This podcast will recount the extraordinary construction history and examine the striking architecture of one of the world's most beautiful churches - the cathedral of Siena.
Buongiorno! I’m Dr. Rocky Ruggiero. Join me in rebuilding the Renaissance and making art and history come to life.
Welcome to the Rebuilding the Renaissance podcast, your guide to the art and history of Italy, from the glory of Rome to the magnificence of the Renaissance. Now here’s your host, Dr. Rocky Ruggiero.
The subject of today’s podcast is the Cathedral of Siena, also known as the Duomo of Siena. Before we get into the church, I just want to clear up the terminology a bit. In order for a church to qualify as a cathedral, it has to have a bishop or higher in ecclesiastical ranking.
In fact, the root of the word cathedral is the Latin word cathedra, C-A-T-H-E-D-R-A. And you may remember old university terminology when something was ex cathedra or someone had a cathedra. Cathedra is the Latin word for seat or chair. In other words, a cathedral is the seat of a bishop from which he controls a territory, which in the Middle Ages was known as a bishopric, today instead known as a diocese.
So, as I remind all of my students, all cathedrals are churches, but not all churches are cathedrals. Just keep that in mind. In fact, very often, I hear people erroneously just kind of throwing that word cathedral around for any church that they see, but usually, a city will have only one, and not necessarily taken for granted that they will have one.
The other term, of course, that you hear is duomo, D-U-O-M-O, which everyone mistakenly interprets as meaning dome. Now, those of you who know me or have studied with me know that that is one of my particular pet peeves. And thinking or presuming that the word duomo means dome is understandable, especially if you’ve been to Florence. Well, for a couple of reasons. One, because the word duomo sounds so much like the English word dome, and two, if you’ve seen the dome of Florence Cathedral and of course it just dominates the entire structure.
When in reality, the Italian word for dome is cupola, C-U-P-O-L-A. Duomo is an invented Italian word used as a nickname for a cathedral regardless of whether it has a dome or not. And the Italians invent that word by mangling together two Latin words, the first of which is domus, D-O-M-U-S, Latin for home or house. English words such as domestic and domicile come from the Latin domus. And the other word is dei, D-E-I, which means God, like the English word deity. In other words, a cathedral is a house of God, because typically they are so large that the idea is that they could accommodate the Almighty. It is where the Almighty presides in any city in which there is a cathedral.
The point of all this is that I don’t want you all making the mistake that many people do in just using that word duomo as a substitute for dome. So that if you visit, for instance, the city of Milan to see the Duomo of Milan which has no dome but is a duomo nonetheless. Or the great Umbrian city of Orvieto which has one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Italy known as the Duomo of Orvieto which does not have a dome but is a duomo nonetheless. So if any of you are traveling to Italy any time soon, your homework assignment is to simply inform everyone that you meet that the word duomo does not mean dome, because it drives this art history professor crazy. And I appreciate your help.
The Siena Cathedral, like most cathedrals, is dedicated to the BVM, as I like to call her. The Blessed Virgin Mary. And in fact, the most famous example of a Marian dedication is the great cathedral of Paris which is called Notre Dame which is simply French for Our Lady. And the dedication in Siena is to the traditional version of the Virgin Mary in Tuscany and that is Santa Maria del Assunta or Saint Mary of the Assumption. So the cathedral in Siena is dedicated to Saint Mary of the Assumption as is the cathedral in Pisa, as is the cathedral in San Gimignano, as is the cathedral in Lucca.
So most Tuscan cities dedicate their cathedrals to this version of the Virgin Mary, but then you get to Florence and you discover that our church is called by a different name. It’s Santa Maria del Fiore but we will skin that cat once we get to our podcast on Florence Cathedral. So more to come obviously in that department.
Now, the construction of Siena Cathedral began in the year 1226. Now, another important rule of thumb for all of you; when you’re visiting European cities, find out when they begin the construction of their cathedral and you’ve more or less pinpointed the high point of that city’s economic and social history. In other words, you don’t start building these things unless you have the finances to back them up. Consider that all in all, Siena Cathedral would take 174 years to complete. Florence Cathedral, 172 years to complete. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, 121 years. So a century is more or less standard. Two centuries might be a bit exaggerated but is not ludicrous to imagine as well.
So the idea is that you only start building these things when you have the finances to back them up. And this is important because in Siena, construction begins at the beginning of the 13th century whereas in Florence construction on Florence Cathedral begins at the end of the 13th century. And so what this demonstrates is that technically Siena peaked economically and socially before Florence did and sort of marked that. In fact, if we were to back up even further, Pisa Cathedral which dates to the year 1063. So Pisa was a powerhouse back in the 11th century. And then Siena and then finally Florence the new kid on the block would overshadow all of them with its great cathedral.
