The Quintessential Hill Town
In “The Sustainable City Manifesto,” Ernest Yanarella and Richard Levine identify the “medieval hill town” as a model of the sustainable city. They name several defining features that can be identified as components of sustainability: high population densities, humanely scaled architecture, urban-rural balance, social heterogeneity, civic loyalty to place, and commitment to durability and repair. In other writings, they refer to the Italian hill towns of Todi and Perugia, both in Umbria, but it may be from Siena, in Tuscany, that we can best draw some lessons on community sustained.
Judith Hook opens her 1979 book, Siena: A City and Its History, by saying “that there is something unique about Siena and that much of that uniqueness finds expression in its art, architecture, town-planning and urban life.” She emphasizes that it is “necessary to concentrate more upon a community than upon individuals.” She closes the book with, “This is the secret of Siena’s unique success as a twentieth-century city where, despite all the difficulties of urban living encountered by a modern community occupying a congested medieval town, something approaching an ideal urban community seems to have evolved.” The significance of Siena is reinforced in Peter Rowe’s Civic Realism, where Siena is at the core of his analysis of urban form and civic life. And Siena figures prominently in Spiro Kostof’s The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History, including the dramatic aerial view of the city that is the book’s cover illustration.
The city and province of Siena hold lessons in sustainable community, sense of place, urban and rural connections, and landscape preservation that can inform efforts elsewhere. City-country ties are strong in Tuscany, from medieval and Renaissance traditions and regulations that linked rural and urban life, to land-use regulations that are analogous to contemporary urban growth management. Walled towns and cities, combined with strict regulation of rural land development, protect the Tuscan countryside from most development. Farm and forest landscapes undergo changes in reaction to agricultural market conditions and proximity to urban centers, yet efforts to preserve amenity landscapes remain strong. In Tuscany, the preservation of city and country landscapes that are attractive to tourists (who are primarily urban) is critical to local economies.
Siena maintains a remarkably vibrant sense of place—as a city in its historic relationship to the agricultural hinterland, in its rivalry with Florence, and in its collection of well-defined neighborhoods or contradas. Today, Siena is at the forefront of European urban sustainability. It would be utopian to think that we can replicate medieval—or even contemporary—European settlement patterns, urban form, or social life. Yet, just as we take lessons from utopian thought, we can learn from places like Siena.
City in the Country: A History
James Vance notes that “[t]he fully developed medieval city emerged sometime in the thirteenth century, a time of fundamental reorientation of human activity. It had completely original qualities, both socially and morphologically. Our inheritance of those qualities is great indeed…. Urban evolution in western civilization has been essentially continuous since that birth of the medieval city.” In the 13th century, cities began to dominate economic activity in Europe. While all cities depend on their immediate hinterlands, the ties of city and country were particularly strong in Tuscany and the Veneto. The feudal order gave way to a system of independent city-states. Each city extended its power into the countryside or contado, in order to control local food supply, raw materials, and urban-rural trade. Power was wrested from feudal families, allegiance was reoriented to the city-state, and rural migrants made their way to cities. The countryside served not only as a resource hinterland; rather the contado became an extension of urban governance and land ownership. While wealth was extracted from the territory, cities in turn provided a measure of protection to rural and village residents, and concepts of citizenship extended beyond the walls of the city. In Siena, nobles with rural landholdings and villas in the contado were required to maintain houses in the city for at least part of the year, thus reinforcing city-country ties.
By the 13th century, Siena controlled a vast territory that extended as far as Grosetto to the southwest on the Mediterranean. City-country connections existed with wealthy landowners and extended to the Ospedale de Santa Maria della Scala, a “hospital” —or “hospitality center” —whose original function was to provide food and shelter for travelers on the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage route that led from France to Rome. The first written mention of the Ospedale is in 1090. By the 13th and 14th centuries, in order to feed pilgrims and hospital patients, provide bread to poor families in Siena and the Sienese contado, and generate revenue, the Ospedale managed extensive agricultural landholdings and granaries throughout the territory. The city-country relationship of this major institution reinforced the ties between Siena and its surrounding territory and the ownership of rural land by Siena’s leading families. In 1338-39, when Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted his famous fresco in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, the essential link between city and country—their governance and their respective landscapes—was established and understood.
