by Tea Francesca Price
Siena, perched upon three hills, is a walled city located about 74 km south of Florence in the heart of Tuscany. Three major roads connect the city, traversing in a downward slope at the Piazza del Campo. Rising from this valley is the Torre del Mangia, seeming from a distance to be scaled to the same height as il Duomo, atop the city’s highest hill, Castelvecchio. This was done intentionally to signify that church and state had equal rights.
Experts debate if this city’s origins are Etruscan—an advanced civilization that preceded the Romans in the region of Tuscany—or if Siena is, in fact, slightly younger and a former Roman military post. Mythical origins trace the city back to Senio and Aschio, the twin sons of Remus (the unlucky brother of Romulus), who established Siena after fleeing Rome on horseback. Legend says that the brothers took with them a statue of the she-wolf that had nurtured their father and uncle, possibly explaining why statues of the she-wolf are seen in the most significant public places: Palazzo Pubblico, Palazzo Comunale, etc.
Regardless of if there is any truth to this folklore, Siena derived from it not only the she-wolf symbol, but also the black and white coloring of its balzana (flag). It is thought to represent the colors of the horses that carried Senio and Aschio, or else the columns of smoke from their grateful offerings to the god Apollo, and goddess, Diana.
A conversation about the history of Siena (in Italian).
Amidst feuds with Florence, resisting invasions, a cycle of ruling aristocratic families, to the rise and fall of Siena’s function as an independent city-state—the unique character of the city blossomed and was maintained.
In the 13th century, Siena played a major role for the sick and poor on pilgrimages, in addition to the abandoned infants, as its hospital, Santa Maria della Scala, acted as a place of treatment and refuge. Standing across from il Duomo di Siena, the hospital is considered one of Europe’s oldest hospitals dating back to 898 AD.
|Aquila (Eagle) | Bruco (Caterpillar) | Chiocciola (Snail) | Civetta (Little Owl) | Drago (Dragon)| Giraffa (Giraffe) | Istrice (Porcupine) |
| Leocorno (Unicorn)| Lupa (She-Wolf) | Nicchio (Seashell) | Oca (Goose)| Onda (Wave) | Pantera (Panther) |
|Selva (Forest) |Tartuca (Tortoise)| Torre (Tower) | Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram)
Within the eight circuit walls, Siena is divided into three thirds: The Terzo di Città, Terzo di Camollia, and the Terzo di San Martino. Within these sections, today, are 17 contrade (singular: contrada) or districts represented by an animal or symbol:
While Il Comune di Siena is in charge of the overall city, the contrade have their own, individual administration, a museum with works of art and processional costumes, a church, a stable for keeping their horse before il Palio, and are in charge of their own activities and events. A contrada is governed by a Seggio or Sedia, which is a council democratically elected every two, three or four years. The head of this board is called Priore Capo (in the case of the Bruco, il Rettore) and is assisted by the Vicario Generale or "secretary". The person in charge of all things concerning the Palio is called the “Capitano”, who has two assistants called “teneti” or “mangini”.
To be a contradaiolo or “member” of a contrada, one typically must be born into a district. Children are baptized in a contrada’s own baptismal fountain and receive a fazzoletto (scarf) which is then cherished for life. Loyalty to one’s contrada is engrained from that point on, as living the contrada lifestyle means not only participating in the events of il Palio, but in life of the district year-round—building relationships, serving and sharing meals, volunteering, attending sporting events, musicals, etc. A contrada, functioning like a giant family, is a community of the most active nature.
An interview with Francesco Pacciani of La Nobil Contrada del Bruco, (in English).
Il Duomo di Siena
“Oh wow,” a young, blonde woman breathes in an American accent, clutching her boyfriend’s arm as they saunter up the steps toward Il Duomo. “They packed a lot on there, it looks over-decorated.”
Hearing this comment, the Sienese men standing on either side of the door exchange looks that clearly say, “You have got to be kidding me.”
Il Duomo of Siena is a classic example of Gothic architecture, dating back to the 1200s. The upper half was worked upon in the 14th century, and due to the great wealth of that time, plans were made to expand the church to a size that would dwarf even Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. However, plans for expansion were interrupted by the bubonic plague, also responsible for wiping out over half of Siena’s population in 1348.
