Art in Siena

The historical monuments of Siena

Here we are with the second article about Siena. In the previous one I gave you some practical information about the town, I talked about Sienese history and about the most important Sienese tradition, the Palio horse race. However, Siena is so much more than that! This time I wanted to introduce you to the magical world of art in Siena. I will talk about the most important Sienese artists of the fourteenth century, Duccio di Buoninsegna, Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  What you cannot miss during your visit to Siena?

The Palazzo Pubblico and the political art in Siena

Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
The Palazzo Pubblico in Siena

When you arrive to Siena, you immediately notice that you are walking through a medieval town. Due to the medieval urbanistic methods, the Sienese streets are dark, narrow, and winding. The impression of enclosure is so strong, that when these narrow streets lead the visitor inside the Piazza del Campo, a vast, open space shaped like a theatre stage or a seashell, everybody stare open-mouthed. The Piazza del Campo is the main square of Siena, formed during the thirteenth century as a market place.

During the fourteenth century the Campo became the centre of the political life of the city thanks to the construction of the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall, the seat of local government. From the political point of view, the period between 1287 and 1355 was particularly important for Siena. At that time the city was ruled by the Government of the Nine formed by a podestà, a chief magistrate, and by the nine consoli della mercanzia, nine consuls elected from the male members of the Sienese middle class. These consuls were tradesmen and artisans and they were elected for two-months terms.

In this way a large part of the Sienese society was involved in the government of the state and actively shaped political and economic life of the city. In fact, the Government of the Nine would leave a long-lasting trace in the Sienese social and artistic life. Most of the seminal monuments preserved in Siena today were commissioned by the governors during this particularly prosperous period in the Sienese history.

Simone Martini, Maestà
Simone Marini, Maestà, 1315, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

Coming to Florence?

Download my free guide to Florence “Art and the City. Two Squares in Five Masterpieces”!

The Government of the Nine not only built the Palazzo Pubblico and thus shaped the space where they would exercise their power, but they also paid the local artists for the decoration of the main rooms of the city hall. Using the power of the images, the rulers wanted to communicate with the Sienese people, to promote their idea of the government and to guarantee the support of the population for their activity.

In 1315 Simone Martini, an already acclaimed Sienese painter, decorated the room of the General Council with the Maestà, a magnificent fresco representing the Virgin Mary enthroned surrounded by saints and angels. The artist framed the scene with a decorated stripe representing the figures of the four evangelists and the prophets. Incorporated within this frame we find various inscriptions containing the words spoken by the Virgin to the rulers of Siena. She warns them against an improper use of their power and recalls that the powerful cannot harm the poor.

Simone Martini, Guidoriccio da Fogliano
Guidoriccio da Fogliano, attr. to Simone Marini, 1330?, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

On the neighbouring walls of the room, the rulers wanted to represent the most important battles won by the Sienese army during the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. In 1363 Lippo Vanni painted the Battle of the Chiana Valley and in 1480 Cristofano Ghini and Francesco d’Andrea added the scene representing the Battle of Poggio Imperiale, won against Florence the previous year. However, the most beautiful of these scenes is the famous fresco representing Guidoriccio da Fogliano and the conquest of the Montemassi Castle.

Guidoriccio, the captain of the Sienese troops is represented horseback, in profile, as he was a Roman emperor. He and his horse both wear a beautiful golden tunic decorated with bands of black lozenges. In the background you can see an arid, almost desert landscape, with a military camp on the right and the Montemassi Castle at the top of a hill on the left. This fresco raised serious debates regarding its attribution. A great part of the critics ascribes the painting to Simone Martini who, according to a document in our possession, was commissioned by the Sienese government to paint the Montemassi Castle in the room in 1328.

However, the restoration works conducted in 1980 revealed that beneath Guidoriccio there is another fresco painted in 1364 by Lippo Vanni. You understand that it is impossible that in 1330 Simone Martini painted the fresco atop of a work made in 1364. Therefore, some art historians think, that this beautiful composition is actually a much later pastiche painted between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The answer to this question remains a real mystery of art in Siena.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of a Good Government
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of a Good Government, 1338-1339, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

The political communication between the government and the Sienese society did not end here. Between 1338 and 1339 Ambrogio Lorenzetti decorated the walls of the neighbouring room, the so-called Room of Peace, with the frescoes representing the consequences of a good and of a bad government. This exceptional work represents a unique example of a political frescoes in fourteenth-century Italy.

