by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Renaissance Meets a Gothic Dream

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 19 June 2010
Santa Maria della Scala, Siena
Rea Silva by Jacopo della Quercia, 1414-18,
formerly part of the Fonte Gaia in the
Campo of Siena



Jacopo della Quercia was unique among Siena's artists of his time in achieving fame throughout Italy and beyond. And, as a 19th-century French art historian observed: 'Jacopo had only one pupil, and for him there was a century to wait: he was Michelangelo.'

The sculptor was born here in around 1374 and died in his native city in 1438. A succession of his lyrical statues and reliefs in marble and wood, which combine grace and vigor to an extraordinary degree, open 'From Jacopo della Quercia to Donatello: The Arts in Siena in the Early Renaissance' at Siena's ancient hospital Santa Maria della Scala and at other venues, including the Duomo and Baptistery directly opposite. Six years in the making, this exhibition of sculpture, painting, gold- and silver-work, textile and codices contains more than 300 pieces from more than 100 collections around the world. While providing a panoramic view of the Sienese arts of the late 14th and first half of the 15th century, the show is somewhat overwhelming, the captions and wall panels offering inadequate guidance. Indeed, to get the most out of it, visitors would do well to familiarize themselves in advance with the broad outlines and personalities of the period.

Siena and Florence were inveterate rivals, but this did not stand in the way of a lively artistic dialogue between the two city-states. In Jacopo della Quercia, Siena produced a sculptor worthy to be ranked alongside the Florentine greats - Ghiberti, Donatello and, in due course, Michelangelo, who admired Jacopo and paid tribute to him in his designs for the Genesis scenes of the Sistine Chapel frescoes. But in painting, the revolutions taking place in Florence and elsewhere were slow to have an impact on the Sienese scene.

Begun in 1266, the great pulpit that Nicola Pisano and his assistants created for Siena's magnificent Duomo marked a new phase in Italian sculpture, reviving the skills of ancient Roman sculpture and introducing a vibrant new naturalism in a city dominated by Gothic art and architecture. The pulpit was to be Jacopo's principal early inspiration in forging his own style, for he, too, was an important innovator.

In his delicate and moving monument in the Cathedral of Lucca to the young and beautiful Ilaria del Caretto, who had died in childbirth, he included on the sarcophagus an encircling chorus of putti, the first time since antiquity that these winged cupids had been used on this scale. His female figures for the Fonte Gaia, the monumental fountain in Siena's Campo, were among the earliest freestanding nudes of the Renaissance. The Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) was a major civic project to celebrate the bringing of perpetually flowing clear fresh water through a series of long subterranean aqueducts to the central square and to several subsidiary fountains in this hilltop town. The Fonte Gaia now in the square is a copy; the original sculptures are one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Jacopo's work in Siena was constantly interrupted throughout his career by multiple commissions in other cities. The Fonte Gaia, begun in 1408, took more than a decade to complete. In 1416, anxieties about Jacopo's workload may have encouraged the Sienese authorities to call in the Florentine Lorenzo Ghiberti to advise on the construction of a new font (still in situ) for the Baptistery in the vaulted chamber beneath the Duomo.

The project was to bring together an amazing array of talent: Ghiberti, who designed the hexagonal basin and two of the bronze reliefs adorning it; Donatello, who provided reliefs and charming small bronze putti; and Jacopo, who did a bronze relief and designed the marble prophets in niches on the central pillar and the statue of the Baptist surmounting it. Here is a unique opportunity to study the three leading sculptors of the age in a single monument.

With the new baptismal font, the Renaissance could truly be said to have arrived in Siena, but just as the Gothic architecture of the late 13th-century Palazzo Comunale went on being replicated around the city into the 15th century, Siena's painters continued to create mystical Gothic Madonnas and Christ-childs - brilliantly colored, shadowless icons with opulent gold backgrounds.

In the first half of the 14th century, Siena had given birth to three supreme Gothic painters: the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, and Simone Martini, who was assisted by his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi. Most of Siena's painters and their patrons saw no reason to abandon these models. Even the Florentine Ghiberti was susceptible to their fascination, writing of Martini and Memmi that 'they were gentle masters, their paintings done with great diligence, and most delicately finished.'

A characteristic 'Nativity of the Virgin' by Pietro Lorenzetti is rightly included in the exhibition to illustrate the abiding power these works exerted over later local artists, as is a lovely 'Madonna and Child' (from Pisa) by Gentile da Fabriano. The most widely esteemed painter of the period, Gentile was in Siena in the 1420s, and his new naturalism, spatial sense and virtuoso handling of paint had an evident influence on two of the city's most important painters, Giovanni di Paolo and Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta.

In the gorgeous display of panels that follow, all the main Sienese masters of the first half of the 15th century are represented: notably Taddeo di Bartolo; Giovanni di Paolo; Sassetta; Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio; Sano di Pietro; the mysterious Maestro dell'Osservanza (whom some scholars believe to be Sano di Pietro); Lorenzo di Pietro di Giovanni, known as Vecchietta; and Domenico di Bartolo.

Among the enchantments of these sections are an altarpiece relating the story of St. Antony the Abbot attributed to the Maestro dell'Osservanza, the panels of which have been brought from Paris, New York, Washington and New Haven, Connecticut; and 18 components of an altarpiece with their crisply defined perspective architectural settings and landscapes by Sassetta, commissioned in 1423-1424 by the Arte della Lana, the wool merchants guild, here reunified from collections in Siena, Melbourne and the north of England.

Domenico di Bartolo clearly spent time in Florence and examples of his works here - his masterpiece 'Madonna of Humility' and an 'Assumption' - stand out in stylistic contrast to those of his Sienese colleagues. His works are much closer to Florentines such as Luca della Robbia and Filippo Lippi, pieces by whom are usefully juxtaposed with them. Domenico was also the principal author of the vividly realistic frescoes, executed between 1440 and 1444, illustrating Santa Maria della Scala's medical and charitable works, which amid Siena's dream-bright Gothic art and architecture are almost startlingly down-to-earth.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023