Siena’s Medieval Magnificence a Bridge to Bygone Era

Explore the golden age of Sienese art and architecture that lives on after 700 years.

By: Marisa J. Pascucci, ISDA Contributor

The thirteenth and fourteenth centuries saw Tuscany rise on textile manufacturing and trading along with the bankers of this region developing bookkeeping theories and practices that form the basis of modern banking. Siena, then the Republic of Siena, was one of the most-wealthy, self-governing city-states found in what is today a unified Italy. Sienese merchants traded with foreign countries and the city’s location on the main pilgrimage route, the Via Francigene, to Rome brought pilgrims and wealth from all over Europe through the city – making it as prosperous and cosmopolitan as its neighboring rival, Florence. For reference this was the time of Dante and his Divine Comedy, begun in 1302 and completed in 1320. This was also an age of great conflict between city-states (i.e. Florence versus Siena) along with the horrors of Black Plague that took half of Tuscany’s population as it rampaged through Europe between 1348 and 1393.

Before such devastation, there was the golden age of Sienese art and architecture. At the heart of central Tuscany and spread out over three hills, Siena was planned with numerous meandering alleys and streets all fanning out from the seat of government, the Palazzo Pubblico and its grand examples of Italian medieval architecture. Palazzo Pubblico and the Piazza del Campo that it sits on were begun in 1298 and the complex completed around 1342. The Campo is the clam or fan-shaped public square, also known for hosting the Palio, an extravagant pageant and action-packed horse race held on July 2 and August 16 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Divided into nine sections by means of a radiating brick pattern, the Campo subtly symbolized the then city government, the Nove, or Council of Nine. The Nove was a rotating selection of representatives from the city’s wealthiest families, wisely limited to a two-month term so to avoid corruption and tyranny.

Palazzo Publico and Torre del Mangia (Mangia tower) in Siena, Tuscany, Italy.

The plan of the Campo and the first building around it, the Palazzo Pubblico, was the emergence of town planning and creating a visual order to many of the secular and religious structures to be constructed in the city. Stylistically the buildings were unified with a stone ground-floor level and signature rose-red brick upper stories. The Palazzo’s center section, the tallest with the central medallion decoration, was for governing activities, while its two flanking two-story buildings were living quarters of the Podestà (chief magistrate) and the Nove. From this conception, the Palazzo Pubblico was meant to resemble a symbol of power as opposed to a private dwelling or military fortress. Therefore across all three sections the windows are numerous, wide, and formed in tripartite gothic arches supported by slender columns and opening into a loggia, resulting a unified, elegant façade for the massive structure. The façade curves ever so slightly to match contour of the base of the Piazza del Campo’s clam-shape. In typical fashion of the time, and to outshine Florence, 1338 saw the start of construction of the campanile (bell tower). Called the Torre del Mangia, it looms tall at 330 feet (and worth all of the 505 steps to reach the top to see the vast views of the Tuscan countryside), the second highest tower in Italy (the first being the Cathedral of Cremona’s campanile in Lombardy). Completed in 1348, its odd name originates from the first bell ringer, who according to the tale was rather lazy and often neglected his bell-ringing duties; therefore nicknamed Mangiaguadadni, meaning “profit-eater.

While a civic building, the interior walls of Palazzo Pubblico are filled with frescoes by the major artists of the time, as was the practice for any religious building, but unusual for a secular one. Another unique aspect to Siena and the time had the builders of both church and state structures seeking to exclusively commission Sienese artists for the design and decoration of prominent spaces. The architect of the Palazzo Pubblico is unknown to us today; however the numerous frescoes, both modest and substantial in scale, are signed by the artists.

The most famous of its rooms is the council room, Sala dei Nove, due to its all-encompassing, brilliant frescoes covering three of the four walls (the fourth wall being all windows). The frescoes, conceived around the central theme of just governance are as didactic as they are extraordinary. The illustrious sequence consists of: Allegory of Good Government (north wall), Effects of Good Government in the City and the Country (east wall), and Allegory and Effects of Bad Government (west wall). Painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (circa 1220-1348), a son of Siena and leading artist throughout the region until his untimely death from the plague. Lorenzetti is known for beautifully transforming the rigid, heavy-outlined Byzantine painting style into something more Italianate with sinuous lines, sensitive and individualistic facial expressions, and a feeling of space with atmosphere. He signaled the humanism of the forthcoming Renaissance style. Commissioned in 1337 and completed in 1338, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government (which is how they are collectively known) is universally considered the grandest and most prominent secular fresco cycle from the medieval era. Each wall is filled with grand segments of detailed land and cityscapes and large groups of figures and animals. Lorenzetti was the first to celebrate the everyday of urban and rural life.

