Siena would have challenged the claim of Florence to have begotten the Renaissance. There too the violence of faction raised the temperature of thought, and communal pride nourished art The woolen industry, the export of Sienese products to the Levant, and the trade of the Via Flaminia between Florence and Rome gave the city a moderate affluence; by 1400 the squares and principal streets were paved with brick or stone; and the poor were rich enough to stage a revolution. In 1371 the woolworkers besieged the Palazzo Pubblico, broke down its doors, expelled the businessmen’s government, and set up the rule of the riformatori. A few days later an army of two thousand men, fully equipped by the mercantile interests, made its way into the city, invaded the quarters of the proletariat, and slew men, women, and children without discrimination or mercy, spitting some on the lance, hacking others with the sword. The nobility and the lower middle class came to the rescue of the commons, the counterrevolution was defeated, and the reform government gave Siena the most honest administration that the citizens could recall. In 1385 the rich merchants rose again, overthrew the riformatori, and expelled four thousand rebel workmen from the city. From that date industry and art declined in Siena.*
It was in this turbulent fourteenth century that Siena reached the zenith of her art. On the west side of the spacious Campo—the main square of the city—rose the Palazzo Pubblico (1288–1309); the adjoining campanile, the Torre de Mangia, rearing its slender height to 334 feet, is the most beautiful tower in Italy. In 1310 the Sienese architect and sculptor Lorenzo Maitani went to Orvieto and designed the lordly façade of the cathedral there; he and other Sienese artists, and Andrea Pisano, engaged in a frenzy of decoration on the portals, pilasters, and pediments, and produced a miracle in marble to commemorate the miracle of Bolsena. In 1377 the great duomo of Siena received a similar façade from designs left by Giovanni Pisano, perhaps too ornate, but still one of the wonders of inexhaustible Italy.
Meanwhile a brilliant band of Sienese painters had carried on where Duccio di Buoninsegna had left off. In 1315 Simone Martini was commissioned to decorate the Hall of the Great Council in the Palazzo Pubblico with a maestà, i.e., a Coronation of the Virgin;for Mary was, in law as well as in theology, the crowned queen of the city, and might properly preside at meetings of the municipal government. The picture dared comparison with the maestà that Duccio had painted for the cathedral five years before; it was not so large, nor so overlaid with gold; like that “majesty” it betrayed the Byzantine derivation of Sienese painting by the immobile features and lifeless pose of its crowded characters; perhaps it made some advance in color and design. But in 1326 Simone went to Assisi; there he studied the frescoes of Giotto; and when he was invited to picture in a chapel of the Lower Church the life of St. Martin he escaped from the stereotyped faces of his earlier work, and achieved a memorable individualization of the great Bishop of Tours. At Avignon he met Petrarch, painted portraits of the poet and Laura, and won an appreciative mention in the Canzoniere. These brief lines, said Vasari, “have given more fame to Simone than all his own works have done… for a day will come when his paintings will be no more, whereas the writings of such a man as Petrarch endure for all time”; no geologist would be so optimistic. Benedict XII made Simone official painter to the papal court (1339); and in that capacity he illustrated the life of the Baptist in the papal chapel, and of the Virgin and the Saviour in the portico of the cathedral. He died at Avignon in 1344.
That secularization of art which Simone had essayed in his lay portraits was extended by Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Perhaps after studying in Florence, Pietro abandoned the sentimental traditions of Sienese painting, and produced a series of altar pictures of unprecedented power, sometimes of savage realism. In the Hall of the Nine (Councilors) in the Palazzo Pubblico Ambrogio painted four famous frescoes (1337–43): Evil Government, The Consequences of Evil Government, Good Government, and The Consequences of Good Government. Here the medieval habit of symbolism, superseded by Giotto, is retained; majestic figures represent Siena, Justice, Wisdom, Concord, the Seven Virtues, and Peace—the last reclining gracefully like a Pheidian deity. In Evil Government Tyranny is enthroned, and Terror is his vizier; merchants are plundered on the road; faction and violence incarnadine the town. Against the same architectural background Good Government shows a population happily busy with handicrafts, amusements, and trade; farmers and merchants lead into the city mules laden with food and goods; children play, maidens dance, viols make silent music; and over the scene a winged spirit flies, figuring Security. Perhaps it was these energetic brothers—or Orcagna, or Francesco Traini —who painted the immense fresco, The Triumph of Death, in the Campo Santo at Pisa. A hunting party of lords and ladies richly attired comes upon three open coffins in which royal corpses lie festering; one hunter holds his nose at their smell; above the scene hovers the Angel of Death, wielding an enormous scythe; in the air ministers of grace escort saved souls to paradise, while winged demons drag most of the dead into hell; serpents and black vultures entwine and consume the naked bodies of women and men; and below, kings, queens, princes, bishops, cardinals writhe in the pit of the damned. On a neighboring wall the same authors, in another immense fresco, painted on the left a Last Judgment, and on the right a second vision of hell. All the terrors of medieval theology here take physical form; it is Dante’s Inferno visualized without mercy and without stint.
Siena never emerged from the Middle Ages; there, as in Gubbio, San Gimignano, and Sicily, they survived the Renaissance. They never die, but patiently, subtly bide their time to come again.