Arguably one of the most beautiful Gothic churches in Italy, Siena Cathedral is equally stunning inside and out, featuring the work of the best Italian artists of the day: Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Pinturicchio, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Bernini. The cathedral in its current form was begun in 1229, and the dome was completed in 1264. Around 1317, the choir was expanded over the baptistery, and only about 20 years later, the people of Siena planned a gigantic extension that would have made it the largest gothic building in Italy. The existing church was to become the transept of a new church more than 100 meters long, with its new nave turned 90 degrees.
Façade in Campanile
The main facade of the cathedral is breathtaking, a masterpiece of design and sculpture by Giovanni Pisano, with a beautiful rose window and Venetian mosaics adding to the already colorful effect of green, red and white marble inlay that covers the building and its striking campanile. It is one of the most beautiful feats of Italian Gothic architecture. Referring to Pisano’s sculptures on the façade, contemporary sculptor Henry Moore called him “the first modern sculptor.”
Read also: 12 Top Tourist Attractions in Siena
Almost the entire width of the facade is filled by three doorways of equal height, crowned with pediments, with a slender tower at each end. Above the central doorway is a rose window. Beautifully detailed sculptures decorate the remaining areas so harmoniously that it never seems overdone. To protect the original Pisano works from the weather, most of them were replaced by skilled ones in 1869, and the mosaics on the doors were added in 1877. In the corner formed by the nave and right transept is the Romanesque campanile, completed in the late 14th century. century. On the doorway of the tower is a 15th-century bas-relief of the Virgin and Child attributed to Donatello.
The alternating bands of dark and light marble that make the cathedral and campanile so striking continue inside, creating quite an impact as you enter the soaring nave. These dramatic stripes break the vertical rigor of the columns and extend onto the walls above. The geometry of the black and white stripes contrasts with the ceiling, which is a startling rich blue dotted with gold stars, a theme that continues into the dome. Above the round arches of the nave are busts of Christ and 171 popes up to Lucius III, and in the spandrels of the arches are terracotta busts of 36 Roman emperors. The interior wall of the façade has 15th-century reliefs depicting the life of the Virgin and the story of Sant’Ansano; the 16th century stained glass window with rose is of the Last Supper.
For all the dramatic effect of the striped marble interior, it’s the floor that catches your eye. The Florentine master Giorgio Vasari, who was responsible for some of Tuscany’s greatest architectural works, described Siena’s cathedral as “the most beautiful…largest and most magnificent…ever created”. Its 56 panels took from the 14th through the 18th centuries to complete, beginning with the cartoons or drawings, all but one of which was made by the leading artists from Siena. The exception is the Hill of Wisdompanel designed by Pinturicchio of Perugia, in 1505. In the course of their completion, the marble artists refined their techniques, initially scratching the designs into the marble and filling the lines with asphalt but later using different colors of marble in intarsia or mosaics. Note that these are protected by coverings and usually not fully visible except on Sundays and Holy Days.
It is almost impossible to name a single work in the cathedral as a highlight, but for many it should be the incomparable marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano and his students. Done from 1256 to 1268, it is one of the finest works of art in Tuscany. Octagonal in shape, it is held aloft on nine columns of granite, porphyry and green marble. The outer columns stand alternately on the base and on stone lions, the inner ones on allegories of the Seven Liberal Arts and Philosophy. Above the capitals are personifications of the virtues. Around the outside of the pulpit itself are seven beautifully carved reliefs in Carrera marble: the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi, the Flight into Egypt, the Slaughter of the Innocents, the Crucifixion and the Last Judgment.
Piccolomini Library Frescoes
The Piccolómini library is off the left path. It lies beyond a finely carved marble entrance wall by Lorenzo di Mariano, dated 1497, an excellent example of Renaissance decorative sculpture. Begun in 1495, the library was built for Cardinal Francesco Piccolómini (later Pope Pius III) to house a priceless collection of 15th-century musical manuscripts, which are displayed here.
The brightly colored frescoes that cover the walls and ceiling were painted in 1502-08 by Pinturicchio and his pupils. They depict 10 scenes in the life of the Cardinal’s uncle, Enea Silvio Piccolómini, who became Pope Pius II. The ceiling of the library is also covered with frescoes by Pinturicchio – Piccolómini’s coat of arms surrounded by mythological figures, separated by a series of decorative designs.
