An immense artistic and architectural heritage encapsulated within the perfectly intact walls of such a small city can make your head spin.
But we have no intention of taking the place of a tour guide, we simply want suggest a lovely walk – Siena is made for walking – to get to its heart – Piazza del Campo.
We suggest you start just outside of the city walls to see how beautifully the city is set on a hillside surrounded by countryside. “Palazzo di Valli” is magnificent, one of the few hotels with a private carpark near to the pedestrian area. The seventeenth century villa still retains a magic atmosphere with original frescos and antique furnishings and a splendid panoramic terrace with views from the Orcia valley to Chiantishire, from which it is immediately evident the tie between the city and its surroundings.
We are in the area south of the historical center (along the Francigena way which brought pilgrims to Rome) and in a few minutes we get to the 14th century Porta Romana, the largest and possibly most attractive entrance to the city.
Unfortunately, the large fresco of the crowning of the virgin which in mid 1400’s adorned the outside wall of the tower is no longer visible. During its realization, two important Sienese painters died: Taddeo di Bartolo, who died suddenly shortly after being commissioned to paint it, and Stefano di Giovanni, better known as “Sassetta”, was came down with pneumonia while working on the windy scaffolding. The local government had the fresco finished by Sano di Pietro, just in time for the 1450 Jubilee. For centuries to the pilgrims transiting to Rome it played testimony to the devotion of the city to the Madonna, but after the last war, when it was almost completely illegible, it was removed and moved to the church of San Francesco. The large crest in travertine of Cosimo 1 Medici is still clearly visible. It was once placed under the arch of the main door and is a reminder of who, half way through the 16th century, brought the proud independence of the Republic of Siena to an end.
Heading up Via Roma, behind the railings you can see some large buildings with a garden in front. The building is currently used by the University of Siena for some departments but it is well known for having been home for almost 2 centuries to the city’s psychiatric hospital. The construction of “San Niccolo’”, began in 1818. It became an avant-garde hospital for the treatment of mental illnesses, particularly the use of manual work as therapy. It could house up to 2000 patients coming from other parts of Tuscany and the rest of Italy, and to do so, apart from the huge main building, during the years dozens of other buildings with diverse uses were added, including the famous “Conolly Building” – a ward for the more disturbed patients, based on the model of a “Panopticon” – the only one which still exists in Italy.
On reaching the arch which functions as the entrance to the area, and where you can still see the sign “Psychiatric Hospital”, carry on for about 50 meters and turn left onto Via “Val di Montone” and you will find yourself in the heart of the Contrada of the same name. After a few steps you will find the oratory and the museum of the Contrada of Valdimontone, one of the 17 in which the historical center of Siena is divided.
At this point it would be appropriate to open a chapter on the history, activities and deep meaning that the Contradas still have for the Sienese, but it is too vast a subject to deal with in just a few lines.
It is not always easy to visit a Contrada and often it has to be organized a few days in advance, but if you happen to find them open don’t miss the chance of an incredible experience in a microcosm of memorabilia, documents, costumes, art work, and Palios that have been won.
A few steps away is the Prato dei Servi, on the steps of the beautiful basilica of S. Clemente in Santa Maria dei Servi with its 15th century unfinished façade. It is a magic place: usually quiet and surprisingly panoramic. This is maybe one of the most beautiful parts of Siena from which to enjoy a memorable sunset.
Inside the church you can admire some veritable masterpieces like the splendid “Madonna del Popolo” by Lippo Memmi, or a “Strage degli Innocenti” by the Sienese master of this genre, Matteo di Giovanni. The latter produced 4 in his lifetime, starting from the marble tarsia of the floor of the Duomo (not to be missed), through to this magnificent one, his last, completed at the end of 1400 for the powerful Sienese Spannocchi family. The raw description of the bodies of the infants and the evil representation of Herod can be compared to the expressive intensity of another “strage degli Innocenti” nearby in the same church: the 14th century fresco by Niccolo di Segna. On the altar of the second chapel a famous panel can still be seen, which is considered fundamental for the development of Italian 13th century painting (which has been at the center of many arguments between the Sienese and the Florentines). It represents a Madonna with child known as “Madonna del Bordone” by Coppo di Marcovaldo, who was imprisoned in Siena following the Florentine defeat in the famous battle of Montaperti in 1260 and to redeem himself he undertook to painting the table for the friars of the Servi di Maria.
Coppo di Marcovaldo was the most important Florentine painter before Cimabue, as well one of the greatest of the time, and with this panel, which is among his few certain works, he tries to break out from the schemes of Byzantine figurativeness by starting a process of humanization that will lead to Gothic art.
The work, even if the faces have been touched up, makes Coppo a renewal of stylistic features hitherto dominant, to the point of becoming a reference point for painters of the second half of the 13th century.
