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Siena, Duomo

Siena in the Renaissance era

A tour of art and history through the centre of town

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The abundance of the pictorial experience that the lively town of Siena managed to prompt in the last part of the fifteenth- and the beginning of the sixteenth-centuries, is important not only for the quantity produced but for its quality as well.

The two main focal points of Siena representing the civil power on one hand (Palazzo Pubblico and the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala) and the religious power on the other (The Cathedral) conserve the most relevant examples of that cultural change.


Within the Palazzo Pubblico the sumptuous consistorial hall was decorated by Domenico Beccafumi with scenes of the civic virtues, project that lasted from 1529 to 1535. Emphatic mannerism, vivid colours and daring illusionistic representations attract the spectator to one of the most fascinating pictorial cycles of the time.

Not far way, on Via Pellegrini which leads to the baptistery, Beccafumi himself developed a complex series of images with characters from mythology and ancient history, commissioned by the owner Marcello Agostini. The cycle is considered one of the highest expressions of the Italian 1500s, one of the "secret" places in a palace that is still owned privately and is only rarely open to the public. Nearby is the Palazzo del Magnifico, residence of Pandolfo Petrucci, Siena's ruler at the time, a sumptuous patrician residence. It was furnished by the most important artists present in Siena at the end of the fifteenth-century though only the architectural structure remains after it was stripped of all its decorations and furniture during the XIX century. These items today are part of local and foreign museum collections. Two evocative scenes by Girolamo Genga (Flight of Aeneas from Troy, The liberation of the prisoners) can be found in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena.



Not far away Palazzo Piccolomini, built by the heirs of Pope Pius II after his death, is one of the purest examples of Renaissance architecture. Thought to be built on a plan by Bernardo Rossellino, the pope's architect, the palace is today the site of the State Archives of Siena and the museum of the Biccherne where it is possible to admire the outstanding collection of painted biccherna tablets - book covers of the ledgers of the financial and fiscal offices of the commune of Siena.

Almost all the Sienese Renaissance artists painted on wooden panels, and their work was often characterized by the representation of the main events of Sienese history. Sano di Pietro was commissioned more than once to celebrate contemporary people and their noble achievements (in 1457, in 1471,and in 1473); Vecchietta depicted the Coronation of Pope Pius II Piccolomini in the biccherna of 1460; Francesco di Giorgio recalled The Earthquake in the biccherna of 1467; Neroccio was entrusted with the Intercession of the Virgin Mary to Jesus for the town of Siena and Guidoccio Cozzarelli depicted the scene of the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, so skillfully that considering he was confined to the small surface of the tablet the result is with no doubt equal to any of his altarpieces.

For the Sienese Duomo the most innovative artists conceived the main pictorial and sculptural cycles: Bernardino di Betto, known as Pinturicchio, was commissioned to fresco the Piccolomini Library, created to house Pope Pius II's library and to celebrate his magnificence. It depicts major episodes from his life in a representation of rare elegance, sharp narrative spirit, formal style and chromatic exuberance. Right below the frescos, the glass cases contain a collection of antiphons decorated with miniatures by Girolamo da Cremona, Liberale da Verona, Sano di Pietro, which are the most outstanding examples of the fifteenth century.



Sculpture production includes the leading figures of the Renaissance plastic arts. To remember just a few important ones: the bronze Baptist by Donatello the Ciborium for the high altar by Vecchietta; the Angels by Francesco di Giorgio and Giovanni di Stefano; the Candelabras in the form of Angels by Beccafumi; and Piccolomini's altar decorated with marble sculptures by Michelangelo. The intarsia work of the marble floor, of unparalleled elegance, was created by the greatest Sienese artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth-centuries: Matteo di Giovanni, Guidoccio Cozzarelli, Benvenuto di Giovanni, Antonio Federighi and above all Domenico Beccafumi who designed thirteen of them.


The Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in front of the Duomo,a very powerful economic institution, saw, after the great achievement of the frescoes of the Pellegrinaio (in which scenes from the hospital daily life were depicted by Domenico di Bartolo) the contribution of Vecchietta, in the Grand Vestry, who frescoed the entire hall with stories from the Old and New Testament, and the contribution of Beccafumi with an early work, The Visitation.


The Pinacoteca Nazionale is a veritable encyclopedia of the Sienese figurative arts where all the artists are vastly represented by very high quality artworks: two very large halls show the works of Francesco di Giorgio, Matteo di Giovanni, Neroccio di Bartolomeo; and the great altarpieces by Vecchietta, Benvenuto di Giovanni, Girolamo di Benvenuto, Francesco di Giorgio and Beccafumi.

The figure of the ruler of Siena, Pandolfo Petrucci, is linked to one of the most significant religious buildings, the Basilica dell'Osservanza, founded by San Bernardino and chosen by Pandolfo as his resting place. In the Vestry, planned by him, there are the elegant choir-stalls of carved wood by Antonio Barili and the sculpture in polychrome terracotta moulded by Giacomo Cozzarelli in an intense expressive language supported by stylish polychromy, a masterpiece of Sienese late-Renaissance statuary.

The influence of the revived figurative language in the more classic forms of the late-Renaissance, filtered, with no doubt, through the presence of the most influential artists of the quattrocento (Donatello, Benedetto da Maiano, Bernardo Rossellino, Luca Signorelli, Pinturicchio) spreading out rapidly through the Sienese culture in such a way to gain commissions even from outside the city's territory. We can positively affirm that it is not possible to find a place in the whole of the Sienese province that has not seen at least one of the relevant artistic episodes of the time.


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