Italy’s most-visited tourist attractions. So do yourself a favor, if at all possible, and plan a stay in the city for at least one night.
Many of the small Tuscan villages – lovely and historical as they are – can often feel like movie sets. Siena is different. Its medieval architecture and many of its old ways have been meticulously preserved. But the city is also vibrantly alive and quite modern – a unique hybrid that took centuries to create and, in turn, requires time to comprehend and enjoy. Moreover, because Siena is much-loved by travelers, you’ll see an entirely different personality in the early morning hours, before the tourist busses arrive, and later in the evening, when they shuttle back to Florence.
If you can’t manage a night or two, at least take time to leisurely walk one of the narrow streets – preferably a block or two removed from the main thoroughfares – and breathe. Get a little lost in one of the 17 contrade (traditional neighborhoods). Sit for a few seconds in a cafe and chat with a local. Find the modern and medieval Siena.
Then dive back into your tour!
HEART OF THE CITY
The Piazza del Campo is in many ways, the heart of Siena. The enormous, fan-shaped Piazza is composed of bricks placed in a fishbone pattern divided into nine different sections – each representing a member of the medieval Council of Nine.
Be sure to pass by the pretty Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy), lined with beautifully-executed bas-reliefs of the Madonna. The fountain was constructed as an endpoint to a system of conduits commissioned by the Council of Nine. Under their direction, miles of tunnels were dug to supply water to aqueducts and fountains within the city and surrounding farm areas.
The most significant building on the Piazza is the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall since the 14th century. Here, the Council of Nine met to direct the Republic of Siena, which existed from the late 11th century until 1555. Especially noteworthy are the Renaissance frescoes depicting The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Council Members are portrayed surrounded by angels against the backdrop of an idealized – obviously perfectly governed – Siena. Egotistical and politically motivated portraits for sure. But, as you continue to admire the exquisite Piazza and surrounding buildings, it’s easy to be persuaded that the Committee was, indeed, divinely inspired.
Climb the Torre del Mangia, the Palazzo bell tower. When it was completed in 1344, it was the tallest structure in Italy – even taller than the bell tower of Florence – just as the architects had intended. The ornate crown at the top of the tower was designed by the painter Lippo Memmi. Views from the top are unforgettable and provide some of the best angles on Siena’s fascinating contrade.
OFF TO THE RACES
Almost as famous as the architecturally unique Piazza, is the Palio di Siena – a horse race held on July 2nd and August 16th. The races cap off a 3-day celebration. Ten competitors, wearing 15th century costumes representing the contrade, ride bareback three times around the perimeter of the Piazza at break-neck speed. The Piazza itself is covered with dirt and sawdust. Riders frequently slip from their horses while making the sharp turns. The race takes less than two minutes, but thousands turn up to see the competition and pageantry that goes with it.
If you’re interested in attending il Palio, start planning now – or at least 6-8 months before your departure. Services, such as Dario Castagno Tours can assist with tickets and hotels. The web site The Palio is totally devoted to the event, with books and movies available for purchase.
C’É L’ORA DI PRANZO!
It’s lunch time! Take a break at La Taverna di San Giuseppe. Located a short walk from the Piazza del Campo, the restaurant is in an ancient Etruscan house, dating back to 1100. The food is authentic and all freshly made on premise, from the ravioli, pici, pappardelle to the green gnocchi with fresh mint and tarragon.
More options: Truffle gnocchi, wild boar stew, risotto with melon, quail on polenta, or enormous steaks (Bistecca Fiorentina). For dessert, sample house specialties: Tiramisu, Cannoli and Gelato. The cheese course is outstanding as well.
The wine list offers more than 500 Tuscan and other Italian vintages, from the Brunellos of Montalcino to the reds of Montepulciano. Be sure to visit the cellar, once a small church, sculpted and carved by hand. Best of all, this wonderful meal is so affordable, you can easily splurge on the wine.
A DUOMO NOT TO BE MISSED
At some point in your tours of Italy, you may think you’ve done enough Duomos. But don’t count out the remarkable Gothic cathedral in Siena – definitely one of the finest in the country – and includes contributions from Renaissance luminaries such as Bernini, Michelangelo and Donatello.
Built between 1215 and 1263, the church is designed in the shape of a cross. The exterior and the interior are made of hundreds upon hundreds of alternating rows of white and black marble. Gian Lorenzo Bernini created the lantern on top of the dome and also sculpted statues of Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene in the Capella del Voto. Michelangelo sculpted four individual statues of saints Peter, Paul, Pius, and Augustine for the Piccolomini altar. The principal statue for the St. John the Baptist Chapel was created by Donatello.
The cathedral’s stained glass windows are the oldest in Italy. Completed in 1288, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of the greatest artists of the Middle Ages and a native of Siena. In fact, Duccio founded the Sienese School of painting.
In addition to all of these treasures, the Duomo is best known for its inlaid-marble floors. More than 40 artists spent over 200 years to create the dazzlingly intricate scenes that cover the entire floor of the cathedral. The earliest mosaics were produced by drilling tiny holes and lines in the marble and filling them with minerals. Gradually, inlay techniques, using multiple colors of marble began to evolve.
The mosaics are frequently covered to preserve them. Be sure to check the Opera Duomo museum site for additional information, tickets and multimedia guides.
So much to see and appreciate in Siena. Aren’t you glad you’re spending the night?