The Duomo of Siena ★★★

Siena’s striped cathedral is a rich treasure house of Tuscan art.

Despite being an overwhelmingly Gothic building, the Duomo has one eye-popping Romanesque holdover: its 1313 campanile (bell tower) with its mighty black-and-white banding.

The Duomo was built from around 1215 to 1263, involving Gothic master Nicola Pisano as architect at some point. His son, Giovanni, drew up the plans for the lower half of the facade, begun in 1285.

Giovanni Pisano, along with his studio, also carved many of the statues decorating it (most of the originals are now in the Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, featured below).

The facade’s upper half was added in the 14th century and is today decorated with gold-heavy, 19th-century Venetian mosaics.

Ill-fated expansion plans 

The city was feeling its oats in 1339. Having defeated Florence 80 years earlier, Siena was by now its rival’s equal as a middle-class-ruled republic.

It began its most ambitious project yet: to turn the already huge Duomo into merely the transept of a new cathedral, one that would dwarf St. Peter’s in Rome and trumpet Siena’s political power, spiritual devotion, and artistic prowess.

The city started the new nave off the Duomo’s right transept but completed only the fabric of the walls when the Black Death hit in 1348, decimating the population and halting building plans forever.

The half-finished walls remain—a monument to Siena’s ambition and one-time wealth (they now houses the cathedral museum, and you can climb top the would-be new facade for sweeping city views).

The pavement inside

You could wander inside the Duomo for hours, just staring at the flooring, a mosaic of 59 etched and inlaid marble panels (1372–1547). Some of the top artists working in Siena lent their talents, including Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Pinturicchio, and especially Beccafumi, who designed 35 scenes (1517–47)—his original cartoons are in the Pinacoteca.

The ones in the nave and aisles are usually uncovered, but the most precious ones under the apse and in the transepts are protected by cardboard flooring and uncovered from mid– to late August until late October (dates vary a bit year to year) in honor of the Palio.

The only floor panel usually visible in the Duomo’s center, in the left transept, is Matteo di Giovanni’s fantastic 1481 Massacre of the Innocents (a theme with which the painter was obsessed, leaving us disturbing paintings of it in the Palazzo Pubblico and Santa Maria dei Servi).

The Chigi Chapel

At the entrance to the right transept, the small octagonal Cappella Chigi was designed by Roman Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1659.

It houses the Madonna del Voto, a fragmentary late-13th-century painting by a follower of Guido da Siena. The work fulfilled a vow the Sienese made on the eve of the Montaperti battle that they would devote their city to the Madonna should they win the fight against Florence (they did). Five times since, in times of dire need, the Sienese have placed the keys to the city in front of the miraculous Madonna and prayed for deliverance, most recently in June 1944 during Nazi occupation. Two weeks later, the city was liberated.

The St. Jerome and St. Mary Magdalene statues cradling their heads in the niches nearest the door are also by Bernini, who did the organ outside the chapel as well.

Nicola Pisano’s pulpit

At the entry to the left transept is Nicola Pisano’s masterpiece pulpit (1265–68), on which he was assisted by his son, Giovanni, and Arnolfo di Cambio.

The elegantly Gothic panels depict, as do the Pisanos’ other great pulpits in Pisa and Pistoia, the life of Christ in crowded, detailed turmoil, divided by figures in flowing robes.

The columns are supported on the backs of lions with their prey and cubs, and the base of the central column is a seated congregation of philosophers and figures representing the liberal arts.

In the left transept’s far-right corner is Tino di Camaino’s tomb of Cardinal Petroni (1313), which set the new standard for tomb design in the 14th century.

The Piccolomini Library

Umbrian master Pinturicchio is the star in the Libreria Piccolomini, built in 1485 by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini (later Pope Pius III—for all of 18 days before he died in office) to house the library of his famous uncle, Pope Pius II.

The marble entrance was carved by Marrina in 1497, above which Pinturicchio was commissioned to paint a large fresco of the Coronation of Pius III (1504).

Pinturicchio and assistants covered the ceiling and walls with 10 giant frescoes (1507) displaying Pinturicchio’s rich colors, delicate modeling, limpid light, and fascination with mathematically precise, but somewhat cold, architectural space. The frescoes celebrate the life of Aeneas Silvio Piccolomini, better known as the humanist Pope Pius II. The next-to-last scene on the left wall records the act Siena most remembers the pope for, canonizing local girl Catherine as a saint in 1461. 

In the center of the room is a Roman copy of the Greek Praxiteles’ Three Graces, which Pinturicchio, Raphael, and Canova studied as a model.

Next door to the library’s entrance is the Piccolomini Altar, designed by Andrea Bregno around 1480. The Madonna and Child above may be Jacopo della Quercia’s earliest work (1397–1400). A young, squash-nosed Michelangelo carved the statuettes of Sts. Peter, Pius, Paul, and Gregory in the other niches here (1501–04).

The crypt

In 1999, while preparing to work on a neighboring sight, workers uncovered an amazing, forgotten crypt under the Duomo's choir slathered with spectacular late 13th century frescoes.

Shocasing the classic cycle of Stories from the Old Testament above, and Stories from the New Testament below, these vibrant frescos provide amazing insight into the foundations of the Sienese School of painting, including works by Guido da Siena, Dietisalvi di Speme, Guido di Graziano, and Rinaldo da Siena.

 
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Tips

How long does the Duomo take?

Give the cathedral itself at least 30 minutes—60 if you are going to the roof.
     

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
     
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
     
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
     
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
     
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
     
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
     
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
     
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
     
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah


* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).