The History and Charm of Siena

By Jennifer Ray

Just a six day walk from Rome, Siena is a charming medieval city located at the heart of the Toscana region. Unlike the people in the middle ages, our group opted for a bus ride organized by AUR. The drive to Tuscany was beautiful. There were endless fields of sunflowers, green pastures as far as the eye could see, and gentle rolling hills that perfectly textured the horizon. When we arrived, we were greeted by a tour guide that we would all soon resent. Despite the guide’s lack of awareness of the group, inept responses to questions, and completely inaudible delivery, there were a few things that I learned about and found very interesting. These were the history of the plague and the Palio di Siena, and how they likely related to the city’s layout, design, and architecture.

The plague, also referred to as the Black Death, was a bacterial infection spread by fleas on the backs of rats in the middle ages. The infection spread throughout all of Europe and quickly became one of the deadliest pandemics in history. Siena was by no means spared from this gruesome horror. Like many other cities, Siena’s inhabitants were so petrified by the disease that they would leave their dead in the streets, fearful that they would catch the infection by touching the bodies. When we saw the streets during our tour, though, they were surprisingly clean. Of course, none of us expected dead bodies to be strewn about, but after being in the trash ridden city of Rome for two weeks, many of us expected there to be a decent amount of litter. I don’t know if this lack of trash persists because of the history of disease in the area or simply because it is a tourist town, but the fact still remains that it was remarkable how clean and well-kept the streets were.

Tourism is quite important in this delightful city. Part of the allure is the Duomo di Siena, a Catholic church now dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. Its exterior is clad in white marble with pink and green marble further decorating the façade. Intricate designs have been sculpted into the entrance, displaying the time and planning that went into creating this marvelous piece of art. Other reasons that people venture to Siena are for the annual horse races, called the Palio di Siena, which I discuss later. The city itself, aside from these popular tourist attractions presents a medieval charm that many tourists fall in love with. The long narrow streets are surrounded by tall brick buildings, remnants from the middle ages. It seems as though much of the city was never updated from medieval period, adding to its charm. It is incredibly easy to get lost when you walk through the curving passageways and winding roads, but there is something new and beautiful around each and every turn.

If you were to walk around in Siena long enough without a map, you would no doubt happen upon Piazza del Campo. This enormous fan or shell-shaped square is surrounded not only by various pizza, gelato, and souvenir shops, but is also bordered by the Palazzo Publicco and its accompanying tower, the Torre del Mangia. Initially a marketplace, the piazza soon became a place of public gathering for protests and various other events, like the Palio di Siena. It was fascinating to see many of the designs that went into creating Piazza del Campo too. When you look around the square, you notice that all of the rooftops are approximately the same height. The only thing standing out on the skyline is the Torre del Mangia, one of the tallest towers of medieval Italy. The tower and the Palazzo Publicco are encased in an orange-red brick that can also be seen in a herringbone pattern paving the piazza. Because Siena was a Republic at the time, it is possible that the governing officials were trying to give the inhabitants a sense that the government and the people were one and the same. Regardless of the intent behind the piazza’s shape and design, it is an impressive and rather astonishing sight to see after wandering through the snug and cozy corridors that make up the city.

As I have previously mentioned, the Piazza del Campo is home to one of the oldest horse races in the world: the Palio di Siena. This is one aspect of Siena that I found quite touching. The fact that they still have horse races in the piazza every year is fascinating. These races have dated back to the middle ages and are still run in the same manner in which they were run originally. The fact that a city can have a centuries old tradition that has maintained its original roots and authenticity is astonishing and really emphasizes just how old and traditional the city really is. Much of the city is still original to if not modelled from the middle ages, which might be one of the reasons this tradition has held out for so long in Siena. I love and respect the traditions and they seem like something many people in the United States have lacked over the years. Perhaps it is because of the intense rivalry between competitors that this tradition still exists. Each neighborhood of Siena has a horse and jockey that compete in one of the two races, held in early July and early August each year. Only ten horses compete at time, and the race is over in minutes. Horses are chosen from professional facilities and are trained for this specific race. For each race, the ‘track’ surrounding the piazza is covered in a thick layer of dirt. Crowds then gather and the horses and riders race in the traditional medieval attire. This means that they wear their neighborhood’s colors, ride without saddles, have decorative headgear for the horses, and use sticks instead of whips or riding crops. Helmets have only recently been required due to the high risk of injury and even death. The rules of the race are quite simple: the horse that finishes first, wins. This means that, unlike other races, the jockey does not need to remain on the horse for the horse to win. In races like the Kentucky Derby, a horse without a rider is disqualified. Additionally, horses cannot impede on the race of other competitors. The rules of the Palio are much more relaxed than this though. Horses are run on the awkward sloped course at the fastest speed possible and with little regard for safety. The neighborhood that wins receives a silk banner and celebrates for nearly a month after the race. The horse that comes in second place is then considered the loser, rather than the horse that came in last. The thought behind this is that the horse could have won, but didn’t. Often, the rivals of the second-place horse will also celebrate, regardless of whether they beat the second-place horse or not.

Perhaps it is because of the medieval appearance that medieval events still take place, or perhaps it is because of the medieval events that Siena retains its medieval appearance. Whatever the case is, it is evident that the people of Siena love and respect their traditions and history. In a world that is constantly evolving and expanding, it is remarkable that a city would retain some of its roots and heritage, rather than abandoning tradition and history as soon as something bigger and better comes along. Siena is an absolutely dazzling city and, while it is unfortunate that we could not stay longer, I know that many of us will return when we one day return to Italy.

About the Author

Jennifer is a Junior at Colorado State University studying Equine Science. She has loved animals and medicine since she was born and will be applying to veterinary school in 2020. Jennifer was born and raised in Charlotte, North Carolina and enjoys traveling abroad and learning about the history and culture of the world. This trip is one of her most memorable experiences to date and has helped her shape her identity as an American and as an American abroad.


Horse race picture:

Aerial view of the piazza del campo:


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