Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 6, 2013
Timothy B. Smith and Judith B. Steinhoff, eds. Art as Politics in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena Burlington: Ashgate, 2013. 248 pp.; 63 b/w ills. Cloth $99.95 (9781409400660)

Art as Politics in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena is a wide-ranging attempt to identify several Sienese artistic commissions and individual motifs as politically meaningful, by which editors Timothy B. Smith and Judith B. Steinhoff mean, “the creation and deployment of visual art and architecture to embody political ideals, promote political agendas, or otherwise serve the concerns of government” (1). More precisely, the book concerns the role of art and architecture in the creation and promulgation of a civic identity for Siena. This is a laudable goal since the vast majority of Sienese art-historical literature has mostly ignored the subject. The notable exception is, of course, the substantial material pertaining to Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s The Allegory of Good and Bad Government (1338–39), a work not addressed in this book.

Steinhoff’s introductory essay identifies particularly Sienese generalized trends in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century central Italy such as factionalism and military expansion of the city into the contado; however, historians of Florence can attest to identical issues in Florentine politics of the period. Steinhoff also presents convincing evidence of an important Sienese preference for images of the city to depict the towers of the Palazzo Pubblico and Duomo as roughly equivalent in height as a metaphor for the assertion of equivalence between religious and secular power in the city.

Ann Johns explores the connection between the pointed arch introduced to Siena by the Burgundian Cistercian architecture of San Galgano and the civic aesthetic of the city. The most visible evidence of such architectural borrowing is on communal water houses (fonti) and on the facade of the Palazzo Pubblico. The adaptation of the arch is obvious; the thematic connection between Burgundian Cistercian architecture and Sienese civic identity is not as clear. Johns correctly suggests active Cistercian involvement in the design and construction of Sienese fountain houses. However, the explanation that the Ghibelline regime of the Twenty-Four Priors saw political significance in the application of the French Burgundian (and therefore Guelph-related) pointed arch is less convincing. To make things more confusing, the Guelph regime of the Nove that succeeded the Twenty-Four also embraced the French style. Johns concludes that the new style communicated a differentiation from the somber architecture of Florence or the showy polychromy of Pisa and was clearly something new and modern. Whether it communicated anything political beyond a cohesive stylistic appearance for the city is another matter.

Berthold Hub’s essay on the city planning of Siena is convincing in its assertion that careful urban planning from the initiation of the Nove government in 1287 to the Black Death reflected internal political considerations. In particular, Hub’s detailed explanation of the siting of the Palazzo Pubblico at the junction of the three hills or subdivisions (terzi) that form the city is compelling. His observation that the Torre del Mangia was not only conceived as taller than the towers of aristocratic palazzi, but also equivalent to the tower of the Duomo as a way of depriving the church and its bishop of any political role, is insightful. Hub keenly observes that the Sienese deliberately arranged the layout of Buonconvento so that those accessing the town from either gate would first see the civic Palazzo Praetorio in the center of the city, but not the carefully recessed facade of the local church.

Rebecca Corrie examines that most political of images in Siena, the Virgin Mary, and argues for a politically conscious appropriation of two motifs, the Byzantine-derived lyre-backed throne and Hohenstaufen-derived imperial eagles decorating the Virgin’s veil by Coppo di Marcovaldo in his Madonna del Bordone (1261). Corrie argues that Coppo’s deliberate adoption of these motifs was a marker of Sienese affiliation with the Ghibelline cause that eventually evolved into a more generalized Sienese style reflecting its civic identity. When paired with the arguments put forth by Johns regarding the Sienese embrace of the Cistercian Gothic style in architecture during the same period, the role of style in representing Sienese identity becomes somewhat less clear, since one style would have promoted a Sienese identification with Guelph France while the other style suggested Ghibelline sympathies.

