Strolling through the streets of Siena, the tourists often have no idea of the underwater world that the city hides.
A hidden Siena made up of an intrigue of canals and caves, systems that are too modern for having been invented during the Middle Ages.
But still, its “Bottini” were born in the Dark Age and still resist under the city today. Visiting them its a can’t miss thing to do in Siena.
Unusual things to do in Siena: visiting the Bottini of Siena
In this underground work of art, Siena has shown how much power it had in the Middle Ages, an avant-garde city with a better government than today.
The entrance to the “Bottini” of Siena is thrilling. A staircase that descends in the dark, in tunnels that hosted partisans during the Second World War, that were used as the escape route of inmates and of anyone looking for a hiding place. These tunnels tell the story of a city and hide a lot of secrets.
What the “Bottini” are?
In the Middle Ages, during the Bongoverno period (a period of good governance), the Sieneses discovered that they lived in a city built on sandstone… practically sand, because Siena was built on what once was a seabed. It seems incredible to think about it today, but yet right there, thousands of years ago, was the sea. This is why the Sienna color exists: it comes from the particular color of the earth that the Sienese used to build their palaces, that once was nothing but sandstone.
This peculiar soil allowed the filtering of water, so they decided to start digging underground caves with small channels – called “gorelli” – where the water flows. Two different teams were used to build these channels: one starting in one direction and the other in the opposite direction, until they met. The excavations were done using pickaxes and even today it is possible to see the marks of the pickaxes and understand the direction from which the excavation team came from!
In the Middle Age they obviously hadn’t modern tools. Did you know how they figured if they were going straight and following the right direction? Every few meters they stopped and dug upwards until they reached the surface… once outside it was easy to understand if the direction was right. Simple as that!
The water that flowed in the “gorelli” reached at the end of its course the largest fountain in the city, in front of “Palazzo Pubblico”: “Fonte Gaia”. In that fountain people could drink, then the water flowed into a second fountain in another part of the city that was used to water the animals. Eventually it flows to its last desination, where the water was used by farmers for washing clothes and for other jobs. In this way it was never wasted!
To facilitate the use of the fountains, the city ground was tiled so it was the only paved medieval city!
However, this whole system could have become dangerous: at the time wars were always around the corner, and it only would have took to poison the waters to decimate the city’s population. This possibility represented a constant danger, so the entrances to the Bottini were kept under constant surveillance.
The privatization of water
The privatization of water was born in Siena and with the Bottini family.
One day the nobles and the rich decided they no longer wanted to go to the public fountains to get water, so they wouldn’t have to mix with the plebs.
They talked about it with the government who invented a way to divert the flow of the “gorelli” directly into the house of the noble who requested it.
The flow of water, however, was stopped by a brick, on which was inserted a hole through which passed enough water to fill eight barrels. Each hole costed 40 Sienese lire, so if the noble needed more water he had to pay to enlarge the hole on his gorello brick.
Into the Bottini, at each deviation of the gorelli, there was a plaque with the name and the address of the gentleman for whom that deviation had been made. These plaques are still visible today.
Even churches, convents and other places of the Church had their own water… obviously for free.
In short, a trip to the Bottini of Siena is a great way to discover the history of the city, its inhabitants, its culture… a visit that cannot be missed if you want to say that you really know Siena!
Today the Bottini are managed by the La Diana Association, which organizes guided tours by reservation at a cost of 10 euros, after acceptance of the request. Visits for children under the age of 8 and for those suffering from claustrophobia are prohibited.