Siena: Palazzo Pubblico and Museo Civico

The Palazzo Pubblico.

The Palazzo Pubblico is one of Siena’s most famous landmarks. It was constructed between 1297 and 1310 for the Governo dei Nove, the Council of Nine, one of the most important bodies of Siena’s republican government in those days. The Palazzo was extended and enlarged in later centuries and is still in use today as the seat of the amministrazione comunale, the local government. Many rooms in the building are now open to the public as part of the Museo Civico and here we can admire important frescoes by artists such as Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344), Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1290-1348) and Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410).

A closer look at the Palazzo

The Palazzo Pubblico is located on the south-eastern side of the equally famous, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. This is where the bi-annual horse race known as the Palio di Siena takes place. Each year on 2 July and 16 August, riders representing ten of the seventeen contrade (city districts) compete against each other. They ride bareback and the race is over in the blink of an eye, but it nevertheless draws huge crowds. People pay handsomely for the best places. We were in Siena about a week before the first Palio of 2016, and it was clear that the city was already warming up for the event. The Palio was featured in the opening scenes of the 2008 James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.

The Palazzo Pubblico, seen from the Duomo.

San Bernardino preaching in the Piazza del Campo – Sano di Pietro.

Now back to the Palazzo itself. Its facade is slightly curved to match the shape of the Piazza. The ground level of the building was done in stone, while the upper stories were built in brick. High up on the facade, we see the IHS symbol devised by the fifteenth century Franciscan missionary Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). It features the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek – Iota, Eta, Sigma – surrounded by a blazing sun. The symbol has been on the Palazzo’s facade since 1425. Saint Bernardino’s sermons drew hordes of people, and the Duomo museum of Siena possesses a painting by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481) which shows the future saint preaching on the Piazza del Campo, with the Palazzo Pubblico in the background. The IHS symbol is clearly visible.

The two most striking features of the Palazzo can be found on the left side. First, there is the imposing Torre del Mangia. There seems to be some confusion with regard to the height of the tower. My tour guide claims it is 102 metres high, but other sources mention a height of 88 metres. The former height is probably correct if you count everything all the way up to the lightning conductors. Visitors can climb the tower if they buy a ticket, but it may be closed if the weather is bad that day (the more than 500 steps might become slippery). The Torre del Mangia offers a superb view of Siena and the surrounding countryside (Siena is just a small city). It was constructed between 1338 and 1348. The name of the tower refers to the nickname of the first campanaro, the city official whose job was to ring the bells. His nickname was Mangiaguadagni, “eat the profits”. The epithet suggests he spent a lot of his time in the kitchen.

Cappella di Piazza.

At the foot of the tower, we find the Cappella di Piazza, dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was erected by the Sienese in 1352 to thank her for her “intervention” during the Plague of 1348. This intervention was, by the way, a complete fiasco. Siena’s population was decimated by the Black Death and the city lost its dominant position in Tuscany. Over half of the city’s population may have died and the Plague may very well have contributed to the fall of the Governo dei Nove in 1355. Since both the aforementioned painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti and his older brother Pietro died in 1348, it is quite plausible that the Plague claimed their lives as well.

Museo Civico – Sala del Risorgimento

You can buy tickets for the museum in the inner court of the Palazzo, the Cortile del Podestà. There is a lot to see inside the museum, and I cannot discuss everything, so I will stick to a few highlights. The Sala del Risorgimento has frescoes pertaining to the Unification of Italy in the nineteenth century, an extremely important period in Italian history. The frescoes, executed by various Tuscan painters, are in excellent condition. They look fresh and modern, but then again they are not that old.

Battle of Palestro.

The (future) first King of Italy Victor Emmanuel II plays an important role in many of the scenes. One of the frescoes is about the Battle of Palestro in 1859. In this battle of the Second Italian War of Independence, a combined French and Italian (actually: Sardinian-Piedmontese) army managed to defeat an Austrian army. In the fresco, Victor Emmanuel is ready to charge headlong into the Austrian ranks – something he actually did – and many of the other participants in the scene are ostentatiously trying to stop him. The men in the red knickerbockers are presumably French Zouaves; the officer on the right has a French flag. In another scene, we see Victor Emmanuel’s famous meeting with freedom fighter Giuseppe Garibaldi at Teano in Campania. This historical event took place on 26 October 1860. Victor Emmanuel became King of Italy on 17 March 1861. He died in 1878 and his funeral at the Pantheon in Rome is also depicted on one of the walls.

