The Cathedral of Siena, an architectural gem in Italy, has opened up its attics in a unique move that allows visitors to see the challenges involved in building the 1263 masterpiece

Secret passages high up in the rafters of Siena Cathedral have been opened for the first time after decades of restoration, offering a rare view of midnight-blue ceilings and the Tuscan panorama.

The famous 13th-century black-and-white striped cathedral has opened a series of spiral staircases and covered internal walkways to the public — all 49 feet from the marble floor. Visitors climbing up can peep down through small windows onto the mediaeval and Renaissance mosaics showing biblical scenes which line the nave and transepts and the golden stars of the ceiling.

“The roof of Siena Cathedral had never been considered a place that could be suitable for tourists,” said Mario Lorenzoni, curator of Siena Cathedral. “We went up into the lofts to clean them and it was a mammoth task! And while we were there, we realised that the roof could offer amazing things,” he said.

Beyond the covered walkways, open only to 15 people at a time, is another succession of spiral steps leading to the cathedral's parapet and to a spectacular view across the red-tiled roofs of Siena. Hidden from sight from the tourists below who are admiring the cathedral's collection of art works by Bernini, Donatello and Michelangelo, navigating the passages is like being back-stage in a theatre.

Here, poised between earth and sky, the methods and technical challenges involved in building the cathedral, which was designed and completed by 1263, are laid bare. The idea is to give visitors a glimpse of what it takes to raise from marble blocks a towering house of prayer, decorated both inside and out in the city's black and white stripes in a reference to the colours of the horses ridden by the city's founders, Senius and Aschius.

“How did they raise the tonnes of marble? How did the sculptors work? How did the architects explain to them what they had in mind?” said Lorenzoni, outlining some of the concepts tackled. “On the one hand there is the visual aspect, with sublime views, and on the other there's the more technical aspect — no less moving — on how the works of art which we so love today were made,” he said.

The walkways were opened to the public in collaboration with the town's religious authorities, headed up by Archbishop Antonio Buoncristiani. “In a town which was fundamentally poor, it was possible to build extraordinary monuments, of an indescribable beauty. How? Because they had a sense of the common good,” he said. “I think that the most important aspect of the visit is to understand what the cathedral construction site meant, how it mobilised the whole town,” he added.

While scaling the steps to the hidden pathways may bring some closer to heaven, the experience is not for the faint of heart. It is not for everyone; an elderly person is not going to be able to climb that spiral staircase, said the 69-year-old archbishop.

The walkways are open to the public until October 27, and visitors must reserve tickets in advance.