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Mysteries of Siena

Because of the city’s age-old rivalry with Florence, its place in the history of Italian culture, and especially of art, has often been determined with acidic malice by the most hostile of outsiders. The sixteenth-century biographer of artists Giorgio Vasari hailed from another Tuscan rival city, Arezzo, and idolized the Florentine Michelangelo. Both Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini, the sixteenth-century historian, were Florentine. Gossipy Sigismondo Tizio, the only strong witness in Siena’s defense, never adhered to highbrow standards of historical objectivity; his chronicle was transcribed once in the seventeenth century by a Sienese and once in the eighteenth by a Florentine, but is being published only now.

As a result, however, recent research on Siena seems amazingly fresh and new. The city moved at its own pace, observing its own standards of beauty, a beauty deeply rooted in tradition, and only by appreciating that Sienese love of continuity is it possible truly to appreciate the singular grace of Sienese art. Thanks to the completeness of the Sienese State Archive, the works of art and architecture commissioned in medieval and modern Siena can still be connected to individuals and their families. Rather than objects in isolation, they become threads in a much larger, more colorful tapestry of life.

The archives also reveal, as Fabrizio Nevola shows in his fine study of Renaissance Siena’s urban planning,* that much of what looks medieval in present-day Siena is in fact nineteenth-century restoration—Gothic Revival rather than Gothic. Nevola is one of a group of younger scholars—including Mauro Mussolin, Philippa Jackson, and Roberto Bartalini—who have shed revealing light on Siena’s present by investigating its past.

As a showcase for this new scholarship, the National Gallery’s exhibition “Renaissance Siena: Art for a City” was a great success. The works on display were remarkable not only for their quality, but also for their connection to real people. It is one thing to look at Sodoma’s stunning charcoal portrait of wealthy young Antonio Spannocchi (see illustration on page 24), and another to know the pressures that Spannocchi was facing as he sat still for the extravagant artist—thanks to Sodoma’s self-portrait in Monte Oliveto Maggiore we can imagine the contrast between Spannocchi’s sober if rich merchant garb and the harlequin colors of Sodoma’s hose and jerkin.

Antonio Spannocchi’s father, Ambrogio, had been banker to Pope Pius II, using that essential connection to pilot his firm into the leading position among Sienese banking houses. Antonio was born late in Ambrogio Spannochi’s life, perhaps in 1475; the paterfamilias died soon afterward. Along with his brother Giulio, Antonio was therefore thrust into the forefront of a business for which he was too young to be prepared. In any event, Sodoma’s portrait shows a boyish man, exceptionally handsome, with large, limpid eyes, but no particular signs of drive or intelligence.

In the course of their dealings in Rome and Siena, the Spannocchi brothers had gone into increasingly close partnership with another Sienese banker, Agostino Chigi, who was himself apparently endowed with large, lustrous eyes—but Chigi’s eyes had the kind of expression that froze the blood in his adversaries’ veins (J.P. Morgan greatly admired him). Agostino Chigi, indeed, would soon be to the great Ambrogio Spannocchi what his friend Raphael would be to Pintoricchio and Perugino: a transcendent genius. At the time of Sodoma’s portrait, Agostino Chigi and Antonio Spannocchi had been sharing a barber and probably much else; what they could never share was Chigi’s sheer clarity of vision or his appetite for wealth, power, and the things they could provide. Within two years or so of the portrait’s execution, Antonio Spannocchi would be dead, the Spannocchi firm would be bankrupt, and Agostino Chigi would be the richest man in Italy.

For their joint wedding in 1494, Antonio and Giulio Spannocchi commissioned a series of oblong paintings called spallieri from a Sienese master. These showed Boccaccio’s story of Patient Griselda, a peasant girl who is wedded to a nobleman (see illustration on page 20). Because of the discrepancy in their backgrounds, the husband subjects his wife to a series of sadistic tests (stripping her in public, pretending to divorce her, hiding away their children and telling her they are dead, banishing her to the countryside), to all of which Griselda submits with uncomplaining obedience.

In the end, the husband returns to his banished, impoverished wife with their grown children, to reunite the family in whatever form of connubial bliss could crown so callous a tale of caste and gender. From panel to panel, we can see the unknown Griselda Master grow in assurance, developing a style that interprets the Renaissance fascination with classical antiquity with a graceful Gothic line and extraordinary, elongated proportions. The brutality of Griselda’s husband is muted by the sheer elegance of his surroundings and the antics of the exotic pet dogs and monkeys that gambol among the colonnades.

Twenty years later, the Spannocchi brothers’ erstwhile partner Agostino Chigi would commission a ceiling from Raphael that showed the story of Cupid and Psyche, a choice that could not have been more different from the Spannocchi panels in theme or interpretation. In the first place, the myth of Cupid and Psyche was an ancient story, culled from Apuleius’ Golden Ass rather than Boccaccio’s chivalric Decameron. Raphael’s style for this commission took on a sculptural quality inspired by the ancients, light years apart from the weightless Gothic grace of the Griselda Master—and Raphael’s figures, as good ancients, are conspicuously nude.

