Two years ago on a trip to Florence, Italy, we took a side trip to Siena to see the beautiful Duomo, the main cathedral. The west facade of this church is considered one of the most fascinating in Italy. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. When we came around the corner of the cathedral, I said, “Holy cow!”, pulled out my cameras and started shooting like a maniac. Here’s the entire west facade with the main entrance.
As we get a little closer, you’ll see what all the fuss is about. Look at this facade! I’ve never seen so many figures exploding from a surface.
Look at them all! Horses, cows, lions, griffins, prophets, philosophers and apostles, all seemingly walking through the walls, the animals launching themselves into the air. It’s electric with energy, churning with figures and creatures moving in all directions, creating a wildly dynamic silhouette, dramatic and completely unexpected.
The cathedral itself was built on top of a 9th century church, designed and completed between 1215 and 1263. Most of the sculptures decorating the lower level of this lavish facade were designed and sculpted by Giovanni Pisano and his assistants between 1285 and 1297. Then creative differences erupted and Pisano bailed out, replaced by Camaino di Crescentino, who took over from 1299 until 1317, when everyone was redirected to the east facade. The upper half of the west facade was added in the 14th century. A massive addition to the cathedral was planned in 1339, but abandoned due to construction errors and the Black Death, which wiped out 80% of Siena’s population.
Think of all the craftsmen required to complete a structure like this. Stone cutters, sculptors, mortar makers, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, roofers and glass makers. And we haven’t even gotten to the artists who’ll decorate the interior. All masters of their craft, dedicated to spending their entire careers on one structure. Few of these craftsmen had the satisfaction of seeing the cathedral finished; their reward was the thought that their families would one day worship in a cathedral they had helped create.
How is a cathedral like this built in 1215? Where are the cranes, the hoists, the elevators we use today? Not to mention that most of the construction had to be done during the warmer months, since the mortar wouldn’t set properly if the weather was too cold. The only work that was continued during the winter was stone carving, which could be completed indoors. There’s a great book, “Cathedral: The Story of its Construction” by David Macaulay that explains it all, with beautiful drawings to boot.
Now it’s time to enter this beautiful building. The interior is dark, dramatic, awe-inspiring.
The black and white marble used throughout is stunning, the contrast in color delivering an unexpected graphic punch. Imagine the cathedral when it was first completed, lit only by candles, light pouring through the windows, the cold stone structure without heat, the echoing tap and shuffle of shoes on its stone floors.
The fantastic interior of the dome is my favorite feature inside. The surface of the dome is smooth; the trompe l’oeil illusion of three dimensional blue and gold starred coffers is entirely painted, completed in the late 15th century. Here’s a post explaining what trompe l’oeil is if you’d like to know more about the technique.
The Siena cathedral is also known for its extraordinary inlaid marble mosaic floor, crafted by forty artists between 1373 and 1547. Unfortunately, there were too many people and too little light to shoot properly, plus it’s partially covered for protection.
Another interesting feature of Siena is all of the sculptures of Romulus and Remus, the two Roman gods who were suckled by a she-wolf. They’re everywhere. This little strip showing one of the sculptures is from my contact sheet of Diana photos which I have yet to print. A shot of the town is on the right.
According to legend, Siena was founded by Remus’s sons, Senius and Aschius, who left Rome with the statue of the she-wolf, which they had stolen from Apollo’s temple. This sculpture became the symbol of Siena. The symbolic colors of Siena, black and white, (hence the black and white marble used to build the cathedral) also come from these two troublemakers; Aschius rode a black horse and Senius rode a white one.
We spent most of the day wandering through this lovely little town.
I was so busy taking pictures, there wasn’t much time to draw. Here’s a page from my sketchbook describing that day, which was pretty much perfect!