Encounter at Teano.

Funeral of Victor Emmanuel.

Museo Civico – Sala di Balìa

The next highlight would be the Sala di Balìa, the official seat of the Magistratura of Siena. The room was frescoed between 1407 and 1408 by Spinello Aretino (ca. 1350-1410) and his son Parri (ca. 1387-1453), who also worked together on other occasions. Father and son painted a cycle showing thirteen episodes from the life of the twelfth-century Pope Alexander III (1159-1181), who was born Roland of Siena. It would be an understatement to say that his pontificate was troubled and turbulent. The pope was a lifelong enemy of the Holy Roman emperor Frederick Barbarossa. When Roland was elected pope in 1159, Frederick managed to get one cardinal Octavian from the Crescenzi family elected as well. Octavian went down in history as antipope Victor IV (1159-1164) and more antipopes would follow him.[1]

Pope Alexander III returns to Rome.

The Emperor Frederick Barbarossa submits to Pope Alexander III.

Even though one of the most famous frescoes in the room depicts the pope triumphantly returning to Rome (see above), Alexander spent most of his pontificate outside the Eternal City and was actually chased from it on multiple occasions. In May 1167, Frederick Barbarossa cut the army of the Roman commune to pieces at Monte Porzio. His forces fought their way into the city itself two months later. The emperor’s troops burned down the atrium of old Saint Peter’s Basilica and battered the doors of the church before breaking into it and causing a massacre in the nave. The pope fled the city dressed as a pilgrim and spent the next few years in cities such as Terracina, Anagni and Benevento. Alexander’s triumphant return to Rome took place more than a decade later, on 12 March 1178. By that time his old enemy Frederick had been defeated by the Lombard League at Legnano (see Milan: San Simpliciano) and had been forced to sign the Treaty of Venice in 1177. Alexander had won, but was chased out of Rome again in the summer of 1179. The pope died two years later in Civita Castellana.

Naval battle between Venetians and Germans.

Doge Sebastiano Ziani, the defeated German commander and Pope Alexander III.

Rather oddly, another famous fresco in the Sala di Balìa shows a Venetian fleet defeating that of the Holy Roman Empire in a naval battle that most likely never took place (see above and on the right). Apparently this fictional battle is called the Battle of Punta Salvore (and not San Salvatore, as I erroneously wrote in a previous version of this post). It is supposed to have taken place in 1177, when a much smaller Venetian fleet surprised and defeated a larger fleet composed of ships from Genoa and Pisa. The problem: the battle is not mentioned in any contemporary sources. The fresco is extremely interesting nonetheless, if only for its very accurate depiction of medieval weapons and armour. Father and son Aretino painted spears, swords, poleaxes or halberds, ordinary bows and crossbows. We also see shields with either the Lion of Saint Mark (the symbol of Venice) or the German eagle on them. The weaponry is probably more representative of the early fifteenth century than of Pope Alexander’s days, but that is just a minor issue.

Naval battle (detail). On the left the German surrender.

Naval battle (detail).

Museo Civico – Sala del Mappamondo

This room was named after a map of the known world painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1290-1348). Do not waste your time looking for it: it is no longer there, you can only spot a few traces of the map, which was apparently painted onto a rotating disc, on the right wall. The room was used for meetings of the General Council (Consiglio Generale) of the Sienese Republic. Two Sienese military victories were depicted above the entrance: the Battle of Val di Chiana in 1363 and the Battle of Poggio Imperiale in 1479. Both battles are rather obscure. Siena’s finest triumph ever, the victory over the Florentines at the Battle of Montaperti in 1260, was not depicted.

The Battle of Poggio Imperiale.

The Sala del Mappamondo is noted for having two frescoes that are attributed to Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344), one of Siena’s most celebrated painters. On the left wall, we find his Maestà, which was completed in 1315. It is one of the oldest frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico and the caption calls it “an exemplary masterpiece of Sienese Gothic art”. It is certainly impressive, covering the entire left wall. We see a Madonna and Child in the centre, surrounded by about two dozen saints and angels. It would be a bit boring to name all of them, but we see Saints Peter, Paul, Catherine, John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene to name just a few. The kneeling figures are Siena’s patron saints and two more angels.

Maestà – Simone Martini.

