The magnificent Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of Siena houses the heart of the art, history and tradition of this wonderful town. The entire complex contains some of the most important monuments of the European artistic panorama. The hub of the complex is without doubt the Cathedral, with its more than one million visitors every year, but not to be forgotten are also the Crypt, the Baptistery and the Opera Museum.
Of the numerous masterpieces enclosed in the Cathedral of Siena, one of the most exceptional is certainly its floor. The undertaking of this inlaid marble mosaic work of art went on from the 14th to the 16th centuries and saw the contribution of about 40 artists, all important artists of Siena except for the Umbrian painter Bernardino di Betto, better known as Pinturicchio. Described by Giorgio Vasari as “the most beautiful … largest and most magnificent … that ever was made”, the floor consists of 56 panels in different sizes. Generally to preserve these treasures the floor is covered and only a few are on display. This year the whole floor will be uncovered from the 18th August to the 24th October.
Most of the panels have a rectangular shape, but the later ones, to be found in the transept, are hexagons or rhombuses. They represent the sibyls, scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. The earliest scenes are made by graffito technique, where scratched lines and tiny drilled holes on the white marble are filled with black stucco. This usually simple technique here reaches a surprising degree of perfection. Later was adopted the marble intarsia, when coloured marble is employed in much the same manner as wood inlaying. The effect of the black, white, green, blue and red marble results in a vigorous contrast of light and dark.
At the entrance of the nave an inscription invites the visitor to assume a behaviour in keeping with the surroundings: CASTISSIMUM VIRGINIS TEMPLUM CASTE MEMENTO INGREDI – Remember to chastely enter the very chaste temple of the Virgin. Following is the inlaid panel depicting Hermes Trismegistus (1488), the founder of human wisdom. Portrayed in the aisles are the 10 Sibyls (1482-83), five for each aisle, named after their geographic location: the Persian, Hellespontine (by Neroccio di Bartolomeo de’ Landi), Erythraean (by Antonio Federighi), Phrygian, Samian (by Matteo di Giovanni), and Delphic Sibyls for the Eastern and Greek world; the Libyan Sibyl for Africa (by Guidoccio Cozzarelli); and then those of the West (with reference to Italy), the Cumaean or Cimmerian Sibyl, the Cumaean Sibyl (of Virgil) and the Tiburtine Sibyl.
Beyond the Hermes panel in the nave one encounters the She-Wolf nursing the twin brothers, within a circle connected to other 8 smaller ones representing the emblems of cities in Central Italy. Already in the Middle Ages, the She-wolf became the symbol of the city of Siena, tied to the mythological tale of the city’s founding by Aschius and Senius, sons of Remus. Note the fig tree behind the animal where, according to tradition, the shepherd Faustulus found Romulus and Remus after they had been abandoned along the banks of the Tiber River. This area of the floor is the only one to have been done in mosaic instead of marble intarsia and is an 1865 reconstruction of the original, probably dated 1373, of which fragments can be seen in the Opera Museum.
The fourth panel in the nave was designed by Pinturicchio in 1504. It represents the story of Fortune, or Hill of Virtue. A nude girl holds in her right hand a horn of plenty, while in her left hand she holds up a sail as though it were an insignia. After a turbulent journey, Fortune has succeeded in safely putting several Sages on a rocky island, visible from shore to shore. The Sages climb up a footpath over stony ground and through wild vegetation, their way fraught with dangers, including serpents and other reptiles. On top of the mountain sits a female figure: Wisdom or Virtue. With her left hand, the woman offers a book to Crates of Thebes who strips himself of all factitious goods, while with her right hand she offers a palm to Socrates. The message of the allegory on the floor is that the road to Wisdom is a difficult one but after overcoming harsh trials, one attains serenity and peace.
While the nave and two aisles recount themes from classical and pagan antiquity, the transept and choir narrate the history of the Jews, the episodes of Salvation fulfilled and realised by the figure of Christ, constantly evoked and never represented in the floor depictions, but present on the altar that the artistic and spiritual itinerary converges towards. The subjects are taken from the Old Testament with the exception of The Slaughter of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni. The horrible scene that unfolds before the viewer’s eyes comes from the Gospel of Saint Matthew.
The hexagon beneath the dome (Scenes from the Life of Elijah and Ahab), and other panels near the altar (Moses Striking Water from the Rock; Moses on Mount Sinai, and The Sacrifice of Isaac) present works by mannerist painter Domenico Beccafumi, the most renowned Sienese artist of his time, who would perfect the technique of marble intarsia to the point of attaining chiaroscuro effects.
Another good reason to book a holiday in Tuscany and visit Siena in the following months: the uncovering of this magnificent floor is certainly an opportunity not to be missed. Take a look at our selection of holiday accommodations in and around Siena.