The recent workshop I led in Tuscany through Il Chiostro offered us the opportunity of a one day excursion to Siena, where we saw many famous architectural structures and the greatest Sienese paintings. This elegant portal to the Siena Duomo gives the visitor a first glimpse of the splendor and opulence of the Duomo. The character is so pronouncedly Gothic, especially as compared to almost any other Italian church or cathedral. The Gothic style did not really capture the imagination of the Italians, probably because they were surrounded by the amazing architectural legacy of the Romans--a style so perfectly proportioned that it only deserved to be imitated! The Gothic style, on the other hand, can seem very exaggerated. Ever since visiting the city I have been struggling to understand the civic mindset that would create such a grandiose structure. I think it can take a real leap of one's imagination to appreciate art of the distant past. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a great site: The Heilbrunn Timeline helps to situate the art within the context of politics and history--the article on Sienese art is excellent, and explains that in the 13th century, Siena allied itself with the Guelphs, supporters of the pope, and had ties to the Angevin dynasty in France, and that strong French influence thus contrbuted to the Gothic style in Siena. Understanding this connection helped me grasp why the art was so unusual. And learning that the city was already in competition with Florence made it clearer why it was so neccessary to stun and dazzle with its Duomo. To the right you can see the striking zebra stripes of the interior, dark green and white marble, a remarkable hybrid of the Gothic and Italian, a strange beauty that feels a bit like an enchantment. I have dreamt about it several times since returning home.
When we visited, the Duomo's marble pavement was fully displayed, something that occurs only in September and October each year--it is considered one of the most beautiful works of art in the world, and thus needs to be protected. The pavement was created over many centuries; my favorite section is by the 16th century artist Domenico Beccafumi. Vasari called him "uomo capriciosissimo, successful in everything..."
To the left is a section of the marble marquetry he created in the presbytery of the Duomo. It simply amazed me that he could create a work in marble that had the fluidity of a drawing. Influenced by Raphael and Michelangelo, yet there is something here that is uniquely Sienese--a sort of magical beauty. Figures emerging from darkness into light, sculpted and shaded in marble!! I have a plan to sketch this section in walnut ink, as an homage to a great artist!