Divine Beauty: The magnificent marble inlay floor of the Duomo in Siena is uncovered only for two months of the year and is still on view through October 24. This is an extraordinary work of art that took centuries to complete and is partially covered with protective boards during the rest of the year. The white, yellow, pink, and green marble illustrates primarily using a graphic technique called graffito (coming from the Italian word graffiare, meaning to scratch) in which designs are created by carving into the marble and inserting a black grout to create the “drawing” element. This is where graffiti originates.
The Duomo of Siena (Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta) is a breathtaking jewel from the 1200’s in Tuscan Romanesque style with elements of Gothic architecture and spectacular works by artists including Nicola & Giovanni Pisano, Bernini, Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia, and a young Michelangelo.
The high-contrast white and greenish-black design refer to the symbolic colors of Siena — black and white — recalling the legend of the black and white horses that saved Siena’s founding brothers Senius and Aschius — the sons of Remus who were on the run from their uncle Romulus (the founder of Rome) after he killed his brother Remus.
In the words of Giorgio Vasari, the floor is “the most beautiful… big and magnificent pavement that has ever been done.” It is comprised of 56 different images by many important artists, but the one I find most interesting is Colle della Sapienza (a.k.a. The Allegory of Virtue) by Pintoricchio.
The story is fascinating, using ancient philosophy in a religious context. The drawing for the design was originally done by Pintoricchio in 1504, but the work was executed in 1506 by Paolo Mannucci. In the top, middle, you find Sapienza (wisdom) represented by a woman who hands a palm (the symbol for victory) to Socrates and a book to the cynical Crates, who preached the virtue of poverty and is dumping a basket of jewels into the sea.
In the bottom right corner, you find a beautiful young nude woman represented in an unstable situation, balancing one foot on a sphere and the other on a boat with a broken mast. In her right hand, she holds a cornucopia of material abundance. Her left hand holds a sail suggesting that she rides with the wind in a tempestuous sea — not a very reliable or intelligent state.
In the center of the scene are 10 characters climbing the narrow and dangerous road to virtue, stepping over snakes and fallen rocks. The moral of the story is that fortune and happiness are not found in material goods, but by living a sane and modest life. The path to virtue may not be an easy one, but with some effort, wisdom will eventually be reached.
Too bad all those gorgeous jewels were tossed out! Oh well, I can still appreciate the beautiful representation of jewels made with amazing stone marquetry. Siena’s Duomo is, afterall, perhaps my favorite church in Italy.