The Most Beautiful Piazza in Europe: Il Campo in Siena

First Stop in Siena

Piazza del Campo in Siena

Piazza del Campo in Siena

The first stop for any visitor to Siena is the Piazza del Campo in the heart of the city. In a country renowned for its beautifully preserved medieval piazzas, “il Campo” stands out as one of the best. Located at the junction of the three hills upon which Siena is built, il Campo is a blazing, brick-paved space that bustles with life and history. Getting to il Campo is part of its charm. From any direction, you walk through a welter of dark, medieval streets that are almost claustrophobic with three and four story brick buildings on either side. Then suddenly, a slice of brilliant light appears at the end of a street and you walk into a space of such breathtaking proportions and beauty that you can’t help feeling very grateful that many centuries ago Siena’s city fathers had the good sense to create one of Europe’s most people-friendly spaces.

View of the Campo from the top of the Torre del Mangia

View of the Campo from the top of the Torre del Mangia

Torre del Mangia in Siena

Torre del Mangia

Unlike most piazzas in Italy, Il Campo is not square shaped and not dominated by a church. There is an amazing cathedral in Siena, but it’s reached along another narrow medieval street to the southwest. One of the many unique features of Il Campo is its secular nature. The two principal public buildings are the Torre del Mangia and the Palazzo Pubblico—both built to house the municipal government in Siena. The Palazzo Pubblico was started in 1250 and the Torre del Mangia in 1338. Torre del Mangia means “Tower of the Eater”, so called because the first guardian of the tower was nicknamed Mangiaguadagni because he spent all his money on food.

Despite its secular origins and purpose, Il Campo does not stray far from religion. It was constructed in the shape of a shell in imitation, so the legend goes, of the all-embracing shape of the Madonna’s cloak. The Sienese claim a very special relationship with the Virgin Mary and consider her their patron.

My shadow across the brickwork of the Campo

My shadow across the brickwork of the Campo

The second time I visited Siena, in 2011, I was in the midst of researching my novel The Towers of Tuscany. Il Campo plays a central role in the novel so I was understandably excited to visit. After arriving in Siena and getting settled at the Palazzo Masi, I walked a half block down a dark street bounded on both sides by ancient brick buildings and emerged into blinding October sunlight bouncing off a thousand pink and white bricks.

The experience was so overwhelming, so emotional after months of planning and imagining, that I walked right into the middle of il Campo and lay down on the bricks. Fortunately, plenty of other people were doing the same. The bricks are shiny and smooth with centuries (about seven of them!) of use. Arranged in a beautiful herringbone pattern, the bricks are separated by nine white travertine bands that lead from the base of the piazza at the Torre del Mangia and fan out and upwards in the distinctive shell shape. The nine segments of the piazza symbolize the Council of Nine, a group of nine men (mostly merchants) who ran the government in the 14th century. The Council of Nine is actually a pretty big deal in the history of municipal government. Among their many achievements are the commissioning of some of some of Siena’s most famous frescoes. You can read about the two Martini frescoes in my post about the Palazzo Pubblico.

The Palio

Il Campo is famous both for its sheer physical beauty and because it is the setting for the famous palio horse race. I doubt I’ll ever attend a palio since I’m not keen on big crowds. However, I did get a small taste of the importance of the palio to the Sienese from my host at the lovely Palazzo Masi bed and breakfast. At breakfast on my final morning, a documentary about the palio was playing on the television. The owner assured me that she was not that “into” the palio since her contrade had not won for a few decades. Then the documentary showed archival footage of the year her contrade did win and I was surprised to see how emotional she got. I gather that the Sienese attachment to the palio and the honour of their individual contrade isn’t going away any time soon.

Palazzo Masi

Author with the owner of Palazzo Masi in Siena

Me (on the left) with the owner of Palazzo Masi

The Palazzo Masi on Via Casato di Sotto, a very short and atmospheric walk to Il Campo, is a great choice for visitors who want an authentic Siena experience. The Palazzo Masi is located in an ancient building that dates back to the 13th Century. I stayed in one of the superior rooms (L’Arco) which was a corner room that included an original medieval beamed ceiling and a brick arch. Each morning, I was served a simple continental breakfast and enjoyed chatting with the English-speaking owner. She was a treasure trove of information about Siena and about the ancient origins of the Palazzo Masi.

Sofia and the Campo

Il Campo plays a significant role in my novel The Towers of Tuscany. In the fall of 1338, my principal character, Sofia Carelli, comes to Siena after running away from her home city of San Gimignano and her husband . Disguised as a boy, she hopes to be taken on as an apprentice in one of Siena’s many painters’ workshops. In the first half of the 14th Century, Siena rivaled Florence in its production of art. At the time of Sofia’s entrance into Siena, masterpieces by Duccio, Simone Martini, and Lorenzetti had either just been completed or were in the process of being created.

