Siena is Italy’s other eternal city. The Sienese avoided progress, faddishness and adventurousness. Here it was that art and wealth were married and lived happily ever after. Siena, in a sense missed the Renaissance bus. However, Siena, the city that flourished off and on from the beginning of the thirteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth, was not a Florence that failed. Simply, it was a place that at a certain point in its cultural history lost all desire to become what Florence became.
Actually, nobody knows why Siena exists. It lacks access to he sea or even to a navigable river. In the twelfth century it became a stronghold of the Ghibellines, an important faction in Italian politics , and the local political heirs of the German faction that had supported the Holy Roman Emperor in his conflicts with the papacy and the papacy’s supporters, the Guelph faction. It became a modern, for the times, center of trade, but the really big Sienese business, partly owing to the absence of any important domestic industry, was banking. Although interest charges, which usually exceeded 20 per cent, were prohibited by church law against usury, they were easily masked as payments for services, or as pretended differences in currency exchange rates. The church rarely complained since the popes and the papal Curia were the principal clients of the moneylenders.
Money and piety, did not , except in official intentions, generate puritanism. There were constantly renewed attempts to control un-Christian extravagance in dress. Gourmets and gourmands seem to have been prevalent and there was sinful passion in banking circles. The possibly innocent Pia del Tolomei, suspected of adultery was sent to die in exile in the desolate lowlands of Maremma. Dante found her shade wandering sadly in Purgatory, murmuring what was to become one of the most quoted lines in Italian poetry, ”Siena made me, Maremma unmade me”. When life got to dull, there was usually the possibility of letting relations with Florence degenerate into open war. The Sienese had a habit of referring to the Florentines as dogs. Patriotic fervor in these battles was often indistinguishable from religious ecstasy.
In 1287, Siena, beaten by the Florentines in battle, fell into the hands of the Council of the Nine. Until 1355, under their guidance, the city had its golden age. Politically emasculated and ingloriously peaceful, the city expanded to above fifty thousand inhabitants. Governed by presumably unspeakably greedy materialists, the citizenry became more fervently religious and more and more interested in the fine arts. They cultivated especially urbanism. architecture, painting, and in all three they innovated.
Painting under the Nine was remarkable. Duccio di Buoninsegna, was in several respects as revolutionary as that of his more famous contemporary, the Florentine Giotto. The new, gentle, Franciscan humanity in Duccio’s scenes that, combined with a new storytelling skill, is almost as convincing as Giotto’s theatrical effects. Everything known about Duccio’s masterpiece, the large ”Maesta” suggests that Sienese authorities were deliberately committed to a forward policy in art. Stylistic considerations alone must have dictated the commissioning of the work; Duccio was fined regularly for such real or alleged offenses as not paying his debts, refusing to swear allegiance, refusing military service, and even indulging in sorcery.
During the next generation, Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, actively encouraged by the Sienese government, pushed rapidly into the pictorial future. Simone, partly under the influence of French Gothic, developed Duccio’s patterns of line and color into the virtuoso style that reached its full flowering in 1333 in the Uffizi ”Annunciation”, a typically Sienese mixture of abstract arabesques and shrinking womanly charm. The Lorenzetti brothers, influenced by Giotto, developed Duccio’s new humanity and new depiction of occupied space. Inventiveness became practically routine.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s cycle of frescoes, ”Allegories and Effects of Good and Bad Government” includes what has been called the first modern landscape and his view of the piled-up medieval town shows a mastery of linear perspective that makes the date, 1340, seem a full century too early. A few years later his brother, Pietro, in his ”Birth of the Virgin”, handled the complex perspectives of a domestic interior with nearly the same skill.