6.2 The new cathedral of Il Magnifico
The second leg of our journey is devoted entirely to the Duomo di Siena (Cathedral of Siena) and the transformations that it has undergone through the centuries, particularly during the 15th century. The cathedral is one of the most outstanding examples of Gothic architecture in Italy, a riot of spires and pinnacles depicting the wealth of a truly prestigious city. Siena was regarded as a strategic city for several reasons: not only for its central position on the peninsula, but, above all, for its placement on the Via Francigena. In fact, in the 13th and 14th centuries, Siena was one of the main stops on this famous pilgrim route that winds from Canterbury, England, to the tomb of St Peter in Rome.
The origins of this European pilgrimage route date back to the 10th century, to the time when Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, returned from his journey to Rome, where he had gone to receive from Pope John XV the pallium (a liturgical vestment made of white wool that is worn by bishops on their shoulders as a symbol of the sheep carried by the shepherd, a reminder of the wearer’s pastoral task). Sigeric kept a diary of the 79 stages of his journey, which took him as many days, averaging 20 km a day.
Obviously, the bishop was not the first to walk the Francigena, but he did endeavour to keep a written record of all the stops he made along those roads which, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire—from 476 AD onwards—was created to bypass the then swampy Roman trails as well as enemy settlements. It was the Lombards who gave particular importance to the new route, using it to avoid the constant raids of pirates and barbarians that often occurred when travelling along the ancient Cassia or Aurelia roads.
The route that Sigeric chose when he passed through present-day Tuscany on his return to the north was called ‘strada di Monte Bardone’ (the road of Monte Bardone), from the ancient name of the Cisa Pass, Mons Langobardorum, which crossed the val d’Elsa, the val d’Arbia, and the val d’Orcia (the Elsa, Arbia, and Orcia river valleys), and then continued on to the Eternal City. This pilgrimage route was the good fortune of Siena, which equipped itself to offer refreshment and hospitality to pilgrims from all over the world. The ‘figlia della strada’ (daughter of the road)— as Siena has been affectionately referred to by scholars—became great and powerful thanks to the pilgrims who travelled through it for centuries. It was during these years that the she-wolf with twins, the undisputed symbol of Rome, and the Balzana, the black and white shield that is the city’s coat of arms, were adopted by Siena as its emblems.
Piazza Jacopo della Quercia
Coming back to Siena’s beautiful cathedral, local folklore has it that the building was consecrated on 18 November 1179 by Pope Alexander III, born Rolando Bandinelli to the Sienese family that, thanks to their illustrious member, became known as the ‘Paparoni’. The church, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (St Mary of the Assumption), stands on the site of an ancient pagan temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva. Official documentation of the construction phases date back to 1226, when the Biccherna, a tax-registering body, recorded the costs for marble and other building materials.
The façade of the cathedral, the work of Giovanni Pisano on the lower level and Camaino di Crescentino on the upper, is rich in both detail and timeless works of art: statues, bronzes, mosaics, and marble, all originating from Siena and its surrounding territory.
The figurative repertoire is also extraordinary: the monogram of St Bernardine, the Sybil by Pisano, mosaics by Alessandro Franchi, and many characters from the Old and New Testaments, just to mention a few. Due to the various structural and decorative modifications, which continued until the 20th century, it is impossible to say how many years it took to complete the cathedral or in what year it was actually finished.
Among the many particularities that characterize the current appearance of the Duomo is the extension that was initiated in the first half of the 14th century but never completed. Driven by a deep sense of pride in the powerful city that
Siena had become thanks to its political and economic fortune in the previous century, the Sienese undertook to build the biggest cathedral in Europe, transforming the existing church into the transept of a new and imposing basilica.
Additionally, there was need for a ‘new’ cathedral, a structure that could accommodate the entire population of the city at the time—around 60,000 inhabitants, about the same as today— and that would represent the ideal of decorum and magnificence to which the city had become so accustomed.
The work began at the beginning of the century and involved considerable resources, both human and financial; unfortunately, though, the new Duomo was never finished, partly due to the decimation caused by the ‘Black Death’ of 1348 and partly due to some mathematical errors.
As a reminder of that impressive undertaking, a large ‘facciatone’ (façade) remains and, with its incomplete lines, contributes to making Siena’s skyline truly unique. In addition to the design of the new cathedral, the alterations made to the building between the 15th and 16th centuries were particularly important and added to its sumptuous appearance, which can still be admired today.
