Siena, vista sull'orto dei pecci

2.2 The memory of the city in documents and stones

Studium Senese (ancient study) 

The University of Siena has ancient origins. Its founding date is believed to be December 26, 1240, when the chief magistrate of Siena, Ildebrandino Cacciaconti, confirmed an earlier law which established that the sums advanced by the hosts to pay taxes were used to pay salaries to the masters at the Studium. However, we do not know when the measure being extended dated from. The Sienese rulers certainly knew that a university would bring prestige to the city. Since the thirteenth century, a legal school, a grammar school and a medical school were active in Siena. And, from then on, the University of Siena would attract students from all over Europe. The first seat of the University-in addition to the ancient Ospedale of Santa Maria della Scala was the Casa della Sapienza, on the street of the same name, in the building housing the Intronati library today. Starting in 1416, students were housed here and classes were held. The liveliness (not only intellectual) of the Sienese study is evidenced by numerous episodes, such as when, in protest against Cosimo II who did not want to restore certain privileges from the past, on March 22, 1611, the Sapienza was occupied by the students who “bolt up the study so no professor could come in and read”. Among the teaching subjects, also the “Tuscan language”. Many foreigners came to Siena from ‘literate’ Europe to learn Italian, and very heated was the debate as to whether the real language was Sienese or Florentine. Orazio Lombardelli, who in 1598 had joined the Faculty of the Sienese study, attempted a compromise by claiming that «the true Tuscan pronunciation is found in Siena, as in its main seat. If you seek the copy of words and forms of saying, the fairy tale of ‘ shots and vagueness should not leave Florence […] so I come to conclude that, to mean perfect Tuscan language, we dee dir as they say in Florence in a proverb: Florentine language in Sienese mouth». The University of Siena was able to use one of the greatest Italian linguists of the sixteenth century, Claudio Tolomei; and, later, other notable scholars on the subject, such as Celso Cittadini and Girolamo Gigli. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the University established its seat in the building where the rectorate is still housed today. In the XVII-XVIII centuries. this area had been occupied by the camaldolese monastery of San Vigilio, until, in 1561, the Jesuits moved in there who, with a gradual work of restructuring and expansion, transformed the complex into a great college in the eighteenth century. It officially became the seat of the University in 1815, when, at the end of the Napoleonic era, Ferdinand III of Habsburg Lorraine was able to return to the throne of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the University resumed activity. From this date, the building underwent further renovations with the realization (1826) of the Aula magna Storica by the architect Agostino Fantastici, the Specola Metereologica and the porch around the courtyard (1893) designed in Renaissance style by Giuseppe Partini. Through a historical-museum itinerary open to the public, it is possible to trace the historical events of the University from the fourteenth century to 1955. See, for example, the bronze seal of the fourteenth century with the image of the patron Saint Catherine of Alexandria, la Mazza del Bidello, made in 1440 by a Sienese silversmith. Or certain documents of the seventeenth century, such as the Reform of the General study issued in 1589 by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando I de ‘ Medici, establishing professorships. Equally interesting is the prolusion, read in the same year, by Diomede Borghesi at the beginning of the lessons of “Tosca Favella”, the first Italian language course held in Italy. Also of intrigue are the attendance registers which the students were obliged to undertake, the ‘ballots used to draw the exam questions and the hourglass to control reply times. To come to more recent times, we find weapons and relics of the Battle of Curtatone and Montanara (1848), in which Sienese university students took part together with the Piedmont army. Among the documents of undoubted interest, the thesis of degree discussed in 1923 by Carlo Rosselli. 

