by Gloria Chiarini
Guidoriccio, a Sienese mystery
"Siena is unique in the world" wrote Bernhard Berenson, the great American historian and art critic, who fell in love with Tuscany and settled here at the end of the last century in the magnificent villa, rebaptized "I Tatti", at Settignano, in the hills just outside Florence. In spite of his preference for Renaissance painting, as we can see in his house-museum, which now contains a library and photo collection for young art historians from Harvard University, Berenson was particularly fond of Siena; he thought that this homogeneous and still intact city, situated in a beautiful and very fertile agricultural area among the Chianti hills and the clay country of the Arbia Valley and straddling the basins of the Arno and the Ombrone, was the most perfect example of mediaeval architecture in Italy and quite unique.
The city occupies the three hills where three separate settlements once stood and which apparently had already formed a single town before the year one thousand. Much of its development was due to the Tuscan road system of the time and the important Francigene Road, the main route linking Rome with the North, which greatly contributed towards its increase in wealth; this led it to being in continuous competition with Florence (so that when the latter opted for the Guelph party and supported the Pope, Siena naturally took the side of the Ghibellines and therefore of the Emperor). This was an unequal contest that, especially after the terrible outbreak of plague in 1348, saw it slowly give way until it was forced to submit completely to Cosimo I de'Medici who conquered Siena in 1555 after a 16 month seige, demoting the traditional rival to a simple province of the Grand Duchy and permanently "freezing" its ancient and lovely Gothic aspect (in more ways than one).
Piazza del Campo with Palazzo Pubblico
However Siena did witness moments of great splendour for almost four hundred years; this was the period that created the city we so admire today, so enriched it with priceless art treasures, and led to the formation of an artistic style of its own, thanks to artists like Duccio di Boninsegna, Simone Martini, Jacopo della Quercia and the Lorenzetti family (to mention just a few), that was closely linked to the French school and the refined way of life to be found in the mediaeval courts.
Nowhere else has a road been quite so responsible for a city's fortune. Thanks to the Francigene Road, riches were already flowing into Siena by the year one thousand: the frescoes in Palazzo Comunale are clear examples of this, with their lively portrayal of the people and commercial traffic passing beneath the arch of Porta Comollia, the northen gate onto the Francigene Road. Ambrogio Lorenzetti immortalized all this in his famous "The effects of the Good Government on the city and the countryside" (painted in 1337-39), evidently a message of propaganda required by the government of the city, with Siena portrayed in one of its most glorious moments. This government was the so-called government" of the Nine", an oligarchical administration of merchants and bankers that ruled the city between 1287 and 1355, the period in which both the urban planning and the artistic vocabulary of Siena were being defined. Thanks to the political stability brought about by the victory over the Florentine Guelphs at the battle of Montaperti (1260), Siena was able, between the 13th and 14th centuries, to start a process of urban and territorial planning that was to give it one of the most extraordinary urban solutions of the Middle Ages. This can still be seen today and is what had such a great effect on Bernhard Berenson.
Still surrounded by ancient walls that date from the early 14th century, the narrow streets run down from the original three hills and wind their way across the ridges, between the houses, palaces and shops. The towers and bulwarks dotted here and there along the walls, that extend for seven kilometres, are beautifully preserved compared with other cities. The civic power is concentrated in the lower part of the city where the hills converge to create the scenographic "shell" shape of Piazza del Campo. This was where the elegant Palazzo Pubblico was built in stone and terracotta (1297-1342), later completed with the high Tower of Mangia (102 metres in height, constructed in 1338-48 on a design by Lippo Memmi), which a city decree ruled had to be as high as the Cathedral belltower, which stood further up the hill: in this way the civic power declared with pride that its power was equal to that of the church.
The Campo, or square, paved in pink "meaty" coloured bricks, is the city meeting place. The Nine decreed that the palaces built around it were all to have the same three-light windows as Palazzo Pubblico (a rule that was still adhered to in the early 18th century when Palazzo Sansedoni was restructured); eleven streets open onto it from various directions, through which the population ran when summoned by the bell to the square to hear the decisions of the government, where they met before setting off to war, played "ball" or held bull jousts. This was where the crowds congregated to listen to the preaching of St. Bernardine as well as to watch what is still a very popular event, the Palio of the Contradas, a wild race on horseback that is held every year on July 2nd and August 16th, an unbroken tradition since the 13th century.
Majestic Palazzo Comunale is a testimonial of the heights of power reached by the Sienese Republic during its long history. In the mid 14th century, this city was in fact larger than London or Paris, possessed a famous University and an advanced Hospital (Santa Maria della Scala): two institutions that still exist today. The strength of the silver currency on which the Sienese bankers based their wealth was beyond dispute until 1252, when Florence coined her first gold Florin and thus weakened all the other European monetary systems and coinage. International trade organizations soon threatened the Sienese economy, the government began to topple and the damage was completed by the unexpected arrival of the plague, the "Black Death", with its terrifying toll of lives - as many as 65.000 victims in the summer of 1348 alone, among them the Lorenzetti brothers, Ambrogio and Pietro. Siena remained a rich city and the workshops of painters, sculptors and architects continued to add to her beauty for at least another century but her fate was sealed and her slow decline was accompanied by a crystallization of forms and traditions.
