The Piccolomini Library (Libreria Piccolomini) inside Siena Cathedral is a colorful Renaissance highlight in the otherwise predominantly Romanesque-Gothic Duomo.
The Piccolomini Library is in a single hall accessible only from inside the cathedral of Siena. Although a number of significant codices are on display, the main reason to visit is to admire the colorful frescoes honoring the life of Pope Pius II that cover the walls and ceiling vaults. In contrast to the mostly Romanesque-Gothic cathedral, the bright frescoes are typical Renaissance. They are colorful, apply the rules of perspective, and are finished in the classical style with mythology from antiquity rather than biblical figures taking precedence. Opening hours and admission tickets are the same as for visiting Siena Cathedral itself.
The Piccolomini Family of Siena
The Piccolomini family was a noble family in Siena (and later Naples). Many family members were senior clergy but none more famous than Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405-1464). As Pope Pius II (1458-1464), he was the head of the Roman Catholic church and thus at least morally the most powerful man in Italy. His Piccolomini Palace may still be visited in the small town Pienza to the south of Siena.
The Piccolomini Library in Siena cathedral was commissioned in 1492 by his nephew Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini (1439-1503), archbishop of Siena, and later (for less than a month) Pope Pius III. (Pius II made his nephew Francesco amongst others a cardinal and archbishop of Siena at the age of 21 — “One is not the nephew of a pope forever“.)
The purpose of the magnificently decorated hall was to house the vast library of his uncle Pope Pius II, an educated man and a humanist, who long refused church offices due to the obligation of sexual continence acceptance would demand. The books never made it to Siena but the frescoes painted between 1503 and 1508 to honor Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini’s eventful life are Renaissance masterpieces.
Piccolomini Library in Siena Cathedral
The Piccolomini Library is entered from the nave of Siena cathedral but is not a religious room similar to a sacristy or chapel. It is fronted by a marble facade created by Lorenzo di Mariano (“Il Marrina“) but other artworks in the cathedral, including the nearby Piccolomini Altar with a sculpture by a young Michelangelo, are of higher artistic merit.
The large painting by Pinturicchio above the door leading to the Piccolomini library shows the coronation of Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini as Pope Pius III. He died 26 days after his election (and only 10 days after his coronation) of a septic ulcer in his leg — inevitably, some claimed he was poisoned.
Pinturicchio Frescoes in the Piccolomini Library
Frescoes cover the walls and vaulted ceiling of the Piccolomini Library in the classical style popular during the Renaissance. Bernardino di Betto, known as the “Pinturicchio,” was contracted to decorate the room but the young Raphael, who was part of his workshop, is often credited with many of the designs and some of the painting.
The frescoes are typical Renaissance with elaborate detailing in all aspects of the work from the period fashion of the people crowded into every scene to the detailed framing, use of perspective, and classical themes. Images from Roman mythology rather than biblical events are used on the smaller panels and detailing.
Wall Frescoes of the Life of Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini
The ten main frescoes on the walls of the library portray events in the life of Enea Silvio Bartolomeo Piccolomini (1405-1464), although the Latin Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini is used in the descriptions below each painting. The scenes, each framed by painted architecture, are read chronologically from the far right end window when entering from the church:
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, painted as a youth with long blond hair, leaves for the Council of Basel. In the background is the first storm painted in western art.
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini as ambassador in Scotland.
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini named imperial poet by HRE Frederick III.
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini reconciling with Pope Eugene IV.
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini, as bishop of Siena, arranged the meeting of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and his future bride Eleonora of Portugal that took place by the city’s Porta Camollia gate on 24 February 1452. People, clothing, and jewels are painted in exquisite detail while the Siena cathedral is clearly recognizable in the background.
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini receives his cardinal hat (1456)
- Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini enters the Vatican as Pope Pius II (1458)
- Pope Pius II at the Diet of Mantua proclaim a new crusade (1459)
- Pope Pius II canonizes St Catherine
- Pope Pius II arrives in Ancona to launch the crusade.
Raphael and Pinturicchio used themselves as models in various scenes. For example, in the Canonisation of St. Catherine of Siena, the young man in dark red tights is frequently interpreted to be the young Raphael standing next to the older Pinturicchio (with red cap).
