Friday, April 03, 2009

The charm of the medieval

From my blog at spearswms.com.

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I suffer for Spear's. The latest outrage was having to review a villa near Perugia, on which much more in the next issue.

Being in Umbria, I wanted to take the opportunity to visit nearby Tuscan Siena, Florence's overshadowed neighbour but easily its better in medieval art and architecture and a respectable second in the Renaissance race.

I was inspired to do so after visiting the National Gallery's Renaissance Siena exhibition, which was a revelation with its skilful and colourful Beccafumis and Pintoricchios.

The city itself is like a medieval keep, high stone buildings square on roads that run steeply up the hill. Siena is a city of hidden alleys rather than broad piazze, and turning aside from your track will lead you to discover the true medieval Siena: dark, cool, private, a respite from the marauding Florentines and the sun.

The ancient University has a small colonnaded square with a tremendous tromp l'oeil vaulted fresco where god and the devil pour out down to earth, but I only found this by stepping through a door I'm not sure I was supposed to. So it goes in Siena.

The dark, cool privacy was very much evident when I visited the Museo Civico, housed in the Palazzo Publico, outside of which spreads the coral shell of Il Campo. Being mid-March, I was the only person there, apart from a wedding party, the bride in scarlet dress, veil and heels, in Beccafumi's Sala del Consistorio.

The ceiling is covered with scenes of Classical justice, perhaps setting the marriage on an auspicious course. Beccafumi's frescoing technique is light and vivid, pale colours and figures easily arranged and not strained.

Contrast this with the effortful Sala des Risorgimento, telling of Victor Emmanuel's life and deeds, most of which appear to have been equestrian. There is none of Beccafumi's life - it is heavy-handed.

There is a suite of overwhelming rooms: the Sala del Mappamondo, where the council used to meet, is overlooked by Simone Martini's Maiesta (which is in turn overwhelmed by the Duccio Maiesta in the Duomo), and next door are the Chapel and Ante-Chapel, which retain the Sienese gloom but are illuminated by intricately patterned vaulted ceilings and scenes from the Aeneid prophesying a glorious Roman future.

The guidebooks say that the Sienese are a proud people (it is hard to imagine any city in Italy which could not be or is not proud), but the charm of Siena is that it is in reality far less reputed than its Renaissance rival.

The quiet modesty of the city is what makes its treasures that bit more pleasurable to discover: without heralds, without noise, Siena sits, waiting to be found.

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