Siena was so devoted to the Virgin that it called itself "civitas virginis" and paid her homage by consacrating the elegant Cathedral and many works of art in her name; popular belief said that she was responsible for the Sienese army's victory over the Florentines at the battle of Montaperti. We can only imagine the magnificent procession that took place on June 9th 1311 when the people of Siena escorted Duccio di Boninsegna's great Altarpiece (it took him three years to complete), all the way up to the high altar of the Cathedral. It portrayed the Madonna and Child enthroned between Angels and Saints, among them the Patron Saints of the city; twenty six panels on the Stories of the Passion were painted on the back. A magnificent and powerful work that already showed many signs of the Sienese figurative school: painted in a harmonious and pure style, with sweet expressions on the faces and graceful gestures and fluid contours (it is now in the Museum of Metropolitan Art, next to the Cathedral).
The government of the city must have been particularly grateful for the victory of Montaperti, which, from 1260 onwards was to stimulate an explosion of artistic patronage that was mainly centred around Palazzo Pubblico, its construction and its decoration. It is interesting to recall that the Sienese Republic captured Coppo di Marcovaldo, a Florentine painter of great fame, at Montaperti, who apparently painted the Bordone Madonna (1261), today in Santa Maria della Scala, free of charge in order to "regain his freedom"; however we will never know how much the this artist actually influenced the local school. We do know that Duccio himself was commissioned to paint a Maestà (today lost) in 1302 for the "house" of the Nine though in actual fact it was Simone Martini, one of the painters from the new generation, who created the great fresco of the Maestà that we can see today in the Council Hall. Dated 1315 the soft colours lend this fresco elegance and refinement; it is also illustrated by some written verses - in the new "common" language - with which the Madonna-Queen exhorts the governors of Siena to rule honestly over the destiny of her city.
Palazzo Pubblico, Guidoriccio attributed to Simone Martini
A tour of the interior of the Palazzo Pubblico is a real must for those wanting to find out more about the history and beauty of Siena. Its monumental rooms, the Civic Museum and the Art Gallery form a unique group of unequalled beauty and suggestion, that deserve an attentive visit (it is open daily from 9.30am-1.30pm, including Sundays, from mid November to mid March, and from 9.30am-6pm during the summer). Simone Martini's "Maestà" and Ambrogio Lorenzetti's "Effects of the Good Government" triumph among the frescoes in the spectacular Gothic salons, though we can also find splendid works by Taddeo di Bartolo in the Chapel, Sano di Pietro in the Room of the Map of the World and Spinello Aretino in the Hall of the Balìa. The Mannerist painter, Domenico Beccafumi, another illustrious Sienese, carried out the ceiling in the Hall of the Concistory (1529-35), shortly before Cosimo I's Florentine troups conquered Siena, while the Monumental Hall was decorated by Sienese painters in honour of the Unification of Italy between 1886 and 1891.
The interior of the Palace also contains collections of sculptures, portraits, prints, majolicas, weapons, armour and coins. On climbing up to the Loggia, we can find the original sculptures for the Gaia Fountain in Piazza del Campo, right opposite Palazzo Pubblico, carried out by Jacopo della Quercia in 1414 and dismantled in 1868 (they were replaced with copies), to preserve them from the elements. The glorification of civic and council power finds its monument par excellence in the palace of Siena, and its most discerning interpreters in the Sienese artists; this is particularly noticeable in a series of paintings on historical subjects, where new and extremely original ways of designing space are tried out, characterized by a careful - almost "topographical" - description of the places and buildings in the landscape. The walls of Palazzo Pubblico in fact illustrate some of the major episodes in the life of mediaeval Siena, such as the conquest of a series of castles and fortified cities on its territory, which at the time included the Maremma (in the Grosseto area) and the Tyrrhenian coast from Follonica to south of the Argentario. The Government of the Nine commemorated the conquests that had made Siena so great and the exploits of the captains of its armies, by having them painted on the walls of its Palace and in the Hall of the Map of the World. We can still recognize episodes from the surrender of Giuncarico (1314 circa) and the Battle of the Chiana Valley (frescoed by Lippo Vanni in 1363), while Guidoriccio da Fogliano, who led the Sienese army during the seige of Montemassi, stands out above them all, gloriously portrayed against a warlike landscape of turretted castles and military encampments. This painting, once practically the emblem of the city, is now the centre of a much debated discussion.
There is doubt as to the authenticity of the fresco, dated 1328, which has always been described in cronacles as being by Simone Martini and, in particular, ever since another magnificent fresco was found during restoration underneath the old plaster on the same wall. It shows two leaders, one of whom is about to receive homage from the other: a town is synthetically described in the background with little church and a high tower surrounded by defensive palisades. The painting is undeniably of extremely high quality, so that it is easy to attribute it to Simone Martini. It appears to date from around 1314 and the descriptions that can be found in ancient documents match the subject. However... which of the two frescoes is the original Guidoriccio created by Simone's prestigious brush? Very probably it was the second painting, only discovered about fifteen years ago. The other fresco, famous for having been described in so many documents, may even be a "fake"that was carried out between the 15th and 16th centuries, perhaps because Simone's painting had been covered by the Map of the World from which the Room takes its name. However neither the Sienese nor their government wanted to lose this reminder of their warrior hero and probably had another portrait painted higher up, this time taking up the entire wall, showing him in parade dress with the date of the historic event, "MCCCXXVIII", written in large letters in the lower part of the fresco.
Who painted it? This is a mystery that still has to be revealed though this "contest" between the two Guidoriccios lends added fascination to our visit to Palazzo Pubblico.