The history in the documents 

There is a place where almost the entire history of Siena is contained; that is, that through the documents tells the centuries-old events of the city. It is the Palazzo Piccolomini, home of the Archivio di Stato, built by Giacomo and Andrea Piccolomini, grandchildren of Pius II. The building was finished in 1509 and was probably designed by Rossellino (as deduced from the similarities with Palazzo Piccolomini in Pienza). From 1681 to 1820, it hosted the Tolomei College. In 1824, it passed to the Grand Ducal estate, which set up several offices and services, until in 1867, a part was set aside for the Archivio di Stato. It is worth mentioning the Tolomei College, since it was a very important institution. It was founded in 1676, at the behest of Celso Tolomei, according to the Jesuit rules of seminaria nobilium. The young convectors were given a rigorous rhetorical-grammatical education, supplemented by studies of law (civil and canonical) and training in knightly sciences and theatrical practice. More than a century after its establishment, Peter Beckford wrote in his travel notes that «the Tolomei College is exclusively for nobles who, before entering it, must prove that they are such for four quarters. They pay eighty crowns a year for food and accommodation, and are taught in Latin, rhetoric, philosophy and mathematics. A separate fee is required for riding lessons, dance, fencing, music, drawing and so on; the total expenditure amounts to almost two hundred crowns. It is a good institution in which one keeps an eye on morals, and if the disciples are no longer educated, the fault lies largely with their fathers. They told me, in fact, and I have no reason to doubt it considering the source, that they sometimes ask if their children dance or are good at fencing, but never or almost ask what books they read». A part of the building still houses the Archivio di Stato, which permanently houses the exhibition of the Tavolette di Biccherna. These 105 panels were painted between 1258 and the beginning of the eighteenth century, designed to be the covers of the accounting records of the major financial magistracy of the municipality of Siena, the Biccherna precisely. From 1257, the officers of the Biccherna decided, in fact, to embellish the books of accounts of the paintings; and a similar thing was later done by other authorities and institutions of the city such as the excise tax office, the Consistory, the municipal chamber, the administration of the keeps and the forts, the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the Compagnia di San Giovanni Battista della Morte. From the second half of the fifteenth century, the covers became real paintings commissioned to the major Sienese artists. These included Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Paolo Di Giovanni Fei, Giovanni Di Paolo, Sano Di Pietro, Francesco Di Giorgio, Francesco Vanni, Ventura Salimbeni, Francesco Rustici called “the Rusticino”. On display are also significant documents on the history of Siena throughout the centuries, from the year 735 to the unity of Italy. Consider that the archive stores about 60,000 Parchments, the resolutions and statutes of the Republic, the papers and the acts of the judicial and financial administrations. Autographs of Brunetto Latini and Pier della Vigna, the alliance signed between Farinata degli Uberti and the Ghibellines of Siena, the convictions of Casella, Cecco Angiolieri, the diplomas of Manfredi and Corradino Di Svevia. Of particular interest is the Latin testament of Giovanni Boccaccio, drawn up on August 28, 1374 in the Church of Santa Felicita in Florence, by Ser Tinello di Ser Bonasera Da Passignano. Finally, it should be remembered that an ancient volume lies on these shelves testifying to a great act of democracy and administrative transparency, shelves on which centuries of history and memory align. It is the Constitution of 1309 that, by decision of the municipality, was translated into the vulgar language, so that the set of norms and laws that regulated public life, were understandable even to those who did not know Latin: for “the Poor People and other people who do not know grammar, and the others, and’ what they will, may it see and be inspired by it and have it at their disposal”. The copy, written in large letters so that everyone could read it, was exposed to the public and attached to an iron chain to prevent theft and tampering. We are at the beginning of the fourteenth century, and have to admit such a document represents a surprising sign of civilization, justice, and political-institutional guarantees. 

