14.06.14, Smith and Steinhoff, eds., Art as Politics

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Holly Flora

The Medieval Review 14.06.14

Smith, Timothy B. And Judith B. Steinhoff. Art as Politics in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012. Pp. xiii, 234. ISBN: 9781409400660.

Reviewed by:
Holly Flora
Tulane University

Smith and Steinhoff bring together a diverse collection of essays united under the common theme of art as politics in Siena, a city known for its unique civic culture and distinctive imagery. While many Sienese studies focus on the fourteenth century, considered the city's Golden Age, the authors made a concerted effort to expand their reach into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, offering considerations of the more neglected era of Siena's past. The volume grew out of a session held at the College Art Association Conference in Boston in 2006.

In the Introduction, the co-editors carefully define the volume's theme, art as politics, stating: "By this we mean the creation and deployment of visual art and architecture to embody political ideals, promote political agendas, or otherwise serve the concerns of the government" (1). More specifically, the case studies in the volume all address the way that art and architecture shaped Siena's civic identity. This theme in itself is not new, but by shifting the focus of the volume towards politics, rather than religion, as has been more common in recent studies, the essays help to re-orient our thinking about how objects and monuments act in concert with political agency or are "deployed," to use a favorite term of several of the authors. Of course, as the co-editors acknowledge, to divorce politics from religion in this period would be to project our post-Enlightenment separation of church and state paradigm onto it, a grave error indeed. Thus readers will find much in this volume about the rich religious history and the way works of art reflect how church and city worked together, or not, depending on the situation.

In addition to clearly stating their agenda, Smith and Steinhoff go beyond the standard summary of contributions found in all introductions to edited volumes to offer a concise review of the historiography on the topic. They also briefly sketch out the city's political history from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, laying a solid foundation for the case studies that follow. This background information is so well-presented that undergraduates taking my courses on medieval Siena will no longer have the excuse of "I don't know anything about this topic" once I have assigned Smith and Steinhoff's Introduction.

The nine papers (one can't help but wonder whether this number is a subtle reference to Siena's glory days of government under the Nove) are arranged roughly chronologically, but there are many overlapping themes. The first three focus on the cityscape of Siena, both its representation in painting, as explored by Judith Steinhoff, and the boom in the construction of its urban environment, treated in essays by Ann Johns and Berthold Hub. In all three of these studies, Siena's fascination with itself and its concurrent self-fashioning become apparent. Steinhoff's essay explores various representations of the city itself not as evidence for a growing interest in early Renaissance "naturalism" but rather, more correctly I think, as ideological images shaped by and fashioned to shape an emerging sense of civic identity. Johns' essay examines the use of the Cistercian pointed arch in Siena, particularly on its fountains. Her essay underscores the Sienese lack of water sources (as opposed to nearby rivals Florence and Pisa) and thus the particular importance given to fountains as civic projects. She demonstrates how close ties to the Cistercian abbey at San Galgano led to the use of Burgundian pointed arches as a consistent feature in these fountains, and became a means of distinguishing these civic projects from those in other cities. Hub's essay similarly argues that the Sienese carefully constructed an orderly city that reflected the growing power of the city government, seen particularly in the construction of Piazza del Campo and the Palazzo Pubblico.

The following three essays concern the way religious imagery enhanced civic identity and the power structures in place. Rebecca W. Corrie's study of images of the Virgin, the city's patroness, suggests that distinctive local styles, often influenced by Byzantine art, were employed to brand such images as decidedly Sienese. Her essay includes a fascinating discussion of the stunning, relatively recently uncovered frescoes from the so-called "crypt" (probably a narthex instead) of Siena cathedral. Andrea W. Campbell writes about the unusually frequent occurrence of images of the Christian Credo in Sienese monuments such as the Palazzo Pubblico and the Baptistry. Discussing these renderings in the context of the moral lessons imparted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti's famous Good and Bad Government frescoes, Campbell reads the city's interest in the Credo as part of a longstanding effort to shape and to suggest Siena as an ideal city run by God's ethics. An ideal city is also represented by its virtuous citizens, and images of Siena's saints as rendered by Vecchietta are the topic of an essay by Diana Norman.

The authors' explorations of civic and religious monuments continue in the final three essays, which consider works from the less-studied period of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Timothy B. Smith connects the classical architectural references on the façade of the Baptist's Chapel in the cathedral to the broader movement to assert Siena's Roman past. Also treating the strong interests in Rome in Siena in this late period, Jennifer Sliwka examines the meanings of the violent imagery in Beccafumi's fresco series in the Sala del Concistoro in the Palazzo Pubblico. Depicting scenes derived from the Roman text, Memorable Deeds and Sayings by Valerius Maximus, the frescoes, as Sliwka argues, were created as part of a campaign of civic decoration commemorating the visit of the Hapsburg Emperor Charles V. The violent imagery would remind the visiting emperor of Siena's might, even as the city was under foreign rule, and in that way, Sliwka suggests, it may be seen as subversive as well as celebratory. Because of the many periods of strife in which the city changed hands or was threatened, walls and gates became especially poignant sites of meaning. As the final essay by Machtelt Israëlis explains, Siena's city gates were marked by prophylactic images of Mary, and several of these became powerful icons in themselves. The author examines the nearly lost Marian image by Sodoma in the context of contemporary debates about the Immaculate Conception.

Although addressing a wide range of topics, the essays are methodologically similar in their analysis of images, buildings, and forms as instruments of political agendas. The volume is coherent, a pleasure to read, and presents many new ideas about both major monuments and lesser-known works. It is unfortunate that a volume focused on one of Europe's most colorful cities lacks any color plates, and is quite expensive despite that, but that is a sign of the times in academic publishing these days. A map of present-day Siena and the surrounding territories would also enhance the book's usefulness for students. Overall, however, Ashgate is to be commended for this excellent addition to its list of titles focused on medieval and early modern Italy, and Smith and Steinhoff should also celebrate this successful synthesis of fine scholarship.

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Holly Flora

Tulane University