Underground Siena: A Trip Through The “Bottini”

Not Just Another

It seems like everywhere you go, there’s something to see under the surface. Paris has its underground sewer tour, and Rome has its catacombs. Toronto has the PATH (which every Italian seems to know about – I have no idea how…), and Moscow has its famously beautiful subway stations. And Siena, well Siena has its “bottini”.

The word “bottini” itself doesn’t have much meaning. Don’t bother trying to find a translation in a place like WordReference.com – it’ll only lead you astray. “Bottini” in Siena refers to the sophisticated series of underground aqueducts that were used to bring water to the city for centuries. They’re called “bottini” from the word botte (barrel) as the tunnels were dug with barrel-vaulted ceilings. And yes, it’s possible to visit them.

A quick historical rundown: the Romans loved their above ground aqueducts, and they’re something that can still be seen to this day in many European cities. The Etruscans, (pre-Tuscans, if you will) liked underground ones, which they built when they were occupying the land where Siena would then be constructed.

Siena, as a city, has no right to actually be in the position that it’s in, because it’s not located near any major source of water. Sure, the city was built on three hills as a strategic defense point, but we’re far from the coast or any significant source of water. Since water’s actually pretty important (who knew?) this was a bit of a problema for the Siennese of the 11th and 12th centuries, even though there was rumoured to be a river, the Diana, that flowed underneath the town. (To my knowledge, the river was never found, but Siena still has a street named after it – Via della Diana).

While in many other places, individual families would drill wells and look for water, Siena as a city organized a sophisticated system of bottini by tapping into old infrastructures already put into place by the Etruscans to bring water into the city. The water was gathered into various “fonti”, or basins, in various parts of the city. Think Fontebranda, Fonte Gaia (in the Piazza del Campo) and the Fonti di Pescaia. The water, which to this day in Siena remains very heavily calcified, was “purified” as it flowed through a series of basins where impurities would settle to the bottom and the cleaner water would move along.

These fonti were heavily guarded, and the water was further separated into basins for different purposes, the first one being drinking, then washing (thank God!) and then for watering crops or giving to animals. Because Siena used a collective water source, however, the city was much more susceptible to disease or poisoning, as it spread more easily through the communal water system. The peste (plague) really did them in in the 1300’s.

Popular history says that the only woman to ever be burned alive in Siena was found by a guard in the middle of the night at one of the fonti with no good explanation for what she was doing there. The logical conclusion was that she was up to no good, so they burned her.

The present-day entrance to the bottini and the Museo dell’Acqua is located at the Fonti di Pescaia in Siena. For anyone who has visited Siena, the entrance to the bottini looks a lot like Fontebranda, which you probably would have seen, but it’s not the same place.

Entrance to the bottini at Fonti di Pescaia

Entrance to the bottini at Fonti di Pescaia

The guided visit is done by a volunteer, and the first part is through the Museo dell’Acqua. Opened in 2010, it’s a pretty interesting look at Siena’s relationship with water (which, I know, may not sound ALL that interesting, but it is). The museum makes use of various interactive technologies to explain to visitors the history of the city’s water sources, and it’s surprisingly well done. The audio soundtracks are only available in Italian, I believe, but they at least had the foresight to translate some of the written exhibit descriptions into English.

Siena's Museo dell'Acqua

Siena’s Museo dell’Acqua

Siena's Museo dell'Acqua

Siena’s Museo dell’Acqua

Then it’s underground and into the bottini.

Even though the bottini stopped being used in the early part of the 20th century, a trickle of water still runs through them. Visitors descend into the darkness and follow the stream of water on its path for awhile, gaining a better understanding of just what kind of effort it took to move this water from the countryside into the city.

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Our tour in the Bottini.

Our tour in the Bottini.

Then it’s outside for a look into the basin, still full of water to this day. Remnants of frescoes can still be seen on the vaulted ceiling, and you can just imagine the hustle and bustle that would have surrounded such an important place in town.

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The bottini and the Museo dell’Acqua are a side of Siena not many people know about, and for good reason. Organizing a tour of the bottini and the related Museo dell’Acqua requires a person to do salti mortali (jump through hoops) and be very patient.

Tours need to be booked by either calling or sending an email to the contacts listed on the webpage of the Comune di Siena, and although I’ve never tried to make a reservation myself, I’ve been told it has to be done months and months in advance, and with no guarantee that your request will ever actually be granted even when you’ve given enough advance notice. Don’t believe me? Read the reviews on TripAdvisor. The Museo dell’Acqua is ranked #57 out of 84 things to do in Siena, and many of the reviews make reference to the pain in the butt process of organizing a tour.

Oh so Italian.

I learned about the bottini not by being in Siena, actually, but by reading the excellent historical fiction novel Juliet, by Anne Fortier, which is set in Siena. I consiglio vivamente (highly recommend) grabbing a copy. James Bond fans will also recognize that part of the Quantum of Solace film was shot in the bottini as well.

I was fortunate enough to be invited along on a tour of the bottini by Deborah and Massi of Italy Unfiltered. Deborah and Massi are personal friends of mine who have also started organizing great tours, excursions and activities for people visiting the Siena area.

Deborah & I

Deborah & I

All in all, my tour of the bottini and visit to the Museo dell’Acqua was an interesting look at a little-known but vital part of Siena’s history. If you know (months and months and months) in advance that you’re coming to Siena, I’d recommend trying to organize a tour. It’ll take about 1-1.5 hours, and it’s something out-of-the-ordinary and off the beaten path.

5 thoughts on “Underground Siena: A Trip Through The “Bottini”

  1. Something I never did while living there! I’ll have to do this next time (or at least try) – and you gave me the name of an historical fiction novel set in Siena?? Fabulous post. Thanks for writing!

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