Family gift

Again we come across the name of the Piccolomini at the Logge del Papa, on the road of the same name. They are called that because they were built in 1462 by Pope Pius II (Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini) as a gift to his family whose residence was next door. The work was commissioned by the Sienese architect Antonio Federighi. On the architrave which surmounts the Renaissance arches, we read the dedication: PIUS II Pont MAX GENTILIBVS SVIS PICCOLOMINEIS (Pius II Pontiff Maximus to his Piccolomini relatives). Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini, later Pius II, is considered one of the pontiffs who marked the history of the Church of the time (he sat on the papal throne from 1458 until his death in 1464). He was credited with great diplomatic skills and a tenacious commitment to facing the threat to Christianity posed by the Turkish Sultan Mohammed II, the Conqueror. Piccolomini is also considered one of the most important humanists of the time, a deep connoisseur of classical culture and a refined man of letters. His commentaries are famous, an autobiography written in the third person who, in the manner of cesarian De bello gallico, intends to give himself a virtuous and celebratory image. But, before becoming pope, he had also authored licentious texts, as in the case of the novella Historia de duobus amantibus, where, in epistolar form, the true love story is told between Kaspar Schlick (which in literary fiction takes the name of Eurialus) and a Sienese noblewoman named Lucrezia, wife of a certain Menelaus De’ Camilli. The two had met in Siena in 1432, when Schlick was sent there as ambassador by Emperor Sigismund. It is also known that the name of Pius II is linked to the city of Pienza. Enea Silvio Piccolomini was, in fact, originally from the pre-existing medieval village of Corsignano. In 1459, the year after he was elected pope, he had the opportunity to return to visit the native village, and made the decision to turn it into a temporary residence of his and the Papal Court “to leave – a monument in lasting memory of his own origins”. Thus was born Pienza (”city of Pius”) designed by Florentine architect Bernardo Rossellino according to the humanistic conception of the “ideal city”. The project was not realized in its entirety due to the death of the Piccolomini. Those who want to admire an’ illustrated history ‘ of the life of Enea Silvio can go to the Piccolomini library, inside the Duomo of Siena. It was built in 1492 by the Archbishop of Siena, Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini (later Pius III) to preserve the book heritage of his uncle Pope. Between 1502 and 1507, it was entirely frescoed by Pinturicchio (helped by a young Raffaello Sanzio), who depicted the most important episodes of the life of Enea Silvio. The life of a character with a strong personality and culture. He did not even lack humour. The rhyme he coined when he became pope, when an unimaginable number of relatives were revealed to him: when I was only Aeneas no one knew me, now that I am Pius everyone calls me Uncle”. 


The street that goes from via del Porrione and down into via Salicotto is called Vicolo delle Scotte, crossing other alleys with wrinkles of shadow, unpredictable flashes of light. They are the streets of the ancient Ghetto, so much so that the same name Scotte would be derived from a vernacular deformation of the Jewish sukkoth, the “Feast of the huts”, which the Sienese Jews would celebrate in this alley. The place name of the nearby vicolo della Manna provides more immediate understanding. The Ghetto of Siena was born in 1571, when the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I, in analogy to the measure taken in Florence, decreed that even in Siena the Jews-present here since the twelfth century – should live in a well-defined place. Therefore, their forced residence had to be organized in this part of the city, a district of unhealthy and low-cost houses, inhabited mainly by harlots and people of the lowest social status. Undoubtedly a humiliation, for the Jews, combined with other harassment such as paying a special tax or the obligation to stand out in clothing (men wearing a yellow hat, women a scarf). Regulations were also issued prohibiting Jews from carrying out banking activities. Just as it was established that they could trade, but only if they sold second-hand goods and did not employ Christian workers. It is documented that about 500 Jews lived in the Ghetto area in the 17th century. A sizeable number and the reason it was decided to build the Synagogue, where there were other places of worship previously. Designed in neoclassical style by the architect Giuseppe Del Rosso, the building was built in 1786. You will notice the fairly anonymous appearance of the facade (from the outside, nothing should imply that it was a place of worship) while the interior has a rich decoration. Opposite is the source of the Ghetto, originally adorned with a statue of Moses pointing at the water, attributed to Jacopo della Quercia.
The statue was removed in 1875 because some Polish Jews had raised the issue of how the sculpture contravened the ban on portraying images. Today it is preserved in the
Museum of the Palazzo Pubblico. To return to the events of the Sienese Jewish community, it should be remembered the French arrival in Siena in 1799 restored full citizenship rights to Jews. The doors of the Ghetto were symbolically burned in piazza del Campo, but in that same square, a few weeks later, an atrocious episode happened. Arriving in the city to hunt (momentarily) the French, the anti-Jacobins of Viva Maria burst into the Ghetto with acts of violence and destruction. They killed nineteen Jews, thirteen of whom were burned alive in piazza del Campo using the wood of the tree of liberty. A plaque commemorating the victims lies on the facade of the synagogue. Another epigraph, also placed near the entrance to the synagogue, recalls the dark times of nazi fascism, racial laws, and the deportation of fourteen Sienese Jews to the death camps. The final closure of the Ghetto and subsequent depopulation by the Jews took place in 1859. From 1935, the district would undergo a major urban transformation with the demolition of almost all the old buildings. 

