Renaissance Siena: Art for a City

Exhibition visited in January 2008

The contemporary art historian has a palpable fear of telling familiar old stories about the history of art. Her arguments need to be subtle, nuanced, sophisticated. They need to be methodologically and ideologically aware and sensitive to prior misconceptions. Playing to the crowd or giving in to tradition is to be avoided at all costs.


So much was evident in the National Gallery’s 2007-8 exhibitions on Renaissance Siena. The obvious boxing match that could have been set up – Florence in the blue corner, Siena in the red, is, save for the odd scuffle, studiously avoided. Siena its own thriving, independent city of art the exhibition tells us – simplistic comparisons with Florence won’t do anyone any favours.


Well, possibly. But I am not sure such an attitude allowed the exhibition to have had the effect it might have had. For the connoisseur, the differences between the two cities’ art may be self evident; for the rest of us, going around an exhibition in which one sees a city in isolation doesn’t really tell us if that city is special or not. Does Sienese art have patterns and nuances that make it unique? Was it developing its own view of the world? Without contrasts and juxtaposition, who can tell? (Maybe the pamphlet tells us – but galleries should be teaching people to look, not to read)


The first room is fair enough; a collection of panels recording certain historical events via the juxtaposition of narrow strips of images and captions – more painted documents than works of art but interesting nonetheless.


But the second room, presenting a long ribbon of silky sweet Madonnas, demonstrates this point well. The pictures are pretty but what distinguishes them from a Virgin Mary from Florence, Arezzo or indeed Milan or Venice? The specialist may glance at such paintings with a knowing eye; but there is precious little to assist anyone else.


I suppose a counter argument may be that the exhibition need not require such contrasts – the works are of sufficient aesthetic merit to stand but themselves. But the show had rather thin pickings. Until I arrived, it had not quite registered in my head that this was Renaissance Siena under view – not the Siena of luminaries such as Duccio, Lorenetti or Martini, but the slightly dimmer lights of Neroccio de Landi and Matteo di Giovanni. These latter artists are not unattractive, but one has to work hard to love them.


Certainly, there were still traces of the strangeness of Sienese medieval art – the almost wilful ignorance of the tricks of perspective, the thin, elongated figures punctuating the work of the Master of the Story of Griselda or the elements of the jumbled array of rich pastel colours evident in architectural elements like towers, bastions and keeps. And, at the tail end of the exhibition, there is the milky colouration of Beccafumi, and the haunting quality of some his more informal portraits, demonstrating an original, complex technique. But they are faded imitations of much brighter work of an earlier period.


A variety of media were on show. There were medals, plates for food, wooden pilasters, and tiled pavements beside the more familiar assortment of drawings, sketches, paintings and frescoes. Including such a variety of objects enables the curator to paint a more accurate portrait of any Renaissance city – art was not created simply for inspiring religious rapture or for coneoissurial discussion in the study but embodied as a practice in numerous every-day practices – eating, celebrating, marrying, building. But of course it has a strange effect in the art gallery, where one expects a certain sense of aesthetic refinement – as objects of delight, medals and crockery do not quite rank with paintings; just as the painters of Renaissance Siena do not quite match up to their medieval forebears.

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