The Mysterious Diana River in Siena

Il fiume Diana: The River That Doesn’t Exist

There are many legends around the city of Siena. One of my favourites is the one about the mysterious Diana river in Siena. (il fiume Diana)

All major cities and towns in Italy have been built near water (acqua) . Rivers,(fiumi) streams (ruscelli) ,or lakes (laghi) were, and still are, of vital importance for cities’ everyday life. Siena, however, was built on top of three hills, far away from natural sources of water.

The lack of it, on one hand, allowed Siena to defend itself better from enemies, while, on the other hand, it caused many difficulties. The need for water and the continuous search for it, is something unique and characteristic for this unique city. The more you visit Siena and know about its history, the more you understand how central water, or the need of it, had always been for Siena’s life.

Water pool inside ancient Fontebranda fountains in Siena, Italy
Water pool inside ancient Fontebranda fountains in Siena, Italy. | © Shutterstock

Searching for the Diana : an ancient Sienese myth

Throughout the years, many people claimed to have heard, while walking in quiet areas of the town, the sound of running water beneath the ground.

According to a medieval legend, a river of the purest water once flowed under the city of Siena. The claim and the legend became so widespread (così diffuso) , that Siena ‘s Government was determined to find it .

For a long time Siena searched for the mysterious river, but every attempt failed. The “ghost river” (il fiume fantasma) even got a name: Diana.

And so the legend begun

And so the legend (la leggenda) of ‘The Diana River’ was born and great works were carried out all over Siena in the search for it.

Experts were brought to Siena to listen for themselves for the sound of a large flowing river beneath the city. However, in spite of the long search, the Diana was never found. A great flow of money (not water) came out of the pockets of the citizens, so much that it was ironically mentioned by Dante Alighieri in his famous ‘Divine Comedy’! (Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Purgatorio , XIII, 151-154)

Eventually, Siena people gave up searching. Although the official search has ceased for centuries, the legend is very much alive in the Sienese collective imagination. If the Diana River is a legend, the need for water for Siena was real.

I Bottini di Siena

The solution was found in the 13th century with the construction of a unique and elaborate underground system (sistema sotterraneo) in order to provide water to the population. The innovative idea was based on collecting rain water, as dripping water filtered through the sandstone rocks the city is built on.

The aqueduct (acquedotto) (1342) was made up of 25 km of tunnels, underground passages with “botte “vaults (therefore called bottini) thus, finally bringing water to the whole city through fountains (fontane) and wells (pozzi) all around Siena.

The Bottini today

The bottini were (and still are) kept in perfect condition. The elaborate water system is still in operation today, feeding the city fountains, while water for buildings and homes is brought by a modern aqueduct.

Thanks to the city-sponsored volunteer association ‘La Diana’, the history of this unique aspect of Siena is, still today, proudly shared and preserved. Visits to the undergound tunnels are allowed under certain conditions and need to be planned well in advance. Nevertheless, guided tours underground are subject to weather conditions and can only be done for small groups.

Two cities in one

The mysterious river Diana, that no one has ever seen but only heard of, is just a legend… or so they say…

Siena was finally able to create its own water flow, its “hidden river” (fiume nascosto). The bottini system is a fascinating net of underground canals feeding Siena’s need for water for centuries.

We can say that Siena is formed by two equally beautiful cities: one above and one, underground with water flowing.

A city under the sun and one underground
Una città alla luce del sole e una sotto terra

Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy), Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany, Italy
Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy), Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany, Italy | © Shutterstock

The sound of flowing water, therefore, no more is just a legend! Visit Associazione Culturale La Diana, Siena to learn more.


  • A city under the sun and one underground | Una città alla luce del sole e una sotto terra
  • Hidden river | fiume nascosto
  • Fountain | fontana
  • Well | Pozzo
  • Acqueduct | Acquedotto
  • Botte | Vault
  • Underground system | Sistema sotterraneo
  • Underground | sotterraneo/sotto terra
  • Legend | Leggenda
  • Ghost river | Fiume fantasma
  • River | Fiume
  • Stream | Ruscello
Chiara Borghesi


Chiara Borghesi is a translator, Italian teacher, content creator and free-lance writer of Italian language and culture. Born in Siena, she lived for many years between the United States, England and around Europe before returning to her native Tuscany where she lives with her "multilingual" family. After 20 years of organizing study holidays, cultural trips and teaching Italian with her exclusive experiential learning method, she returned to Siena where she created Chiara's Tuscany Experiences: not a traditional Italian school. Chiara promotes language learning through emotions, story telling, online creative activities and practical live experiences with exclusive full immersions. A free-lance writer, she also collaborates with magazines, radio programs and podcasts in other countries to broadcast her passion for the Italian language, culture and lifestyle around the world. Passionate about words and communication, through her courses and social media, she shares with her readers and students, stories and meanings of curious expressions. Her goal is to make you fall in love with Italy and its language and, why not, understanding Italians’ mind too.

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