Tuscan Towns: Siena

From Montalcino we drove another hour the following day to reach Siena. There are still so many things I would like to see but for only spending a day here, we could still feel the magic of this city behind walls. More fields of bright yellow dotted the smaller towns that led us to Siena, a lovely medieval city. We spent the morning walking through the Duomo (Cathedral) and admiring this astounding building! It is considered one of the architectural masterpieces of the Romanesque-Gothic transition in Italy. Built gradually, starting from the 13th century, it took almost a century and a half of changes in design, various extensions, and lengthy interruptions to finish! Inside there are frescoes, statues, rose windows, a marble pulpit, chapels, and even a library that displays manuscripts from the 14-15th centuries! Afterwards, we walked through the museum to climb up and get city views from the “Facciatone.” Then, we weaved in and out of the alleyways that always seemed to lead us back to the heart of the town- the Piazzo del Campo. It’s here where the Torre del Mangia (tower) looms over the shell-shaped piazza that is home to Palio, a horse race which happens twice a year. The charm of Siena definitely grabbed hold of us!

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Built at the behest of the Sienese people as the “greatest monument of Christianity,” worthy witness to the importance of the city during the Middle Ages, the Duomo or Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is one of the architectural masterpieces of the Romanesque-Gothic transition in Italy. The alternating green and white stripes represent the Tuscan Romanesque-Gothic style. The transition from the round arch to the lancet arch (also known as ogee) marked the change from Romanesque to Gothic style. While the round arch transfers the vertical pressure of the superimposed load laterally, the lancet arch channels the weight onto the base of the bearing piers or columns, thus allowing for upwards construction with much lighter buttresses. Romanesque churches, which are often massive and dimly lit, play with space and volume, fostering a sense of prayer and meditation. Gothic churches, however, are streamlined and play with light: appearing for the first time ever were large windows featuring historiated glass panels, frescoed walls, sculptures and ornamental decorations with floral motifs, especially in the Mediterranean area. In the Duomo of Siena the two styles appear side by side, although the original Romanesque style influenced and restricted later changes that were made in Gothic style. These changes can especially be seen in the large windows and the ornamental decorations, while the verticality of the building is attenuated by the round arches in the nave and the alternating two-tone stripes.

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The interior is 89 meters long and 54 wide at the crossing, 24 at the naves. Artistically speaking, it is one of Italy’s richest churches. Some of the most beautiful and important works from an art-historical point of view include the pulpit by Nicola Pisano, the frescoes by Pinturicchio, and the inlaid floor. 

The floor consists of 56 panels, most of which are between the 14th and 16th century by various artists, almost all of whom are natives of Siena. The central nave contains the oldest panels, of one is a mosaic, a technique replaced by inlaid marble in the 14th century. In the 16th century, Beccafumi introduced several new artistic techniques, which included a stunning chiaroscuro effect. All the panels have been restored several times over the centuries. 

The central nave and the choir are surrounded by a long series of 171 papal busts made in the late 15th century. The series begins at the center of the apse with Saint Peter and continues clockwise around the entire Duomo. Beneath the Popes are 35 busts of emperors made in the 16th century. The decoration inside the dome dates to the 15th century. The six large statues in gilt stucco by Giovanni di Stefano represent the six Sienese saints (Ansanus, Sabinus, Crescentius, Victor, Catherine, and Bernardo). The lantern is the work of Bernini (1666). The obvious asymmetry can be seen by looking up at the dome from below.

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Dome

The pulpit is said to perhaps be the most important 13th century Italian sculpture. It was made by Nicola Pisano with the help of his son Giovanni and Arnolfo di Cambio. The access stairway and the bridge replaced the original ones in the 16th century, when a lower marble platform was added. The central column is supported by a base in which the liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy) and philosophy are represented, while eight virtues are represented above the capitols. The large, crowed and strongly expressive panels, whose movements are realistic and dramatic, illustrate biblical episodes. They are joined by larger figures that serve to give the story its continuity. It is a story by images that starts to the right of the staircase, conceived for a public of worshippers most of whom could neither read or write. It is certainly one of the most exquisite pieces that I have ever seen!

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Walk through a small side door and you’ll end up up in a little hidden paradise- that many actually miss! The Piccolomini Library is a treasure within a treasure and my favorite part of the Duomo! To understand why a library is in the cathedral is to better understand the importance of the Piccolomini name in Siena. Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini “served as mediator in trying to reconcile Emperor Frederick III with the papal state while helping arrange the emperor’s marriage to Eleonora of Aragon as well as his coronation in Rome. He was instrumental in making all this come about: he was rewarded by becoming the Bishop of Trieste in 1447 and later, the Bishop of Siena in 1450. Very popular and having achieved much success in Rome, he became cardinal in 1456 and, just two years later, was elected as Pope Pius II. So you might see he was a mighty powerful person and why he has this space in the cathedral dedicated to him and, as a consequence, to the family. The Library itself was built by Pope Pius II’s nephew, also a cardinal who also later became Pope Pius III, the library was in memory of his uncle and to conserve the rich collection of manuscripts he had lovingly collected.

Head to the library not so much to admire the manuscripts since the collections never really made it here, even if several beautiful, hand designed volumes are set out, but to admire the frescoes by Pinturicchio and his workshop, which included the young Raffael. (To be able to paint the frescoes in the library, 1502-07, Pinturicchio opened one of the most important painter workshops in the early 16th century, where many young artists came to learn their trade). Admire the colors, the luxuriously dressed figures and detail of each participant, the fine indoor settings, detailed landscapes and clothes. If you’re an art student or aficionado, admire the mastery of perspective in the painted columns that frame each scene and in the backgrounds. The walls are divided into 10 scenes representing various important stages in the life of Pope Pius II.” (https://www.discovertuscany.com/siena/piccolomini-library.html)

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Extremely narrow passages and winding spiral staircases will lead you to one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Siena. The “Facciatone” is an observation point atop an unfinished church facade, with views of centuries-old towers & piazzas.

We already knew that we wouldn’t get to see everything within the short day that we were in Siena, so we made sure to save time to just stroll through the streets of the city, browse the shops, and wander through the colors and emblems of the various contrade districts spotted hanging from the windows and doors of houses. Strolls through any Italian town are always something we make time for. Each city has their own sense of time and daily life.

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Piazza del Campo

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Lindsay View All →

Our roots will forever be from here, America, born and raised. Yet, life requires us to move more frequently than we care to count. Whether living stateside or abroad, you can always find us traveling somewhere. We scout out places that you only think you can dream of one day seeing and we seek out those that aren’t found in guidebooks. We then bring them to life here in our travel memos, so hopefully, one day you too can visit them or at least be able to live vicariously through us. This blog isn’t just about crossing off places from a bucket list. It’s about absorbing and learning how other cultures grow and fit into the same world that we do. Life is short and the world is big. Enjoy and get out there!

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