The Fierce Emotions of Siena

Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello: Le arti a Siena nel primo Rinascimento (From Jacopo della Quercia to Donatello: Sienese Art in the Early Renaissance)

an exhibition held at Santa Maria della Scala, Siena, March 26–July 11, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Max Seidel. Milan: Federico Motta, 640 pp, $40.00
butterfield_1-101410.jpg
Basilica of San Marco, Venice
Marco Romano’s early-fourteenth-century sculptures of the angel Gabriel (28 inches high) and the Virgin Mary (43 3/4 inches high), from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. This illustration of the two figures is the first unified photographic image ever seen.’

At last, after five hundred years, the study of Sienese art has moved out of the shadow of Florence. According to the traditional view, the painters and sculptors of Siena were naive and medieval by comparison with the progressive masters of the Florentine Renaissance. Florence produced generation after generation of original artists, from Giotto to Michelangelo, who changed the course of European civilization. Siena, it is said, after a flash of genius at the beginning of the fourteenth century, became a city of timid artists of no general importance.

This judgment was long presented as the manifest truth, too obvious to merit discussion. But slowly over the last century, and with greater frequency in recent decades, critics have observed how much this orthodoxy depends on the opinions of just one man, Giorgio Vasari, and his Lives of the Artists, written in the sixteenth century. Surely Florence’s contribution to Renaissance art was unmatched, but Vasari tailored his history to increase the city’s glory, and to minimize the importance and the independence of other places.

Siena, more than any other city, has suffered from this bias. Vasari was an employee of the dukes of Florence, and he composed his book during the same period in which Florence completed the conquest of Siena, culminating in the siege of the city and the death by starvation of two thirds of its inhabitants. There was little room for the vanquished in Vasari’s celebration of Florentine art; even so, it is astonishing how much he leaves out. He does not describe such masterpieces of Sienese painting as Duccio’s Maestà and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government, and he includes few biographies of Sienese artists of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries.

The influence of Vasari on the writing of art history is immense. His Lives of the Artists provides the facts, the legends, and the basic terms of analysis still used by art historians today. It also provides many of the prejudices. Even as Sienese painting became more widely studied in the twentieth century, Florentine art continued to be seen as normative and ideal, while that of Siena was thought eccentric and fanciful. This was true in the research on fourteenth-century art, and even more apparent in the study of the later Renaissance. John Pope-Hennessy’s Sienese Quattrocento Painting, published in 1947, is the best and most sympathetic introduction to the subject in English. Yet there you will read that Siena “is a backwater in the stream of artistic evolution,” and that its art is “decorative” and “two-dimensional” when compared to the paintings and sculptures of Florence.

It is only in the last thirty years that the negative tinge in the judgment …

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Letters

The Fierce Emotions of Siena’ December 9, 2010