ART AND CULTURE OF SIENA

The sublime city and state of mind

by Victoria James

Art history, like the military kind, is written by the victors. Thus Florentine Giorgio Vasari’s encyclopedic “Lives of the Artists,” published in 1550, is a propagandist’s account of his home city’s starring role in the artistic and intellectual phenomenon we now call the Renaissance.

Sano di Pietro’s “Madonna With Child Jesus” (1450-55), top, and “Madonna and Child” (1644), by Raffaello Vanni
Banca Monte Dei Pschi di Siena photo

Historians bought Vasari’s line, and today, Florence takes the Renaissance credit — but it was nearly not so. Once, Florence had a serious artistic rival: its Tuscan neighbor the city-state of Siena. An exhibition of Sienese art, at the Tokyo Station Gallery until Dec. 6, goes a good way toward explaining why.

While Florence spearheaded the artistic revolution, Siena perfected tradition. If today we don’t rate the paintings of Sienese Duccio di Buoninsegna, who breathed humanity into the jeweled austerity of the Byzantine style, so highly as those of his Florentine counterpart, Giotto, whose radical naturalism reshaped Western art, that may be due to the West’s post-Enlightenment prizing of innovation over improvement.

Yet there is much in this collection to admire. The interest (if not always the quality) of the works on display is such that our attention is held to the very end — even though the show starts with its finest piece, Sano di Pietro’s “Madonna With Child Jesus.”

The Virgin Mary is Siena’s patron saint, along with the city’s own St. Catherine, and di Pietro’s rendering of her stops you in your tracks.

Seen from the doorway, the picture is a sheen of pure gold. Draw closer, and you see the elongated, enigmatic features borrowed from Byzantine icons and European Gothic. The flesh tone is the greenish-grey characteristic of Sienese art — the better to offset those layers of enameled, stippled gold. The almond-shaped eyes of both Madonna and child are an even, limpid hazel.

If all this seems elegantly lifeless, then look again: You’ll notice the gentle hollowed contours of the mother’s collarbone, the delicate shading of her child’s throat. Even their gilded finery falls in soft and subtle folds.

Di Pietro’s painting dates from ca. 1450-55, when Sienese art had already peaked. Now fast-forward to gallery three, and Raffaello Vanni’s 1644 “Madonna and Child.” This work shows how, in the hands of second-rank artists, the supposed “advance” toward realism in the 17th century often produced artwork less expressive than the bygone Byzantine style of two centuries before.

There were, admittedly, more than just artistic factors at play. By this time, Rome — and with it, the Catholic world and Italian principalities especially — had become a kind of police state. Kicking off the cleanup, Cardinal Carlo Borromeo had in 1577 composed his “Instructions” that not only regulated artistic treatment of religious subjects, but also prescribed punishments for offending artists.

As the poster girl of the battle against Protestantism, the Virgin Mary had been given a makeover. She now came with symbolic accessories (a crescent moon, crown of stars and a rose) representing rigidly enforced theological doctrines. All of these are present in Vanni’s saccharine model of motherhood.

The work of Vanni’s contemporary, Rutilio Manetti, dominates this third gallery and provides a fascinating glimpse into the often frenetic stylistic experimentation that gripped artists in the first half of the 17th century. After the dead end of Mannerism, the overwrought modishness popular between 1530-90, Italian art re-awoke with a burst of technical creativity — perhaps compensating for the regulation of its subject matter.

Manetti just couldn’t make up his mind between styles. The first work displayed, from 1610, is a composed, Mannerist rendering of the Biblical Susanna at her bath. After visiting Rome in 1620, the artist appears to have had his head turned by Caravaggio, whom he imitates with no little accomplishment in “St. Jerome Supported by Angels” (1628) and the striking “Weeping Saint Peter” (1636).

At the same time, however, Manetti was flirting with the luminous experiments of artists such as Artemesia Gentileschi and Gerrit van Honthorst (also known as Gherardo delle Notti), producing two impressive and starkly lit canvases of gambling scenes.

Manetti was proficient in all styles but a master of none, and the same could be said for much of Sienese art after the 15th century. Perhaps Siena’s greatest creation down the centuries was itself: a populous, independent city-state with a love of festivals, processions and the annual Palio horse race, still held today.

Several large paintings capture the spectacle and drama of Siena’s civic events, and the city’s historic center where they were staged has survived the years, intact. Its every church may be a gallery, but Siena is itself a work of art — one that has stood the test both of time and artistic fashion.