Guide To the Siena Cathedral Complex, an Art-Filled Gothic Wonder in Tuscany
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Here's my guide to visiting the complex of Siena Cathedral, a haven for art lovers. Siena Cathedral is also known as the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption and the Duomo. It might as well be nicknamed the Siena Art Museum, it's so stuffed with Italian masterpieces. For a church, it's shockingly interesting.
Siena Cathedral is one of Europe's most beautiful churches, especially for lovers of all things Gothic. It's the symbol of Siena Italy, clad all over in Siena's trademark white and dark green marble. Consistent with the Gothic ethos that "more is always better," every inch is decorated with marble, mosaics, sculptures, and frescos.
Visiting Siena's Duomo complex is almost like going to an art museum. It's filled with mind blowing art from some of the greatest artists of the Gothic and early Renaissance periods, including Donatello, Pisano, Pinturicchio, and Michelangelo.
The Duomo complex consists of six must see structures: the cathedral itself, the Piccolomini Library, the Baptistry, the cathedral museum (Museo dell'Opera del Duomo), the Crypt, and the Facciatone viewing terrace. This guide tells you everything you need to know about Siena's Duomo complex -- its history, what to see inside, and how to get tickets.
The History of Siena Cathedral: Size Matters
Siena Cathedral has a long non-linear history. Construction began in 1226, led by artist and architect Giovanni Pisano. It continued off and on for 176 years. Following a long standing Tuscan tradition, the cathedral is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Assumption, whom the city of Siena "married."
As befitting a grand edifice, the Siena Cathedral was built on Sienna's highest hill. It was built back to front, as is typical in cathedral building. That way, the altar at the back could be used for mass while construction proceeded.
The cathedral was built with brick. Then frosted with alternating stripes of white and dark green marble. Though the marble appears black, it's not. It's green marble that has oxidized over time.
When Siena's city state rival, Florence, began building the enormous Florence Cathedral, Siena grew jealous. In the middle ages, the length of a cathedral was tantamount to the height of a skyscraper. Size mattered.
To outdo Florence, Siena sought to "build the largest cathedral in all of Tuscany." So Siena began building a brand new cathedral called Duomo Nuovo that would have doubled the size of the existing cathedral.
The existing church was to become part of the transept of the bigger and better structure. Siena had grand plans, designing a 140 meter long cathedral. The city worked on it for nine years, extending the cathedral to 80 meters.
But then, in 1348, a not so minor catastrophe called the black death struck. Construction came to a grinding halt. People were too busy dying to build anything. Siena's fatality rate was 50% or more.
In 1355, Siena turned its attention back to the abandoned project. They consulted a Florentine architect named Francesco Talenti, would eventually become head architect of Florence Cathedral.
Perhaps being a tad biased, Talenti advised them to tear down what they'd built. Siena deliberated for 2 years and eventually took his advice. All that's left of the planned New Cathedral is the "ugly facade," called the Facciatone. The towering marble arches mark the outline of the planned nave, reflecting the enormity of Siena's grandiose vision.
The Facade of Siena Cathedral
Siena Cathedral is categorized as a Italian Romanesque-Gothic structure. The facade was built in two stages. The lower facade, with gargoyles galore, was built between 1284-1317. The upper facade was built in 1376, inspired by Orvieto Cathedral.
The lower part of the facade has three portals, topped with pediments. In the middle portal, is the sun. Above the portals is a beautiful rose window showing The Last Supper. On the top, in the upper triangle, is a mosaic depicting the Coronation of the Virgin. The mosaic is crowned with an angel.
The entire facade is decorated with sculptures carved by Giovanni Pisano -- saints, beasties, oxen, gargoyles, and the like. There are 35 statues of prophets grouped around the Virgin Mary. The originals were moved into the cathedral museum in 1869 and replaced by copies.
You may feel satisfied just to admire the facade of Siena Cathedral. But don't be tempted to skip the entry fee. It's essential to go inside.
What To See Inside Siena Cathedral
Siena Cathedral is dramatic and richly decorated. If you've just visited the Duomo in Florence, you'll be shocked. Siena Cathedral is much grander in style inside. Art history's superheroes all contributed master works.
Aside from the towering zebra columns, there's masterpieces at every turn inside the cathedral. Let's take it one Italian art treasure at a time. As you enter, the busts of 172 popes look down on you. Here are the must see sites of Siena Cathedral.
