For centuries, the beautiful hilltop city of Siena rivalled nearby Florence in commerce, art, and culture. Medieval bankers and republican governors helped the city flourish, shaping the historic centre visitors see today. Pilgrims, too, were instrumental. Though there is evidence for Etruscan and Roman presence on Città, the first of Siena’s three hills to be settled, Siena as a city is a child of the Via Francigena, the pilgrim road from northern Europe to Rome, the centre of western Christendom. Travellers to the Eternal City needed to stop for the night every 20 miles or so, so this was a major boost to suitably positioned settlements, like Siena.
It was these pilgrims to Rome who initially brought wealth to the community, and more than a dozen hospices – part pilgrim hostel, part hospital – were built to service them. The hospice of Santa Maria della Scala was perhaps founded as early as the 9th century, and it grew rapidly to become the largest of these institutions thanks to the donations of pilgrims who fell sick or died en route and were nursed in its hospitable halls. Its records constitute important evidence for the tie between the pilgrim route of the Via Francigena and the development of Siena. The wealth it acquired was invested in land: scholars have estimated that, by the end of the 13th century, it owned a third of the arable land under Sienese control.
During these centuries of prosperity from the pilgrims, the political situation and the authority of the bishop shifted significantly. We begin to hear about Siena as a city in the 8th century after the Lombards, a Germanic people, established a kingdom in northern Italy. At this early stage, it was ruled by combination of a bishop and a secular authority figure called a gastald.
In 11th-century Europe, the principal secular authority was the Holy Roman Emperor. Though the emperors were Kings of Italy, the centre of their power was always in Germany, so they controlled the Italian cities via aristocratic deputies. Since aristocratic power was defined by landholding, the descendants of Lombard gastalds and the Frankish counts who succeeded them dispersed themselves across the countryside, leaving authority in the city to devolve to the bishop.
As early as 1167, however, the commune of Siena declared its independence from episcopal control, and they expelled their bishop as secular ruler in 1170. By 1176, the commune had a system of legislature in place, documented by a constitution. Like other Italians, the people of Siena were motivated to seize control of their own affairs by the quickening tempo of commercial life and the incentive this gave to establish fairs and permanent trading relations with like-minded merchant communities in Italy and beyond. Over the course of the next decade, they entered into league with neighbouring cities to gain independence from the Holy Roman Emperor as well.
The form of government that developed in 12th-century Siena was a supreme magistracy, headed by consuls drawn from the urban nobility: the new opportunities for wealth-creation in the city had drawn some of the magnates out of their rural strongholds and into urban palaces. The newly independent commune quickly grew. After the emperors officially recognised Siena’s right to self-rule, the city expanded its power in the region by absorbing smaller communities into its thriving organisation, eventually transforming itself into something more than a commune or city. It became a city-state, extending its system of laws and governance to smaller nearby communities and, in turn, collecting taxes and requiring allegiance from these dependencies.
Though 12th-century Siena was tiny, in the 13th century it began to assume its present form as the city became more prosperous. The first wave of building was down to the church: the medieval church always set store by building to the glory of God. The rise of the mendicant orders – Dominicans, Franciscans, and others – is a major feature of the 13th century. They concentrated their activities in towns, whereas monks, such as the Benedictines, had typically lived in rural communities. With this urban outlook, they began to build churches in the city, in addition to the magnificent cathedral, the Duomo, which was already present.
As soon as the news of the death of St Francis of Assisi reached Siena in 1226, two years before his canonisation, the commune decreed that a church should be built in his honour. This was completed in 1255. Like St Francis, who had been in the city in 1212, St Dominic visited Siena. It was the first Tuscan city to build a Dominican church, which was later made famous by the 14th- century saint Catherine of Siena, who followed Dominican practices and had a vision of her mystic marriage to Christ. These two churches played a major role in the life of the city. Family altars were set up in both churches, pointing to the close attachment between leading Sienese families and the friars.
As for the Duomo, the first cathedral was apparently in Città, the oldest quarter of the city on top of the hill also called Castelvecchio – Italian, appropriately, for ‘Old Castle’. The church and the bishop’s palace moved to their present site near the fountain of Fontebranda in the 12th century. But the 12th-century cathedral was short-lived. Due to the conspicuous part the Sienese played in international banking, wealth poured in throughout the 13th century, and with this income the citizens’ sense of their own glory and dignity underwent rapid expansion. After only two or three generations, the cathedral was supplanted by a new building better to match this vision.
