Siena: Libreria Piccolomini

Pope Pius II in Ancona (detail).

The Piccolominis were a prominent and influential family from Siena. Their influence was not confined to the city itself: two of the family’s most famous members became popes. Enea Silvio Piccolomini (1405-1464) was elected Pope Pius II in 1458 and held that position until his death in 1464. His nephew Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (1439-1503) was archbishop of Siena and followed in his uncle’s footsteps in 1503. He became Pope Pius III, but his pontificate lasted just 26 days. It was one of the shortest pontificates in history.[1] Both uncle and nephew were, in a way, involved in the construction of the Piccolomini Library: the latter had the library built to house the former’s large collection of books. Construction started in 1492 and the building was completed some ten years later. The library was completely frescoed between 1502 and 1507 by Bernardino di Betto from Perugia, nicknamed Pinturicchio (“little painter”; ca. 1452-1513).

To visit the library, you need a ticket for the Duomo. The entrance to the Libreria Piccolomini is in the left aisle of the cathedral, just before the transept. Above the entrance is another fresco by Pinturicchio, depicting the coronation of Pius III on 8 October 1503. It seems fair to assume that the fresco was executed posthumously, as Pius was pope for less than a month and died exactly ten days after his coronation. It is one-way traffic inside the library, which is not that large. The area in the centre is roped off, and you can only go around it counter-clockwise. In the middle of the room is a statue of the Three Graces, which is a Roman copy of a Greek original that used to be in Francesco Piccolomini’s private collection.

Interior of the library.

Francesco Piccolomini had commissioned Pinturicchio to decorate the walls of the library with ten scenes from the life of his uncle. Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s life was anything but boring. He was born in 1405 into a family of eighteen children. As a young man, he accepted a job as assistant to the bishop of Fermo and travelled to Switzerland to attend the Ecumenical Council of Basel, which had been convened in 1431 by Pope Martinus V (1417-1431). His departure for Genoa by ship and the stormy weather he encountered during his voyage are depicted in the first scene of the fresco cycle (note the dark clouds and the rainbow).

The second scene shows Enea as an ambassador at the court of King James I of Scotland (1406-1437), a country he had been sent to on a special mission. The exact aims of the mission have remained unclear, but it may have involved persuading the king to invade England. In any case, Enea also visited the latter country and left us a vivid account of his travels (and of the attractive young women who wanted to sleep with him). Enea then became secretary to the newly elected Antipope Felix V (1439-1449), who sent him to Frankfurt, where he managed to gain favour with Frederick III, the King of Germany and future Holy Roman emperor (1452-1493). The third scene shows Enea being crowned court poet by Frederick. He was obviously a good poet, who wrote mildly erotic verses and fathered a few children as well. Enea became a more serious and religious person later on in life, and in the fourth scene, set in 1445, we see him submitting to Pope Eugenius IV (1431-1447), the legitimate pope.

Enea Silvio Piccolomini leaves for the Council of Basel / at the court of King James I of Scotland.

Departure by ship to Genoa.

Crowned court poet / Submission to Pope Eugenius IV.

Enea was ordained as a priest in 1446 and was made bishop of Trieste the next year. He subsequently became bishop of Siena in 1450. The fifth scene shows him with Frederick III and his future wife Eleanor of Portugal (1434-1467). Enea had played a key role in the negotiations that led to the marriage. The scene is surely set in Siena, as we can see the Duomo in the background. Francesco Piccolomini’s brother Andrea and his wife Agnese Farnese are also in this scene. They can be seen behind Eleanor, to the right of the man in black with the sign of the Knights of Rhodes on his robes.

Frederick III and Eleonor of Portugal / Enea Silvio Piccolomini receives the cardinal’s hat.

Frederick III and Eleonor of Portugal (detail).

Enea Silvio Piccolomini receives the cardinal’s hat from Pope Callixtus III.

Pope Pius II in his sedan chair.

In the sixth scene, Enea is presented with a cardinal’s hat by Pope Callixtus III (1455-1458). This event took place in 1456 and the newly appointed cardinal was given the basilica of Santa Sabina in Rome as his titular church. After Calixtus’ death Enea would be elected pope himself and this is shown in the seventh scene, where we see him being carried into the San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. Enea – Aeneas in Latin – chose the name Pius, after the Pius Aeneas of Virgil’s Aeneid.[2] One of the new pope’s dreams was a united Catholic front against the armies of the Ottoman Turks. The Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453, putting an end to the Eastern Roman Empire. The fate of Constantinople had sent shockwaves through Europe and Turkish military advances in Eastern Europe were a cause for great concern. Pope Pius II tried to organise a new crusade and the eighth fresco shows him at the so-called Council of Mantua in 1459. Contrary to what the scene seems to depict, this council was a fiasco.

The ninth fresco is about the canonisation of Catherine of Siena in 1461. Catherine was a Dominican mystic who had died in 1380. She was buried in the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, but her head was taken back to Siena, where it can be found in the city’s Dominican church, the San Domenico. The tenth and final scene shows the pope arriving in Ancona on the shores of the Adriatic Sea. He travelled from Rome to this city in the Marche to take charge of the crusade against the Turks, but to his utter disappointment discovered that only a handful of men and no more than a dozen ships had arrived. The “army” soon disintegrated. Europe had no more taste for crusades, although Pinturicchio’s fresco again suggests otherwise. The pope had suffered from arthritis for many years and was already a dying man when he left the apostolic palace to travel to Ancona. He passed away on 14 August 1464, just two days after a small Venetian fleet had finally arrived.

Pope Pius II in his sedan chair / Council of Mantua.

Canonisation of Catherine of Siena / Pope Pius II in Ancona.

Canonisation of Catherine of Siena.

The Libreria Piccolomini is a splendid library, despite the fact that no books from Pius’ collection ever arrived here. Most, if not all, of the objects on display are illuminated psalters, which are very impressive in their own right. Do not forget to look up and admire the ceiling. In the centre is the Piccolomini coat of arms, a blue cross with five crescent moons on a white background. Above the coat of arms is the red hat of a cardinal, an indication that Francesco Piccolomini had not yet been elected pope when the ceiling was frescoed.

Ceiling of the Libreria Piccolomini.

Sources: for Pope Pius II, see John Julius Norwich, The Popes, Chapter XVII. For the library, see this article.


[1] The tombs of both popes can be found in the Sant’Andrea della Valle in Rome.

[2] The previous pope named Pius had died in 154 or 155.

Updated 8 April 2024.


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