Much of the artistic greatness of Siena comes together in this black-and-white-marble cathedral, begun in the 12th century and completed in the 13th century, a magnificent example of Italian Gothic architecture. You should come away from a visit with a greater appreciation for the Pisanos, father and son. Nicola was the principal architect of the church, until he fell out of favor with the group overseeing construction and left Siena, while young Giovanni did much of the carving on the facade, where a vast army of prophets and apostles appears around the three portals (most of the originals are now in the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana. They both worked on the pulpit, where the faithful may have taken great comfort in the sumptuously sculpted scenes of the life of Christ and the prophets and evangelists announcing salvation.

Beneath the pulpit spreads a flooring mosaic of 59 etched and inlaid marble panels (1372–1547), a showpiece for 40 of Siena’s medieval and Renaissance artistic luminaries. Most prolific among them was Domenico Beccafumi, born into a local peasant family and adopted by his lord, who saw the boy’s talent for drawing. Beccafumi studied in Rome but returned to Siena and spent much of his career designing 35 scenes for the flooring (from 1517–47); his richly patterned images are a repository of Old Testament figures. Matteo di Giovanni, another Sienese, did a gruesome Slaughter of the Innocents—a favorite theme of the artist, whose fresco of the same scene is in Santa Maria della Scala. Many of the panels are protected by cardboard overlays and uncovered only from mid–August to early October in honor of the Palio.

Umbrian Renaissance master Bernardino di Betto (better known as Pinturicchio, or Little Painter, because of his stature) is the star in the Libreria Piccolomini, entered off the left aisle. Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (later Pope Pius III—for all of 18 days before he died in office) built the library in 1487 to house the illuminated manuscripts of his famous uncle, a popular Sienese bishop who later became Pope Pius II. Pinturicchio’s frescoes depict 10 scenes from the Pope’s life, including an especially dramatic departure for the Council of Basel as a storm rages in the background.

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In the Baptistery (not a separate building but beneath the choir), the great trio of Sienese and Florentine sculptors of the early Renaissance, Jacopo della Quercia, Lorenzo Ghiberti, and Donatello, crafted the gilded bronze panels of the baptismal font. Donatello wrought the dancing figure of Salome in the “Feast of Herod,” and della Quercia did the statue of St. John that stands high above the marble basin.

Something New Under the Duomo

Siena’s “newest” work of art is a cycle of frescoes painted between 1270 and 1275, discovered during excavation work in 1999. The colorful works are on view in a subterranean room called the Cripta, though the space was never used as a burial crypt. Most likely the room was a lower porch for the Duomo (staircases lead to the nave), but it became a storeroom when the choir area above was expanded. What remains are fascinating fragments of scenes from the New Testament, full of emotion and painted in vibrant colors. Scholars are still trying to determine who painted what in the room. Admission is 8€; the Cripta is also included in the Opa Si Pass. 

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