Here’s an excerpt from the novel describing Sofia arrival in Siena’s Piazza del Campo. Note that Sofia has rechristened herself as “Sandro” and Francesco is the young man who has accompanied her to Siena.

Francesco kept a firm hand to her back and steered her away from the workshop toward a piazza glimpsed as a blazing slice of white light at the end of the street. They entered it together and both gasped. The entire piazza appeared big enough to fit the whole town of San Gimignano. Since her visit to Siena with her father the year before she married, work had begun on paving the campo with a complicated pattern of brickwork. Fan-shaped swathes of shiny bricks sloped gently upwards to a wall of towers, many of them still under construction. The tall and slender Torre del Mangia at the lowest point of the campo was now completed. With noon approaching, the piazza was emptying rapidly of people returning to their homes for food and rest.

“This is a noble space,” Francesco whispered.

“Even in Florence, you’ll not see a more pleasing one,” Sofia said.

“You’ve been to Florence?”

“Just once. My father took me with him when he went to help Maestro Giotto decorate the Podestà Chapel in the Bargello. The Maestro was near the end of his life but he was still a miracle to watch.” Sofia shook her head, smiling. “Maestro Giotto wasn’t much taller than I was even though I was a child. And he was so ugly.”

The name meant nothing to Francesco. He was more concerned with finding shade and a kindly shopkeeper to give them food. But Sofia was walking into the piazza, her head thrown back to stare up at the towers. She held her arms out and rotated on one heel.

“Beautiful!”

“Sandro! Stop that. People will stare. We need to find a place to rest out of the sun.”

“I don’t need to rest. I must study this space. It is a marvel. Go into the shade if you must. I need to walk.” And leaving Francesco looking bewildered, she set off around the piazza, measuring with her steps its dimensions.

For the first time since arriving in Siena that morning, Sofia allowed herself a quiver of excitement. Manzini had to take her into his workshop. He owed as much to the memory of her father. The prospect of working again with brush and paint was bewitching. And to be in Siena! The city’s reputation for the quality and quantity of its architecture and painting and fresco rivaled even Florence. Her father had described the plans for the new cathedral and she’d seen herself the wondrous frescos by Lorenzetti adorning the walls of the Council chamber in the Palazzo Pubblico. God only knew what other marvels were at that moment being painted in the public rooms of the many palazzos and chapels and churches of Siena.

“Sandro!” Francesco stood in the shadow of a tower and gestured toward the other end of the campo. A clutch of armed men was marching toward them, their swords clanking. Francesco caught Sofia’s hand and dragged her into a side street. “Come away! The soldiers might wonder why a vagabond boy stands alone in the piazza in the heat of the day.”

“Why should they care about me?” Sofia asked, side-stepping a fat hen sitting serenely in the middle of the street.

“It doesn’t matter why. What matters is that you don’t want such men to get too near. From a distance you look well enough, but up close . . .”

“What?” Sofia looked down at her coarse smock and leather bound leggings. “I’m dressed like you are.”

“Yes, but you don’t look the same. You look small and weak.” Francesco paused, his young face serious and afraid. “You look like a girl.”

“I am a girl!” Sofia grinned, grime cracking her face into rivulets of white. “You worry like an old woman, Francesco. I want to tell the world that I am the daughter of Maestro Antonio Barducci come to Siena to carry on his work. What does it matter if I’m a boy or a girl?”

“It matters, Sandro. Now, let’s find something to eat and a place to rest out of the sun.”

The Towers of Tuscany will be published in February 2014 by New Arcadia Publishing and available on Amazon.

Visiting the Campo

Palazzo Pubblico, Siena

Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia in Il Campo

When you go to Siena, go to the Campo. In fact, visiting Siena and not going to the Campo is like going to Paris and not noticing the Eiffel Tower. One of life’s great travel pleasures is sipping a cappuccino at one of the many cafes that spill out onto the campo from buildings that were once palazzos for the nobles of Siena. I spent many an hour at these cafes in an attempt to catch some shreds of the past yet hanging in the air. Of course, most of what is hanging in the air in the 21st century is Vespa fumes and the moans of footsore tourists, but if I just closed my eyes a little bit, squinted into the sunlight bouncing off the brickwork, I could see my Sofia dressed in a rough smock with her hair cropped turning in a slow circle in the middle of Il Campo.

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