By the turn of the 14th century, Siena had become a major commercial and banking centre and the dominant political power in southern Tuscany. Siena owed its growth and prosperity in the High Middle Ages largely to its position on the via Francigena, the main pilgrimage and trade route between Rome and northern Europe. The city’s geographic position was a both an opportunity and a limitation; in spite of attempts to establish a port at Talamone (an ambition mocked by Dante in Purgatorio 13), Siena always lacked access to water and water-borne transportation.
The Sienese “golden age” is usually located between the victory of a Sienese-led Ghibelline alliance over Florence and the Guelphs at the battle of Montaperti in 1260, and the Black Death of 1348. The “golden age” is also associated with the merchant oligarchy, the Nove, which from 1289 governed Siena during a period of prosperity, expansion, and relative stability. That government cultivated Siena’s distinctive urban form and architectural “look”, and was responsible for the construction of the city’s monumental center, including the famous Piazza del Campo and Palazzo Pubblico. The regime of the Nove saw a flourishing of the visual arts under such masters as Duccio, Simone Martini, and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who were all engaged by the government in important civic commissions.
After the Black Death of 1348, Siena’s population dropped from around 42,000 to around 14,000. The plague was perhaps responsible for exacerbating internal conflicts, leading to the fall of the Nove in 1355 to a coalition of nobles and guildsmen. The guild regime of the Dodici ruled until 1369. Subsequent governments in our period represented coalitions of various monti (socio-political groupings) including Nove, Dodici, nobles, and “new men.” Siena’s government throughout this period remained republican in form.
Siena’s period of domination over Florence was very short-lived. For most of the fourteenth century, Siena’s external politics were defined for most of this period by its relationship with its more powerful neighbor to the north, vacillating between alliance and hostility depending on the particular regime governing Siena and on Sienese concerns about Florentine hegemonic ambition. Siena was part of the alliance between Florence and the papacy against the Visconti until 1375, at which time Siena joined a Florence-led league in opposition to the papacy during the “War of the Eight Saints” until 1378. After the revolt of Montepulciano in 1387, at Florentine instigation, the Sienese accepted the overlordship of the Milanese ruler Giangaleazzo Visconti, until resuming peace with Florence in 1404.
Just as Siena was overshadowed politically by Florence, its reputation in the arts has always suffered by comparison to its northern rival. Siena produced no literary figures to rival Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. It is often said that the Sienese devoted their energies to the public arts of statecraft and urbanism, more than to individual artistic or literary achievement. In this sense, a characteristically Sienese contribution to Italian was the composition in 1309-10 of the first civic constitution written in the volgare. The University of Siena was prominent in the fourteenth century especially for the study of law.
In the history of literature, Siena is best known in this period for religious writings and rhetoric. The two most famous figures are the lay penitent and religious reformer, Catherine of Siena (c.1347-1380) and the observant Franciscan preacher, Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). For Catherine we possess almost 400 letters, an inspired book (the Libro di divina dottrina, better known now as the Dialago), and a number of prayers. Catherine’s career and following reveals a