To arrive here, emerging from one of the many side streets was a dream I had for many years. When I finally did it back in 2008 I am not ashamed to say that I stood with tears in my eyes gazing on the beautiful iconic scene which lay before me.
I remember going to the very centre of the square which is not a square and is not flat, and just sitting, drinking in the atmosphere. The day was hot and sunny and Italians were doing what they do best, strolling around looking impossibly chic while the other holidays makers melted like gelato in the heat.
Siena is quite simply a dream of a place to visit and I have to say that I had the best lemon meringue tart of my entire life in one of the restaurants.
The history of Siena has been made on the Piazza del Campo, or better, ‘il Campo’, as the Sienese call it. Here the Sienese organised their spectacular and terrible ‘games’, later replaced by the Palio, where they celebrated and played games of risk (il Campo was the only place where the games were allowed). The market also used to take place here. Il Campo has witnessed the passage of memorable characters in the history of Siena: Santa Caterina, the mystic saint deeply linked to the image of Siena, and also artists such as Simone Martini or Jacopo della Quercia.
Piazza del Campo is a unique place in the whole of the world, starting with the very particular conformation of the ground, which turns the square into a big concave shell. The paving is made of red bricks arranged in fishbone style, divided into a sunburst pattern by nine strips of travertine (in memory of the Government of the Nine, who ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355). The white marble of the Fonte Gaia stands out on the paving, it is the masterpiece of 1419 by Jacopo della Quercia, later replaced by a copy. There is also the Palazzo Comunale (town hall), unusually built on the lowest part of the square, and also the tall, slender Torre del Mangia that stands out against the sky (it reaches 102 metres including the lightning conductor). At the base of the Palazzo is the Chapel of the Virgin, or Chapel of the Square, constructed and voted for by the Sienese, after the end of the terrible plague of 1348. And surrounding the chapel are the elegant façades of the Palazzi Signorili, belonging to the wealthiest of families: the Sansedoni, the Piccolomini, and the Saracini.
The piazza took shape at the end of the 1200s, on a space that was for a long time used for fairs and markets and was situated at a crossroad of important streets. When it was built (the flooring dates back to the 1300s, it managed to hold the entire population of Siena, who gathered here to attend events, tournaments, and buffalo and bull races. Piazza del Campo has hosted almost all the important events in the history of the city, from the time of the Republic up until the Medici period, during which Siena come under the control of Firenze di Cosimo I de’Medici.
Il Campo has always been the theatre of the most important citizens’ events and the privileged meeting place of the Sienese. Today it also plays host to the most talked-about popular festival, famous throughout the world: The Palio of Siena.
This event which takes place twice a year, on the 2nd July and on the 16th August, is not a folkloric custom, the nostalgic recalling of the glorious past of the city. Rather it is an essential reoccurring event in the life of the community, that animates the heart of Siena, all 17 districts, and fills the square, balconies and windows with crowds, in an explosion of authentic passion.