The composition includes three scenes. On the central wall you can see a female figure sitting of a throne who is Lady Justice. The Divine Wisdom above her holds Justitia’s balance.  Below her the Concordia, the allegory of Concord, gathers the two threads coming from the two plates of the balance and unites them creating one cord. She then offers this cord to the Sienese citizens who unite all together and keep the cord in their hands. This is a very convincing visual depiction of the concept of harmony and union between the Sienese. It is based on a very simple word play with “concord” as “con” (with) and “cord”.

Coming to Florence?

Download my free guide to Florence “Art and the City. Two Squares in Five Masterpieces”!

The Sienese united by the Concord become a community and their procession reaches the throne of a man wearing black and white dress and holding a shield and a sceptre. He takes in his hand the cord given by the Concord. The man represents a double allegory of the common good and of the Sienese commune at the same time. He is surrounded by the virtues: Charity, Hope and Faith above him and Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance and Justice at his sides. This central figure represents the Sienese government, which inspired by the most noble ideal rules Siena and guarantees the prosperity, peace and unity of the community. In fact, the Consequences of the Good Government are represented on the neighbouring wall and their clearly refer to the situation of Siena under the rule of the Nine.

The neighbouring fresco depicts a busy day in fourteenth-century Siena. We see busy Sienese people at work, such as shoemakers and bricklayers constructing a new house. There are the weavers and the peasants, but we also see dancing girls and noblemen entering the city. Behind the city wall opens the Sienese countryside where farmers harvest their crops and merchants travel with all different goods on sell.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Consequences of a Good Government,
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Consequences of a Good Government, 1338-1339, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

The aim of this beautiful fresco is to show that a good and honest government can guarantee social cohesion between the citizens and can bring wealth and peace. To be more eloquent the decoration included also the depiction of an opposite situation. On the other wall Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the consequences of the bad government.

First, we see an Allegory of the Bad Bovernment clearly referring to the image of the common good from the opposite wall. Here the tyrant sits on a throne surrounded by vices: Avarice, Pride, Vainglory above him and Cruelty, Betrayal, Fraud, Fury, Division and War at his sides. Below him we can see poor Lady Justice, chained and imprisoned, unable to act. On the left we see Siena ruled by the tyrant. This part of the fresco is the most damaged one, but we still can discern death and poverty of the town. There are soldiers everywhere. In the country the fields are left uncultivated and villages are set on fire. The Sienese palaces fall apart. Was there a better way to convince the Sienese of the importance of Common Good and social cohesion? The actuality of these frescoes continues to surprise us daily and this unique decoration is one of the most interesting treasures of political art in Siena.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of a Bad Government,
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, The Allegory of a Bad Government, 1338-1339, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

The Cathedral and the treasures of art in Siena

Façade of the Sienese Cathedral
The Upper Part of the Façade of the Sienese Cathedral.

The Sienese cathedral is one of the most beautiful churches in Italy. The present basilica was built during the thirteenth century on a pre-existent structure dating back to the ninth century. According to the tradition the church was consecrated on 18 November 1179 by the Sienese pope Alexander III. In 1339 the cathedral administrators set up a new ambitious project aimed at the enlargement of the existing church. At the same time, Florence was working on the construction of a new cathedral and the designed church surpassed the Sienese one in size. It was a sufficient reason for the Sienese to plan the extension of the existing structure.

The idea was to turn the extant construction into the transept of a new, bigger cathedral. The works envisaged the construction of a new Baptistery, which would support the enlarged part of the old structure. At the same time, the Sienese started to construct a new, enormous main nave of their church. Unfortunately, the plague of 1348 forced Siena to interrupt the works on this ambitious project. After the plague Siena was too weak to continue the construction of the new cathedral. Moreover, over the years emerged some structural problems with the walls of the new church. Thus, the administrators decided to abandon the initial project and to conclude the works on the old cathedral. The area of the main altar was enlarged and the works in the Baptistery were concluded. 

