Third times the charm.
At least it was for me, on my third visit to Siena this past September. The first time I went I was studying abroad in Florence. We went by train with no preparation, climbed the Torre del Mangia, Italy’s second tallest tower, and otherwise just ambled around aimlessly with no idea of what we were seeing or doing. It was nice, but not particularly fulfilling. The second time I went by night, and saw an entirely different face of the city. We split a fiorentina steak and joined the throngs of people, young and old, in Piazza del Campo with a beer to listen to the music being played by some teenagers and admire the magnificent tower against the night sky. It was beautiful and unique, but I still didn’t learn much about the city itself.
The third time I played the tourist: I finally got to go inside the beautiful Duomo of Siena.
The Siena Duomo, formally called Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, is a magnificent 13th-century church in the heart of Siena. Dubbed one of Italy’s finest Gothic churches, I’ve enjoyed the colors, spires, and rose window that grace its façade many a time, but you need more than a cursory glance to appreciate it fully. The true beauty of the cathedral is in its detail. It’s in the wall-to-wall marble mosaic floor designs, it’s in the spiraled columns of the enormous baptistry and the remaining frescoes of the crypt.
It’s easy to get “church-fatigue” while traveling in Italy, but leave room for wonder in Siena’s Duomo, you’ll need it.
On this trip we decided for the Opa Si all-inclusive pass to see the Duomo and all its related sights. This included the museum with a panoramic walk, the baptistry, crypt, cathedral, Piccolomini Library inside the cathedral and a new tour up into the eaves of the cathedral. Called the Gates of Heaven tour, it takes you up many steps to walk along the attic and walkways of the Cathedral, inside and out.
It was incredible.
You can visit any part in whatever order you wish. We started ours with the museum and a panoramic walk along the would-be façade. Back in the 14th century big plans were made to expand the cathedral and effectively build the largest Gothic building in all of Italy. They wanted to turn the church 90 degrees, making the current façade a side entrance and the new church would stretch more than 100 meters to the bigger, grander façade open to the center of town, rather than into an angle of buildings as it is now.
Work began on the new Facciatone just some 20 years after the original Duomo was finished. They managed to build a small foundation, a handful of pillars and a ghost outline of the would-be façade before the black plague hit and the money and manpower for the project ran out. Today it still stands, unfinished, a testament to big plans foiled by nature.
Though the Duomo expansion wasn’t meant to be, what stands is still a modern-day marvel. Siena has always been a major power in Tuscany, fighting against Florence for fortune and fame. If you want to understand more about a place’s history while in Italy, look no further than the town’s duomo (major church). Siena’s is filled with the Italy’s top artists of the time: Donatello, Ghiberti, the Pisano brothers and Bernini. The entire structure is made using dozens of different kinds of marble, the floor deeply inlaid marble mosaics and rich Old Testament scenes show the town’s extreme wealth. The entire inside is united by color. Namely, the thick black and white stripes that cover the walls and columns, matching the side walls on the exterior. Few other cathedrals make better use of color and light to ignite religious fervor, or anyway to show off wealth and power.
More striking than the striped columns, however, is the mosaic floor. Covering the entire floor of the cathedral, the floor shows more than 50 enormous marble panels representing scenes from the Old Testament, usually framed by elaborate, imaginative designs and patterns. The dizzying patterns were honestly one of my favorite parts of the cathedral. Each was unique, each a print we’d see today on a designer frock, most still in their original state.
Finally, it was time to visit the Gates of Heaven. We followed a guide up yet another narrow staircase into the eaves and attic of the Duomo. From up top we saw the black and white striped marble up close and statues of saints on pillars flanked by stained glass windows. We saw the shine of gold stars decorating the inside of the dome, each of their 8 points still perfectly defined in its own frescoed square, a frame of weaving patterns around it.
We saw a sample of each and every marble used in the making of the cathedral: the infamous white Carrara marble, serpentine green from Prato, clear Travertino. Marble collected from different parts of Tuscany, slowly, painstakingly: ivory, pearl gray, ochre, pink, marbled and red. Inside the rafters we saw a sketch left on the wall by an architect, describing to the workers just how it’s gonna be. A simple sketch during the throes of work, more beautiful than I could do after years of training. From up high we saw the dizzying patterns that fill the Cathedral. Each enormous marbled square below impressive in its detail.
Then we headed outside. Walking along the narrow pathway that strings around the actual Duomo, we could see the angels and saints of the façade standing tall. Beyond them was the Torre del Mangia, rising taller than it seems a tower should. We saw perfectly the proposed layout of the new church planned in the 14th century and the sun lowering over the glittering gold mosaics and white spires of the beautiful Duomo of Siena.
There are a million ways to visit a city, but few offer a glimpse into the Gates of Heaven.
How to visit:
Tickets can be bought once in Siena at the ticket booth to the right of the Duomo. The OPA SI PASS (which includes the museum and panoramic walk on the Facciatone, the baptistry, crypt and Cathedral entrance + Gates of Heaven + guided tour of the Cathedral’s roofs) costs 20 €. Dress appropriately or wear a white paper cape given to you upon entrance to the Cathedral.
Love love love Siena and Tuscany? Read more:
Photo essay: A Tuscan Road Trip in Val d’Orcia
Why You Absolutely Have to Do Research Before Traveling (to understand Siena’s incredible history!)
My Favorite Foods in Tuscany and Umbria