A few tips on what you need to know about Siena to understand how an art centre can be so perfectly preserved and at the same time continuously modernised and updated.

Visiting Siena, you will soon catch on to a few things. The first is fundamental - the Palio horserace has nothing to do with you. If anyone is kind enough to explain the rules of the Palio to you, they will seem absurd, senseless and even immoral since they involve drawing horses by lot, bargaining over jockeys, blessings that have a pagan touch to them, as well as, ceremonies, sham and corruption. Jockeys are allowed to "buy" alliances - and pay on the nail - to ensure their victory or the defeat of the contrada's enemies (contrada = district). Anything goes at the crucial moment (in which television plays an increasingly large role) when victory is sweet, of course, but the defeat of one's enemies is even sweeter. Yet this is the "city-state" par excellence, ruled by unparalleled ethical and aesthetic principles. Do not try to understand what will seem to you to be giaring contradictions, but are not, in actual fact. The first law of survival here is this - try not to disturb the Sienese when they are engrossed in the business of the Palio. In those days visitors are not welcome - and their curiosity is even less so.

Consequently, the second thing you will understand is that on all other days, except for the Palio period, Siena is uniquely hospitable. It will absorb you and almost suck you into a reception system for which the best term is "harmonious". Architecture, sculpture, painting, music, handicrafts, gastronomy - they are all connected to each other and to Siena, to the concept and even the ideology of "being Sienese". Everything can be explained because everything is done (or simply happens) in accordance with the rules and customs governing the common good, so that there is always an evident correlation between usefulness and aesthetics: "We decree and order that the windows of all the houses or buildings built around the market square must have little columns and no balconies....".
This is a loose translation of the marvellous vernacular of the famous decree dated May 10, 1297, that made Piazza del Campo's inexplicable perfection possible. This crucial decree is in line with the traditional concept of "good government" that was such an essential rule of community life that a great fourteenth-century Sienese painter, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, was commissioned by the authorities to portray it in a gigantic fresco in Palazzo Pubblico.
The third element that will make you fall under Siena's spell once and for all is its "timeless historical dimension". As you explore the old town centre on foot and admire the harmonious hues of an elaborate but never intricate Gothic style in some cases a patina still survives the brightness of painstaking restoration work - you will be convinced that this city once believed it could attain artistic perfection and since then has undertaken a continuous process of refinement using all the means provided by innovation. The use of the term "historical" refers to Siena's golden age, less than two centuries from the end of the 13th to the middle of the 15th century, when its merchants and bourgeoisie indulged in luxury, pleasure and a display of riches. However, concern for the common good came first and they all contributed, on the basis of their wealth and social standing, to the building of a marvellous common "urban landscape". A major architect, Ludovico Quadroni, has drawn attention to the fact that in fourteenth-century Siena - and from then on with admirable continuity to the present day - "material culture" and "intellectual culture" knew no boundaries and therefore no interruptions. There was no distinguishing between craftsmen and artists, and Siena is the proof - says Quaroni - that "several degrees of craftsmanship" are absolutely necessary to any architectural undertaking. In Siena a high degree of social wisdom induced the lower classes, merchants and aristocracy to come together whenever it was necessary to complete projects for the "beauty" of the city as a necessary condition for increasing its prestige and capacity to resist its enemies (Florence above all).

In this connection, it is marvellous to discover how the secular spirit, of the more enlightened culture of the commune, and the religious spirit, excellently represented in Siena's history and social life, converge in the plan conceived by the medieval art centre. The series of "references" between Palazzo Pubblico and the Duomo, the way the two centres of city life never cease to communicate and develop together, is a fundamental and edifying aspect of life in Siena and influenced the character and identity of the inhabitants of the Republic in the times of the communes, so much so, that the famous contrast between Papacy and Empire and the consequent bitter conflicts between Guelphs and Ghibellines were tempered by political skill and realism. The Sienese were Ghibellines when they wanted to prevent the Church from suffocating the thriving experience of the commune, but they were reconciled to becoming Guelphs when they realised that papal excommunications and interdicts reduced the market, as we would say today, for the profitable financial activities on which their flourishing economy was founded. They were never really Ghibellines nor Guelphs, but first and foremost incurably Sienese.

Why is Siena a "timeless historical dimension"? Because it has handled the inevitable decadence after a long and glorious period of splendour with skill, moderation and wisdom. It has protected the inviolability of the aesthetic model of the perfect Gothic city, from the most insidious periods when the drive towards the destruction of its legacy from the past was rampant (even the Renaissance was not immune) up to the industrial contamination and demolitions of our times.
Not only has Siena never abandoned its layout as an art centre that combines values such as beauty, dignity and usefulness, it has also continued to perfect them so rigorously and with such self-discipline that today it is one of the most precious and intact Gothic "gems". In terms of cultural tourism of the very highest level, this jewel can be enjoyed and enhanced by the computer technology that makes Siena a very special and possibly unique example of an entirely "cabled" art centre. A stroll through the city - where they have invented urban trekking, lucky them! - is sufficient to prove it.

extracted from Ulisse - Alitalia magazine - January 2003