There is a vast difference in content as well. Psyche exhibited nothing of Griselda’s abject patience when events turned against her, despite the fact that her persecutor, far more than a mortal husband, was the goddess of love in person. Psyche prevailed not by patience, but by her relentless industry, working her way, with implacable determination, to immortality. Hardworking Chigi seems to have liked industry in women as well as men. His own second wife, like Patient Griselda, came from humble stock, but the great banker neither tested nor humiliated her in public; instead he had her painted by the Venetian master Sebastiano Luciani.

Thanks to Sigismondo Tizio, we can reconstruct the human drama behind the dazzling complex of artistic commissions that celebrated the marriage in 1509 of Borghese Petrucci and Vittoria Piccolomini—both from prominent Sienese families—and provided the focus for a section of the London show that gathered together all the arts, from ceramics (including floor tiles and dinnerware) to large-scale architecture. Two of the best painters in Italy, Luca Signorelli and Pintoricchio, frescoed the bridal suite with paeans to chastity and family harmony: Pintoricchio’s fresco of Penelope at her loom is one of the treasures of the National Gallery’s permanent collection. It is rare to find scenes from Homer portrayed in sixteenth-century Italian art, and the choice testifies to the Petrucci family’s cultural aspirations. The fresco is also remarkable for the prominence of the cat that plays with a ball of Penelope’s yarn, but given the Petrucci family’s fondness for its pets (the red dog of the groom’s father, Pandolfo Petrucci, the ruler of Siena, appears in another Pintoricchio fresco, in Siena’s cathedral), the image may well be a portrait too.

What Sigismondo Tizio reports from behind the scenes of this marriage is less edifying:

Meanwhile, on September 9, as evening drew on, the long-sought-after alliance by marriage between Pandolfo and the Piccolomini was celebrated; there had been unseemly discussions about the amount of the dowry. Pandolfo wanted to marry his son Borghese to a daughter of the late Andrea Piccolomini, Vittoria…. When the dowry had been received… Borghese and his father set out to see the girl that evening. Although they had called upon her, the girl’s mother, Agnese Farnese, never appeared, pretending to be sick. But when she saw what a dragon had insinuated himself into her house and her treasury, foreseeing worse things still to come, she lapsed into a real fever with an inflamed spleen, and began to grow seriously ill. The Moon was in Leo and in conjunction with Mars, and so on September 19, Pandolfo, on the advice of the astrologer, sought out the girl’s brother Pierfrancesco and arranged that she be married privately to his son at the recommended hour.

On September 23, when the girl Vittoria was led out to hear Mass in the Cathedral and ordered to report to Pandolfo’s house without any wedding ceremony, it seemed as if she were being kidnapped rather than led off to her husband…. In the meantime, Agnese Farnese, wife of the late Andrea Piccolomini, weakened by pain and sadness, as we have reported, died on the morning of October 8. She was buried the day after.

Borghese and Vittoria took up a seven-room suite in the Petrucci palazzo, Palazzo del Magnifico, along with a dozen other Petrucci offspring. This closeness had its drawbacks. In 1510, as Tizio reported with evident glee, Borghese Petrucci caught his brother Alfonso in a compromising position with their sister and pummeled the youth in a bloody fight. The Petrucci family, understandably, insisted that the two brothers had fought instead over a piece of armor, a breastplate newly forged by the talented metallurgist Vannoccio Biringucci. By 1511, Alfonso had been squared away with a cardinal’s hat that cost Pandolfo Petrucci some 16,000 ducats in bribes to Pope Julius II, mediated, of course, by the ubiquitous Agostino Chigi. In 1512, Pandolfo died of a stroke. Borghese succeeded to his father’s position of power, but was deposed in 1516 by a coup and escaped to Naples, where, Sigismondo Tizio reported, he took to exposing himself. Alfonso fared little better; he was accused of trying to poison the Florentine Pope Leo X in 1517, imprisoned in Rome, and strangled by a gigantic Moor wielding a scarlet cord—to avoid obliging a Christian to execute a cardinal.

The London show ended with a room devoted to the idiosyncratic painter Domenico Beccafumi, whose pastel colors and porcelain faces owe something to Florentine Mannerism, but just as much, perhaps, to ancient Roman painting. The shadowy figures in the Beccafumi drawings on display in London could easily have come from a Pompeiian wall—and the painter would surely have seen examples of ancient Roman art in his travels to the Eternal City.

Sodoma, too, shows an extraordinary affinity with ancient painting in the feathery foliage of his magnificent landscapes and the short hatched lines with which he models some of his frescoed figures. Like another Sienese original, Francesco di Giorgio Martini, Sodoma worked with widely varying proficiency, even in the same painting, but at their best, these artists are visionaries of the first order. Thanks to the new work on Sienese artists and to exhibitions like that in London, it is much easier now to appreciate the distinctive qualities of that Sienese vision, whose graceful ability to meld old traditions and new ideas is truly a heritage of value for the whole world.

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    Siena: Constructing the Renaissance City (Yale University Press, 2007). For Sienese art of the period, also see Judith B. Steinhoff, Sienese Painting After the Black Death: Artistic Pluralism, Politics, and the New Art Market (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

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