In the fourteenth century Siena had almost kept pace with Florence in commerce, government, and art. In the fifteenth she exhausted herself with such fanatical factional violence as no other city in Europe could match. Five parties—monti, hills, the Sienese called them—ruled the city in turn; each in turn was overthrown by revolution, and its more influential members, sometimes numbering thousands, were exiled. We may judge the bitterness of this strife from the oath that two of the factions swore to end it (1494). An awed eyewitness describes them as gathering solemnly at dead of night, in separate aisles, in their vast and dimly lit cathedral.

The conditions of the peace were read, which took up eight pages, together with an oath of the most horrible sort, full of maledictions, imprecations, excommunications, invocations of evil, confiscations of goods, and so many other woes that to hear it was a terror; even in the hour of death no sacrament should save, but should rather add to the damnation of, those who should break the conditions; so that I… believe that never was made or heard a more awful or horrible oath. Then the notaries, on either side of the altar, wrote down the names of all the citizens, who swore upon the crucifix, of which there was one on each side; and every couple of the one or other faction kissed, and the church bells rang, and Te Deum laudamus was sung with the organs and the choir while the oath was being sworn.5

From this turmoil a dominant family emerged, the Petrucci. In 1497 Pandolfo Petrucci made himself dictator, took the title il Magnifico, and proposed to give Siena the order, peace, and gentlemanly autocracy that had been the fortune of Florence under the Medici. Pandolfo was clever, and always landed on his feet after any crisis, even eluding the vengeance of Caesar Borgia; he patronized art with some discrimination; but he so often resorted to secret assassination that his death (1512) was celebrated with universal acclaim. In 1525 the desperate city paid the Emperor Charles V 15,000 ducats to take it under his protection.

In the lucid intervals of peace Sienese art had its final fling. Antonio Barile continued the medieval tradition of the wondrous carving of wood. Lorenzo di Mariano built in the church of Fontegiusta a high altar of classic beauty. Iacopo della Quercia took his cognomen from a village in Siena’s hinterland. His early sculptures were financed by Orlando Malevolti, who thus belied his name of Evil Faces. When Orlando was banished for taking the losing side in politics, Iacopo left Siena for Lucca (1390), where he designed a stately tomb for Ilaria del Carretto. After competing unsuccessfully against Donatello and Brunellesco in Florence, he went on to Bologna, and carved over and alongside the portal of San Petronio marble statues and reliefs which are among the finest sculptures of the Renaissance (1425–8). Michelangelo saw them there seventy years later, admired the vigor of the nude and virile figures, and found in them for a time inspiration and stimulus. Returning to Siena, Iacopo spent much of the next ten years on his masterpiece, the Fonte Gaia. On the base of this Gay Fountain he cut in marble a relief of the Virgin as the official sovereign of the city; around her he represented the Seven Cardinal Virtues; for good measure he added scenes from the Old Testament, and filled the surviving spaces with children and animals—all with a power of conception and execution that presaged Michelangelo. For this work Siena renamed him Iacopo della Fonte, and paid him 2200 crowns ($55,000?). He died at sixty-four, exhausted by his art and mourned by the citizens.

Through most of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries the proud city engaged a hundred artists, of any provenance, to make its cathedral the architectural jewel of Italy. From 1413 to 1423 Domenico del Coro, a master of intarsia, was superintendent of the cathedral work; he and Matteo di Giovanni and Domenico Beccafumi and Pinturicchio and many others inlaid the floor of the great shrine with marble marquetry picturing episodes from Scripture, and making this the most remarkable church pavement in the world. Antonio Federighi carved for the cathedral two handsome baptismal fonts, and Lorenzo Vecchietta cast for it a dazzling tabernacle in bronze. Sano di Matteo raised the Loggia della Mercanzia in the Campo (1417–38), and Vecchietta and Federighi faced its pillars with harmonious statuary. The fourteenth century saw a dozen famous palaces take form—the Salimbeni, the Buonsignori, the Saracini, the Grottanelli… and about 1470 Bernardo Rossellino supplied plans for the Florentine style palace of the Piccolomini family. Andrea Bregno designed for the Piccolomini an altar in the cathedral (1481); and Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini built, as an adjunct to the duomo, a library (1495) to house the books and manuscripts bequeathed to him by his uncle Pius II. Lorenzo di Mariano gave the library one of the handsomest portals in Italy; and Pinturicchio and his aides (1503–8) painted on the walls, within superb architectural frames, delightful frescoes picturing scenes in the life of the scholar Pope.