The Nove would enter the room under the Allegory of Good Government and specifically directly below the personification of Justice. She holds the scales of balance in each hand and with an angel, one in white and the other in red, on either side doling out justice as a reward and as punishment (beheading a figure). There are the personifications of additional virtues: Wisdom (directly above Justice), Virtue (directly below Justice), Peace, Concord, Fortitude, and Prudence. When each of these allegorical figures, which are all represented as female, is accomplishing their jobs properly, then the city and country are at peace, the ultimate effect of a good government.

To the left of Allegory of Good Government is Effects of Good Government in the City and the County, a utopia or paradise in an urban and bucolic context where all goods and food are made aplenty and accessible to every citizen and art and culture abound. The city has impressive buildings; thriving shops selling boots, socks, ham, etc.; bustling streets with joyful citizens; a school filled with eager students; dancing women in elaborate costumes; and construction workers continuing to expand the city. In the countryside, modeled after the Tuscan hills surrounding Siena, figures on horseback ride through the land; men are hunting; farmers sow their fields; and others walk into the city to sell the fruits of their country labors. It is paradise in the city and the country, somewhat of a novel subject as paradise is nearly always presented outside in nature, like the Garden of Eden. Both frescoes combine to form a strong social message of a just republican government yielding peace and prosperity.

The antithesis of this is pictured on a single wall in the Allegory and Effects of Bad Government, with overflowing crime and ruin as a testimony of what will happen if leaders go astray and oppressors take over. Directly opposite the figure of Justice sits a male with horns and fangs and above his head the word “tyranny.” He is surrounded by the personifications of vises: Pride, Avarice, Vainglory, Cruelty, Treason, Fraud, War, and Fury – portrayed as men, women, and animals. The great civic buildings are now military fortresses with crenellated tiers and small or no windows. Throughout the streets various unlawful acts of pillaging, murder, and abduction are enacted. The city is in the midst of being destroyed by warfare, all the shops are closed and ransacked save for the armorer. Farther off the fields have been burned and the farm homes and barns are up in flames and two menacing armies advance. The Nove sat under these frescoes, meant to remind them of their responsibilities and served as a warning if they were to cease being good and lawful in governing Siena’s civic affairs. 

But there is always hope, as the connecting room is the Sala del Mappamondo, which originally contained a round map of the world also painted by Lorenzetti from which the room received its name. More importantly for a symbol of optimism and faith, there is the monumental Maestà (Virgin as the Queen of Heaven) by Simone Martini (1284-1344). Painted in 1315, the Virgin is enthroned and surrounded by the apostles, saints, and angels. She is truly queen of the city and forever present to help and guide those governing. The room also contains a large secular painting also by Simone Martini of the war captain Guidoriccio da Fogliano, astride his horse and in full battle dress from 1330. Always a mixing of church and state, the Palazzo Pubblico includes a chapel with frescoes depicting the life of the Virgin by Taddeo di Bartolo (1262-1342) along with choir stalls richly decorated with inlaid wood featuring biblical stories.

As an artistic footnote of sorts to the history of Siena, and Italy as a whole, the nineteenth century saw the re-dedication of one of the rooms as the Sala del Risorgimento, for the frescoes depicting the unification of Italy under King Vittorio Emanuele II (1820-1878). The Palazzo Pubblico continues to serve as the center of town government, except for these frescoed rooms that are now open to the public.

The Pizza del Campo, Palazzo Pubblico, and Torre del Mangia are but a fraction of the glorious architecture, art, and history found in Siena’s city center. There is much more to see in the Palazzo Pubblico complex, and also the city’s Duomo dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, the basilica of Saint Catherine, Pinacoteca Nazionale, and Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, to name only a few of the city’s superb sites. If going to Italy, I highly advise you to ignore all the travel guides suggesting a single day-trip to Siena. Speaking from experience, think more along the lines of several days to experience nearly every aspect of this medieval masterpiece of a city.

Marisa J. Pascucci is a curator and art historian. She has served as a curator at art museums across the United States throughout her career. She is currently an independent visual arts professional in greater Charlotte, N.C.

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