The road of the condemned prisoners

The stairs at the bottom of the vicolo delle Scotte lead to via Salicotto and, through the Passaggio di Pescheria you descend to piazza del Mercato. The place name Pescheria clearly indicates that fish was sold here (until the middle of the Twentieth Century). As evidenced by a plaque on the wall of Via Salicotto, this area was used as a fish market since 1589. It reads: “River Fish”. The sea, in fact, was too far from Siena; and the fish put up for sale came from the nearest waters of the Rivers Merse, Arbia, Ombrone, from the lakes of Chiusi and Trasimeno. On piazza del Mercato, the back of Palazzo Pubblico stands in imposing fashion, and almost the entire space of the square is occupied by the central 19th century loggia, called the ”Tartarugone” owing to its shape. Below and outside – even in this case until the middle of the last century-there was a market for fruit and vegetables and other foodstuffs. On the side free from buildings, a sort of balcony overlooks the countryside entering right into the city, with its green climbing onto the terracotta of the ancient walls, creeping close to the pietra serena. In the background you can see the Basilica of the servants; in the distance, Radicofani and Mount Amiata. From the underlying via di Porta Giustizia (so called because condemned prisoners walked through) it is possible to reach the dirt road which, transforming into the Val di Montone, led to the gate with the same name, which no longer exists. It is the path taken in the Middle Ages by condemned people who were to be executed. Once out of the prisons located at the bottom of the public Palace, they crossed piazza del Mercato, they walked along via dei Malcontenti (to define those sentenced to the death penalty by “malcontent” is quite dark) and, continuing outside the walls, they reached Poggio alle Forche (another eloquent name) to be hanged. The ancient Val di Montone has long been called Orto dei Pecci. The reason for this designation is not known. Perhaps it refers to the Sienese House of sins. However, it is certain, as we read in an accounting book of the hospital Santa Maria della Scala, that a certain Girolamo Di Piero, ortolano, in August 1547, lived «at the Orto De Pecci al Merchato Vecchio». From the Orto dei Pecci you have an unusual view of the city with the soaring tower of Mangia, which seems planted on the green of the countryside. 

Village of the Mad 

The road, which continues up from the valley floor, leads into the area near the buildings of the former San Niccolò psychiatric hospital, now home to some university buildings. The hospital was founded in 1818 in the premises that had belonged to the monastery of St. Nicholas. From the start, it was considered an avant-garde structure compared to the therapeutic practices of the time based exclusively on repressive methods. This is thanks to the foresight of those who were the first directors, the psychiatrists Giuseppe Lodoli and his successor Carlo Livi. Under Livi that, between 1870 and 1890, a real village designed by the Roman architect Francesco Azzurri was built, replacing the old Conventual rooms: 31 buildings built on an area of almost 15 hectares. Livi himself argued that work represented one of the most effective treatments for psychiatric patients. Possibly the work the patients did hospitalization. And being mostly of peasant origin or former artisans, a farming colony was created and some artisan shops that went to form a sort of Citadel (we can still see the plates indicating the places of the different activities). The chapel was inside the main building – the facade of which is enriched by a bell – shaped summit. A valuable environment, largely preserved, was the pharmacy, also equipped with an analysis laboratory and a well-stocked scientific library. Very beautiful wooden furniture, wall paintings, ceramic and glass tableware. Among the buildings, a particular architectural interest is the pavilion dedicated to one of the most enlightened psychiatrists of the nineteenth century, the Englishman John Conolly, who upheld a liberalized care system for the mentally ill In the “Conolly pavilion” of Siena, the most seriously ill, the “clamorous” were imprisoned. It was the so-called Panopticon, also present in some penal institutions. A circular structure, along which the cells were visible, with a central column from which a single supervisor could supervise all internees. There are two of these in Italy, this one in the Siena Asylum and one inside the prison of Santo Stefano on the island of Ventotene. After almost two centuries, the psychiatric hospital was permanently closed in 1999. Over the years, it had housed over 2000 people from various parts of Italy. A city in the city. 


Produced by:
Texts edited by: Luigi Oliveto
Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello e Laura Modafferi
Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena
Graphic design: Michela Bracciali

I Comuni di Terre di Siena