THE history of the Italian city-states during medieval and Renaissance times is fearful to contemplate. Individuals and governments were often rapacious, corrupt, and cruel - yet in spite of everything the citizens cherished an abiding passion for their own cities. Meanwhile artistic inspiration flourished, and flawless craftsmanship continued, undeterred by outward circumstances. The Italian communes, quasi-republics, and oligarchies were subject to the domination of a few rich families - the nobles, the great landowners, and also the Roman Catholic Church. These powers were obliged to placate to some degree the guilds and the merchants whose powers were limited and strictly defined. The cities were outwardly beautiful with splendid churches and palaces, squares, towers and arcades, and their festivals and pomp lulled the citizenry to acquiescence.
Among these towns was Sienna, set against its powerful neighbor, Florence. The Florentines were forward-looking, embracing the Renaissance eagerly, and encouraging the wonderful roster of artists who gathered there, and who made its name ring forever in the annals of great and wonderful achievement: Giotto and Botticelli, Da Vinci, Michelangelo - the list goes on and on. Sienna wanted no part in this, but clung determinedly to the past, loving the Gothic and the Byzantine, losing itself in mystical dreams, devoted to piety, and gradually losing touch with the fast-changing world which lay beyond its beautiful gates.
Although Sienna's vitality waned, it nevertheless occupies a unique place in the Italian artistic miracle, and contributed values and ideas which are with us still in painting, architecture, and in a peculiar flair, a sense of style.
The Siennese artists had a strong predilection for the linear - the graceful line and a two-dimensional view. They loved Byzantine d'ecor with its lavish use of gold, and simple composition, so they had no wish to investigate the classic innovations which were captivating Florence and other cities, or to consider what Giotto was initiating.
Sienna artists loved brilliant, clear, delicate colors, a salmon pink, a coral, or a light green or blue, set off with gold, and they liked to fill the background of their scenes with architectural fantasies in these tones. Narrative painting was their forte - illustrations of the lives of saints and of the Virgin. Sharing this enthusiasm, local sponsors commissioned altarpieces for the churches, panels painted on wood, which allowed artists full play for their imaginative talents.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has recently gathered together a number of the panels of these old altarpieces which have been preserved in different museums; and it is wonderful that they could now be reassembled for so many to see.
The example shown here of ``The Journey of the Magi'' is one of these sections, this one by Stefano de Giovanni, generally known as Sassetta.
It is tempera and gold on wood, and is quite small (a little more than 8 by 11 in.), and its pure bright colors glow like a jewel. It is a gothic scene, the kings chivalric, brilliant, and unrealistic.
The line of the Magi and their servants approaches us as it files down a hill, the kings on horseback, pack horses driven in front. On their right a green hill rises from the sloping ground they follow; on the hill are a few small stylized trees, and high up, some odd large birds. Behind them under a dark blue sky stand the elaborate pink walls and towers of a magical city - perhaps Jerusalem. The Magi advance with a genial dignity - it is a wintry scene, simply composed, yet artful.
A viewer might at first be rather baffled to see the star that guides them apparently reposing on the ground in front of them, to their left, until it becomes evident that this scene is the background of another panel, which lies directly under it.
The lower panel shows their arrival at the table, and their adoration before the Christ Child and Mary. The star is actually aligned above the head of the babe. In both scenes the Magi appear, as does a certain white horse, whose hindquarters face the viewer. Both parts have an extraordinary sense of movement, in the animation and gestures of the figures.
In the 14th century Sienna had splendid artists, the most famous perhaps was Duccio, but the city was terribly wounded by the plague which fell upon it in 1348, destroying, according to some reports, two-thirds of the inhabitants. It was another generation before the poor town could again assert its talents and vitality.
The painter Sassetta was part of this second, younger wave. He made a great name for himself with an altarpiece executed for the Arte de la Lana (the Guild of Wool Merchants), whose beautiful, highly-decorative panels are of a legendary cast and of a mystical ambience.
Looking earnestly at these altarpieces the observer comes to adopt the Siennese viewpoint himself - he finds that he too can see the pageant around him as a painted sequence of strange moments, and for a little time understands very well how and why the Siennese had so strong a penchant to stay enclosed within their own town.