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 of Sienese art has been eliminated. A new generation of scholars, many based either at the University of Siena or in the art administration of the city, has produced a series of revelatory exhibitions on Sienese artists, including Duccio, Francesco di Giorgio, and Beccafumi. At the same time a team of historians at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence has begun to publish the multi- volume Die Kirchen von Siena—The Churches of Siena—the most exhaustive analysis of Renaissance buildings and the paintings and sculptures made for them that has ever been carried out. Research on Sienese painting and sculpture thrives as never before, and it no longer takes Florentine achievements and Vasari’s values as the standards by which Sienese art must be assessed.
Two exhibitions and one book now give fresh evidence of the advances under way in the study of Siena. On view until October 3 in Casole d’Elsa, a tiny village in the hills west of the city, there is a small but breathtaking show about Marco Romano, an early-fourteenth-century sculptor. He was previously little known—for instance, there is only one mention of him in Pope-Hennessy’s Italian Gothic Sculpture, the standard account in English of the subject. Yet to judge from the works in the exhibition, he was an artist of great accomplishment; and his rediscovery is a cause for celebration.
Almost nothing certain is known about the details of his life and career; his name suggests a Roman origin, but even that is unsure. A small group of his works has been identified in Casole d’Elsa (hence the show there), as well as in Cremona and Venice; and their style strongly suggests that he was a follower of Giovanni Pisano. The son of Nicola Pisano, Italy’s most innovative sculptor in the thirteenth century, Giovanni in turn was the greatest sculptor in the years around 1300. He made the wildly expressive marble statues of prophets for the outside of the Siena cathedral, among many other commissions; and he trained an entire generation of sculptors and architects. In the early fourteenth century, his former students helped plan and direct the construction of the Duomo of Florence, and also made churches and statues for many major cities of Italy, including Naples, Bologna, Milan, and possibly Orvieto as well. Marco Romano was a particularly gifted exponent of Pisano’s intensely emotional style.
The study of Romano is so new that the most ravishing work in the show has not yet even been properly photographed. Originally part of the high altar complex of the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, since the early nineteenth century the two figures of the work have stood, all but forgotten, atop columns in the treasury of the church. (In the illustration on this page, I have joined separate images of the two figures in the group to give the first unified photographic image of it ever published.) This work, in gray marble with metal wings for the angel, is one of the most remarkable images of the Annunciation I have ever seen.
The angel Gabriel has just descended with seemingly violent force. His glittering iridescent wings are swept back and up as if to steady him against the impact of his landing, and a look of astonishment crosses his face. He may be an attendant on God the Father in Heaven, but he is overcome with awe as he kneels before the Virgin. She, too, appears stunned and overwhelmed. Her face is contorted, and the folds of her gown tumble down her front as if in response to a startled jolt of her body. It was common in the Renaissance to portray the disquiet of Mary at the onset of the Annunciation; yet no other image I know so forcefully conveys her momentary fear and bewilderment. Marco Romano sought to show that the miracle of the Incarnation is beyond understanding, both human and angelic. The figures look distraught and dazed by the mystery that engulfs them.
The sensitivity of psychological description and the ferocity of emotional expression in this work exemplify the strengths of Sienese sculpture in the early fourteenth century. Like Giotto and Duccio—indeed, even before them—Nicola and Giovanni Pisano placed the depiction of powerful emotion and dramatic narrative at the center of art. Marco Romano and Pisano’s other followers spread this new emphasis in sculpture throughout Italy up to the time of the Black Death in 1348.
Unfortunately, this remarkable exhibition about a rediscovered artist has gone largely unnoticed. There are few visitors and no catalog, although one is said to be forthcoming. A short video of poor quality on YouTube is up to now the only documentation of the show.
Another exhibition this spring was “Da Jacopo della Quercia a Donatello,” an unforgettable display of Sienese art of the early fifteenth century. Held in Santa Maria della Scala, the Renaissance hospital across the piazza from the Duomo of Siena, it was a comprehensive survey of the art of the time, including metalwork, textiles, and manuscripts, as well as panel paintings and sculptures. In recent years Sienese quattrocento painting has been finely presented in superb exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery, London, and the corresponding part of the show in Siena did not add much that was new. Instead, the glory of the exhibition was the gathering of so many treasures of Sienese sculpture. Even if it had accomplished nothing else, for this alone the show would mark the beginning of a new era in research on the city’s art.
This focus was especially welcome because in standard histories of the Renaissance, only the sculptures of Florence, Rome, and Venice merit attention; Siena is omitted. One reason for this neglect was the Sienese love of wood as a material for sculpture. The scholars who pioneered the study of Italian art assumed that important sculpture should be made of marble or bronze. All Italian wood sculpture was painted, typically in bright colors, and this, too, offended modern notions of truth to materials, which dictated that sculpture should have no color applied to it. Wood sculpture seemed to be a type of folk art, associated with superstition and demotic piety.
