The view over Siena’s deep green hills hasn’t changed in the two decades I’ve been visiting — and in all likelihood since Tuscan Jewry thrived in this city some 600 years ago.
But the sleepy medieval lanes are considerably more crowded these days, especially in summer, when tour buses and backpackers descend on this city, an hour’s drive south of Florence. The best times to visit, therefore, are during the quieter months of winter and the July and August Palio horse races, when intense crowds are the point.
The Palio, a longtime Sienese tradition, pits one contrada (neighborhood) against another in a weeklong pageant that culminates with the roar of steeds through the Piazza del Campo. Along the way, boisterous song erupts in cafés, horseback processions chant their way down alleys and flags bearing ancient crests wave from windows.
But Siena is most enjoyable in the quiet of a Tuscan winter. After the summer onslaught, the city reclaims its natural, laid-back rhythm, enlivened by students at the 13th-century Università di Siena, one of Europe’s oldest. Even as trees go bare, the rolling hills of central Italy shimmer a vivid green against Siena’s golden walls.
It’s hard not to see a metaphor in another Sienese contrast — between the majesty of the towering Duomo and the workaday, even anonymous exterior of Siena’s only synagogue.
The vaunted 13th-century cathedral is considered a close second to the Duomo of Florence, a resemblance evident in the zebra-striped wedding cake edifice. Lacy peaks and striking black-and-white Tuscan marble command attention; the gold-accented interior is equally lavish, with more shiny marble and frescoes from the storied Siena Renaissance School.
While more modest, the Siena synagogue is similarly elegant within. But you wouldn’t know it from the staid brick exterior, which blends right into the surrounding residential neighborhood — altogether unusual for an Italian house of worship, Jewish or otherwise. That’s because, when it was built in the 1700s on the site of a previous temple, Jews were restricted from constructing a publicly identifiable building.
It was just one more insult in a long history of repressions interspersed with periods of relative integration, as Sienese Jews, sometimes confined to a ghetto, made their mark as moneylenders, bankers and scholars. But the temple’s interior reveals the pride of a community in neoclassical marble columns and curly rococo flourishes. Gold inscriptions in Hebrew adorn the walls; candelabras, chandeliers and red velvet add to the regal feel. Though Siena has only a handful of Jewish families today, its synagogue welcomes visitors with daily tours and maintains a nearby cemetery.
Long-ago Jewish bankers felt the competition when Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena opened for business here in the 15th century; today Monte dei Paschi remains the oldest surviving bank still in operation anywhere. Though its fortunes have suffered lately, the bank’s 14th-century headquarters, the lavish Palazzo Salimbeni, is none the worse for 700 years of wear — and worth a visit for its picturesque courtyard and Gothic façade.
Another grand edifice, the lovely Palazzo Saracini houses the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, referred to locally as simply the Chigiana (kee-gee-AH-na). For nearly a century, top violinists, pianists and opera singers have flocked here from around the globe to teach and attend the fabled summer master classes. Fall and winter bring a program of chamber music and recitals at the palazzo, which was renovated in 1906 by a local count who invested his fortune in his passion for classical music.
In many ways, the Chigiana is emblematic of Siena itself: small-scale yet urbane, timeless, with a refined aesthetic unusual for a city its size (about 50,000). I’ve always found the Sienese particularly stylish dressers, a quality best appreciated when northern Italians break out their cold-weather ensembles. The fashion parade is best observed from a terrace on the Piazza del Campo, Siena’s clamshell-shaped living room, over a frothy cappuccino or a glass of the local Chianti wine.
If it’s your first visit, consider a climb up the 300-foot Torre del Mangia, a graceful brick tower that crowns the piazza and defines the city’s medieval skyline. The views over Tuscan hillsides are arguably as stunning as anything you’ll see in the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) below. Inside, the city museum houses a fine collection of Sienese Renaissance paintings; the nearby Pinacoteca, a national art gallery, is even more impressive.
But Siena is at its loveliest in the street-level details — the ancient stone walls, Gothic archways and courtyards that haven’t changed much since Bartolo painted them a half-millennium ago. Perhaps more than any place else, Siena can convince visitors they’re living in a painting, a beguiling metaphor if ever there was one.