Now, the people of Siena decided to build their cathedral on the highest of their three hills. We’ve already talked about this [trimontium 00:06:32] in my last podcast about the foundation myth of Siena. And so the idea, of course, that this was the object of greatest both religious and civic pride, that is the cathedral itself. And like most cathedrals, Siena Cathedral was built back to front or from the altar area to the façade.
Now, why would you build altar to façade or back to front? Very simply because these projects take so long. The idea was that once the altar area was completed, a celebrant could officiate Mass while the rest of the church was still under construction. In other words, if I have to wait around 174 years, which is the time it took to build Siena Cathedral, to start using the church, I might start shopping around for another church. But obviously, if that crossing area, the altar area, was completed then technically the church could be used while construction was still underway.
And so they began at the eastern end of Siena Cathedral. And again, another rule of thumb; if a church could, a church would have its altar facing east. East towards the holy land Jerusalem and east towards the rising sun and of course this natural phenomenon of the rising sun is one that is important to just about every religion. Especially Christianity, where the essence of the religion is the resurrection, the return of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. And in fact, this is the case for Siena Cathedral.
So you start at the altar end and you work towards the façade. Now consider that technically churches will have one main face which is what we mean by the façade. And the façade in the case of Siena Cathedral is the shorter side of the cathedral facing west. Now, if construction of the façade began around the year 1300, and that in fact is the case, we imagine that technically speaking, the construction of Siena Cathedral took up a majority of the 14th century. In other words, they’re building the façade of Siena Cathedral by about the year 1300 or so.
And in fact, that facade is one of the most celebrated Gothic structures in all of Italy. It was designed by a great sculptor named Giovanni Pisano. I think you can probably guess his hometown. And Pisano was the son of a celebrated 13th-century sculptor named Nicola Pisano. So Nicola was the head of a workshop in which his son Giovanni worked but also another architect we’ll be talking about in later podcasts by the name of Arnolfo di Cambio who was the head architect of Florence Cathedral. So there’s a pretty powerhouse workshop.
The story goes that Giovanni took over as capomaestro or headmaster, head architect of the façade project in the year 1284 and began to decorate with all of that very decorative white marble and statuary and what have you as well. But in the year 1300 Giovanni Pisano resigned from his position as capomaestro and the reason, we’re told, is because the people of Siena were particularly critical of him and of his work method. Supposedly the work site was a bit out of order.
And so the façade was actually only completed about halfway up. And this is really one of the big criticisms I have as an architectural historian. You look at that façade of Siena Cathedral, and I don’t think any of you would think twice about it, its uniformity, its homogeneity, but if you look carefully what you’ll find is that those columns that sort of separate the doors, and in fact one of the more unique things about Siena Cathedral is that the actual portals, P-O-R-T-A-L, and a portal is an architectural space that accommodates a porta, P-O-R-T-A, a door.
So a portal is the space that accommodates a door. And the usual arrangement on churches, I know, again, you probably don’t spend much of your free time thinking about this, but the central portal is the largest and then the two lateral are smaller. It’s usually a 2:1 proportion, the central door being twice as large as the two flanking. And the reason is very simply because the function of a façade is to prepare a visitor for what she or he will find beyond it. In other words, the façade is the summary of the three-dimensional architecture of the church in 2D, if you get my drift.
So the idea is that the central aisle of any church or what we call the nave, N-A-V-E, is the largest and widest central aisle and it’s flanked on either side by side aisles which are smaller. So the idea that the big door lines up with the big aisle and the smaller doors line up with the smaller. Instead, for the façade of Siena Cathedral, what you have is that the doors are off-axis with the actual aisles that are behind them. Which technically defeats the purpose of the façade, but because Pisano was a classically-inspired architect, even though we’re in the Middle Ages still, the idea of having these three almost uniform portals was one that was appealing to him.
But the interesting thing is that if you look at the top half of the façade, you’ll notice that the vertical lines, particularly around the central piece, do not align with the verticals on the lower half. And when we’re talking about Gothic architecture, breaking vertical lines is what we technically define as a boo-boo. Don’t want to do it, okay? Continuous, uninterrupted vertical lines would essentially the success of Gothic structures and their design as well. And consider also that when you’re traveling around and you’re looking at these different buildings, when you notice a design change that is as drastic as these vertical breaks on the façade of Siena Cathedral, usually the reason is a change in designer.
