Siena: A Unique Contribution to World Heritage By Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D.

Place du champ et palais public à Sienne

Siena has had a Renaissance much earlier than its rival city of Florence. 

UNESCO, which stands for United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for mankind has long been preoccupied with identifying and protecting artistic accomplishments made throughout the world, during the course history. While many countries can boast of significant cultural treasures they are scattered and, at best, confined to a specific age or period. On the other hand, Italy can boast 25 centuries of major contributions, which begin roughly with the Etruscans, evolve through the Roman period, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Baroque and all the way up to the present time, with the visual arts, cinema and music. This is an enviable situation for Italy but a stark reminder that such a cultural wealth is greatly in need of protection and to make certain that subsequent generations will come to appreciate it as well. It is important to note that recognition by a world body agency cannot be equated to a prize rather it is a distinct reminder that such an acknowledgement wishes to point out the various landmarks that human endeavors have forged, since time memorial, so that subsequent generations may never forget. In this issue, we will be exploring the marvels of Siena, which have been identified by UNESCO as part of an ideal city that expresses the values and the heritage of humanity.

Val d 'Arbia, Tuscany, Italy. Hills cultivated with wheat and canola, with its yellow flowers. With background the Crete Senesi. Siena, Italy

The Val D’Orcia in Siena illustrates how the landscape has been managed with savvy ecological initiatives over many centuries.

The Val D’Orcia, the rural territory surrounding the city of Siena, which has escaped the devastation of urban sprawling since the Middle Ages, was created for the purpose of preserving agricultural capacity, safeguarding water resources and respecting the environment. This rich and soothing landscape situated just outside Siena can be traced back to medieval times, as early as 1200 CE in that local artist magnificently depicted it. This area, which produces the exclusive Brunello di Montalcino wine, embodies the qualities of land management that is not only pleasing to the eye, but a reflection of good government tutelage for subsequent generations. This unique landscape has been painted and photographed by a plethora of artists, since time memorial, who have extolled the aesthetic richness of the location.

After visiting the Duomo, the Biblioteca Piccolomini, Palazzo Pubblico, Torre del Mangia, the Piazza Campo is where every visitor ends up. It is a majestic piazza that is generally known for the Palio of Siena, a horse race that takes place annually, during summer months. It evokes the competing spirit of Siena’s 17 contrade, the city’s quarters. It is a very colorful race filled with medieval costumes, at the end of which everyone celebrates at the various restaurants around the Piazza. The Piazza, however, is also known for its structure that when seen from above shows nine travertine lines across, radiating from its borders, dividing the Piazza into sections. The lines represent the Rule of the Nine, which for many years governed Siena at the height of its power until 1355. The square is shell-shaped and it offers a great sense of space and depth. This is probably the largest example of a medieval piazza, designed to create a community venue for people to socialize and to interact with one another in a harmonious way. In many ways, the Piazza embodies the civic spirit that became the model of many Renaissance cities throughout Italy. Italian civic discourse and social interaction cannot be understood without the venue for a piazza because it is here where people of all ages interact with one another, where ideas are generated and where the imagination is unleashed.

Piazza del CampoThe diagonal lines of Siena’s Piazza Campo allude to the Rule of Nine which has brought civic government to the people of the region.

The Palazzo Pubblico, which dominates the Piazza with its huge tower of the Mangia, houses a wonderful collection of paintings that provide a living testimony of Senese history because it was the building where the Nine ruled the city and where heated debates took place in deciding public policies. Thus, upon entering the Sala del Mappamondo – the Hall of the Globe – the first thing that strikes the visitor is the so-called La Allegoria ed Effetti del Buono e del Cattivo Governo, The Allegory and Consequences of Good and Bad Government, illustrated by the Senese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The panel of bad government depicts the horrors and the consequences of poorly managed political leadership. It highlights a ruler who is seated on a throne, flanked by military figures. He lives in a castle that is heavily fortified on top of which there are three allegorical figures, namely, greed, cruelty and betrayal. At the side of the fortress, there lies a city with abandoned buildings, incarcerated citizens, living in fear with no just laws to protect them. These illustrations must have been a powerful daily reminder for the Nine rulers of the city, as they convened in the building in order to decide the welfare of their citizens.


Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoes in SienaAllegory of Good Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti illustrates a harmonious interaction among citizens in times of peace and prosperity. 

In contrast, the Allegory of Good Government represents an ideal government based on the rule of law, whereby its citizenry lives in harmony with one another. The view of this city is vibrant. Everyone is employed and men and women work together on building their community. The city thrives on commerce and shoppers give the impression that the economy is strong. Women at the center appear to be dancing at the beat of a tambourine, suggesting a strong absence of governmental repression, where people are free to express themselves.

