In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Siena

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources and Collections
  • Politics
  • Economy
  • Society
  • Religion
  • Cultural Life

Renaissance and Reformation Siena
Fabrizio Nevola
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0522


Unusual in Italy for being a city that has very little evidence of classical origins, scholarly attention for the history of Siena has tended to focus on the late-medieval period, when it was stably governed by a group of elected officials known as the “Nine” (1287–1355). The century leading up to the Black Death (1348) was characterized by the establishment of sophisticated civic institutions, significant demographic growth, the expansion of its territorial base (contado), and the city’s rapid development as a commercial center with a strong banking sector. More recent scholarship has re-evaluated the importance of this independent city state through the Renaissance period, until it was conquered by the Imperial forces of Emperor Charles V (1555), who then ceded the city to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici to form part of the Medici dominions (1557). Until this time, Sienese politics were marked by complex wrangling between rival factions, although the republican system prevailed—with an intermission during the ascendancy of the quasi-prince Pandolfo Petrucci (c. 1503–1512) and his heirs (to 1525)—until its loss of independence. With Medici control imposed by external governors, local institutions lost much of their significance and the city’s cultural and ritual life became rather more isolated and inward-looking. Siena was positioned between the papal state (south) and Florence (north), and the via Francigena trade and pilgrimage axis toward Rome ran through the state, providing an important reason for through traffic of passing dignitaries as well as the major route to markets in northern Europe. A lasting rivalry with neighboring Florence marked Siena’s political, commercial, and cultural life, and at least some scholarship has dwelt on comparison between the two centers. While the larger neighbor has certainly drawn much more research activity, Siena’s banking families (e.g., Spannocchi and Chigi), religious élites (e.g., popes Pius II and Pius III Piccolomini), and holy people (e.g., Sts. Bernardine and Catherine) provide some indication of the degree to which the city deserves further attention, likely to be rewarded from the rich seams of evidence in its well-ordered archives.

General Overviews

Siena’s development as a city state through the thirteenth century is outlined by Waley 1991, which traces the process by which the emergence of a merchant élite (banking and industry) contrasted the interests of the often-litigious landed nobility. This resulted in the establishment of republican institutions designed to curb factionalism in favor of civic values that became a hallmark of the political language and action of the “Nine,” whose activities in all spheres of urban life are outlined in the unrivaled study Bowsky 1981. The “Nine” developed sophisticated forms of taxation, and imposed a set of laws contained in a series of written statutes that were revised through the subsequent centuries, but remained the bedrock of government until the end of independence in 1557. As Ascheri and Franco 2019 most recently showed, these important fiscal and legislative continuities underpinned the political and cultural identity of the city and its adherence to “civic” ideals. Moreover, as Bortolotti 1983 illustrates, the distribution of the main urban institutions of government, religion, charity, and trade combined with the city’s unique hilltop topography to give built form to the polity, with these principal sites adhering to the higher ground and the main government buildings placed at the intersection of the city’s main streets, facing the central market square (piazza del Campo). Hook 1979 remains a valuable overview of the city’s history in English, driven by a thesis of the city’s distinctive form of government and visceral resistance to Florentine subjection. Casciani and Hayton 2020, on the other hand, draws on the contributions of multiple authors to provide introductory essays that deal with a variety of different thematic categories, spanning the period covered by this review article. A quite different approach is taken in Tylus 2015, whose diachronic approach draws connections across a longue durée through a series of readable chapters that focus more on sociocultural aspects of the city’s history. Catoni and Piccini 2008 instead provides a helpful synthetic survey in which well-chosen illustrations provide a valuable visual commentary to the historical overview, reinforcing the point that civic investment in all the arts was an expression of good government.

  • Ascheri, Mario, and Bradley Franco. A History of Siena: From Its Origins to the Modern Day. London: Routledge, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315232010

    A recent overview of the history of the city, this helpful survey provides historical context for key periodization that tends to be applied to the main phases of the development of the arts in Siena.

  • Bortolotti, Lando. Le città nella storia d’Italia: Siena. Bari, Italy, and Rome: Laterza, 1983.

    A survey that records the phases of the city’s urban-scale architectural development, in relation to its socioeconomic and political history, with a series of helpful maps, as well as contemporary visual evidence.

  • Bowsky, W. M. A Medieval Italian Commune: Siena under the Nine, 1287–1355. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

    DOI: 10.1525/9780520328556

    The definitive study of Siena during the period of the rule of the Nove, based on extensive archival research and structured into seven clear chapters that deal with themes ranging from city government offices to trade and economy, the exercise of justice to foreign policy, and the establishment of a territorial state. An important section is dedicated to the development of a distinctive civic identity.

  • Casciani, Santa, and Heather Hayton, eds. A Companion to Late Medieval and Early Modern Siena. Leiden, The Netherlands, and Boston: Brill, 2020.

    A volume of essays that ranges over various areas of the city’s history, setting out the sociopolitical context, and exploring aspects such as how these affected architectural and urban history, the fashioning of civic identity, and themes related to religion, gender, education, music, and health care. What is distinctive here is the unified chronology that straddles the late medieval and Renaissance periods.

  • Catoni, Luciano, and Gabriella Piccini. An Illustrated History of Siena. Pisa, Italy: Pacini, 2008.

    A readable and well-illustrated survey of the city’s history.

  • Hook, Judith. Siena: A City and Its History. London: Hamilton, 1979.

    This remains a classic English-language account of the history of the city, meticulously researched and clearly written; a dominant theme is the city’s bold independence, lost to the Medici in the mid-sixteenth century.

  • Tylus, Jane. Siena: City of Secrets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226207964.001.0001

    An interesting and idiosyncratic account of Siena’s cultural history that favors a thematic approach to the city’s history over a tight chronological structure. Devotions to local saints, unique local rituals, the city’s relationship to outsiders, and its fierce independence all emerge as defining characteristics.

  • Waley, Daniel. Siena and the Sienese in the Thirteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583865

    While this account deals with the somewhat earlier phase of the city’s development, this remains a valuable study of the century leading up to the establishment of the merchant oligarchic government of the Nove (discussed in Bowsky 1981).

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