The interior of the church seems almost like an optical illusion, with bold black and white stripes stacked horizontally over the tall pillars. There are many richly detailed paintings, mosaics, and statues to take in, making the church a masterful collaboration of some of the greatest artists.
One’s neck will inevitably crick looking upwards at the vaulted, arched ceilings, intricately designed and perfectly preserved, however the floors are equally intriguing. Etched in marble panels are 59 scenes of Biblical or Sienese history, created by renowned Sienese artists such as Beccafumi, Pinturicchio, Domenico di Bartolo and Matteo di Giovanni. These sections of the floor are roped off for protection, however some scenes are even covered, only made visible during the time of the Palio in August.
Filmed/Produced by Tea Francesca Price, June 2015
by Tea Francesca Price
The floors uncovered outside il Duomo di Siena.
Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price, December 2014
Duomo during the time of the Palio in August, 2010
Photo Credit: Bruno Price, August 2010.
View of one of the panels, rarely uncovered, inside Il Duomo di Siena. Photo Credit: Diana M. Iorio, June 2015.
Something that cannot be missed, however, is the Libreria Piccolomini, renowned for its perfectly preserved frescoes. Commissioned by Archbishop Francesco Piccolomini of Siena, who later became Pope Pius III, the library was constructed in 1492.
Stepping into the library is stepping into a type of richly colored rainbow glowing in natural light from two, large windows. The Three Graces cast in marble stand in the middle of the room, while 30 giant, antique and beautifully illustrated choir books from the Renaissance era are shielded in glass display cases. They lay open for glancing at, but one’s eye is inevitably stolen by the detailed scenes on the walls.
In true gothic style, the details are intricate, a collision of artistic splendor. However, for the first time, the upper part of the Duomo was open to tourists in 2015, allowing a look at the rooms that for centuries were only for skilled labourers and great architects.
Inside of what would have been the work rooms of the artists who painted/designed the interior of Il Duomo.
Photo Credit: Tea Francesca Price, June 2015
View fom the roof of Il Duomo, facing right of San Francesco.
Photo Credit: Diana M. Iorio, June 2015
A rare view from the rooftop of Il Duomo, circling the primeter. Photo Credit: Diana M. Iorio, June 2015
Opening to the drum of the dome, a view of the 12 stained windows with the Apostles, created by Ulisse de Matteis in 1886, can be seen to perfection. The trefoil windows portray the four Patron Saints of Siena, St Catherine and St. Bernardino. Additionally, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s stained glass window—six meters in diameter and with a total surface of 30 square meters—shows the scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, artfully capturing “the Burial,” “the Assumption”, and “the Coronation” in addition to the four “Patron Saints of Siena” and the “Evangelists”.
But wrenching one’s eyes away from this and stepping through the narrow doorways into the warm air, the Biblical quote, “Questa è proprio la casa di Dio, questa è la porta del cielo” –“This is truly the house of God, this is the door to heaven”—has never been more accurate.
The view is warm, all terracotta roofs and the impressive view of Il Torre del Mangia towering above the Piazza del Campo. From this height, the American blonde can be seen crossing the square, perhaps nonplussed or overwhelmed by all she saw.
Yet, as a gentle, summer breeze buffets the walkways and larks swoop out into the rolling hills of the Chianti countryside…it is clear what inspired the many artistic souls who contributed to Il Duomo di Siena to create with such fervor.
Many historians argue that, economically speaking, Siena’s most prosperous days were prior to the devastating impact the Black Death (bubonic plague) had in 1348. Before this event, which wiped out over half of the city’s 47,500 inhabitants, Siena thrived on its successful agriculture and mercantile trade. The citizens, noble and non-noble alike, are said to have emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the areas of trade and banking. In fact, Siena founded the Monte dei Paschi bank, which having run without interruption since its creation in 1472, has become the world’s oldest, functioning bank.
However, despite an eventful history, a never-waning source of strength and identity stems from the city’s contrade or districts that are the fierce guardians of Siena’s spirit.