One of the three cycles in the fresco "The Effects of Good Government in the City and in the Country" captures the landscapes of the Sienese city-state. Within the walls, workers are building the city, practicing their trades, and mingling socially. Outside the walls, peasants work carefully maintained fields and herd distinctively black-and-white striped cinta senese pigs to market. Wealthy landowners—noblemen, merchants, and bankers—can be seen riding through their country properties. It is an orderly landscape that with few changes will develop as the bel paesaggio (beautiful landscape) of the Renaissance over the following two centuries. It is the idyllic Tuscan countryside that we see today.
City-states pushed against their rivals for control over rural territory and outlying villages. Among Siena’s city-state rivals, Florence was and has remained the primary competitor. In Within Tuscany, Matthew Spender tells of a conversation explaining the territorial limit of the Sienese contado with its rival Florence. While the contemporary boundary between the provinces is expected to be much closer to Siena—given the population advantage and long-term dominance of Florence—it is telling that the Sienese have a tale about the border’s location that sheds favorable light on the quality of life in Siena. Rather than recognize Florence’s military dominance over a large portion of the Sienese countryside as an explanation, the story tells that the two cities would establish the border by sending a rooster out from each city and where they met would be the boundary. Florence mistreats its rooster, which then heads for Siena as early and as fast as it can. Siena pampers its rooster, as it would a Palio racehorse. He leaves late, takes it easy as he is in no hurry to get to Florence, and not far from Siena he meets the Florentine rooster.
Despite, and perhaps because of, its ultimate economic and political subjugation to Florence in 1555, Siena has maintained a strong sense of civic identity over the past five centuries. One need not look far to see visual symbols that reinforce Siena’s founding myths and sense of place. Siena prominently displays a connection to Rome—rather than Florence—most notably in the numerous depictions of the she-wolf. Siena is said to have been founded by Senius and Ascius, sons of Remus who fled from Rome when their lives were threatened by their uncle Romulus. The she-wolf appears on monuments throughout the city, most prominently on columns in front of Palazzo Pubblico, in front of the cathedral, and at Piazza Tolomei. Another repeated symbol is the shield of the city, the black and white balzana. Various explanations connect the balzana to Siena’s Roman lineage: Senius and Ascius rode black and white horses, respectively; they were led to the site of the city by following a black cloud by day and a white cloud by night; and their sacrifices to the Roman gods produced black smoke until they reached the future Siena, then white smoke. Of the several gates into Siena, the most prominent is Porta Romana, on the south side of the city. These symbols, indeed the very rivalry with Florence, give Siena identity to this day.
Siena’s remarkably well-preserved urban landscape is both a source of immense pride in the city and another reminder of distinction from Florence and the Renaissance. Town planning in Siena dates back to at least 1218, with communal control of street design and maintenance, including regulations that limited building extensions over the public rights-of-way. In 1297—with the start of construction of Palazzo Pubblico—official policies controlled the look of Siena’s Piazza del Campo, the main public plaza in the city. Building materials, setbacks and height, and the shape of windows were specified. These regulations predated Renaissance concepts of urban form. Influenced by the design of the Cistercian abbey of San Galgano, located in the Sienese contado, the city mandated Gothic design for buildings on the Campo. The now-abandoned abbey is one of the great Gothic structures in Tuscany. Cistercian monks supervised building construction in much of the city, most famously that of the cathedral.
As Siena resisted the territorial ambitions of Florence, so it resisted the 15th and 16th century Renaissance designs of its larger rival. The planned organicism of Siena’s city streets, reinforced by public policy, maintained curves in line with Gothic design rather than rectilinear Renaissance designs. Siena became “the Gothic dream,” to use the subtitle of the best contemporary architectural guide to the city. Siena has its share of Renaissance palazzos, but it self-consciously retains the Gothic look from the period of its independence and greatest economic prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries. The palace facades of Siena may be compared to those of Montepulciano, made over by the Medici as a Renaissance town after it signed a pact of allegiance with Florence in 1512. Siena came to be dominated by the Medici, yet vigorously maintained—in what Spiro Kostof called “a backward-looking urban esthetic” —an identity that is reflected in its built form.