So changes in designs are usually the result of changes in designers and in fact, there was a different architect responsible for the completion of the façade of Siena Cathedral. And that is why the upper portion, which goes back to the original dimensions, or I should say the actual dimensions of the inside of the church, in other words, the central portion is wider and the two lateral are smaller versus the bottom where essentially they’re all the same.
Needless to say, all of that covered with some of the most beautiful decorative architectural accoutrement, statuary as well. All of which, by the way, is copy. The original statuary is in the Cathedral Museum, the Museo dell’Opera which is next door and in fact will be a stop on this podcast series concerning Siena because that museum houses one of the greatest paintings in Italian art, but we’ll get to that later on.
So if the Sienese are in fact building the façade of their cathedral by 1300, for all practical purposes it means the cathedral is finished. Well, that would be only 74 years, yet I told you that the cathedral took 174 years. Well, the story is not over yet.
Now, consider that the main building material of Siena Cathedral is brick. Don’t want you to be fooled by that kind of blackish white striping that you see. In fact, the white marble you probably all know is Carrara marble. What appears to be black marble, which of course would be appropriate considering the national flag of Siena which is that Baltsana divided half white and half black. Well, that blackish marble is actually green. It’s a type of serpentine marble which on the surface oxidizes and gets very dark, almost blackish in appearance, but in reality, is green. If you were to chip away at it and please, for the love of God, don’t do this, but if you were, you would discover a much lighter hue of green underneath.
And that green and white marble face a brick structure inside. So we’ve talked about how, in Italy, we build with the most readily available building materials, and in Siena that material is brick. Just about everything in the city is made of brick simply because the earth around Siena is rich in clay. So dig it up, bake it, put it in a mold, and then you have one of the most affordable and effective building materials: brick.
Now, what happens is that once the construction of the cathedral is completed, the opera, so I’m introducing now another very important term. Consider that in these medieval communes, where the architecture was, again, communal, built for and built by the people, obviously, the city councils of these places did not have the time nor the energy to oversee the administration of the construction of all these public buildings. So they delegated that responsibility to a sub-committee. Or better yet, a works, W-O-R-K-S, a works committee. Opera, O-P-E-R-A, is the Latin word for works. It is the plural of that Latin opus, O-P-U-S, which means work. So an opera was the works committee that was responsible for administering the construction of a public structure. More or less like a board of trustees. And in fact, the opera of Siena Cathedral, the opera of Florence Cathedral still exist and serve exactly like a board in administering the finances of the particular structure.
So what happens in Siena is that when the façade of the church was completed and the church itself, for all, again, practical purposes was completed, the opera decided to turn its attention to the construction of a baptistry. When you talk about cathedral complexes, there is usually the church itself, the cathedral, a campanile or a bell tower, and a baptistry. Another component that no one ever talks about but is worth mentioning is the bishop’s palace. In other words, if a cathedral requires a bishop, the bishop doesn’t live in the cathedral. He lives in a domestic structure which is his palace, usually located nearby.
Now, the situation in Siena was such that because the road directly in front of Siena Cathedral is part of that Via Francigena, which, if you remember from my past podcasts, was that Route 66 for medieval pilgrims traveling through Siena on their way to Rome. And to the western side of the road, in other words, you had Siena Cathedral to the eastern side of the road, you had something called the Ospedale of Santa Maria della Scala to the other side, a 13th-century institution.
Now, consider that a hospital in the Middle Ages was a place where pilgrims could receive inexpensive, oftentimes free accommodations, medical treatment, food and what have you as well. And because the Hospital of Saint Mary of the Ladder, and if you’re in Siena and you look at the façade of this building, the Ospedale of Santa Maria della Scala, you’ll see a coat of arms with ladders on them, symbol of the institution itself, A, was 13th-century. It was as old as the cathedral. And B, is one of the most important things in all of Siena. This hospital that was world-famous, it’s one of the largest structures in Siena as well. Absolutely enormous. What you see is simply the tip of the iceberg. That structure then kind of continues down the slope of the hill and rises up, very much worth a visit if you have the time.
All of this simply to tell you that there was not enough room to situate the baptistry of Florence in an anterior position. Again, something you take for granted. You come to Florence, the baptistry is in front of the cathedral. You visit Pisa, the baptistry is in front of the cathedral. You visit Lucca, the baptistry, which is not as prominent as these other cities but is located in an anterior position as well. But in Siena, there was no room to position their baptistry in an anterior location.
