“The most beautiful… largest and most magnificent… ever made”. This is how Giorgio Vasari described the floor of Siena Cathedral, a real masterpiece created between the 14th and the 19th century. This unique work of art is visible just once a year for about two months: we had the chance to admire it this year, and we decided to share our experience with you.
How was it created?
The ideas of the artists who took part in the creation of the floor were transposed with the graffito and marble inlay techniques. The first one uses white marble slabs, which are traced out with a chisel and a drill. After that, they are filled in with black stucco. The graffito technique was then supplemented by the second one we mentioned, the marble mosaic inlay. This consists in placing coloured marble pieces together using the marquetry method. Made by the most important artists between the 14th and 19th century, the main message they wanted to communicate through this incredible pavement is an invitation to embrace Wisdom. At the beginning of the central nave, for instance, an inscription invites the visitor to assume an appropriate attitude before entering this sacred building: Castissimus Virginis Templum Caste Memento Ingredi ("Remember to enter chastely into the chastest temple of the Virgin").
Masterpieces on the floor
There are different characters represented on this floor, such as 10 Sibyls named after their geographical areas, like the Erythraean Sybilla, the Persian one, the Libyan Sibylla and the Tiburtine one. Moving down the nave there’s another fundamental representation, the She-Wolf Suckling the Twins with all the symbols of the most important cities in Italy around it. This may be the oldest area of the mosaic, due to the different techniques used. The She-Wolf was adopted as the symbol of Siena in the Middle Ages in reference to the city’s founders, Remus sons. Transept and chancel are adorned too, but with different themes: while the nave and side aisles contain episodes from Classical antiquity and the Pagan world, these two relate the story of the Children of Israel and the story of salvation through the figure of Christ, which is never portrayed on the floor, though. The hexagon and other panels close by the altar were made by Domenico Beccafumi, a Mannerist painter who perfected the marble mosaic inlay technique achieving a chiaroscuro effect with it, something which had never been seen before.
Why is this floor the most beautiful ever seen?
Siena Cathedral’s floor is not the most beautiful just because Vasari stated that. The monument certainly contains a great number of masterpieces from every age, but it’s marble mosaic inlay and graffito floor is in many ways its most precious possession. We are talking about 56 inlay panels supplied by Sienese artists - except for the Umbrian painter Pinturicchio, who created the Mount of Wisdom inlay in 1505. The best of Italian art and culture between the 14th and the 19th century can be found in just one place, giving the possibility to admire works made by the most famous and great artists of this period.
The floor is not the only reason to visit Siena Cathedral
We could talk about the Duomo for hours, because there are infinite reasons for which you should visit it at least once in lifetime. Let’s mention the most important ones, the Piccolomini Library and the Pulpito.
Piccolomini Library was made by Pope Pius III (Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini) in memory of his maternal uncle Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (Pope Pius II). Created to preserve his collection of books and manuscripts collected while he was in Rome, the library is inspired by the Vatican Library and the French tradition of having libraries close to the main cathedrals. Religion and education went hand in hand at the time, and this was a way to create a centre of scholarship and a modern artistic expression at the same time. The frescoes inside Piccolomini Library were painted by Pinturicchio between 1503 and 1508, as a celebration of the life and works of Pope Pius II.
Let’s now deal with the Pulpito. Three years of work by Nicola Pisano led to this unique splendor, which was at the beginning attributed to his son Giovanni. Started in 1265, the Pulpito is the most important work of art of all 1200 in Italy. The structure reminds to the Pulpito of Pisa’s baptistery, completed by the same author in 1260, just five years earlier. The good news is that these two masterpieces can be visited all year round, so if you’re planning to come to Tuscany these days you can enjoy a visit to the Cathedral with our expert guide anyway. To see Siena Duomo’s floor too, you should come to Siena between the end of August and the end of October, you can book our Tour following this link and visit not only Siena, but also San Gimignano and Monteriggioni!
Last but not least, we would like to thank our guide Rita Ceccarelli Grazi, who welcomed us inside the Cathedral and lead us through the discovery of one of the most beautiful floors we have ever seen worldwide.