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Siena Cathedral: visit the Duomo and its spectacular floors

The Siena Cathedral or Duomo is an impressive work of art both inside and out. The imposing Medieval structure defines the city’s skyline and is practically a book to read through its sculpture and its decorations. While inside, the floors of this church are entirely made of intarsia marble narratives. Covered by carpets for protection, they are revealed for a few weeks each summer in honour of the palio. Here’s what you’ll see inside the Siena Cathedral if you visit at that special time as well as a quick review of the history and art you can experience year-round.

Siena Cathedral: exterior and short history

Siena Cathedral facade

Siena’s Cathedral is magical inside and out

The Romanesque and Gothic church was built in the first half of the thirteenth century. Its distinctive striping of black and white marble reflects the colours of the city (especially on the bell tower) while the use of green marble alternating with white is rather typical in Tuscan Romanesque. The lower part of the facade – note the three elaborately carved portals – is the work of Giovanni Pisano, while the upper part is in a slightly different style since it was developed about a century later and influenced by French Gothic cathedrals, so in a more ornate style, with pinnacles and of course numerous sculptures. The mosaic you see sparkling at the top was actually added in the 19th century!

Siena Cathedral Floors

Interior of Siena Cathedral

The interior of Siena Cathedral with the uncovered floors (high altar) | Photo Alexandra Korey

As you’ve already understood, a building like this never finishes – it represents 700 years of history in Siena. And so with the floors, which were decorated with elaborate marble intarsia, a kind of inlay work that is particularly complex to execute. There are 56 panels in a programme ideated early on but implemented from the 14th through the 19th centuries, all by Sienese artists except one Umbrian (Pinturicchio). As such, they’re like a book of Sienese art history. While the first works are rather simple (consider how hard it is to cut the marble), as time progresses, so does the ability to cut and carve marble to precision, so that the later works admirably render shadow and complex narratives.

Siena Cathedral floors

Frescoes of the crossing area | Photo Alexandra Korey

These floors are usually covered by carpet to protect them, except for some that are cordoned off so you can see them year round. Around the two palio dates (July and August), they are all uncovered, with routes defined by carpet and cords so that they are protected. This is the best time of year to do the Duomo’s “Porta del Cielo” tour, which you can reserve in advance on the official website, for the view from above is only more spectacular than from ground level!

The she-wolf of Siena in Siena Cathedral

The she-wolf of Siena is one of the earlier marble intarsia works in the Cathedral floor | Photo Alexandra Korey

Siena Cathedral Interior decorations

The Piccolomini Library

The Piccolomini Library was decorated by Pinturicchio and his school

Space for fresco in the main nave is limited, making the choice of using the floors to tell narrative stories both innovative and efficient. But there are plenty of other important decorations available to see, both sculpted and painted. Of these, perhaps the most notable is the Piccolomini Library, located in a room off the left side of the nave. The archbishop of Siena, who later became Pope Pius II, commissioned a beautiful fresco cycle from Pinturicchio around 1492 and painted in the first decade of the 16th century. The frescoes tell Scenes from the Life of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini on three walls, while there is a grotesque ceiling and the 4th wall is windows. The brilliant colours and details of these frescoes are typical of the late 15th-century style that exalts real people, costumes, and natural details.

Nicola Pisano pulpit

Nicola Pisano pulpit | Photo Alexandra Korey

Another work of art worthy of note is the beautiful marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano, restored in June 2018.  The Opera del Duomo di Siena commissioned it in 1265 and we still have the documentation of the commission and payments for this piece he completed in 3 years. It is covered in marble relief sculpture and is a rare example of a well preserved pulpit that tells us much about this important artist’s work.


Useful information: The floors are uncovered on the following 2018 dates: June 27 to July 31, 2018, and then again from August 18 to October 28, 2018