Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 1)

On the general liturgical calendar, November 18th is the dedication feast of the Roman basilicas of St Peter in the Vatican and St Paul on the Ostian Way. It is also traditionally the anniversary of the dedication of another very important Italian church, the cathedral of Siena. The date is attested by a canon of the cathedral in an Ordo written in 1215; much later is the tradition that the ceremony was performed by the Sienese Pope Alexander III Bandinelli, one of the greatest Popes of the Middle Ages, in 1179. A banner with his coat of arms is still to this day hung from the ceiling of the cathedral’s sanctuary on November 18th, and through the octave of the feast.

This church is generally regarded as one of the most beautiful in all of Italy, and is indisputably one of the richest in art works. The list of sculptors who have worked there is practically a textbook of the art of sculpture: Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Jacopo della Quercia, Donatello, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Michelangelo and Bernini, to name but a few. It was formerly the home of one of the greatest paintings of the early Renaissance, the famous Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, now unfortunately removed from its original frame and displayed (although very nicely so) in the cathedral museum. The frescoed walls of the Piccolomini library, an amazing collection of illuminated choir books, are one of the great achievements of a much later artist, Pinturicchio, an important associate of Raphael.

This summer, our Ambrosian writer Nicola de’ Grandi visited the church, and took a mountain of pictures, which we will be sharing over the next few weeks. Today we focus on the exterior, the central nave and the high altar.
A view of the cathedral from the hill to the north and west, near to the basilica of St Dominic. This church (which will be eventually covered in its own post) houses the relic of St Catherine of Siena’s head; her family home, which is now a shrine, is in the valley between it and the cathedral.
The façade was built in different stages by different architects. The lower section was done by the sculptor Giovanni Pisano between 1284 and 1297, in a period of transition between the Romanesque and Gothic. Pisano also added a number of sculptures of patriarchs, prophets, and philosophers, which have long since been removed to the cathedral musuem for preservation and replaced with copies. (The originals will be seen in a later post in this series.) The upper part was completed by the architect Camaino di Crescentino, the father of an important sculptor called Tino di Camaino, between 1299 and 1317, in a more florid Gothic style, but the mosaics in the tricuspids were not completed until 1878, following designs by Alessandro Franchi.
The arches seen at the lower right of this photo are the only parts that were ever built of the right nave of the so-called New Cathedral, Siena’s failed attempt to outdo the gigantic mother church of her principal rival, Florence, by turning what was then her cathedral into the transept of a much larger cathedral. Only Tuscans could have the self-confidence to even think of such a project; it was abandoned in 1355, only 16 years after it was first proposed, partly because of the enormous expense involved, partly because of the Black Death, which hit the city particularly hard in 1348, and partly for fear that the sheer weight of the structure thus expanded would cause the hill on which it sits to collapse. They did manage to construct much of the central section of a huge façade (in Italian “il facciatone – the big façade”), which is accessible through the museum; Nicola took this photo of the cathedral from the top of it, at a height roughly equal to that of the bell-tower, over 250 feet.
The bell-tower, cupola and right transept seen from the main façade.
The structure to the right in this photograph is the baptistery, which will also get its own post later on. To the left we see the external wall of the New Cathedral’s right nave from the small piazza in front of the baptistery, and the large door that would have led into it from the side had it ever been completed. (The layout of the complex has been determined in more than one way by the steep incline of the hill on which it sits; the baptistery itself also serves as a support for the main church’s choir.)
The interior seen from the back of the church. The flag of the city of Siena, known as the “balzana”, is a Gothic-style shield, white above and black below. The black-and-white striping of the columns are intended to evoke this as a symbol of civic pride, and the central role which a cathedral played in the life of a medieval city. Also notice the busts mounted under the architrave; these are portraits of all of the Popes from St Peter to Pope Lucius III (1181-85), the successor of Alexander III, done by unknown artists between 1497 and 1502.
The dome was originally constructed in 1263, but has undergone several modifications since then; the interior decorations were not added until the later part of the 15th-century (1481-94), while the lantern was added by Gian Lorenzo Bernini to replace an earlier structure in 1666.
Much of the floor is decorated with very elaborate marble intarsias, which will also been seen in another post. This photo was taken from just in front of the area under the cupola.
The tabernacle mounted on top of the high altar is the work of the Sienese sculptor and painter Lorenzo di Pietro (1410-80), generally known by the peculiarly unfortunate nickname “Vecchietta”, which means “little old lady.” (The reason for this is completely unknown.) It was originally commissioned for the church of the Annunciation, the chapel of the very large pilgrim hospice in front of the cathedral, and executed from 1467-72. The work was extremely well-regarded; Vecchietta was paid a gigantic sum for it, and also given the workshop in which he had made it. In the year 1506, the decision was made to give it a more prominent place by moving it into the cathedral itself, and mounting it on a new high altar; the project did not begin, however, until 1530, when the design of the new altar by Baldassare Peruzzi was officially approved. The four bronze angels, two by Giovanni di Stefano (1444-1511) and two by Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501), both natives of Siena, were originally commissioned in 1488 for the altar which this one replaced.
The oculus of the counter-façade is filled with a stained-glass window of the Last Supper of the mid-16th century by Pastorino dei Pastorini.

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