Magnificent mosaic floor in Siena Cathedral unmasked

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Magnificent Renaissance mosaics covering the sweeping marble floor in Siena cathedral have been unveiled to give visitors a rare glimpse of scenes it took local artists 500 years to create.

The inlaid panels, usually covered to protect them from the thousands of visitors who flock to the Tuscan city each year, depict vivid stories from the Bible and classical antiquity, in black, white, green, red and blue marble.

Made up of 56 panels designed by some 40 artists, the floor was described by 16th century historian Giorgio Vasari in his "Lives of Artists" as "the most beautiful, the greatest and most magnificent floor which was ever created."

Among the oldest mosaics is the "She-Wolf of Siena" (executed in around 1373) which shows the wolf suckling infants Romulus and Remus: myth has it that while Romulus founded Rome, Siena was founded by Remus' son, Senius.

Other panels portray the battle between David and Goliath, philosophers Socrates and Aristotle and ten Sibyls who became oracles around the world.

"The panels' iconography is very unusual. Even though they are scenes depicted on the floor of a cathedral, many of them tell the stories of profane characters," art historian Marilena Caciornia told AFP.

"The Sibyls, for example, are typical characters from classical antiquity linked to Apollo," she said.

The Cumaean Sibyl in particular, depicted here by artist Giovanni di Stefano, was lusted over by the god Apollo: legend has it that when she refused him he cursed her by giving her eternal life, without eternal youth.

Other highly-prized panels include "Moses on Mount Sinai," designed by Sienese artist Domenico Beccafumi, who was renowned for his technique of using different gradations in the marble inlays to obtain chiaroscuro effects.

The mosaics have inspired visitors and the faithful down the centuries. When German composer Richard Wagner visited, he was reportedly "moved to tears" by the spectacle according to a letter written by his wife Cosima in 1880.

The floor is uncovered for a short period each year, following the Palio di Siena horse race, a medieval bare-back dash which attracts thousands of tourists. This year the floor will remain uncovered until October 24.

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