Guide to Siena's Palazzo Pubblico, With One of Italy's Most Famous Fresco Cycles
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena Italy
Here's my guide to visiting the Palazzo Pubblico, the political and cultural center of Siena Italy. The magnificent palace sits proudly in one of Europe's most beautiful medieval squares, the Piazza del Campo.
The Palazzo Pubblico was built in 1297-1308 for the Council of Nine, the governing body of Siena. Beside the Gothic palace soars the slender Tower of Mangia, which you can climb for panoramic views. The complex is one of the seminal civic structures in Europe.
The Palazzo Pubblico houses Siena's Civic Museum. That museum holds one of the most important secular fresco cycles from the middle ages. It's often overlooked by tourists visiting Siena, possibly because the entry fee is fairly high. But if you're an art lover, the Palazzo Pubblico is a must see site in Siena.
the Piazza del Campo
History of the Palazzo Pubblico
Commissioned in 1297, Palazzo Pubblico was the city hall for the powerful city state of Siena. At the time, Siena was a proud and wealthy republic. It was the main stop on the pilgrimage route to Rome. Siena's wealth came from manufacturing and banking.
The Palazzo Pubblico bears a resemblance to Palazzo Vecchio, Florence's town hall, which is an exact contemporary. Florentines like to point out that their Tower of Arnolfo is ever so slightly taller than Siena's Tower of Mangia.
The Palazzo Pubblico was the meeting place of the Council of Nine and 500 parliamentary members dubbed the Grand Council. The Council of Nine was a rotating group chosen from citizens by lot.
Due to a fear of corruption, the Council of Nine was replaced with new members every two months. During their two month stint, the council lived in the palazzo to avoid outside influence.
The Palazzo Pubblico sits in the beautiful Piazza del Campo, called Il Campo or the field. The herringbone brick pavement is divided by white marble lines into nine sections. They fan out like a claim shell, representing the Council of the Nine. A 19th century replica of Jacopo della Quercia's Fonte Gaia fountain is on one side side.
Fonte Gaia fountain in the Piazza del Campo
The Facade of the Palazzo Pubblico
The facade is a harmonious example of early Renaissance architecture, an elegant and symmetrical backdrop to the piazza. This was intentional. Art and architecture shaped the city's identity, both in the eyes of the citizens and visitors. The more rational and balanced and ordered the palace was, the more rational and balanced and ordered Siena's government would seem.
The Palazzo Pubblico is actually slightly curved to match the curve of the Piazza del Campo. The lowest story is made of stone, while the upper stories are made of red brown brick. It's divided into three segments representing the judicial (east), legislative (central and tallest), and executive (west) branches of government.
The large blazing sun at the top represents Jesus. The entire building is crowned with a row of battlements with flat topped merlons. They look decorative. But their purpose was to allow you to stand fully upright to shoot.
Palazzo Pubblico has triforate windows, a Sienese architectural specialty, in which a single window aperture or opening is divided into three arches resting on small columns. Above the portals and the window arches is the black and white coat of arms of the Town Council of Siena, called the balzana.
facade detail of Palazzo Pubblico
What To See Inside Siena's Palazzo Pubblico & Civic Museum
The interior of the palace-museum is beautiful and richly decorated. Here are the highlights you should make sure to see:
1. Internal Courtyard | Cortile del Podesta
The courtyard is where you'll find the entrance to the Civic Museum and to the Tower of Mangia. It's decorated with antique coats of arms from families who were on the Council of Nine. Look up and you'll see the top of the Tower of Mangia.
Simoni Martini, Maesta, 1315-16
2. Hall of the Grand Council: Simone Martini's Maesta
The Hall of the Grand Council, also called the Hall of the Globe, has one of Italy's greatest works, Simone Martini's Maesta. The painting marks the day the Virgin Mary got into politics. Mary had never been used in a civil setting before.
In the fresco, Mary is depicted as a medieval queen on a throne beneath a royal canopy. She presides as the protector of the city, surrounded by a retinue of saints and angels.
Her baby Jesus looks old, wise, and is almost standing. Mary holds a parchment which says "judge diligently you who rule the earth." Unfortunately, Martini used the fresco secco (dry fresco) painting style. That means the fresco isn't very well preserved.