In Civic Realism, a study of urban public spaces and civic engagement, Peter Rowe states, “A good place to start examining both the social and physical aspects of viable civic places is with an incontestable example that has contemporary pertinence and has stood the test of time. Arguably, among all the likely candidates, Siena and the Piazza del Campo stand out as a place where civic life, civic aspirations, and civic responsibilities have been inscribed indelibly....” In a city carved into strongly identified neighborhoods, the Campo (along with the cathedral) is a shared community space—where the entire city comes together. The pattern of pavement reflects the structure of Siena’s governance, the Council of the Nine, which acquired the land for the piazza in 1293 and oversaw its completion in 1349. The slope and design draws one’s vision to Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia, the seat of government. At the top of the piazza lies Fonte Gaia, the symbol of community success in bringing water to the center of the hilltop town. Montaigne, who visited in 1580, stated, “The square in Siena is the most beautiful that is to be seen in any city.” The authors of Siena: The Gothic Dream say, “The Campo… probably represents the most emblematic and complex space in the world, if the number of painstaking analyses carried out by architectural departments of every self-respecting university is anything to go by….” The Campo is the heart of Siena. It is the center of civil government, social interaction, and tourist activity. Most famously it is the site of the Palio, Siena’s twice-annual horse race.
The Palio pits neighborhood against neighborhood, or contrada against contrada. The intense rivalry is a relic of more serious ritualized confrontations that included group fistfights and rock-throwing battles. Urban landscape remnants of Siena’s territorial, family, and work-based clans can be seen in truncated defensive towers throughout the city. It is said that the Sienese band together when facing a common external enemy (usually that has been Florence) but that when they lack such a distraction, they turn on one another. While there were several dozen contradas at one time, the current number of seventeen was established in 1729. Not all aspects of culture of the contradas provide lessons for community sustainability that we might want to replicate—each contrada, for example, has a permanent enemy contrada—but there are elements of neighborhood identity that can inform local sense of place and empowerment.
The contradas serve some limited governmental functions within the city, but more importantly they provide neighborhood social identity. Each contrada has a clearly defined territory and an “entrance.” The boundaries are well-known, often marked and visible to all. Brass plates that cover some exterior electrical outlets are stamped with contrada animal images. Unofficial entrances to the neighborhoods, known to members of the contrada, are not notable architecturally—in contrast to the gateways to the city of Siena and our modern-day emphasis on marking entry points to cities and neighborhoods. Each contrada has its own church (used for blessing the Palio horse), a museum, a social club, and a fountain. Citizens become members of a contrada through birth in the territory, family heritage, or annual secular baptisms for newborns and those “adopted” into the community. Contradas have an identifying animal (usually also the name of the contrada), their own flag, and a drum-and-flag corps active in public celebrations. These symbols of place parallel the city-wide identifiers of she-wolf and balzana.
Beyond the obvious and intense rivalry among contradas in Palio races, the highly ritualized parades that precede the races celebrate the history of Siena, serve as reminders of the historic connection between city and countryside, and reinforce individual neighborhood autonomy. One sees the hierarchy of place identity that has been nurtured for centuries. The parade is led by a group representing Siena and all of the towns of the former Republic (many of which remain, today, within the province of Siena). Representatives of Montalcino, the refuge of Siena in exile during the siege of 1554-55, take the lead. They are followed by trade guilds which were often associated with specific contradas, such as silkworkers and the Bruco (caterpillar) contrada; the ten contradas participating in the upcoming Palio; and the seven non-participating contradas. Toward the end of the parade, contadini, country residents, lead an ox-drawn cart. The geography of city, hinterland, and neighborhoods is an essential element of Siena’s major civic celebrations.
Country in the City
Siena is a model of urban design adapted to topography. The city—epitomized by Piazza del Campo—is a landscape of paved streets and stone and brick buildings. In the main areas of daily resident and tourist activity, Siena is not particularly “green.” Siena has been a “car free” city since 1966, but accommodations for automobile use are extensive, and the overall impression is one of hard surfaces accommodating both pedestrians and motor vehicles in a car-restricted environment. Many smaller Italian hill towns have streets that are simply too narrow for cars. While they may have few parks, some of the smaller towns are truly car free, and one notices the number of street planters in contrast with Siena.
