Siena: Pinacoteca Nazionale

Crucified Christ – Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

There were not that many visitors in Siena’s Pinacoteca Nazionale, so I could stroll through the more than thirty rooms at leisure. The Pinacoteca Nazionale is a museum full of top pieces: after having seen the art in about twenty rooms my eyes hurt because of all the shiny gold that was used in many of the medieval paintings. This is clear evidence of the wealth of Siena in those days. The use of so much gold has other disadvantages as well. Because the gold reflects the light, it is more difficult to take good pictures. On the other hand, this does not in any way diminish the quality of the works. The Pinacoteca Nazionale has works dating from the thirteenth to the start of the eighteenth century. Many works are from churches and convents in and around Siena. There is so much to see that I have to be selective in this post. I will therefore focus on ten different painters and discuss some of their works.

Among the earliest works in the museum is a panel painting by Guido da Siena (ca. 1230-1290). We see three separate scenes on the panel. From left to right there are the Transfiguration of Christ, the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem and the Raising of Lazarus. The panel painting has a number of fine details. See for instance the people in the trees watching the entry of Christ. However, in terms of style the work is still very traditional and Byzantine. Guido da Siena was part of a generation of painters that were active in the “crypt” of the cathedral of the city. Unfortunately almost nothing is known about his life.

Panel painting by Guido da Siena.

Our knowledge of the life of van Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1318/1319) is full of holes as well. I have previously discussed his famous stained glass window and magnificent Maestà, both made for the cathedral of Siena and now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Duccio was, we may assume, a rather difficult man. He had a strong will of his own, was often in debt and fined many times. However, his immense talent as a painter was generally acknowledged, even in his own time. After all, when it came to the all-important job of painting the altarpiece for the high altar of the Duomo – the aforementioned Maestà – not just any painter was hired. The Pinacoteca Nazionale possesses a rather weathered panel painting by Duccio which comes from the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. The polyptych features the Madonna and Child, flanked by – from left to right – Saints Agnes, John the Evangelist, John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. Above them several prophets have been painted.

Polyptych by Duccio di Buoninsegna.

Madonna della Misericordia – Simone Martini.

Part of the next generation were three painters who together represent the Golde Age of Sienese painting. I am referring to Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344) and the brothers Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (ca. 1290-1348). I am beginning to repeat myself, but not much is known about the life of Simone Martini. He was probably a student of the aforementioned Duccio and it is certain that his brother-in-law was the painter Lippo Memmi (died 1356), who was also from Siena. I have previously discussed Simone Martini’s Maestà in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. However, Simone also painted far beyond the city limits, for instance in the basilica of San Francesco in Assisi. His talent drew the attention of the popes, who in that era were residing in Avignon. Simone Martini was employed at the papal court and died in Avignon in 1344. The Pinacoteca Nazionale possesses several of his works. We can for instance admire a beautiful Madonna della Misericordia and a panel painting about the posthumous miracles of Blessed Agostino Novello (1240-1309).

The artistic legacy of Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Tuscany is huge. Suffice it for me to refer to Pietro’s famous Tarlati polyptych in the church of Santa Maria della Pieve in Arezzo or Ambrogio’s frescoes about Good and Bad Government in the aforementioned Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Again – it is getting tedious – we know very little about the lives of the brothers. It is assumed that both succumbed to the Black Death in 1348. This plague may have claimed the lives of over half of the population of Siena and ushered in the end of the city’s Golden Age.

Dream of Sobach – Pietro Lorenzetti.

Fortunately the Pinacoteca Nazionale has many beautiful works by the Lorenzetti brothers on display. Some of the works have predellas that are actually even more beautiful than the main scenes. An example is Pietro’s so-called Pala del Carmine, painted in 1327-1329, which comes from the deconsecrated convent of San Niccolò del Carmine in Siena. On the predella of the altarpiece we see, among other things, the dream of Sobach (father of the prophet Elijah, who is himself considered the “father of the Carmelites”) and the popes Honorius IV (1285-1287) and John XXII (1316-1334). The former grants the Carmelites their familiar white habits, while the latter hands them a papal bull that gives them the same privileges as the Franciscans and Dominicans. This historical event took place in 1326. For the same convent little brother Ambrogio painted an impressive Crucifixion (image above).

Pope John XXII grants a bull to the Carmelites – Pietro Lorenzetti.

After the plague of 1348 a new generation of painters entered the stage in Siena. One of them was Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio (born between 1315 and 1320, died ca. 1396). I had previously seen a work by him in the church of San Francesco in Siena. Believe it or not, but not much is known about his life. A Pellicciaio is a furrier, so that was likely the profession of his father or grandfather. Jacopo was probably a follower of Simone Martini, who died in 1344 (see above). As Jacopo himself died around 1396, it looks like his career spanned at least half a century. However, he never reached the same level of fame as his presumed master. In the Pinacoteca Nazionale we find a polyptych by Jacopo that was very well done. It shows us the Madonna and Child in the centre, flanked by Saints Clare of Assisi, John the Baptist, Augustine and Franciscus of Assisi. Unfortunately the museum provides no information about the provenance of the work.

Polyptych by Jacopo di Mino del Pellicciaio.

The Madonna and Pope Calixtus III – Sano di Pietro.

