Tag Archives: Duomo di Siena

Italy 13: Siena (Part 3)

The Mosaics, a Museum, a Crypt, and Siena’s “Old City”

May 15-17, 2019

The She-Wolf of Siena: Mosaic

The famous mosaics set into the floor of the Duomo di Siena are covered for much of the year in order to protect them, but we were fortunate to find many of them uncovered when we were there. Together, the 56 inlaid-marble panels, in various shapes from rhomboid to rectangular to hexagonal, form what was described by the Italian painter Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

It is impossible to convey the scope and magnificence of the mosaics with a photograph, although others have been more successful than we were. You can get a better sense of the magnitude of the endeavour by taking a photo from above, where you also find yourself far enough away from the mosaics to get a sense of how cleverly the third dimension has been incorporated into some of the designs. (I hope that readers are aware that they can click the “galleries” in this blog to see a larger version of each photo.)

According to the website Travelling in Tuscany, the panels were made “mainly by two different techniques: one known as graffito (tiny holes and cutting lines created in the marble and then filled with black stucco and mineral pitch) and one called marble intarsia (black, white, green, red and blue marble employed in much the same manner as wood inlaying)”. One of the most impressive works is The Slaughter of the Innocents, created (it is thought) by Matteo di Giovanni in 1482. The photo below is from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

I also loved the Sybils, of which there are ten.

The Museum

Most of the contents of the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (which translates as “Museum of the Cathedral’s Work”) are artifacts that used to be in the cathedral but in order to protect them, they aren’t there any more. One of these is the stained glass “rose window.”

We spent a couple of hours in the Museum but it was not long enough. This is a scant sampling of the hundreds of artifacts and artworks we saw, many of which I would have loved to simply sit down in front of, admire and attempt to absorb. (And not just because my feet were so sore by that point.)

The Crypt

One of the most interesting parts of the Cathedral of Siena is its crypt, which was not even discovered until 1999, when renovations undertaken beneath the chancel revealed a whole gallery of frescoes dating from the second half of the 13th century. It took three years to uncover what was there – providing not only another historical installation for visitors to the Duomo, but information of interest to art historians everywhere.

It was magnificent. (How many times can I use that word? Stay tuned to find out….)

The Old City

At last, really foot weary by this point, we made our way back to the car through the old city. This proved a challenging task, since we’d neglected to drop breadcrumbs or other markers to remind ourselves where we had parked our vehicle. The long, long stroll was painful but photographically rewarding. And we did stop for gelato.

Italy 12: Siena (Part 2)

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.