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Siena Cathedral (Italy)

Siena Cathedral

While traveling in Italy, one must definitely stop at the Tuscan city of Siena. And not just stop by, but stay there and live for a little while to immerse oneself into the culture and traditions of this wonderful city, to get to know its citizens, see its sights, and make a point of walking in its neighborhoods.


Siena is located in the southern part of Tuscany. From 1147 to 1555, the city of Siena was a city-state, the capital of the Republic of Siena. In those days, Siena was a rival and opponent of another, no less important and magnificent city of Italy – Florence.

Narrow Streets of Siena

The economic and cultural boom of Siena took place in the XII-XII centuries, when the republic of Siena became one of the largest financial and commercial centers of Italy and Europe, and a cultural center of the Italian proto-Renaissance. The Most Holy Virgin Mary, the God Mother, was Siena’s heavenly patron. It was at that time, when the decision was made to build a cathedral in honour of her heavenly patron and to name it the Cathedral of the Most Holy Mary of Assumption, or, simply speaking, the Siena Cathedral.

Details of Interior of Siena Cathedral

The cathedral was founded circa 1220s (probably, in 1226). It was planned as a hall temple and built in the Romanesque architectural style. But a half century later, the citizens of “haughty Siena,” according to the name given to this city by Dante, wished to change the original plan, and they rebuilt the cathedral, which had been almost finished by then, in the popular style of Gothic architecture. The construction was conceived on the unbelievable scale: it was intended that the new cathedral would become the largest church in the Christian world. As for the body of the temple that had been already built, it was to be included into its new structure only as one of the transepts.

The reconstruction plan was developed by Siena architect Lorenzo Maitani, who built a cathedral in another Italian city, Orvieto. But the construction of the monumental temple — Duomo Nuovo (“New Cathedral”), which was begun in 1321, was soon interrupted: troubles befell Siena one after another. The city’s treasury was exhausted; strife sparkled between the rival parties. And the plaque of 1348 that had scathed half of Siena’s population once and for all put an end to the ambitious project (only magnificent arches, columns and ruins of the walls remind of it today). Starting from 1357, the construction works in Duomo Nuovo were stopped and the craftsmen had to employ all their resources to complete the already existing building. The works continued till 1382, when the western façade and the cathedral’s apses were finished. Its eastern façade has never been finished; only a drawing has been preserved that shows us its supposed appearance.

After all these twists and turns with reconstructions and additions, the cathedral in Siena received the shape of a Latin Cross and a number of Gothic elements, having preserved, though, the consistency of Romanesque forms of the Italian architecture. Failing to implement the idea of the gigantic Duomo Nuovo only served to the good of the cathedral. “As they dropped this idea, the citizens of Siena took to decorating the old Duomo with all the fever of their piety, with all of their good taste that had imparted into them by their natural artistic gift, — P. P. Muratov points out. — This work was carried out throughout two centuries. As the result, we have a building before us that is unrivaled in its completeness in the whole of Italy. When compared to the Siena Duomo, Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, or San Petronio in Bologne leave an impression of somewhat unfinished constructions. In this colossal work, Siena proved able to show everywhere its true artistic grace.” It is worthwhile to note that despite the failure to construct the Duomo Nuovo, the Siena Cathedral of today still is one of the largest cathedrals in Italy.

The temple, elevated on a wide terrace, stands on an open square and dominates over the surrounding constructions. On three sides staircases lead to it. Luxuriously decorated western façade is a splendid model of the Italian Gothic architecture, faced with stripes of white, red, and green marble; it has three portals that are balanced by three fronton gables set above them.

One of the most outstanding Italian architects and sculptors of the Middle Ages, Nicola Pisano (1220—1278) worked on the creation of the Siena Cathedral. But to a greater degree, the cathedral in Siena is related to the name of Giovanni Pisano (1250—1320), Nicola’s son. The façade of the Siena cathedral was his first independent work (1285—1295). The architect left Siena in 1300, having previously finished the façade only up to the level of the gables over the doors (the upper section with the rose window was finished in 1370). The master made extensive use of the monumental sculpture. One can find analogues to the sculptural style of Giovanni Pisano to the north of the Alps, but the dramatic depth of Giovanni’s style leaves everything that can be found in the north far behind. High figures on the cathedral’s façade, conducting a dialogue between one another and the spectator, look very impressive and convincing. Today, most of these sculptures are copies, and their originals for the purpose of preserving them have been stored away into the cathedral’s museum.

