Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 13, 2004
Timothy Hyman Sienese Painting: The Art of a City-Republic, 1278–1477 London: Thames and Hudson, 2003. 224 pp.; 73 color ills.; 110 b/w ills. Paper £8.95 (9780500203729)
Diana Norman Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena, 1260-1555 New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003. 352 pp.; 50 color ills.; 100 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (0300099339)

The recent publication of two surveys of Sienese painting is another indication of a noticeable boom in this field. Such historians as William Bowsky, Samuel Cohn, and Daniel Waley have fueled this resurgence, and their investigations of the political, religious, and social institutions of the Commune of Siena identified a unique and influential culture with well-preserved archival records. Building upon their work, art historians have added the study of historical and documentary context to the traditional analysis of style that in the late nineteenth century first articulated a separate “Sienese School.” Hayden Maginnis’s historiographical study, Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997), reappraised the secondary place of Siena within the traditional Vasarian narrative of the development of Italian Renaissance art and recognized the innovative stylistic qualities of early-fourteenth-century Sienese painting, arguing persuasively for additional study. Attention to significant contexts (historical, political, religious, and social) for the understanding of Sienese painting resulted in Diana Norman’s Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), an analysis of the civic meaning of trecento Marian imagery in and around Siena, as well as Maginnis’s groundbreaking study of the social milieu of Sienese artists, The World of the Early Sienese Painter (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001). While adding significantly to our understanding of Sienese art, these earlier studies indicated important lacunae in the field that are now substantially filled by two new books on the painting of Siena in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance by Norman and Timothy Hyman.

What are the gaps left by previous works on Sienese painting? First, the careful investigations of the contextual and theoretical history of trecento Siena, mentioned above, establish the need for similar attention to the art of the fifteenth century, about which we still know very little. In addition, the many recent and future specialist studies demand an overarching yet current history of the art of Siena—something that Maginnis has promised to produce in the much-anticipated climax of his trilogy on Sienese painting of the period 1260–1360. In several ways Hyman and Norman fill these gaps using distinct approaches, while at the same time evincing the challenges of writing a history of Sienese art.

Speaking as one who has taught Sienese art and who has also struggled to incorporate Sienese painting within the framework of a traditional Italian Renaissance course, I eagerly anticipated the two books under review. Although the first half of the trecento is commonly treated in general survey textbooks and those on the Italian Renaissance, previously the only comprehensive histories of Sienese painting were the two volumes by Bruce Cole (Sienese Painting: From Its Origins to the Fifteenth Century [New York: Harper & Row, 1980]; Sienese Painting in the Age of the Renaissance [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985]), now out of print. The books by Norman and Hyman provide two new options for teaching Sienese painting. Each draws upon recent advancements in scholarship, presents ample illustrations (often in lavish color), and fits works of Sienese art within a single historical narrative covering both the fourteenth and fifteenth (and, in the case of Norman, the sixteenth) centuries. Thus, both books are valuable supplementary texts for any survey of the Italian Renaissance: at its highly affordable price, Hyman’s volume would work well as an add-on, but Norman’s is substantive enough to stand on its own as a text for a carefully constructed course on Sienese painting.

Although both books fill a major gap in the field, they are quite different in method and scope, and this is clearly discerned in their titles. Norman’s Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena (1260–1555) concentrates on the paintings in the city and countryside of Siena—images that were made in Siena for Sienese patrons and viewed by its citizens. Thus, she focuses on the context, function, and meaning of paintings in Siena rather than writing a history of Sienese painting as a specific style. A stylistic survey is instead the objective of Hyman’s Sienese Painting: The Art of a City-Republic (1278–1477), which aims to present a history and critique of paintings that adhere to what he identifies as specifically Sienese stylistic qualities. Hyman does not ignore the historical context of Sienese art, but instead joins historical, and specifically political, events to the development of artistic style. Thus for Hyman the history of Sienese painting is inherently linked to the period when Siena was a true, independent Commune; he identifies this period as the approximately two hundred years when artists in Siena were producing a unique and identifiable style of painting linked to the political ideology of a city-state ruled by the people. Because Hyman examines style, the scope of his book is more limited. Norman’s interest in issues of patronage and use allows her a broader range, covering the nearly three hundred years that Siena was an independent city-state with changing painting styles but with an autonomous culture.