Coming to Florence?

Download my free guide to Florence “Art and the City. Two Squares in Five Masterpieces”!

Moreover, the city continued to invest in the internal decoration of the Cathedral and the Baptistery, commissioning numerous works of art for Siena. Their efforts resulted in the creation of one of the most opulent and beautiful churches on the Italian peninsula.
During your visit you cannot miss:

  • façade – magnificent gothic façade of the cathedral is decorated with Giovanni Pisano’s statues carved between 1284 and 1297. The statues represent prophets, patriarchs, philosophers and evangelists. Today the originals are kept in the cathedral museum. At the top of the façade you will find the nineteenth-century mosaics with the scenes from the Virgin’s life: Presentation in the Temple, Birth of Jesus and Coronation of the Virgin.
  • floor – the floor of the Sienese cathedral is adorned with inlaid “graffiti”. The works on this marvellous decoration started in 1369 and lasted until the eighteenth century. On the floor you will see some allegorical scenes, like the Allegory of Fortune designed by Pinturicchio, figures of Sybils and stories of the Old Testament prophets. The floor is covered for protection for great part of the year, but you can admire its entire decoration during the summer and in autumn. For updated information about the visit, check the cathedral’s website
  • Nicola Pisano’s pulpit – between 1265 and 1268 Nicola Pisano, one of the most important medieval sculptors active in Tuscany during the thirteenth century, carved a marble pulpit for the Sienese cathedral, a real tresure of medieval art in Siena. Octagonal structure supported by nine columns represents the scenes from Life of Christ and the Last Judgment
  • Piccolomini library – this room was supposed to host the books of the Sienese pope Pius II Piccolomini. It was commissioned by the pope nephew, cardinal Francesco Piccolomini Todeschini, elected later on the papal throne with the name of Pius III. The walls of the library are decorated with the frescoes by Pinturicchio designed in collaboration with Raphael. The frescoes tell Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s life, from his participation to the council in Basel until his election on the papal throne, the canonization of Saint Catherine of Siena and his participation in the organization of a crusade against the Ottoman Empire.   

The Cathedral Museum and Duccio’s Maestà

After your visit to the cathedral, don’t miss the cathedral museum where you will find the original statues from the façade and the marvellous stained-glass window from the rosette. It was designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna and executed by some unknown glass masters at between 1287 and 1290. In the central part of the window you find the three episodes from the Virgin’s life: the Dormition, the Assumption and the Coronation of the Virgin. At the corners you can see the four evangelists and at the centre, there are the figures of patron saints of Siena, Saint Bartholomew, Saint Ansanus, Saint Crescentius and Saint Sabinus. Admire the colours of this unique work, so perfectly preserved to our times.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maestà,
Duccio di Buoninsegna, Maestà, 1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena.

On the first floor of the museum you will find Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà, the most famous treasure of art in Siena, which decorated the high altar of the cathedral until 1506. It was painted between 1308 and 1311 and brought to the cathedral with a triumphant parade through the streets of Siena. Today dismembered, the Maestà is a gigantic composition decorated on both sides. The front represents the Virgin in throne with Saints, Prophets and Evangelists. On the back Christ Life was narrated in twenty-six panels. The painting was moved to a side altar in 1506 and in 1771 it was dismembered and transferred to a church in Castelvecchio di Siena. The bigger panels would return to the cathedral and in 1878 they would be put into the museum. As some of the panels are hopelessly lost, the scholars still argue about the original order of the scenes.

The view on Siena from the "facciatone"
The view on Siena from the “facciatone”.

At the end of your visit to the museum you may climb the “facciatone”, the wall of the unfinished façade designed for the new, never concluded, cathedral. From the top you can admire a beautiful view on Siena and on the surrounding countryside.

I am sure you will have a marvellous time during your stay in Siena!

If you’re planning your holiday in Tuscany and you want to discover the art of Siena with me, contact me! We can organize your private tour of Siena!