1. Inlaid Marble Floor
The floor! Nothing prepares you for its grandeur. Many art historians consider the marble floor the master work of Siena Cathedral. The floor took 6 centuries to complete. Artist and art historian Giorgio Vasari described it as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that was ever made."
There are 56 etched and inlaid marble panels telling biblical and mythological stories. They were designed and created by the leading artists of the time, including Pinturicchio (known for his frescos in the Borgia Apartments of the Vatican Museums).
The oldest designs are near the entrance, the Wheel of Fortune and the Sienese Wolf Surrounded by Symbols of Allied Cities. The most famous panel is Matteo di Giovanni's 15th century Massacre of the Innocents, near the pulpit. Also look for Pinturicchio's History of Fortune or Hill of Virtue.
The panels are roped off to ensure their protection. Some are only on display in the summer months, when the fee for the cathedral increases.
The presbytery, or chancel, is dominated by the large marble altar carved by Baldassare Peruzzi in 1532. The angels in upper section were carved by Franceso di Giorgio Martini. The apse frescoes were painted by various 16th and 17th century artists, Unfortunately, some were poorly repaired in the 19th century.
36 of the wooden choir stalls remain from the original 90, dating from 1363 to 1397. Behind the stalls are highly decorative inlaid panels by renowned wood carver Fra Giovanni da Verona, from 1503.
The inlays were originally made for an abbey. But they were so beautiful that the archbishop of Siena ordered them to be moved to the cathedral in 1813.
3. Nicola Pisano Pulpit
Nicola Pisano created this famous pulpit between 1265-68, 5 years after the one he created for the Siena Baptistry. He was helped by his son Giovanni and Florentine architect Arnolfo de Cambio. This pulpit is much more ornate than the Baptistry's, in keeping with the over the top Gothic style of the cathedral.
The pulpit is octagonal in shape and inspired by ancient Roman sarcophagi. It's adorned with marble relief sculptures depicting the life of Jesus. It's propped up on nine columns made of granite, porphyry, and green marble. Four of the columns rest on lions.
This is Pisano's most important work. It's significant because it marked the transition from the Gothic period to the early Renaissance.
4. The Chigi Chapel: Bernini Sculptures
The Chigi Chapel was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, a Chigi family member. Built in 1659-62, it's in the Roman Baroque style and designed by the greatest Baroque sculptor in history Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
It's rare to see any Bernini work outside of Rome. But there are two beautiful marbles sculptures in the niches flanking the entrance to the Chigi Chapel: St. Jerome and a rapturous St. Mary Magdalene in Mystical Ecstacy. They represent the chapel's theme of forgiveness and penitence.
St. Jerome is portrayed embracing the cross of Jesus, almost like a violin. This larger than life size sculpture shows a surprisingly fit Jerome with a friendly lion at his feet. You feel a sense of love exuding from the statue.
Mary Magdalene is depicted in the midst of a powerful religious experience, similar to some of Bernini's sculptures in Rome. Like those, she conveys a sense of movement and emotion.
There's also a famous painting, the Madonna del Voto, in the center of the altar. Reputedly, soldiers prayed to the crowned madonna before the Battle of Montaperti, which was essentially Siena's July 4th victory. She's framed by sculptures crafted by Bernini's workshop.
The painting was/is thought to be miraculous. It's surrounded by silver and gold tribute hearts on the surrounding walls of the chapel.
5. Michelangelo Sculptures on the Piccolomini Altar
The Piccolomini Altar is in the left nave of the cathedral. The altar was commissioned by Francesco Piccolomini to be his tomb. But after being elected pope, he was buried in the Vatican. Made of Cararra marble, it was built between 1481-85 by sculptor Andrea Bregno.
In the following decade, four lower niches were added to house four marble sculptures made by a young Michelangelo. One of them, St. Paul, may be a self portrait of the artist. They're not his best work, but still worth a look. It's Michelangelo, after all.
6. Donatello Sculpture in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist
Siena Cathedral owns Donatello's bronze St. John the Baptist sculpture. It's located in the Chapel of St. John the Baptist in the north transept, which also sports Pinturicchio frescos. The sculpture was relocated to Sienna after Donatello, the greatest sculptor of the early Renaissance, declared his wish to leave Florence and spend the rest of his life in Siena.