Andrea Campbell’s essay links two depictions of the Creed in the Palazzo Pubblico with exhortations to charity and acting for the common good. She also attempts an Augustinian textual association for the frescoes of the Creed by Vecchietta on the ceiling of the Siena Baptistery. Diana Norman tackles the Sienese preoccupation in the fifteenth century with the promotion of a constellation of local saints and beati, most aggressively the recently deceased Bernardino for whose canonization the Sienese worked tirelessly and successfully. Norman also examines the Sienese role in the promotion of native son Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini to the papal crown. As Pius II, Piccolomini eventually approved the canonization of Catherine of Siena. The expansion of the pantheon of Sienese saints in this period was clearly a religious, civic, and artistic preoccupation. To her credit, Norman has done archival research, something not seen enough in art history.

Timothy Smith examines the facade of the chapel of St. John the Baptist in Siena Cathedral as an exercise in the promotion of Roman roots for Siena. The chapel, begun in 1486, houses the relic of the Baptist’s right arm. Smith views the intense, almost self-conscious, classicism of the facade as part of a larger trend in the construction of the cathedral during the 1480s and 1490s. He argues that this classicizing was a response to a diplomatic crisis with Florence that unfolded in the wake of the Pazzi conspiracy. Sienese humanists of the later fifteenth century codified Sienese claims to being founded by the sons of Remus, which would therefore antedate a putative Roman Republican origin for Florence. Smith identifies two now-vanished ancient arches in the city as likely models for the chapel facade. The stylistic analysis of each of its components is masterful, but its relationship to a precise moment in the long-lived rivalry with Florence remains conjectural.

Jennifer Sliwka’s essay on the frescoes by Domenico Beccafumi in the Sala del Concistoro in the Palazzo Pubblico offers a “transgressive” reading of the cycle. Based on the Roman text Factorum et dictorum memorabilium (Memorable Deeds and Sayings) by Valerius Maximus, the cycle mostly depicts punishments meted out by the Roman Republic for crimes against the state. Sliwka correctly, I think, puts the fresco cycle within the context of the revived Sienese Republic following the Petrucci tyranny (ended in 1524) and the precarious dependency of the republic on Charles V, whose impending visit to Siena, Sliwka argues, situates the granting of the commission in 1529. When his visit was postponed until 1536, work on the cycle stopped, only to be resumed and completed that year. Employing a reading of the cycle that explores the way in which scenes of violence are placed in the broader societal and political contexts, Sliwka argues that the violence was meant to “create a sense of resolution or stabilization in the relations between contending groups” within the city (167). She further asserts that the fresco cycle was conceived as a warning to the emperor to tread lightly on Sienese soil. Sliwka’s essay is an intriguing and provocative elucidation of a difficult fresco cycle.

The final essay in the book, by Machtelt Israëls, concerns the city gate as a marker of civic identity. Israëls examines Sodoma’s Nativity of Christ at the Porta Pispina of 1531 as part of this trend. A Marian image or perhaps one of the Immaculate Virgin had been intended for the gate’s ornamentation, and Israëls connects a nineteenth-century drawing of the Nativity by Johann Anton Ramboux with the now-detached and much destroyed fresco, which currently features only an ascended or redemptive Christ flanked by angels. By a series of stylistic and iconographic transfers between several coeval paintings of the Nativity and the Virgin Protecting Siena during the Battle of Camollia, Israëls asserts that the iconography of Sodoma’s Nativity should be understood in the context of the promotion of the cult of the Immaculate Conception. The discussions that were held by the balia, which governed the city, regarding the commissioning of the Nativity that Israëls cites, are effective reminders of the sometimes indistinguishable line between religious and civic imagery.

Art as Politics in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena is marred by often careless editing: repeatedly using “principle” where “principal” is meant, a vast compendium of spelling errors, a summation of the results of the Battle of Montaperti cited by nearly every author (Siena defeated Florence!), repetitions of whole phrases in several essays, and an assertion in the introduction regarding the reception of Charles V in Siena in 1536 (he was received with great acclaim) that directly conflicts with the main thesis of one of the book’s essays (the Sienese were wary and controlled every aspect of the visit). The book, however, is valuable in expanding, or perhaps even changing, the lens through which Sienese art is viewed.

Sharon Dale
Associate Professor of Art History, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

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