In Siena the architecture soars and lifts your soul. This is Italy before the Renaissance, magically transported to the modern day. With its narrow streets and steep alleys, a Gothic Duomo, a bounty of early Renaissance art, and the glorious Palazzo Pubblico overlooking its magnificent Campo, Siena is often described as Italy's best-preserved medieval city. Originally a Roman colony founded by Augustus over 2,000 years ago called Saena Julia, Sienese myth suggests that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus and thus nephews of Romulus, after whom Rome was named. Supposedly after their father's murder by Romulus, they fled Rome, taking with them the statue of the she-wolf suckling the infants, thus appropriating that symbol for the town. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe's largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa, but weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.
However, Siena's loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza — the Campo — one of the most remarkable squares in Italy, is divided into seventeen wards into which the town is divided and still manages to play an active part in the life of the city, culminating in the famous Palio horserace which has survived as perhaps the most spectacular annual festival in Italy — and the Duomo sitting atop Siena's highest point and visible for miles around, the its bold white and dark-green stripes. Inside and out, it's lavished with statues and mosaics. Declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the historic centre of Siena is the embodiment of a medieval city with red-brick lanes cascading every which way. Because Siena's steep lanes go in anything but a straight line, it's easy to get lost — but there's no rush to get found. As you wander, you'll be tempted by Sienese specialties in the shops along the way with gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, wild boar prosciutto, extra virgin olive oil, and panforte. No matter, life is a journey, and Siena is a gem to explore to your hearts content.
Outdoor cafés line the Campo and on a sunny morning, there's no better place to relax and enjoy a cappuccino
Café Nannini on the Campo
A hot creamy cappuccino to jump start the morning
Brioche alla crema
A handful of napkins are needed for flaky and creamy brioche
Fonte Gaia in Siena's Piazza dl Campo was deigned and built by Jacopo della Quercia in 1419
Detail of one of the sculptures
A saucy pigeon perched on the snout of a wolf,
part of the Fonte Gaia representing the mother-wolf of Romulus and Remus
The famous Torre del Mangia and the Palazzo Public are examples of classical Tuscan Gothic architecture and now houses and houses a wonderful array of frescoes by artists such as Vecchietta, Simone Martini and Sodoma
The glorious carved entrance of the Palazzo Comunale
Built over an area that was once an open field, hence its name ‘campo’,
Piazza del Campo is one of the world’s finest examples of secular architecture and is the precise meeting point of the three hills on which Siena is built
The main door and facade of the Battistero di San Giovanni - The Baptistry of St John
Set under the apse of the Siena Cathedral, the Baptistry was built between 1316 and 1325 by Camaino di Crescentic. The facade, never finished, dates to the second half of the 1300s. The interior, which was finished in 1325, was enriched over the course of the 15th-century with many important sculptures and paintings, the most important of which is the celebrated baptismal font, a masterpiece of the early Tuscan Renaissance, and attributed to Jacopo della Quercia. The basin is hexagonal and decorated with gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist which were executed by Jacopo della Quercia, Turino di Sano, Giovanni dii Turino, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello, and interspersed by statues of the virtues — Faith and Hope are by Donatello, the others are by Giovanni di Turino and Goro di Neroccio. The ciborium is decorated with four musical angels in bronze by Donatello and Giovanni di Turino, and is mounted by a small statue of Saint John the Baptist and bas reliefs by Jacopo dell Quercia. Among the other important works in the Baptistery are the statues from the school of Giovanni Pisano, the triptych of the Madonna with Saints and stories from the lives of Saint Stephen by Andrea Vanni and Giovanni di Paolo, the frescoes by Vecchietta and the articles of faith.
The breathtakingly beautiful interior of the Baptistry
The vaulted ceilings with frescoes representing articles of faith, Prophets and Sybils by Lorenzo di Pietro ("il Vecchietta") painted between 1447-1450
The hexagonal marble Baptismal Font, attributed to Jacopo della Quercia, is decorated with gilded bronze panels depicting scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist which were executed by Jacopo della Quercia, Turino di Sano, Giovanni dii Turino, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello
Angel by Giuseppe Mazzuoli, was created for the tymapnum of one of the side portals of the Siena Cathedral facade and now preserved in St John's Baptistry
Discovered in 1999 and opened to the public in 2003, the Crypt is one of Siena's most important newly discovered archaeological sites. It was constructed at the same time as the Siena Duomo in the 13th-century, but was never used as a crypt but for storage. It was abandoned and then laid hidden for 700 years until its rediscovery during routine excavations in the Duomo in 1999. The walls are painted with a colourful cycle of frescoes depicting the life of Jesus just before his death until his burial, and include: the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Kiss of Judas, Crucifixion, Deposition, and the Entombment of Christ. The artists are not known for certain, but probably included Dietisalvi di Speme, Guido di Graziano and Rinaldo da Siena.
