Back in Italy … Siena

After a year and a half of Covid restrictions it is wonderful to be back in Italy at last, especially to be in Tuscany, in Siena, one of my favourite towns. Although I was very much looking forward to some Tuscan gastronomy, the pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale and Brunello di Montalcino had to wait a little while longer as I headed straight to the Museo dell’opera del Duomo in Siena to be reacquainted with Duccio di Buoninsegna’s magnificent ‘Maestà’.

The ‘Maestà’, more properly ‘The Virgin and Christ Child in Majesty with Angels and Saints’, was painted by Duccio and his studio between 1308 and 1311, when it was installed in the Duomo amid great celebrations. A contemporary account records that “on the day [the Maestà] was carried to the Duomo the shops were shut, and the bishop conducted a great and devout company of priests and friars in solemn procession … and they accompanied the said picture up to the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture.”

The altarpiece was two sided, although it was later sawn into two separate parts so that now the front and back are displayed separately. The front has a large enthroned Madonna and Child with angels and saints, including John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, Catherine of Alexandria, John the Baptist, Saint Peter, Mary Magdalene and Saint Agnes, as well as Siena’s own patron saints. The predella, originally below the main panel, depicts the Childhood of Christ with prophets, whilst the reverse consists of a combined cycle of twenty-six scenes from the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ. However, when the altarpiece was dismantled in 1771 some of the panels were damaged and others sold, resulting in many ending up in museums around the world.

Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (front panel)

Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (reverse)

Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Maestà’ (reconstruction)

The Museum’s collection also includes another Duccio, the ‘Madonna di Crevole’, from the parish church of Santa Cecilia in Crevole, and Pietro Lorenzetti’s masterpiece, ‘Nativity of the Virgin’ from 1342, which originally decorated the altar of St. Sabinus in the Duomo. Other important works in the collection include Giovanni Pisano’s original sculptures from the façade and sides of the Cathedral.

Duccio di Buoninsegna ‘Madonna di Crevole’ (1283 – 84)

Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Nativity of the Virgin’ (1342)

Giovanni Pisano Sculptures from Siena Cathedral

September is a good time to visit Siena Cathedral as it is one of the months during which the ‘pavimenti’, the superb marble mosaic floor, is uncovered.

The central nave of Siena Cathedral

Opposite the Cathedral is the Ospedale Santa Maria della Scala, an enormous medieval hospital complex, built on the Via Francigena to provide shelter and care to pilgrims en route from Northern Europe to Rome. Particularly impressive is the extraordinary ‘Pellegrinaio’ or Pilgrim’s Hall, decorated in the 1340s with frescoes by Lorenzo di Pitro, Domenico di Bartolo and Priamo della Quercia, depicting subjects such as ‘Caring and Healing of the Sick’ and ‘Almsgiving’.

Pelegrinaio, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena

Domenico di Bartolo ‘Care of the Sick’ (1341 – 42)

Domenico di Bartolo ‘Almsgiving’ (1342 – 1343)

Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena

There is still much debate about the development of early Italian painting. That it was influenced by Byzantine art is not disputed but what happened after the innovations of artists such as Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio is much less clear. In fact, the precise roles of these artists in these innovations is argued about; for example, many art historians now have doubts about the involvement of Giotto at Assisi. These debates will, of course, continue and many of the questions will likely remain unanswered, but this is part of what makes it such an interesting subject. What is unquestionable is that the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena is one of the most important art museums in Italy and that it contains a wonderful collection of early Sienese paintings. My visit there was one of the most rewarding of this trip.

The oldest documented work of the Sienese school on display is ‘The Saviour Blessing and Stories of the True Cross’ dated 1215, a tempera and gold painting on wood by the Master of Tressa, who was active in Siena between 1215 and 1240. It was an antependium (in Italian ‘paliottoan’), an ornament that would have been placed on the front of the altar table.

Master of Tressa ‘The Saviour Blessing and Stories of the True Cross’ (1215)

Other thirteenth-century works include Guido da Siena’s dossal, (an ornamental panel hung behind the altar) consisting of three scenes, the Transfiguration, the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem, and the Resurrection of Lazarus, from the 1270s.

Guido di Siena ‘Altarpiece’ (1270s)

From the beginning of the fourteenth century there are works by Duccio and his assistants, including what is known as ‘Polyptych no. 28’ and ‘Madonna of the Franciscans’.

Duccio ‘Polyptych no. 28’ (1300 – 05)

Duccio ‘Madonna of the Franciscans’ (c.1300)

From one of my favourite artists, Simone Martini, there is the excellent ‘Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece’, with illustrations of his miracles including saving a child falling from a window and bringing life back to a child who has been savaged by a dog, and the Duccio-influenced ‘Madonna of Mercy from Vertine’.

Simone Martini ‘Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece’ (1324)

Simone Martini ‘Madonna of Mercy’ (1308 – 10)

There are several works by the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. From the former there is the beautiful ‘Madonna with Angels between St Nicholas and Prophet Elisha’, whilst from Ambrogio there is the equally delightful ‘Annunciation’, his last known work.

Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Madonna with Angels between St Nicholas and Prophet Elisha’ (1328 – 29)

Ambrogio Lorenzetti ‘Annunciation’ (1344)

Tuscan postcards … 1. Montepulciano

Montepulciano is a medieval hilltop town in the province of Siena. It is surrounded by vineyards and is known for its vino nobile red wine. The main square, the Piazza Grande, contains both the fourteenth-century Palazzo Comunale and the Duomo, which is normally home to an impressive triptych altarpiece, the ‘Assumption of the Virgin’, painted by Taddeo di Bartolo in 1401; however, unfortunately it had been removed for renovation.


Tuscan postcards … 2. Pienza

Pienza is a UNESCO-listed town in the Val d’Orcia region of central Tuscany. It is known as the first ‘ideal Renaissance town’ and its development was the idea of Enea Silvio Piccolomini, who would later become Pope Pius II. He hired the architect Bernardo Rossellino who used the principles of Renaissance town planning set out by his mentor, Leon Battista Alberti, in his treatise on architecture.

Pienza Cathedral

Tuscan postcards … 3. Montalcino

Montalcino had been under the influence of Siena since the Battle of Montaperti in 1260 and as such became involved in the conflicts between Siena and Florence in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. After Siena had been conquered by Florence under the rule of the Medici in 1555, rebels from Siena settled in Montalcino where they held out for almost four years before eventually falling to the Florentines.

Today Montalcino is known for its famous Brunello wine made from the sangiovese grosso grapes grown within the commune. Brunello, which must be aged for at least five years before release, was the first wine to be awarded Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) status.


Fra Angelico and more in Cortona

Although Cortona has an Etruscan background it eventually became a Roman colony before becoming an independent city-state in the thirteenth century. However, after being conquered by Ladislaus, King of Naples, in 1409, Cortona was sold to the Medici in 1411.

More recently its picturesque, steep narrow streets have provided the backdrop for the film ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, based on Frances Mayes’ book. However, I was here to see the collection of the town’s Diocesan Museum, especially a most beautiful ‘Annunciation’ by Fra Angelico.

The altarpiece was originally executed for the church of San Domenico in Cortona. Amongst the columns and arches of a loggia, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, uttering the words “the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee”, from the Gospel of Saint Luke. To the left of the loggia, above a delicately painted garden, can be seen a depiction of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise.

The predella depicts scenes from the Life of the Virgin, including a ‘Visitation’, which is said to include the first identifiable landscape in Italian art.

Fra Angelico ‘Annunciation’ (1433 – 34)

The Museum’s collection includes a second Fra Angelico, ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’, known as the Cortona Triptych, also painted for the church of San Domenico in Cortona. Its predella depicts scenes from Saint Dominic’s life.

Fra Angelico ‘The Cortona Triptych’ (1436 – 37)

Other works include a ‘Madonna with Child Enthroned and Four Angels’ by Pietro Lorenzetti and a large ‘Crucifix’ by the same artist.

Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Madonna and Child Enthroned and Four Angels’ (c.1320)

Pietro Lorenzetti ‘Crucifix’ (1320s)

Luca Signorelli, best known for his frescoes of the ‘Last Judgment’ in Orvieto Cathedral, was born in Cortona and has his own room in the Museum.

Luca Signorelli ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ (1501 – 02)

Luca Signorelli ‘Communion of the Apostles’ (1512)

Surprisingly, amongst the collection of Renaissance masterpieces is a collection by the Italian Futurist, Gino Severini. However, Severini was born in Cortona in 1883, where his father was a junior court official. After meeting fellow artists Umberto Boccioni and Giacomo Balla he was invited by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti to join the Futurist movement and was a co-signatory, with Balla, Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, and Luigi Russolo, of the ‘Manifesto of the Futurist Painters’ in February 1910.

The Diocesan Museum has an impressive collection of cartoons for Severini’s ‘Stations of the Cross’ mosaics.

Gino Severini cartoon for ‘Stations of the Cross’

In search of Piero (part I) Arezzo

Arezzo also has Etruscan origins; indeed it is believed to have been one of the most important cities of the Etruscan League. Today it is the capital of Arezzo province and is one of Tuscany’s wealthiest cities, in part due to its production of expensive jewellery. It is also famous for Piero della Francesca’s frescoes in the Basilica of San Francesco, the purpose of my visit.

Piero’s ‘Legend of the True Cross’ fresco cycle tells the story of how the cross was found near Jerusalem by the Empress Helena and was adopted by her son, the Emperor Constantine, as his battle emblem. The frescoes are believed to have been painted from around 1452 to 1466 and were commissioned by the Bacci family

The story begins with the death of Adam and the planting of a branch (or seeds) from the tree of life in his mouth. The tree that eventually grows will be made into the cross used for the crucifixion. The Queen of Sheba discovers the wood and tells Solomon that his rule over the Jews would eventually be destroyed by a man who would die on it. Servants of Solomon bury the wood in the hope that the prophesy would not come true. However, Helena tortures by starvation a Jew who knows of its whereabouts and so recovers it.

Before the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, Constantine has a vision in which an angel tells him that the cross will lead him to victory, which, of course, it does. Another battle scene depicts the defeat of Chosroes, who had stolen the cross, by Heraclius, who then returns the cross to Jerusalem, thus completing its story.

The Queen of Sheba meets with Solomon

The Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes

The Exaltation of the Cross