If on the outside the cathedral fascinates with gleaming white, red and green colours, inside the cathedral black and white colours reign. Alternating stripes of black and white marble decorate the neat campanile-belfry also, the construction of which was finished in 1313. The six-tier campanile lightly soars into the sky, being the optical axis of the entire ensemble. Narrow, square in the layout tower looks thinner than it actually is. Into the thick of the campanile’s walls square dents were cut, widening as the building rises. Thin columns are set in them and their number increases to the top – starting from one to six in the upper tier. The campanile is topped by a pyramidal dome with four towers on its corners.

Whoever enters the cathedral is inevitably captivated by the magic grace of its inner decoration. The central nave is built in a strict Romanesque style. Massive, 18-meter high, striped black and white columns with heavy Corinthian capitals stretch along the entire length of the nave, holding half-circular Romanesque arches and ceiling vaults, where silver stars glow against the dark blue background. The stained glass of the huge round windows cast bright flecks of sunlight on the multi-coloured inlaid marble floor. The interior space and illumination are in a rare harmony. The grandeur, and even maybe the excessiveness, of the décor makes an overwhelming impression.

The dome that is topped by a roof lantern in Romanesque style rises over the cathedral’s crossing. Its size is 54 meters high and 16 meters in diameter. Along the entire perimeter of the roof, true-size figures of the saints (XV century) are set on the striped black-and-white semi-columns.

The famous mosaic floor of the cathedral is a real wonder. It was being built throughout two hundred years, from 1369 till 1547 (according to other records, until 1562); over 48 craftsmen worked on it, among them there were some quite famous and some unknown at all. “In this undertaking there could not be any common task or a strictly determined plan, – P. P. Muratov says, but the unity that has been achieved is really astounding. Such harmony could be carried out only in Siena, which presents a rare example of being faithful to the artistic traditions that cannot be found elsewhere. This fact can be explained again only by the supreme natural giftedness of this nation. Although almost all the best artists of Siena laboured on the floor, still, it is mostly the produce of minor craftsmen and common artisans. Nevertheless, what noble form of the artistic thought, what a fine artistic feeling is expressed here by these second-class masters and modest artisans! The exquisiteness of Siena’s imagination showed even in the very choice of materials and work methods. The name of the mosaic proper is not quite applicable to it. The patterns are made here of fine black lines against the general background of the white marble. Seldom at first, but then more and more frequently, panels of black and coloured marble are inserted in pursuit of the artistic impression… Indeed, this is nothing else but a colossal engraving on marble.”

Apart from the multifarious geometric ornament, scenes from the New Testament and Evangelical allegories are presented here – the total of 56 compositions. For several centuries now, these unique priceless masterpieces are carefully stored away from public and only for a few days of the year they are uncovered for a full display to cause genuine admiration and real awe in the lovers of art…

Here is the composition The Slaughter of the Innocents created by Matteo di Giovanni – one of the best and most known; only The Death of Absalom by Pietro del Minella can compare with it in fame… Here is Emperor Sigismund by Domenico di Bartolo… And here is The Seven Ages of Life – an astonishing masterpiece of Antonio Federighi.