In some regions of Italy wood statues are indeed rudimentary, but not in Siena where artists brought woodcarving to a very high degree of sophistication. Perhaps only the limewood sculptors of Germany, such as Tilman Riemenschneider, were equally accomplished in realizing the expressive potential of the material. While wood has some real limitations—for instance, its lack of tensile strength constrains the depiction of movement and gesture—it has one great advantage. Its surfaces can be easily shaped, varied, and smoothed to suggest the supple resilience of human skin. Sienese sculptors saw in this quality the chance both to give their figures the pulse of life and to portray the subtleties of mood.
The capacities of wood can be seen in the work of Francesco di Valdambrino, one of the stars of the Siena exhibition. He was a contemporary of Lorenzo Ghiberti at the beginning of the fifteenth century, and like the Florentine master, he was deeply concerned to show that his figures have an inner life of thought and emotion. This is strikingly apparent in the reliquary statues of the patron saints of Siena, Saint Victor, Saint Crescentius, and Saint Savinus, that he carved for the cathedral in 1409. Most reliquary busts tended to make saints look alert and yet stiff and unmoving. The saints seem like visitors from another realm of being, as in a sense they are: the living dead who intercede between God and mortals. A good example of this is Donatello’s gilt bronze bust of San Rossore in Pisa; its forms seem astonishingly human, yet it has a forbidding and otherworldly air. In contrast, the reliquary statues—i.e., statues containing relics—by Francesco have directness and naturalness of emotional appeal. Turning their heads to look upon us with soft and compassionate gazes, they appear not only alive but empathetic.
The emphasis on emotion in Sienese art of the fifteenth century has often been explained by reference to Donatello, the Florentine sculptor who made works for the Siena Baptistery in the 1420s and lived in Siena at the end of the 1450s. It is claimed by many art historians that his presence inspired the local painters and sculptors to achieve a new level of expressive freedom, thereby transforming the art of the city. Even the exhibition catalog repeats this well-worn position.
This story, I believe, is a vestige of the Florentine bias inherited from Vasari, who made Donatello one of the supreme heroes of the Lives of the Artists. Donatello was, undoubtedly, a startling and original genius, who profoundly stimulated artists wherever he went. Nonetheless, the Sienese love for emotional force in art does not derive from Donatello, or from any other Florentine master. It was part of their native tradition, dating back to the thirteenth century, and exemplified in painting by Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and even more in sculpture by Nicola Pisano, Giovanni Pisano, and their followers, such as Marco Romano. Sienese artists of the fifteenth century did not need to wait for Donatello, or to go to Rome or Florence to see deeply moving art; they had only to walk to the cathedral of their city.
The Duomo was the artistic heart of Siena, displaying such celebrated works as Duccio’s Maestà and Simone Martini’s Annunciation, as well as one of the largest and most impressive mosaic floors in all of Europe. The cathedral also featured many of the city’s greatest sculptures, including the magnificent marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano. Its reliefs are filled with moments of climactic drama and acute emotion: the blood-lust of the soldiers and the terror of the babies in the Massacre of the Innocents; the looks of hope and fear on the faces of the mortals awaiting Christ’s decision in the Last Judgment. Pisano’s sculpture of the Crucifixion is a scene of tumult and terror. Moreover, the exterior of the church was decorated with nearly twenty monumental statues by Giovanni Pisano. These marble sculptures of prophets, with their jagged poses, large staring eyes, and grim haggard mouths, are among the most powerful works in the history of sculpture. The sculptor Henry Moore wrote that Giovanni Pisano was one of the ten greatest European artists, comparable in stature to Giotto and Rembrandt.
Nicola and Giovanni Pisano enjoyed high prestige in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries as well. Writing in the 1440s in his Commentaries, the first history of art since antiquity, Lorenzo Ghiberti began the account of postclassical sculpture with Giovanni Pisano, whom he called a “great” (buonissimo) sculptor. And as is well known, Michelangelo directly based the pose of his marble David on that of Nicola’s Allegory of Strength in the Pisa Bapistery pulpit. He also turned to Giovanni Pisano’s Moses on the Siena cathedral for inspiration for his own Moses on the tomb of Julius II, and he copied the contorted body of a Sibyl from Giovanni’s pulpit in Pistoia for the pose of Mary in a drawing of the Annunciation. Few other artists exerted such fascination for Michelangelo.
