Issue Number: 96
The paintings of Renaissance Siena have long stood in the shadow of neighbouring Florence. But, as a major show this autumn reveals, their spiritual power shines brightly. Video artist Bill Viola tells Martin Gayford about why Sienese art is a constant source of inspiration
One of the crucial facts about the Renaissance is that its official history was written from the Florentine point of view. Giorgio Vasari, though he hailed from Arezzo, was loyal to his adopted city of Florence. His Lives of the Artists was perhaps the most influential work of art history ever written, and in it the achievements of Florence’s old enemy, Siena, are marginalised.
Admittedly, most of us know about Duccio,Simone Martini, the Lorenzetti brothers and the fourteenth-century Sienese School – though Vasari gave them little space, but what of fifteenth-century or even sixteenth-century Siena? A pioneering exhibition this autumn at the National Gallery, ‘Renaissance Siena: Art for a City’, investigates this neglected era.
Indeed,within a marginalised period the show focuses on an almost unknown section: late Renaissance Siena, from around 1460 to 1530. Many of the artists whose work is included, such as Francesco di Giorgio, Matteo di Giovanni, Neroccio de’ Landi,are scarcely household names.
Nevertheless, Sienese art has strong supporters among contemporary artists – one of whom is the American Bill Viola, a celebrated specialist in film and video. He first encountered fifteenth-century Sienese art in the 1970s when visiting the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena itself. He had at that time the orthodox view that Florentine art was far more significant.
‘It was one of the most extraordinary experiences I have ever had with art. I found myself in front of things that my conscious mind was telling me I detested, was not interested in, couldn’t understand. But somehow my unconscious being was just devouring everything I saw and being deeply affected by it.’
A decade later he started looking even more intensively at Sienese art in the Met, New York. ‘What grabbed me and set me on the path I’m on today was the realisation that what they were doing in the fifteenth century was bringing the subjective back into art. In the face of this huge development in Florence of optical realism, where the eye sees the world from an objective, scientific perspective, what the Sienese artists were doing was totally internal. They were taking those aspects of their faith and their encounter with the world and internalising them. So they were flying in the face of the technical innovations coming out of Florence.’
‘The interesting thing is that Siena was a bit backward, so they ended up with an amalgam of gothic, medieval and renaissance painting. That’s what I love about the painters of that time, such as Sassetta, the Master of the Osservanza, Giovanni di Paolo and Sano di Pietro.’
He credits these painters with inspiring his own works, such as Catherine’s Room, 2001. Viola uses 21st-century technology in order to reveal an inner reality. His remarkable new piece, Ocean Without a Shore, 2007, on display at the Chiesa di San Gallo, in Venice (until 24 Nov), features a series of figures which appear and disappear, as if passing between life and death, on three plasma screens above fifteenth-century altars.
The National Gallery exhibition takes as its starting point the fifteenth-century period that Viola especially loves – though of the artists he lists only Sano di Pietro is included. The later works of Matteo di Giovanni, Neroccio de’ Landi and Francesco di Giorgio continue to mix an influence from Florence with a dreamy, medieval approach. No doubt it is that very avoidance of straightforward realism that makes Sienese art so intriguing to many artists today –Stephen Chambers RA, for instance,is an admirer of Sassetta.
As Viola concludes, ‘What was going on in Siena in the fifteenth century is in some odd ways connected with twentieth-century art. It was a similar development: skewing optical, scientific systems for making art. They weren’t trying to represent the world as one sees, but as one feels it.’
Renaissance Siena: Art for a City, National Gallery, London (020 7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk), 24 Oct–13 Jan 2008; Ocean Without a Shore, Chiesa di San Gallo, Venice (www.oceanwithoutashore.com), until 24 Nov