Siena in the fifteenth century was rich in painters of secondary excellence. Taddeo Bartoli, Domenico di Bartolo, Lorenzo di Pietro called Vecchietta, Stefano di Giovanni called Sassetta, Sani di Pietro, Matteo di Giovanni, Francesco di Giorgio—all continued the strong religious tradition of Sienese art, painting devout themes and somber saints, often in stiff and cramping polyptychs, as if resolved to prolong the Middle Ages forever. Sassetta, recently restored to fame by a passing whim of critical opinion, painted in simple line and color a charming procession of Magi and attendants moving sedately through mountain passes to the crib of Christ; he described in a graceful triptych the birth of the Virgin; celebrated the wedding of St. Francis to poverty; and died in 1450, “stabbed through and through by the sharp southwest wind.”5a

Only toward the end of the century did Siena produce an artist whose name, for good or evil, rang through Italy. His real name was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi, but his ribald contemporaries rechristened him Sodoma because he was so candid a catamite. He accepted the cognomen with good humor as a title that many deserved but failed to obtain. Born at Vercelli (1477), he moved to Milan, and may have learned painting and pederasty from Leonardo. He put a Vincian smile on his Brera Madonna, and copied Leonardo’s Leda so well that for centuries his imitation was taken for the Master’s original. Migrating to Siena after Lodovico’s fall, he developed a style of his own, picturing Christian subjects with a pagan joy in the human form. Perhaps it was during this first stay at Siena that Bazzi painted a powerful Christ at the Column— about to be scourged, yet physically perfect. For the monks of Monte Oliveto Maggiore he told the story of St. Benedict in a series of frescoes, some carelessly done, some so seductively beautiful that the abbot insisted, before paying Sodoma, that the nude figures should be prefaced with clothing to preserve peace of mind in the monastery.6

When the banker Agostino Chigi visited his native Siena in 1507 he took a fancy to Sodoma’s work, and invited him to Rome. Pope Julius II set the artist to work painting one of the rooms of Nicholas V in the Vatican, but Sodoma spent so much time living up to his name that the old Pope soon turned him out. Raphael replaced him, and Sodoma, in a modest moment, studied the young master’s style, and absorbed something of his smooth finish and delicate grace. Chigi rescued Sodoma by engaging him to paint in the Villa Chigi the story of Alexander and Roxana, and soon Leo X, succeeding Julius, restored Sodoma to papal favor. Giovanni painted for the jolly Pope a nude Lucretia stabbing herself to death; Leo rewarded him well, and made him a Cavalier of the Order of Christ.

Returning to Siena with these laurels, Sodoma received numerous commissions from clergy and laity. Though apparently a skeptic, he painted Madonnas almost as lovely as Raphael’s. The martyrdom of St. Sebastian was a subject especially to his taste; and his rendering of the theme in the Pitti Palace has never been excelled. In the church of San Domenico at Siena he pictured St. Catherine fainting, so realistically that Baldassare Peruzzi pronounced the painting incomparable in its kind. While engaged on these religious subjects, Sodoma scandalized Siena with what Vasari calls his “bestial pursuits.”

His manner of life was licentious and dishonorable; and as he always had boys and beardless youths about him, of whom he was inordinately fond, this earned him the name of Sodoma. Instead of feeling shame, he gloried in it, writing verses about it, and singing them to the accompaniment of the lute. He loved to fill his house with all kinds of curious animals: badgers, squirrels, apes, catamounts, dwarf asses, Barbary race horses, Elba ponies, jackdaws, bantams, turtle doves, and similar creatures.… In addition to these he had a raven which he had taught to speak so well that it imitated his voice, especially in answering the door, and many mistook it for its master. The other animals were so tame that they were always about him, with their strange gambols, so that his house resembled a veritable Noah’s ark.7

He married a woman of good family; but after giving him one child she left him. Having worn out his welcome and his income in Siena, he went to Volterra, Pisa, and Lucca (1541–2), seeking new patrons. When these too ran out, Sodoma went back to Siena, shared his poverty for seven years with his animals, and died at seventy-two. He had accomplished in art all that a skilled hand could do without a deepened soul to guide it.

The man who superseded him at Siena was Domenico Beccafumi. When Perugino came there in 1508 Domenico studied his style. When Perugino left, Domenico sought further instruction in Rome, familiarized himself with the remains of classic art, and sought the secrets of Raphael and Michelangelo. In Siena again, he first imitated Sodoma, then rivaled him. The Signory asked him to decorate the Sala del Consistorio; he painted its walls during six laborious years (1529–35) with scenes from Roman history; the result was technically excellent, spiritually dead.

When Beccafumi died (1551) the Sienese Renaissance was finished. Baldassare Peruzzi was of Siena, but left it for Rome. Siena fell back into the arms of the Virgin, and adjusted itself without discomfort to the Counter Reformation. To this day it is contentedly orthodox, and lures tired or curious spirits with its simple piety, its picturesque annual palio or tournament of races (from 1659), and its precious immunity to modernity.

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