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Giovanni di Paolo

Sienese, c. 1403 - 1482

del Poggio, Giovanni; di Paolo di Grazia, Giovanni

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Trained in Siena in the early quattrocento, presumably in the circle of artists such as Gregorio di Cecco, Benedetto di Bindo, and Martino di Bartolomeo, Giovanni is documented for the first time in 1417, when he received payment for miniatures in a Book of Hours commissioned by the wife of a Milanese jurist, a member of the Castiglioni family at that time resident in Siena.[1] Possibly in deference to his clients from northern Italy, Giovanni's painting is inspired by examples of late Gothic art from that area, as well as France. However, Giovanni consistently grafted foreign influences onto his own Sienese figurative tradition, producing highly original results. Furthermore, the preciousness of pictorial rendering and attention to naturalistic detail in Giovanni's earliest works appear as an immediate response to Gentile da Fabriano's presence in Siena in 1425-1426. This is evident in his paintings for the church of San Domenico in Siena (Christ Suffering and Triumphant, now in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, no. 212); the Pecci polyptych of 1426, whose central panel is in the Propositura in Castelnuovo Berardenga, with others in the Siena Pinacoteca (nos. 193 and 197) and elsewhere; and the Branchini polyptych of 1427, whose central panel is now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena.

In subsequent years the artist also felt the influence of the reliefs of the Siena baptistry font, especially those by Jacopo della Quercia, Donatello, and Ghiberti. But again, he interpreted the early Renaissance style of these prototypes with an almost expressionistic exasperation of rhythms, and combined their motifs in his own rather unconventional arrangements, giving strongly individual harsh expressions to the faces and actions. Examples of this phase are the Virgin of Mercy of 1431 (Santa Maria dei Servi, Siena); the Osservanza Crucifixion of 1440 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, no. 200); the triptych in Sant'Andrea in Siena dated 1445; the polyptych in the Galleria degli Uffizi also dated 1445; and the Pizzicaioli altarpiece of c. 1447-1449, whose central panel is also in the Siena Pinacoteca.

In his numerous works executed in the middle two decades of the century, Giovanni framed his fantastic narrative vein in structures that were defined with a sort of capricious pseudo-perspective, and reintroduced the elongated elegant forms of late Gothic art. At the same time, however, he sought effects of monumentality and plasticity in response to painters of the younger generation. In this period he created numerous masterpieces: the Creation and Expulsion from Paradise and Paradise (both in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York), which originally may have belonged to the Uffizi polyptych of 1445; eleven panels with scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist, divided among the Art Institute of Chicago, Landesmuseum in Münster, Metropolitan Museum, Musée du Louvre, and Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena; the Saint Nicholas polyptych of 1453 in the Pinacoteca in Siena (no. 173); and the predella with stories from the legend of Saint Catherine of Siena, divided among the Cleveland Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, Metropolitan Museum, Rijksmuseum in Utrecht, and private collections. Even in late works like the altarpiece in the duomo of Pienza of 1463, the quality of his work is still very high. It is only in the last years of his activity, for example in the polyptych from Staggia now in the Pinacoteca in Siena, dated 1475 (nos. 186-189, 324), that Giovanni begins to show signs of slowing down and entrusts to his workshop the repetition of his habitual formulas. "As he developed, his style inevitably changed," observes Pope-Hennessy in his reconsideration of the art of Giovanni di Paolo fifty years after the publication of his monograph on the painter, "but his imagery remained constant and his work from the first to last possesses a highly individual imaginative quality. He relives the scenes he represents with such intensity that we see them through his mind and with his eyes."[2] [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

[1] Ingeborg Bähr, "Die Altarretabel des Giovanni di Paolo aus S. Domenico in Siena," Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 31 (1987): 357-366.

[2] Pope-Hennessy, John, "Giovanni di Paolo," Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 46, no. 2 (1988): 6.

Artist Bibliography

Weigelt, Curt H. "Giovanni di Paolo." In Thieme-Becker 1907-1-50, 14(1921):133-137.
Pope-Hennessy, John. Giovanni di Paolo. London, 1937.
Bacci, Peleo. "Documenti e commenti per la storia dell'arte. Ricordi della vita e dell'attività artistica del pittore senese Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia detto Boccanera (1939 circa - 1482)." Le Arti 4 (1941): 11-39.
Brandi, Cesare. Giovanni di Paolo. Florence, 1947.
Carli, Enzo. "Problemi e restauri di Giovanni di Paolo." Pantheon 19 (1961): 163-177.
Chelazzi Dini, Giulietta. "Giovanni di Paolo." In Il gotico a Siena: miniature, pitture, oreficerie, oggetti d’arte. Exh. cat. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena. Florence, 1982: 358-359.
Alessi, Cecilia. "Giovanni di Paolo." In Il Quattrocento, 1987: 2:543.
Pope-Hennessy, John. "Giovanni di Paolo." Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art 46, no. 2 (1988).
Strehlke, Carl B. In Painting in Renaissance Siena. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988: 168-242.
Panders, Janneke. The Underdrawing of Giovanni Paolo. Berlin, 1997.
Wilson, Carolyn C. "Giovanni di Paolo." In Dictionario biografico degli italiani 56 (2001): 138-146.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 324.

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