One really nice thing about my study abroad program is that we get to visit a lot of smaller towns while traveling between big cities. Not only does this break up the long bus rides, it also means that I get to visit places I may not have considered otherwise. Siena, Italy was one of these stops, and we spent an amazing day here on the way from Rome to Florence.
Getting to Siena
Siena is a city in the Tuscany region of Italy, around 2.5 hours northwest of Rome and 1 hour south of Florence.
Siena is also one of Italy’s best preserved medieval cities, which is why a good portion of the city center is a UNESCO world heritage sight. It also has a colorful legend around its founding. According to the legend, Rome’s founders (Romulus and Remus) fled Rome after their father was killed, and established Siena once they’d escaped. The legend also says that they escaped on black and white horses, which is why the city is covered with black and white stripes.
Since a majority of the streets of Siena are pedestrian-only, our bus parked at the bottom of the hill, and we hiked up to Siena.
Piazza del Campo
The Piazza del Campo is a sunny, fan shaped square in the middle of town. Built as a meeting space for the public, it sits right in front of the city’s government building- the Palazzo Pubblico. The rest of the red-bricked square is surrounded by markets and trattorias.
Piazza del Campo also hosts Siena’s biggest event of the year, the Palio horse race in July/August. According to our professor, it’s considered the world’s shortest horse race because it only takes the horses a few seconds to run around the square.
Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico
Like the rest of the Piazza del Campo, the Palazzo Pubblico is made of red brick, and with all of the ridges and towers on the top, it really looks like a castle. This actually isn’t too far from the truth, as the Palazzo Pubblico was a medieval governmental palace that served as the seat of Siena’s government back when it was an independent republic.
The inside of the Palazzo Pubblico has been converted into a museum- the Museo Civico, which gives the inside scoop on how medieval Siena’s government operated. While the republic of Siena put an emphasis on the public’s involvement in decision making, it was ruled by nine governors, and you can see this style of government reflected in the palace itself. Some rooms are huge, and probably used to hold public meetings, while other smaller rooms, like the Hall of Nine, were smaller and reserved for the governors.
All of the ceilings in the Palazzo Pubblico are covered in frescoes, but the most famous ones are in the Hall of Nine- these frescoes are called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and they were easily the funniest frescoes I’ve ever seen.
On one wall, you’ve got the allegory of good government, which is represented by a king and a host of 6 princesses. Each of the princesses have titles to show which aspect of good government they stand for, like ‘Fortitude’ and ‘Justice’, but my favorite one is ‘Pax’ (Peace) who sits on the end of the couch looking completely disinterested. Her complete lack of interest in her surroundings was so funny that I bought a t-shirt with Pax on it.
On the wall to the right, you’ll see the effects of good government in fresco-form. This fresco depicts the vibrant medieval city of Siena with a thriving economy and happy, dancing people. Beyond the city wall shows a lush countryside with successful farming.
On the opposite wall, you’ll see what the Sienese thought a bad government looked like. In the center, a cross-eyed goblin-looking man called ‘Tyrant’ is painted next to a bunch of monsters, which are clear opposites to the aspects of good government with labels like ‘wrath’ above a centaur-boar creature.
On its adjacent wall are the effects of a bad government on a city. The city on this wall appears to also be Siena, but this version is dark, dilapidated, and full of what looks like swarms of bugs. The countryside of bad government looks even worse, with a completely gray landscape and fires everywhere.
Art historians speculate that these frescoes were put here in the Hall of Nine to remind the governors how important a good government was for the success of the state. It also shows how proud the Sienese were of their republic, and it makes me kind of sad that they aren’t a city-state anymore. I’ve never seen a government building as colorful as this one, and I can’t recommend a visit here enough!
Even now that I’m back home, thinking about the characters like Pax and Tyrant makes me laugh a little!
Besides the Museo Civico, the Palazzo Pubblico also has a tower- the Torre del Mangia, which you can climb up for an extra fee to get some great views of Siena from above.