The baptistery, which is a few steps below the crypt, was built when the choir was extended, its crumpled vault on heavy pillars. It is completely covered in frescoes, originally painted around 1450 by Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta, and other artists. Unfortunately, these frescoes were clumsily “restored” in the late 19th century, almost completely destroying their artistic quality. In front of the apse, on a stepped hexagonal base, is a marble font made in the early 14th century, probably by Iácopo della Quercia. The six sides of the font have bronze reliefs of scenes from the life of John the Baptist by Iácopo della Quercia, Giovanni di Turino, Lorenzo Ghiberti and Donatello.
Chapel of St. John the Baptist
Chapel of St. John the Baptist
In the left arm of the transept is the Cappella San Giovanni, with a beautiful early 16th century gateway by Lorenzo di Mariano. The chapel houses one of the cathedral’s treasures, a bronze statue of John the Baptist by Donatello, done in 1457. There is also a statue of St. Catherine of Alexandria by Neroccio from 1487. The frescoes depict scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist and two portraits are by Pinturicchio. In the center of the chapel, set in a marble-inlaid floor, is a small carved baptismal font from about 1460.
The presbytery is dominated by the great marble altar by Baldassare Peruzzi in 1532, below an earlier bronze ciborium by Vecchietta and flanked by angels with candles. The apse has frescoes by various artists from the 16th and 17th centuries, some of which were badly repaired in the 19th century. The 36 carved choir stalls that remain of the original 90 are in the Late Gothic style, dating from 1363 to 1397. Behind the stalls are highly decorative inlaid panels by Fra Giovanni da Verona, dating from 1503.
Look for the entrance to the Chigi Chapel in the right transept, built in 1659-62 to the design of the great Baroque architect Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. Of the four statues in the chapel, two – St. Jerome and The Magdalena are by Bernini; the other two, from San Bernardino and St. Catherine of Siena, belong to his students.
It’s worth seeking out the somewhat circuitous route to the crypt. Go around the outside of the right transept and through the doorway in the first bay of the unfinished new cathedral. The entrance to the crypt is on the first floor of the staircase. You will be surprised by what you see. Unlike most dim and gloomy church crypts, this one appears alive with color and is considered one of the most important recent archaeological discoveries. In 1999, when the cathedral conducted excavations to restore rooms connected to two adjoining oratories, they led beneath the cathedral choir and unexpectedly to a series of frescoes of New Testament scenes by several prominent Sienese artists of the late 13th century.
Museo del Duomo (Cathedral Museum)
If you still have time and energy after seeing all the cathedral’s treasures, take a few minutes to peruse the collections housed in three bays of the nave of the new cathedral. Highlights to look for are reliefs by Nicola Pisano, works by Giovanni Pisano and his workshop, a beautiful relief of the Virgin and Child with St. Anthony and Cardinal Casini by Iácopo della Quercia, more sculpture by Giovanni Pisano of the facade of the cathedral , and a number of panel paintings. The most important of these are the famous Duccio di Buoninsegna Maestà – the largest altarpiece ever painted, Pietro Lorenzetti’s Nativity of the Virgin, Bernini’s delicate gold sculpture Golden Rose,Donatello’s Madonna and Child, a Pisano crucifix, and the reliquaries in the Treasury, especially those for San Galgano and San Clemente.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Siena Cathedral
- Dress Code: This is a place of worship, so please dress appropriately (women’s shoulders must be covered, shorts are not appropriate, and men must wear shirts).
- Services: The public is welcome on weekdays and Sundays, but sightseeing is not permitted during these visits.
- Meals: Cafés and restaurants can be found all over Siena, just a few steps from the cathedral.
Where to stay near the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta
We recommend these delightful hotels within walking distance of Siena’s famous cathedral:
- Relais degli Angeli: luxury boutique hotel, hand-painted ceilings, valet parking, comfortable beds, delicious free breakfast.
- Palazzo Ravizza: 3-star hotel, countryside views, old-world charm, period furnishings, grand piano.
- Hotel Athena: prices right in the center, rural view, friendly staff at the reception, nice terrace.
- Hotel Tre Donzelle: budget hotel, convenient location, hospitable owners, special interior.
Transport to Siena Cathedral
- By train: Siena can be reached from Florence in about 90 minutes by train, and they depart frequently throughout the day. The train station is about a mile from the cathedral and other tourist attractions in the city center.
- By bus: SITA buses only take about an hour from Florence, and have the added benefit of taking you into the historic center, close to the cathedral. Make sure you take the rapide (express bus.
- By Road: The autostrada from Florence to Siena takes just 45 minutes, but unless you’re staying in a hotel with parking, you won’t be able to enter the old town and won’t find parking within a reasonable walking distance.
- Piazza del Duomo 8, Siena