by Roderick Conway Morris

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San Domenico, Siena
Nativity by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1490-95

Renaissance Man

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA 12 June 1993


Architect, military engineer, designer, sculptor, painter, hydraulics and ballistics expert - Siena-born Francesco di Giorgio Martini (1439-1501) was one of the most complete, and yet still one of the most elusive, examples of Renaissance Man.

Two years ago Professor Paolo Galuzzi and his team staged an exhibition in Siena, 'Before Leonardo', a brilliant exhibition of Renaissance engineering, which prominently figured Francesco di Giorgio - and strikingly demonstrated Leonardo da Vinci's enormous debt to him. A pair of further shows, both open till 31 July, now aim to complete the picture of this remarkable, multifaceted man: 'Francesco di Giorgio: Architect' (in the vaulted brick Salt Magazines of the Palazzo Pubblico), and 'Francesco di Giorgio and the Renaissance in Siena 1450-1500' (in the church of Sant'Agostino).

Although Francesco was to spend half his life working away from birthplace, his Sienese formation emerges from these exhibitions, more strongly than ever, as the cornerstone of his entire career.

Siena's spectacular hilltop position made it a natural citadel, but posed major problems for the maintenance of a reliable water supply - which became ever more acute as the city grew. The Sienese found the solution in an intricate, finely balanced system of subterranean passages - called 'bottini' - the construction and regulation of which provided constant mathematical, mining, construction and hydraulic challenges for the city's artist-engineers.

In 1469 Francesco di Giorgio was appointed to improve the network and increase the supply to the central fountain by one third in three years. His success in this daunting task and his already blossoming reputation in other artistic and engineering fields made him a hot property - Federico Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, finally carrying off the prize.

'Francesco di Giorgio was an ideas man,' said Howard Burns, Havard Professor and one of the exhibitions' contributors. 'He worked on so many projects that he couldn't possibly do them all himself. Very often he'd have just to do the designs and get others to execute them. At one point, as he says himself, he was working on over a hundred different jobs at the same time for the Duke of Urbino.'

Francesco's tasks were as varied as designing candlestands, alterpieces, decorative bas-reliefs, artillery, Roman-style baths and entire cathedrals. For the quintessential soldier-scholar Federico II of Urbino, who tripled the size of his territory and financed his dazzling court in this naturally impoverished district by hiring out himself and his army to other states, it was inevitable that Francesco should be called upon to do a multitude of military works, including the building of numerous fortresses.

This was a period when artillery was rapidly becoming so much more powerful that existing fortifications seemed incapable of resisting it. The natural advantages offered by Siena's lofty position provided lessons that Francesco could now develop. 'He was the master of defending sites - an encyclopedia of defensive strategies, 'said Professor Nicholas Adams of Vassar, who has been studying Francesco as a military architect. 'He was a genius at combining topography and fortification works to form a single entity.'

Francesco di Giorgio was also the inventor of the use of mining in warfare. In Naples in 1495, drawing, no doubt, on his experience of Siena's underground aqueducts, he burrowed under the walls of the Castel Nuovo - which he himself had only recently remodelled to make it proof against cannon fire - and exploded a massive mine to eject the French troops that had seized it.

Long recognised as one of the supreme sculptors and draughtsmen of the 15th century, Francesco di Giorgio's works as a painter, on the basis of the pictures previously attributed to him, has seemed inexplicably inferior. The reason, said Professor Luciano Bellosi, the organizer of the Sant'Agostino exhibition, is that 'with the exception of some very early pictures, Francesco di Giorgio limited his role to the initial drawing, leaving the final painting to an assistant.' By bringing together these early works, and exhibiting them at Sant'Agostino, alongside a lost fresco by Francesco uncovered there in 1977, Bellosi offers a startlingly fresh vision of how good these 'authentic' works are.

Bellosi's sweeping rejection of existing attributions might be difficult to accept but for some forceful X-ray evidence. Pointing to the famous 'Annunciation' from Siena's National Gallery, Bellosi persuasively drew attention to the wild discrepancy between the quality of the original sketching and the painted version on top.

'Underneath the Virgin's blue mantle, for example, there is some exquisitely expressive penwork - so much so that one is put in mind of a Donatello drawing - but the painting is altogether different. It completely obliterates the subtlety of the underdrawing.'

Convinced that the anonymous studio assistant is a single individual, Bellosi has provisionally dubbed him the 'fiduciario', or delegate. He appears to have worked 'finishing' Francesco di Giorgio's paintings for many years - but, alas, little of the master's genius ever seems to have rubbed off on him.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023