On the right wall, where Lorenzetti’s Mappamondo used to be, we see two frescoes of saints by Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), nicknamed Il Sodoma. Although he was an excellent painter and did some good work in Rome as well, these frescoes are hardly interesting. And that is because of the other frescoes on the wall. The large fresco that covers the upper part shows the mercenary captain (condottiero) Guidoriccio da Fogliano (ca. 1290-1352) at the siege of Montemassi in 1328. Montemassi is a town some forty kilometres southwest of Siena. It can be seen to the left of Guidoriccio, surrounded by palisades flying the Sienese black-and-white banner (the Balzana). On the right, we see the Sienese army camp. The fresco has the date MCCCXXVIII, or 1328, the year in which Montemassi was conquered by Siena.

Guidoriccio da Fogliano – Simone Martini (?)

Guidoriccio da Fogliano – Simone Martini (?)

The fresco has long been attributed to Simone Martini and was thought to be executed in or around 1330. It is deservedly famous and is hailed as a prime example of medieval art with a secular rather than a religious theme. However, we can now safely say that Simone Martini’s authorship is very much disputed. In 1980, another fresco was discovered just below the Guidoriccio, which also seems to show a scene from a siege (see the image below). This fresco had been covered when Lorenzetti’s Mappamondo was installed around 1345. The rediscovered fresco is sometimes seen as a work by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/19). He was also a famous Sienese painter, but some thirty years older than Martini. Duccio was long dead in 1328, so if the fresco is his, it cannot depict the siege of Montemassi. A different theory stipulates that the rediscovered fresco is in fact the real Guidoriccio by Martini. Proponents of this theory claim that the ‘fake’ Guidoriccio above it was painted at a (much) later date. This is a difficult and often heated discussion, and I do not feel qualified enough to give a final verdict. I will just conclude that the issue is as yet undecided.

The real Guidoriccio da Fogliano?

Museo Civico – Sala dei Nove

The final room to be discussed here is the Sala dei Nove, also called the Sala della Pace. It is famous for its fresco cycle The Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, already mentioned above. Again, this is a work of art with a secular theme. Lorenzetti executed the frescoes in 1338 and 1339. The cycle has its own page on Wikipedia, in multiple languages. Bad Government is presented as a tyrant with devil’s horns and labelled TYRAMMIDES. Justice lies bound at his feet. The tyrant is flanked by several evil figures. On his left, we see CRVDELITAS (Cruelty), PRODITIO (Betrayal) and FRAVS (Fraud), on his right the figures of FVROR (Anger), DIVISIO (Division) and GVERRA (War). In the sky above the tyrant are AVARITIA, SVPERBIA and VANAGLORIA, Avarice, Pride and Vanity respectively. The effects of Bad Government are obviously bad as well, as we can see in the fresco to the left of the tyrant and his henchman. Both the city and the country are suffering (and the fresco as well; it is unfortunately quite damaged).

Bad Government – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Good Government is a larger and more complex fresco than Bad Government. On the left, Justice sits on her throne, below the scales of justice held by SAPIENTIA (Wisdom). At her feet sits CONCORDIA (Concord), who is flanked by a procession of Sienese citizens. The citizens move towards the man with the white beard in the centre, who is labelled CSCV, an abbreviation for Commune Saenorum Civitatis Virginis. This ruler is the personification of the Sienese community. This is also demonstrated by the presence of two naked boys suckled by a she-wolf at his feet: they are Senius and Aschius, the legendary founders of Siena. The ruler is flanked on the left by PAX (Peace), FORTITVDO (Fortitude) and PRVDENTIA (Prudence), and by MAGNANIMITAS (Magnanimity), TEMPERANTIA (Temperance) and (again) IVSTITIA (Justice) on the right. In the sky float Faith (with a cross), Charity and Hope (labelled SPES).

Good Government – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

The effects of Good Government on the city and country are of course positive. We see a prospering city with people dancing in the streets. The city appears to be Siena, since we clearly see the campanile and dome of the cathedral in the top left corner.

Effects of Good Government – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

My travel guide to Florence and Tuscany provided some basic information about the Palazzo Pubblico and the Museo Civico. Italian Wikipedia has a good entry about the Palazzo. For the Simone Martini discussion, I refer to this article. As regards Pope Alexander III, see John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter XII.


[1] Antipope Paschalis III (1164-1168), Antipope Calixtus III (1168-1178) and Antipope Innocentius III (1179-1180).

Updated 30 March 2024.


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