Seeing Sienese

Title page from Petrarch's Virgil (c. 1336), by Simone Martini. Illuminated manuscript, 29,5 x 20 cm Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (Wikipedia)

In his exuberantly written, highly informative book Sienese Painting (Thames and Hudson, 2003), Timothy Hyman quotes the art historian  John White saying, “The patent on the history of art was taken out in Florence.” As Hyman observes, Vasari’s 16th-century Lives of the Artists bequeathed us a closed narrative whereby Western art culminates in Renaissance linear perspective, mastery of naturalistic anatomy, and empirically-based imitations of light and shadow—all the tricks that make for great illusionistic painting (what most people call painting that “looks real”) that were perfected in Florence.

The problem with this account is not that Florentine art wasn’t revolutionary, exciting and great (it was; we’re talking about such giants as Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo), but rather that Renaissance naturalistic perfection can sometimes feel closed off. It’s a kind of hermetically sealed picture—“seen through a window,” as we’re taught in art history classes—where emotional entry can be difficult. If this naturalism were all there were to the story of art, artists would have thrown in the towel a long time ago.

Fortunately, an alternative, more intimate, mysterious and imaginative, and to many minds–including mine–a more beautiful and moving kind of Western painting was developed by painters working in Siena (today a 45-minute drive from Florence, but in the 13th and 14th centuries, a considerable journey), beginning around 1276 and lasting for the next two centuries.

Sienese painting famously had two flowerings—the first growing directly out of the fertile soil of the Sienese Commune and its radically republican governmental system led by the Group of Nine (which lasted from 1287 to 1355, and was at least in part brought down by the 1348 plague wiping out half the population in a three-month period) and the second, in the 15th century. Rather than bore you by listing all the great Sienese painters, I’ll mention only my own favorites: Simone Martini (the best!), Duccio Bartolo di Fredi, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and then later on, in the 15th century, Sano di Pietro, Sassetta (a biggie for me) and Gentile da Fabriano.

To untrained eyes, Sienese paintings look a little childlike. The craft is too superb and finessed to mistake it for children’s art, however. Yet its charm is similar—a charm that stems from sensing someone who isn’t exactly sure how something is “supposed” to be proceeding nevertheless to unselfconsciously invent a sincere solution to a problem.

For example, the  perspective in Sienese painting—which figures prominently, since so much of it involves painting ordinary people going about their business in the city of Siena–is frequently contradictory or even outright wacky. It will be correct in one place, but wrong in another, and completely lacks the Florentine systematization of locating bodies in precise positions in space. Sienese space is an imagined space, an almost magical place that exists in our real world of buildings, people and animals, but where saints whoosh in (trailing painted clouds of whoosh behind them) to instantaneously perform miracles, and where time merges with space (that is, where various tales are told in a single panel of a painting). In frequent but lovely violations of Albertian perspective, the near and far exist simultaneously—a too-large donkey in the background is set against a too-small person in the foreground.

In Sienese painting, form lacks the subtle gradations of shading we’ve come to expect in what we call “realistic” art—art that “looks like” a photograph. Sienese artists tended to use strong, clear outlines (which, of course, do not exist in nature). To me, these outlines reflect the certitude of their religious and moral convictions. A Sienese painter is just as apt to fill in the side of a building, or a tunic top, or a vessel, or even a cat or dog on the street, with mostly unmodulated colors that are so subtle they seem at times unearthly.

The faces of the many madonnas, of saints and of ordinary people are expressive in a restrained sort of way, with bits of line indicating mouths, eyes and noses, and where a slight upturn to a mouth in a madonna gives Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a run for her money. Sienese painting is rich in narratives and allegory. You have to know your Latin, or have help, to understand the many painted words that indicate such things as Justice being shackled and beaten, or wicked people turning into the devil and destroying a well-governed city. The art critic John Ruskin saw in Sienese paintings something we jaded 21st-century sorts can’t help but sense as well—an aesthetic and religious humility and purity, an unquestioning faith in God and pictures unencumbered by too much knowledge. Sienese pictures teach the simple message that men have a choice to be wicked or good, and that God will show no mercy toward the wicked.

Because I am in Siena doing an artist’s residency, I have the time to hunt down many great Sienese paintings—paintings I’ve either never known about, or known only in reproduction. The National Gallery (Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena) contains hundreds of the kind of tenderly painted pictures I’m talking about, many of them deeply steeped in vernacular imagery. Sienese painting is famous for its empathic embrace of ordinary people, not to mention the downtrodden or the merely unlucky. Unfortunately, the city lost much of its treasure long ago—it’s said that only around 10 percent of Sienese paintings remain. Of the extant paintings, many came from breaking up altarpieces and letting the parts go to art lovers in other cities.

If you want to see great Sienese painting in the flesh, you needn’t come to Siena. You can go to New York, London, Paris, Baltimore and St. Louis (to name only a few places that own Sienese paintings). I’m not in the business of persuading people to love any particular kind of art, but if I were, I’d be hawking Sienese painting.

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