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The Marble Floor of the Siena Cathedral - Panels, History and Unveiling Info

Portraits in Marble — Siena Cathedral's Floor  

With a tapestry of contiguous images, walking on the floor of the Siena cathedral feels like treading on a large marble canvas. The mosaic inlays which cover the entire floor, are made up of 56 marble panels depicting unique scenes and symbols from classical antiquity and the Old and New Testaments and executed with exquisite detail and vibrant colors. Created by various Sienese artists over a period of several centuries in myriad artistic styles, the Siena cathedral floor is a visual and cultural delight. 

Siena Cathedral Floor | Quick Facts

Marbel floor

Location: Siena Cathedral, Piazza del Duomo in Siena, Italy
Construction Started in: 14th Century
Construction Completed in: 19th Century
Materials Used: Marble and stone
Floor Area: 14,000 square feet
Notable Features: 56 panels of marble inlays

What's Special About the Siena Cathedral Floor?


When Can You See the Marble Panels of the Floor?

Siena Cathedral floor watch

The History of the Siena Cathedral Floor In a Nutshell

Siena Cathedral Floor

The magnificent floor was constructed between the 14th and 19th centuries. The earliest panels to be created were the Wheel of Fortune (1372), the She-wolf of Siena (1373), and the Four Virtues (1406).  The preliminary outlines and designs of the panels were provided by Sienese painters that were then executed by craftsmen. Superintendents like Domenico di Niccolò dei Cori (between 1413 and 1423) and his successor Paolo di Martino (between 1424 and 1426) oversaw the construction of the cathedral's floor and worked on the panels themselves. The mosaic floor made tremendous progress under Alberto Aringhieri, who was appointed in 1480. The basic work for ten sibyls was created during this time (1481 to 1483). Many panels were created even in the 16th century by Domenico Beccafumi, a renowned Sienese artist. Even the Umbrian artist Pinturicchio who was responsible for the frescoes in the Piccolomini Library was involved in the creation of the floor during that time. 

How were the Siena Cathedral Floor Panels Created?

The style of some of the later mosaic panels is almost modern and impressionistic. This is possibly because the techniques used in the creation of the mosaics evolved over time. The early panels of the mosaic floor were created using an engraving technique called graffito in which the outline of the design is scratched into the marble and then filled with Bitumen or black stucco. Later, marble inlaying or the marquetry method was adopted wherein bits of colorful marble including, grey Sienese Montagnola and yellow Broccatello, were laid next to each other to create patterns. Sassetta, Domenico di Bartolo, Matteo di Giovanni, Domenico Beccafumi, and Pinturicchio were esteemed artists of the time who worked on the marble floor.

How are the Panels on the Siena Cathedral Floor Arranged?

Siena Cathedral Floor Panels

Must-See Panels of the Siena Cathedral Floor

The Ten Sibyls

The Ten Sibyls

On either side of the nave, you will find the Ten Sibyls — female seers from the ancient world who prophesized at holy places about events to come. There are said to be several sibyls from various geographic regions as depicted in the panels. They include the Delphic Sibyl, the Erythraean Sibyl, the Phrygian Sibyl of the Anatolian Highlands, the Persian Sibyl, the Hellespontine Sibylla, and the Libyan Sibyl of Africa among others. Each Sibyl is set in white marble against a black background. They are identified by clear inscriptions on the inlay, with smaller panels in which their prophecy of the coming of Christ is inscribed.

Wheel of Fortune Siena Cathedral Floor

The Wheel of Fortune

The last panel before the transept is the allegorical Wheel of Fortune (laid in 1372) which deals with the capricious nature of fate and suffering in the human world. It consists of a large wheel (possibly turned by the goddess of Fate Fortuna) and four figures — a king upon a throne and three others clinging to the wheel in varying states of distress. It represents the fortune of man through the Latin adage of regnabo, regno, regnavi, sum sine regno or I will reign, I reign, I have reigned and I am without a kingdom. In four hexagons on the corners of the panel are the Roman philosophers Epictetus, Aristotle, Euripides, and Seneca, each with a prophecy of the future.

She-wolf of Siena Cathedral Floor

The She-wolf of Siena

The second panel on the nave, following Hermes Trismegistus, is the famous She-wolf Suckling the Twins. The center of the panel consists of a large female wolf with two human children suckling at her and the inscription 'Sena' scrawled across it. It is a depiction of the Roman myth of Romulus and Remus, who may have also been interpreted as Ascanio and Senio, the founders of the city of Siena. It is surrounded by smaller roundels containing the emblems of important cities in the Tuscan region and Italy such as the lion of Florence, the elephant of Rome, and the hare of Pisa.

Slaughter of the InnocentsSiena Cathedral Floor

Slaughter of the Innocents

In the lower half of the left transept, we find the Expulsion of Herod by the artist Benvenuto di Giovanni which captures the defeat of Herod Antipas as divine revenge for killing John the Baptist. Next, we see the Slaughter of the Innocents, which was created by Matteo di Giovanni in 1481, in which Herod the Great (the father of Antipas) orders the death of all children below the age of 2 in Bethlehem to ensure that the baby Jesus does not survive. This panel has also been interpreted as the massacre by the Turks in 1480 after they conquered Otranto, an event that deeply disturbed the Christian world. The Slaughter of the Innocents is one of four compositions by the artist, three of which are paintings found in other Sienese churches.

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Additional Information About the Siena Cathedral Floor

  • Sections of the floor are covered in the year to prevent the marble inlays from deteriorating. 
  • The entire floor is uncovered for display usually between late June and early July and between August and October. Ensure that you visit the cathedral during these periods to view it.  
  • You do not need a separate ticket to view the floor of the Siena Cathedral when it is covered. However, an additional fee is charged for viewing the marble floor on the days it is unveiled. 
  • During the period when the floor is uncovered, mass is celebrated in the church of the Santissima Annunziata.
  • It is advised to book your tickets online as this allows you to avoid ticket queues and access the cathedral faster.

All Your Questions About the Siena Cathedral Floor

What is special about the Siena Cathedral floor?

The Siena Cathedral floor is famous for its intricate, colorful mosaic panels depicting biblical and pagan mythology scenes and figures.

Do I need tickets to see the floor of the Siena Cathedral?

Yes, tickets are required to enter the Siena Cathedral. Upon entering you can view the cathedral’s marvelous floor. On days when the floor is uncovered, a fee may be charged to see the marble inlays in their full splendor.

What can I see on the Siena Cathedral floor?

On the Siena Cathedral floor, you can see scenes from the Old Testament and allegorical depictions from Roman and Greek mythology.

When is the floor of the Siena Cathedral uncovered?

The Siena Cathedral floor is uncovered from late August to October and between late June and late July.

How many panels are there in the Siena Cathedral floor?

There are 56 large panels in total on the Siena Cathedral floor.

When was the Siena Cathedral floor built?

A large number of panels of the Siena Cathedral floor were completed in the 14th and 16th centuries. However, several additions and renovations were done up till the 19th century.

How was the Siena Cathedral floor created?

The Siena Cathedral floor was created using the inlaid marble technique and the graffito technique.

Are there any restrictions on photography or filming of the Siena Cathedral floor?

Restrictions on photography and filming of the Siena Cathedral floor may apply. But in general photography for personal use within the Siena Cathedral is allowed.