- Renaissance Siena: Art for a City, and: Siena: Constructing the Renaissance City
Two handsome and lavishly illustrated books focus on Renaissance art and architecture in the Italian city of Siena. While one brings attention to art in many media, the other focuses on architecture. Both show the developing achievements of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Siena in historical and urban contexts. The period, 1430–1536, begins before the ascension of Pope Pius II Piccolomini of Siena in 1458 and ends after Spanish troops controlled by Charles V arrive in 1530.
Renaissance Siena: Art for a City is the book and catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery in London from 24 October 2007 through 13 January 2008. The tired revisionist goal is to recognize the cultural significance of Siena after the Black Death. The argument attempts to right the wrong that fifteenth-and sixteenth-century Siena has been seen as a culture in decline after the Black Death and as overshadowed by a bias begun by Giorgio Vasari toward the primacy of Florence. The assertion that later Sienese art has not been studied is an exaggeration and ignores those who toil beyond partisan politics. Although this was the first in England since 1904, there have been other exhibitions of later Sienese art, notably at The Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1988 (K. Christiansen, L. B. Kanter, and C. B. Strehlke).
Nevertheless, exhibiting such a large group of exquisitely beautiful objects and proposing a broad multivalent approach to understanding them vitalizes a new perspective. Moreover, scholars in other fields and the general public may have only a vague idea of art after the early Trecento in Tuscany, which this work serves to rectify. As so often, museums are on the forefront of innovative work in the field of art history. Museums have resources and energy to amass specialists, a team approach, financial resources, and connections to join long-separated artworks, enabling us to reexamine art for lasting benefit. In this case, the dialogue of specialists and support from Siena's Monte dei Paschi bank had felicitous results.
Luke Syson, Curator of Quattrocento art at the National Gallery, organized [End Page 887] this complex exhibition and its accompanying catalogue. He worked with a distinguished team to compile 115 pieces around seven themes. Images of Mary's civic cult were seen in Gabella and Biccherna (tax account) book covers, many of which show views of Siena. Sano di Pietro, Benvenuto di Giovanni, and Pietro di Francesco Orioli developed styles specific to Siena. Francesco di Giorgio worked in an archaizing style. Domenico Beccafumi's inventive and dazzling color dominated the Cinquecento section with twenty-two paintings and drawings.
An inherent limitation of an exhibition catalogue is that it can only include movable objects and therefore cannot be comprehensive. As long as the buyer is aware that an exhibition catalogue necessarily includes only those artworks available for loan, this skewed perspective is not a problem. For example, the story of Beccafumi is incomplete without his scintillating frescoes affixed to a ceiling in the Palazzo Pubblico. They are, moreover, essential to understanding the civic imagery of Siena because (as discussed in my Palazzo Pubblico, 1979) they continue republican themes that had been visually enunciated two centuries earlier.
Syson's goal is to show "how the unifying motifs adumbrated in the ceremonial motet functioned in a city that was run for long periods by an ingrained institutionalized factionalism in which regime change was endemic" (12). The art, however, shows a common civic ideology. The exhibition aims to present a "cumulative picture" rather than a linear arrangement, and demonstrates "Italian Renaissances even within a single city that is both worldly and otherworldly, an image of the city that is both real and ideal, a city of men and the Virgin" (14...