When I was in Siena for the Palio of Assunta in August for Vacations-Abroad, I had the pleasure to discover the beautiful Cathedral of Siena thanks to a special guided tour and to its impressive museums.
Touching the sky though the Gate of Heaven
After long and expansive restoration works the Cathedral of Siena opened its secret passages and revealed unique views to visitors thanks to the special guided tour “Porta del Cielo” (Gate of Heaven in English). The tour is about 1 hour and half and starts right behind the main entrance door through a tiny passage, climbing up a spiral staircase. We reach a large area underneath the ceiling where we can admire the original gargoyles of the Duomo depicting men and animals dating back to 13th century and made by the workshop of Nicola Pisano.
Going further we arrive in a larger room where from the windows you can admire the main nave of the cathedral as well as the frescoed ceiling. You can also see original sketches on the wall that were used as reference by artisans who worked up here. Thanks to the little museum you can also understand how they work, how they made this stunning works of art that is the Duomo of Siena. Few steps more and we are outside standing in a secret gallery almost touching the sky and the whole city of Siena.
After visiting both sides and admiring both the West and East side of Siena, we pass behind the large rosone window and we stop right in over the main nave. We can admire all the rich decorations, the black and white marble details, as well as the remarkable mosaic marble floor. Unfortunately when I was there the floor was partially covered to protect, but it’s unveiled few months per year and it should been a unique view from up there.
Then the visit continues inside the Duomo to get to know it a bit more. Actually the Duomo of Siena dates back to the Middle Ages and was meant to be one of the largest Domes in Europe at that time. The marble used came mostly from Siena surroundings and gives to this church a unique aspect thanks to the pictorial effect of the black and white stripes columns and walls. Looking up over the large columns along the main nave you can see the 172 heads of Popes, Emperors and Philosophers who are all looking at you.
To discover the thousands of works of art preserved inside the Duomo, by artists like Donatello, Bernini, Michelangelo, Nicola Pisano just to name a few, I suggest you get a guided tour, because it’s really hard to list them all. But something that you really can’t miss it’s the Piccolomini Chapel. Someone compared it to the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo in Rome. It was the first time for me and I was speechless. The colors of Pinturicchio’s frescoes are incredibly bright and impressive. The scenes depict the life of Pope Pius II, who was the uncle of Archbishop Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, future Pope Pius III that built this Library. Inside the library you can also admire rare books and manuscripts.
The Opera del Duomo Museum and Facciatone
Next to the Cathedral there is the Duomo Museum. Inside there are the original statues, sculptures and artworks of the Duomo such as the large statues from the facade displayed in a suggestive dark room. Upstairs there is a large collection of paintings. Of course the main area is dedicated to the stunning Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna dating back to 1308-1311 and representing one of the most important artworks in art history. Other remarkable artworks are the Nativity of the Virgin by Pietro Lorenzetti (1335-42) and San Paolo in Trono by Beccafumi (1515).
Of course the large museum hosts lots of valuable artworks and surely deserves to be visited slowly and with plenty of time to understand it better. But from the museum you can also reach the top of Facciatone. The Facciatone, as it’s called by locals, is the unfinished facade of what supposed to be the right nave of the new Duomo. In 1339 OPA (the cathedral mason’s guild) decided to enlarge the Duomo and make it the largest cathedral in Europe. Actually the actual Duomo was supposed to be the transept of the new Duomo. Unfortunately the Black Plague of 1348 decimated Siena population (and the city would never be the same again just think that nowadays it has the same population as before 1348!) and in 1357 works were definitively abandoned.
Today the unfinished facade is a panoramic terrace over the city of Siena and the Duomo area. You can have a 360° panoramic view! Simply beautiful! To climb it up you should just wait in line and then you’ll have 10 minutes to take your pictures and enjoy the bella vista.
Baptistery and Crypt
On the back of the Duomo there is the Baptistery, that has a peculiar rectangular shape. The ceiling is completely covered with an impressive cycle of frescoes by some Sienese masters. At the center you can admire the large baptismal font made by important sculptors between 1417 and 1430. You can admire works by Jacopo della Quercia, Ghiberti, Donatello and Giovanni di Turino.
Another incredible part of the Duomo area is the so called Crypt. It was discovered in 1999, during some restorations works and it’s not a proper crypt but more a kind of pilgrims’ area or access to the Duomo area. The crypt is a quite large area frescoed with brilliant colors dating back to 13th century and depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. I was impressed by the story of this place since it has been covered by rubble for so many centuries that is so great to still have the chance to admire these original colors!
I strongly recommend you book your guided tour to hidden paths of “Porta del Cielo” (Gate of Heaven). You need to send an email to opasiena[at]operalaboratori[dot]com at least a couple of days in advance in busy periods. The guided tour costs 25€ per person and lasts for about 1 hour and half. It includes both hidden passages and great views as well as basic tour of the Cathedral.
OPA Si Pass – combo ticket for all Duomo museums lasting 3 days and you save up to 50%. All the aforementioned sightseeings are included (but not the Gate of Heaven). From March 1st to October 31st costs 12€ while from November 1st to February 27th it costs 8€ per person. For more details please visit the official site of OPA.
- Get ready for some stairs – to get the best views you need to climb up lots of stairs both for Gate of Heaven and Facciatone. So get on a pair of comfortable shoes, as well as comfy outfit. The stunning views you’ll see we’ll pay you back from the efforts made.
- Plan your visit to Duomo area – get your Porta del Cielo tour booked in advanced together with your OPA Si Pass. The area can be really busy.
- Read more about Duomo of Siena – since there a lot of artworks I recommend you get a good guide book to know them, or better get a guided tour to get deep into the art of this amazing Cathedral.