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Piccolomini Library, Siena Travel Guide


For many people who visit the city of Siena, one of the main stops is the Duomo where one can admire the exterior and interior of this beautiful church along with its related areas such as the baptistery. However, one of the things that you cannot afford to miss while at this location would be the gorgeous Piccolomini Library. The library is named after one of the most powerful and prominent families in Siena’s history, and in siena-italy-travel-guide-piccolomini-library-fresco1particular, its most well-known member, Enea Silvio Piccolomini.

Enea is first known to have been the mediator during the talks to reconcile the Papal State with Emperor Frederick III, as well as for being the one to arrange the same emperor’s marriage with Eleonora of Aragon, as well as his coronation in Rome. These achievements made him rather popular, and as a reward for successfully completing these tasks, he was appointed as the Bishop of Trieste in 1447, and three years later, he was reappointed as the Bishop of Siena. Eventually, in 1456, he became a cardinal until finally in 1458, he was elected pope and took on the name Pius II.

Due to his influence and popularity, it was inevitable that the Piccolomini name took on even more weight in Siena, and this is also the reason why their family crest of the half-moon on a blue background can be seen in many places in the city.

As for the library itself, it was actually established by Enea’s nephew, Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, who himself also became a cardinal as well as the pope whom we know as Pope Pius III. Francesco had the library built in memory of his uncle as well as to house the collection of books and beautifully-illuminated manuscripts that Enea collected throughout his life.

Other than the books and manuscripts, though, it’s the library itself that is the real treasure here, as it is quite literally decorated from floor to ceiling. The floor tiles themselves display the family crest, the walls prominently display a series of frescoes, there are lovely sculptures all around, and if you look up, the ceiling itself is a wonder to behold, so make sure to spare enough time to thoroughly enjoy this magical place.

What to See

Frescoes by Pinturicchio

When the library was built, one of the most important artists of the time, Pinturicchio (whose workshop at the time included a young Raphael), was commissioned to decorate it with frescoes. It is said that it was stipulated in his contract that he must produce a series of ten frescoes in his “grotesque” style that would depict the achievements of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, and that he alone must work on it from start to finish without any assistance from his students or assistants. This means that it was Pinturicchio’s siena-italy-travel-guide-piccolomini-library-fresco2hand that drew the initial outlines and drafts, and it was also him who painted every single detail in each of the ten massive frescoes.

The frescoes, which were completed in 1508, show the following highlights from Enea’s life:

  • Enea Piccolomini Leaves for the Council of Basel
  • Enea Piccolomini as an Ambassador to the Court of James I of Scotland
  • Frederick III Crowning Enea Silvio Piccolomini with a Laurel Wreath
  • Homage to Pope Eugenius IV in the Name of Emperor Frederick III
  • Enea Silvio Piccolomini Presents Frederick III to Eleonora of Portugal
  • Enea Silvio is Elevated to Cardinal
  • Coronation of Enea Silvio Piccolomini as Pope Pius II
  • Pope Pius II at the Congress of Mantua
  • Canonization of Catherine of Siena by Pope Pius II
  • Pope Pius II Arrives in Ancona to begin the Crusade

As one looks closely at the frescoes, it couldn’t be helped to admire the sheer amount of work that went into every one of them, from the rich colors and rich amount of detail on each figure in the scene, to the beautiful backgrounds, landscapes, and scenery that provide the setting for the characters. If one pays enough attention, you can even spot the Piccolomini family crests in the paintings… along with various self-portraits of the artist and Raphael.

The ten frescoes are separated by painted pillars, and framed by arches that are made to look like red and white marble. These were artistic decisions that were made in order to give the impression that one is looking through a doorway to witness the scene being depicted in the fresco.

Illuminated Manuscripts

siena-italy-travel-guide-piccolomini-library-illuminated-manuscriptOther than to honor the Piccolomini family and Enea Piccolomini, the library was also built in order to house Enea’s collection of illuminated manuscripts, along with other illuminated books and documents belonging to Tedeschini (Pius III) and his brother Giacomo which they included in the collection. These exquisite books can be found in protective cases right below the frescoes.

The most important pages on display were those illustrated by some of the most famous artists of the time, including Girolamo da Cremona and Liberale da Verona.

siena-italy-travel-guide-piccolomini-library-three-graces3The Three Graces

Prominently displayed in the middle of the room is a statue which shows the three Graces from Roman mythology. The statue itself is an ancient Roman copy of another statue from the Hellenistic period. It was purchased by Francesco Tedeschini from Cardinal Prospero Colonna in Rome.

At some point in the 19th century, this statue was actually removed from the premises because the pope at the time, Pius IX, remarked that it was improper for statues showing the nude female figure to be in what he incorrectly identified as the sacristy of the Duomo. Fortunately, it was returned to its spot later on thanks to a Russian artist who brought it to the attention of then Prince of Naples Vittorio Emanuele, and in 1972, it was made a permanent fixture of the library.

The Expulsion from Paradise

siena-italy-travel-guide-piccolomini-library-expulsion-from-paradiseAbove the main door of the library is a shrine which depicts Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise. It is actually a copy of one of the marble panels from the Fonte Gaia by Jacopo della Quercia, but what makes it unique is the inscription below it which were Enea’s dying words: “deum maximum et posteros of / fendi utriusque debeo neuter mihi” (in Italian, “Offesi Iddio Massimo e i posteri. A entrambi sono debitore, nessuno di loro a me”).

The Ceiling

The library’s ceiling is nothing short of magnificent. It is painted in blue, red, and gold, and is decorated in the “grotesque” style of painting. At the center of it is the Piccolomini family coat of arms surrounded by paintings depicting siena-italy-travel-guide-piccolomini-library-ceilingvarious subjects that range from allegorical figures and pastoral life. Two large panels also feature scenes from myths, particularly the Rape of Persephone, and the story of Diana and Endymion.

Tips and Advice

  • When buying tickets to see the library, try calling the OPA hotline. Multilingual operators are available to assist you with your booking. Make sure to book at least a day in advance.
  • Opening hours are:
    • March 1 to November 2 – 10:30 am to 7 pm
    • November 3 to February 28 – 10:30 am to 5:30 pm
    • December 26 to January 6 – 10:30 am to 7 pm
  • There are special opening hours on holy days such as Christmas and other church holidays, as well as during the Palio.