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Until 31 July and from 18 August to 18 October 2023, the Cathedral of Siena is unveiling its inlaid marble floor, one of Italy’s most astonishing artistic creations, but so fragile that it usually has to be covered over to stop it being worn away.
Few churches in the world match Siena Cathedral for splendour and centuries-old stratification of artistic masterpieces. Nicola Pisano, the supreme sculptor of medieval Italy, adorned it with a pulpit in 1259, while his son Giovanni studded the façade with splendid statues. Sublime works by Duccio da Buoninsegna, Lorenzetti, Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, Pinturicchio arrived, one after the other.
In 1339, the Sienese decided to enlarge the cathedral, making the existing one into the transept of a building of vast proportions. But the Black Death of 1348 and the gradual loss of the city’s economic power sapped the people’s energy. Today, we only have the right aisle and a stumpy façade known as the ‘Facciatone’.
Inside, however, the Sienese began a masterpiece on which they were to go on working for centuries. Starting in the second half of the 1300s, they decided to cover the floor with 56 inlaid marble squares for a total of 1,300 square metres.
A magnificent book has now been dedicated to this floor. It is the fruit of more than 30 years’ study by Marilena Caciorgna, professor of iconography and the classical tradition at the University of Siena, and it explains the complex stories told by the floor, whose preparatory designs were by great artists, almost all Sienese: Sassetta, Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Domenico Beccafumi, with an intervention by Pinturicchio, the Umbrian author of the panel with the Mount of Wisdom, a symbolic representation of the path to Virtue.
Un libro di Marmo. Il pavimento del Duomo di Siena, Marilena Caciorgna, 312 pp, colour illustrations, (Sillabe, Livorno 2023), €39