Siena Cathedral
Siena Cathedral

Siena, like many other Tuscan hill towns, was an Etruscan city, and in Medieval times a city to rival Florence, its historical enemy. To this and other rivalries between Tuscan towns we owe so many beautiful buildings and monuments: who between Florence and Siena could build the most impregnable castles wall, or the most ornate churches?

The whole of the historic centre of Siena has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site.

The history of Siena as a free, independent comune (city-state) lasted for over four hundreds years, from the late 11th century until the year 1555.

The Republic of Siena was born in 1125, when its bourgeois class rebelled against the bishops forced on the city by Charles V and in so doing put an end to feudalism. in 1125 the bishop who governed the city and the surrounding county was overthrown.

Siena, as a Ghibelline city, came into conflict with the Florentine Guelphs and, despite its historic victory over the Guelphs of Florence at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, the Republic of Siena ended when, after a long siege and resistance, in April 1555 it surrendered to a Spanish-Florentine army recruited by the Duke of Florence, Cosimo I de’ Medici. The new Spanish King Philip, who owed huge sums to the Medicis, ceded Siena to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, whose capital was Florence, to which it belonged until the unification of Italy in 1861.

Despite the subsequent dominance of Florence, Siena remained a great city of art and commerce, wealthy and prosperous.

Siena Palio in Piazza del Campo
Siena Palio in Piazza del Campo

The University of Siena (Universita’ degli Studi di Siena), founded in 1240, is one of the world’s oldest and first publicly funded universities.

Siena, along with Florence and other northern Italian cities, were the places where the bank as the modern institution that we know was born. Banker families, like the Acciaiuolis in Florence, became very powerful. In 1472 Monte dei Paschi di Siena was founded, which still operates and is one of Italy’s major banks. Although the first modern bank, Banco di San Giorgio in Genoa, goes back to 1406, Monte dei Paschi di Siena is the world’s oldest bank still in existence.

At the end of the 1200s, the main banking centre was Siena. But the principal Sienese bankers, the ancient and noble Bonsignori family, went bankrupt in 1298. The reason is that at the time the leading borrowers were kings and courts, who mostly needed money to finance wars, but these were tricky customers, often unable to repay their debts while their loan requests were impossible to refuse. And the banks could not enforce the repayments by these powerful clients. In the end, the huge sums lent and not repaid bankrupted the Bonisgnoris, and the Sienese banking trade never recovered. The role of Siena as the banking capital of the world was taken over by Florence.

Read here how Italy invented banks.

Siena is a Renaissance jewel. Open any door in Siena and art pours out – paintings, frescoes, sculptures. The Duomo of Siena is one of the oldest cathedrals in Italy.

The architecture of the Piazza del Campo, the main square in Siena, which was built on the Roman Forum, is powerful. The Piazza del Campo in Siena, repeatedly dubbed the most beautiful square in the world, awaits you like a spider in its web of narrow streets and medieval alleys. It’s a marvel of symmetry and proportion, with a distinctive nine-segment design that represents the 13th and 14th century authority of the City.

In the maze of Medieval alleys of Siena you’ll also find master craftsmen working alabaster.

Siena is also famous for its Palio, a bareback horse race run in Piazza del Campo, the heart of the city, among Siena’s various contrade (see box) which have competed against each other since the Middle Ages. The Palio, a tough, no-holds-barred race during which the horses get often injured and killed, is now largely discredited for the animal cruelty involved.

A medieval square, quadrangular and shell-shaped with irregular and varying ground levels, is hardly the appropriate place for a horse race. The horses used in the Palio are thoroughbreds that give their all when they are running, and often take the sharp bends and corners of the Piazza at high speed, with all the dangers and fright associated.

“Palio” is an Italian generic term for a prize, or something which is at stake. Many other historical and traditional competitions held all over Italy in towns and cities are called “Palio”. The actual “palio” in Siena, ie the prize for the contrada winning the race, is a rectangular silk standard, also called “drappellone”, with a painting of the Assumption of Virgin Mary, the city’s patron saint, always made by different artists. This is why the second Palio of Siena is run on the 16th August, the day after the Feast of the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, and is therefore called “Palio dell’Assunta”. There are two Palios a year; the first, the “Palio di Provenzano”, is held the 2nd of July in honour of Madonna of Provenzano.

The most beautiful part of Siena’s Palio is actually the corteo storico, the pageantry preceding the horse race, with flag-bearers and other people wearing Renassaince dresses and uniforms parading around the magnificent square. Each contrada has its representatives wearing rich costumes, holding standards and throwing in the air flags with the district’s symbol. That procession lasts about two hours, while the actual race is like a lightning bolt and is over in a couple of minutes. The corteo storico involves about 700 “figuranti” (people wearing traditional costumes), has great artistic and historical value, is loved by visitors and could very well be preserved while the inhumane horse race should be scrapped.


Italian Mini Dictionary

Contrade (singular “contrada”) = The historical boroughs,

or districts, into which Siena is divided

Sbandieratori = Flag bearers juggling with their flags

Corteo = Procession