Situated in central Tuscany, Siena was once one of the most important cities in Italy. Initially there was an Etruscan settlement here, on the route from Volterra to Arezzo. It then came under Roman rule and was declassified to minor city status. Its fortunes rose again under Lombard rule, when it was the only city on the Via Francigena between Lucca and Viterbo.
It grew a lot in this period and became economically much stronger as a result of the commercial exploitation of its products. In 1200, the most important families of the city and the bankers of the Papal See started banking activity in the city. The most important sites for transactions were the urban strip along the Francigena, and in Piazza del Campo, the only large piazza in the city, which has its own particular and distinctive fascination even today.
After finally surrendering to Florence in 1559, Siena became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, but having constructed a fort there, the Medici neglected the city for the next two centuries, the result being that Siena slipped into a deep economic and demographic crisis.
The arrival of the railway in 1850 gave fresh stimulus to the city and to the old university, with scholars coming from all over Europe to study. The pharmaceutical industry became firmly established here and its old banking activities were revitalised.
Siena is an elegant city, for which much credit must go to the city authorities in the medieval period who were particularly attentive to the aesthetics of the urban plan.
Piazza del Campo, where the famous Palio is held, is surrounded by 16 palaces and is dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico. The first document recording the piazza dates back to 1169, and it assumed its current shape in 1300 when the whole plan of the piazza and the palaces overlooking it was reorganised. Building work on the most important palace, Palazzo Pubblico, was started in 1284 by adapting the Dogana (customs house); later, around about 1295, and then again in 1327, it was enlarged and a prison was also added. The Salone del Gran Consiglio was turned into a theatre in 1500.
The Torre del Mangia was built on the justify-hand side of the palace around about 1340; a symbol of the authority of the comune, it took its name from one of the first people whose job it was to ring the hours. The first foundation stones were carved with Hebrew, Greek, and Latin letters to ward off damage from storms.
At the foot of the Torre del Mangia is the Cappella di Piazza, built by Giovanni de Cecco following a design by Domenico di Agostino. Some modifications were made by Antonio Federighi in 1465. The Palazzo Pubblico houses the Museo Civico, which has some pleasing frescos and panel paintings carried out by famous artists between 1300 and 1500.
Siena has a wealth of antique palaces in a perfect state of preservation. The following are just some of them. Palazzo Marsili Libelli, which has the coat of arms of the Piccolomini family on the facade; it now houses the Soprintendenza dei Beni Architettonici and Ambientale. Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, now used by the Faculty of Economic and Banking Sciences.
Palazzo Buonsignori, one of the most beautiful in the city. Palazzo di San Galgano, built in 1474 by the powerful abbey of the same name. Palazzo Piccolomini, erected in 1470, the principal residence of the extremely powerful Piccolomini family. Situated in Via Banchi di Sotto, it was designed by Bernardo Rossellino and recalls the shape of Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. It now houses state archives. Palazzo Tolomei, situated in a piazza of the same name, is the oldest palace serving as a private residence. It already existed in 1200 and was subsequently reconstructed in the middle of the same century.
Finally, there is Palazzo Salimbeni, which dates back to the 13th-14th century, was restored in the 19th century, and is now the headquarters of the Monte dei Paschi di Siena. The duomo of Siena, the Cattedrale dell'Assunta, was built between the 12th and the 13th century in a Romanesque-Gothic style. Sienese Pope Alessandro III consecrated it on 18 November 1179. Building work continued till 1339, when it was decided to erect a new and extremely sumptuous building alongside the previous one, in order to compete with the one in Florence.
However, as a result of the plague, which brought the city to its knees, this new project was abandoned,and work resumed to complete the original cathedral. Its structure is imperfect in that the original design was affected by the many interruptions and the different builders who worked on it, but nonetheless it can be considered one of the most beautiful medieval churches in Italy.
Modern-day Siena is one of the most liveable cities in Italy. It is a centre for cultural and research activities, and is visited every year by thousands of tourists drawn by its rich historical heritage and the delights of Sienese cuisine. These include the legendary pici, a large hand-made form of spaghetti eaten with rabbit or wild boar sauce, or simply with a hot garlic and tomato one. Then there are the excellent chicken or pork scottiglie, plus cheeses and vegetables from the surrounding countryside, where internationally-known wines are also produced. Finally, there are the city's famous sweets: ricciarelli, panforte, and panpepato, made from ancient recipes and flavoured with spices that take us back in time to Renaissance cuisine.