Back to Tuscany – Siena

One of the nice things about living in Italy is that most of the places we want to visit are no more than a few hours away. We decided to spend a few days in Tuscany, to visit places we haven’t been to since before the pandemic – or in some cases, even longer ago than that.

We started with Siena, a city we have visited several times, most recently in 2018. Everything is open for business, but since it was February there weren’t many tourists. So we got to see some spectacular things without being surrounded by throngs of people. It was nice.


The Duomo of Siena is justly famous, but rarely have we been able to appreciate just how large it was. Easier to see without all the people – particularly on the inside.

The Piccolomini Library, in a side chapel, is generally so crowded that it’s hard to take in how magnificent it all is. Not this day.

The library’s walls are lined with frescoes depicting the life of Pope Pius II, who was a member of the Piccolomini family. Most of the work on the frescoes was done by Pinturicchio in the first decade of the 1500s. He was assisted by his young student, Raphael, who painted himself and his teacher in one of the frescoes – he’s the attractive fellow in shapely red tights looking out at you, and that’s Pinturicchio in the red hat behind him.

There are many other spectacular works of art in the cathedral: a 13th C pulpit done by Nicola Pisano (we’ll see his work again when we get to Pisa); a statue of John the Baptist by Donatello; and a statue of Mary Magdelene, one of two works by Bernini.

The real glory of the Duomo, though, are the floors – 56 paintings in marble, done by over 40 different artists, which cover the entire floor of the cathedral.

To preserve the floors, they are completely uncovered only a few weeks a yea,r usually in the fall. The rest of the year, they uncover only a few of the panels at a time. But any time of year, you can see how spectacular they are.

During renovation work on the Duomo in the 1990s, they discovered parts of the old church which had been covered over when the current church was built. The old sections included frescoes which hadn’t been seen since the 13th C. As a result, the colors are quite a bit brighter than we are used to seeing in medieval frescoes.

The Battistero (Baptistery), a short staircase down the hill from the Duomo, has more 15th and 16th C frescoes.

The Museo dell’Opere del Duomo (works of the Duomo), across the street, preserves some of the artwork that used to be in the church inside a more protected space. The Maestà by Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, dated 1308-1311, is an unusual two-sided work. One side presents a traditional flat-perspective medieval view of the Madonna with angels and saints. The other side of the painting has a series of small panels depicting the life of Christ. I thought this one depicting Christ being betrayed in the garden, vividly conveys the drama of the scene.

The Duomo museum also includes the original stained glass oculus which was designed by Duccio around 1300.

Original Duccio (designed) stained glass, ca. 1300, Museo dell’Opere.

Incredibly as it seems today, in the early 14th C the prosperous citizens of Siena planned a major extension to the cathedral, in which the nave (main aisle) of the current church would be the transept (cross aisle) of the new church. Fate intervened, in the form of the Black Death, and the proposed new church was never completed.

All that remains today of that project is the Facciatone (big facade) which has a small walkway at the top offering magnificent views of the city. There’s only a single twisty staircase, and the walkway is pretty narrow, so they restrict the number of people that can be up there at one time, as well as the amount of time you can spend there. Last time we visited the city, in 2018, there was a 2-hour wait, so we skipped it. This time, we just walked right up. The views are not bad. The guy in the hat is pretty cute too.

Other Sights

Since we had decided to spend a second day in Siena, we had time to see more of the city.

Pinacoteca Nazionale

The Pinacoteca Nazionale has a collection of art from several centuries. You can see the evolution from Italian art from the different ways they present the same subject – the first Madonna, by Simone Martini, was done in the early 14th C; the second, by Neroccio di Bartolomeo, was done in the late 15th C, almost two hundred years later. The level of artistry is the same – look at the hands – but the depictions are very different. In the first, Mary is presenting baby Jesus as a divine figure – note the crown-like halo. In the second, mother and baby are more interested in each other than in us.

Those of you who have seen Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel may remember the vision of Jesus as a vibrant young man, making judgments about the poor souls perilously balanced on clouds below him waiting to hear their fate. Perhaps he was inspired by this mid-15th C work done by Giovanni di Paolo? Nothing in art comes completely out of nowhere.

Here’s the Sienese painter’s vision.

Giovanni di Paolo, la Giudizia Universale

And here’s Michelangelo’s more vivid and dynamic version – the original inspiration transformed by genius.

Michelangelo: Il Giudizio Universale (from Wikipedia)

Santa Maria della Scala

The museum of Santa Maria della Scala was once a hospital, reflected by the frescoes in what was once the main treatment area.

Here is a depiction of patients being prepared for surgery – note the careful washing of the patients. Note also the cat and dogs facing off on the right – probably best not to think about why they were there.

Domenico di Bartolo, Caring for the SIck, 1440-1

Santa Maria della Scala is the new home of the Piccolomini Spannochi collection. Most of these paintings were once in Mantova, but the later generations of the Gonzaga family sold off a lot of the family art. Many of these works found their way to the court of the Hapsburgs in Vienna. The Piccolomini and Spannochi families, with Sienese roots and Hapsburg connections, acquired a lot of these paintings and brought them to Siena. in 2021, the works, which had been dispersed throughout the city, were reunited in a new exhibition space at Santa Maria della Scala.

The works include a small head of St. Jerome, by Durer – an artist whose work is always a delight. Thereàs also a Nativity by Lorenzo Lotto, a 16th C artist who had the misfortune of working at the same time as Raphael and who therefore is not as well known as he might otherwise be. If you’re wondering where the light is coming from in the Nativity scene – I think it’s Baby Jesus.

I particularly liked this work by Sofonisba Anguissola, a 16th C painter from Cremona. Women artists did a lot of self-portraits, since societal conventions restricted the men who might act as their models. Sofonisba found a way around these restrictions by depicting her teacher painting a portrait of her – a very modern solution.

Sofonisba Anguissola (?), Francesco Campi (?) ritrae Sofonisba Anguissola

Street Scenes

Siena is well known for a horse race, called the Palio, which is held twice every summer in the Piazza del Campo, in the heart of the city. The city is divided into 17 contrade, or districts, each of which has its own horse. Only 10 horses are allowed to enter in any given race – the selection method is not known to me. But the contrade are the focus of city life throughout the year.

Each contrade has its own symbol – usually an animal, but sometimes a fish – and its own flag. We were enchanted by this birth notice, indicating a new citizen of the Contrada della Torre had been born. The symbol of the contrada is an elephant – note the baby elephant in the birth notice.

The she-wolf of Roman legend is frequently found around the city. According to some traditions, while one of the babies, Romulus, founded Rome, the other baby, Remus, founded Siena.

Romulus, Remus, and the She-wolf

And here are two views of the Piazza del Campo. You can see it’s a bit tilted towards the middle, which must make for an interesting horse race.

For more photos, with captions, click here.