The beautiful view of Siena in Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338) located in Palazzo Pubblico, is not only one of the most famous Medieval paintings, but proof of the strong relationship between city and countryside during the ancient Republic of Siena.
Today the Sienese culture is embedded throughout the charming medieval city and in the enticing landscape of the surrounding area. The beauty of the region has not only been crafted by extraordinary achievements of the top Sienese artists, but also by centuries of daily work.
A network of over 30 diverse museums that span the Sienese region now offers an extraordinary opportunity to fully grasp the history of the province. Each collection varies in size and theme, but exemplifies particular Sienese archaeological, historical, artistic and anthropological aspects that are relevant for each museum’s context.
This museum system therefore represents an exclusive look into the layered cultural identity of Siena that includes not only the precious Pre-historic, Roman and Etruscan archeological finds or the priceless Medieval or Modern works of art, but also peasants recollections and local industry.
Prehistory and Antiquity
The oldest traces of human settlements in the Province of Siena are found in the area of Mount Cetona. Today they are preserved in the Civic Museum for Prehistory and the Archeological Park of Belverde where visitors can retrace the steps of local inhabitants from the Paleolithic and Bronze Age.
Roman and Etruscan presence can best be seen in the southern part of the Province of Siena, which was dominated by the powerful Lucumonia di Chiusi. The most important remains are preserved in the epigraphic section of the Chiusi’s Civic Museum, the Archeological Museum of Sarteano (where a seventh century Etruscan tomb is reconstructed with funeral urns) and in the Archaeological Museum of the Acque di Chianciano Terme (home of a clay acroterion that dates to 150 BC and found in the area I Fucoli).
However, the remnants of Etruscan and Roman civilizations can be uncovered throughout the Sienese territory, in particular at the Archaeological Museum of Colle di Val d’Elsa and in the archeological sections of museums in Asciano, Casole d’Elsa and San Gimignano. The Archaeological Museum of Murlo boasts impressive and well-preserved terracotta pieces from two Etruscan palaces at the site of Poggio Civitate.
Art from the Medieval Period to the Modern Age
During the Middle Ages, Siena was one of the great European capitals. Its advantageous location on the Via Francigena facilitated trade for its merchants while bringing great wealth to a city that was able to govern democratically and enlarge its boarders to include a major part of southern Tuscany.
The figurative arts flourished in this idyllic context, ultimately giving rise to what can be defined as a true Sienese school of art. From the last decades of the thirteenth century, until the early seventeenth century, Siena (who lost its autonomy and became part of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1559) was alive with talented painters, sculptors and architects, who produced the current face of the city and surrounding region.
The Sienese Museums exhibit an impressive number of works by these artists who continue to impress modern visitors with their quality and refinement. The Civic Museum of Siena, located in the Gothic Palazzo Pubblico, features some of the most illustrious murals done by renowned artists like Duccio, Simone Martini, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Spinello Aretino, Taddeo di Bartolo and Domenico Beccafumi. The star of the Modern style is Domenico Beccafumi who worked alongside Il Sodoma and Il Pacchia in the Oratorio di San Bernardino. Today the Oratorio houses the Diocesan Museum of Sienese Sacred Art, whose collection includes the Madonna del Latte by Ambrogio Lorenzetti among other valuable paintings.
Leaving Siena and heading south along the edge of the ancient Via Francigena, tourists will encounter numerous villages that once belonged to the state of Siena that have wonderful museums that preserve small treasures. This is the case of the Museum of Sacred Art of Val d’Arbia in Buonconvento with three moving images of the Madonna and Child by Duccio and Pietro Lorenzetti, the Museum of Sacred Art of Asciano with the expressive crucifix by Giovanni Pisano and distinguished fifteenth century paintings by Pietro di Giovanni Ambrosi and the Maestro dell'Osservanza, The Civic and Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art of Montalcino with late Gothic sculptures by Francesco di Valdambrino and reconstructed polyptychs by the fourteenth century Bartolo di Fredi, and the Diocesan Museum of Pienza with a luminous altarpiece by Vecchietta and an elaborate cope of Pope Pius II.
Montepulciano lies not far away, as it guards the Valdichiana. The town’s Civic Museum not only includes works from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but also a rich painting collection from the XVI-XIX centuries, originally donated to the town in 1861, by the archpriest of the Collegiate Francesco Crociani.
To the north of Siena is the area Val d’Elsa, which served as a border in the Middle Ages while much of the land belonged to the Florentine state. The Civic Museum of San Gimignano has one of the areas most impressive collections. Located in the Palazzo Pubblico, the museum has pieces from Memmo di Filippuccio, Lippo Memmi, Benozzo Gozzoli and Pinturicchio. Visitors to the Civic and Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art of Colle di Val d’Elsa can admire Treasure of Galognano, a rare gothic religious furnishing, while those at the Civic and Collegiate Museum of Casole d’Elsa can observe a gothic sculpture masterpiece, the tomb of Porrina by Marco Romano, as well as late-mannerist paintings by Alessandro Casolani.
Labor, Traditions and Science
The Landscape Museum of Castelnuovo Berardegna is proof of the Sienese culture’s appreciation of the quality and beauty of their lands. The landscape is the result of human intervention and peasant culture as demonstrated by the Sharecropping Museum of Buonconvento, the Ethnographic and Forest Museum of Orgia, and the Grancia di Rapolano Terme Museum (located in an ancient fortified farm of the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala of Siena) that illustrates the oil cycle. Visitors may also learn about festival traditions and watch peasant performances at the exhibition space in Monticchiello called tepotratos, scenes from Traditional Tuscan Folk Theater.
Many special artisan and industrial activities have sprung up throughout the Province of Siena, as documented by some museums: The Mineral Park of Abbadia San Salvatore (home of several of the world’s most important mercury mines), the Crystal Museum of Colle di Val d’Elsa (a town known world-wide for the treating the material), the Terracotta Museum of Petroio and the truffle museum of San Giovanni d’Asso.
A chapter of the Sienese Museums is also dedicated to science. Siena’s visitors can enjoy he Botanical Gardens, ancient gardens set up in 1588) and the Museum of Natural History of the Accademia dei Fisiocritici (where a room is dedicated to the Enlightenment scientist Paolo Mascagni). In the Province lie the Museum of Energy and Territory of Radicondoli, the Spezieria di Santa Fina (a display of pre-industrial pharmacy furnishings) and the Ornithological Museum in San Gimignano.
(The article was written for the Province of Siena)