This is an idiosyncratic and personal map of what to see in Siena. There is more conventional google map at the bottom of this post, but this is a map I sketched and it’s my feeling of how Siena hangs together. There are two centres of power, the religious and the secular. The focal point of religious power is the Cathedral, built on the highest point of the city. The focus of secular power lies lower down, in the “Piazza del Campo“, literally the “square of the field“. The famous shell-shaped square is divided into 9 segments, to represent each of the members of the “consiglio dei nove” who ran the city. Towering above the square is the Public Palace with the “Torre del Mangia“, the tall bell tower. Every year the areas (contrade) of the city fight for supremacy by racing horses around the square. It’s dangerous, it’s laced with politics and intrigue, and it’s still very heartfelt in the city itself. I think of Siena as a medieval microcosm frozen in brick and transported through the centuries – magical.
Duomo di Siena. Remarkable in a city made of brick, this enormous building is entirely striped in black and white marble. The interior is rich, amazingly so. The inlaid floors tell biblical stories. Near the entrance there is a very striking and unusual image of Hermes Trismegistus, a combination of the Egyptian God Thot, the Roman God Mercury and the Greek God Hermes.
To visit the Cathedral you can buy tickets here:
2 Piazza del Campo
The beautiful square where the Palio is run twice a year. We can find tickets for you if you wish, or you can see the race from the centre of the square for free – not for the faint-hearted but a very authentic experience.
The square is divided into 9 segments to represent each of the 9 lords in the council of the republic of Siena. A good spot to stop for an icecream – but no strip down and treat the square as a beach – the local police will move you on, or even fine you. They insist the square is treated with respect.
To see some fabulous pictures of the Palio: Palio di Siena
3 Palazzo Pubblico
The Palazzo Pubblico is still today Siena’s Town Hall – not bad for a building originally constructed in the late 13th century. The building also houses the “Museo Civico” with some fabulous frescoes and paintings.
My personal favourite is Ambrogio Lorenzetti‘s “Allegory of Good government” in which two versions of Siena face each other; in the well-governed city the buildings are well cared for, the crops growing and harvested. While in the badly governed city crops lie untended as bandits roam the countryside, and the very fabric of the city is collapsing. A cautionary tale painted in the heart of the seat of government!
Another favourite is the Simone Martini (my sketched version below). It represents a captain of the Sienese army, GuidoRiccio da Fogliano, advancing in the countryside below Montemassi in 1382. We have some properties for rent in the ancient ex-convent of Pieve di Caminino and the view from there matches the fresco exactly, making me thing the Sienese may well have used the old building as a base for their battle.
Tickets to Museo Civico (and to go up the Torre del Mangia): Siena Online tickets
In the early 14th century Siena wanted to expand their already large Cathedral to be even more grand. Building works were started but the arrival of the Black Death, or Plague, in 1348 halved the population of the city and put paid to the plans.
The unfinished end wall still stands, together with part of an aisle. The bricked in aisle now houses the museum of the “Opera del Duomo” , full of artworks from the Cathedral and other churches in the area.
The “Facciatone” can be climbed via tortuous interior stairs that lead to a glorious narrow terrace . This is a spectacular place to see the city from and is well worth the climb. This is a sketch I made from the facciatone a few years ago.
for info and tickets: Museo dell’Opera
5. Santa Maria della Scala
This enormous building faces the cathedral and is now a museum. For most of its life it was a hospital – I can remember my mother being in the hospital there, so the change is recent. It was a very curious experience to walk through these towering rooms decorated with frescoes to visit my mother in a hospital bed!
The Hospital, as it then was, has played an enormous part in the life of the city. According to legend it was founded in 898 but the first written records date from 1090. The “Via Francigena” is the main pilgrimage route from Northern Europe to Rome, and it passed through Siena. The hospital played a large part in housing and looking after the pilgrims.
Today it has been transformed into a museum and it is excellent. There are some fantastic exhibitions here, including a section dedicated to children.
For more information and tickets:
6. Basilica di San Francesco
This is a large and imposing basilica that is difficult to date at first sight. The first church was built on this site in 1228 in the romanesque style. A century later, in 1326, the current church was started, with a further enlargement in 1475 giving it its rather more gothic style.
The interior is striped, and is reminiscent of the main Cathedral.
A fire in 1655 largely destroyed the church – including some precious works of art. The current church owes much of its appearance to Giuseppe Partini who rebuilt it between 1885 and 1892.
Today the church houses some wonderful works of art from the 14th and 15th century. It’s also off the main tourist trail so is a lovely place to go for a quiet and contemplative look at art. The two cloisters are worth visiting, as is the Oratory of St. Bernardino.
Piazza S. Francesco, 6, 53100 Siena SI, Italy
7. Santa Maria in Provenzano
Unusual in such a medieval and brick city, Santa Maria in Provenzano is a mannerist jewel. Started at the very end of the 16th century, it was consecrated in 1611. It is dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano and it’s importance to the city stems from it being where the July Palio is kept.
That’s not to say they race the horses here – but “Palio” means prize. So the bi-annual horse race is held for a prize – the”Palio” – which is a painted banner. Every year an artist is asked to paint a Palio for each of the two races. The July banner is held in this church until the winning contrada (city quarter) can take it back to their part of town, but only having brought it back, however briefly, to this church for a blessing.
It is a church embedded in the life of the city and vibrant with the energy and vigour of the Palio.
Basilica di San Domenico
It’s tricky to miss this church: imposing, large and entirely built of bricks. It stands on the edge of a deep valley, across which you can see the Cathedral. The view below was sketched from close to the entrance to San Domenico – it’s a splendid spot to see the city and the cathedral. If you turn left you can skirt the valley and walk to the cathedral more or less on the flat. If you decide to walk straight across you’ll have to drop steeply in the the valley of Fontebranda, then up again on the other side.
The church itself is dedicated to Saint Catherine, patron saint of Siena.
Piazza del Mercato
Behind the Palazzo Pubblico and Piazza del Campo is a quiet square with an imposing 19th century covered market. The view from this terraced square is wonderful and looks out over the Tuscan countryside. In the 14th century the city had planned a large expansion into the valley below. The Plague cut the population by around 50% and the planned expansion never happened – now it is a wonderful area called the “Orto de’Pecci“, and it’s where I sketched this view from, looking back towards the back of the Palazzo Pubblico. When exploring Siena becomes a little too much, why not buy a sandwich and come and sit down here for a while, lie back in the grass and enjoy being inside history itself?
Siena’s art collection. A gem in the city with a large number of beautiful artworks. Siena was a medieval powerhouse long before Florence got going. Artists like Duccio, Giotto, Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti mark the transition from an iconographic view to a more human art, in which character and everyday realities start to shine through. The earlier artists, like Duccio and Simone Martini, show the influence of early Flemish art – a reminder of how well connected the city was, along the directive of the Via Francigena. By the time of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s work, the humanist movement was showing it’s influence. The layout and structure of his works – like the Maestà – are still structured and iconic, but the faces are human, invested with emotion and reality. Walking through the rooms of the Pinacoteca is like watching the start of the Renaissance. Presumably if one runs through them fast enough it would be like a flicker book, the figures becoming more fluid and more human as the centuries pass. (But I wouldn’t try it!)