Siena’s Duomo museum was founded in 1869. It is housed in the right aisle of the uncompleted new nave of the cathedral, built between 1339 and 1357. On display inside are some of the original sculptures that used to be on the cathedral facade, several interesting paintings and religious items. It is also possible to climb the so-called Facciatone, the facade of the unfinished nave. This offers a panoramic view of the city and the countryside and is a good alternative for those who do not want to climb the Torre del Mangia of the Palazzo Pubblico.
One of the most important items in the museum is the stained glass window by Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/19), originally installed in the apse of the Duomo but now replaced with a copy. The window was made between 1287 and 1288 and is a splendid work of art.
In the central pane, we see the Assumption of the Virgin. This is hardly surprising, since Siena’s cathedral is dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. Below this pane is the Burial of the Virgin and above it her Coronation. In the four corners are the four Evangelists with their respective symbols. Flanking the pane showing the Assumption are Siena’s four patron saints, two on each side. They are Bartholomew, Ansanus, Crescentius and Savinus. A caption in the museum claims that “the scenes reveal the gentle narrative style of the great Sienese master and a new sense of space probably derived from the work of Giotto”. The latter claim seems a bit far-fetched. Giotto (ca. 1266-1337) would have been only in his early twenties in 1287 and still very much unknown.
Perhaps even more famous than the stained glass window is the Maestà altarpiece, also by Duccio. It was painted between 1308 and 1311 and was on the high altar of the Duomo until 1506. Thrown out of the cathedral in the seventeen hundreds, the altarpiece was sawn up and damaged. Some of the panels were lost forever. The Maestà was fortunately reassembled in the 1950s and is now treated as the guest of honour of the museum. It has a room of its own on the first floor, which is completely climate controlled.
What is special about Duccio’s Maestà is that the panel was painted on both sides. The front shows the Madonna and Child and many saints, including – I assume – Siena’s four patron saints again. The reverse side has 26 scenes from the Passion of Christ. The museum also possesses most of the panels from the predella and the crowns of the altarpiece, although some are regretfully missing. The level of detail of the small scenes on these panels is very impressive.
The museum has several sculptures from the facade of the Duomo, made by Giovanni Pisano (ca. 1248-1315) and his school between 1285-1297. Also present is a famous tondo of the Madonna and Child, made by the Florentine sculptor Donatello (1386-1466). It was executed ca. 1458 and used to be above the so-called Porta del Perdono (“Door of Forgiveness”) on the right side of the Duomo. Also in the tondo are three cherubs, hardly visible because of the low relief used by the artist.
In previous posts, I have already mentioned two paintings by the fifteenth century artist Sano di Pietro (1406-1481). One of them features Saint Bernardino of Siena preaching in the square of the church of San Francesco, the other shows the same saint holding a sermon in the Piazza del Campo, with the Palazzo Pubblico in the background. Both paintings are now in the Duomo museum.
In the same section of the museum, we can also admire one of the most peculiar and oldest panels of the collection. I am referring to the mysterious Madonna of the Large Eyes (Madonna degli occhi grossi in Italian). It is dated to the second quarter of the thirteenth century (ca. 1225-1250) and is attributed to the equally enigmatic Maestro di Tressa. The panel painting is hardly beautiful and still very medieval (“Byzantine”) in style. It was a highly important religious item though, and the people of Siena prayed to it on the eve of the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. The battle ended in a resounding victory for Ghibelline Siena, which defeated Guelph Florence and its allies.
I highly recommend climbing the Facciatone to admire the view. When I visited the museum in 2010, visitors could go up and down the stairs as they wanted. This may have caused some problems during the peak season. Visitors with backpacks going up were hindered by people with backpacks coming down and you obviously do not want congestion on a narrow winding staircase. When I was back in Siena in 2016, the traffic was more regulated. About twenty people were allowed to go up and the rest had to queue up and wait until they were down again. This worked perfectly.
More information can be found on the website of the museum.