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Travels for Engineers to Siena

By David H. Allen


Siena is one of my favorite small cities in the world. Although the Sienese were always overshadowed by the Florentines, the city nonetheless has much to offer. My personal reason for my adulation is perhaps related primarily due to the fact that the Sienese were defeated (for the second time) at the Battle of Marciano in 1551. Siena declined in prominence thereafter, so much so that the central area of the city has remained nearly unchanged ever since. Thus, like Venice, Siena seems frozen in time nearly half a millennium in the past. But whereas Venice is surrounded by water, Siena is a hilltop city in Tuscany. As a result, it is markedly different from Venice, and a reflection of the Middle Ages. I’ve travelled to Siena more than a dozen times, and I have taken several study abroad groups (Fig. 1) there over the previous quarter of a century. In this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in this quite unique city.

Historic Sites for Engineers

Siena lies about 50 miles south of Florence, in the heart of the rolling hills of Tuscany. Tuscany is considered one of the most gorgeous regions on Earth, and you will certainly find no disagreement here. I spent two summers in nearby Castiglion Fiorentino, thus this is one of my favorite regions on Earth. Frankly, Siena (along with Ravenna, covered in my previous blog) should be right at the top of your list of off-the beaten-track places to visit in Italy.

Today, perhaps Siena’s greatest claim to fame is the Palio, a truly bizarre horserace held in the Piazza del Campo twice each summer. To Italians this event is a must-see at least once in your lifetime. The race is contested by members from ten of the seventeen different Contrade (districts) within the city. While I do not recommend this event for the novice, it is essential to be aware of this event to understand Siena, for the race creates a light-hearted competition among the Sienese, with the colorful Contrade flags dotting the downtown area and thereby accenting the cultural identity of the city. Furthermore, the Piazza deo Campo, where the race is held, is one of the premier sites in all of Italy. And when you visit, try to imagine how in the world they manage to hold a horse race in such a confining space

The Piazza del Campo

The Campo (Fig. 2), as it is called by locals, is entirely paved with bricks and completely enclosed in a sort of half circle space by the surrounding medieval buildings. Both the bizarre eccentricity and sloping surface lend medieval charm to the setting, and the massive Campanile (Fig. 3) draws the eye toward the Palazzo Pubblico (Fig. 4), which lines the lower side of the Campo. The Campo is just so charming that it begs tourists to linger over a beverage in one of the shops lining the Campo.

Fig. 2 The Campo

Fig. 3 The Campanile

The Palazzo Pubblico

The Palazzo was in earlier times the seat of government for the Sienese people. Today it is a fascinating museum, housing quite a few fabulous treasures. My favorite is the room with Lorenzetti’s painting called The Allegory of Good and Bad Government. But there is more, including a room with impressive hand-crafted wooden seating for the Signoria of the city, as well as a massive fresco called the Maesta by Simone Martini. And while I do not recommend climbing the campanile, called the Torre del Mangia (it is difficult to see downwards from the top), there is an outdoor loggia on the third floor of the Palazzo that offers a stunning view of Tuscany.

Fig. 4 The Palazzo Pubblico

The Duomo

The Duomo (Fig. 5) is one of the most impressive in all of Italy, which is surprising given that it was never completed. During construction it was determined that the landscape was much too steep to complete the central nave of the cathedral (especially due to the plague of 1348, which reduced the city’s populace by half), so that the transept was converted into the nave, which is nonetheless quite massive. The single most eye-catching aspect of the cathedral is the use of alternating black and white marble pillars (Fig. 6). Within, one can find sculptures by Nicola Pisano, Donatello and Michelangelo.

Fig. 5 The Duomo

Fig. 6 The Marble Pillars in the Duomo

The Museo dell’Opera

For the engineer within me the Museo dell’Opera is my favorite stop in Siena. This not due to the items within as much as it is related to the fact that one can reach the pinnacle of what was originally intended to be the nave of the cathedral. To find this impressive spot, take the stairs to the third floor of the museum and walk to the far end of this floor. Therein you will find an almost unnoticeable stairway that lead to a hallway, after which one must climb two spiral staircases (See my novel Galileo’s Prophesy.), whereupon you exit onto a narrow landing that will allow you the best view in all of Siena (Fig. 7). And while you are up there, gaze downward toward the Duomo, and you will see where the columns of the nave were originally intended to be built. This then is the only place on Earth (that I am aware of) where one can see a medieval cathedral still under construction (Fig. 8)!

Fig. 7 Distant View of the Campo

Fig. 8 The Unfinished Nave

The Basilica di San Domenico

The Basilica di San Domenico, a short walk from the city center, is an austere medieval cathedral that is noteworthy for two reasons. First, the wooden superstructure supporting the vault is quite impressive. Second, the basilica houses the head of Santa Caterina! For those of you who are unfamiliar with this venerable saint, she was born in 1347 in Siena, and she is venerated for several reasons. First, she was instrumental in convincing the Pope to move back to Rome (from Avignon, France) in 1377. Second, and perhaps more importantly, she believed herself to be descended from Mary Magdalene, and for that reason she fasted vigorously, dying in 1380. She was buried in the Sant Maria Sopra Minerva Basilica in Rome, but that is not the end of the story. The Sienese requested that her remains be returned to Siena, but the Pope refused, so some enterprising Sienese culprits stole her head and returned it to Siena, where it remains today in the San Domenico. And yes, you can wee along the south wall of the basilica. Or, if you prefer, you can tour her house, which is still extant within the city.

The Via di Citta

The outdoor mall adjacent to the Campo is a thriving area of commerce even today, harkening back to Siena in its heyday. I personally find this are to be one of my favorite sites in Siena.

The Mercado

There is an austere medieval Fortezza (fortress) on the west side of the city, surrounded by a large parking lot. These days, the parking lot is converted into an outdoor market on Wednesdays. For the curious traveler, this is must-see, but don’t leave your car parked there on Wednesday, because it will be towed (I know from experience)!

The important sites within Siena can be toured in a couple of days, but prolonging your stay for a further few days will surely endear you to this unique city. And, if time permits, you may want to take a day trip to nearby San Gimignano (Fig. 9), a picturesque walled city less than an hour’s drive to the northwest. In future blogs, I will give more detailed reviews of some of the other cities mentioned in my previous blogs. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Fig. 9 San Gimignano

Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.

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