The goddess on the left holds a scale, representing the form of justice in a democratic government. On the right, an angel rewards exemplary behavior whereas on the left another angel is quick to condemn criminal conduct. The most intriguing figure of the illustration is the goddess who holds a carpenter hand plane. Carpenters use the plane to shape and to smooth the rough hedges of a wooden block. The message that is conveyed here is that every one is equal and that no one is above the law. This allegory is truly extraordinary given the historical period during which this vision was articulated. This represents a political vision that is way ahead of its time. In many ways, it foreshadows the Enlightenment, whereby everyone is deemed free with unalienable rights. The Sala del Mappamondo merits a visit in that the works of celebrated artists such as the Lorenzetti brothers, Simone Martini, Duccio di Buoninsegna as well as images of Catherine of Siena, the patron saint of the city, can be seen here.

Sunrise view of Siena Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta (Duomo di Siena) in Siena, TuscanyThe Duomo of Siena and its Bell Tower stand as a great Gothic architectural achievement. 

The Duomo of Siena is arguably one of the best examples of Roman Gothic architecture. Its façade is highly decorated and its triangular spire gives the impression of soaring to the sky. Its exterior is decorated with white and black green marble, which has become the city’s color. It has three naves, the center of which is truly majestic. Indeed, the floor of the Cathedral offers a breathtaking view of artistic accomplishment made possible with a technique known as marble intarsia (tarsie marmoree), directly illustrated on the floor. This is essentially a form of mosaic art done with selected large pieces of marble, from which images are created. There are altogether 56 panel illustrations on the floor of each nave.

Interior of Siena Cathedral in Tuscany, ItalyInterior decoration of the Cathedral of Siena, which houses great works by Pisano, Donatello, Michelangelo and other prominent artists. 


The Piccolomini library, Duomo of Siena, italyA detail of one of Pinturicchio’s masterpieces that can be admired at the Piccolomini Library in Siena. His Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge can be seen at the Duomo.


Of the 56 panels that decorate the floor of the Duomo, none is signed, except for one that belongs to the Renaissance artist, Pinturicchio known as the Allegoria del colle e della sapienza, the Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge. In this evocative panel, the Greek philosopher Crates warns the viewer that money is the corruption of all evils. He is shown dumping money into the sea, in exchange of pursuing loftier goals, presumably truth and knowledge. On the left, Socrates is holding a book, inviting us to read and to become wise. In the lower right hand corner, we see lady fortune that appears to vacillate with a foot on the globe and another on a boat, illustrating that fortune is only an ephemeral object, destined to vanish. On the other hand, the group on the center is firmly glued to the ground following the virtue of hard work and wisdom. The message indicates that virtue is attainable and that those who work are rewarded with truth and knowledge.

Lupa Senese (she-wolf of Siena) with Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remo, founders of the city. Marble statue, symbol of the city of SienaThe statue of She-wolf of Siena connects to Rome’s founding. The so-called Lupa Senese, with Senio and Ascanio, sons of Remo, founders of the city, is an ubiquitous image in Siena. 

The illustration of one of the panels highlights the myth of the Roman twins, Romulus and Remo who founded the city of Rome. This Roman image is intimately associated with Rome, which depicts a she-wolf breast-feeding the future Roman leaders. So, one may wonder, what this legend has to do with Siena. The truth is that the image of a She-wolf in Siena is not confined to the Duomo rather it is a ubiquitous symbol of the city that is encountered with frequency. The early annals of Senese history state that the children of Remo, Senio and Ascanio, upon learning of their father’s death, slaughtered by their uncle Romulus, decided to flee north, thus founding the city of Siena, which bears the name of Senio.

Amazing interior of Siena cathedral of Saint Mary Assumption in Tuscany, ItalyThe amazing interior of the cupola of Siena’s Duomo is topped by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’ s gilded lantern.

Interior y techo de Catedral de Siena.An additional view of the cupola whereby the Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge by Pinturicchio can be seen.

The cupola of the Duomo is impressive, as it measures 177 feet from the ground up. At the base of the cupola there are a series of sculptures that depict various saints, all of whom constitute a veritable museum of sculptures. Works by Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini can be admired, the most impressive of which is four sculptures made by Michelangelo in his early years. The most striking of these is the one of Saint Paul because it is a portrait of the artist as a young man. The work embodies the sculptural elements that we have come to associate with Michelangelo’s work, namely, energy, proportions and beauty. In a sense, this work is a remarkable anticipation of David, which was executed a couple of years after. 

Best view of Siena is from the Viewing Platform Facciatone above the unfinished facadeHad it not been for the Black Death, the famous Facciatone of Siena would have constituted part of the largest cathedral of Europe.

The Duomo offers a view of what the Senese people have come to call il Facciatone. This is an unfinished cathedral that was supposed to replace the Duomo itself. The Senese architect, Bernardo Rossellino, conceived a project, which, if made possible, it would have been the largest cathedral in the world. In the early 1300’s the population of Siena reached 50,000. This is a remarkable achievement that is comparable only to Paris of the time. The city was prospering and its wealth was reflected in quality of life of its citizens. Unfortunately, from 1346 to 1353, the Black Death, which decimated one-third of the population of Europe, plagued Europe and Siena was not exempted from this horror. Two out of every three people died, as a result of the plague. Among the victims, there were also prominent people, most especially the architect Bernardo Rossellino in charge of building the new cathedral and the Lorenzetti brothers who were to have decorated the interior, which consisted of three naves. After the plague abated, efforts were made to continue the project but the spirit and the resources just were not there. The construction was abandoned and the façade was left there on purpose, as a stark reminder of man’s impotence in the face of natural disasters. Arguably, had it not been for the Black Death, Siena would have surpassed Florence in beauty and purpose.

Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral

The Biblioteca Piccolomini is a significant wing of the Duomo of Siena.

The Biblioteca Piccolomini was created as a commemorative expression in honor of Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who was a Senese humanist, a scholar and a poet in his own right. In the library, one can admire the ten works by Pinturicchio, and two by Raphael, among others.

medieval folio with choral noteThis is an illuminated manuscript with choral notes found alongside the Senese Constitution, written in 1309 in the Italian.

After admiring the Bibblioteca Piccolomini, we enter an adjacent room that displays two huge volumes. They embody the Constitution of Siena, which was written in 1309. What is so striking about this document is that unlike other official documents of the time that were written in Latin, the Costituto is entirely composed in Italian. Any Senese citizen who entered the Biblioteca would have had access to this text created for the sole of purpose of being consumed by the citizens. This is an extraordinary event for it tells us the degree to which this city was transparent and to a large extent, relatively democratic for its times. This is not a common text; rather because it was highly decorated one has to assume that the Senese people took pride in knowing that they could partake of a free political exercise.

As we continue our visit of the Biblioteca, we come across what is known as the Tavolette di Biccherna. As with any administrative practices, Siena kept annals for the purpose of recording birth, property owners and other form of transactions. In the beginning, these books were decorated with a wooden plate, known as a tavoletta. It was, at first decorated with rudimentary illustrations but as time went on, artists were summoned to create more sophisticated illustrations that gradually developed into fine paintings. These Tavolette di Biccherna, as they are called today, make up a wonderful expressive achievement of Senese art, highlighting history, famous people, landscape or the daily life citizens. The following Bicherna illustrates how the Senese people viewed their territory: a harmonious natural body of land destined to bring peace and prosperity to its inhabitants.

Extraordinary panorama of the Siena countryside, in the valley of the valleyThis image is often referred to as Il Tesoro of Siena: la Val d’Orcia. This extraordinary panorama of the Siena countryside, in the valley of the valley, is still unchanged, since the Middle Ages.

 This tavoletta, which goes as far back as 800 years, illustrates also how very little the Val D’Orcia, the Senese landscape, has changed. It is a remarkable testimony of the strength of the Senese people to hold on to their heritage. This is a powerful message for posterity in that a respect for the environment is not only essential, but also vital to state unequivocally our true commitment for those who come after us.

The story of Siena as a functional city and a benevolent government is unique in that it provides a blue print of what governing is all about. Siena has articulated a civic vision that had not been seen since the days of ancient Athens, whereby citizens work assiduously for the pursuit of the common good. It is an egalitarian view of government, allowing everyone to partake of civic life. In so many ways, Siena anticipates many centuries ahead of its time, during which the Age of Enlightenment took place, affording all citizens a Bill of Rights, whereby everyone is created equal. Most importantly, Siena sets the tone for maintaining a critical balance between the environment and political expansion. The Senese people have understood perhaps more than others that with leadership comes a civic and a social responsibility.

panforteThe Panforte of Siena is an ancient staple used by Crusaders in medieval times.

Trionfo di pasta fresca fatta a manoThis is senese’s pasta selection that may very well go with the Ribollita soup.

Montalcino CastleThe Montalcino Castle is in the area where the Brunello wine originates.


Siena’s contribution to civilization is immeasurable. On the gastronomic side, we are familiar with the so-called the Ribollita soup, which is a delectable dish that may be served with legumes and pork meat. We also enjoy a superb glass of Brunello di Montalcino wine, which has attained excellence throughout the world. Similarly, one cannot do without the Senese dessert known as Panforte, which has been around since the Middle Ages, when soldiers would take it along on their expeditions to the Crusades, as a fine source of complete nutrition. The Senese anticipated NASA’s ingenuity of creating compact food packaging, designed to sustain long-term shelf life. So, too, in the field of finances Siena is credited with an advanced banking system that became a model of Renaissance economic affairs. Ultimately, though, Siena’s legacy lies in its vision to create a livable society, taking into account the common good, whereby people could live in concert with one another, enjoying a civil protection in a system of equitable laws for all. Short of creating a parliamentary form of government, Siena ensured that every citizen had a voice in the administration of public affairs. As we mentioned earlier, Siena’s fate is inseparably connected to the events of the bubonic plague of 1346. Had it not been for these untoward natural calamities, the history of Siena may have taken on a different form. Perhaps, the enlightened view that all men are created equal that came to form the basis of the French Revolution as well as fueling the ideals of the American Revolution, could have taken place much earlier in Europe. This is, of course, highly speculative, but it suffices to say that Siena’s contribution to the free world registers extremely high, as a model of civic enlightenment for subsequent generations.

Siena, Tuscany, ItalyA panoramic view of Siena

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