Tuscan Son

Palazzo PubblicoThe city of Siena is supposed, like Rome, to sit on seven hills. Well, I’ve looked at the terrain map on Gooogle and I’m not sure if that’s true. I suppose it depends on how you define a hill.

What is true is that the street layout reflects the contours of the land. In the early Renaissance, Siena was a viable competitor to Florence, and might have grown and changed, roads widened and straightened, medieval hovels cleared for aristocratic palaces. But that never happened. Siena fell on hard times and was hit particularly badly by the Black Death in 1348. Political instability followed, with periods when the democratic government was overthrown by warlords and aristrocrats, and finally, Siena was forcibly absorbed into the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1555.

Siena never got the wealth or investment to redesign its medieval streets (it was still desperately poor in the early 1900s), so the naturally evolved layout remains today. If you change the Gooogle map to satellite view, you can see the old part of the city hugging the tops of the hills like a stubby starfish, with the lines of streets mainly following the ridges.

CampoAt the centre is the Campo (“field”), the very large, bell-shaped piazza, with fan-lines in the paving converging on the town hall, the Palazzo Pubblico, built in 1325 for the elected government when Siena was a republic. It’s still the working town hall today, but for a small fee tourists can visit the major rooms and climb the bell tower. The frescos on the walls are particularly popular, especially the damaged, but still very relevant “Good Government” and “Bad Government” ones.

On my first visit to the Palazzo Pubblico, I found, unexpectedly, an escalator. The lower end was in a passageway between two doors, but definitely in the tourist domain and not “out of bounds”. I escalated, and at the top were two doors, one with a swipe-card lock, but the other could be opened. It was the door to the loggia on the back of the building, a large open portico, looking out over the Piazza del Mercato.

It was airy and cool, and very peaceful. Most tourists were too timid to explore that far, and the only company was the occasional council employee coming out of the adjoining offices for a smoke. The Piazza down below had once been the cattle market when it had been shifted from the grander Campo, but now there’s a modern covered market (and bus station, if I remember correctly), but it’s not too ugly. Beyond that is one of the valleys the poke towards the city centre, with gardens and olive groves, and the Tuscan landscape fading into the haze.

I’d quite happily live in Siena, but the price of property is beyond my means. I should have snapped up a bargain in 1348 when half the houses in the city were empty.

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