After this break, we set off again turning back a little to that arch with the words “Ospedale Psichiatrico”. Despite appearances, access is free, through the park, leaving the large building on your left, continue following the signs for “Orto dei Pecci”. In less than 10 minutes downhill after having gone passed the astronomical observatory of the University of Siena, you get to the Valley of Porta Giustizia, another magical part of the city – an countryside oasis 300 meters from the Torre del Mangia!
The valley which today is practically devoid of buildings, can be considered one of the most illustrious victims of the Black Death and of the shattered dream of Siena to become a larger city. At the beginning of the 14th century the Valley of Porta Giustizia was indicated as a place set aside to house immigrants who aspired to obtain Sienese citizenship. In a few years, over 100 houses, a church, a mill, a sprint and two roads were built in what was called Borgo Nuovo di Santa Maria. Then, 1348 brought with it the plague, which took the lives of half of the Sienese population and those houses were left empty. The immigrants were instructed to occupy the empty houses in the city center and at the end of 14th century no-one lived on the road which led to the door used to go to the pass (from which the valley gets its name) so the Council ordered to transform the area into vegetable gardens.
This is how L’orto dei Pecci” came about (the name is found for the first time in 1527) as a plot of land included within the urban fabric of the medieval city and used to satisfy the food needs of the population and to grow medicinal herbs.
Even today the garden is an oasis where you can go for walks immersed in an ancient landscape which has survived over the centuries and which is depicted in paintings and frescos where it is possible to rediscover plants, aromas, perfumes and enjoy flavours which have lasted from medieval times to today. For almost 40 years, in fact, the Cooperativa Sociale La Proposta, an organization which offers job opportunities to people with disabilities, has organized the medieval vegetable garden and historic vineyards and runs the restaurant “Orto de’ Pecci” where, if you are now hungry, it would be a very pleasant place to stop.
If you look up towards the hill in front of you, you will see the elegant top of the “Mangia” tower. That is the direction to follow. In about a 100 meters, you climb from the open countryside to the heart of the city. At the end of the road, after a few steps you will find yourself in Piazza del Mercato, which is so-called because of the daily activity of trading goods and animals which has taken place here since the mid 1100s. The appearance of this piazza has changed throughout the course of time from a tree-lined dirt square to the construction of a central roof in 1886, which for the Sienese is known as the “big turtle”.
While here take another look down to the valley of Porta Giustizia which you just came from: the view now extends towards the Sienese countryside which is still well maintained and fertile as Ambrogio Lorenzetti saw it, and depicted it in the magnificent allegory of the “Buon Governo” (not to be missed in the Civic Museum”.
On the opposite side, the building which closes the square is simply the rear facade of the Town Hall. The lower floors are known as the “Magazzini del Sale” and for some years have been used as gallery space for temporary exhibitions. These are on two floors and have a brick vaulted structure. They were rediscovered during the work of restoration and recovery of the Palazzo in 1977, after having been completely forgotten. During the centuries they had been badly transformed or even erased by being filled with earth and debris. An example is the foundations of the Torre del Mangia and the inaccessible large underground tank which catches the water coming from the roof of the building.
The terrace at the top is the grandiose “Loggia dei Nove” built during the first half of the 14th century as a private space for the nine rulers of the Republic. This was a space where they could eat and get some fresh air during their six-month mandate. In fact, to avoid any external conditioning they could never leave the Palazzo, except on official occasions.
It is now time to enter the square which is the final destination of our walk. A few meters along Via del Mercato, you go a short way down Via Dupre’.
On Palio day this dark, narrow street is the last open entrance into the square until just before the Carriera. As you walk along it maybe you can imagine the incredible tension which is created in those moments, before arriving in Piazza del Campo.
And here we are finally in the most intriguing and grandiose urban space in Siena: Piazza del Campo.
Built on a fragile, muddy area, onto which the side-streets of the ancient city converge, for centuries this space has presented a significant urban problem. In 1169 when the Sienese community bought the land at the point where the 3 hills of the city converge, a project began which brought about one of the most intelligent solutions for organizing urban space that can be seen.
As the center and heart of the city, the Campo revolutionises the very idea of the Italian medieval square, resisting the imposition of conventional map.
The square has inspired feelings and admiration for centuries and has always tried to explain the meaning with similes, metaphors and symbols: circle or shell, fan or cape or even theatre as Gigli wrote in the 18th century: reduced to such magnificent and beautiful symmetry our Piazza, is such that with a glance you can recognize if the person looking for you is present, is far better than any theatre in the world to represent shows”. As is well known Piazza del Campo is also the place where the Palio takes place twice a year. This horse race that is a celebration and has been many celebrations, is a ritual of a city and historical memory of a civilization.
To attempt to appreciate some more of its flavour, as we are at the end of our walk, we recommend you sit down on the steps of Fonte Gaia and try to imagine the noise and passion coming from the crowded Piazza, the balconies, and all the surrounding windows at that moment.