Siena: Italy’s Medieval Heart and Soul

By Rick Steves Modified: September 12, 2013 at 10:35 am •  Published: September 12, 2013
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Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers Italy’s best medieval city experience. With red-brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.

Most people are content to see Siena on a day trip (it’s just 35 miles south of Florence), but it’s worth a longer visit. Florence may have the big-time museums, but Siena was made for strolling. Staying at a little family-run inn in the old town center, I feel like an honorary Sienese.

Five hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.

Siena's loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza--the Campo. People hang out as if at the beach at this tilted shell-shaped “square” of red brick. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but the Campo gathers around Siena’s city hall, symbol of rational government, and a 330-foot municipal tower (open for climbers). If it’s true that a society builds its tallest towers to its greatest gods, then Siena worships secular effectiveness more than it trusts in God.

Nowadays, the city hall tends a museum collection of beautiful paintings (including a knockout work by hometown master Simone Martini). The 14th-century town council met here in the Sala della Pace (“Room of Peace”) under instructive frescoes reminding them of the effects of bad and good government: One fresco shows a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny; the other fresco depicts a utopian republic, blissfully at peace.

If the Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo (or cathedral) is its soul. Sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.

Great art, including Michelangelo statues and Bernini sculptures, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the wonderful marble pulpit in 1268. It's crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling--get up close to study the scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.

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