Siena is a city of art and architecture in a country replete with both. Thanks to a multi-site ticket, I spent the better part of two days ducking into museums and church premises for some fast-paced art history lessons. From the Italian Gothic Duomo and Baptistery, to the medieval buildings of Santa Maria della Scala across the piazza, it was heady going. I expected glorious sculptures in Siena, and I found them. The frescoes and decorated pavements were a surprise and a delight. Here’s a bite-sized sampler.
Inside the Duomo, large marble paving stones with sgraffito engravings depict biblical themes, secular commemorations and allegories. The Allegory of Virtue, with touches of red and orange, is just one of the more than fifty images sprawling across the cathedral’s floor.
The frescoes of the Libreria Piccolomini Library illuminate the city’s religio-political Renaissance past. Rippling up the four walls of the library, the luminous works commemorate the life and career of Pius II, born Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini in nearby Pienza in 1405.
One panel portrays the future pope as a diplomat, attending the Council of Basel (!). Others depict his accomplishments, including making cardinal (1456), then pope (1458); and less successful ventures, such as a failed crusade to regain Constantinople from the Turks (1456). And then there is the event for which Pius II is most remembered here –the canonization of St Catherine of Siena.
Across the Piazza del Duomo, a stone bench runs the length of Santa Maria della Scala, Siena’s main hospital for over eight hundred years. Formerly used by visitors to the hospital, anyone wanting to soak up a front-on view of the Duomo stops for a rest.
The hospital is now a museum and arts complex, with an impressive fresco cycle remarkable for the portrayal of secular subjects and the hospital’s promotion of charity toward the sick and orphaned. Eight massive panels depict scenes from the hospital’s history and Sienese daily life of the 15th century. No cameras are allowed inside, but trust me, the works are grand.
The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo has wonderful ecclesiastic sculpture, and a viewing platform that provides a scenic look at the city. But how can the merchandise on offer in the museum shop, housed in the former Chiesa San Nicolò in Sasso, ever hope to compete with its over-the-top decor?
Headed back to my hotel, I happened on a street artist. His pastel-on-pavement Caravaggio copy may not have the cachet of the historical frescoes I saw, but the guy is good humored and has a way with a piece of chalk.
Siena begs for a return visit!