The museum possesses a great number of works by Sano di Pietro (1406-1481). Sano was named after Saint Ansanus, a fourth-century saint and one of the patron saints of Siena. That so many of Sano’s works have been preserved can be explained by the fact that he was active as a painter for over half a century (1428-1481) and that he was in charge of a large studio with many assistants. Since he had a habit of signing most of his works (SANVS PETRI DE SENIS), there need not be much doubt about attribution of these works. The discussion usually focuses on the degree of involvement of his assistants. Sano di Pietro was an eye-witness to the passionate sermons that the Franciscan missionary Bernardinus of Siena (1380-1444) held in the city. He immortalised these events by painting Bernardinus preaching in front of the Palazzo Pubblico and the church of San Francesco. These works are not in the Pinacoteca Nazionale though, but in the Duomo museum.

What we can admire in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, is a panel painting by Sano that features Pope Calixtus III (1455-1458) sending aid to Siena. In 1456 the city had been struck by famine. The painting shows us how, warned by the Virgin Mary, the Holy Father orders relief supplies to be send, which arrive just in time. The painted city can easily be identified as Siena, as we see the famous Torre del Mangia of the city hall and of course the cathedral with its alternating bands of black and white marble.

Polyptych from the church of San Girolamo – Sano di Pietro.

The large altarpieces by Sano di Pietro in the museum are very impressive. From the church of San Girolamo comes a large polyptych dating from 1444. This was the church of the Gesuati (not to be confused with the Jesuits), an order founded in 1360 by Giovanni Colombini (ca. 1304-1367) and dissolved at the end of 1668 by Pope Clemens IX. Colombini is the kneeling figure in the altarpiece, of which the predella can nowadays be found at the Louvre in Paris. Another altarpiece comes from the convent of the Gesuati. Here the brothers Cosmas and Damianus take centre stage (cf. Rome: Santi Cosma e Damiano). The brothers were born in Roman Arabia and both worked as physicians. They managed to heal many people and converted their patients to Christianity in the process. The altarpiece first of all features the brothers as full-length figures, flanking the Madonna and Child. The kneeling figures are again Giovanni Colombini and Saint Jerome (San Girolamo). The gorgeous predella has six scenes telling stories from the lives of Cosmas and Damianus. Truly fascinating are the scenes where we see the brother amputating the leg of a dead Ethiopian which they subsequently transplant to a verger: the first successful transplantation in history!

Cosmas and Damianus amputate the leg of a dead Ethiopian.

Cosmas and Damianus perform a leg transplantation.

Let us stick with Sano di Pietro just a little longer. His Polittico dell’Assunta was painted in 1479, which makes it a very late work of this painter. It comes from the convent of the Humiliati, the Humble Ones. This convent was dedicated to Santa Petronilla, who according to tradition was the daughter of the Saint Peter the Apostle. The Bible does indeed tell us that Saint Peter had a wife[1], but a daughter or other children are never mentioned. The claim that the couple had a daughter comes from a much later tradition that is best dismissed out of hand. The woman on the far right of the Polittico dell’Assunta is probably Petronilla. In the centre we see the Assumption of the Virgin, and the other figures are Saints Catherine of Alexandria, Michael the Archangel and Jerome. Below the Madonna the two Johns are kneeling, the Baptist and the Evangelist, together with the man who presumably financed the altarpiece. On the predella we see, among other things, how Saint Peter heals his daughter and how the girl then serves a meal to guests.

Polittico dell’Assunta – Sano di Pietro.

Saint Peter and Petronilla – Sano di Pietro.

Painter number eight is Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi (1406-1486), nicknamed Lo Scheggia (“the Splinter”). Scheggia came from San Giovanni Valdarno. He was the younger brother of the great Masaccio (1401-1428). While the latter was a phenomenal painter who unfortunately died much too young, Lo Scheggia spent eighty years on earth, but failed to produce any top pieces. However, that does not mean he was a bad painter, and there is ample reason to give him some attention. In the Pinacoteca Nazionale we find four of his “Triumphs”, i.e. the Triumphs of Death, Chastity, Love and Fame. Below I have included an image of the Triumph of Death.

Triumph of Death – Lo Scheggia.

With Domenico Beccafumi (1486-1551) we leave the Middle Ages and enter the age of the Renaissance. This painter was of humble origins, the son of a farmer. He was adopted by Lorenzo Beccafumi, the land owner for whom his father worked, and took the Beccafumi name. Lorenzo Beccafumi instantly recognised Domenico’s talent and had him take lessons in painting. The Pinacoteca Nazionale possesses a panel painting by Domenico Beccafumi from a chapel in the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. We see the Holy Trinity, flanked by Saints Cosmas, John the Baptist, John the Evangelist and Damianus. Cosmas and Damianus obviously had to be present in a hospital. As was already mentioned above, the two brothers were physicians.

Holy Trinity – Domenico Beccafumi.

The last painter of this post is Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), nicknamed Il Sodoma. He was born in the town of Vercelli in Piemonte. When he was in his twenties he left for Siena, where he became a well-known Mannerist painter. The Pinacoteca Nazionale has his colourful Deposition (ca. 1510) on display. It was painted for a chapel in the church of San Francesco in Siena, already mentioned above. The work has a number of very clever details. See for instance the helmet between the legs of the soldier with the halberd. The helmet has been polished so thoroughly that we can see the reflection of the soldier and his comrade. The work is moreover full of emotion. Just look at the Virgin Mary, who has fainted.

Deposition – Il Sodoma.


[1] Mark 1:29-31; Matthew 8:14-15; Luke 4:38-39.

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