Hyman’s study is presented as a traditional survey: organized chronologically and biographically by major artist, the book analyzes specific works in depth to explicate a given artist’s style. In addition to presenting each artist in individual chapters, it provides an overarching narrative of the Sienese school that is based on a developmental structure. It begins in 1278, when Duccio was first documented painting for the Commune, after it had excluded magnate families from office. Hyman argues that the style of Sienese painting was inextricably linked to the control of the government by the people, which he calls the “civic ideal,” best embodied by the government of the Nine. This causal relationship between style and political ideology is often unpersuasive, however, because it requires the exclusion of artists who do not fit the scheme and often creates highly critical judgments. Thus, the first four chapters discuss the individual careers of Duccio, Simone Martini, and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, a period covering 1278 to 1348 and roughly corresponding to the rule of the Nine, a time when painting flourished. After the fall of the Nine in the wake of the Black Death, painting declined as well (as described in chapter 5, the shortest chapter). But when stability returned to the government in the early fifteenth century, both politicians and artists, particularly the painters Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo (the subjects of the next two chapters), attempted to recreate the civilization of the Nine. The two-hundred-year-old style of Sienese painting died when this civic ideal was rejected upon the ascendancy of the Sienese Pope Pius II, with his humanist and antipopulist sentiments, and when native Sienese artists began to disperse. Francesco di Giorgio, for example, left the city-state in 1477 to work at court and assimilated his native style to the Florentine style of painting that Leon Battista Alberti advocated in his Della Pittura.

As a study of style, defined as “a distinct school” with specific characteristics such as “an air of fairy tale [that] is bounded to acute observation” (62), Hyman’s book succeeds in its ambition. Its writing rivals the beauty and liveliness of the paintings described, and the author provides a model for close, careful viewing of images, accurately evoking their surface detail, quality of marks, and subtlety of color. Characteristic of the entire book are descriptions of the act of looking that make the reader feel as if he or she is in the presence of the works of art. Formal analyses are interspersed with discussions of the historical, religious, and political context of works of art and artists based on recent scholarship. However, the contextual discussions are general and appear as background information for the formal analyses of paintings. The function or uses to which the Sienese might have put these paintings or how they were viewed is not Hyman’s main concern. In fact, as an artist, the author’s personal, contemporary viewing of the paintings often seems just as important as their historical meaning. This approach is exemplified by his description of Lippo Memmi’s (Hyman’s attribution) fresco at the Collegiata, San Gimignano—“the general effect as I stand before The Crucifixion is of a sort of dynamic chaos, an incoherence made worse by the joyless prevailing color, a heavy puce-and-gray” (65)—or in his description of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s sinopia of the Annunciation at Monte Siepi, where “the almost abstract transparency of this underdrawing, so sheer and uncompromising, brings it close to twentieth-century taste—akin to both a cave painting and a Rembrandt reed-pen drawing” (99). While these are indeed lively and keen observations, it is not completely clear what this sort of description adds to our historical understanding of Sienese painting. These criticisms notwithstanding, Hyman is to be commended for writing an original, concise, and extremely readable history of Sienese painting in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The epilogue presents a brief historiography of Sienese studies and ends with an original discussion of the legacy of the Sienese school in modern art, and it is here that one gets a real sense of the personal connection between the author and the paintings discussed. Following the main body of the text is a short but useful bibliographic essay (presented first in general form and then by chapter) that includes all relevant literature in English, a fully detailed list of images, and finally an index.        

While also presenting a survey of Sienese painting, Diana Norman’s book is very different from Hyman’s, providing a contextual history rather than a stylistic one. A key scholar in the modern study of Sienese art, Norman synthesizes in this book much of her earlier work on the trecento and places it within the larger chronology of Sienese painting during the Renaissance period. The book begins with a useful introduction that discusses the different contexts for understanding painting during this period—the topography of the city, information about the profession of painting, and the social status of artists—as well as the variety of types of painting and patronage in Siena at this time. The introduction also lays the groundwork for the five chronological chapters that follow, beginning in 1260, when Guido da Siena started painting and when Siena asserted its independence after the surprise victory over its rival, Florence, at Montaperti. The book ends in 1555, the year that Siena lost its independence at the hands of the Florentines and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and a few years after the death of the last artist treated in the book, Domenico Beccafumi. While organized chronologically into distinct periods—early painting, the “Golden Age,” post–Black Death, Renaissance, and later Renaissance—the discussion is not structured into separate treatments of individual artists but is instead grouped according to types of paintings based on format, audience, and location.

