We’d been to Siena once before, but it was over 20 years ago and only for a day or at most two. So with a couple days before meeting Dan & Laura in Florence it made a perfect stop.
Siena is such a beautiful city in part because it failed. Back in medieval times Siena – allied primarily with the Holy Roman Emperor – competed with Florence, a supporter of the Pope in his battles with the Holy Roman Empire. By the late 13th century Florence had won and essentially subjugated Siena. So while Florence flourished and moved into the Renaissance, Siena remained stuck in its Gothic time warp. By the time the plague hit in the mid-14th century, killing half of Siena’s residents, they no longer had the strength to resist the Florentine Medici encroachment.
That history is abundantly alive as you walk through the city today, with UNESCO recognizing it as “the embodiment of a medieval city.” The highlight of all this is the Duomo, dating from the 13th century. The exterior is simply stunning, a gorgeous blend of white, green, and red marble. And then you go inside. Again, simply stunning, with black and white marble stripes giving the space real character. The marble inlaid floor, with over 50 panels designed by dozens of artists, is one of a kind. One of the side doors in the church leads to the Piccolomini Library, named for the guy who later became Pius II, has beautiful frescoes all around the walls and ceiling. These pictures can only begin to give a sense of it.
There were a few other sites associated with the Duomo that were treats as well. A nearby museum houses a lot of the original artwork from the church, while the nearby baptistry has works by Ghiberti and Donatello, two of the most important early Renaissance sculptors whose works inspired Michelangelo. At some point in the 14th century there was a plan to expand the Duomo massively. They got some of it built, but then the plague hit and the economy went to hell and it was discovered that there were some serious problems with the architecture and they abandoned it. The good news though is that one of the major walls is still standing and you can climb up for some great views.
What else? The Piazza del Campo is the main square and the location of a twice-yearly horse race that’s been going on since the 16th century. The iconic tower of the Public Palace is another long climb with great views.
And then there’s St. Catherine of Siena. A saintly native of Siena (and probably a little weird), she died in Rome in 1380. Siena wanted her body back, but they knew they couldn’t get the whole body past the Roman guards who protected important relics. So a few of them went down to Rome, cut off her head, and brought that back, where it’s now proudly on display in a big church. They don’t let you too close, but it’s clearly a head.
And just in case there’s any doubt about the authenticity, there’s a sign in both English and Italian that says
The relic of the sacred head of Saint Catherine of Siena has been conserved in this basilica since 1383.
Numerous official and historical documents have established its veracity.
The relic is the real head of Saint Catherine of Siena.
OK, does that settle it?
Finally, two changes we’ve noticed since our last visit. The small but sad change is at the top of the tower in the Piazza del Campo. When we were there in 1995 there were no “artificial” barriers around the perimeter. You could sit on the stones and – if you made a mistake – fall to your death. We were amazed that there had been no lawsuits requiring them to close it off and we’ve remarked on that difference between Italy and the U.S. many, many times since. Today? Yeah, railings around the top.
And the other big change? The number of tourists. My God, but Siena is just swarming with hordes of tourists. Now admittedly we’re there in peak season but still. Wow. The world is getting richer and millions more people have the means to travel. On balance that’s a good thing. But it turns a place like Siena into something more akin to Disney World than a medieval city.
From here we’re off to Florence to meet Dan & Laura. I’m sure we won’t have so many tourists there. Right?