Siena Cathedral is one of the highlights of a trip to Tuscany. A marvel both outside and in.
A visit to Siena’s Gothic Cathedral is an event in itself. A temple to religious fervour and Sienese pride, it has an awe inspiring interior, splendid works of art and a remarkable view from its roof.
A short walk from Piazza del Campo leads you to the other focal point of Siena, the Cathedral Square. The imposing Duomo, lavishly decorated, dominates the square and fills it with light. The black, white and pink marble, and the facade’s rich golden decor add to the splendour of a building, that is one the most important Gothic edifices in Italy.
It took more than two hundred years to build (from the mid-12th century). It was supposed to be enlarged in 1339, but the work stopped with the arrival of the plague that killed off much of the population. You can still see the unfinished nave (called “facciatone”) and today visitors can climb it to get an amazing view point of the church and its surroundings. The side aisle of the unfinished nave was roofed over and today hosts the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo.
The splendid facade of Siena Cathedral
The cathedral was the first in Italy to display the rich treasury of forms and figures following the pattern of French Gothic cathedrals. On the facade there are 35 statues of prophets and patriarchs grouped around the Virgin. These are copies, the originals are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Giovanni Pisano started the decorations of the lower part of the facade, but in 1296 he left the city and his work was completed 100 years later by Giovanni di Cecco. The mosaics were added in the 19th century.
The highlights of Siena Cathedral
Nothing can prepare you for what you’ll find inside. The striking black and white columns. The gold stars that float above you in blue vaults. The profusion of statues, from Donatello to Michelangelo to Bernini. It turns ancient art into a visceral experience.
Highlights include the marble pulpit, a sculptural masterpiece by Nicola Pisano, and the Piccolomini Library whose walls are decorated with the magnificent fresco cycle by Pinturicchio.
Siena Cathedral’s inlaid marble floor was a grand project that was realised between the 14th and 18th centuries. In the words of Vasari, it is “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent that ever was made”.
Today however much of this treasure remains hidden from view. The mosaic panels in the nave and aisles are usually visible. However the other, more precious mosaics, spend most of the year covered by protective flooring, as they are located right underneath where people sit for mass. The coverings are only removed during special occasions, often in September and October, and always during il Palio.
Find out about the fascinating “Gate of Heaven” tour, that leads you to discover the upper level of the cathedral. It’s among the top things to do in Siena.
If you only have one day to spend in Siena, we recommend you an early start, and a visit to the Cathedral in the morning. For more tips, check out our Siena in a day itinerary.