Siena Cathedral

Siena Cathedral: A Masterpiece of Italian Architecture

Siena Cathedral is undoubtedly one of the top attractions to visit when you’re in Tuscan city. Constructed in the Italian Romanesque-Gothic style, it stands out as one of the most notable examples of this style of architecture in Italy. Although the building was never completed due to the outbreak of the Black Death, its construction dates back to the 13th century and is rich in fascinating details that are waiting to be explored. In this article, we will take a closer look at this remarkable cathedral.

Siena Cathedral

The History of the Siena Cathedral

Before December 1226, records related to the construction and decoration of Siena Cathedral are scarce and unreliable. The Republic of Siena began keeping records of expenses and contracts at the Biccherna offices in December 1226. However, it is believed that the construction of the cathedral began in the mid-12th century on top of an existing building, which may have dated back to the 9th century.

Anyway, the bell tower, built in 1315 and high about 77m, rises six stories tall and appears even taller due to a clever optical illusion. The white marble stripes on the tower gradually narrow as they reach the top, creating a sense of distance. Flanking the entrance are columns depicting the she-wolf, a symbol of Rome’s founding mythology attributed to Romulus and Remus. According to legend, Remus’ sons rode horses of different colors, black and white, and founded the city of Siena to the north.

The interior of the tower is a stunning showcase of Renaissance art and architecture, featuring intricate inlaid-marble floors, striking striped columns, a Michelangelo statue, and evocative Bernini sculptures. Don’t miss the awe-inspiring Piccolomini Library. If you want to explore the interior, you’ll need a ticket (but we’ll talk about it later).

Across from the cathedral is Santa Maria della Scala, a massive building that once served as a hospital for pilgrims. Its 12th-century cellars, carved from sandstone and finished with brick, extend down several levels and were used to store supplies for the hospital upstairs. Today, the hospital and cellars are filled with fascinating exhibits and can offer a refreshing break from the heat of the streets.

While Siena Cathedral is an impressive structure, it is actually a scaled-down version of a grander vision. When rival city Florence began construction on its grand cathedral in 1296, Siena aimed to build an even bigger one, intended to be the largest in all Christendom. However, due to the hilly terrain of city, there wasn’t enough flat land to accommodate a church of that size. The solution? Build a large church anyway, and support the overhanging edge with the Baptistery. Here is more about the “unfinished project”.

Siena Cathedral

Siena Cathedral, the unfinished project

The Siena Cathedral project, as explained earlier, was never completed because of the Black Death.

If you look at the unfinished wall with see-through windows from around 1330, you can imagine the audacity of this vision: today’s cathedral would have only been a transept, and worshippers would have entered the church through the unfinished wall. Some of the nave’s dark-green-and-white-striped columns were constructed, but the space between them is now partially filled in with a brick. White stones in the pavement indicate where a row of pillars would have been.

In the 13th century, Siena planned to build the biggest cathedral in Christendom, even bigger than rival Florence’s grand cathedral. However, due to the hilly terrain of the city, there was not enough flat land to support the size of the planned cathedral. Undeterred, Siena began building a big church anyway, propping up the overhanging edge with the Baptistery.

Unfortunately, this grand vision underestimated the difficulty of constructing such a large building without sufficient land. Coupled with the devastating effects of the 1348 plague, the city was unable to complete the project. Many people from Siena viewed the Black Death as a punishment from God for their pride, and the plans for the grand cathedral were canceled, causing the city to humbly fade into the background of Tuscan history.

St. Catherine of Siena: the “steps”, church, miracles

Catherine of Siena, Italy’s patron saint, lived during the late 1300s, dedicating her life to serving others through charitable deeds and caring for the less fortunate and sick. She also fought for change within the Church, seeking a deep reform that would bring it closer to God’s ideals. Catherine believed that all humans were imperfect in the eyes of an infinitely perfect God, and so she dedicated her life to helping people improve their own lives and relationships with God.

She was born in 1347 and dedicated her life to serving those in need. She showed compassion and kindness to the sick, lepers, and even those facing the death penalty. Despite the toll of her many penances, she continued to work tirelessly until her death at the young age of thirty-three, the same age as Christ when he was crucified. In 1461, Siena’s own Pope Pius II canonized Catherine, and her cult grew in popularity. The city wished to preserve her relics, which led to the fragmentation of her body, with only her head remaining in Siena.

There is a reference to St. Catherine of Siena also near the Cathedral. When you arrive at Piazza del Duomo, just beside the Baptistery, you will notice a steep flight of stairs that leads up to the portal of the Duomo Nuovo. Constructed in the mid-15th century, this staircase is commonly referred to as St. Catherine’s because of a popular legend associated with it. As per the tradition, it is believed that Catherine fell down these stairs when she was pushed by the devil, resulting in the loss of her incisor teeth.