Some of the refurbishments may seem questionable while others are admirable accomplishments; however, as each of us knows, every change inevitably leads to a loss. In fact, the ideals and premises that led to the commissions by the key players in Siena at the time were quite significant.
Tarsia with Ermete Trismegisto
One of the key promoters of the cathedral’s renovation was Alberto Aringhieri, the Rettore dell’Opera (Superintendent of the Works) of the Duomo from 1481 to 1488, a person of great cultural importance in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Thanks to his commissions, the cathedral aligned with the stylistic demands of the Renaissance, already prevalent in Florence at the time. Specifically, Aringhieri’s commissions outlined an iconographic plan to cover the floor of the Duomo with marble inlays. The realized work turned out to be an admirable marble carpet that even Giorgio Vasari—a lover of Renaissance art who held a firm belief in the superiority of Florentine artists—could not fail to appreciate, stating that it was the ‘[…] most beautiful and the greatest and most magnificent floor that has ever been made’. In total, the floor consists of fifty-six inlays which entirely cover the walkable surface of the Cathedral and feature scenes from the Old and New Testaments (many with a rare iconography), a series of images with the Sibyls, pagan symbols, and the Virtues—all connected as a sort of initiatory path that the faithful must follow, from the entrance of the central door to the high altar, passing through the side naves and the transept.
The first inscription encountered on entering the cathedral invites one to enter ‘chastely into the most chaste temple’. Is it perhaps a reference to the ancient shrine dedicated to Minerva which once stood upon this very spot? The inlay that follows depicts Hermes Trismegistus, whose name translates to ‘Hermes the thrice greatest’, skilfully drawn by Giovanni di Stefano, son of the more famous Stefano di Giovanni (known as il Sassetta). According to legend, Hermes gave letters and numbers to the Egyptian people, thus initiating human knowledge; in the cathedral, he is the counterpart to the portrayal of Moses on Mount Sinai, the beginning of divine knowledge, which is located in front of the altar.
Il monte della Sapienza
Further on is the Monte della Sapienza (Mount of Wisdom), an impeccable creation by Bernardino di Betto Betti, known as Pinturicchio. The scene depicts philosophers abandoning the Boat of Fortune and embarking on a steep and winding path in order to reach Wisdom, a figure placed centrally at the top of the mountain.
The meaning echoes the concept represented in the panel featuring Hermes Trismegistus: only by immersing oneself in knowledge and leaving fortune and material/earthly goods behind, can humans rise to the understanding of the divine.
The source of inspiration for the inlays was not only the writers of the early Christian era, but also a literary tradition that was practically contemporary with the creation of the inlays, such as that of the Platonic Academy of Florence, also known as the Florentine Academy, founded by Marsilio Ficino in 1462. When Ficino came into possession of a copy of the Corpus Hermeticum written in Greek, a text attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, he, together with Pico della Mirandola and Agnolo Poliziano, gave life to a new concept of Christianity and Paganism, which was also reflected in the floor of the Duomo. It was painters—all Sienese except for the afore mentioned Pinturicchio—who created the designs for the inlays on the floor, which were then transformed into floor panels by expert marble workers.
The High Altar
Up to now, the focus has been on some of the Renaissance ‘improvements’ made to the Cathedral of Siena; however, not all of the changes have the same significance/features/characteristics. As we begin to discuss the transformations carried out in the area of the high altar, it is important to first return to the skilful politician encountered in the previous chapter of this series: Pandolfo Petrucci, ‘il Magnifico’. It was he who, in 1506, wanted modifications carried out on the Cathedral’s interior. Pandolfo, following a design devised a few years earlier by the famous architect Francesco di Giorgio Martini, completely reorganised the space of the presbytery, in an attempt to transform the Gothic cathedral into a modern Renaissance church, even if this meant removing the stunning Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna from the altar.
It was during this period that the ‘patriarch’ Duccio, whose Maestà was accompanied in 1311 by a procession of the faithful for its solemn entrance into the Duomo, went out of fashion and was relegated to a side chapel of the church. Perhaps because Duccio was the emblem of the Sienese school of art of his time—refined and elegant, but belonging to the city’s historical past—it was necessary for Pandolfo to send a strong signal for change.
Where Duccio’s altarpiece once stood, today one can admire a refined bronze ciborium, the work of Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta, executed between 1460 and 1472 and embellished with a series of candelabra-holding angels made by other great artists of Sienese sculpture, such as Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Giovanni di Stefano, and Domenico di Pace, known as Beccafumi.
