Architecture, Churches, ITALY, Siena

After leaving Ravenna, we traversed the Apennine Mountains and traveled to Siena, a city that provided us with a window into the Middle Ages in Italy.

Although Siena was already settled in the time of the ancient Etruscans, it did not become a prominent city until after the collapse of the Western Empire.  Siena found itself along a commercial and pilgrimage route to Rome that became popular in the 8th century during the Carolingian period.  Like numerous other Italian cities in the late-first millennium, Siena developed into a city-state.  While the bishop of Siena served as de facto governor during the early Sienese city-state, by 1179 a republican government had developed with a written constitution that sought to balance both ecclesiastical and aristocratic interests.

Siena distinguished itself as an important center for trade, especially with regard to wool.  Both secular and ecclesiastical sponsorship led to the creation of one of the earliest universities in the world here in 1240, and artistic patronage thrived well into the 14th century.  However, political rivalry with Florence and the Black Death of 1348 contributed to Siena’s decline in power.  In 1555, Siena was incorporated into the territory of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

Contrada della Giraffa

The Republic of Siena was divided into districts, know as contrade (sg. contrada).  Although their number and size have fluctuated over time, 17 districts survive to this day.  The contrade are tightly knit communities and rivalries between them abound.  This sense of competition is manifested in the Palio, a bareback horse race sponsored by the contrade and accompanied by much fanfare and Sienese pageantry.

Palazzo Pubblico and Piazza del Campo

The medieval Palazzo Pubblico, Siena’s town hall (ca. 1297) reflects the secular context for which it was created.  Inside the palace, many rooms are decorated with frescos commissioned by the governing body of the city.  These paintings are unique in their depiction of secular subject matter, at a time when sacred art was the precedent.  The most famus of these Frescos, The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, serves as a potent symbol to highlight the value of Siena’s republican government.  The adjacent tower of the palace, the Torre del Mangia, one of the tallest towers in Italy at the time, was constructed to be of equal height as the cathedral, a symbol of the equal authority shared by Church and state.  At the foot of the Palazzo Pubblico lies a late Gothic chapel of the Virgin Mary, built as an ex voto by the Sienese who survived the Black Death of 1348.

The Palazzo Pubblico is at the center of the famous Piazza del Campo, one of the greatest medieval squares of Europe.  The remainder of the square is filled with aristocratic residences that date to the 13th ane 14th centuries, the height of Sienese wealth and power.  Twice a year, the Piazza del Campo becomes a crowded horse racing track for the Sienese Palio.

Basilica Cateriana di San Domenico

The “Catherinine” Basilica of St. Dominic was first built between 1226-1265, but enlarged in the 14th century.  Within the large nave of this Gothic church is the reliquary of St. Catherine of Siena, the most famous citizen of this city.  St. Catherine was a mystic, Scholastic philosopher and theologian.  She was influential in bringing the papacy back to Rome from the so-called Babylonian captivity in Avignon (1309-1378).  Together with St. Francis, she is the patron saint of Italy and one of the patrons of Europe.  While her body rests in Rome, where she died, her head and thumb were brought to her home city of Siena, where they are greatly and sincerely venerated to this day in the Dominican church of St. dominic, since she herself belonged to the Dominican Order.  Website:


The cathedral of Siena, or Duomo di Siena, designed and completed from 1215-1263, sits atop the site of a 9th century church and bishop’s palace.  The Black Death halted a massive expansion plan, whereby the current cathedral was to become a transept for one of the largest churches in the world.  Both the interior and exterior walls consist of alternating stripes of greenish-black and white marble, with red marble on the facade.  The black and white colors are symbolic of Siena and legend has it are etiologically linked to the black and white horses of the ancient founders of the city, Senius and Aschius.

Adjacent to the cathedral is the Duomo Museum, which contains some of the artistic masterpieces produced for the cathedral.  Among the masterpieces housed in the museum are the Maestà by Duccio and the stain glass window of Cimabue.

All photos by Melanie Ross