Siena: Santa Maria dei Servi

Santa Maria dei Servi.

I had previously seen the church of Santa Maria dei Servi from a great distance, i.e. from the Facciatone, the unfinished façade of the uncompleted new nave of the cathedral of Siena. Many years later I got up close and personal with the church. As it turned out, it was a stiff walk from the city centre to get to it, going downhill first and then uphill again. But it was definitely worth the effort, as the church looked splendid that late afternoon in January of 2024. There were just a handful of visitors, and I even had the entire church to myself for a while. Although it is generally known as Santa Maria dei Servi, the full name of the church is Basilica di San Clemente e dell’Immacolata Concezione della Beate Vergine Maria Protettrice e ausiliatrice della Città e della Repubblica di Siena. It is a long name that betrays a complicated history.


The Order of the Servants of Mary – Servites for short – was founded in 1233 in Florence. Around 1250 the first members of the order arrived in Siena. They were granted the dilapidated parish church of San Clemente and built their convent next to it. The church of San Clemente was simultaneously subjected to all sorts of enlargements and renovations which lasted for several centuries. Judging by (the remains of) fourteenth-century frescoes that we find there, the construction of the transept and transept chapels must have been completed towards the middle of the fourteenth century. The nave of the church was then renovated in Renaissance style between 1471 and 1528. One of the architects involved was Ventura Turapilli (died 1522). He is said to have implemented a design by the much more famous Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536). It is, of course, impossible that this design was already available in 1471, as in that year Peruzzi had not even been born yet.

Santa Maria dei Servi, seen from the Facciatone.

Interior of the church.

The church was consecrated as late as 1533. On that occasion it acquired, in addition to its original dedication to the martyr Pope Clemens from the first century, a secondary dedication to the Virgin Mary, protectress and helper of the city and republic of Siena. Work on the church interior, by the way, continued until 1537. In the seventeenth century the Baroque side altars were added, where art lovers can find, among other things, a work by Rutilio Manetti (1571-1639). The painter from Siena recently made the news when an Italian undersecretary was accused of possessing a stolen Manetti. At the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century the transept was renovated in Neogothic style, which explains the presence in the church of work by Alessandro Franchi (1838-1914) from Prato. The most important intervention of the twentieth century was the renovation of the bell-tower in 1926-1927.

The Romanesque façade of the Santa Maria dei Servi was evidently never completed. Above the sole entrance we see a rose window that has been bricked up. Above it is a second rose window that is still in use. There are no additional exterior decorations, so let us quickly go inside. Close to the entrance visitors will find an information panel with a full explanation of the history of the church and its artworks. The part about the history is in Italian only, but the information about the many artworks has also been translated into English, German and Spanish. On a slightly curious note, the names of the artists have often been translated as well. Pietro Lorenzetti, one of the most famous painters of fourteenth-century Siena, for instance becomes Peter Lorenzetti in English and Pedro Lorenzetti in Spanish. Giacomo Cozzarelli returns as James and the aforementioned Alessandro Franchi is suddenly called Alexander.

Coppo di Marcovaldo

Madonna del Bordone – Coppo di Marcovaldo.

The most famous work of art in the church is the Madonna del Bordone by Coppo di Marcovaldo (ca. 1225-1276). Coppo was a painter from Florence who participated in the battle of Montaperti in 1260. In this battle Florence and its allies, such as Lucca, Bologna and Prato, clashed with the forces of Siena, Pisa and Terni. The Florentine army was almost twice as large as that of Siena, but Siena had received aid from King Manfred of Sicily, who had sent a unit of heavy cavalry. Against anyone’s expectations, Siena won a resounding victory on that 4th of September. Captured banners with the Florentine lily were dragged through the mud and hundreds of soldiers from the Florentine army were taken prisoner. The battle of Montaperti was a traumatic experience for Florence and left deep scars, as is evident from the fact that Dante refers to it in his Divine Comedy (Inferno Canto 10, lines 85-87):

“And I to him[1]: “The havoc and the carnage
That dyed the Arbia[2] red at Montaperti
Have caused these angry cries in our assemblage.””[3]

According to a quite plausible theory Coppo di Marcovaldo was among the prisoners. Scholars have surmised that he painted his Madonna del Bordone (“Madonna of the Pilgrim’s staff”) in captivity and then used it to pay for his freedom. The fact that the Servites were originally from Florence may or may not have been a relevant factor. The year 1261 and the name of the painter are still legible near the bottom of the frame. Stylistically, the large panel painting is still quite traditional and Byzantine, although at the same time we see the imperial red shoes of the Virgin (τζαγγία in Greek) being complemented by clothes and headgear that look like they belong to Italy during the High Middle Ages. The heads of the Madonna and the Child were retouched in the fourteenth century by a follower of Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/1319).