Clad in his usual rags, St. John the Baptist appears in agony, with a haggard face and sunken eyes. The sculpture has a funny backstory. It arrived in Siena without a right forearm. Legend holds that Donatello may have left it incomplete when he wasn't paid in full. Or it might have broken off in transit.
The chapel allegedly holds a relic, the arm of St. John the Baptist. But so many churches claim so many bits and pieces of the popular saint, it's probably not there.
There are other Donatello treasures in the cathedral. He crafted a sculpture for the Door of Forgiveness on the facade of the south transept. His Madonna del Perdono is in the Duomo museum and his sculptures decorate the baptismal font in the Baptistry. More on that below.
7. Hexagonal Dome
The hexagonal dome is full of golden stars representing the kingdom of heaven. It preceded Brunelleschi's famous dome on Florence Cathedral. The dome is perched on back and white striped pillars.
It has a cornice of popes painted by Guiidoccio Cozzrelli and Benevuntio di Giovanni in the 15th century. A gilded lantern at the top, added by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, gives the effect of a golden sun beaming down.
Halfway down the nave, you'll find the magical Piccolomini Library. It's akin to visiting Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums. The library is dedicated to one of Siena's hometown boys, Enea Silvio Piccolomini. He gained prominence by negotiating a truce between Emperor Frederick III and the papal state.
In 1458, Enea became Pope Pius II. The library was built in 1492 by his nephew, a man who became Pope Pius III. Quite the illustrious family.
The library was intended to house valuable manuscripts. They never made it to the library. But there are now a few samples in glass cases to evoke the original intention of the library.
Instead, the library is famed for its vivid frescos creates by Pinturicchio and his workshop. That workshop included a young Raphael, who would go on to create the stunning Raphael Rooms in the Vatican and become Rome's premiere artist.
The walls are divided into 10 scenes, framed by painted architecture. They represent the stages of Enea's' life -- ambassador, bishop, cardinal, pope. The ceiling is a stunner, painted in blue, red, and gold fanciful grotesque figures.
In the middle of the room is a copy of the ancient Roman sculptural grouping, The Three Graces, from the 4th to 2nd century BC.
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo: the Maesta Paintings
The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena is found in the right nave of the New Cathedral, the area that was intended to enlarge Siena Cathedral. It houses one of Italy's most famous paintings.
On the ground floor, there's a vast collection of 14th century marble statues carved by Giovanni Pisano. Originally, they decorated the facade, but were taken into the museum for conservation. The sculptures depict sibyls, prophets and philosophers of antiquity.
There's also a noted Donatello tondo, called the Madonna del Perdono. And Bernini's Golden Rose.
Duccio di Buoninsegna contributes a gorgeous stained glass window. It was once in the cathedral above the apse. The 30 square meter work depicts the burial, assumption, and the crowning of the virgin.
But the absolute highlight of the museum is Duccio's Maesta. Maesta is the most famous Italian painting from the International Gothic period and the most precious art work ever created in Siena. It's a famous painting in the course of art history.
The Maesta was 17 x 16 feet, a massive double sided altarpiece covered in gold and glitter. It was so large it likely served as a rood screen for the cathedral, separating the laity from the common folk.
When Gothic art fell out of fashion during the Renaissance, the altarpiece was taken down and stored for 200 years. Then, the city council disassembled and sold off some pieces. Many are in the world's most prominent museums. But most of the Maesta is still in Siena.
In the front portion of the Maesta, you see a majestic Mary seated on a throne. Swaddled in translucent drapery, Jesus looks nothing like a baby. More like a wise old man, who's almost standing up.
In the back, you see the life of Christ. In a way, this was the more astonishing and privileged view that the priest would've had. The Crucifixion scene is given pride of place in the center.
Finally, the top floor of the museum hosts a rich collection of paintings, including the famous Madonna of the Large Eyes. The painting was formerly in the cathedral. It's one of the oldest paintings of the Sienese school, created by the Maestro di Tressa in the 13th century. In the painting, Mary's arms extend out of the painting to accept the keys to the city of Sienna.
From the museum, you can climb to the Facciatone. It's a panoramic viewing terrace on a remnant of the abandoned new cathedral. It offers beautiful views of Siena. But if the cathedral is crowded, it can be a cramped experience. The stairs only allow one way traffic.