National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Siena in the 1400s

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Only about fifty miles separate Florence and Siena. However, if we compare Florentine pictures to these painted during the same period in Siena, we might believe we have stepped through time, not space. The gold backgrounds, the rich pattern and tooled detail, the saints and angels standing in formation—all seem more at home in the late Middle Ages than in the early Renaissance.

Though they did not rush to embrace them, Sienese artists were aware of the innovations in Florentine painting. They experimented with its naturalism, its solid, three-dimensional forms, its one-point perspective, and eventually its secular outlook—but their paintings remain distinctly Sienese. On some level artists may have eschewed outside innovations as their own city's economic and political fortunes declined. Certainly their patrons continued to expect works that were in keeping with an older Sienese tradition. For more than one hundred years the powerful legacy of early fourteenth-century masters like Duccio and Simone Martini sustained a preference for color and pattern, refinement and decoration. These artists' venerable images decorated the city's churches and public buildings, remaining part of the fabric of life. Saint Bernardino, a contemporary of the artists here, exhorted listeners to emulate the humility of a Virgin painted by Simone Martini. Such authority discouraged radical departures in style.

Devotion to the Virgin—and her images—was strong. She was Siena's patron saint and appeared on the city's coins. Her veneration had an important civic component, and in Siena artistic patronage was a largely civic enterprise. Into the 1400s many commissions were still communal, funded by the city or religious fraternities. Humanism, which had fueled demand for secular subjects and increased private patronage in Florence, came late to Siena.

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