The medieval era is traditionally regarded as the golden age of art from Siena. Liberated by its defeat of Florence in 1260, the southern Tuscan city, home to a thriving wool trade and banking industry, poured revenue into works by pre-eminent talents such as Duccio di Buoninsegna, Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Simone Martini and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. In an exotic fusion of Byzantine mysticism, Giottesque realism and Gothic daintiness, the paintings, freschi and sculpture that graced the city’s trecento buildings boasted an expressive drama unequalled in Europe.
After the Black Death of 1348, however, local culture ossified. Devastated by the loss of nearly half its population, including leading artists such as the Lorenzetti brothers, a new conservative piety prevailed, and little interest was shown in the proto-classical humanism that would revolutionise the art of Florence.
Sensibly, this exhibition does not pretend that such an interpretation is entirely a myth. Instead, through a panoply of more than 300 works largely executed in the first half of the 15th century or quattrocento, it reveals a culture that, while never as sophisticated as its Florentine counterpart, was nevertheless immensely fruitful, satisfying and more complex than commonly supposed.
Visitors should prepare for a marathon. Made intimate by a beautifully articulated labyrinth of temporary galleries, the vast main show unfolds in the Complex of Santa Maria della Scala, the medieval hospital whose in-situ mid-quattrocento frescoes are a crucial last lap. But it’s also essential to explore permanent civic jewels such as the Duomo, the Baptistery, the Crypt, the Museo del’Opera and the Pinacoteca Nazionale.
The show’s six-year gestation is justified by the retrieval of many of the era’s major works: from the Bode museum’s bronze putto by Donatello that once graced Siena’s Baptistery font to a rare wooden marriage chest, on loan from the Louvre, decorated with a mischievous frieze of hounds poised to leap on their prey.
Interwoven with painting and sculpture, the presence of illuminated manuscripts, textiles and metalwork bear witness to a world where artists and artisans commanded equal respect and frequently practised more than one craft. The reunion of polyptychs separated for centuries and 25 major restorations are further proof that the show’s sponsors, the Siena-based Monte dei Paschi (the oldest bank in the world) have put their €3.5m to good use.
The show opens with a tribute to quattrocento Siena’s most forward-looking son, the sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. A youth spent travelling through Lucca, Ferrara, Bologna and Florence brought him into contact with artists, such as Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose exuberantly vital naturalism was unknown in Siena.
Returning to his birthplace in 1408, he set to work on the Gaia fountain in the Piazza del Campo. Although a 19th-century copy now sits in the square, four of the original sculptures are on display here. Even the ravaged surfaces cannot detract from the sensuous dynamism of the female Virtues, their sinuous yet fleshy bodies under siege by the cherubs clutching and climbing at their skirts.
With each twisted limb and folded drape outlined in scrupulous detail, two drawings make it clear that the sculptor’s skill was based on a solid technical provenance. Little wonder that Michelangelo, another committed draughtsman, took inspiration from the statues designed by Quercia for the portal of Bologna cathedral.
In 1416, Quercia was commissioned to work on the cathedral baptistery font. This extraordinary monument, which features bronze panels by Florentine sculptors Ghiberti and Donatello, undermines the theory that Siena rejected the avant-garde. Indeed, Donatello’s relief carving of the “Feast of Herod”, with its hallway of arches dwindling into the distance, is the first three-dimensional example of linear perspective.
Subject to different expectations, Siena’s painters never truly caught up with their sculptor peers. Dedicated to the Virgin prior to the 1260 victory over Florence, Siena’s devotion to the Madonna saw her public and private spaces adorned with Marian celebrations, such as Annunciations, Assumptions and Nativities of the Virgin.
By the time of the Black Death, such imagery had become emblematic of sacred duty and civic pride. When the disaster was over, traumatised citizens were loathe to tamper with iconography – radiant, mystical and often moving – that dated back to the majestic 1311 prototype, Duccio’s “Maestà” (on view in the Museo dell’Opera).
Instead, they wanted copies of masterpieces from the 1300s. Asked to replicate the 1333 “Annunciation” by Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi, Matteo di Giovanni creates a Madonna who is even more spidery and ethereal – though less magnificently serpentine – than her predecessor, despite being painted more than a century later.
Unlike their Florentine counterparts, Sienese painters attempted neither portraits nor allegories nor classical myths. Yet at their best, their mannered quaintness translates into images that simmer with spiritual devotion.
Painted by Giovanni di Paolo in 1426, the Malavolti Triptych stars a Madonna who is more disembodied waif than new mother. Swathed in a blue-black cloak and framed by angels in intricate gold and azure robes, its exotic tapestry-like intensity demands adoration not comprehension.
Such concentrated vision was often best distilled in small panels painted for private worship. A glorious array here includes Giovanni Di Paolo’s 1427-30 triptych “Madonna and Child between Saints”, whose ornately carved wings and pedestal testify to the close collaboration between Siena’s painters and wood-carvers.
The progressive vision of the early quattrocento sculptors finally began to make itself felt in Sienese painting towards the middle of the century. Yet the juxtaposition between Donatello’s “St John the Baptist” (1455-57) and the Spedaletto triptych (1463-64) by Lorenzo di Pietro (Il Vecchietta) makes it clear how fiercely Siena’s artists resisted transformation.
Dressed in a camelskin so realistic you can almost smell its matted whorls, Donatello’s muscular sunken-eyed saint possesses an animal charisma. Inspired by Donatello’s model – which normally stands in Siena cathedral – Il Vecchietta gives his St John a febrile intensity, but essentially the altarpiece, showing a demure Madonna flanked by saints, is memorable for the surface brilliance of its swirled marble panels and embroidered textiles.
Most telling is the Annunciation scene that decorates the lunette. Divided by a vaulted corridor of white columns narrowing towards the horizon, the incorporeal Madonna shrinks coyly from her celestial messenger just as she did in Simone’s day.
In embracing linear perspective but repudiating the realistic representation of the flesh, Siena’s quattrocento painters opted for an aesthetic that could only ever be Renaissance-lite. Against the best of Florence and Venice, their art does not stand comparison, but taken on its own terms it makes for a dazzling, uplifting spectacle.
‘From Jacopo della Quercia to Donatello: Early Renaissance Art in Siena’, Complesso di Santa Maria della Scala and other sites to July 11. www.rinascimentosiena.it