Donatello took note, as well. In one of his first works in Siena, the relief of the Dance of Salome for the Siena Baptismal Font, he shows his admiration for Giovanni Pisano: the stunned face of Herod, reacting in terror to the display of Saint John’s severed head, is a quotation of Pisano’s Haggai, formerly on the façade of the Duomo. Furthermore, following Donatello’s return to Florence from Siena in the 1420s, his work showed a new element of raw power. The marble Habakkuk—Lo Zuccone —for the Campanile and the wooden Magdalene for the Baptistery are fearsome images of suffering and determination. There were few precedents for such savage intensity in Italian art other than the work of Giovanni Pisano. Donatello may have stimulated his Sienese contemporaries, but he was also deeply stirred by the art of their city.
The climax of the show was Vecchietta’s tortured bronze statue Risen Christ from 1476. With his gaunt body wavering above painfully thin legs, his mouth hanging open, and his eyes staring off into space, Christ is shown after his return from death and Hell, but he looks haunted by the ordeal. No work better displays the Sienese concentration on intensity of feeling. The distinctive power of this work stands out even more when it is compared with a contemporary Florentine bronze of the resurrected Savior in Verrocchio’s Christ and Saint Thomas for Orsanmichele. The Florentine depicts a figure of noble serenity; the Sienese, instead, shows Christ racked with torment.
Sassetta was the leading painter in Siena in the early fifteenth century and the altarpiece he made for the Franciscan church in the town of Borgo San Sepolcro was one of the biggest altarpieces of the Renaissance, about twenty feet tall and fifteen feet wide. For the last hundred years, this painting has inspired research on the character of Sienese art, and it is now the subject of a beautiful new study in two volumes, Sassetta: The Borgo San Sepolcro Altarpiece. Everything about the book is impressive, from the quality of its printing to the number of people involved in its writing. Led by the brilliant scholar Machtelt Israëls, more than forty experts contributed to the book; and at 636 pages and 435 color illustrations, it is one of the most comprehensive monographs ever written on a single work of Renaissance painting.
The size of the book helps give a measure of the change in the scholarship on Sienese art over the last century. In 1909, Bernard Berenson’s book on this painting ran to seventy-four pages and had twenty-six small and dingy plates. At that time Berenson, his wife Mary, and one other connoisseur were, so far as we know, the only experts alive who had studied Sassetta.
The Berensons were instrumental in the rediscovery of the painting as well as of the artist. The altarpiece had been cut up in the early 1800s; its many panels were sold off to different owners, and its authorship and significance were completely forgotten. In 1900, while shopping for furnishings for their Villa I Tatti, the Berensons found in a Florence antique store three large panels of Saint Francis and two other saints; they instantly recognized the pictures as the work of Sassetta, whom, by coincidence, they had recently begun to study. The Berensons purchased the pictures, and they immediately began trying to identify other panels from the altarpiece in collections around the world, to reconstruct the altarpiece, and to interpret it in light of its Franciscan subject matter.
Berenson was inspired to write his book by the radiant beauty of the panel of Saint Francis, which originally formed the center of the back of the altarpiece. (The front of the double-sided altarpiece faced the parishioners in the main space of the church; the back, the friars in the choir behind the altar.) The panel shows Saint Francis hovering in the air, with his arms outstretched and his face raised to look up to heaven. He is surrounded by a burst of fiery seraphim and over his head float the three virtues he cherished—Chastity, Obedience, and Poverty—personified as winged maidens; below his feet are personifications of the corresponding vices, Lust, Pride, and Avarice. More than a moral guide, Saint Francis is depicted as an intercessor between man and God. His arms form a cruciform T, a sign of his imitation of Christ, and his face glows with the light of divine love, a light he reflects onto the viewer.
Berenson was struck by the intense spiritual power of the picture, which he compared to the ethereality of Chinese Buddhist art. In his view, although European artists routinely aspired “to represent the inner soul,” the legacy of heroism and grandeur inherited from classical antiquity prevented them from doing so effectively. Berenson believed that Sassetta and his Sienese followers were the only European artists who could successfully depict an interior state of the mind and spirit. It was their distinctive ability, and the one kind of work in which they vastly outstripped Florentine artists.
The new book on Sassetta’s altarpiece is primarily about how it could be reconstructed, a puzzle that has exercised many minds since Berenson. Israëls and her colleagues have now definitively solved this problem, owing to recent documentary discoveries and to the new field of research in the carpentry of Renaissance altarpieces. But this book is also remarkable for the step it represents in the liberation of Siena from Florence. It is one of the first studies on Sienese painting that hardly has a word in it about Florentine art—a subject now seen as largely irrelevant to the discussion of the tradition and context of the altarpiece or to the aesthetic evaluation of the painter and his artistry. Israëls states in her introduction, “The spiritual school of Sienese painting represented an alternative Renaissance that flourished alongside the canonical Vasarian movement.” The art of Siena was both an astonishing and an independent achievement.
October 14, 2010