St Catherine and Domenic
Fonte Gaia, Il Campo
Headquarters of the Dragon Contrada
Celebrating Senius, son of Remus
The Tuscan fortified hill town of Siena was constructed by the Etruscans who farmed the surrounding land before 400 BCE. The first Roman town here was founded around 70 CE, and attributed to Senius the son of Remus, hence the town's emblem of the wolf with Romulus and Remus. However due to its isolation from any major trade routes Siena failed to prosper, and remained Pagani until the 4th century.
When the Lombards invaded Italy in the 7th century they found the old Roman roads too exposed to threats from Byzantine raids, and so rerouted there trade routes through the safe staging post of Siena, bringing prosperity to the town. Although the Lombards were largely Odinist Pagans or Arian Christians, Roman Christian pilgrims heading to Rome from Europe via the town also financially benefited the town for centuries.
In 774 CE the Frankish army, under the command of Charlemagne, conquered the town and were quickly integrated in the local community.
As a city state governed by its bishop, Siena grew in importance as a centre of finance and the wool trade, but some power had to be ceded to the nobility following their support in a conflict with Arezzo, and by 1167 the church had lost all control.
Siena's Romanesque Gothic Duomo (cathedral) was begun in the 12th century. It was intended to be the largest in the world but after the north-west transept had been built the money ran out, so the transept ended up becoming the nave with smaller transepts east-west added. So unusually for a church it is misaligned, and the unfinished east wall is still standing.
The Basilica of San Domenico's construction began in the mid 13th century as a sanctuary church for Dominican nuns. It was enlarged during the 14th century in Gothic style, and the skull and thumb of St Catherine, stolen from her corpse in Rome, brought to the basilica.
The construction of the city walls was started in the 13th century, and new streets laid out radiating from the shell shaped Piazza dell Campo, where markets and events were held. Siena's university, still one of the best in Italy, for medicine and law was founded in 1240.
In 1260 a conflict arose between Siena and neighbours Florence both of who were important centres of art and commerce. The Battle of Montaperti was fought by a small Sienese army who were supported by a Sicilian contingent against a larger Florentine force. The totally comprehensive defeat of the Florentine army is still remembered today, and a strong rivalry still exists between the two cities because of this historic event.
Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries Siena's government was chaotic, with various noble families and governments ruling the city. In fact until Italy became united under King Victor Emmanuel II in the 19th century, and since it has become a republic once again, Italy has never had a stable government.
A mention must be given to the Palio di Siena, a dangerous bare back traditional medieval horse race run between the seventeen Contrade, or neighbourhoods, around the Piazza del Campo twice a year. The prize is a Palio (banner) with the image of the Virgin Mary, but the prestige to the winning Contrada is more important, warranting lots of cheating being involved.