Work on the new cathedral began around 1220, continuing over the course of the following two centuries. The choir and altar were completed around 1260 and, aside from decoration and work on the façade, the cathedral was probably more or less complete by 1280. The three-aisled nave was the same size as in the present cathedral, but the transept and choir were shorter. The 13th-century cathedral also had a crypt where the four city saints (Ansanus, Savinus, Crescentius, and Victor) were worshipped, but to make room for it the choir was at a higher level than the nave. When the structure was redesigned in the 14th century, the cathedral authorities took the decision to sacrifice the crypt in order to put the choir on the same level as the nave. As a result, only a small section of the crypt survives. That which does survive, however, is of considerable interest, since the crypt was frescoed in the 13th century with scenes from the Old and New Testament. These wall paintings were only rediscovered in 1999, and are some of the earliest surviving Sienese art.
Today the cathedral boasts a splendid façade, a 13th-century replacement of the original front. This was plain masonry, apparently decorated with mosaic. The new façade was entrusted to the sculptor Giovanni Pisano, who was chief overseer of work on the cathedral from 1284 to 1296. He probably designed the lower level, with its three broad doors, and he carved the statues of prophets and philosophers that inhabited the niches until they were replaced by copies in 1869.
The 13th-century cathedral probably had a barrel-vaulted roof, crowned by a masonry cupola. This was topped off with a bronze ball, paid for in 1264. Cupolas were considerable feats of engineering and consequently prestigious. Knowledge of how to build them seems to have come to Tuscany from the East around the end of the 11th century, since the dome of the cathedral of Pisa and that of the baptistery of Florence were completed by 1100. Possessing a cathedral with a dome was evidently a source of considerable local pride.
Against the advice of a panel of experts, the cupola was remodelled in the 1320s. The gamble paid off: by building another skin around the pre-existing structure, it was made bigger and even more imposing.
One of the most striking features of the Duomo is the arrangement of alternating stripes of white and very dark green marble, now almost black from oxidation, both inside and out. The structure is actually brick, and the marble stripes form a decorative skin. Similar stripes were a component of the 13th-century cathedral before the 14th-century remodelling too, as indicated by the accounts for 1226, which show large amounts of money being spent on black and white marble. Black and white are also the colours of the city shield. Decorative banding is used as a design element in a number of Tuscan cathedrals – notably the Duomos of Florence and of Orvieto, and, more locally, the Duomo of Grosseto – but the effect is particularly dramatic at Siena.
The other great builders at first were the aristocracy. They were not called casati (house-holders) for nothing: the possession of castles was central to their self-perception and status. This did not change when they moved from their rural strongholds into the city, where they built towers, financed by their profitable adventures in banking. A tower was a testament to rank and privilege, since only noblemen were legally permitted to build them. Once one noble family started to raise a tower (the Tolomei were the first in 1208), the rest followed, unwilling to be left behind.
These urban strongholds of the nobility were each constructed around a small courtyard, with a defensive exterior wall minimally pierced by doors or windows (hence the courtyards, which were needed as light-wells). They clustered in the centre of the city, along the ridges of Siena’s three hills. Families grouped around their stronghold, so Siena had a ‘Tolomei neighbourhood’, a ‘Piccolomini neighbourhood’, and so on. Rising to heights of 50 and 60 metres, the towers loomed above the tiny houses of ordinary citizens. They symbolised a family’s control over their particular region of the city, and were used to dominate the locality.
Because palaces and towers were of both great practical and great symbolic value to the aristocracy, if the commune needed to discipline rebellious nobles, they destroyed their houses. To add insult to injury, the rubble and building stone of demolished houses was later, in the 14th century, used for municipal purposes. Through most of the 13th century, however, the municipality had not yet begun building imposing structures on its own account.
Great public buildings started to take shape in one exceptional period of the city’s history: the rule of the ‘Nine Governors and Defenders of the Commune and People of Siena’. The Nine (nove in Italian) took power in 1287 and kept it for 68 years.
Before the Nine, work on civic architecture was already taking place in the mid-13th century on a then little-used field, the campo fori. The field, beyond the commercial and religious centre around the Duomo and Santa Maria della Scala, was selected because it was the site where the territories of the three subdivisions of the city converged, so it was a sort of no man’s land. The first structures that arose on the campo were a Dogana, or customs house, and a mint. It is easy to see why the commune might consider customs and coinage priorities.
