If you stand in the middle of Piazza de Campo in Siena early in the morning, you’ll have a strange sensation. Empty and quiet, this perfectly preserved Medieval square and its magnificent gothic buildings seems to transport you back in time to the middle ages. Let’s go for a wander through its streets and see the signs and wonders of its past.
Siena is a UNESCO heritage site and it doesn’t take you long to see why.
The city’s main square, simply called Il Campo by the locals, is an amazing shell-shaped space, flanked by Gothic buildings that have been watching the unfolding centuries through beautiful biforate windows and elegant pointed arches. The undisputed king of these buildings is the Palazzo Pubblico, an awe-inspiring edifice that dominates the square with its slender tower, the second highest in Italy.
The narrow passageways that lead onto Il Campo keep it hidden and protected, like a precious secret. It’s in this square that The Palio, the renowned historical horse race, takes place twice a year. Here ancient rivalries come back to life every summer, when Siena’s contrade, or districts, fiercely compete against each other in this colourful, chaotic event.
The 17 contrade are very much a part of Sienese life. They are examples of local civic pride and devotion to one’s neighbourhood in the city. In Medieval times there were nearly 60 of these contrade. It was a way to administrate the city that was growing furiously, and in constant need of troops to fight off its rival Florence. This was Siena’s golden age, between the 13th and 14th centuries. A time when the pilgrim route known as the Via Francigena passed through Siena bringing with it wealth and prosperity.
Today as you walk the steep alleyways and cobbled streets of Siena, you are constantly reminded of the devotion of the Senesi to their contrade. Plaques and flags bearing the various symbols are all around the town, ensuring you always know exactly which contrada you are standing in. The fiery dragon, the cunning owl, the slow but relentless turtle or the exotic giraffe. Each of them has an appropriate motto, and all seem to have come out of a children’s fairy tale.
Speaking of tales, there’s another animal you’ll frequently meet in Siena. It’s the lupa, or she-wolf, the foster mother of Remus and Romulus, the mythical founders of Rome.
Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus, after their father was murdered by his twin brother Romulus. Supposedly the two brothers fled from the murderous uncle on two horses, one black and one white, and arrived in Etruria, ancient Tuscany, where they founded a city, Siena.
One particularly beautiful lupa is depicted on the Cathedral’s pavement, a magnificent Medieval marble masterpiece that is one of the wonders of Siena. One of the statues stands outside the Duomo, and another more relaxed lupa lets the pigeon drink out of her mouth in the Gaia fountain in Piazza del Campo. The cathedral was dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and is considered one of the most important Romanesque Gothic religious buildings in Italy.
But the city has another beloved church too. One with an intriguing story. The San Domenico Basilica, a church dedicated to one of the patron saints of Italy – Saint Catherine. She used to come to this church to pray and today in a macabre tribute to her, the saint’s head is on display for all to see.
The red brick buildings, the ancient churches, the frescoes. Everywhere you go you see signposts of Siena’s past. A past that’s a fascinating mix of legend, history and tradition. Go. Breathe it in. And leave the 21st century behind.
For more about this fascinating city, check out the Insider’s Guide to Siena.
Ben Carson and Sabrina Nesi are both travel writers based in Florence, and co-founders of the website lovefromtuscany.com, an insider’s travel guide to Tuscany. Here they share their knowledge, and pour out all their passion for the art, culture, lifestyle and food of the region. They’re always looking for new stories to tell and hidden corners to explore. You can connect with them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and read their blog at lovefromtuscany.com/blog