“These Seven Ages is one of the purest revelations of the Italian Renaissance, – P. P. Muratov testifies. – That dawning, silver atmosphere, which was in the heart of the Quattrocento, is expressed in it as vividly as the golden age is in the Attic shapes that glowed with the fullness of life. For even in the archaic Greek art the feeling of youth is lacking. It is always laden with wisdom; it is permeated with the notion of deity and of the world, but the Deity has no age, and the world is never free from a shadow of sorrow. It took long centuries of faith into the rebirth of the world and of man, long centuries of infancy in Christ, to make the youth possible. Kings, like schoolchildren were learning the alphabet from monks, knights were giving the oath of eternal adolescence to Virgin Mary. The joy had never left Francis of Assisi since the time when he woke up one morning, and looking at the valleys of Umbria he believed into the world’s youth. This medieval wind of spring still breathed on the streets of Gothic Siena, when Antonio Federighi was making a drawing of his Youth for the cathedral’s floor. His sense of line and shape had already reached the classical balance and maturity. But this youth is yet so penetrated with the inner storm, so full of the energy of the falcon’s flight and of the human feat! The young man with a falcon painted by Federighi seems to be the liveliest figure of Renaissance with its dual nature – with the bubbling of the awakened powers and passions in it, with the implacable firmness and stern beauty of the outline that encloses it.”

Great masters worked in the Siena cathedral. The magnificent stoup at the entrance was executed by Antonio Federighi, statues in the altar – by Francesco di Giorgio. The altar image known by the name Maesta (now it is preserved in the cathedral’s museum) was created in 1308-1311 by the prominent master of Italian Gothic painting Duccio di Buoninsegna of Siena (died circa 1318/19). In the center of its composition there is the Holy Mary, enthroned amidst angels and saints. Below, there are scenes of Christ’s childhood, above – there is a number of episodes of the last days of Mary’s life on this earth. On the other side, 26 scenes from the life of Christ are presented, including His Passions, His Resurrection and some episodes after His Resurrection.

Another famous artist worked at the cathedral — Simone Martini (died in 1344). It is believed that he was Duccio’s apprentice, but there is no accurate information about his life. Although Simone learned a lot from Duccio, his creative span was much wider. He created a magnificent altar image for the Siena Cathedral in 1333, the central theme of which is the Annunciation. It is the most vivid display of the characteristics of Simone’s style: light elongated figures are painted with outstanding grace and mastership.

Among the artistic treasures of the cathedral there are sculptural masterpieces by Donatello and Michelangelo. Many things are related here to the name of Nicola Pisano. The monumental octagonal cathedra, on which he laboured together with his son, Giovanni, — is one of the most well-known masterpieces of this artist.

The altar of Piccolomini in the northern nave was created in 1481 by Andrea Bregno. In 1501—1504, great Michelangelo created four statues of saints Gregory, Paul, Peter and Pius for it. The statue of the Virgin with the Infant built over the altar — is the work of the Siena sculptor Jacopo della Quercia.

Next to it, there is the entrance to the famous Piccolomini library. Its foundation is dated back to 1492 and related to the name of the Siena’s native, Francesco Todeschini-Piccolomini, who became the Pope in 1503 under the name of Pius III. Here his personal books and manuscripts are kept. Ten big frescoes that decorate the library’s walls and depict the life of the Pope Pius III belong to the brush of Pinturicchio. In the center of the library hall there is a sculptural group “Three Graces,” a Roman copy of the 3-rd century taken from the work of the ancient Greek sculptor Praxiteles.

Most of the treasures of art are kept in the cathedral’s museum — Museo dell’Opera. It is situated in the unfinished nave of Duomo Nuovo. Here one can see the original works of Donatello, Giovanni Pisano, Jacopo della Quercia, Duccio di Buoninsegna and other masters, who throughout centuries worked on the decoration of the Siena Cathedral, Duomo Santa Maria del Assunta, the House of the Virgin Mary, upon whose altar they brought their best works, all the fever of their hearts. And to Dante’s question, “What master of the pencil or the style had traced the shades and lines, that might have made the subtlest workman wonder?,” which is often quoted in this chapter, P. P. Muratov answers in the following way, “Siena can give a proud answer to this question: everything that has been created here, is created by the hands of its unrivaled, noblest masters.”

This article uses the materials from the book by A. Y. Nizovsky, The Greatest Temples of the World: Encyclopedic Guide. — Moscow; Veche; 2006. — 576 pages.

Один комментарий

  1. Спасибо за информацию! Сиенский собор ( итал. Duomo di Siena ) в честь Вознесения Пресвятой Девы Марии ( итал. Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta ) — главная церковь Сиенской республики, важнейший памятник итальянской готики. Расположен в городе Сиена .

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