Several years after our five week tour of Italy, Nancy and I still remember the cathedral at Siena as the one with the elaborate floor. It is a beautiful building in many aspects, but its inlaid marble mosaic floor is so unique as to make it memorable.
The massive task of enlaying the floor panels took place between the 14th and 16 centuries, with about forty artists contributing to the collection of 56 panels of varying sizes and shapes. The panels represent Old Testament stories.
Carefully laid-out and cordoned walking paths allow visitors a clear view of many of the finer art works.
The Battistero di San Giovanni is not a completely separate building as are those at Florence and Pisa, but located in a lower level of the cathedral - underneath the choir loft. Construction of the baptistry was completed about 1325, and the interior design is credited to Camaino di Crescentino. The hexagonal baptistry contains a sculpture by Donatello.
Don't skip the baptistry if you are in Siena! It is a visual delight.
Dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, this impressive medieval church presents a visual treat to visitors. I am dividing my review into three separate tips - exterior (this one), interior, works of art, and the floor.
Work on the cathedral took place between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure. No single architect is given credit for its design. Construction of the cathedral was done under the direction of the cathedral masons’ guild, the Opera di Santa Maria.
This is one of the Italian churches we saw that was constructed of alternating layers of white and black (or very dark green) marble - an effect that my wife Nancy found very unpleasing. In the case of Siena, black and white are its symbolic colors - colors customarily attributed to the horses of the city's founders, Senius and Aschius.
The magnificent Gothic façade of the Duomo di Siena, blending white, black and pink marble, was built between 1228 and 1376. The lower part of the façade and its rich decorations were the work of Giovanni Pisano (Nicola Pisano's son) and was completed between 1284 and 1296. The upper part was not finished until 1376, well after the Plague had forced the cancellation of the plans to enlarge the Cathedral, making this west façade the main one and the point of entry into the Cathedral. The glistening Venetian mosaics covering the upper gables of the façade were only added in 1878, while the central bronze doors are a 1946 replacement to the original wooden ones. Lastly, the statues decorating the façade are in fact replicas of the originals, which are in safe keeping and on display within the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo.
For details of the façade, check out the travelogue: "la Facciata del Duomo."
One of the most spectacular cathedrals in Italy and the world, il Duomo di Siena is a triumph of Sienese architecture. Blending Romanesque and Gothic styles, the impressive structure dominates Siena from its position over one of the highest points in the city. Construction began in 1136 as a replacement to an older church, on a site used for worship since pre-Roman times, and coincided with the golden age of the Republic of Siena, which afforded the Cathedral the most lavish of decorations. In 1336, as the Cathedral was nearing completion, the Sienese decided to more than double its size and proceeded to build a larger nave perpendicular to the existing one, which would have been turned into the transept of the Cathedral. Unfortunately, the Black Death decimated the city's population in 1348, and these grand plans were abruptly abandoned. The partially built nave has survived to the present day and stands as a reminder of the suffering of the city's population during this dark period and of the mighty ambitions of the ephemeral Republic of Siena. It is hard to imagine how much more marvellous this Cathedral would have been had the plans to enlarge it been completed, for it is quite extraordinary as it is. Attached are a few photos (obstructed by the scaffolding), while different aspects of il Duomo are described separately on this page.
Most unusual and magnificent, the interior of the Duomo di Siena is a spectacular sight. Much like the exterior, it is a mix of Gothic and Romanesque styles, with a Sienese twist. The alternating black and white marble columns, the blue starred ceilings, and the famous marble floors create a uniquely dazzling effect. Numerous notable artists worked on the wealth of art and architecture within the Cathedral over many centuries, including Donatello, Bernini, Domenico di Bartolo, Pinturicchio, Matteo di Giovanni, Nicola Pisano, and many others. When visiting the interior, one must not miss the marble floors, the intricately carved pulpit, the cornice in the upper nave with busts of popes, the altar, Chigi and St John the Baptist chapels, and the Piccolomini Library.
For more photos of the dazzling interior, check out the travelogue: "Duomo di Siena Interior."
Completed in 1331, the Campanile of the Siena Cathedral rises to a height of 77 metres. Unlike the façade, it is purely Romanesque in style, with alternating black and white stripes created using green and white marble. It has mullioned windows that increase in number of arches the further up they are, and is topped with a pyramidal roof surrounded by four small turrets. The alternating stripes of the tower are a clear influence of the ablaq style that originated in the Middle East and is more commonly seen in Syria and Egypt.
Dedicated to San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist), the Siena Baptistry is attached to the Cathedral. This is very unlike other famous Tuscan baptistries, such as those in Florence and Pisa. Though not a standalone structure, Siena's Baptistry is no less significant architecturally. It was built between 1316 and 1345 in a Sienese Gothic style, similar to that of the Cathedral itself. The Baptistry lies below the apse of the Cathedral, with a façade and entrance of its own. The façade, however, seems truncated because the upper part was never finished. The stunning interior is painted with beautiful frescoes by il Vecchietta and other students of the same school. The baptismal font was designed by Jacopo della Quercia in 1417 and is considered a masterpiece of the period. Donatello also contributed to the works within the Baptistry.
