The Duomo and its Dome
May 15-17, 2019
The day after we arrived in Siena we set out by car to see the Old City and the famous medieval cathedral – built in the Romanesque Gothic style. It has been described as one of the most beautiful buildings in Italy and – despite the proliferation of beautiful buildings in Italy – I cannot argue with that assessment.
Being relatively new to Italian cathedrals at this point, I thought that the word duomo, as in Duomo di Siena, referred to the dome on top of the cathedral. In fact, duomo means “cathedral.” The Italian word for “dome” is cupola.
The Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta (aka the Duomo di Siena), was built on the site of a Roman temple and completed around 1250. The cathedral’s magnificent deep-green-and-white-striped marble exterior (designed by Giovanni Pisano) hints at the wonders inside, where the striped theme continues as a backdrop to an astonishing array of sculptures, frescoes and carvings by nearly fifty of the world’s finest artists – Donatello, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Beccafumi and Bernini among them. Some of the works, including Nicola Pisano’s astoundingly ornate and detailed pulpit (he did have some help with the sculpting), are considered to be among the most important works of art in Italy.
When you step inside the doors of this majestic edifice, it is almost impossible to resist the urge to lift your eyes toward the heavens – where they encounter a ceiling painted an appropriately deep blue, decorated with golden stars, rising toward a most spectacular dome. In addition to the nave and the chancel and the aisles, there are side chapels and tombs, a sacristy and a library. The place is huge, and a person with unlimited time would need at least a full day to take in the entirely overwhelming stock of riches contained within it – and another to do justice to the Duomo’s museum across the way and the crypt below. We merely skimmed the surface of all three.
Our friend Ksenija (I have mentioned her before) told us we must see the mosaics that have been set into the floor, so we were looking forward to those (more on those in the next post), but we were unprepared for all the rest of the magnificence.
I Ascend to the Heavens
“Duomo” may not mean “dome,” but in the case of the Siena cathedral, the dome itself does have a name: Porta del Cielo, or “Gate of Heaven.” Individuals can’t wander around up there on their own, so I signed up for a tour, which gives participants access to areas of the cathedral that until recently were only accessible to architects and builders.
In addition to seeing all kinds of tools and even drawings on the walls of planned sections of the building, the tour, which takes you 79 steps above the floor of the cathedral, offers amazing views into the interior of the cathedral and out across the surrounding landscape.
Not the Tower of Babel, but…
When we were in Pisa, Arnie had remarked that there were so many people speaking so many different languages that it brought to mind the biblical account of the Tower of Babel. I was reminded of his comment when I was climbing around the dome of the duomo in Siena.
I started chatting (as one does, or at least as I do) with others in the tour and discovered to my relief that the interesting young woman ahead of me and her partner were not Italian, but French-speaking Swiss. They had cycled into Italy, camping their way through the Alps, as part of a group. The reason I was relieved they did not speak Italian was that despite months of practice on Duolingo, I had found when I arrived in Italy that I was utterly unable to speak Italian. Every time I tried to think of a word I wanted to say, the French or the Spanish version of it popped into my head. This problem persisted throughout my time in Italy. (I am now working on German, and hoping that the vast differences between the Romance languages and das Deutsche will help me to avoid confusion when I get to Germany.) Anyway, I had a lovely chat in French with the woman from Switzerland and, in fact, discovered that I was more fluent in that language than I’d thought I was.
Unfortunately, when I get to France, I’ll probably be able to speak only Italian.