Hilltop Siena offers hints of the past

Rich Robertson/Special to the Town Crier
The hilltop Siena beckons daytrip visitors from Florence, 30 minutes to the north in the heart of Italy’s Tuscany.

As you descend the winding, narrow Siena streets on foot, you experience a sense of foreboding.

With its brown buildings and rust-colored roofs, Italy’s first pedestrian-only city seems frozen in time. Only the shops displaying panfortes and wine bottles lining the way tip you off to the year.

It’s a little spooky, but it’s that time of year, even in Italy. The country doesn’t quite honor Halloween, but it does recognize All Soul’s Day Nov. 1.

If you’re looking for flashy nightlife, Siena doesn’t have it. But the city offers an amazing treasure trove of early Renaissance art, hidden fountains, great coffee and historical riches to savor.

Hilltop Siena’s steep byzantine alleys empty onto the central 12th-century Piazza del Campo, a fan-shaped brick plaza bordered by town hall, a fountain and a medieval belltower.

UNESCO lists the historical center as a World Heritage site. With a population of 60,000, Siena makes its mark on central Tuscany. It’s a good day trip – just 30 minutes south of Florence – but there are plenty of hotels and restaurants if you want to stay and explore longer.

Hilltop history

In 1348, more than one-third of Siena’s population died in the Black Plague, a blow from which the city would barely recover. The devastation overwhelmed the townspeople, who had been enjoying a golden age of prosperity. Up until then, the Tuscan city had flourished economically and artistically.

Siena fought fiercely with neighboring Florence, with both sides taking turns winning various battles. Eighteen months of fighting between the Republic of Siena and Florence ended with the latter annexing Siena into Tuscany in the 16th century. The Florentines, under the Medici family, stopped any additional building in Siena, and the town remained miraculously intact during World War II when the French took over.

Today, one can sit at a cafe in the Piazza and take in the belltower and the town hall, as well as the many landmarks around them. The concave Piazza floor is taken over by horses’ hooves twice in the summer, when racers representing their neighborhoods ride bareback through city streets.

Things are more sedate during the rest of the year. Next to the Gothic Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall, you can brush up on your Tuscan history at the Museo Civico.

To the left of the Palazzo, Italy’s second-highest belltower, Torre del Mangia, sits at 330 feet tall. Two brothers, Muccio and Francesco di Rinaldo, built the structure circa 1338-1348. The tower offers panoramic views of the city – all the way to its medieval walls – perhaps making the 500-step climb to the top worthwhile.

The Siena Duomo, built in full Gothic glory circa 1136-1382, boasts black and white zebra-striped stone. Siena’s colors are black and white, and the legendary founders of the city, Senius and Aschius, also owned black and white horses. At the Chapel of St. John the Baptist in the Duomo’s baptistery stands Donatello’s bronze statue of St. John the Baptist.

Also worth a glimpse is the Piccolomini Library, built in 1509, which houses vibrant frescoes by Pinturicchio based on designs by Raphael. The Duomo’s ornate inlaid mosaic floor includes contributions from eminent 15th-century artists like Matteo di Giovanni.

In 1459, Rosellino built the impressive Palazzo Piccolomini for the affluent Piccolomini family. Visitors can stop by to view city ledgers from the 13th century as well as the Tavolette di Biccherna, wooden boards painted with tempera or oil that served as covers of records.

The Museale di Santa Maria della Scala has worn many hats. Originally intended as a hospice for pilgrims traveling the Via Francigena to Florence in the 13th century, it was later turned into a shelter for orphans and the poor.

Today, it houses an archaeological museum, an art museum and a center for contemporary art, the SMS Contemporanea. Recent modern exhibitions have showcased the art of Francesca Woodman of New York.

The mish-mash includes historic halls, chapels and temporary exhibition space. For example, the medieval hayloft on level three displays Jacopo della Quercia’s original Fonte Gaia sculptures. Fonte Gaia, in the Piazza del Campo, remains one of many peaceful fountains in Siena.

Another gallery, the Pinacoteca Nazionale, displays significant works by the Siena School. Lorenzetti’s 14th-century “Two Views” provides an early example of landscape painting.

A day at the races

The popular Palio di Siena horse races take place July 2 and Aug. 16 annually to commemorate the apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1656. Racers compete for a palio, or banner.

Thousands of people file into the Piazza del Campo for a glimpse of the races, which last approximately two minutes. Horses representing 10 of the city’s 17 contrades, or neighborhoods, compete to the spirited roars of the crowd. Each district has its own color, emblem, church and fountain. Parades occur throughout the year featuring medieval players. Visit for details.

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