- Renaissance Siena: Art in Context
"If the fourteenth century was the golden age of Sienese art," Keith Christiansen expressed, "the fifteenth century was a silver one" (Painting in Renaissance Siena, 1420-1500 , ix). The legacy of past artistic glories weighed heavily on the shoulders of Sienese masters after the Black Death. As A. Lawrence Jenkens suggests in his introduction to the present collection of essays, similar burdens have encumbered art-historical scholarship on Renaissance Siena in its retrospective standards of greatness — a problem compounded by essentialist formulations of Florentine art as the dominant paradigm, relegating Siena to satellite status. While it is generally true that most research has centered on the Siena of Duccio, Simone Martini, and the Lorenzetti, even a cursory look at Renaissance Siena's notes and bibliography reveals rich new veins of inquiry into Sienese artistic culture in its period of transition. If further proof was needed, this anthology's seven stimulating contributions only confirm that things are no longer simply business as usual.
At a time when artists in Florence and Rome were busy reviving the antique, their Sienese counterparts were asked to focus their energies on visual affirmations of citizenship and civic pride. So too does Siena's quest for self-definition emerge as the central theme of Renaissance Siena. Judith Steinhoff retrieves new site-related visualizations of collective identity in her study of a hitherto marginalized aspect of Sienese painting, the cityscape. Steinhoff's case studies amplify the ways in which the city's distinctive architectural landmarks were adapted and exploited to various political and religious ends. The inclusion of Bartolo di Fredi's Ciardelli Altarpiece [End Page 1194] is particularly intriguing in view of the painter's second life as diplomat and government official in Siena and Montalcino: at once a political and artistic conduit.
Moving from the painted to the real city, Matthias Quast defines the architectural vocabulary of Siena's late medieval and Renaissance palace façades. Quast adopts a taxonomical approach in identifying and listing examples of three basic typologies of monumental palace fronts. Grafted onto Siena's local tradition of the Gothic façade were reworked versions of contemporary Florentine models and all'antica-inspired examples. There is much of interest to be found here in the details: wrought-iron metalwork, window elements, projecting structures, and curtain-like awnings (tende). The author is equally attentive to materials. Less appetite is shown, however, for addressing more contextual questions: there is little discussion of workshops, distinctions among clients, or specific realities of transmission associated with imported architectural prototypes. As might be expected of a project originating as a series of conference lectures, a number of essays similarly function on a more informative or descriptive, rather than an argumentative, level.
Next, Mauro Mussolin follows the fortunes of the observant Dominicans and their fraught, more than half-century-long, rebuilding program of the church of Santo Spirito. Faced with an unwelcoming urban environment and lacking even the support of their Florentine brethren, the Dominicans of Santo Spirito forever remained an alien community to the Sienese. Mussolin moves deftly from discussions of broader developments — for example, the relationship between architecture and spiritual values, the devotional expectations of lay patrons, and the dangers posed by Savonarola's reformist zeal — to analyses of the church's architectural fabric.
Though most celebrated as a military architect and engineer, in times of peace Francesco di Giorgio also excelled in the painting of wedding chests. Benjamin David casts Siena's greatest artistic polymath in the role of pictorial raconteur, specializing in Petrarchan Triumphs. While David focuses primarily on iconographic and narrative implications, his observations on the complexities of studio practice, artistic collaboration, and the formation of workshop compagnie are especially welcome.
Fabrizio Nevola aligns palace building with familial ambition in his study of Ambrogio Spannocchi's "bella casa." Showcased on the palace street of the Strada Romana, the grandiose product of Spannocchi's expansionist campaign is as revealing a portrait of...