Guide To The Piccolomini Library In Siena Cathedral

When you step into the Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral, you can experience the beautify of one of Italy’s great Renaissance treasures. With my complete guide to visiting, you can discover its wondrous frescos and learn about the powerful Piccolomini family. 

The famous Italian architect, Bernardo Rossellini, designed the library and it was built in 1492. In 1502, Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini, soon to become Pope Pius III, commissioned the artist Pinturicchio to paint the walls of the recently constructed library.

The result was one of the most exquisite painting cycles of the Renaissance. It’s akin to visiting Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.

The frescos depict scenes from the life of Pius III’s famous uncle, Pope Pius II. The library is named after Pius II, who was born Aneas Silvio Piccolomini and hailed from Pienza

Pius was celebrated for being the first “humanist” pope in papal history. He was a prolific writer and scholar and helped to promote world peace.

The library was intended to celebrate the pope’s literary legacy and house his valuable manuscripts and codexes. They books never made it to the library and are now scattered across Europe. But there are a few samples in glass cases to evoke the original intention of the library.

video of the Piccolomini Library frescos, 1502-08
video of the Piccolomini Library frescos, 1502-08

Guide To Visiting The Piccolomini Library

Let’s take a look at the vivid frescos created by Pinturicchio and his workshop. 

Pinturicchio was the last great painter from Perugia. He was trained by Perugino and is known for his visually appealing decorative and ornamental style.

Pinturicchio painted in a classic Umbrian fashion, so his works feel more 15th century than 16th century. Italians love Pinturicchio. But he is relatively unknown in the US compared to the other Renaissance greats like Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci.

Pinturicchio’s workshop included a young Raphael, who would go on to create the stunning Raphael Rooms in the Vatican and become Rome’s premiere artist.

frescos in the Piccolomini Library

When you enter the library, you’ll first see a fresco with a portrait of Pius III. The tiara is being lowered onto his head as pope. He only ruled for 10 days, and there’s a suspicion that he was poisoned.

The library walls are divided into 10 scenes, framed by painted architecture. They represent the stages of Aneas’ life — ambassador, bishop, cardinal, and pope.

When you look up, you’ll see a beautiful ornate ceiling. There’s a central rectangular panel lined with spandrels. It’s painted in blue, red, and gold fanciful grotesque figures.

The physical reality and architecture of the ceiling is quite similar to the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel. One wonders if it inspired the next Pope, Pope Julius II, to hire Michelangelo.

north wall not eh left
north wall on the left

There are 10 fresco panels and you read them clockwise, left to right, beginning in the northeast corner. Inscriptions at the bottom help you identify the frescos. They are:

  • Aneas Silvio Piccolomini Leaves for the Council of Basel
  • Aneas Silvio Piccolomini as Ambassador to the Court of James I of Scotland
  • Frederick III Crowning Aneas Silvio Piccolomini with a Laurel Wreath
  • Homage to Pope Eugneius IV
  • Bishop Aneas Silvio Piccolomini Presents Frederick III to Eleanor of Portugal
  • The Encounter between Frederick III and Eleanor of Portugal
  • Aneas Silvio Piccolomini is Elevated to Cardinal
  • The Coronation of Aneas Silvio Piccolomini as Pope Pius II
  • Pope Pius II at the Congress of Mantua
  • The Canonization of Catherine of Siena by Pope Pius II
  • Pope Pius II Arrives in Ancona

The first four scenes depict scenes from the young pope’s life.

first scene from the life of the Pius II

The first vignette shows him leaving for the Council of Basel. It’s the first moment of a great career. He’s clad in blue and turns back to look at the viewer as he rides off to glory.

In the next scene, Aneas meets the Scottish ambassador. Pinturicchio really had no idea what Scotland looked like, so he faked it. Aneas stands to the left with long brown hair, which is intended to make him more youthful.

In the next fresco, Aneas is crowned as poet laureate in a rather fantastic scene. This is an honor because the laurel plant is associated with Apollo. He received the wreath from the Holy Roman Emperor, who sits on an elaborate throne.

