Siena Cathedral Uncovers Breathtaking 14th-Century Mosaic Floors

Detail of the mosaic floor of the Duomo di Siena. The mosaic floor is usually covered and can only be seen in some exceptional periods. (photo via Getty Images)

Those traveling to Siena this summer can get a glimpse of one of the northern Italian city’s most astonishing sights. At the Medieval Duomo di Siena cathedral, in addition to the many works of art that adorn the church’s interior and exterior, visitors will be able to see nearly 14,000 square feet of intricate mosaic marble flooring dating back to the 14th century.

Constructed during the first half of the 13th century, the Duomo di Siena is filled with sculptures, paintings, and other furnishings that make it both a marvel of architecture and fine art. But aside from works by Italian masters Michelangelo, Pisano, Donatello, and Bernini, the church’s large-scale mosaic floor is another artistic feat — covered in incredibly detailed philosophical and Biblical imagery inlaid over 56 marble panels.

Giovanni di Stefano, “Hermes Trismegistus” (1488), marble mosaic inlay (image via Wikimedia)

The black-and-white striped cathedral’s fragile inlaid floors spend most of the year covered by fiberboard panels for protection from foot traffic. Every year, after the city’s traditional Palio di Siena horse race, which occurs twice a year, the floor is briefly uncovered for several weeks during the summer and the fall.

Much of the work was created in several stages between 1370 and 1550, but the entire project was not completed until 500 years later in the 19th century. 

The drawings supplied for the floor’s 56 panels were designed by artists who were all from Siena, with the exception of Umbrian painter Bernardino di Betto. The artists’ sketches were transferred onto the floor using a combination of techniques that achieved a striking amount of precision. Initially, the designs were chiseled onto white marble, then filled with black stucco, a method referred to as “graffito.” This approach was later switched out for a marble mosaic inlay technique, which involved fitting colored marble pieces together. 

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Detail of “The She-Wolf of Siena” in the mosaic floor of the cathedral (photo via Getty Images)

Some of the stand-out works on the floor include that of Giovanni di Stefano, who designed the first inlay that greets visitors upon entering the church’s central area, “Hermes Trismegistus” (1488). On either side are inlays of sibyls, designed by di Stefano and Neroccio di Bartolomeo. Above the “Hermes Trismegistus” is “The Wolf suckling Romulus and Remus” (1373) by Leopoldo Maccari, which depicts the Roman mythological twins who founded the city of Rome encompassed by eight small circular emblems of Italian cities. Around the church’s altar and underneath the dome are works by Matteo di Giovanni and Domenico Beccafumi that portray complex scenes from the Old Testament.

The floor of the Duomo di Siena will remain uncovered until July 31, as well as from August 18 through October 18. Full-price tickets to tour the church and its floors are €8 (~$9), with reduced prices for guided groups. Admission is free for children up to six years old, Siena municipality residents, disabled visitors, Siena university students, and others who qualify.

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