Legend claims that when Remus, the co-founder of Rome, was murdered by his brother Romulus, his two sons, Senius and Aschius, escaped and founded Siena amid the hills of Tuscany. As a result, visitors to Siena today will find many representations of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf, a symbol more famously associated with Rome. In truth, the city was settled by Romans during the reign of Augustus. As Rome declined, Siena’s importance grew. During the early Middle Ages, it became an essential stop for traders and pilgrims. In this period, Siena was governed first by aristocrats and later by the local bishop.
During the 12th century, wealthy citizens formed the Republic of Siena. This marked the beginning of the city’s golden age when it grew fabulously wealthy and contended against Florence for domination of central Italy. This republic, which lasted until its conquest by the Duchy of Tuscany and the Kingdom of Spain in 1555, produced most of the landmarks and cultural attractions that draw visitors to Siena.
Conflict with Florence was a constant fact of life during the republican period. Their most famous battle occurred in 1360 when a Florentine army besieged the city only to be routed by a much smaller force from Siena. Not surprisingly, Siena built up strong fortifications, and the remnants of its medieval walls still stand.
The wars of medieval Siena left another lasting mark on its urban landscape and culture: the contrade(“neighborhoods” or “districts”). Siena established these divisions to support the city’s defense, with each contradaexpected to provide a certain number of fighting men. Although they have ceased to serve any military function and their number has fallen from 54 to 17 over the centuries, the contrade live on. Each Contrada is a miniature city, with its governing council, church, museum, and flag. A complex network of rivalries and alliances has developed among the contrade, which today is peaceful and centers on the tremendous semiannual Palio (horse race). Traditionally, however, competition between the contrade was fiercer and often violent.
Medieval Siena was a city of faith as well as war. Perhaps Siena’s most famous woman was Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), a mystic and scholar who advised kings and popes. Relics from her life, including her head, are stored in Siena’s Basilica of San Domenico. Another important site is Siena Cathedral, which has served as the heart of the city’s religious life since the 13th century. It took 50 years to build and combines Gothic and Romanesque features. It houses beautiful religious artwork, and its façade is a notable example of medieval design. Next to it lies the Piccolomini Library, built around the turn of the 16th century, which also features an extensive collection of beautiful art, including a series of Renaissance frescoes depicting the life of Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464), a Siena cleric who became Pope Pius II.
In addition to its Catholic majority, Siena had a small Jewish community. Modern visitors can learn about them by visiting the city’s 18th-century synagogue. Because of restrictive laws that formerly applied to the Jewish population, this building is ugly on the outside, but the interior is a marvel of architecture that testifies to the faith that the Jews of Siena maintained in the face of centuries of persecution.
Another important historical site in Siena is the Palazzo Salimbeni, a 14th-century structure that houses the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, by some measures the oldest bank in the world. The prosperity of the Republic of Siena was built mostly by institutions such as this bank.
The republic also became the seat of a major university. The University of Siena was founded around 1240 and remained a beloved part of the city’s heritage. When the Italian ministry of education proposed abolishing it in the 19th century, Siena rose in revolt and forced the national government to back down. Today, it remains one of the premier institutions of higher learning in Italy. Since 1856 it has featured a vast botanical garden where visitors can encounter thousands of different plant species, some local to Tuscany and others from around the world.
One of the most iconic foods of Siena, pork made from the Cinta Senese pigs, also dates from the middle ages. The Palazzo Publico, which has served as Siena’s city hall for over 700 years, features a fresco by the 14th-century artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti that includes these special pigs, which are native to Siena and feature in many of its most popular dishes.
These are only a few pieces of a long and storied history. Much more waits in Siena for travelers to discover.