The Nine developed the campo fori even further as they furnished Siena with its first and only city hall. The famous Palazzo Pubblico was built in a surprisingly short space of time, begun in 1298 and finished by 1310. Its style, with its distinctive pointed arches, represents a grafting of native building tradition on to a Burgundian template. This Burgundian influence came by way of the Cistercian abbey of San Galgano in the Sienese countryside. The abbey was closely involved with the life of the city and the early development of Sienese public buildings, not just the Palazzo Pubblico, owes much to this Cistercian community.
The new Palazzo Pubblico was set off by a new Campo: Siena’s unique town square, with nine lines of stone radiating fanwise from immediately in front of the city hall. It was paved in 1300, a particularly prosperous time for the city as Pope Boniface VIII had proclaimed a holy year, bringing tens of thousands of pilgrims down the Via Francigena. Campo is more or less shell-shaped, but it may be intended to evoke the protecting cloak of the Virgin Mary, which, in Sienese minds, had been cast over their forces at the battle of Montaperti, a long-remembered victory over the Florentines in 1260. Even today, the square hosts the traditional horse race: the Palio.
Both civic and religious institutions enabled the development of a highly distinctive art tradition in Siena. Unlike the art of Florence, early Sienese painting is mostly public, in the service of church or state. Portraiture is very rare. Artists of the Sienese school, which emerged after 1250, show a particular debt to the Byzantine tradition of icon painting, much admired in 13th-century Italy. This influence may stem from the city’s trading connections with Venice and the East.
Sienese art achieved a sophisticated expressiveness as early as 1285, when Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna successfully reinterpreted the monumentality and profound religious feeling of Byzantine icons in the light of the more realistic Gothic art of Western Europe. The work was, incidentally, commissioned by Florentines, and it was widely recognised as a groundbreaking masterpiece, not only in Siena.
Duccio was then commissioned to create a splendid new altarpiece for the cathedral: his Maestà. Installed on the high altar in 1311, this was a monumental, double-sided work with the enthroned Virgin and Child surrounded by saints on one side and detailed narratives of the passion of Christ on the other.
The cathedral continued to be a major patron of the arts through the 14th century, commissioning works such as other painted altarpieces and sculptures. The other principal religious patron was the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. A 14th-century series of mural paintings illustrating the life of the Virgin, executed by Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers (Ambrogio and Pietro), decorated the façade of the hospital for centuries until they were removed in 1720.
Civic patronage was important to the development of Sienese art, too. The Palazzo Pubblico was lavishly adorned; it seems to be this public project which led to Sienese artists’ precocious interest in landscape. Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s 14th-century Good and Bad Government frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico feature panoramic views of the Sienese countryside. The later portrait of the condottiere (captain of a mercenary company) Guidoriccio da Fogliano in the building’s Sala del Mappamondo similarly set him in an extensive landscape featuring the castle of Montemassi, which he conquered in 1328, and the surrounding area.
Another of the masterpieces in the Palazzo Pubblico is Simone Martini’s Maestà. The Christ Child sitting on his mother’s knee holds a scroll, saying in Italian ‘Love justice, you who judge the earth’, for this image is not aimed at the people of Siena, but at the city’s rulers. This is the Madonna as a figure of justice. Poems in Italian inscribed on the steps up to her throne use her voice to warn the Nine to fulfil their duties and refrain from oppressing the poor.
Siena continued to spend lavishly on art and public buildings until 1348, when, like everywhere else in Europe, it was devastated by the Black Death, which may have counted Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti among its many casualties. The population did not return to pre-plague levels until the 20th century. But they maintained their distinctive culture, and commitment to a republican ideal until their defeat by the Florentines in alliance with the Hapsburgs in 1565. The Tuscan Grand Dukes allowed Siena to become an economic backwater, and it continued to be disadvantaged and under-populated until after the Second World War. One outcome of this is that the town centre has been preserved as an essentially medieval city, bringing it into an era in which its unique assemblage of buildings could be cherished and conserved.
Siena: the life and afterlife of a medieval city by Jane Stevenson is available as an abundantly illustrated hardback book from Head of Zeus (ISBN 978-1801101141; £40).