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Biblioteca Piccolomini of Siena

Siena’s Vision Provides a Unique Contribution to World Heritage

By Francesco Bonavita, Ph. D.

UNESCO is charged with identifying and protecting historical artistic accomplishments throughout the world. While many countries contain significant cultural treasures, such antiquities are scattered and typically confined to a specific period. On the other hand, Italy can boast 25 centuries of major contributions, which begins with the Etruscans, evolves through the Roman period, to the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Baroque periods, all the way up to present time in visual arts, cinema and music. In this issue, we will be exploring the marvels of Siena, which have been identified by UNESCO as part of an ideal city that expresses the values and the heritage of humanity.

The Val d’Orcia, the rural territory surrounding the city of Siena, has escaped the devastation of urban sprawl since the Middle Ages. It was created for the purpose of preserving agricultural capacity, safeguarding water resources and demonstrating a respect for the environment. This rich landscape, situated just outside Siena, can be traced back to medieval times, depicted by artists as early as 1200 AD. It is an area that embodies the qualities of land management that is not only pleasing to the eye, but a reflection of good governmental and civic management.

Normally after visiting the Duomo, the Biblioteca Piccolomini, Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia, the Piazza Campo is where every visitor ends up. It is a majestic piazza that is known world-wide for the Palio of Siena, a horse race that takes place annually during summer months. It evokes the competitive spirit of Siena’s seventeen contrade, the city’s quarters. The colorful race and pageant are filled with medieval costumes, evoking the traditions of the event. The piazza when seen from above shows nine travertine lines radiating from its borders, dividing it into sections. The lines represent the Rule of the Nine, which for many years governed Siena, from the height of its power until 1355. The immense square is likely the largest example of a medieval piazza, designed to create a community venue for people to socialize and to interact in a harmonious way.

The Palazzo Pubblico and its huge tower dominate the Piazza. It houses a wonderful collection of paintings that provide a living testimony of Sienese history. In the building, the Nine ruled the city and heated debates took place to decide upon public policies. Thus, upon entering the Sala del Mappamondo – the Hall of the Globe – the first thing that strikes the visitor is L’Allegoria ed Effetti del Buono e del Cattivo Governo – The Allegory and Consequences of Good and Bad Government, illustrated by the Sienese artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The panel of bad government depicts the horrors and the consequences of poorly managed political leadership. It highlights a ruler, flanked by military figures and three allegorical figures – greed, cruelty and betrayal.

In contrast, the Allegory of Good Government represents an ideal government based on the rule of law, where citizenry lives in harmony with one another. The view of this city is vibrant. Everyone is employed, with men and women working together to build their community. The city thrives on commerce and shoppers give the impression that the economy is strong. On the right, an angel rewards exemplary behavior, while on the left, another angel is quick to condemn criminal conduct. The most intriguing figure of the illustration is the goddess who holds a carpenter’s hand plane. The message conveyed is that everyone is equal and that no one is above the law. This allegory is truly extraordinary. It represents a political vision well ahead of its time, which in many ways, foreshadows the Age of Enlightenment.

The Duomo of Siena is arguably one of the best examples of Roman Gothic architecture. Its façade is highly decorated and its triangular spire gives the impression of soaring to the sky. It has three naves, the center of which is truly majestic. Indeed, the floor of the cathedral offers a breathtaking view of artistic accomplishment made possible with a technique known as marble intarsia. This is essentially a form of mosaic art from which images are created. There are 56 panel illustrations on the floor of each nave.

None of the panels are signed, except for Allegoria del colle e della Sapienza – the Allegory of the Hill and Knowledge, created by the Renaissance artist Pinturicchio. In this evocative panel, the Greek philosopher Crates warns the viewer that money is the corruption of all evils. He is shown dumping money into the sea to instead pursue loftier goals, while on the left, Socrates holds a book, the key to knowledge. In the lower right hand corner, Lady Fortune has a foot on the globe and another on a boat, illustrating that fortune is fleeting and destined to vanish. On the other hand, the group in the center is firmly glued to the ground following the virtue of hard work and wisdom. It is a message that virtue is attainable and that those who work are rewarded with truth and knowledge.

The impressive cupola of the Duomo rises to a height of 177 feet and at its base are a series of sculptures that depict various saints, including works by Donatello, Bernini and four sculptures carved by Michelangelo. The most striking is the one of Saint Paul since it is actually the face of Michelangelo as a young man. The work is a remarkable and pre-dates his David, which was executed only a short time afterwards.

The Duomo offers a view of what the Sienese people call il Facciatone. This is an unfinished cathedral that was supposed to replace the Duomo itself. The Sienese architect, Bernardo Rossellino, conceived a project which would have been the largest cathedral in the world. In the early 1300s, the population of Siena reached 50,000. The city was prospering and its wealth was reflected in quality of life of its citizens. Unfortunately, from 1346 to 1353, the Black Death decimated Europe and Siena was particularly hard hit. Two out of every three people died as a result of the plague. Among the victims were architect Bernardo Rossellino and the Lorenzetti brothers, who were to have decorated the interior. After the plague subsided, efforts were made to continue the project, but both spirit and resources were lacking. The construction was abandoned and the façade was left as a stark reminder of man’s fragility in the face of natural disasters. Arguably, had it not been for the plague, Siena may have surpassed Florence in beauty and purpose.

The Biblioteca Piccolomini was created as a commemorative expression in honor of Pope Pius II, Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who was a Sienese humanist, scholar and a poet in his own right. In the library, one can admire the ten works by Pinturicchio, two by Raphael and many other rare treasures. An adjacent room displays two huge volumes that embody the Constitution of Siena, written in 1309. What is striking about this document is, that rather than written in Latin, the Costituto is composed entirely in the Italian language. Any Sienese citizen who entered the Biblioteca would have had the ability to examine the artfully decorated text, such was the transparency of the city.

Siena kept annals for the purpose of recording birth, property owners and other forms of transactions. In the beginning, these books were decorated with a wooden plate known as a tavoletta. These were decorated with rudimentary illustrations, but as time went on, artists were summoned to create more sophisticated illustrations that gradually developed into fine paintings. These Tavolette di Biccherna illustrate the expressive achievement of Sienese art, highlighting history, the landscape and even the daily lives of it citizens.

This tavoletta stretches back 800 years. It also illustrates how little landscape of the Val d’Orcia has changed. It is a remarkable testimony of the strength of the Sienese people to hold on to their heritage. This is a powerful message for posterity in that a respect for the environment is not only essential but vital to show a true commitment for those who come after us.

The story of Siena as a functional city and a benevolent government is unique. Siena’s civic vision and egalitarian view of government was centuries ahead of its time and its contribution to civilization are immeasurable.