Brace yourself for a spectacle at the Siena Duomo…
Digital familiarity is a far cry from the real thing. And no amount of images can prepare you enough for this fascinating walled city built on three hills in the heart of Tuscany. Siena is bound to spring like a charming surprise onto your unsuspecting traveling soul…and reserve its own tiny corner forever. This dawned upon us the moment our cab entered one of the city gates and started navigating a curvy, concentric, seemingly confusing route through a tight maze of solid stone-and-brick palazzos spread over 170 hectares.
You would never seen anything like Siena before! So, get your bearings and get onto those cobbled streets, some of them steep enough to challenge your breath. Just one kilometre of each other, are two spaces that create more drama than you can digest in a day. The first is the Piazza del Campo, the site of the annual historic Palio race. And the second one, is the Piazza del Duomo, which graces (no prizes for guessing) the Duomo.
A narrow street lined with a few restaurants suddenly opens on to a largish semi-shadowed square and the ornate facade of the Siena’s Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria) slips into your line of vision. Back up for a full-scale picture of the 13th-century Romanesque-Gothic marble glory in white-and-black, all the way till you’re forced to stop at the walls of the red-brick-stone buildings lining the square. The uncanny resemblance to the Florence Duomo is not coincidental.
Absorb the whiteness and the blackness of the dual-colored structure, making a mental connection to the black and white horses of the legendary founders of the city – Senius and Aschius. As you queue up, debate over the combo-ticket options, stare at the 77-m tall striped marble bell tower attached to the far side and wonder about the unfinished wall extension (Facciatone), where ant-like tourists are gawking at some possibly stunning vistas. And imagine…if the plague hadn’t put a cog in the wheel, Siena’s Duomo would have been one of the world’s most monumental tributes to God.
Stepping through the solid bronze doors of the Cathedral, you will literally freeze in your tracks, momentarily. Is it a Cathedral or a living museum…you will struggle to re-categorize. Most likely, your eyes will be darting in all directions, distracted by the sheer overload of beauty encased within the towering walls. It will be overwhelming…but calm down, make a mental plan, decide a route, avoid bumping into the rest of the dumbstruck- awe-struck zombies and…well, try blinkers. Too much?
Whether your mind applies logic or your heart unleashes instinct, the one most dominating feature of the Duomo will command your attention first and stay with you forever…its the unusual stripes of horizontally alternating black-and-white marble on the massive columns separating the nave from the apse.
Once you have ogled at this marvel, proceed to greedily drink in the sights on the walls. Every square foot is plastered with Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque frescoes and sculptures by some of the finest artists of the period. Unbelievable masterpieces, all. There’s more. Nearly 200 life-size statues of solemn popes. A stunning cobalt-blue ceiling studded with thousands of delicate golden stars. And at the end of the central nave, a gorgeous hexagonal dome with a golden-panelled ceiling topped with a lantern, courtesy GianLorenzo Bernini, which will certainly give you a crick in the neck, if you gape as long as I did.
But the real spectacle? One that few are privy to? Because its hidden from plain sight most of the time? A priceless treasure to behold? Ok, ok, cutting to the suspense. Its right under your feet…you’ll be walking over it! For most part of the year, it is covered except for a couple of months, usually starting during mid-August.
The 14,000 square feet inlaid marble mosaic floor is nothing short of spectacular. Crafted by 40 of the most skilled artists of Siena region, it comprises of 59 panels of various sizes and shapes – rectangular, hexagonal, rhombus and circular – that have images as intricate as paintings. Classical, pagan themes and scenes from the Old Testament or Siena’s history come alive under your feet…this is a visual spectacle running through time!
Giorgio Vasari, legendary Italian artist is said to have described it as “the most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made”. Who are we to disagree! Kneel down to study the design closely. What look like giant drawings on the floor are really etchings on the marble…tiny holes and lines filled with black stucco and mineral pitch and a technique similar to wood inlaying.
Admire the intricate borders, edging patterns and filler motifs …an array of fine designs that can give any modern designer a run for his money. Contemplate the stunning level of craftsmanship…minute details of contrasting light and dark of the marble inlay…and the incredible result.
Some of them are monochrome and classic in appeal…like giant charcoal sketches. Others have warm touches and varying tones of ochre and rust. Follow the outline of each elegant angle and curve sprawled over the marble floor, gather up the soft folds of the robes, trace the sharp contours of the faces. And feel your goosebumps.
More breathlessness awaits you in the Piccolomini Library commissioned by Pope Pius III. Fabulous frescos on the ceiling and walls will make you gasp. Giant choir books on display shelves will leave you in muted silence. And the symphony of crescent pattern on the floor will make you sigh.
Later, with your heart filled with solemn admiration, as you leave the hallowed interiors and return to reality in the piazza, you will agree that Siena Duomo is an art-piece in a league of its own, a sweet symphony that would have even made God smile.