Siena in the Middle Ages
Siena reached the height of its splendour in the Middle Ages, when in 1147 it became an independent comune after a century of rule under the bishop. After gaining its independence, the city adopted an expansionistic policy, considerably increasing its domains. But the development and riches brought by trade also accompanied social conflict, which soon developed into a bloody struggle for supremacy between Guelphs and Ghibellines, the two opposing factions that supported respectively the Church and the Empire. Due to its Ghibelline status, Siena went to war against neighbouring Florence, which supported the Pope. Its troops gained a formidable victory against the Florentines at the Battle of Monteperti, on September 4th 1260. Only nine years later, however, Siena was in turn defeated by Florence and the city passed into Guelph hands, heralding a new government and a long period of prosperity.
Siena reached its golden age of architecture during the 14th century, when the city was able to erect many of the most important buildings that survive to this day. These include the Campo, the Palazzo Pubblico (then known as Palazzo dei Signori in reference to the city’s ‘Nine’ governors) the Duomo and the Torre del Mangia. This was also the period in which Senese art flourished, with masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. At this time the city invested enormously in costly projects such as the building of the fortified village of Paganico or the port at Talamone.
But Siena was also known for its lavish feasts and tournaments, such as the Gioco dell’Elmora, in which young men fought one another with clubs and stones. This game was supplanted in 1291 with the Gioco delle Pugna, in which the contenders fought with their hands covered by a wicker structure, or other games such as the Pallonata or the Bufalata. Piazza del Campo was frequently used for a variety of horse races, which developed over the centuries into the city’s best known event, the Palio.
In emulation of ancient Rome, Siena wished to underline its independence. But the great Plague of 1348 decimated the city’s population, bringing decadence and financial collapse. In the fifty years that followed, the city underwent considerable political upheaval, famine and rebellion, which culminated in the end of the government of the ‘Nine’ and loss of independence when in 1390 the city was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Despite losing their independence, the people of Siena retained their proverbial courage and cunning. St Catherine of Siena, who during her lifetime was called Caterina Benincasa, died in 1380 after playing an instrumental role in bringing back the Papacy to Rome from its exile in Avignon, thereby proving that the city had not altogether lost its political influence.