Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A new perspective on Siena Cathedral

Heaven's Gates
La Porta del Cielo

Duomo of Siena seen from the west: the tour takes in the portico around the cupola

Since April 2013, Siena Cathedral has opened its attics to the public. Never seen before except by those who built the cathedral from the 13th century on, the attics have now been fully restored and secured. Damaged over the centuries by fire, earthquakes, wars, humidity and even termites, the underside of the roof of the cathedral was in dire need of attention. These 'attics' have been carefully restored and converted into passageways and lookout points for stunning views both inside the cathedral and of its extraordinary artwork, as well as of the panorama of Siena and beyond, seen from narrow balconies and terraces that work their way around the cathedral's heights.

The guided tour begins near the cathedral's font. A small crowd of  tourists, young and old, briskly climbs a narrow, spiral staircase in white marble whose small arched windows let in light through yellow alabaster panes.

75 spiralling marble steps

alabaster panes let in soft light

The panting group stops at the top of the 75-odd steps in the first low-ceilinged attic, where gargoyles protrude from the walls and gutters (the gutters were once in stone and brick but now in copper) deviate rainwater from the roof to a cistern: the guide tells us that this water was used to make the city's bread, but we doubt this still happens today. For a city that had no independent water supply, what flowed off the roof of its great cathedral must have been doubly precious.

part of the excellent renovations under the cupola

former guttering in stone and terracotta, replaced with copper

one of many beautifully crafted finials

The attic corridor leads onto an area surrounding the cupola itself. From stained glass windows that open into the cupola, we look down onto the astonishing black and white striped marble interior of the cathedral, and across at the large gold statues of saints (to our amusement the guide crisply affirms that not everything that is old is beautiful--the statues are not the high point of the cathedral's art) and up at the star-encrusted ceiling. The cathedral's famous marble inlay floors are perfectly visible from this distance, which highlights their experiments in perspective. 

the interior of the Duomo from attic; note perspective of inlaid marble pavement depicting the massacre of the innocents

The attic area here is dedicated to a small but interesting homage to the labour of the master builders, marbleworkers and craftsmen who worked on the cathedral from the 13th century on.

part of marble workshop exhibit in attic

The tour around the heights of the cathedral takes us up and onto several narrow balconies overlooking the Duomo, the city and surrounding countryside, above the angles and furrows of the terracotta rooftops. We gaze at Siena from marble balconies supported by slender pillars or from behind sculpted angels and lions on the facade.

Il Mangia tower of Palazzo Pubblico (Siena's 13th century town hall)

roof and normally unseen details of Duomo: note the bell-tower in the left foreground, whose normally unseen side is not dressed in stone

rooftop puzzle with glimpse of chapel glass cupola

view east toward the route of the ancient via Francigena or pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome

Siena's former hospital at left, seen from high on the façade of the cathedral, guarded by lions and angels

Finally we gaze at the cathedral's interior from over the main portals, which once formed the church's altar. Above gleam the rich colours of one of the two rose windows, this, the original by Pisano, balances the other at the altar end by Duccio (a copy; the original is in the cathedral museum). 

detail of elaborate starry ceiling

glimpse of Duomo nave from inner balcony, eastern portal

Pisano's richly coloured rose window, east facade

As we descend, somewhat unwillingly, back to the darker, more crowded nave, our knowledgeable guide explains that the cathedral has been evolving continuously over the centuries; indeed it is still not finished and probably never will be. The current nave was once intended to become merely a transept of a future construction; sections of the incomplete nave still bear witness to this vision of grandeur

incomplete nave to south

Within, the altar was shifted several times, as were the pulpit and the choir, when tastes, fashions and ambitions changed. Where once the lower walls were decorated with frescoes, now individual family chapels, minor altars, sculptures and grand baroque tableaux fill the spaces. 

glass dome of one of the cathedral's chapels

supposed self-portrait of Michelangelo Buonarotti, Piccolomini altar

detail of gargoyles on column, Duomo interior

The Piccolomini library, found midway up the left side of the nave, with its frescoes by Pinturicchio, still bright with their original colours, was designed to house the glorious illuminated choir books that had belonged to Pope Pius III, who commissioned the library in honour of his uncle, the humanist pope Pius II. (The books currently on display are, however, from the cathedral's own collection.)

black and white steps in attic passageway

ceiling detail on external portico, Duomo east facade

detail of portal leading from rooftop

Another feature of the cathedral and the oldest element inside is the Carrara marble pulpit carved around 1265 by Nicola Pisano, aided by Arnolfo di Cambio. It stands on columns supported by lions and lionesses and personifications of the liberal arts and philosophy. The carvings in the panels are full of verve and expression and neo-classical innovation which strikingly predate the Renaissance.

the liberal arts represented on the column supporting pulpit: an interestingly secular support for the preacher

the Last Judgment, one of Pisano's most striking panels on pulpit

lions and lionesses supporting pulpit columns

While we walk around the body of this fascinating if overdecorated cathedral (the dozens of Popes' heads that peer down from high above the nave are decidedly eerie), we seek again in our mind's eye the heights, the spires, the rooftops and marble stripes, the views, the airiness and the perspective, the extraordinary feeling of being literally above it all, at 'the gates of heaven' as the advertisement for the guided tour would have it, at la porta del cielo.

view of portico on east facade

the tour takes about one and a half hours, costs 25 euros and must be booked beforehand online, or at or by telephone on +39 0577 286300

The walk through the upper storeys is regrettably quite rapid; many of the photographs above had to be taken on the run....

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