Ceiling Frescoes of the Piccolomini Library
The oldest frescoes in the library are the ceiling vaults — these were also the only paintings completed while Cardinal Francesco was still alive. It is a Renaissance masterpiece and one of the most complex reinterpretations in the early 16th century of the style and themes of classical antiquity.
At the center is a panel with the Piccolomini family shield — the crescents frequently repeat elsewhere in the frescoes in the fascinating room. It is a constant reminder of the importance and presence of the Piccolominis.
The cardinal’s hat added to the family coat of armor reminds that the library was created by Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, even if its main purpose was to honor his uncle. This part of the vaulting was amongst the first sections finished and was already completed before he was crowned pope and thus no papal tiara is displayed, but several are of course on the walls, and “Pius III Pont Max” was worked into the ceiling frescoes on the sides.
The two other main scenes on the ceiling are popular images from classic mythology: Diana Falling in Love with Endymion and The Rape of Proserpina. The latter referred to Proserpina being carried off (rather than sexual violence) and is part of Greek mythological explanations for the seasons. Her naked male capturer and the cart being pulled by two black snakes were inspired by a Roman sarcophagus that was rediscovered and in the news in Italy at the time (and now in the Louvre).
As is often the case with Renaissance ceiling frescoes, many of the finer details on the frames and at the edges of the main work are even more interesting to the modern viewer than the by now long forgotten main characters. Much of the ceiling is a riot of mythical and fantastical allegorical figures, satyrs and bacchanalia having a good time, sea monsters, and the personifications of virtues. Biblical figures or Christian symbols are largely absent.
Piccolomini’s Book and Art
The Piccolomini books never made it to the library but a variety of important 15th-century codices are on display. Many of these illustrated works are by Sienese artists.
Although at the center of the room, an important artwork once owned by Enea Silvio Piccolomini is easy to overlook while staring at the ceilings. The sculpture of the three graces is a 2nd-century Roman copy of the Greek original. At times, some senior clergy (including one pope) took offense at the display of three naked women in a sacred space, and although the library is a secular room and not part of the church, the wish of the pope was respected. The Three Graces graced the cathedral museum for a few years. (Oddly, the lack of Christian themes and the abundance use of nudity and Roman mythological themes on the ceiling drew no recorded comments.)
The floor is a simplified 19th-century copy of the original. Some of the original triangular floor tiles — blue with the family crescent at the center — are on display inside the duomo museum (and in several museums all over the world).
Visiting the Piccolomini Library
The Piccolomini Library is only accessible from inside Siena cathedral. Opening hours are thus similar to that of the Duomo, although it is not necessarily open just because the cathedral is. Opening hours are usually daily from 10:30 closing at 17:30 (19:00 in high season).
Admission to the Piccolomini Library is included in the standard Siena Cathedral ticket — see Buying Tickets for Siena Cathedral for options and passes. Buy tickets online to save time.
Siena Cathedral (Duomo) Sites and Sights
The Siena cathedral complex consists of the following sites — all require admission tickets that are mostly sold in combination passes. Buying online and in advance is well worth the slight convenience surcharge.
- The magnificent cathedral (duomo) — impressive as it is from the outside even more impressive is the magnificent interior. It is well worth the admission charge, especially during the period when the floor art is uncovered. Don’t miss the magnificent Piccolomini Library with top Renaissance frescoes.
- The baptistry with impressive art including sculptures by Donatello.
- The crypt with important early frescoes but on the whole less interesting to the average visitor.
- The museum is home to many of the original art from the cathedral plus the most magnificent views of Siena from the top of the unfinished new cathedral facade.
- The gate of heaven — a climb and walk around the cathedral roof with impressive views into the church. Well worth the surcharge.
- The Santa Maria Della Scala Museum complex — a former hospital and now an art museum with interesting frescoes. The exhibitions here range from archaeological to contemporary art. If time is limited, many foreign visitors may find exploring the old town sights of Siena more interesting.
- Buy online tickets for the cathedral, combination passes, and the gate of heaven.
- Book tours and adventures in Siena and Tuscany from Get Your Guide.
- Tripadvisor ratings for Siena hotels and guest houses
- Omio for trains to Siena — from Florence the local bus is often more convenient.
- Book day-trip tours to Siena from Florence or Rome.