Mysteries of Siena

Renaissance Siena: Art for a City

an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, October 24, 2007–January 13, 2008
Catalog of the exhibition by Luke Syson, Alessandro Angelini, Philippa Jackson, Fabrizio Nevola, and Carol Plazzotta, with contributions from Hugo Chapman, Simona di Nepi, Gabriele Fattorini, Xavier F. Salomon, and Jennifer Sliwka. London: National Gallery, 372 pp., $65.00 (distributed in the US by Yale University Press)

Although it ranks as a World Heritage site, the Tuscan city of Siena retains an air of obstinate mystery. Unlike its near neighbor and inveterate rival Florence, the city is shaped by the land, from the curves of the three hills on which it sits to the strange volcanic pinnacles and underground springs that mark its territory. The most profound mystery enveloping Siena, then, is the very mystery of our human relation to nature. No countryside seems more harmonious, and more natural, than the rounded slopes that roll outward from the city’s shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, and yet the very gentleness of those slopes gives away the fact that this is one of the most worked-over landscapes in the world.

Long familiarity has brought human and natural rhythms into so complete a balance that sometimes the trees truly do seem, like the trees of the Psalms, to clap their hands in exultation. Yet among these forests of exultant trees there are stretches of terrain where bare chalk crags rear up as sere as a hermit’s roost. A band of local monks built one of their most beautiful monasteries in the midst of one craggy Sienese chalk bed and called it the Mount of Olives, Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The grapes fortunate enough to grow in the region’s chalky soil produce red wines of rare quality, including Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino, and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (all created by methods going back to the Etruscans). The same terrain hosts underground deposits of alum, natural gas, and alabaster, as well as artesian springs gushing forth hot and cold, the remnants of ancient volcanoes.

Looking south from Siena’s city hall, the Palazzo Pubblico, it is never clear even today what or who may suddenly heave into sight: across this same valley (itself now a World Heritage site) have moved the Etruscan warlord Lars Porsenna, swarming forth from his stronghold of Chiusi in 510 BC, and the traitor Lucius Sergius Catilina, fleeing for his life after a failed attempt to assassinate Cicero in 63 BC. In the thirteenth century, it was the bandit Ghino di Tacco, perched on his volcanic pinnacle at nearby Radicofani, gouging travelers like a rural policeman poised at a speed trap. In 1503, it was Cesare Borgia coming north from Rome, threatening the Sienese with total destruction if they failed to run out of town the city’s ruler, Pandolfo Petrucci (he went, but only briefly, and handily outlived Cesare Borgia). Galileo spent the first six months of his condemnation to life imprisonment for heresy far from Siena in the wayside stop of San Quirico d’Orcia in 1633, but his conditions were considered too luxurious—not without reason—and the sentence was commuted in 1634 to house arrest outside Florence. In the nineteenth century, on the same road and the same slopes of Monte Amiata, the self-proclaimed messiah Davide Lazzaretti of Arcidosso called down destruction on sinners until the carabinieri called down destruction on him.

Down this same corridor, the first Etruscans may have wandered from Asia Minor, walking at the placid pace of their droves of longhorn cattle. Later, gangs of Roman slaves marched in clanking leg irons and Roman veterans marched in their bronze armor, followed centuries later by Lombards in barbarian splendor, then by Christian pilgrims to Rome, and, millennia later, by convoys of Nazis moving northward in their jeeps, pursued by the Allies. Before the days of the auto designer Enzo Ferrari and the champion driver Tazio Nuvolari, speed meant the swift horses of the sixteenth century’s most famous banker, the Sienese Agostino Chigi, whose traveling companions included Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli, and two popes, the papa terribile Julius II and the “timid rabbit” Leo X, all making their way up and down this same breathtaking road to Siena.

In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Sienese men were widely thought to be insane, just as Sienese women were known to be the most beautiful in Italy. The men were certainly eccentric. Even a figure as sober as the Sienese Pope Pius II salved his arthritis with a poultice of boiled weasel, dotted with bits of ostrich meat. And when a Renaissance painter from practical Piedmont, Giovanni Bazzi, reached Siena, he began to dress in colored silks, keep a zoo, and engage in the behavior that earned him the nickname Sodoma. His talents would earn him honorary citizenship in Siena, a good marriage, and the status of landowner.

Another sixteenth-century Sienese went off to Alexandria, Egypt, to seek his fortune, and in time converted to Islam. Thirty years overlooking the Mediterranean only made him long for home; sadly, the two young men who escorted him back to Siena decided to kill him and rob him of his earnings before he could tell his life story to the city’s official chronicler, a red-haired priest, historian, and gossip extraordinary whose real name was Sigismondo Ticci, but who is known today as Sigismondo Tizio—the Italian word for “guy.” Sigismondo hoped to write three histories in all: a history of Church councils, a Historia Barbarica, and a history of Siena from its foundation by the Etruscans to his own time. He died in 1528 at the age of seventy, still writing. Of these three projects, only the history of Siena survives, all five thousand pages of it, preserved in the Vatican Library thanks to the efforts of a Sienese Pope, Alexander VII Chigi.

