Orvieto Cathedral Duomo Interior Nave Striped Columns Stone Walls Statues Wood Beam Ceiling

The Striped Cathedrals of Orvieto and Siena

Most of us associate medieval European architecture with bare stone, limited colors, and above all, solemnity. The cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto are a delightful exception. From the confectionary colors and sculptural froth of their facades to the wealth of patterns, pictures, and trompe l’oeil accents, both buildings celebrate a surprisingly wide range of styles. Perhaps most strikingly, both places wrap the entire edifice up in bands of near-black and white. Even today, few structures can match these cathedrals for sheer exuberance.


What on earth was going on in these two towns? What prompted each of them to erect such a dramatic and eclectic juxtaposition of elements, and why are the cathedrals similar? As always, medieval Italy presents a complicated picture.

Orvieto Cathedral Duomo Black And White Striped Exterior Facade Two People Walking

By the 13th century, Italy was well out of the primitive Dark Ages and already beginning to move into the Renaissance. City-states such as Pisa and Genoa had well-established trade routes all over the Mediterranean, and Crusaders were inspired by the architecture they encountered in the “infidel” lands. The lack of a stable central power in the Italian peninsula left each city free to adopt and interpret the wealth of new ideas and forms in its own idiosyncratic style. Architecture, which could combine artistic achievement with civic development, became a source of pride – and towns competed to outshine one another in their buildings, especially cathedrals. 

Siena Cathedral Duomo Campanile Striped Bell Tower And Dome View From Above With Terra Cotta Roofs

Siena, as one of the more powerful city-states in central Italy, began its Duomo in 1215. Its design seems to have been especially influenced by the cathedral in Pisa, with its Byzantine dome and Islamic patterned accents. Pisa also introduced the use of stripes, albeit in a more subdued coloration. The Sienese went wild with the idea, combining different widths in different sections with a dramatic contrast of dark and light. By 1264, the dome was complete, and work began on the façade.

Orvieto, a tiny hilltop town just north of Rome, couldn’t compete with Siena in size or industry. However, a stream of pilgrims plus the favor of the Papacy gave it enough wealth and prestige to begin its own massive cathedral in 1290. Most of the original artisans came from Siena, but the project’s length spawned a permanent community in Orvieto. 

Artists and architects in medieval Italy

Orvieto Italy Cathedral Duomo Exterior Facade With Black And White Stripes

In medieval Italy, engineering and masonry overlapped with sculpture, mosaics, and painting. Over the years, production became more systematic and modernized. Craftsmen began to specialize, and individual designers emerged. The capomaestro, or master builder, functioned not only as architect and construction manager, he­ would also personally execute key elements of a building.

The cathedrals of Orvieto and Siena represent the end of anonymous teamwork, but even the most vaunted individuals were still expected to maintain unity with the rest of the building. Early Renaissance artists occasionally collaborated, as with Orvieto’s frescoes or Siena’s Baptistery font.

Siena Duomo Interior Striped Columns Blue Ceiling Italian Gothic Architecture

As artisans and capomaestros worked on different projects, they learned from and competed with one another. For instance, Arnolfo di Cambio brought his expertise from the Duomo in Florence to Orvieto but also incorporated the graphic stripes of Siena. Giovanni Pisano’s façade in Siena influenced the work of Lorenzo Maitano, who took over in Orvieto in 1310. After decades of delay in the mid-1300’s, Siena’s main façade in turn drew inspiration from Maitano’s design. Just to add to the confusion, another Pisano (Andrea) later headed the team in Orvieto, but he wasn’t related to Giovanni (son of Nicola).

Siena and Orvieto Cathedral façades

Both cathedrals emphasize their main façades by treating them as distinct from the rest of the building. Elsewhere, stripes swarm across the exterior, right over protrusions – but the monochrome graphics stop for the wall of sculpture in front. Other cities such as Lucca played with outsized facades, but not to such an extreme.

Orvieto Cathedral Duomo Front Exterior Facade Gold Mosaics Rose Window
The façades of Orvieto (above) and Siena (below)
Siena Italy Duomo Cathedral Exterior Front Facade Black And White Marble Stripes Gold Mosaics

Pisano and Maitani’s designs are worldly even by today’s standards. Each uses classical proportions derived from ancient Greece to organize the various elements. At first glance, the Gothic style predominates in the triple set of portals, rose window, spires, and lacy stonework. But a surprising range of other traditions turn up as well: golden Byzantine mosaics, polychrome marble stripes recalling the churches of Florence, and inlaid bands of patterned mosaic matching the columns of the Norman-Arab churches in Sicily

A side note: Italians never fully embraced the Gothic style. Some of their reasons were practical; for instance extremely tall buildings didn’t make sense in earthquake territory. Other northern elements, like “flying buttresses” (massive exterior diagonal supports) struck the Italians as awkward. Medieval Italian city-states incorporated bits and pieces of the Gothic style, but they never completely dropped the semi-circular Roman arch which symbolized their connection to the great works of antiquity.

Very few buildings combine architecture with art so seamlessly. From further away, each  front appears as a harmonious composition of shapes, rendered in warm stone and shimmering gold. Approaching the building, various sections become distinct: the mosaic panels turn into detailed pictures with intricate stonework and bands of color between them. Closer still, the complexity increases even more, and the carvings reveal stunning sculptures. Andrea and Giovanni Pisano brought a realism unseen since ancient times to medieval iconography, with a freshness all their own.

