Located in the right aisle of the never completed Duomo Nuovo in Terzo di Citta, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo houses, as the Italian name puts it plainly enough, some of the works that long ago used to adorn the city’s cathedral. For one reason or another, but chiefly in view of safekeeping and of a better display, the works were removed from their initial location and stored here. They now represent the patrimony of one of the must-sees of Siena.
You can complete your visit to the museum by admiring Siena’s skyline, a vista beautifully opened before your eyes once you get to the top of what locals call “il Facciatone”, the façade of the edifice, completed a little before the coming of the plague, which put an end to the daring Sienese project, in 1348.
The museum was set up no later than 1869, a short 8-year interval after the unification of Italy under the same king, which makes it one of the oldest private museums in Italy. From its very inauguration (an initiative encouraged by the back then Ministry of Public Education), the museum clearly established its purpose: to collect and to showcase masterpieces brought from the Siena Cathedral, such as to also provide shelter for the exhibits and to enhance their visibility to the public.
While the institution proper is of modern origin, the location, i.e. the remains of the bold, but failed project of the old Sienese people, even now ironically called Duomo Nuovo, is of medieval foundation, much older than the institution it is home to. In time, the museum’s patrimony has expanded, such that today it also comprises the Church of San Niccolo in Sasso.
The Cathedral Museum fills only one aisle of the New Dome. The outstanding facade of the edifice, namely, il Facciatone, is inviting enough to convince you the sight is worth exploring.
Laid out on three floors, the exhibits are showcased such as to provide visitors with a comprehensive and coherent insight into the religious arts of the Middle Ages and of the modern era in Tuscany in general, and in Siena in particular.
The ground floor exhibits have all been brought from the cathedral’s facade and inner sections, consisting of both sculptural and pictorial masterpieces. Giovanni Pisano seems to be the best represented, with an impressive statuary once adorning il Duomo’s facade: marble sibyls, prophets and philosophers, and a she wolf (attributed by the school of Pisano) accompanied by another, the authorship of which is attributed to sundry Siena-born marble artists of the 17th century.
Other highlights you can take time to observe are from the 15th century: Donatello’s Madonna of Pardon (dated 1458, a tondo once decorating the so called Porta del Perdono of the cathedral) and Jacopo della Quercia’s Madonna and Child Enthroned and Cardinal Casini (a bas-relief brought here from the Chapel of San Sebastiano, executed between 1437 and 1438) are worth admiring.
By far, the most outstanding masterpiece on the ground floor remains Duccio di Buoninsegna’s stained-glass window, a jewel of the late 13th century (1287-1288), realized with unique technique and mastery, and depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin, the Evangelists and Bartholomew, Ansanus, Crescentius and Savinus (the four patron saints of the city).
The so-called Maesta room on the first floor proudly showcases the same Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maesta altarpiece (executed between 1308 and 1311), a height of the Italian painting of the 14th century. The front surface focuses on scenes from the life of the Virgin, while the rear surface is inspired by the biblical scene of the Passions of Christ. A little dwarfed by the magnificent altarpiece, Pietro Lorenzetti’s Nativity of Mary (dated to 1342) is also exhibited in the Maesta room.
A wooden statuary with pieces executed by Domenico di Niccolo dei Cori (between 1414 and 1415) and by Jacopo della Quercia (1415 to 1420) is sheltered in the neighboring room, next to several codices illustrates by the likes of Lippo Vanni, Sano di Pietro, Benvenuto di Giovanni.
The Treasury is worth particular attention. It is divided into several sections which come up to several hundreds of exhibits. Chalices, 15th century enamelware pieces (works of master Goro di ser Neroccio), the Reliquary of Saint Galganus, the Reliquary of the Arm of Saint John the Baptist (second half of the 15th century, executed by order of Pope Pius II), the crystal and silver liturgical service (once decorating the Chapel of Madonna del Votto), and Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Golden Rose, bestowed to il Duomo by Alessandro VII in the mid-17th century
The first room on the top floor features highlights like Giovanni Pisano’s 1280 dramatic sculpture of the Crucifix and Alberto di Betto’s 1421 Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The pictorial patrimony is more generous, consisting of Sano di Pietro’s mid-15th century Sermons of Saint Bernardino, Gregorio di Cecco’s 1423 Madonna of Humility (brought here from the Altar of the Visitation) and the valuable Madonna of the Large Eyes, retained as one of the oldest masterpieces representative of the Sienese school of painting (dating back to the first half of the 13th century).
The centerpiece in second room on the top floor, called the Alfieri room, consists of an early 17th century processional flag, work of Rutilio Manetti and Francesco Rustici, depicting the Sermon of the Baptist and the Baptism of Christ (the work was commissioned by the back then Lay Society of the Young Saint John and Saint Januarius). This banner is flanked by Luca Giordano’s Christ before Pontius Pilate and Deposition from the Cross by Matteo di Giovanni’s altarpieces: the 1480 Madonna Enthroned with Four Saints and Angels (formerly in the Celsi Altar) and the 1460 Madonna Enthroned with Saint Anthony and Saint Bernardino (brought from the Baptistery). Quite notable are the early 16th century works of Domenico Beccafumi: a Saint Paul Enthroned (panel painting from 1516) and the Announcing Angel and the Virgin Annunciated (polychrome terracotta from the mid-16th century).
Finally, the Room of Tapestries invites you to explore another side of religious art. As centerpiece, there is a remarkable jasper chasuble (most likely crafted between the 11th and the 13th century). The wall hangings and a large number of textiles brought from the cathedral complement the collection.
The table below lists all information on the address of Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, opening hours, ticket prices and reservations. Keep in mind that owning the so-called Opa Si Pass allows you to visit all of the sections of the cathedral and other must-sees of Siena (the Cathedral and the Baptistery of Saint John included) at only half the price you should otherwise pay inclusively if you chose to visit the attractions separately.
Opening hours and ticket prices are subject to modification, so you are redirected to the official website of the museum in order to keep posted with the updated information.
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo of Siena showcases historical masterpieces gathered from the city’s cathedral, as well as from other sources.
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Dating back to the late-15th century, Basilica dell’Osservanza from Siena was restored in the early-20th century and completely restored following WWII