Siena district guide







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Siena district guide                                                 (Back to Siena main information page)

SIENA is the perfect antidote to Florence, a unified, modern city at ease with its medieval aspect, ambience and traditions - indeed, exultant about them. It's a place not easily read by outsiders, and to get anything meaningful from a visit you'll need to stay at least one night; too many visitors breeze through on a day-trip.

Self-contained and still part-rural behind its medieval walls, Siena's great attraction is its cityscape, a majestic Gothic ensemble that could be enjoyed without venturing into a single museum. The physical and spiritual heart of the city is the great scallop-shaped piazza il Campo , loveliest of all Italian squares and scene of the thrilling Palio bareback horse-race. Siena's Duomo and Palazzo Pubblico are two of the purest examples of Italian Gothic architecture, and the best of the city's paintings - collected in the Museo Civico and Pinacoteca Nazionale - are in the same tradition; the finest example of Sienese Gothic is Duccio's Maest?, on show in the outstanding Museo dell'Opera del Duomo . More frescoes fill the halls of Santa Maria della Scala , the city's hospital for over 900 years and now its premier exhibition space.

For a hundred years or so, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Siena was one of the major cities of Europe. Virtually the size of Paris, it controlled most of southern Tuscany and its wool industry, dominated the trade routes between France and Rome, and maintained Italy's richest pre-Medici banks. This era reached an apotheosis with the defeat of a much superior Florentine army at the battle of Montaperti in 1260. Although the result was reversed permanently nine years later, Siena embarked on an unrivalled urban development under the guidance of its mercantile governors, the Council of Nine . From 1287 to 1355 the city underwrote the completion of its cathedral and then the Campo and its exuberant Palazzo Pubblico . The prosperity came to an abrupt halt with the Black Death , which reached Siena in May 1348; by October, two-thirds of the 100,000 population had died. The city never fully recovered (the population today is 60,000) and its politics, always factional, descended into chaos. In 1557 Philip II gave up Siena to Cosimo de' Medici in lieu of war services, and the city subsequently became part of Cosimo's Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and fell into decline. The lack of subsequent development explains Siena's astonishing state of preservation: little was built and still less demolished. Since World War II, Siena has again become prosperous, due partly to tourism and partly to the resurgence of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena . This bank, founded in Siena in 1472 and currently the city's largest employer, is one of the major players in Italian finance. It today sponsors much of Siena's cultural life, co-existing, apparently easily, with one of Italy's strongest left-wing councils.

The most popular trip from Siena is northwest to the picturesque multi-towered village of San Gimignano. Far fewer people take the trouble to sample the ancient Etruscan town of Volterra , a highly rewarding stop en route west from Siena to Pisa.
The City of Siena
Everything is easily walkable from the great central square of the Campo , which is built at the intersection of a configuration of hills that looks, on the map, like an upside-down Y. Each arm of the Y counts as one of the city's terzi , or thirds, and each has its principal thoroughfare, leading out from the Campo on elevated ridges: humdrum Banchi di Sotto in the Terzo di San Martino on the southeast; bustling, shop-lined Via di Citt?in the Terzo di Citt?on the southwest; and elegant Banchi di Sopra in the Terzo di Camollia on the north. The central core of alleys - almost entirely medieval in plan and appearance, and closed to traffic - can get a little disorientating, and it's surprisingly easy to lose your fix on the Campo, masked as it is by high buildings. The huge Duomo (and attendant museums, including the unmissable Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and Santa Maria della Scala ) sits on a hill above Via di Citt? looking across the deep Fontebranda valley north to the equally huge church of San Domenico occupying its own hill; getting from one to the other involves a lot of stairs, or a big semi-circular detour


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