Dievole is located just a few kilometers away from the Tuscan city of Siena, known for its palio (historic horse race), panforte (a kind of spice cake), and contrade (the seventeen areas into which the city is divided over its hilly landscape). If you’ve ever been, and perhaps peeked into some of the city’s museums, you may have noticed that this city has its own artistic style. Although contemporary with and in contact with early Renaissance painting in Florence, Sienese works look different. Let’s take a look at how and why this is the case.
While in Florence, Renaissance painting flourished starting in the third decade of the 15th century, Siena’s heyday was slightly earlier. The three most important painters were Duccio di Buoninsegna (active by 1278, died 1318), Simone Martini (active by 1315, died 1344), and the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (active 1320–44, 1319–47, respectively). Stylistically, these painters’ work is very elegant, often depending on lots of gold and patterning (something that comes from two influential artistic styles – Byzantine and Gothic), and may seem rather “retrograde” to us when compared to Florentine painting. In these cases, we have to look a little harder to see the innovation that actually IS present in the way that these artists started to observe nature and more accurately represent it. Yet they combine this nature with a profound spirituality and sense of civic pride.
The Maestà by Duccio is probably the most important work of this period due to its position on the Cathedral’s high altar; its style and subject were truly influential, setting the pace for Sienese art to come. You can visit this painting at the Opera del Duomo museum, which is part of the Duomo complex. The rather uncrowded museum isn’t super easy to understand because the beautiful altarpiece – a polyptych or multi-paneled painting – has been dismantled in the 18th century, so you see a bunch of separate, golden panels, without a whole lot of explanation. Hopefully reading this can help you! The image above shows a reconstruction of what scholars think the altarpiece looked like on the front, while the back would have been made up of even more small panels, and used less gold.
The central panel of the Maestà, a generic name for paintings depicting the Holy Virgin Mary enthroned, shows Mary with a dark cloak, seated on an architectural throne, holding a rather funny looking little man who should be the baby Jesus, and adoring them on either side are orderly rows of saints and angels. Duccio works within certain conventions of his time, which includes the gold background (created with real gold leaf!). But if we look past these conventions, we can already see how Duccio distinguishes the face of every person in this scene, except the angels who are pretty standard.
In truth, the artist is able to take a little bit more liberty with the sixty-some narrative scenes (showing scenes from the Life of Christ and the Life of Mary) represented in panels that you can see distributed around the same room in the museum. Although gold is sometimes used in backgrounds, there is greater naturalism where subject matter calls for the representation of trees or landscape.
This brings us to another very famous work, that’s quite different from Duccio’s because it’s in a different medium – fresco – and it’s a much freer representation of medieval life. The famous scenes of “Good Government” and “Bad Government” were painted on the walls of the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti from 1337 to 1340. The brothers studied and worked with Duccio, but they also were influenced by the Florence-based artist, Giotto, who was famous for his naturalism and his skill in frescoes.
These paintings decorate an important room in the city hall and they represent the effects that good or bad government might have on a city that looks uncannily like Siena! These served as a potent reminder to the men who ruled the city and who commissioned the work. Under good government, there’s a beautiful medieval city, with dancing ladies and commerce, and beyond the gates, a well kept countryside that makes lots of food for the people. Bad government, as you might imagine, produces negative results! This wall is not as well preserved as the positive one, but you can see buildings cracking and people fighting. What’s amazing here is that these are the first extensive “landscape paintings” in Italy, something that breaks with the medieval tradition. It’s also the only painting of this type that has survived (if there were others).
Duccio and the Lorenzetti brothers were the city’s greatest artists, but by the mid 14th century, they were all dead. Artistically, the city stagnanted somewhat due to the devastating effects of the Black Death in 1348, reflourishing rather later in the Renaissance, yet keeping a tradition of painting that continued to look to these first, important sources.