The Duomo, the highlight of any trip to Siena
We’d been to Siena once before, but it was over 20 years ago and only for a day or at most two. So with a couple days before meeting Dan & Laura in Florence it made a perfect stop.
Siena is such a beautiful city in part because it failed. Back in medieval times Siena – allied primarily with the Holy Roman Emperor – competed with Florence, a supporter of the Pope in his battles with the Holy Roman Empire. By the late 13th century Florence had won and essentially subjugated Siena. So while Florence flourished and moved into the Renaissance, Siena remained stuck in its Gothic time warp. By the time the plague hit in the mid-14th century, killing half of Siena’s residents, they no longer had the strength to resist the Florentine Medici encroachment.
A little pre-dinner stop on one of the winding side streets of Siena
That history is abundantly alive as you walk through the city today, with UNESCO recognizing it as “the embodiment of a medieval city.” The highlight of all this is the Duomo, dating from the 13th century. The exterior is simply stunning, a gorgeous blend of white, green, and red marble. And then you go inside. Again, simply stunning, with black and white marble stripes giving the space real character. The marble inlaid floor, with over 50 panels designed by dozens of artists, is one of a kind. One of the side doors in the church leads to the Piccolomini Library, named for the guy who later became Pius II, has beautiful frescoes all around the walls and ceiling. These pictures can only begin to give a sense of it.
Interior of the Duomo
St. Paul, standing outside the Piccolomini Library, was sculpted by a young Michelangelo in the early 16th century, one of four of his statues in the Duomo. It is said that the face is a self portrait.
The canonization of St. Catherine of Siena, one of the frescoes in the Piccolomini Library (presumably before she was beheaded). The character in red tights in the lower left was Raphael, who was a young assistant to the primary painter Pintorichio, standing to his left.
There were a few other sites associated with the Duomo that were treats as well. A nearby museum houses a lot of the original artwork from the church, while the nearby baptistry has works by Ghiberti and Donatello, two of the most important early Renaissance sculptors whose works inspired Michelangelo. At some point in the 14th century there was a plan to expand the Duomo massively. They got some of it built, but then the plague hit and the economy went to hell and it was discovered that there were some serious problems with the architecture and they abandoned it. The good news though is that one of the major walls is still standing and you can climb up for some great views.
Some of the original statues from the Duomo, now housed in a nearby museum. They were made to be viewed from far below, explaining the strange way they lean out when viewed straight on.
Mark atop the wall that was supposed to form part of the New Duomo. The expansion was never completed but the remaining wall makes a great viewing point.
What else? The Piazza del Campo is the main square and the location of a twice-yearly horse race that’s been going on since the 16th century. The iconic tower of the Public Palace is another long climb with great views.
View of the Campo from atop the Tower. During the daytime heat, people were always lined up inside the Tower’s shade.
And then there’s St. Catherine of Siena. A saintly native of Siena (and probably a little weird), she died in Rome in 1380. Siena wanted her body back, but they knew they couldn’t get the whole body past the Roman guards who protected important relics. So a few of them went down to Rome, cut off her head, and brought that back, where it’s now proudly on display in a big church. They don’t let you too close, but it’s clearly a head.
St. Catherine’s head. Photos weren’t allowed, so this is cadged from the web.
And just in case there’s any doubt about the authenticity, there’s a sign in both English and Italian that says
The relic of the sacred head of Saint Catherine of Siena has been conserved in this basilica since 1383.
Numerous official and historical documents have established its veracity.
The relic is the real head of Saint Catherine of Siena.
OK, does that settle it?
Finally, two changes we’ve noticed since our last visit. The small but sad change is at the top of the tower in the Piazza del Campo. When we were there in 1995 there were no “artificial” barriers around the perimeter. You could sit on the stones and – if you made a mistake – fall to your death. We were amazed that there had been no lawsuits requiring them to close it off and we’ve remarked on that difference between Italy and the U.S. many, many times since. Today? Yeah, railings around the top.
You used to be able to just sit on that wall, though it could be fatal. Alas, now it’s safe.
And the other big change? The number of tourists. My God, but Siena is just swarming with hordes of tourists. Now admittedly we’re there in peak season but still. Wow. The world is getting richer and millions more people have the means to travel. On balance that’s a good thing. But it turns a place like Siena into something more akin to Disney World than a medieval city.
From here we’re off to Florence to meet Dan & Laura. I’m sure we won’t have so many tourists there. Right?
A view of Siena and the Duomo
One of the marble inlays on the floor of the Duomo. This is Fortune, showing how unstable good luck can be with one foot on a sphere and the other on a boat with a broken mast.
Hermes Trismegistus in marble on the floor of the Duomo. Believed to be derived from the Greek god of religion and mythology, Hermes, Hermes Trismegistus was thought to be a divine source of wisdom. Given his pagan roots, I was surprised to find him here in the Duomo, but his writings were big during the Renaissance.
Siena in the light of a setting sun
Madonna with one of the ugliest Baby Jesuses I’ve ever seen
The Piccolomini Library, inside the Duomo
Another view of Siena
Me & Mark atop the wall of the never-finished New Duomo. The new church would have been enormous, reaching al the way back to that bell tower.
More elegant food
This boarded up hotel was right across the street from our favorite lunch stop. We’re thinking with a little renovation this could be our next project.