If you look closely at the staircase, you can spot a small cross carved on one of the steps, which is said to mark the exact spot where St. Catherine of Siena fell. Despite the passing of centuries, the cross is still visible and serves as a reminder of the saint’s devotion and the legends surrounding her life.

Everything to Know to Visit the Siena Cathedral

Siena Cathedral tickets: where to buy, costs

If you’re planning to visit Siena Cathedral, you have the option to purchase tickets either online or at the site itself. When it comes to online purchases, there are a few different options available. You can opt for a single ticket and purchase it through the VivaTicket website. Alternatively, you can go for the Opa Si Pass, Porta del Cielo ticket, and Pilgrim Card. Both of these tickets come with their own set of benefits, and they also have different prices.

  • The Cathedral: €8,00 (From 27 June to 31 July and from 18 August to 18 October), €6,00 (Groups and school groups >14 and groups with a guide), FREE for children up to 6 years of age, disabled people with a companion, religious, students of the University of Siena, and the University for Foreigners.
  • Porta del Cielo: only one ticket for access to the roof of the Cathedral and to all of the
  • Opa Si Pass: only one ticket for access to the roof of the Cathedral and to all of the sites included in the monumental complex. It is valid for three consecutive days from the date of issue. It costs €13,00, 7-13yrs €2,00, FREE for children up to 6 years of age, disabled people with a companion, religious, students of the University of Siena, and the University for Foreigners.
  • Porta del Cielo: only one ticket for access to the roof of the Cathedral and to all of the sites included in the monumental complex. It costs €20,00, 7-11yrs €5,00, FREE for children up to 6 years of age.
  • Pilgrim Card: The Charta Peregrini Senensis is a certificate that certifies the completion of a pilgrimage to Siena and the places associated with the city’s devotion to Mary and its saints. It is similar to the Compostelana and the Testimonium, which certify the completion of a pilgrimage to Santiago or Rome, respectively. The certificate can be obtained either when booking tickets or directly at the ticket office. It serves as an official document of the completion of the pilgrimage and can be a unique souvenir of the journey.

You can find more information and contact in the official website.

Siena Cathedral, the ground plan

Source: OperaDuomo official website

Holy water font – Antonio Federighi

St Peter, St Paul, St Gregory, St Augustine. The Piccolomini Altar – Michelangelo

Saint John the Baptist – Donatello

The pulpit – Nicola Pisano

Funerary Monument of Cardinl Petroni – Tino di Camaino

The fall of Manna – Ventura Salimbeni

Marquetry in the choir – Fra Giovanni Da Verona

Tabernacle – Lorenzo di Pietro, detto il Vecchietta

The adoration of the shepherds – Alessandro Casolani

10 Saint Bernardine’s homily – Mattia Preti

11 Saint Mary Magdalen – Gian Lorenzo Bernini

12 Madonna and Child – Dietisalvi di Speme

13 Saint Jerome – Gian Lorenzo Bernini

Siena Cathedral, opening times

From 1 April to 31 October
10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Public Holidays: 1:30 am – 6:00 pm
The eve of Public Holidays: 10:30 am – 6:00 pm

From 1 November to 31 March
10:30 am – 5:30 pm
Public Holidays: 1:30 am – 5:30 pm
The eve of Public Holidays: 10:30 am – 5:00 pm

From 26 December  to 6 January
10:30 am – 6:00 pm
Public Holidays: 1:30 am – 5:30 pm
The eve of Public Holidays: 10:30 am – 5:00 pm

From 27 June to 31 July and from 18 August to 18 October
10:00 am – 7:00 pm
Public Holidays: 09:30 am – 6:00 pm

Last admission 30 minutes before closing time.

Check out the official site for eventual changes.

Focus On: the Sator Square

If you are a reader of our blog, you’ll know that we usually dedicate a “Focus On” to a particular curiosity that we think could be interesting for you. Talking about the Siena Cathedral, it’s nice to report the presence of Sator Square.

As you approach the “old” and completed cathedral, don’t miss the opportunity to discover this fascinating magic square. Take your time to explore the stones on the outer left wall of the cathedral, located right in front of the archbishop’s palace, and unravel the mystery.

Don’t you know what Sator Square is? Don’t worry. It is just a small epigraph in Latin consisting of five words, each containing five letters. It reads “SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS“. It appears in various places, including Pompeii, Roman ruins near Budapest, and on the Euphrates, but also on Coptic and Ethiopian papyri and amulets. In the Middle Ages, it was believed to heal hydrophobic dogs, and in the Renaissance, alchemists used it as a talisman. Its meaning and origin are still debated, with theories ranging from a proto-Christian prayer to Kabbalah and Hermeticism to connections to the Templars

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