By structuring her text around specific topics, for example “Altarpieces for the City’s Churches” or “The Spedale and its Patronage of Art,” we learn about the history of the institutions that these paintings embellished and what functions visual imagery served, or as Norman herself explains, “why Sienese paintings were made, where in Siena they were originally seen and how they were used and enjoyed” (ix). This approach allows us to understand the importance of painting to the culture of Siena, and it also provides an explanation for one of the stylistic characteristics that Norman identifies in Sienese painting: its mixture of innovation and continuity with earlier traditions. Only by recognizing the use and meaning of earlier works of art can one explain why later Sienese painters deliberately imitated them, and only by acknowledging and investigating the artistic interaction between Sienese and foreign artists can we understand the changes in style both in Sienese and in Italian painting. Thus, Norman includes in her discussion nonnative Sienese artists who worked in Siena and their influence on indigenous painting, as well as mentioning that some Sienese artists worked outside of the city.

Norman’s text is a highly informative and useful introduction to painting in Siena, but beyond that there are several especially noteworthy contributions. In an interesting section on domestic art, we learn that in contrast to Florence and other Italian cities, portraiture was not popular in Siena, perhaps because, as Norman explains, the influence of imported Flemish portraits appears to have been lacking. We discover instead the presence of numerous pictures depicting exemplary historical women, paintings that once functioned as room decorations. Likewise, Norman’s analysis of the first half of the cinquecento in Siena is extremely valuable, especially considering that this later period has received surprisingly little attention. As elsewhere in this book, Norman’s method of discussing the context of works of art, rather than artistic style, allows her to fit the paintings of the early sixteenth century within an overall narrative. Thus, we can understand how even though the styles of Sodoma and Beccafumi seem very different from those of Duccio or Sassetta, in commissions such as the Chapel of Saint Catherine of Siena or the ceiling decoration of the new Sala del Concistoro, the civic function of painting continued to be asserted by celebrating the city’s patron saints or articulating ideal qualities of the independent city-state.

An up-to-date and extensive alphabetical bibliography follows the main body of Norman’s text, providing a valuable starting-point for any study of Sienese painting; an index completes the book. The mixture of black-and-white and color illustrations is quite sufficient, and those of the somewhat more obscure works that Norman includes are particularly useful, but the images discussed are often not on the same two-page spread. In addition, many works of art mentioned briefly are not illustrated, likely because the nearly encyclopedic amount of information presented in the book would make it impossible to reproduce every painting discussed. These descriptions are often used for comparative purposes only (with publications illustrating these works frequently cited in the notes), a potential distraction for a more general, unfamiliar audience. Finally, one of the images repeatedly referred to in the text, plate 6 (depicting a plan of the city of Siena identifying its major monuments), is too small and nearly illegible. This is even more of a concern because much of Norman’s interest is in ritual procession, the location of works of art and their proximity to each other, and the experience of moving around within the city and interacting with works of art.

Both new books fill a noticeable gap in the field of Sienese painting by providing affordable, well-illustrated survey texts covering the late medieval and Renaissance periods; therefore they can be recommended to anyone searching for books with which to teach. The thorough discussion of fifteenth-century Siena in these two texts is especially valuable for demonstrating the great variety, originality, and importance of painting during this period, and it is hoped that this attention will spark further study of Sienese Renaissance painting. An additional study of the sculpture and architecture of Renaissance Siena is also needed, for such forms of Sienese visual expression have received inadequate attention in comparison to painting; their consideration would contribute much to a greater understanding of Sienese art. Hyman’s book, as a history of the style of the Sienese school of painting and organized according to individual artists, is particularly fitting for introductory courses where learning the major artists and how to analyze their works visually is of primary importance. The developmental narrative of style that he presents can be a helpful and convenient framework for structuring the material and forming a basic understanding, but this method, particularly in dealing with artists and styles that do not fit into the scheme, has limitations. Norman’s book, as a contextual history of painting in Siena, clearly functions as a useful overview for a more advanced audience. The plethora of detailed information and organization of the material by type, location, and patronage provides a more complete understanding of Sienese paintings. While Hyman writes beautiful descriptions of what Sienese paintings look like, Norman’s book better tells us why the paintings look the way that they do.

Emily A. Moerer
Independent Scholar

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