by Roderick Conway Morris

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A heritage that makes two cities kin


By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 9 December 2005

 

Visitors to this Tuscan hilltop town may be surprised to find it dotted with artistic representations - statues on columns and on buildings - of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, the archetypal symbol of Rome.

Many cities and towns in Italy were founded by the Romans, but none claimed quite so emphatically a special relationship with the Eternal City. According to local legend, Siena was established by the sons of Remus, fleeing the persecution of their uncle after he had killed their father. The shield divided into fields of black and white - Siena's other ubiquitous city symbol - is supposed to be derived from the contrasting colors of the smoke of the two boys' votive burnt offerings.

In reality, this myth does not go back to antiquity, but was cooked up in the Middle Ages. Indeed, it was during this later period that the two towns began to strike up an ongoing cultural relationship that was to last several hundred years, with significant consequences for the artistic heritages of both places. Investigating this theme for the first time in an exhibition is: "Siena & Rome: Raphael, Caravaggio and the Protagonists of an Old Alliance," which continues at the Santa Maria della Scala complex until March 5.

Siena prospered and expanded in the Middle Ages to a large degree because it was strategically placed on the final stretch of the so-called Via Francigena, the pilgrim route to Rome from northern Europe, where a number of roads converged - a phenomenon which has led one scholar to dub Siena "the daughter of the road." These routes were punctuated with "hospitals," hostels in modern parlance, but Siena grew into a major staging post, with numerous hostels.

The charitable institution of Santa Maria della Scala, which offered food and beds to weary travelers and also treated the sick, grew into one of the greatest hospitals in Europe. It also offered the important service of allowing pilgrims to deposit money and valuables before going on to Rome, where they were more than likely to be stolen.

St. Catherine of Siena made it one of her life's works to persuade the papal court to end its self-imposed exile in Avignon and return to Rome. In 1378 she took the Via Francigena herself to lend her support to the recently returned papacy in Rome. When Catherine died in Rome in 1380, her body was buried there (though her head was returned to Siena). One of the stars of this exhibition is a newly rediscovered marble relief of the saint, attributed to Donatello by a leading art historian, the late Federico Zeri (an opinion now shared by other experts). It appears to be part of an earlier tomb for the saint, later dismantled and now in private hands.

The Sienese continually found themselves jockeying for position in Rome with their arch rivals, the Florentines, but in the late 15th century the situation was transformed by a single individual: Agostino Chigi.

Born in 1466, Chigi was sent to Rome by his banker father, when barely into his twenties, to start a branch there. So successful was Chigi that he soon managed to diversify into running salt, customs and tax-collecting concessions, and mining, and he became fabulously wealthy. When Giuliano della Rovere was crowned Julius II in 1503, the new pope found it politic to overlook the fact that Chigi had previously been banker to his sworn enemies the Borgias, and solicited his cooperation.

"The prince of patrons," Chigi was the only man in Rome who could compete with the papacy in securing the services of the most sought-after artists on equal terms, especially given that the Vatican was perpetually in debt to him. (At one point, when he lent 40,000 gold ducats to the Holy See, he demanded the papal tiara as security.)

In around 1510, Chigi became acquainted with Raphael, and the two soon became firm friends. Shortly before then, Chigi had embarked on the construction of a magnificent villa in what was then still a rural area on the right bank of the Tiber, for which he employed his fellow Sienese, the architect and artist Baldassare Peruzzi. Chigi called on Raphael to add to the frescoes already designed by Peruzzi, inspired by Ovid's "Metamorphoses," depicting the loves of the gods.

Raphael painted the story of Galatea, creating what was to become one of the world's most instantly recognizable images. The artist later returned to the villa to decorate another loggia with the story of Cupid and Psyche, from Apuleius's "The Golden Ass." The entire ensemble of his works at the villa were enormously influential in the depiction of classical myth.

It is Chigi's misfortune that the subsequent sale of the villa to the Farnese family, after which it became known as the Villa Farnesina, has obscured the banker's key role in the creation of this fine monument to an ideally harmonious and fruitful relationship between artist and patron.

The banker also set Raphael to work in his private chapels in the churches of Santa Maria della Pace and Santa Maria del Popolo. The latter project gave Raphael his first opportunity to practice independently as an architect. It has been plausibly suggested that one of Raphael's last canvases, the somewhat risqué portrait of a young woman, "La Fornarina" (The Baker), is not, as tradition would have it, of his own mistress, but of Chigi's mistress, the Venetian Francesca Ordeaschi, whom the banker finally married in 1519. Both Raphael and Chigi died within days of each other in the following year.

During the 16th century, aristocratic families from Siena residing in Rome showed a marked tendency to favor artists from their home town and region, and brought to the city a continual flow of Sienese artists seeking their patronage. This pattern was further reinforced by the election during the 17th century of two Sienese popes: Camillo Borghese (Paul V) and Fabio Chigi (Alexander VII), a descendant of Agostino Chigi.

A lesser-known Sienese patron, but one of considerable interest, highlighted by the exhibition, was Giulio Mancini. A physician, he practiced in Rome between the early 1590s and his death there in 1620, winning the confidence of papal and other well-placed patients. He had a good eye and wrote a practical guide to appreciating and buying paintings. Most of the pictures he acquired were gifts or bought at modest prices.

Although he lived permanently in Rome, he sent nearly all of them back to his brother Deifebo in his native town. This was partly due to lack of space in his quarters, but mainly to stop his more illustrious and well-heeled contemporaries from getting hold of them. Grandees like Cardinal Scipione Borghese did not hesitate to demand the "donation" of art works that took their fancy, seizing them by force if necessary. Mancini's collection was not even entirely safe in Siena. When he learned that the Grand Duke of Tuscany was planning a visit, he hastened to write to his brother urging him to hide the best pieces.

Those pictures by "modern" artists painting in Rome that he sent back certainly influenced local practitioners, and he supported a number of Sienese painters who came for extended stays in Rome. The doctor knew Caravaggio and treated him. He owned at least one original by the artist, "St. John the Evangelist" (now sadly lost), and several copies, including one of "Musicians," made apparently without the owner's knowledge, and "The Fortune Teller." These copies have also vanished, but originals of them from the Metropolitan in New York and the Capitoline Museums in Rome respectively are on display here.

Tantalizing evidence as to the contents of Mancini's collection survives, but no inventory has ever come to light. It was eventually dispersed, some of it having been offered to various named potential purchasers, to "some Flemish collectors," and according to the catalogue even some Japanese, who were recorded as being in Rome in search of pictures in 1615.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016