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Sienese, probably 1392 - 1450

Stefano di Giovanni; Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo; Sassetta, Stefano di Giovanni, called

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The date and birthplace of Sassetta are not known; he was probably born in the last decade of the fourteenth century, and since his father, Giovanni, is called "da Cortona," Cortona might have been the artist's birthplace. The meaning of his nickname, "Sassetta," is obscure; it is not cited in documents of his time, but begins to appear in sources in the eighteenth century.

One of the most important figures of Sienese early Renaissance painting, Stefano was probably trained alongside artists like Benedetto di Bindo and Gregorio di Cecco, but revealed from the beginning an orientation completely different from the late Gothic style that dominated his city in the first decades of quattrocento. His first certain work, which originally bore his signature, is the Arte della Lana altarpiece (1423-1426, fragments are now divided among various public and private collections). Its quality demonstrates that by this time he had already achieved a very high level of technical refinement and poetic invention, and it testifies to his awareness of the artistic innovations developed in Florence by Gentile da Fabriano, Masolino, and others of his generation. These tendencies are even more evident in his second prestigious commission, the Madonna of the Snow altarpiece, painted between 1430 and 1432 for the Siena cathedral (now in the Palazzo Pitti, Florence, Contini Bonacossi bequest): Sienese tradition is here brought up to date with results of an arcane splendor, where the abstract solemnity of the figures is infused with a limpid natural light that molds the forms and frames the daring perspectival passages with a coherence foreshadowing the art of Piero della Francesca.

Numerous other works that testify to Sassetta's fame in Siena can be gathered around these two great undertakings: the painted Crucifix for the church of San Martino in 1433 (there survive today only three fragments with the two mourners and Saint Martin Sharing His Cloak with a Beggar, in the Chigi-Saracini collection in Siena); various images of the Madonna and Child (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Rome; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; Museo Amedeo Lia, La Spezia), as well as a polyptych painted for the church of San Domenico in Cortona (Museo Diocesano, Cortona).

Between 1437 and 1444, the artist took part in the execution of the large two-sided altarpiece for the church of San Francesco in Sansepolcro (Arezzo), now dismantled, representing on the front, or congregation side, the Virgin and Child with Saint Anthony Abbot, Saint John the Evangelist (Musée du Louvre, Paris), and Saint John the Baptist and the Blessed Ranieri Rasini (Biblioteca Berenson, Villa I Tatti, Florence); and on the choir side, Saint Francis in Ecstasy (also Biblioteca Berenson, Florence), eight stories from the legend of Saint Francis (National Gallery, London; Musée Condé, Chantilly), the Annunciation (Robert Lehman Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and the Crucifixion (Cleveland Museum of Art), as well as other smaller pieces in various collections. In this grandiose vision, the artist transfigures the reality of daily life into the lucid unreality of rigorously ideal form, offering a sublime and highly personal version of the artistic language of the Renaissance.

Besides the Madonnas in Siena (Pinacoteca Nazionale, no. 325) and Grosseto (Museo Diocesano), one of Sassetta's last endeavors was a fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin on the Porta Romana in Siena, begun in 1447 and interrupted by his death in 1450. It was finished by Sano di Pietro, who also brought to completion the polyptych for San Pietro alle Scale, for which Sassetta had only managed to paint one element (Saint Bartholomew; Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena, no. 240). [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

Artist Bibliography

Berenson, Bernard. A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend. London, 1909.
Pope-Hennessy, John. Sassetta. London, 1939.
Graziani, Alberto. "Il Maestro dell'Osservanza." Proporzioni 2 (1948): 75-88.
Brandi, Cesare. Quattrocentisti senesi. Milan, 1949: 37-67.
Carli, Enzo. Il Sassetta e il Maestro dell'Osservanza. Milan, 1957.
Christiansen, Keith. "Painting in Renaissance Sienna." In Painting in Renaissance Sienna 1420-1500. Ed. Keith Christiansen, Laurence B. Kanter, and Carl Brandon Strehlke. Exh. cat. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1988: 63-90.
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: 621-622.

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