The beauty of Sienese women has been commemorated in literature and art, not to mention Sigismondo’s chronicle—he took holy orders after a disastrous love affair. Paintings and sculpture celebrate a distinctive physical type: women with long almond eyes and luminous complexions, many of them with hair dyed an improbable blond (in the days before hydrogen peroxide, they bleached their hair by spreading it over the broad brims of specially designed crownless straw hats, squirting their tresses with lemon juice, and sitting out in the sun, thus exposing their hair, but not their fair skin, to its rays). Those same almond eyes and the same tinted hair show up already in Etruscan temples and tombs. So do elaborate dresses, refined dances, and dazzlingly stylish shoes. The sinuous lines of Sienese women and their dances echo the graceful curves of the landscape, and the gently curving streets of a city laid out to follow the crests of hills.

And yet this landscape, apparently millennial, is constantly changing. What we see today of the countryside is drastically deforested, some surprisingly recently. Sigismondo Tizio describes the city’s sale of a forested area in 1508 and carefully notes the area’s subsequent clearing, erosion, and crop failure. During the past thirty years, changes in farm machinery have changed the shape of the hay bales that dot the fields: in the 1970s these were small box-shaped bundles, bound with wire; now they are huge rolls bound by plastic ropes or swathed in plastic sheeting. Changing agricultural machinery has also changed the shapes of furrows and the lives of farmers; the abolition of sharecropping and the drive toward universal literacy have done the rest.

The people who work the Sienese countryside have never been so prosperous, because they are no longer turning over half of what they produce to the local feudal baron, and they are able to produce much more with their own tractors than they ever could with spade and hoe. They are no longer contadini, peasants, but sophisticated farmers using some of the same methods as their German, American, and Canadian counterparts; the word used of them now, agricoltori, reflects this basic change in the nature of their work.

The agricoltori of rural Siena no longer slaughter a single pig at Christmas, but dine on prosciutto, sausage, and the liver dish called fegatelli all year round. Neither do peasant families separate for months in the ancient ritual of transhumance, when men and boys would spend much of the year following great herds of sheep across the Italian peninsula, leaving their wives, daughters, and youngest sons behind. Transhumance thirty years ago was already delegated to Sardinians (a few of whom rounded out their incomes by kidnapping for ransom); now the shepherds are more likely to come from the Balkans—Albania or Macedonia.

Siena is also famous today for an ongoing Renaissance pageant with solid Etruscan roots, the twice-yearly race called the Palio, named after its prize: a banner in honor of the Virgin Mary, Siena’s most important patron saint. There is no question, however, when the Palio makes its appearance, in a cart driven by white long-horned oxen, that the ritual must go back at the very latest to the Iron Age, when Uni, the Etruscan Juno, was the ox-eyed, white-armed queen of heaven. After a two-hour parade of dignitaries and flag-twirlers, ten horses race three times around the Piazza del Campo, padded with earth carried in from each of the city’s seventeen districts, or contrade. The shell-shaped space itself is stuffed with some 70,000 Sienese and visitors; the three-minute race is supremely exciting, with its jockeys riding bareback, each armed with a whip made of a desiccated bull’s penis. A horse that comes in without a jockey can still win.

But attitudes toward the Palio are changing. Too many horses have broken their ankles in pounding around the tight track, especially fine-boned thoroughbreds. Protests became still more insistent when, two years ago, a splendid thoroughbred named Amoroso brained himself on a travertine stanchion along the course and died on the spot (previously, injured horses were discreetly moved to side streets and then put down). In recent years, the race has been deliberately slowed and the racehorses selected from sturdier breeds, but if ultimately the Palio, too, should change its seemingly timeless choreography, it will hardly be for the first time. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, horse races used to be run outside the city, on the flat terrain known as La Lizza or outside Siena’s northern gate, the Porta Camollìa; these seem to have been racetracks in Etruscan times as well.

Another Renaissance holdover is the Monte dei Paschi, once Siena’s city-run pawnshop and now the oldest continuously functioning bank in the world. Founded in 1472, the Monte dei Paschi stands as a reminder that Siena has been a banking town at least since the Middle Ages; it testifies to the cleverness of people whose city has no notable natural resources, and, unlike most Italian cities, no good access to water. Instead, Siena stands as a tribute to human ingenuity, one of the only places in the world where a space designed by committee, the Piazza del Campo, has proven one of the triumphant successes of architecture.

Today Siena has enjoyed a resurgence of prosperity, thanks in large measure to the Monte dei Paschi and two first-rate universities, the University of Siena, founded in the Middle Ages, and the much more recent University for Foreigners. The Monte dei Paschi, for example, helped sponsor a spectacular show of Sienese art recently mounted at the National Gallery in London, but it also stands behind many of the new publications that have emerged in recent years on various aspects of civic life. The city’s extensive archives, meticulously kept in a fifteenth-century palazzo, go back well into the Middle Ages, and then there are the eclectic pages of Sigismondo Tizio’s chronicle to fill in the details. Although the Sienese are famous for their closed society, they are anything but inhospitable. An inscription on the city’s northern gate declares COR MAGIS TIBI SENA PANDIT—“Siena opens its heart wide to you”—and it is true. Siena does open its heart. It is impossible not to respond in kind.

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.

  1. *

    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).