What makes the relatively small town of Siena so special in comparison with the other former Italian city-states in the north? Is it the way its medieval characteristics have continued to influence everyday life? This strong relationship with the past is obvious both in the town’s urban development, and in the annual social events.
The urbanization of the town started in the late eleventh century, with the appearance of the urban class in Italy. While medieval feudalism was still alive the strong trade activity permitted the development of this new social class. Along with that, a new economic system was created, called commercial capitalism. In fact, Siena is home of the oldest surviving bank in the world , the “Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena;” Italy’s third largest bank.
Another medieval characteristic that still influences the urban grid is the division of the city into seventeen territorial districts known as “contradas.” Since the twelfth century the contradas have connected different identities to people of distinct parts of the city. Each one of them has their own color and symbol, which represent their special historical and cultural particularities. The fifty-nine original contradas are now consolidated into seventeen current districts. This subdivision is widely known, also to foreign visitors, because each contrade forms a team for the famous Palio di Siena, the historic horse race that takes place in the cities central square, the Piazza del Campo.
As in all Italian towns, the role of the public buildings and urban spaces is of major importance. In Siena this characteristic becomes even more significant, as the whole city is organized around the Piazza del Campo. The characteristically shell-shaped square provided a very strong urban edge, enhancing the view to the city hall and underling its importance to the city’s public life. In addition, the intense slope favored social gathering and interaction. These social behaviors never stopped to take place in the Piazza del Campo, even until the modern era.
These examples, together with the unaltered medieval architecture of the city-houses, the narrow passages, and the impressive Sienese-gothic style of the public buildings make us think that the city structure never moved forward since its medieval glory. The plague of 1348 stopped the rapid economic and cultural development and killed most of its population. However, it seems that the era of bloom has forever left its mark on urban space and on the emotional memory of the inhabitants. The whole town, always picturesque and impressive, can be seen by us and by future generations as a well-preserved exhibit in the world’s urban history museum.
Which other cities – characteristic examples of their times – can you think of?
Credits: Images by Marilena Mela. Data linked to sources.