Martini's Maesta is similar to Duccio's Maesta found in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena Cathedral complex.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Allegory of Good Government, 1337-41
3. Hall of Peace | Sala Della Pace | Hall of the Nine
The Hall of Peace (also called the Sala de Novo or Hall of Nine), is effectively the oval office of the Palazzo Pubblico. It's main claim to fame is the amazing piece of political propaganda adorning its walls, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's Allegory of Good and Bad Government.
This is one of the most marvelous, poignant, and timeless fresco cycles in Italy. It's the only secular painting of everyday urban and rural life that exists from the middle ages. It's an incredibly significant work.
Created in 1337-41, the didactic paintings are about what actually goes into a good government. A lesson that sorely needed in today's world. Lorenzetti was influenced by the style of Giotto's frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
There are frescos on three walls. The center wall opposite the window is the Allegory of Good Government. One the right wall is the Effects of a Good Government in the City and County. On the left is the Allegory and Effects of Bad Government.
An allegory is a figure that stands in for an idea. The frescos are both a promise and a threat. They remind the Nine how to govern in a moral way.
the figure of Justice, with angels on both sides
happy dancing figures on the "good" side
a prosperous and bustling urban setting
the reclining figure of Peace
On the central panel we see the large figures representing Justice and the Common Good. They're surrounded by the other virtues -- Fortitude, Peace, Prudence, Magnanimity, Concord, Temperance, and Hope.
The figure of Peace is shown lounging in a diaphanous gown. She's rather lusty looking with protruding nipples that would've been shocking at the time. She appears relaxed. The take home message is that, if all the other virtues work, she has nothing to do.
The effects of a good government are depicted in an imaginary Shangri-La. One part is a paradisiacal urban setting, with a bustling city, prosperous merchants, and dancing figures (it's unclear what gender they are). The rural setting shows harvesting and bountiful fields. It's one of the largest landscape paintings in medieval times.
The "bad" side is much more dramatic. Lorenzetti could let his imagination run wild. These frescos are in worse shape than the "good" frescos and not lit by natural light. But they're still fearsome.
the figure of Tyranny on the "bad" side
ghost-like figures and burning fields on the "bad" side
We see a creepy cross eyed figure representing Tyranny, who stands in opposition to Justice on the "good" wall. Tyranny has fangs, horns, and a unibrow. He's surrounded by vices -- Treason, Cruelty, Fury, Divisiveness, Fraud, etc.
The effects of bad government are severe. The frescos show cities being destroyed, assassinations, criminal acts, poverty, burned fields, neglect. It's the architecture of war.
In general, the fresco cycle is a brilliant depiction of the contrast between peace and prosperity of honest rule and the decay and ruin caused by corrupt tyranny.
4. Other Rooms in the Palazzo Pubblico
There are a few other things in the palace that are worth a look. The Sala del Risorgimento is filled with frescos featuring Vittorio Emanuele, the first king of Italy. The gilded She Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus is in the Vestibule. The palace chapel has frescos by Di Bartolo, an altarpiece by Sodoma, and exquisite inlaid choir stalls.
the She Wolf Suckling Romulus and Remus
5. Torre del Mangia
Fancy a climb? If you need to burn off some carbs, the almost 300 foot Tower of Mangia is for you. There's no elevator. And it's 503 steps to the top, a somewhat claustrophobic one way affair.
The Tower of Mangia is the same height as the steeple of Siena Cathedral. And the tower is an exact 1:1 ratio with the Piazza del Campo. The height of the bell tower is equal to the radius of the square, kind of a nifty architectural device contributing to the beauty of the piazza.
The Tower of Mangia was the tallest one in Italy when it was built in 1338-48. But Florence's Tower of Arnolfo has it beat. "Mangia" was the nickname of the tower's first bell ringer, known for his debauchery, sloth, and interest in eating.
view from the internal courtyard
At the base of the tower is a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was a thank you for delivering Siena, finally, from the plague.
Once you've climbed to the first floor, you have to leave your bag in a locker (free.) But you can bring your camera with you. 20 people are allowed up every 30 minutes. It's best to buy your ticket early in the day, as the tower can sell out in high season.
If you want great views without a steep and cramped climb, there's a great alternative -- the Facciatone viewing terrace in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in the Siena Cathedral complex.
view of Siena from the Torre del Mangia