Siena is one of the most ancient cities of Italy, virtually on a par with the proud Rome, Florence or Venice. Its origins float between legend and scientific facts, being the bases on which the city has built its trajectory, becoming, in time, one of the most reputed Tuscan powers. Now praised as a top destination for visitors interested in exploring sites that have preserved their historical air, Siena has plenty to offer from a tourist point of view.
But, first of all, understand its history so you can make heads or tail of its character, traditions and attractions!
The Sienese people take pride in being the descendants of Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remus, brother of Romulus who, as legend goes, founded Rome. No sources or discoveries substantiate this claim, but the story explains why there are so many statues of the she wolf and the mythical twins spread all over the city.
Historical sources, however, mention an Etruscan settlement established here since 900 to 400 BC: a tribe called Saina found their home here, protected by the sloped relief of the region, which benefited them with defensive advantage. A military outpost was set out by the Romans somewhere around 30 AD, called Saena Julia (under Augustus). In time, the original military settlement developed into a small commercial hub, protected by invasions due to the hilly relief it was established on by the original Roman occupants.
Insufficiently developed as a city proper, Siena fell to the hands of Lombards and or the Franks in late Antiquity, but a new stage of development and affirmation was to come for Siena in the Middle Ages.
After the construction of Via Francigena (the historical road from Rome to France), Siena’s status boosted up, both politically and commercially speaking. Pilgrims, merchants and travelers came to Siena with business or for leisure, and the city made the best of this juncture, thriving on its newly found vocation.
Siena’s importance and power in the Middle Ages is all the more substantiated by its historical rivalry with Florence. Apparently, Tuscany was too small to accommodate the will for military and political affirmation of the two cities. The occasional wins of Siena are legendary, though, in the end, Florence proved its superiority and managed to turn the territory into one of its most proud conquests.
Plenty of landmarks were built in the late Middle Ages, including the Cathedral, Palazzo Pubblico and the robust Torre del Mangia. Indeed, Siena was trying – successfully, for that matter – to facelift its urban landscape, commissioning master architects and artists to build and embellish the city as they did in other parts of Italy.
Siena’s interest in developing and artistic scene of its own is substantiated by the founding of the Sienese school of painting under the patronage Guido da Siena, a school which reached its heydays in the early 14th century.
The end of the Middle Ages came with the devastating plague of 1348 (a period in which the New Dome was in full progress), which robbed the city of his life, almost literally: more than half of the local population fell to the plague, leaving the city numb, drained from energy and resources.
But Siena found the power to recover. The city was blesses with well-intended rulers, including the Council of the Nine, who created a stable climate for economic investments. The Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank (founded in 1472) was one of the key players who contributed to the healthy growth of the city.
At present, Siena counts as one of the topnotch destinations in Italy. It might not enjoy the reputation of Venice, Milan or Rome, but it is a magnet for visitors with a penchant for laid-back, peaceful medieval sceneries. Much of Siena is part of the UNESCO patrimony, a juncture which is in itself a guarantee for the kind of experience you are about to have if you visit this medieval jewel of Tuscany.