This small, domed, richly decorated Renaissance chapel within the Cathedral of Siena is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was designed by the architect Giovanni di Stefano and completed in the 1506 to house the relics of right arm of the saint himself, donated to Siena by Pope Pius II. It contains a statue of Saint John sculpted by Donatello, a baptismal font by Antonio Federighi, and frescoes by Pinturicchio.
One of the top gems within the Siena Cathedral, la Libreria Piccolomini is too stunning for words. It was commissioned in 1492 by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, the Archbishop of Siena who later became Pope Pius III, to house the extensive book collection that belonged to his uncle, Enea Piccolomini, who became Pope Pius II. The entire walls and ceiling are painted with frescoes and decorations by the artist Pinturicchio who completed the work between 1502 and 1507. The ceilings are beautifully painted polychrome geometric and floral designs that include many mythical creatures and the crescent symbol of the Piccolomini family, whereas the walls are covered in frescoes depicting the life of Pope Pius II. In the centre of the room is the Roman-period statue of the Three Graces, a copy of the Greek original, brought to Siena from Rome in 1502 specifically to be displayed in this library. La Libreria Piccolomini is perhaps the highlight of the visit to the Siena Cathedral.
Placed at the centre of la Libreria Piccolomini is the beautiful Roman sculpture of the Three Graces. It was found in Rome in the 15th century and was presented as a gift by Cardinal Prospero Colonna to Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini. The sculpture is a Roman copy of the Greek original.
Like most old towns the most impressive and expensive buildings were the ones devoted to religious functions and here in Siena there is no exception. The Duomo was closed for repairs on the day we visited so we only got to see the outside, we even went all the way around the back to see if there was entry there. One of the striking and outstanding features of the Duomo was its bell tower. Built in what gives the impression of an inverse triangle, the tower begins with a single arched window, or opening on the first floor and proceeds to climb toward the sky, adding an extra window with pillar on each floor, until on the final floor you can see 6 openings with 5 pillars. A very interesting and eye catching structure.
What can I say that hasn't already been said? This is a magnificent church! If you have an opportunity to stop by Siena, please see this church. I know there are many, many churches in Italy but this is one not to be missed. Unique qualities of this church are the striped marble design inside and out. The mosaic floors depicting images from the Old Testament. It also has the Piccolomini Library that houses choir books and frescoes.
You must by a ticket to enter. The ticket office is behind the church off the the right side.
Please see my travelogue for additional photos!
I am glad that I attended a mass in Siena’s duomo before I went inside for a visit. This gave me the moments to experience a church in its original meaning. Fact is that for me the inside didn’t live up the hype I have read about before I went inside. For my taste it is overly decorated and the many single artworks get lost in the whole “arrangement”. To me it is too inhomogeneous as a whole, compared for example to Basilica San Marco in Venezia. Some single work of art is splendid, like the inlay marble floor with its many scenes from the bible and legends. In fact this is what impressed me most in the cathedral because of the very delicate work and the attention to the details, like the little snake and the snail in the “Allegory of Mount of Knowledge”. And also Libreria Piccolomini impressed me for the clarity and the intensity of the colours. But all in all - too much for my taste.
But I think the main reason why the cathedral did not leave that much of an impression to me as it should have was that I saw the one in Orvieto two years ago. The Orvieto one is very similar from the outside but has much more of delicate mosaic artwork on the façade. One day I will know why. But nevertheless, yes, Siena’s duomo is worth a visit, of course.
They are too diverse as that I would write it all down here. Please check the website given below.
For the duomo alone it is 3 Euro and 6 Euro when the whole floor inlay work is visible. In case you want to visit the museum and panorama “tower”, baptistery, crypt and oratorio altogether, the combined ticket is 10 Euro and valid for three consecutive days. Please note that the ticket booth is not in front of the cathedral but where the entrance to the museum is (to the right side of the duomo in the back).
Duomo on Google Maps
Siena’s cathedral is very famous and crammed with visitors at almost any hour. In case you want to visit the cathedral as what it was once been built for – as a church – you should attend a mass. I once did it in Venezia’s Basilica San Marco and it was something very special. So I asked when mass would be held in Siena’s cathedral and went there on November 1st (All Saint’s Day, a holiday in Italy). As for Venezia, it was very special. In a way it was also good for improving my Italian. The mass was held in Italian but leaflets were available with the full text of the mass.
Mass times in the cathedral:
Weekdays (incl. Saturday): 9 and 10 a.m.,
Sundays and holidays: 8, 11 and 12:15 a.m.
(Admission is free of course duing times of mass).
Duomo on Google Maps