Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Manhattan of the Middle Ages

Siena's skyscrapers

San Gimignano is famous for its medieval towers, but a walk through Siena reveals how 'upwardly mobile' were other Tuscan cities in the Middle Ages. Starting with the soaring, 80 metre high Torre del Mangia of the Palazzo Pubblico, built in the mid 14th century, tall buildings line Siena's streets: from public edifices to private residences, most are at least four storeys high.

people still live in this tower

Palazzo Chigi Saracini, now Siena's Academy of Music

Palazzo Chigi Saracini

recently renovated, these striking apartments include corridors bridging the street

another aerial bridge or corridor linking two buildings

over the centuries buildings grow organically, adding bartizans, balconies and entirely new structures

even the relatively modern apartment blocks on the outskirts are built with space-saving criteria

the impressive Porta San Marco or Porta delle Maremme, first constructed in 1326

Built of stone and brick (the Crete Senesi, the area south of the town, is named for its clay-rich soil), many have stood firm since at least the 14th century. As you stroll through the town your gaze will frequently be drawn upward and you will be struck by how narrow and shaded the streets are. The impression of being hemmed in by skyscrapers is relieved with breathtaking magnificence when you finally step into the Piazza del Campo...


  1. Thank you for these vivid photographs... it's like taking a walk through Siena, culminating with the one of the best views in the world! I just learned yesterday that in 11th-century Pisa there were regulations about how high these towers could be. They were, of course, fortifications in those dangerous times of internecine fighting--so keeping the towers down had civic implications. Florence also has surviving towers from this period before the palazzi started going up, especially in the Oltrarno neighborhood.

    Looking around online, I found that Villani's chronicle narrates that in 1251, with the return of the Guelphs to the city, the city of Florence decided that «all towers of Florence be cropped down to 29 meters or even less; the stones from the cropped towers were used to build houses in Oltrarno». A decision with clear political implications...

    Here is the original:

    E como il popolo ebbe presa signoria e stato, sì ordinaro per più fortezza di popolo, che tutte le torri di Firenze, (che ce n'avea grande quantità alte braccia centoventi) si tagliassono e tornassono alla misura di cinquanta braccia e non più, e così fu fatto; e delle pietre si murò poi la città oltrarno.

    (Villani, ch. 39)

    The towers of Siena must have had a similar function.

  2. A lovely memory of a walk with meander through Siena's historic streets.


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