So the opera decided that what they would do is actually to build their baptistry behind and below their brand-new cathedral. In other words, they went to the eastern side, which was really apt and the altar is. They then dug out against the slope of the hill below the cathedral and the space that was left was then filled with their baptistry. This is an absolutely unique building scenario where the baptistry is behind and underneath the actual cathedral proper. So if you approach Siena Cathedral from the backside, you’ll actually see this half-finished façade of the baptistry, this rather steep staircase that then takes you up to the church proper.
And that baptistry was built between the years 1319 and 1325. And when completed, the opera invited a local sculptor, bit of a celebrity, by the name of Lorenzo Maitani. If you’ve been to Orvieto, Maitani is the sculptor responsible for the relief sculptures on the façade of Orvieto Cathedral. He’s a very important artist. And they invited this sculptor to inspect the structural condition of the work. In other words, they had built the baptistry but they had also decided then to extend their cathedral 10 meters over the baptistry. In other words, they enlarged Siena Cathedral from its original 70, seven zero meters in length to 80 meters. And because the baptistry was actually sustaining, right, supporting the structure up above, they wanted to make sure, of, that it would not cede and cause everything to collapse.
And so this sculptor Maitani comes in. He looks at the architectural structure, examines it, and reports to the opera that yes, it’s fine, it’s great, it will work. But he then challenges the opera by essentially saying, why limit yourselves to a mere 10-meter addition? That extension over the top of the baptistry. And why not do something more fitting, more appropriate to a city as grand and as important as Siena? And he suggests that the opera consider building a duomo nuovo. Duomo, separate word, nuovo. N-U-O-V like Venice-O. And a duomo nuovo literally translates as a new cathedral. That was Maitani’s suggestion.
Now, the response that the opera gave was, understandably, “Are you out of your mind?” They had just spent an entire century building a brand-new cathedral. Why would anyone in their right mind even consider beginning the construction of a new one? I mean, the money that was involved, the labor that was involved. So the opera immediately dismissed the idea. The year is 1325. And then 14 years later, suddenly, without explanation they did a complete roundabout and, in fact, decided to begin building a new cathedral.
Now, let’s kind of parenthesize here. Let’s take a break. Why, first of all, did the opera extend their cathedral over the baptistry? The reason is that they’re building the baptistry, again, in 1319. Consider that 62 kilometers north of Siena, the city of Florence had begun the construction of its cathedral about 20 years earlier in 1296. And in the founding contract for Florence Cathedral, there was a clause that we were about to begin the construction of the largest cathedral in all of Tuscany. So that essentially Florence wanted to build a cathedral that was going to supersize Pisa cathedral and Siena Cathedral.
Now, I’m not sure if we’ve discussed this or not, but there is what I like to describe as the hate triangle in Tuscany. In other words, Florence hates Pisa just as much as Florence hates Siena and of course, that hate is reciprocal. Then on smaller levels, each city has its own kind of local rivalry. So Siena hates Arezzo, Pisa hates Lucca. In fact, the expression in Florence is, “Better a death in your family than a Pisan on your doorstep.” To which the Pisans respond, “May your wish come true.” In other words, may someone in your family actually die.
Consider that the Arno river flows through Florence and eventually makes its way through Pisa before letting out into the Tyrrhenian Sea and that one of the favorite pastimes of Florentines is urinating in the Arno River so we send it down to our Pisan cousins. This is the kind of rivalry that we’re talking, in fact, they still hate each other today, they just don’t remember why.
Anyway, so the city of Florence about to begin the construction of the largest cathedral in all of Tuscany. And when the people of Siena found out, they took preemptive measures. They extended their cathedral 10 meters. 70 to 80 meters. In other words, 80-meter long cathedral in the 14th century is a really big church. And I think the Sienese are simply saying, “How big could Florence Cathedral possibly be?” Well, consider that by 1339 when they do this roundabout and they, in fact, decided to build a new cathedral, a duomo nuovo, in Florence we had just begun the construction of our campanile, of our bell tower. And the original architect is usually identified as Giotto.
So I think what happened is that the Sienese probably saw how big that bell tower was going to be. And by that point it was kind of a standard, in other words, if the bell tower was going to be that big, how big was the damn cathedral going to be? And they realized that that 10-meter addition under their own church was simply not enough to compete with what Florence was about to build. And so in 1339, they laid the foundation stone for their duomo nuovo. And essentially what they’re going to do is to knock a hole into the southern side of their brand-new cathedral and transform that brand-new cathedral into the cross arm or transept arm of a whole new south-facing nave. In other words, the longer and larger arm of the church will now extend south with its façade facing in a southern direction.