Pietro Lorenzetti

The most interesting frescoes can be found at the back of the church. A large fresco in the chapel on the far right immediately draws our attention. This fresco of the Murder of the Innocent Children was painted by the aforementioned Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348) together with the brothers Francesco and Niccolò di Segna, sons of Segna di Bonaventura (ca. 1280-1331). As this Segna was a contemporary of Pietro, we may assume that Pietro was in charge of the project and that the much younger Francesco and Niccolò served as his assistants. The fresco has a number of fine details. On the balcony on the left we see King Herod, the instigator of the massacre. Behind the crowd soldiers on horseback make sure that no one can escape, while in the foreground we see a pile of murdered children. Children that are still alive are snatched from the arms of their mothers by armed men.

Murder of the Innocent Children – Pietro Lorenzetti, Francesco and Niccolò di Segna.

To the left of the Murder of the Innocent Children we see another fresco featuring Saint Agnes with a little lamb; Agnes means “pure” in Greek, but the word quickly became associated with the Latin word agnus, which means “lamb”. The fresco is attributed to Pietro Lorenzetti or his school. More work from this school can be found in the chapel on the far left. Here the walls were embellished with frescoes featuring the Banquet of Herod (right) and the Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist (left).

Banquet of Herod – school of Pietro Lorenzetti.

Other things to see

The altarpiece of the central chapel at the back is a large panel painting featuring the Coronation of the Virgin, executed by Bernardino Fungai (ca. 1460-1516) and completed in 1501. Many saints witness the Coronation, and a large number of them can easily be identified, for instance Saints Peter (with a key), Paul (with a sword), Catherine of Alexandria (with a wheel) and Jerome (with a rock pressed against his chest). On the left side two popes have been depicted, recognisable by their tiaras. One of them could very well be Pope Gregorius the Great (590-604). In addition to being pope, he was also a Church father and therefore matches well with Saint Jerome on the other side. The other pope may be Clemens I (88-99), to whom the church is dedicated in the first place. Unfortunately the predella of the altarpiece is no longer there. Its constituent parts, featuring scenes from the life of Clemens, are now in museums in Strasbourg and York.

Coronation of the Virgin – Bernardino Fungai.

Madonna di Belverde.

Mary liberates souls from Purgatory.

In the Santa Maria dei Servi the faithful will find the remains of two local Servites. In the ends of the transept are the glass coffins of Blessed Francesco Patrizi (1266-1328) and Blessed Gioacchino Piccolomini (1258-1305). Above the former hangs a splendid fourteenth-century crucifix by the aforementioned Niccolò di Segna. Directly after entering the church we see, on the right side, at the foot of the bell-tower, remnants of fourteenth-century frescoes by an unknown master. Quite beautiful – and very colourful – is a scene of the Virgin Mary liberating souls from Purgatory. On the left side I would recommend taking a closer look at a panel painting known as the Madonna di Belverde. On the information panels the work is still attributed to Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio (died ca. 1396), but this attribution is probably incorrect. Since a restoration in 2017 experts are inclined to consider Taddeo di Bartolo (1362-1422) as the maker, and to date the panel to ca. 1405. Taddeo di Bartolo certainly painted an Adoration of the Shepherds for the Santa Maria dei Servi. Lastly I would like to mention a very nice sculpture in the church, a dead Christ from ca. 1490 by Francesco di Giorgio (1439-1501).



[1] Farinata degli Uberti (died 1264), leader of the pro-imperial Ghibellines in Florence.

[2] River in Tuscany.

[3] Translation by John Ciardi.

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