Discovering the secrets of the floor of Siena's cathedral

It has just been covered again by heavy sheets, in order to protect its beauty from the wear caused by visitors’ shoes. But what's hidden inside the marble inlays of one of the most incredible marble works in the world?

“The most beautiful, largest and most magnificent floor that ever was made,” according to Giorgio Vasari.

It’s only open for two months a year, but it’s one of the greatest masterpieces of Italian art: the floor of Siena’s Cathedral is certainly famous, but perhaps a bit underestimated. After admiring it, one wonders if covering it for ten months a year is really the best option (the dust filters through the protections, carrying with it the acidity that is the main enemy of the marbles) and if we shouldn’t instead change this policy, even at the cost of relegating the religious services in the side chapels (which is what happens when the floor is uncovered).

siena duomo floor

In the meantime, we’ve put together some information for those who have not yet had the opportunity to see it and help them try to imagine this unique work of art.

The floor of the Siena’s Cathedral is a complex of marble inlays and the result of a decoration project that lasted six centuries (from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century). It’s made up of more than sixty scenes, whose preparatory sketches were made by great artists: Domenico dei Cori, Sassetta, Antonio Federighi, Benvenuto di Giovanni, Pinturicchio and Domenico Beccafumi, who introduced new techniques to achieve similar effects to the great pictorial cycles of the time. At first the decorations were quite simple and the first panels were made with the graffito technique: the slabs of marble were engraved and the grooves filled with black. Later, coloured marbles were combined with a technique known as commesso marmoreo.

The German Friedrich Ohly was the first to suggest the presence of a figurative program carried out along the course of the centuries. He concluded that each stage of the floor is part of a representation of Salvation, and it all starts with the figures of Jews and Gentiles, which can be seen in the parvis, who are excluded from salvation and therefore left outside the cathedral.

Just inside the main door, we find Ermete Trismegisto, there to symbolise the beginning of worldly knowledge; along at ten Sibille of the later aisles, he’s part of the path inspired by Lattanzio’s Divinae Institutiones.

Ermete Trismegisto
Ermete Trismegisto

After Ermette, along the same aisle, there is the Lupa che allatta i gemelli (she-wolf nursing the twins) – the only figure made in a mosaic and probably the oldest one. Then, there are the inlays representing Siena and two images of Fortune, the Wheel of Fortune and the Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom, sketched by Pinturicchio. This image of Fortune is strongly reminiscent of Botticelli's Venus; the woman is in an unstable position, with one foot on a sphere, while the other is on a boat at the mercy of the waves. Fortune manages to land on a rocky island with a few wise men, who aiming to reach the summit of what looks like Dante’s dilettoso monte (mountain of joy) or the Purgatory. Then the wise men continue along a path full of obstacles.

Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom
Allegory of the Hill of Wisdom

On the summit awaits Wisdom. The second woman, with her left hand, offers a book to Cratete, who, in the meantime, throws a chest of jewels into the sea. With the right hand, the woman gives a palm to Socrates. The path that leads to Wisdom is hard, but it leads to serenity: a plateau covered with flowers.

Each scene of the floor provides variety and richness. Continuing down the aisle, we get to the transept, where the stories of Revelation are depicted.

The hexagon under the dome shows scenes of sacrifice, referred to the Eucharistic celebration of the altar.

On the sides there are the military exploits of the Jewish people, with the addition of the Massacre of the Innocents, whose effect of universal devastation makes us think about Picasso’s Guernica. This is also the only story coming from a Gospel — that of Matthew — while all the other representations are based on the Old Testament and classical sources.

Massacre of the Innocents
Massacre of the Innocents

Domenico Beccafumi worked on the hexagon (which contains the stories of Elijah and Ahab), and on some inlays near the altar (Moses Drawing Water from the Rock, Stories of Moses at Sinai and the Sacrifice of Isaac); he perfected the marble inlay technique, managing to achieve the chiaroscuro.

In this part, the marbles contain at least two shades of yellow that light up the scenes like nowhere else in the cathedral.

The path finishes with the stories of David, anticipating the figure of Jesus. Among these are The death of Absalom, hung by the hair, an iconography resembling some Japanese prints.

The Virtues of the right transept are not part of the overall design; these are late eighteenth century works, made when the overall significance of the stories was already lost.

Original article by Federico di Vita - InToscana