Visit Siena in one day

This is an excerpt of the book “Siena, Volterra, San Gimignano

Siena – Piazza del Campo
Siena – Piazza del Campo

SIENA is second only to Florence in beauty among Tuscan cities. Siena rises on three low hills; its atmosphere has something of fantasy and something of mystical; the purest Italian is said to be spoken here.

Siena was originally an Etruscan city, then Roman, then a medieval Commune whose existence was tormented by fierce internecine struggles, wars, plagues, and invasions. It finally fell to the Medici.

On arrival, let us go at once to the Piazza dal Campo; it has the form of a scallop-shell; eleven street converge on it; it is dominated by the greatest Gothic building in Tuscany, the Palazzo Pubblico (1309) in stone and brick and the slim Torre del Mangia, the Mangia Tower (1348).

Here architecture, sculpture and painting call the visitor’s attention, but there are three masterpieces here. These are the Maesta (1315) and the richly imaginative Portrait of Guidoriccio do Fogliano (1328) by Simone Martini, and the largest cycle of paintings on a profane subject in the Middle Ages, Good Governance by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1339).

Lookout from Torre del Mangia © James Lawson
Lookout from Torre del Mangia © James Lawson

As usual, let us devote the evening of our arrival to a tour of Siena’s medieval streets and piazzas, keeping the following day for visiting its wonderful Museums. The first is the Picture Gallery in Palazzo Bonsignori, to be reached from the Piazza up the lively Via di Citta and Via di San Pietro.

From the Gallery we can go on to Santa Maria del Carmine, 14th century, with important works of art, and from here, through Via Stalloreggi to the huge monumental complex of the Cathedral and the Baptistery.

The Cathedral whose structure reminds us of that of Orvieto, is one of the most remarkable Gothic buildings in Italy. The central part of the present church was built between 1196 and 1215, while a fantastic enlargement which had been planned was abandoned owing to the plague of 1348 (the Black Death) which prostrated the city of Siena. Only the unfinished walls remains of this mighty architectural dream.

The only thing we can do with the multitude of Siena Cathedral’s art treasures is give a short and incomplete list-the carved Pulpit by Nicola Tissue, the Floor of inlaid marble, the monumental Piccolomini Altar.

Another important Museum is that of the “Opera del Duomo di Siena” (Siena Cathedral Museum) at the side of the Cathedral with an important collection of statues by Giovanni Pisano, and the wonderful Maesta by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1311).

The Duomo – Photo © Axel Cordes
The Duomo – Photo © Axel Cordes

From the Cathedral we may walk down the picturesque Via Galluzza passing the graceful House of St. Catherine, transformed into a sanctuary in the 14th century to the impressive Gothic basilica of San Domenico, with its fretted bell-tower (interior: fine frescoes: Portrait of St. Catherine of Siena by Andrea Vanni), and going past Via delle Terme we arrive at Palazzo Salimbeni, with its fine Gothic windows and from here through Via dei Rossi to the great church of San Francesco (1326-1475) with important frescos by Lorenzetti.

After San Francesco, passing the 15th century Oratory of San Bernardino, we pass from Via dei Rossi into Via Banchi di Sopra and Palazzo Tolomei (13th cent.), the finest medieval private dwelling in Tuscany. From here we keep on for Piazza del Campo, to the elegant Loggia delta Mercanzia and into Via dei Banchi di Sella, with Palazzo Piccolomini. After this comes the elegant 15” century Loggia del Papa with the church of San Martino beside it.

If we go along Via San Martino we come to another fine church, Santa Maria dei Servi, standing among cypresses in an isolated position, full of numberless paintings of the Siena’s School. Of course, we do not claim to have described the whole of Siena – there is much else to be discovered, such as the Siena State Archives and the Siena Archaeological and Etruscan Museum, the interesting tour of the Siena City Gates, the Convent of the Osservanza in the environs, or the Castle of Belcaro.

In summary, a visit to Siena is very much suggested even if you are not coming for the “Palio sdi Siena”.

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Where to stay in Siena

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