In the fourth scene, Aneas swear loyalty to the reigning pope, who sits on a classically inspired throne. This was the time of the pope and the anti-pope, when rival popes claimed to be the legitimate leader. Aneas ended up siding with the winner.

The next scene, Archbishop Aneas Silvio Piccolomini Presents Frederick III to Eleanor of Portugal, is one of the most heralded paintings in the library. Now, Aneas is elevated to archbishop.

He’s shown arranging the marriage of Frederick III and Eleanor. In the background, you can make out Siena Cathedral and the Tower of Mangia of the Palazzo Pubblico. It all meant to suggest that Siena played an important role in geopolitics.

In the next scene, Aneas is being elevated to the rank of cardinal, with the red scarlet hat being lowered onto him. In the background is an elaborate Madonna and child painting, which creates a painting within a painting effect.

Then, in the next scene you see Aneas being elected pope in 1458. You can see that’s he’s older, not the young guy with long flowing hair.

The ceremony takes place inside the old basilica of St. Peter. The new pope is wearing his tiara and sitting on the papal chair. You can see the Piccolomini coat of arms interspersed with papal motifs.

The next fresco is set in 1459, when the pope convoked the Council of Mantua. The purpose was to united the various Christian kingdoms of Euopre and launch a new crusade against the Ottoman Turks.

The pope’s effort was ultimately unsuccessful. But it helped bring Mantua, one of the most beautiful towns in Italy, to prominence.

Council of Mantua

While Aeneas was pope, he also decided to canonize Catherine of Siena and make her a saint. She was a Dominican nun and mystic alive in the 14th century. Historians believe that she helped convince the pope to move back to Rome from Avignon.

Below the body of Catherine stand a group of men. The one that’s the second from the left is supposed to be a self-portrait of Pinturicchio. Even more importantly, to his left is the portrait of a 20 year old Raphael.

This is just a reminder that Raphael contributed to the frescos as a sort of partner.

Pius II canonizing Saint Catherine
Pius II canonizing Saint Catherine
portraits of Pinturicchio and Raphael
portraits of Pinturicchio and Raphael

In the final scene in the cycle, Pius arrives in Ancona in 1464 to urge for a crusade. It didn’t happened, and it was an anti-climactic ending to his career as he died soon afterward.

You will also see some illuminated manuscripts and rare books in the library. They include works by ancient Greek and Roman authors, medieval theologians, and Renaissance humanists.

The book are displayed in wooden stands below the frescos. The stands are lovely, adorned with intricate carvings and decorations. 

In the middle of the room is a copy of the ancient Roman sculptural grouping, The Three Graces. It’s a copy of a Greek statue from the 4th to 2nd century BC. The original sculpture is lost and the surviving copies are from the Roman period.

Michelangelo, St. Paul, 1501-03
Michelangelo, St. Paul, 1501-03

You can also stop to admire the Piccolomini Altar right next to the library. The altar was commissioned by Francesco Piccolomini to be his tomb. It was designed and sculpted between 1481-85 by Andrea Bregno.

In the following decade, four lower niches were added to house four marble sculptures by a young Michelangelo. One of them, St. Paul, may be a self-portrait of the artist.

Practical Guide & Tips For Visiting The Piccolomini Library

Here are some things to know about visiting the Piccolomini Library.

Address: Siena Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo 8

Access: The library is located on the left side of the cathedral’s transept and is accessible from the nave. 


You cannot buy a separate ticket just for the library. The only way to visit is by purchasing the Opa Si Pass, which gives you access to all parts of the Siena Cathedral complex.

You also cannot visit the library with a ticket to the cathedral. You need the pass itself. The cathedral ticket doesn’t allow you to see much beyond the nave.

Where Else To See Pinturicchio’s Frescos?

Pinturcchio had a prolific career, working for five popes! You can see his paintings and frescos in the Sistine Chapel, the Borgia Apartments in the Vatican Museums, the Piccolomini Library in Siena, and the Baglione Chapel in Spello.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to visiting the Piccolomini Library. You may enjoy these other Tuscany travel guides and resources:

If you want to visit the Piccolomini Library, pin it for later.

Pinterest pin for guide to the Piccolomini Library
Pinterest pin for guide to the Piccolomini Library

Leave a Comment