Immediately ravishing yet endlessly mysterious, and all on a far less daunting scale than Florence, the glorious medieval city of SIENA cradles within its ancient walls a majestic Gothic ensemble that can be enjoyed without venturing into a single museum. Far too many visitors breeze through Siena on a day-trip, but it’s hard to feel you’ve even scraped the surface unless you stay at least one night here.
The physical and spiritual heart of the city, and arguably Italy’s loveliest square, is the sloping, scallop-shaped piazza Il Campo, the setting for the thrilling Palio bareback horse race. Siena’s Duomo and Palazzo Pubblico are two of the purest expressions 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 Maestà, on show in the outstanding Museo dell’Opera, while splendid frescoes adorn the walls of Santa Maria della Scala.
Established as a Roman colony by Augustus, Siena enjoyed its heyday in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when it became for a brief period one of the major cities of Europe. Almost as large as 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 climaxed with the defeat of a far superior Florentine army at Montaperti in 1260. Although the result was reversed permanently nine years later, Siena embarked on an unrivalled urban development under its mercantile governors, the Council of Nine. Between 1287 and 1355, the city underwrote the completion first of its cathedral, and then the Campo and its exuberant Palazzo Pubblico. Prosperity came to an abrupt halt with the Black Death, which reached Siena in May 1348; by October, two-thirds of the 100,000 inhabitants had died. The city never fully recovered (the population today remains under 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 it became part of Cosimo’s Grand Duchy of Tuscany. 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, thanks 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 a major player in Italian finance. It today sponsors much of Siena’s cultural life, coexisting, apparently easily, with one of Italy’s strongest left-wing councils.