Siena – The Great Cathedral That Could Have Been

Siena – The Great Cathedral That Could Have Been


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Cathedral Duomo - Siena Italy
Cathedral Duomo – Siena Italy

When you visit Siena, Italy, you will visit the Duomo of Siena. That is a given. If you don’t, you will probably be the first visitor to Siena since the 14th century not to. But what about the cathedral that isn’t there?

On the eastern side of the current church, lies what was meant to be the greatest cathedral in all of Europe. In 1339, the city of Siena was powerful and prosperous, and the city fathers launched this hugely ambitious plan. When completed, the Duomo Nuovo was going to dwarf the cathedral that stands today. In fact, it would have dwarfed St. Peter’s in Rome, and every other church in the world!

Then the Black Plague swept through the town in 1348, killing up to 80% of the city’s inhabitants. Along with this tragic loss of life, the dreams of the grandiose cathedral were swept away.  It remains unfinished to this day.

To imagine what the Duomo Nuovo would have been like, look at the current cathedral, and picture a much larger church intersecting this one at right angles. The plan was that the current building would form the transepts of the Duomo Nuovo. What you see now would have been just the short part of the cross-shaped building.

You can walk outside the cathedral, and get a better feel for this. On the eastern side of the church, on Piazza Jacopo della Quercia, you can see outlines on the ground of where this was meant to stand. It’s quite astounding to see the scale of this, and imagine how much work would have gone into creating it.

Wander through the magnificent Duomo of Santa Maria dell’Assunta that stands today and imagine it on a grander scale – if you can. No doubt the same exquisitely inlaid marble floor would have been extended, but instead of a mere 52 panels depicting Biblical and historical scenes, there would be hundreds.

The black and white striped theme of the walls and pillars of the cathedral’s interior would have extended into the new cathedral, and the blue vaults, decorated with gold stars would have adorned the Duomo Nuovo as well. Great sculptors like Giovanni Pisano (who helped his father, Nicola create the pulpit in the existing cathedral) and Donatello, whose statue of John the Baptist adorns a chapel in the cathedral would have contributed to the new duomo’s splendor.

Building a cathedral is a process that can go on for hundreds of years. So after the Black Plague, why didn’t they go back to work on the Duomo Nuovo?

It was probably because it was an overly ambitious project in the first place, that would have required immense amounts of money, manpower, and skilled artisans. It was also begun as kind of a rush job (as much as you can rush an enormous, elaborate, stone building like that!) They spent nine years on it, and much of the construction work they did in that time was unsound and eventually collapsed.

Instead of starting over on the huge cathedral, a wiser decision was made, and they continued to improve the current Duomo of Santa Maria dell’Assunta instead.

That marble floor, for instance, was developed for over 200 years, with 40 different artists contributing to it. The older panels, including the famous Wheel of Fortune and the She Wolf of Siena were actually graffiti, created by chiseling out the marble and filling the spaces with bitumen. Later on, in the 15th and early 16th centuries, under the watchful and capable eye of Alberto Aringhieri, more skilled artists and artisans completed the floor. The most renowned of these, Massacre of the Innocents, by Matteo di Giovanni, was completed in 1482 – ten years before Columbus sailed to America.

All that remains of the Duomo Nuovo, the most ambitious architectural project of the 14th century, are some markings on the pavement, a few columns and arches, and a magnificent door to the Baptistry staircase. The great cathedral that Could Have Been, will never be.

Fortunately, the great cathedral that IS, the Duomo of Siena, remains one of the most stunning examples of Gothic architecture in all of Italy.