Siena in the Trecento: Reasons for the Style

by Dave

Is Florence the first place that comes to mind when you think of the Renaissance? This article explores two pieces written about the art of Siena in the early Renaissance. Find out what was happening in Siena and how it impacted artists in Florence and other places.

Many times when thinking of the Renaissance, we think only of late-era Florence painters. However there is a lot of merit in discussing early-era architects and painters, especially those of Siena in the trecento.

Tim Benton: “The Design of Siena and Florence Duomos”

The title “architect” did not exist during this time. However the building process of the duomos was not without a central theme or plan. Surviving documents covering this process are fragmentary at best. Burton argues that by comparing and contrasting the development of the two duomos, we can learn more.

The influence both cities had on the other added to the intrigue. For example, the famous drawing of a bell tower found in Siena in the Trecento at first glance seems to be a copy of the campanile in Florence. However the designs get disparate going up the tower. So some argue it is the original plan for Florence’s campanile, while others hypothesize it was the plan for Siena’s campanile. Another obvious influence is that multiple builders, sculptors, and painters worked on both structures. For example, Arnolfo di Cambio worked on the Siena Duomo before he was named master builder of the Florence Duomo.

Difference in Duomos: Siena and Florence

Church authorities dedicated both cathedral to the Virgin Mary. However, the facades are noticeably different. Benton argues this is because they completed the Florence duomo later, when the Gothic style was in full form.

Architects completed extensive rework and additions on both complexes. In Siena in the trecento, they added a baptistry on the slope of a hill so that the choir could be extended. While in Florence, a series of enlarged cathedrals seemed to swallow the previous ones. Also in Siena, builders concocted a risky plan to ‘turn the cathedral on its side’ by adding a nave and turning the current nave into the transept. Because of the plague, they never completed this plan, called the Duomo Nuovo. It would have been the largest cathedral in Europe at the time.

We can see the changing styles in each successive update to the duomo. In Florence, this means the walls and vaulted ceilings became taller and taller: influenced by the Gothic style. In Siena, this translates to the raising facade, which led to confusing discrepancies in the already completed lower parts. Authorities brought in outside councils to analyze the plans and came back with unfavorable opinions towards continuing additions and enlargements.

Steinhoff: “Meiss and Method: Historiography of Scholarship on Mid-Trecento Sienese Painting”

In his famous book, Meiss argued that many calamitous disasters, including the Black Death heavily changed the artistic style of Europe. However, Steinhoff argues that the evidence Meiss presents is not a complete look at the styles of post-plague Europe.

It is important to remember that his colleagues influenced Meiss when talking about Siena in the trecento. Many of them used the same generalizations to relate art and culture. For example, Meiss argued that many of the newly rich Florentines after the black plague were less than educated and so had a conservative and abstract style. Meiss’ set of Trecento values was problematic. However he did not adhere to the Vasari bias of evaluating the past art with the standards of the present. It is also important to put Meiss’ work into the context of his life; he lived through the intense events of the 1930s and ‘40s. This included many events that had a huge impact on art, like the Great Depression. Many of Meiss’ contemporaries connected the Black Death and the World Wars.

Other Arguments: Was Meiss Correct?

Steinhoff argues that the calamities in Meiss own world affected his sense of relationship between cultural experiences and deliberate stylistic changes.

In each of Meiss’ example, he observed single paintings taken out of context of the painter’s full portfolio. While Meiss did understand that multiple factors affected the art, he overly generalized a collective cultural experience onto a collective style opinion. For example, Meiss argued the plague left a “religious climate of ‘guilt and penance’”, which while accurate for some, may have been an overgeneralization of a complicated time period. Steinhoff argues that the modern approach defines the style with the individual painter and patron in mind.

Many scholars since Meiss have argued that the evidence he gave could have many different interpretations and that it did not show the entire picture. For example, Meiss focused on the older styles of Orcagna’s main altarpiece while ignoring the naturalism in the predella. Historians have redated many key works for Meiss’ argument to before the Black Death, so before Siena in the trecento. For example, artists painted the Triumph of Death in the Camposanto in Pisa, which traditionally shows the changed iconography as a result of the plague, in the 1330s before the Black Death.

Clearly the Black Death affected Europe, and Meiss was not wrong in arguing that. However, scholars today debate his argument for widespread extreme anxiety for the decades afterwards the Black Death. Steinhoff argues that widespread anxiety was not the case. Like the political climate during this time, artistic style is complicated and doesn’t always come from nicely defined causes.

What Changed What?

It can be argued that the plague affected the people, and so it affected the art; however the extent of that affect is still up for debate. In fact many scholars after Meiss, including Steinhoff, have argued that a variety of factors led to a multitude of different styles in Siena in the Trecento.