Siena’s population grew during its economic take-off starting in the 13th century to over 50,000 by the mid-14th century. Perhaps another 50,000 people lived in the surrounding countryside. As population increased within the constrained land area of medieval cities, urban governments (and land markets) favored high density development—including the development of most open space—until, eventually, expansion of a city’s walls would be undertaken. The most effective way to enclose the largest land area was with approximately circular walls, which should be expansive enough to accommodate future population growth and building. In Siena, expansion of defensive walls in the first half of the 14th century enclosed a considerable amount of agricultural land. UNESCO’s World Heritage Site description of Siena states that the walls were extended several times in the medieval period, “with the object of integrating open spaces…” and that crop production in the preserved open space helped ensure the survival of Siena during times of siege. It is more likely that expansion served dual purposes—modest crop production within the city and room for future urban growth. Expansion of the walls, along with major plans to expand the cathedral, reflected Siena’s economic prosperity in the 13th century.
Then, in 1348, a major outbreak of the plague reduced the city’s population by over 60 percent along with devastating effects in the countryside. Space within the walls was not needed for growth. Regardless of the original intent and subsequent reasons for their survival, land-use regulations today protect these enclosed green spaces. Stepping away from the intense activity at the core of the city, one finds the treed grounds of La Lizza near the 16th century fort, the peaceful Orto Botanico (botanical garden) tucked away behind buildings, small pockets of olive groves hugging the walls, and the extensive green valley, Orto de Pecci, just south of the market behind Palazzo Pubblico.
Siena—the city and its suburbs—today has about 55,000 residents, around the population that it did at its peak in the medieval period, immediately before the plague of 1348. Another 252,000 live in remainder of the province. Slow growth over the last six-and-a-half centuries did much to preserve the city’s character. But conscious land-use planning has played a role as well. National land-use laws have helped protect the city and province, both within the walls and in the surrounding countryside, towns, and villages. A Siena master plan, adopted just after World War II, directed high-density growth to a few limited areas outside the walls. The core of Siena, including the expanses of country in the city, was thus protected. Siena has accomplished a goal of modern urban growth management—a combination of urban green areas within a clearly demarcated boundary between city and country.
Learning from Siena
Siena is a model of urban design and social sustainability. It is tempting to attribute this to its rich cultural history and period of urban prosperity, followed by over 500 years of limited development and modernization. But credit must be given to the urban planning principles established in the medieval period, the strength of the memory of the free city-state, and the significance and celebration of neighborhood identity. In our modern cities, we confront many of the issues that Siena has faced. How do we empower neighborhoods while caring for the city as a whole? How do we protect the countryside from urban encroachment while acknowledging essential city-countryside dependencies in a changing agricultural economy?
We need to recognize that a city of strong neighborhoods builds a strong city. We should foster visual clues to neighborhood identity and local sense of place. Neighborhood planning should be a component of city governance. With strong neighborhood identity, we should expect a degree of factionalism, of rivalry, of competition. Perhaps we express this with school and community sports rivalries—our versions of the Palio—and hope we avoid the more extreme versions of turf battles. We can also create public places—versions of the piazza—as centers for social interaction at all different levels of the place hierarchy. And we need to recognize that urban design matters. We may not have the public culture of Siena, but we need to create and maintain a public realm that allows for interaction.
We should also reanimate and reinforce the connections between urban and rural. The socioeconomic linkages of city and country in the medieval and Renaissance contado have given way to a strong sense of place in the province of Siena. Siena remains inextricably linked to its surrounding countryside. While contado, the historic term for territory, is no longer a commonly used word in Tuscany, the administrative unit of the province of Siena serves the same political and functional purpose.
Long a part of the European Grand Tour, Siena and Tuscany are today even more dependent on tourism. The consciously crafted bel paessagio is no less important today than it was during its creation five centuries ago. Visitors are likely to stay in Siena or a smaller hill town and take trips to the surrounding countryside or to lodge at one of the many agriturismos in Tuscany and take trips to the villages and towns. Around many of our cities, we are seeing a transition in agricultural landscapes—the development of urban-oriented, high-amenity, working landscapes, alongside continuing commodity-oriented agriculture, as farms cater to urban visitors and shift to regionally identified products. More “place-designated” products are being produced, paralleling the prodotti tipici of Tuscany. Farmers markets and community-supported agriculture strengthen city-countryside connections. Locality matters. We need to continue to recognize and celebrate it.
View 9 additional Siena photographs by Thomas Harvey >>
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