Siena is one of the most beautiful heritage cities in Tuscany. Its city centre has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This hilltop city in Tuscany has a long history which accounts for the many interesting historical buildings scattered throughout the historical city center. Siena is rich in museums, churches, and noble buildings. Its inhabitants have kept ancient traditions alive for centuries: the horse race called “Palio of Siena” and the love of the Sienese people for their “contrada” evidence this respect of traditions and history. A vacation in Siena is an unforgettable experience.
Spending a holiday in Siena allows travellers to discover the best part of Tuscany. There are a number of things to do in Siena all year round. You can visit the city or take daytrips to the hilltop towns in Southern Tuscany, like Montalcino, Pienza, Montepulciano and Cortona. Or visit Chianti, San Gimignano and Volterra. Or just enjoy the many things to see in Siena, with its beautiful Duomo (Siena Cathedral) and Piazza del Campo, the city square. Or find accommodation in Siena to participate in the events of the world famous Palio di Siena.
The history of Siena
The first settlements in the area now occupied by Siena date back to Etruscan and Roman times. Saena Julia was the name with which these latter called the city which they founded in the site. The Roman origin accounts for the town’s emblem – a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus. According to a legend, Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus, who was in turn the brother of Romulus, after whom Rome is named.
The city grew in importance and prosperity only with the Longobard invasion. Longobards built new roads to connect the Northern territories which they controlled to Rome, as the old Roman roads running along the coast were often exposed to Byzantine raids. Siena prospered as a trading post, and the constant streams of pilgrims passing to and from Rome brought wealth to the city.
In the Middle Ages, Siena became a rich and thriving city. The oldest aristocratic families in Siena, of Lombard lineage, married into the Frankish nobility who had arrived in the city after the Lombards surrendered to Charlemagne. The Christian heritage of the Frankish nobility led to the foundation of many abbeys throughout the Sienese territory, such as the Abbey of San Galgano in Val di Merse and the Abbey of Sant’Antimo in Val d’Orcia.
The 12th and 13th centuries were especially prosperous. Siena became a major centre of money lending and an important wool trade centre. After a few years during which it was governed by its bishop, in the 12th century the commune of Siena declared its independence from episcopal control. Its first written constitution dates back to this period.
This is a very important period in the history of Siena and it was crucial in shaping the city as we know it today. It was during the 12th century that the construction of Siena Cathedral (the Duomo) was completed. In this same period Piazza del Campo, one of the most beautiful civic spaces in Europe, grew in importance as the centre of the city’s secular life. Piazza del Campo became the site of the market, and the location of various sporting events. A self-governing commune replaced the earlier aristocratic government and increased its territory as the surrounding feudal nobles in their fortified castles submitted to the urban power. Siena’s republic was often in opposition to its great rival, Florence, and in the 13th century it was predominantly Ghibelline in opposition to Florence’s Guelph position. This conflict formed the backdrop for some of Dante’s Divina Commedia.
In 1260 the Sienese army defeated the Florentines in the famous Battle of Monteaperti. The legend has it that right before the battle, the city and its contrade were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and that she helped the city soldiers by having a thick white cloud descend on the battlefield, giving the Sienese cover and helping their attack. The rivalry between Siena and Florence is still alive today, especially when the football teams of the two cities meet in a match: it is not uncommon to hear the Sienese supporters remind their Florentine counterparts to “Remember Montaperti!”.
Siena is home to an excellent University which was also created in the 12th century. Its faculties of law and medicine are still among the best in Italy. Siena cultural life was very lively at that time, and for a while, Siena rivalled Florence in the arts thanks to the big names of the Scuola Senese (the Sienese school) such as Duccio di Buoninsegna and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.
The decline of the city power started in the 14th century, when Siena was devastated by the Black Death of 1348, and also suffered from bad financial enterprises. Several political fights led to popular governments, with a brief period during the papacy of Pope Pio II Piccolomini, from Pienza, when the noble families regained some power. After Pio II’s death the control returned into popular hands. In 1472 the Republic founded the Monte dei Paschi, a bank that is still active today and is the oldest surviving bank in the world.
After years of fights for the survival of the Republic, Siena finally sourrendered to Florence in the 16th century and then became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, to which it belonged until the unification of Italy in the 19th century.