Cathedral Pulpit by Nicola Pisano
Another modification attributed to il Magnifico was the relocation of Nicola Pisano’s pulpit, a sublime work of marble created in the 1260s in collaboration with Nicola’s son Giovanni and Arnolfo di Cambio from Colle di Val d’Elsa. The pulpit was moved to the other side of the presbytery, where it still stands, but the move caused damage that forever changed its overall appearance. In spite of the damaged frames and later alterations, the work remains an absolute masterpiece in the history of medieval Italian art, with its panels portraying the life of Christ, from birth to the Last Judgement, together with depictions of lions, the Virtues, and the Liberal Arts. The pulpit is a marvellous artefact that illustrates the study of classical statuary, which the master also drew on from his training at the court of Frederick II. Of Apulian origin, Nicola took the appellation Pisano while working as a master builder for the Cathedral of Pisa; it is to him that we owe the introduction of Gothic innovations into sculpture.
The modifications of the interior of the Cathedral were not made by unanimous decision, but evolved from a rather tense situation between those in charge of the building. Documents show that a decree issued by the Balia, the decision-making body of the Republic of Siena, dismissed Superintendent Aringhieri from his position and elected a board to decide the fate of Nicola Pisano’s work, originally located on the opposite side of the cathedral, at the end of the left aisle, as shown by the cover of the registro di Gabella no. 41, titled The Offering of the Keys of the City to the Virgin in 1483.
In the depiction on the tax register (registro di Gabella) cover, a black mass can be seen in the background, from which a tentative Balzana emerges: this is the pulpit in question, covered by a dark cloth on ordinary days, and unveiled for great occasions, so as to arouse a feeling of amazement in the faithful on the occasion of its unveiling.
One of the principal opponents of the removal of the pulpit was an illustrious personage: Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini, who fought hard to prevent the move from being carried out as well as an array of other modifications proposed by Petrucci.
Unfortunately, the cardinal’s threats of excommunication were not enough to put a halt to the changes. Even when the Sienese cardinal ascended to the Chair of St Peter, he was unable to impose his will on anything (bearing in mind that his pontificate lasted only twenty-six days). During his time as cardinal, however, he did commission two of the most beautiful works of art in the Siena cathedral: the Piccolomini Altarpiece and the Piccolomini Library.
Both were dedicated to his beloved uncle, Pope Pius II, the distinguished poet and patron of the arts. The altarpiece was to serve as a symbol of the prestige of the powerful family to which he and his uncle belonged as well as a funerary monument to his mortal remains. However, on 22 September 1503, Cardinal Todeschini was unexpectedly elected pope, which meant that, as pontiff, his body would be interred in St Peter’s instead. Piccolomini spared no expense for the realisation of these magnificent Sienese works, so much so that he even procured the services of one of the most promising sculptors of the early 16th century, Michelangelo Buonarroti. The then young sculptor was called to Siena to execute the figures of the saints that would occupy the niches of the altar but was unable to complete the
Todeschini chose an equally eminent artist for the creation of the Piccolomini Library: the aforementioned Pinturicchio, an artist who at that time was working with someone by the name of Raffaello Sanzio (Raphael), a young artist from Urbino who did not refrain from painting his own likeness on the walls of the wonderful library.
The iconographic theme of this beautifully frescoed space is a painted biography of Enea Silvio Piccolomini—Pope Pius II and, as mentioned, uncle of Francesco Piccolo Todeschini—based on the canon written by the humanist Giovanni Antonio Campano (secretary first to the uncle and later to the nephew), and the Commentaries, an autobiography in Latin composed by Enea himself. From his departure for Basel to his attempt to launch a new crusade to his crowning as poet laureate at the court of Frederick III to the canonisation of St Catherine, the cycle of frescoes in the library illustrate the most important moments in the life of this great humanist.
Of the entire iconographic work, the only scene dedicated specifically to Pius III is the depiction of his inauguration as Pietro’s successor, which can be found on the façade of the library. It was commissioned by his descendants as the premature death of the pontiff occurred when the Pinturicchio frescoes had not yet been completed.
It is impossible to mention all of the 15th century works and innovations in the cathedral in just one chapter. Those described here are the most well-known and illustrious. Before ending your visit to the cathedral, remember to spend a moment in solitary and silent admiration of the beauty that surrounds you.
Text by Ambra Sargentoni (Ambra Tour Guide) Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello and
Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena, Leonardo Castelli Graphics: Michela Bracciali