Within a nine-year period, the Sienese had nearly completed the construction of this duomo nuovo. And we know this because they had begun vaulting. And vaulting simply means roofing. That’s the last thing that you’d actually do. And essentially the cathedral that they were building was one which would have measured 140 meters in length, making it by far the longest church in Christendom, had they completed it. Two presented architectural issues such as the fact that the cross arm of the new cathedral would not have been symmetrical. In other words, because of the arrangement of the earlier church, the eastern arm of the transept would’ve been longer than the western arm. But that didn’t matter to the Sienese. All they cared about was size.
Nor did they care about the fact that there was no intent at modifying the crossing area. If you walk into Siena Cathedral today, technically it’s a 12-sided sort of crossing space. And there was no intent in modifying this. So technically speaking, those large piers that you see today would have interrupted the actual axis of the nave. But that’s okay because what they were interested in was size.
All of it nearly finished in a mere nine-year period and what brought a screeching halt to the construction of the duomo nuovo project was the Black Death of 1348. And we’ll dedicate an entire podcast if not several to this topic of the Black Death. It was the greatest natural catastrophe in the history of Europe and the population of Siena was halved. It went from 60,000 to about 30,000 in a very short period of time. In other words, we were too busy dying to actually build anything at this point.
And so construction on the duomo nuovo ceases and remains suspended until about seven years later. In 1355, the dust finally began to settle enough that the people of Siena went back to this abandoned building project and thought about continuing. But before they did – it’s been almost a decade, now, that they haven’t worked on it – they decide to invite in another architectural expert. But this time for some mysterious reason the expert was called in from Florence. Now, the only explanation we have for why Siena would invite an architect from their rival city to inspect the construction of what would have been the biggest church in the world is that perhaps Florence was the only place that they could find living architects. The Black Death had essentially weeded out the population such that perhaps there was just no other place to find one.
And the architect who came to Siena was Francesco Talenti. Talent with an i. Remember that name because he’ll be coming back in a later podcast. And what advice do you think a Florentine architect would give to a Sienese opera building the largest church in the world? Forget about it. He said, “Look, this is a structural disaster waiting to happen. This is an economic disaster probably already in the making. If I were you, I would simply rip the entire thing down and enlarge the side walls of the earlier cathedral.”
So he told them to abandon the duomo nuovo project. Now, the Sienese were not that gullible. They deliberated for about two years but ultimately did follow Talenti’s advice and they began tearing down their duomo nuovo. And in fact, if you’re in Siena today, you can see what looks like a giant architectural carcass projecting off of the south side. You can even still see the vaulting – it’s directly above the side wall that leads into the cathedral museum – of what could have been the greatest and largest church in the Christian world.
Now, the story’s not over, because this Talenti, in fact, returns to Florence and gets an interesting job offer as head architect of the bell tower project which had been abandoned because of the Black Death as well. He finishes the bell tower in 1359 and is then given the head architect position of Florence cathedral and his first major decision was to enlarge the original plan. In other words, it is Talenti who pushes the length of Florence Cathedral all the way to its present length which 152, I repeat, 152 meters.
So the idea is that if the Sienese were to wake up tomorrow and decide that they’re going to complete the duomo nuovo – there’s enough of it there that they actually could, I mean, even today, just pick up and complete the thing – it would measure 140 and Florence Cathedral would measure 152. So Talenti gave the city of Florence a 12-meter buffer, essentially proving once again that the most fundamental rule of architecture is mine is bigger than yours. Today it’s about the height of skyscrapers, back in the Middle Ages it was about the length of cathedrals. So again, size does matter, even in ecclesiastical architecture.
Okay. Stay tuned. In our next podcast, we’ll be talking about one of the most extraordinary paintings in Italian art, the Maesta by Duccio which decorated the high altar of the great cathedral of the city.
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Rocky Ruggiero has been a professor of Art and Architectural History since 1999. He received his BA from the College of the Holy Cross and a Master of Arts degree from Syracuse University, where he was awarded a prestigious Florence Fellowship in 1996. He furthered his art historical studies at the University of Exeter, UK, where he received a Ph.D. in Art History and Visual Culture. In addition to lecturing for various American universities in Florence, Italy, including Syracuse, Kent State, Vanderbilt, and Boston College, Rocky has starred in various TV documentaries concerning the Italian Renaissance. He has appeared as an expert witness in the History Channel’s “Engineering an Empire: Da Vinci’s World” and “Museum Secrets: the Uffizi Gallery”, as well as the recent NatGeo/NOVA PBS program on Brunelleschi’s dome entitled “Great Cathedral Mystery.”