Located amid rolling hills in the heart of Tuscany, Siena’s wealth of culture and architectural wonders culminate into a romantic allure that delights all those who pass through its city gates. From the stunning cathedral to the buzzing Piazza del Campo, Siena’s old-world charm will certainly casts its spell of enchantment.
A divine highlight of Siena is, without a doubt, the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral. The ornateness of the structure’s Gothic façade, which boasts statues of prophets and philosophers alongside protruding figures of lions and griffins, provides just a glimpse into the exquisiteness behind its doors.
Dominating the Piazza Duomo is the striped, black-and-white bell tower, or campanille, and the facciatone, which stands as an unfinished testament to the city’s attempt to expand the cathedral in the Middle Ages. Yet due to the Black Plague at that time, which claimed 4/5 of Siena’s population, the project came to an abrupt end, thereby permanently shelving the Duomo Nuovo.
The cathedral’s stunning feat in design and artistry truly captivates the visual sense with a dizzying array of masterpieces in sculptures, some of which are by Michaelangelo, and artwork by many celebrated, Italian artists from the Baroque and Renaissance eras.
The ceiling of the dome will certainly leave an impression on anyone who casts their eyes upon it. However, this is the cathedral’s trompe l’oeil; for it’s the painted surface that creates the illusion of coffers, upon which golden stars adorn the deep-blue background of the optical semblance of sunken panels.
The cathedral’s marble pulpit, designed by Nicola Pisano and a showpiece in its own right, features seven scenes from the Life of Christ and eight Corinthian columns, four of which rest on lions and lionesses. Moreover, an impressive 56 marble mosaics cover the flooring, one of which is the She-Wolf of Siena—the city’s symbol. According to legend, Senius, the son of Remus and nephew of Romulus, founded Siena on three hills here.
A Renaissance Bookworm
Further down the nave is the must-see Piccolomini Library. The 15th-century Archbishop of Siena, Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, consigned the construction of the library in order to commemorate the memory of his uncle Enea Piccolomini, later Pope Pius II. Upon stepping inside, the eyes will naturally gravitate to the illustrious vaulted ceiling that completes the overwhelming beauty this room exudes.
Once admiring the architectural grandeur of the Piazza Duomo, follow the Via di Città to one of the small alleyways that lead to the city’s central gathering point: Piazza del Campo.
A Picturesque Piazza
Another example that is symbolic of Siena is its famed, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, or simply referred to locally as Il Campo. A former Roman forum in the heart of Siena, the square’s prominent structure is the Palazzo Pubblico. Built in 1310, the civic building not only houses municipal offices, but also the city museum and prized artwork by Sienese painters. Highlights include frescoes from the Middle Ages in both the Sala del Mappamondo and the Sala della Pace.
A statement of elegance, the Palazzo’s 88-metre Torre del Mangia soars above Il Campo. Named after its first watchman, nicknamed Mangiaguadagni (money-eater), the top of the tower offers commanding views over Siena and its surrounding area.
Further focal points in the piazza include the marble Chapel of the Square, which the city built in observance of the end of the Black Plague, and the Fonte Gaia—the Cheerful Fountain. The original fountain, from the early 15th-century, sits in the loggia of the Palazzo Pubblico.
And They’re Off!
The square also sets the scene for the annual Palio horse race, which occurs on 2 July and 16 August every summer. Drawn by lots, ten of Siena’s 17 contrade, or districts, have the privilege to participate in this long-standing and important tradition that incorporates preliminary races, processions and other ceremonies that lead up to the big day. Jockeys ride without a saddle and take three laps around the square in order to complete the one-kilometre race. The first horse to cross the finish line—with or without a jockey—is the winner. The corresponding district then holds a dinner to celebrate their victory in early autumn.
Picture this annual extravaganza by sitting at one of the cafés or restaurants in Il Campo or, for another perspective of the square, take a seat on one of the three benches on Bar Key Largo’s narrow balcony. Located on the corner of Via Rinaldini, it’s a great spot to have a frosty beverage or a late-afternoon espresso and enjoy the scene of tourists and pigeons with Siena’s cathedral serving as the perfect backdrop. For a breath of that Tuscan air, look no further than the natural beauty just beyond Siena’s gates.
Having a car to explore Tuscany’s pure nature is ideal, and Siena is a great place to base oneself for those fantastic day-trips around the province. When heading to the wine region of Montepulciano, take a leisurely drive through the undulating hills of le Crete. Towering cypress trees—those quintessential features of the Tuscan landscape—stand as sentinels along country lanes and atop the ridges of distant hillocks. In spring, ruby-red poppies and canary-yellow gorse punctuate he swathes of emerald-colored fields that appear like blankets of plush velvet in a gentle breeze.
From Siena, take the SS438 road towards the small town of Asciano. Along the route, various points to pull off the side of the road offer great opportunities to admire this picturesque landscape, including one such location with small wooden steps that lead to the top of a hill. The fantastic view of the vast sea of green and the terracotta silhouette of Siena in the distance is truly breathtaking.
Siena boldly illustrates its passion for stunning art and rich culture amid its ancient walls. These testaments of its history span millennia and have given rise to a city that has become one of the most cherished in Tuscany.