Overtopping Piazza del Duomo in Terzo di Citta with its imposing early 14th century campanile, the Siena Cathedral is ranked one of the top must-sees of the city, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Both the age of the sight and its artistic patrimony benefit the building with the popularity it now enjoys from a tourist point of view. Currently dedicated to the Most Holy Mary of Assumption, il Duomo has never changed its patron saint, being, from its first consecration (1215), a Marian church.
The building combines in a balanced manner Gothic and Romanesque elements (the bell tower itself is a praiseworthy expression of the latter style), though the plan envisaged in the initial project focused on a purely Gothic expression. The result came to materialize a diversity of styles (Classical included, on top of the two already mentioned) due to the relatively lengthy period of time it took to be completed and to the number of architects commissioned to oversee the works, each one with their own vision.
Thus, works began somewhere around 1215 and most of the structure was completed by 1263. Nicola Pisano was one of the chief architects in charge with design and supervision, and his work was continued by his son, Giovanni, initially commissioned to design and built the facade. The facade, one of the most overwhelming architectural displays of Siena, should have, as Giovanni intended, been constructed as Nicola planned, but due to differences of opinions with the city’s officials, works took a different course: in 1296, another architect, Camino di Crescentino, was commissioned, and deviations from Nicola Pisano's plans started to appear.
The general guidelines provided by Pisano the father were vaguely complied with, but by 1370 or so, when works are supposed to have been finally completed, plenty of modifications had the time and the opportunity to occur: first under Crescentino, then inspired or conducted by Duccio di Buoninsegna (designer of the rose window) and Giovanni di Cecco. Later additions were operated, such as the 19th century Venetian mosaics (there massive religious scenes, with a centerpiece by Luigi Mussini, and two smaller side mosaics by Alessandro Franchi, also of biblical inspiration).
The puzzling facade drips with elaborate white and dark green (blackish) marbles (the representative colors of Siena, also present on its coat of arms) with red inserts, a lavish spectacle all the more enriched by exquisite statues. The lower facade statuary consists of works by Giovanni Pisano, while the upper works are by unknown artists. Keep in mind that the currently exhibited statues are mere replicas, the originals being displayed at Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (in the Crypt of the Statues).
Other highlights of the facade are the said 1878 Venetian mosaics and the massive bronze door added no sooner than 1946. This hardly historical element, suggestively called Porta della Riconoscenza, supplants the original one (made of wood). It too renders scenes inspired from the life of the cathedral’s patron saint.
A masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini flatters the dome: a lantern which opens the structure, toning down the massiveness of the stone.
The wealth of artistic treasures inside il Duomo matches the grandness of its exterior display. You could very easily wander for hours if you set your mind not to leave the church without studying each detail. But whatever your mindset, keep in mind not to miss out highlights like the floor work, the Chigi Chapel, the pulpit, the Petroni tomb, the Piccolomini Library and the namesake altar. Don’t forget about the so-called crypt, which is the most recently opened section of the church.
The flooring is particularly stunning, consisting of a 59-panels mosaic. The depicted scenes are of historical and religious inspiration. The work was completed in no less than two centuries (between the 14th and the 16th century), and it required the contribution of some 40 local and foreign artists, e.g. Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Pinturicchio, Beccafumi, Domenico di Niccolo dei Cori, Alberto Aringhieri. The authorship of certain scenes remains unknown (uncertain), though they fall nothing short of exquisite. Don’t expect to see all of them while you get inside (most are covered in view of preservation) and also keep in mind the ones visible to the public are, again, replicas (the originals are to be found in the Pinacoteca in view of safekeeping).
What the Chigi Chapel (Capella Chigi) lacks in size it makes up in artistic and historical significance. This mid-17th century masterpiece by Gian Lorenzo Bernini is located in the right transept and it shelters the work of a Sienese painter (unknown, but most likely a student of Guido da Siena) which depicts Madonna del Voto. Locals are very fond of this fragmentary work: they owe each moment of glory and deliverance of the city (e.g. the victory over Florence, the historical rival of Siena, in the mid-13th century – the battle of Montaperti, and the liberation under the Nazi occupation, in the mid-20th century) to this powerful miraculous pictorial representation. But speaking about Bernini, also worth noting are the organ neighboring the Chigi Chapel and the statues of Saint Jerome and Saint Mary Magdalene displayed in the niches next to the door.
On the opposite side (the left transept), a sumptuous pulpit created by Nicola Pisano, in collaboration with son Giovanni and chief assistant Arnolfo di Cambrio, catches the eye. The centerpiece consists of scenes from the life of Christ (you can admire the exquisite details of the work), while the flanking and the central columns lean on bases of astonishing artistry, which depict families of lions in a protective stance and, respectively, a gathering of philosophers and allegorical figures of the liberal arts. The left transept also houses the 14th century Tino di Camaino’s trendsetting tomb of Cardinal Petroni.
The tour of il Duomo can’t be complete without visiting the Piccolomini Library. The work was commissioned by Francesco Piccolomini, a cardinal who enjoyed papacy under the name of Pius III for 18 days (his office was interrupted by his sudden death) in the honor of his uncle, former Pope Pius II. Lovers of Pinturicchio's works will find the tour especially enjoyable: the ceiling and the wall above the entrance (carved by Marrina in marble) are decorated with overpowering frescoes by the Renaissance Perugia-born artist and his students. The scenes are inspired from the life of Pope Pius II, rendered in fetching games of light and color.
Flanking the library (left side of the entrance) there is the Piccolomini Altar, designed and completed in 1483 by Andrea Bregno. It is populated with early works by Jacopo della Quercia (an overtopping Mary with Child) and young Michelangelo (the 4 statues in niches).
The Chapel of Saint John the Baptist is also located in the left transept. By far, its highlights refer to a bronze by Donatello (rendering the saint) and to the again overwhelming frescoes by Pinturicchio, proof of unmatchable artistry and originality.
The so-called crypt (an underground section opened to the public no sooner than 2004, this is not a crypt proper, but, most likely, an alternative entrance to the building previously located on the site of the nowadays cathedral) is also worth visiting, in particular if you’re interested in studying the evolution of the 13th century Sienese art (it contains paintings by yet unknown artists). Or, why not, if you want to get the thrill and satisfaction of making a complete tour of il Duomo, without harboring a special interest in the history of art.
The table below lists all information on the whereabouts of il 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 (Duomo Nuovo with its interesting Museo dell’Opera included) for 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 il Duomo in order to keep posted with updated information.
The Civic Museum of Siena is the attraction you should visit in order to make an idea about the secular art created over centuries by the Sienese artists.
Casa di Santa Caterina is the place where peace seekers visiting Siena go, in order to be inspired by the tranquility and spirit of the Siena-born saint.
The Baptistery of Saint John is located close to the Siena Cathedral, its centerpiece consisting of a splendid 14th century baptismal font.