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Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Siena Cathedral Floor

She Wolf, Siena Cathedral Floor
Michelangelo is, in fact,
represented in the Siena
Cathedral by his sculpture
of St. Paul.
As sometimes happens as I go researching an artist upon which to expound, I encounter a topic far more interesting that the figure of my initial quest. Sometimes, as in this case, the artist, Domenico di Pace Beccafumi (he was probably a teenager before he learned to spell his name), was just one of several involved in creating one of the largest indoor works of art to be found anywhere in the world. The Sistine Chapel in the Vatican has its ceiling. Just as remarkable, the Cathedral in Siena, Italy, has its floor. All too readily we might guess that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel ceiling was the larger of the two, but its dimensions don't even come close at a "mere" 40 feet in width and 130 feet in length. The mosaic floor of the Siena Cath-edral is more than twice its size at just under 292 feet (89 meters) in length with the tran-septs giving it around 200 feet (60 meters) in width. That's not to belittle Michelangelo; he created his masterpiece, a dizzying sev-enty feet up in the air, virtually all by himself, in little more than four years; while the flat-on-the-ground mosaic floor of the Siena Cathedral occupied the time and energy of hundreds of skilled artists and artisans over a period of more than 150 years. But then again, all Michelangelo had to do was apply some plaster and a coat of paint. As anyone who has ever put down ceramic tile will tell you, there's considerably more to it than patching and painting a ceiling. Moreover, the cathedral floor is made of precisely cut marble tiles.
A work of art so large you need a map to see it all.
Despite what you see above, the floor of the Siena Cathedral is so large that it's truly impossible to photograph it short of creating a photo mosaic. And, though our erstwhile Italian painter with the long name was the chief designer for a period of some twenty-six years, he was responsible for a relatively small part of the overall masterpiece. The total floor consists of fifty-six panels; Domenico Beccafumi was likely involved with ten or less, chiefly those dealing with Abraham, Moses, Melchisedec, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Sigismund.

Impressive, yes, but no more so than similar sources of
religious and civic pride in other cities of its time such as
Florence, Milan, Venice, Rome, and Naples--except for its floor.
The cathedral itself was medieval, originally designed and completed between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure (a relatively short time as cathedrals go). It takes the form of a Latin cross with a slightly projecting transept, a dome and a bell tower. The dome rises from a hexagonal base, the lantern at the top being added by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The nave is separated from the two aisles by semicircular arches. The exterior and interior are constructed of white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes, with red marble highlighting the fa├žade. A massive addition to the main body of the cathedral was planned in 1339. It would have more than doubled the size of the structure by means of an entirely new nave and two aisles ranged perpendicular to the existing nave and centered on the high altar. Construction was begun under the direction of Giovanni di Agostino but was halted by the Black Plague in 1348. Basic errors in the construction were already evident by then. The work was never resumed. The outer walls of this extension, can still be seen to the south of the Cathedral. The floor of the uncompleted nave now serves as a parking lot and museum.

The location of various panel scenes are noted above.
Even marble floors begin to
show their age after the first
three or four hundred years.
One of the problems with creating an artistic masterpiece which doubles as a floor is that, even marble has a tendency to wear down, given enough heavily shod wor-shipers and enough centuries of wear and tear (left). The Sienna Cathedral has seen both. Much of the floor has had to be restored down through those centuries. Today it is covered with a massive protective sheet for about ten months of the year. They do uncover it for about ten weeks each summer for the tourists to marvel over (and pay to see). If you wish to see it this year, you'd better book your flight to Siena soon. Though un-covered at the moment, it goes back under wraps on October 27, 2016.

The floor mosaic is huge, but as cathedrals go, the Siena Duomo
is quite average in size. Personally, I could do without the stripes.

Slaughter of the Innocents, 1481, Matteo di Giovanni

The first panel, just inside
the entrance to the nave.


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