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When it comes to Renaissance art, you're often meant to look up - so as to take in frescoes on ceilings and high medieval walls. Once your neck starts aching, don't book a massage, but buy a ticket to visit Siena's cathedral and its incredibly ornamented floor. Admiring the cathedral's grounds covered in marble intarsia will provide plenty of opportunity to stretch those sore muscles into the opposite direction. 

Siena cathedral: panorama view of the uncovered marble intarsia floor
The cathedral's marble floor uncovered

Only from August to October each year is the floor entirely visible. During the other months the marble intarsia are mostly covered up so as to protect them from wear and tear. Centuries of visitors to Siena's cathedral treading on them have taken their toll. Various parts of the floor have been overworked, however care was taken not to change any of the original layout of the single designs. 

The uncovered marble floor in Siena's cathedral
The layout of the marble floor in Siena's cathedral

Probably the oldest part of the inlay marble floor is dedicated to Siena's emblem: the she-wolf nursing Senius and Aschius (the sons of Remus, who supposedly ran away from Rome and from their cruel uncle Romulus to then found Siena). The work may have been carried out from 1373 and was renewed in 1864/65. The original (and rather worn-out) mosaic can be seen at the OPA museum. My kids love looking at all the animals on the intarsia whilst trying to find out what city they belong to. And above all why? What's that hare got to do with Pisa? 

One of the intarsia making up Siena's cathedral floor: The emblem of Siena  (Rome's She-Wolf and Senus and Aschius)
The emblem of Siena: Senus and Aschius escaping with Rome's She-wolf. 

The semi-precious stones used in the intarsia are the famous white marble from Carrara (northern Tuscany) and the dark green marble from Prato near Florence. The red marble arrives from the quarries of Ravi, a little village near Gavorrano in the Maremma. You can find out more about the graffito and marble intarsia technique used in the making of the cathedral's floor on the Florentine blog Arttrav

Being a Pinturicchio lover, I always stop to admire his Allegory of the Mount of Wisdom, with the Greek philosophers Socrates and Crates and the figure of a woman caught in a rather tricky balance act between a globe and a ship,  symbolizing the erratic fate of fortune or luck in the form of the Roman goddess Fortuna

The allegory depicts the difficult and uphill path we humans have to undertake if we want to reach wisdom. Good to know that once you're up on top you don't need any more worldly goods. As always with this wonderful Renaissance painter beauty is found in the detail. See how Pinturicchio managed to create movement on the right side of the picture? Forget the heaviness of marble. Looking at this part of the floor I'm always tempted to hold out my hand to catch one of the golden rings or pearl necklaces falling from the mountain - I obviously haven't even started yet on the way to wisdom. 

Pinturicchio's Allegory of Mount of Wisdom on the Cathedral's inlaid floor
Pinturicchio - Allegoria del Colle della Sapienza

If you like his take on the floor, make sure to also have a look at Pinturicchio's frescoes on the walls of the Libreria Piccolomini. The small room dedicated to the life of pope Pius II offers a lot more insight and picturesque detail in regard to a life wisely lived. 

Siena cathedral opening times: daily from 10:30am to 7.30pm and from  9.30am to 6pm on Sundays and public holidaysTickets to the cathedral cost 6€ during the uncovering of the floor. However, I'd recommend buying the OPA Si pass, which costs 12€ and gives access to several great sights in town, mainly the cathedral, baptistery and Siena's Opa museum. 

Check out the Siena museum page for more info on the Opa museum and any other museum in town. 

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