The Crypt beneath the Duomo with a wonderful series of 13th-century frescoes adorning its walls
Fresco detail of Mary and Joseph with Jesus as a child
A unique view if the top of the Baptistry dome as exposed from the Crypt
Siena's Cathedrale di Santa Maria, better known as the Duomo, is a gleaming marble treasury of Gothic art from the 13th and 14th centuries. Unquestionably one of Italy's most extraordinary Gothic churches, the cathedral is as impressive inside as it is out, and features the breathtaking work of Italy's finest artists of the day: Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Pinturicchio, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Michelangelo and Bernini. Parts of the facade were restored and reorganized in 1866 by Giuseppe Partini and again after World War II. All the statues on the facade, many of them designed by Giovanni Pisano, were replaced with replicas in the 1960s, with the originals now on display in the Museo dell'Opera. The interior of the spectacular Duomo is a rather dizzying sight, with its black-and-white striped pillars and ornate decoration on every surface.
There is much to see, including an enormous number of art masterpieces. The entire floor of Siena’s Cathedral is an incredible works of art: a spectacular inlaid marble mosaic floor featuring 59 etched and inlaid marble panels created from 1372 to 1547, described by Giorgio Vasari as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made”. About halfway down the nave on the left is the entrance to the Libreria Piccolomini, famed for its beautifully preserved Renaissance frescoes, beautifully decorated by Pinturicchio and depicting the eventful life of Pope Pius II. A young Raphael may have been among the pupils who assisted. The walls are lined with display cases carved by Antonio Barili in 1495-96 and filled with an important collection of 30 richly illustrated Renaissance choir books from 1465 to 1515. To spend an hour or two in the Duomo is not enough — one could spend a lifetime.
The magnificent Duomo of Siena
Detail of facade sculptures
Detail of one of the mosaics made in Venice and added to the facade in 1878
The Duomo, in the form of a Latin cross, is built in the Tuscan Romanesque style
The celebrated pavement of Siena Cathedral features 59 etched and inlaid marble panels created from 1372 to 1547, with subjects that include sibyls, scenes from Sienese history and biblical scenes
The hexagonal dome is topped with Bernini's gilded lantern, like a golden sun
The presbytery is dominated by the large marble altar done by Baldassare Peruzzi in 1532, under an earlier bronze ciborium by Vecchietta and flanked by angels carrying candles
The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter the Duomo
The Piccolomini Altarpiece, built 1481-1485 and made of Carrara marble,
with four niche sculptures of saints added by Michelangelo in 1501
The spectacular Piccolomini Library in the Duomo of Siena
Painted by Perugian painter Pintoricchio in 1502
The glorious ceiling is also painted by Pintoricchio, now one of my new favourite artists
Fresco detail of Piccolomini on his way to Basel
Fresco detail of Piccolomini receiving the cardinal's cap from Pope Callistus III
The walls are lined with display cases carved by Antonio Barili in 1495-96 and filled with an important collection of 30 richly illustrated Renaissance choir books from 1465 to 1515
A ceiling detail declaring the subject of the Library — Pope Pius III
The ceiling features mythological and pastoral scenes
Maiolica tiles adorn the floor of the magnificent Piccolomini Library, bearing the emblem of the Piccolomini family, the crescent moon
The original stained-glass window from the Duomo depicting the Last Supper by Buoninsegna in 1287, now on display at the Museo del Duomo
Pisano's original sculptures of Saints which adorned the exterior of the Duomo, before being removed due to deterioration and now on display at the Museo
Detail of one of Pisano's original sculptures
The rather ornate gift shop of the Museo del Duomo!
Climbing a tight circular staircase of 143 steps in the Museo tower offers spectacular panoramic views over the Duomo, Piazza and the Sienese countryside
Well worth the climb to enjoy these extraordinary views
Siena is one of the best destinations in Tuscany to taste the region’s many specialties, sip its rich wines and any journey into Siena’s local gastronomy. Undoubtedly Siena’s most beloved restaurant — and one of the best in Tuscany — is La Taverna di San Giuseppe serving traditional Casalinga and local Tuscan cuisine, with local specialties such as Ribollita, Brasato, handmade pici pasta with porcini mushrooms and cinghiale, and a wonderful wine list and boasts the best of local and national wines, including Tuscany's famous Brunello di Montalcino. The barrel-vaulted and candle-lit 12th-century interior also boasts a wine cellar which dates back to early Etruscan times, discovered when a medieval church was under excavation and well worth a peek while dining at the restaurant. Outstanding from beginning to end, Taverna di San Giuseppe is a culinary gem. The unpretentious atmosphere, fabulous menu and wonderfully friendly staff makes this one of the best restaurants in the city and being a favourite among locals, it's well advised to make reservations — you'll be glad you did!
La Taverna di San Giuseppe in Siena
The barrel-vaulted interior, superb menu and excellent staff make this one of Siena's best loved restaurants
Zuppa di Piselli amuse-bouche
Le Corbinie bianco, a light and refreshing Tuscan wine
TorCalvano Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, the definitive red from Tuscany
Uova di Squaglia nel Padelline su Polenta con Salsciccia e Tartufo
Sformatino di Asparagi e Fonduta di Pecorino Fresco
Ribollita alla Senese
Antica Ricetta di Cinghiale al Latte di Castagneto Carducci
Pici Casalinghi al Cinghiale e Porcini
Welcoming, gracious and attentive, the fabulous staff of Taverna di San Giuseppe
Taverna di San Giuseppe's Etruscan wine cellar