Siena and Orvieto Cathedral interiors

Considering the wealth of artwork inside these churches – Siena in particular rivals top-tier museums – one might think stripes would tip the balance into visual overload. Instead, the lines become a unifying background, literally connecting a staggering variety of forms. The prevailing ethos seems to have been, ‘anything goes, as long as it’s beautiful.’

To start from the top: the ceilings. Siena borrowed the French Gothic practice of painting vaults with golden stars on a blue background, but here the stars are bigger and bolder – not to mention they also line the inside of the dome. Speaking of which, no one seems to know why the latter is shaped like an irregular hexagon, a surprising and unprecedented choice.

Orvieto’s builders employed a more old-fashioned system of wood trusses, but covered portions of them with patterns intricate enough to evoke Islamic art.

Orvieto Cathedral Duomo Interior Window Amber Light Colorful Patterns On Stone Walls
In Orvieto, a Byzantine-style alabaster window with a frame of Tuscan stripes, surrounded by Islamic patterning, Latin inscriptions, and trompe l’oeil painting.

On the walls, several kinds of stripes serve different purposes. In long stretches, particularly in Orvieto, they direct the eye to focal points such as an explosion of frescoes. On a smaller scale, they march along trimming, creating frames and highlighting artwork within.

Finally, the monochrome bands turn into colorful patches of pattern when the sun shines through the colored windows. Both cathedrals feature stained glass, but scorching summers made too many Gothic windows impractical. Orvieto also uses thin sheets of alabaster, giving an ever-so-slightly golden light, with dramatic flares when the sun hits darker patches.

Artwork in the cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto

Like many great buildings, the Duomos of Siena and Orvieto blur the line between “architecture” and “art.” For instance, the 172 plaster busts of popes in the horizontal molding along the nave in Siena qualify as both ornament and sculpture. 56 inlaid-marble panels cover the floor, many of them – such as The Slaughter of the Innocents – comparable to great paintings.

Siena Cathedral Duomo Mosaic Floor Uncovered With Animals And Tuscan Cities
The iconic city-states panel The She-Wolf of Siena. Vasari said the cathedral has “the most magnificent floor ever made.”

Siena’s collection of sculptural works ranges from Nicola Pisano’s proto-Renaissance hexagonal pulpit circa 1265-68 to Bernini’s Baroque contributions (designs for the little Chigi Chapel and the dome’s lantern, plus the statues Saint Jerome and Mary Magdalene.) Along the way, Donatello’s pieces stand out for their innovation, including the haunting Saint John the Baptist and a low-relief tombstone with a clever use of perspective. Downstairs in the Baptistery his contribution to the font, The Feast of Herod, marks one of the first uses of two-point perspective. Other artists featured include Lorenzo Ghiberti, Jacopo della Quercia, and a young Michelangelo.

Siena Cathedral Duomo Interior Piccolomini Library Ceiling Frescoes
Frescoes in Siena’s Piccolomini Library

Frescoes abound in both cathedrals. In Siena, the adjoining Piccolomini Library holds the most famous series of the complex, painted by Pinturicchio but probably designed by Raphael. Bright colors dance around the vast space, combining episodes from the life of Piccolomini (a.k.a. Pope Pius II) with classical mythology. 

For psychological impact and artistic influence, however, Luca Signorelli’s cycle in Orvieto wins the prize. His massive, mind-boggling portrayal of the apocalypse in the San Brizio chapel revolutionized the depiction of nude bodies. Executed from 1499-1504, the frescos’ writhing forms are not just realistic, they’re expressive. Michelangelo reportedly studied this series in preparation for his work in the Sistine Chapel. 

Orvieto Cathedral Fresco Cappella Nuova Chapel of San Brizio By Luca Signorelli Resurrection Of The Flesh
Luca Signorelli’s frescoes in Orvieto
Orvieto Cathedral Fresco Cappella Nuova Chapel of San Brizio By Luca Signorelli The Damned In Hell

Signorelli made the subject engaging by mixing in plenty of contemporary faces, from the book-burning preacher Savonarola (as the AntiChrist, no less) to Raphael, Cesare Borgia, and possibly Christopher Columbus. He also reinforced the psychological dimension of the work by painting himself in several places, most notably as a blue devil with a single horn right in the center of The Damned.


Visiting Siena

Siena’s cathedral complex offers two tickets. The “Opa Si” pass (adult €14-€16) covers entry to the cathedral, baptistery and crypt, Piccolomini Library, museum, and superb panoramas from the top of the never-completed extension. The “Gate of Heaven” (adult €21) pass adds access to the roof; this wasn’t available when we visited but offers interesting views of the cathedral interior from up high.

In order to preserve the floor panels, many of them are covered with a sheet for part of the year. The cathedral website lists dates when the full floor will be exposed, as well as hours for the complex.

Visiting Orvieto

Tickets for Orvieto’s cathedral and museum cost €5. See the website for more information.

Orvieto lies right on the train line between Rome and Florence, with travel time of one or two hours respectively. The station includes luggage storage.

A historic funicular runs every 10 minutes between the train station at the foot of the hill and the Piazza Cahen; from there it’s a short, scenic stroll to the Duomo (or a ride on the free shuttle bus). Round-trip tickets cost €2.60. A good all-in-one site for information on transportation and visiting Orvieto is OrvietoViva.

To read about a city full of stripes, see our post on the architecture of Verona.