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Visit Siena Cathedral: what to see

Visiting some of Italy’s famous cathedrals tops many a bucket list. Florence’s Duomo tends to get most of the attention, but you should also strive to visit Siena Cathedral, which offers unparalleled artistic variety. Wondering what there is to see? We’ve outlined the key highlights.

Look down: Siena Cathedral Floor

Siena Duomo Floor

Siena Duomo Floor

As if you needed any other excuse to visit Tuscany in autumn: every year, usually from August to the end of October, the amazing marble intarsia floor of Siena Cathedral is visible to the public. For the rest of the year, it’s protected by carpets, with only a few select panels on display. Walk through the church from start to finish and you’ll find the entirety of the floors elaborate. The intricate designs took several centuries to complete and involved input from dozens of artists – Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni and Domenico Beccafumi, to name a few. Giorgio Vasari famously called the cathedral’s pavimento “the most beautiful, large and magnificent floor ever made”. The impressive panels are noteworthy not just for their technical precision and beauty, but for the biblical narratives they depict.

 

Look beyond: Porta del Cielo

On the porta del cielo tour, visitors get unusual high-up viewpoints like this one

On the porta del cielo tour, visitors get unusual high-up viewpoints like this one

If the marble groundwork “floors” you, the Porta del Cielo will transport you to paradise – or at least offer a showstopping view of the treasures below. Only in recent years have visitors to Siena’s cathedral been able to explore its hidden spiral staircases, which take you to the building’s peak in an allegorical embodiment of the story of Jacob’s ladder (in the Book of Genesis, a ladder toward heaven appeared to Jacob in a dream he had at Bethel). The official Porta del Cielo or “Gate of Heaven” itinerary is typically offered to the public beginning in March, and requires advance reservation (not for those with a fear of heights!).

 

Projected: Divina Bellezza

A moment from "Divine Beauty. Dreaming Siena," a 3D videomapping show

A moment from “Divine Beauty. Dreaming Siena,” a 3D videomapping show

Summer in Italy is a special time of year, and not just because locals look forward to ferie (vacations). The changing of the season is an event in and of itself, and numerous regional rituals celebrate the season, as well as key dates like the summer solstice on June 21. Siena embraces the lightest night of the year not by sipping Spritzes in the squares, but through special openings and events at the cathedral. Past editions of Lux in Nocte have included guided visits through the “Gate of Heaven” and classical music concerts, enjoyed from the pews or while you wander.

Throughout the warmer season, on the other hand, the Opera Duomo di Siena has recently begun offering seasonal 3D videomapping shows projected against the various monuments of piazza Duomo – a cool, contemporary way to explore the city’s heritage. Frescoes, noble figures and government officials mingle in rousing re-tellings of key Sienese stories.

 

Reading: Piccolomini Library

Piccolomini Library | Photo Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Wikipedia)

Piccolomini Library | Photo Miguel Hermoso Cuesta (Wikipedia)

The crisp chiaroscuro of Siena Cathedral’s marble floors may have left you wondering where to find the cathedral’s “true colors”, so to speak. Peek inside the Piccolomini Library and you’ll immediately have your answer: the golds, reds, blues and greens are almost jarring after the comparatively-subdued nave.  Lavishly frescoed by the Umbria-born artist Pinturicchio, this space highlights key events in the life of Pope Pius II (born Enea Silvio Piccolomini) and houses an impressive collection of illuminated manuscripts. Be sure to study the mythological wonders on the ceiling – craning your neck is absolutely worth it in this case.

 

For more information and ticket bookings, see the official website www.operaduomo.siena.it.