After leaving the Museo Civico, we had a little time to walk around and explore the streets of Old Siena before rejoining the group for a tour of the Duomo.
You can tell that Siena has been preserved from medieval times. It’s streets are narrow and very hilly, but thankfully, they’re mostly pedestrian only. The buildings on either side are four and five stories tall, and they’re all warm colored with the classic Tuscan red ceramic roofs. It’s a nice, cozy atmosphere and reminds me of a summer disney movie setting.
We noticed that a lot of the restaurants had lunch deals where you could get a drink, pasta, and gelato for only a few euros, so we popped into a restaurant with one of these deals. Unfortunately, the pasta wasn’t great (kinda rubbery), but I think we just had some bad luck.
Duomo di Siena
The Duomo di Siena is a startling contrast to the rest of the red-bricked city. It looks like your standard Italian duomo built with white marble, 3 portals, and a belltower; except this one is also covered in black stripes. There’s also a triangular golden mosaic on the top.
The black and white stripes are even more vibrant on the inside of the Duomo, covering every column and every inch of wall space. Combined with the stars on the cathedral’s dome and the moons on the mosaic floor, I felt like I was walking through a book of optical illusions.
On the right side of the church, you can enter the Chigi Chapel, which holds a miraculous image of Mary and Jesus called the ‘Madonna del Voto‘. The Madonna del Voto supposedly performs miracles, and thousands visit to see it every year.
There’s another room adjacent to the cathedral, but instead of hosting another chapel, this room holds the Piccolomini Library (Biblioteca Piccolomini).
The Biblioteca Piccolomini is called such because it holds a collection of illustrated, often referred to as “illuminated” choir books.
As much as I enjoyed trying to read the music in the choir books, my favorite part of the library was the gilded ceiling. I’ve seen a lot of beautiful ceilings here in Italy, but this one was mesmerizing. I think because it’s so bright, it really fits well with the rest of the cathedral.
Admission to the Biblioteca Piccolomini is included with the admission charge for the cathedral.
Battistero di San Giovanni
A baptistry, or ‘battistero’ in Italian, is a room where christian priests perform the sacrament of baptism, usually performed in a large fountain in the center of the room. While Tuscan baptistries are usually separate buildings from the cathedral, Siena’s is attached to the Duomo, although you need to enter through a separate door.
The inside of the baptistry is just as dazzling as the Duomo, if not more so! The walls have the Sienese black and white stripes, but the ceilings are vaulted and covered in frescoes of christian prophets and of Jesus’s suffering. In the middle of the baptistry is a hexagonal fountain, and each of the six sides has been carved into a biblical scene about baptism by famous artists like Donatello, Ghiberti, and Giovanni di Turino.
Thankfully, the baptistry also has a lot of chairs facing the fountain, so I was able to sit down and look around the room after walking around the fountain a few times. You literally cannot look anywhere in the baptistry without seeing some fabulous work of art, and it’s a nice place to cool down after a long day of walking.
Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana
The last place we visited in Siena was the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana. It’s a small museum that holds art and old fragments of architecture from the nearby Duomo. Some highlights from this museum include the gilded Maestà altarpiece, and a hallway that leads to a rose stained-glass window with Italian gothic sculptures on either side.
I really liked the hallway in particular, because most of the light in the room came from the stained-glass window, and I felt like I was walking through some kind of art tunnel.
Admission prices for the duomo, baptistry, and museum vary depending on the time of year.
For more info on pricing and hours of operation, click here
I LOVED Siena! It’s a colorful city with a rich history, and I think it should be high up on your list of cities to visit on a trip to Italy. It’s got the right amount of things to do in one day, and its central location would make Siena a perfect day trip from Rome or Florence.
Another thing I liked about our visit to Siena is that it was refreshing to get a bit of secular history as opposed to seeing church after church, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed learning about medieval Siena’s government.
Now my class and I are traveling on to Florence, where we’ll be for a few days while we learn about Florentine art and see some of the world’s most famous Renaissance art! Check back here for that soon!