Renaissance and Reformation Art in Renaissance Siena
by
Fabrizio Nevola
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 May 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0448

Introduction

While the first half of the 14th century, during the period in which Siena was ruled by the elected officials known as the “Nine” (1287–1355), has tended to be considered the city’s political, economic, and cultural heyday, scholarship over the past decades has reassessed the period following the demographic disaster inflicted by the Black Death (1348). Siena remained an independent city-state through much of the Renaissance period, losing its independence to the Imperial forces of Emperor Charles V (1555), who then ceded it briefly to his son Philip (later Philip II) and who, in turn, sold the city in 1557 to Duke Cosimo de’ Medici to form part of the Medici dominions. Sienese political life throughout the 15th century was marked by complex wrangling between rival factions, although the republican system prevailed—with an intermission during the ascendancy of the quasi-prince Pandolfo Petrucci (c. 1503–1512) and his heirs (to 1525)—until its loss of independence. As a result, a pattern of civic patronage remained at the fore, with major commissions funded by and directed toward the main civic institutions, including the city hall (Palazzo Pubblico), cathedral, and public hospital (Santa Maria della Scala) as well as public infrastructure, such as gates, walls, and water supply. Based, in part, on the continuities of government and its institutions from the 14th century into the Renaissance period, the art of Siena has tended to be characterized in the scholarly literature by elements of tradition and continuity. Until relatively recently, 15th-century painting was viewed quite simplistically as slavishly continuing in the vein of the earlier century, characterized by gold backgrounds and religious iconography derived from local civic devotion and a resistance to stylistic innovation. Nevertheless, a wave of new studies over the past fifteen years has led to a reappraisal of the city’s artistic production. These works have tended to view the distinctive style that characterized Sienese art as consciously defining a local identity through painting, sculpture, and architecture that was unique, and intentionally different, from that of its close neighbor and competitor, Florence. Although there is no comparison between the volume of research conducted on Siena and that on major Renaissance cities such as Rome, Florence, and Venice, Siena has certainly earned the status of a place worthy of consideration among the significant sites of artistic production. This article reveals that English-language research on Sienese art is far from systematic, and it is surprising that many major artists have received only limited attention.

General Overviews

A complex political picture resulting from rivalry between factions of the city’s aristocratic and leading merchant families marked the 15th century, eventually creating the context for the Novesco oligarchy from 1489, and the brief Petrucci lordship at the start of the 16th century, as Ascheri and Franco 2019 outlines and Hook 1979 carefully documents. Siena’s topography—with the main streets laid out on the ridge of a series of hills, the main market square (piazza del Campo) and city hall at the natural meeting point of these ridges, and the cathedral rising above them—heavily conditioned its development from the medieval period into the modern era, as Bortolotti 1983 describes. It is against this backdrop of the city’s political history and the gradual evolution of the urban fabric that the wider picture of Siena’s cultural development through the Renaissance took place, as the contributions in Casciani and Hayton 2020 helpfully reveal. As is discussed further under Continuities and Traditions, a predominant theme in the scholarship on Sienese art in the 15th century has tended to privilege the continuity of the traditional forms that flourished in the 14th century—summarized in Carli and Maginnis 2003 and as exemplified in the survey in Hyman 2003. Nevertheless, as argued in the useful overview of painting in Norman 2003, tradition was only one influential factor in what continued to be a highly productive artistic center that flourished well into the 17th century, as Chelazzi Dini, et al. 1998, a richly illustrated volume, shows. Tylus 2015 offers fresh insights through a view of the city’s cultural history in which broadly defined themes are addressed over a long chronological sweep.

  • Ascheri, Mario, and Bradley Franco. A History of Siena: From Its Origins to the Modern Day. London: Routledge, 2019.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315232010E-mail Citation »

    A recent overview of the history of the city, this helpful survey provides historical context for key periodization that tends to be applied to the main phases of the development of the arts in Siena.

  • Bortolotti, Lando. Le città nella storia d’Italia: Siena. Rome: Laterza, 1983.

    E-mail Citation »

    A survey that records the phases of the city’s urban scale architectural development in relation to its socioeconomic and political history, with a series of helpful maps, as well as contemporary visual evidence.

  • Carli, Enzo, and H. B. J. Maginnis. “Siena.” In Oxford Art Online (Grove Dictionary of Art). New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A clear account of the history and urban development of the city, with helpful additional bibliographies. The focus here is more on the 14th century, and it includes useful surveys of the cathedral, city hall, and principal hospital (Santa Maria della Scala). Available by subscription.

  • Casciani, Santa, and Heather Hayton. A Companion to Late Medieval and Early Modern Siena. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2020.

    E-mail Citation »

    A volume of essays that ranges over various areas of the city’s history, setting out the socio-political context, and exploring aspects such as how these affected architectural and urban history and the fashioning of civic identity as well as themes related to religion, gender, education, music, and health care. The book is distinguished by the unified chronology that straddles the late medieval and Renaissance periods.

  • Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta, Alessandro Angelini, and Bruno Sani. Sienese Painting from Duccio to the Birth of the Baroque. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    A richly illustrated survey volume that provides a synthetic narrative of the development of painting in Siena from the late 13th century into the 17th century. Some elements of continuity of forms and local characteristics of Sienese painting emerge, although this account does not place Siena into a wider context of Italian art in the same period.

  • Hook, Judith. Siena: a City and Its History. London: Hamilton, 1979.

    E-mail Citation »

    This remains a classic English-language account of the history of the city, meticulously researched and clearly written; a dominant theme is the city’s bold independence, lost to the Medici in the mid-16th century.

  • Hyman, Timothy. Sienese Painting: The Art of a City-Republic, 1278–1477. London: Thames & Hudson, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Useful survey, though very much focused on the medieval tradition of gold-ground paintings from the 14th century, often described as the Golden Age of Sienese art. The final three chapters focus on the 15th century, with individual chapters on Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo creating a strong sense of continuity from the medieval period, as opposed to developing any sense of the renovation of the local style during that period.

  • Norman, Diana. Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena, 1260–1555. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    A valuable survey that helpfully covers Sienese painting from the so-called Golden Age of the 14th century through the adaptations to the local idiom during the 15th century as external influences altered local styles through to the 16th-century transformation of Sienese painting as it adapted to innovations coming from Rome.

  • Tylus, Jane. Siena: City of Secrets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226207964.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    An interesting and idiosyncratic account of Siena’s cultural history that favors a thematic approach to the city’s history over a tight chronological structure. Devotions to local saints, unique local rituals, and the city’s relationship to outsiders and its fierce independence all emerge as defining characteristics.

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