According to legend Siena was founded sometime in the 8 th century B.C. by Senius, the son of Remus. In the days of Caesar Augustus – a few centuries later – it became a Roman colony known as Sena Julia.
Political events in the Middle Ages favoured the city’s trade and economic power to the point that, in the 12th century, Siena became an independent republic. Matters got immediately complicated because of neighbouring Florence’s ambitions.
Furthermore Siena supported the Ghibelline faction (favourable to the Emperor) while Florence supported the Guelphs (favourable to the Pope). Up to the 15 th century the relationships between the two cities were tense with fighting (one of the most memorable episodes took place in Montaperti in 1260 where the Sienese succeeded in defeating the Florentines: Dante himself reports the event).
Despite such fierce political rivalry, Siena’s “golden age” flourished between the mid-13 th century and the middle of the 14 th century under the republican rule of the Consiglio dei Nove (Council of Nine). By walking through the city’s medieval streets, visiting the churches, the art museums, skirting the impressive public buildings and the aristocratic palaces, one is constantly reminded of its great artistic and cultural achievements.
The Gothic style that graces many of Siena’s buildings is noteworthy for its combined use of brick and stone. The fact that several Popes were scions of prominent Sienese families (Cervini, Chigi, Piccolomini to name but a few) allowed for important relationships with Rome.
The Great Plague (in the 1340’s) and its deadly consequences combined with economic decline turned Siena into an easy prey for the ambitious political strategies enacted, first, by the Emperor Charles V, and later by Henry II, King of France. Meanwhile in Florence the Medicis had been rising in rank and in power: their pro-French inclinations earned the Grand Duke Cosimo I the control of Siena (1559).
The Medicis therefore ruled over the whole of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany from 1559 to 1736 when their direct hereditary line came to an end and the Princes of Lorraine were entrusted with Tuscany’s government up until the unification of Italy during the second half of the 19 th century.
One may not fully understand the spirit of Siena and its inhabitants without acknowledging the importance of its medieval history. A clear example is provided – still today - by the role played by the contrade (city districts). The contrade represent the remains of the city’s ancient administrative structure and such that will affect even the personal identity of each “true” citizen of Siena ( for instance, getting married is “best” when choice falls on members of the same contrada!). The apex of the social life of the contrade is reached during the preparations leading to the Palio and its subsequent contest.