by Roderick Conway Morris

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Palazzo Chigi Saracini, Siena
The Adoration of the Magi by Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sasetta, c.1435

Treasures of Palazzo Now Open to Public

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA, Italy 3 May 2005


The rich and eccentric Count Guido Chigi Saracini seldom left his palazzo just off the Campo, Siena's central square, only occasionally venturing as far afield as his secluded country estate, a dozen miles from the city.

Agoraphobic, he resolved that: 'If I can't see the world, the world will have to come to me,' and he was wealthy enough to make it happen.

His first and almost only passion was music. In 1932 he founded the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, his own private musical academy, which every summer brought to Siena renowned musicians to teach master classes and perform, enabling the count to enjoy world-class concerts in his own home.

Soon the event came to be recognized as one of the leading international music festivals. It is still going strong today, 40 years after the count's death.

When he inherited the palazzo from his uncle in 1906, the count also came into possession of one of the most important art collections in private hands in Italy. But such was his overriding interest in music and his academy that only a small part of the collection was seen even by honored guests, and the Palazzo Chigi Saracini became almost exclusively associated with music rather than art.

This is set to change after many years of research and work devoted to reordering the interior of the palazzo to return it as far as possible to the way it was when the art lover and collector Galgano Saracini first opened the palazzo's doors to visitors 200 years ago next near. In those days entry was effectively restricted to art students, connoisseurs and those of a suitable social rank, but except during the summer music festival the palazzo from now on will be open to all.

To accompany the inauguration of this permanent museum -- which houses over 12,000 pieces - there is also a temporary exhibition focusing on paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries. This show marks the resumption of a series of special exhibitions begun in 1986, concentrating on different periods and genres in the collection. It will continue until June 15.

Many of the nearly 60 works in the temporary show are relatively minor genre pieces. But among the 17th-century pictures, there is a good male portrait by Bernardo Strozzi and a broodingly theatrical study -- probably a self-portrait - by Salvator Rosa, in the guise of a soldier or a bandit. Among the curiosities, there is a series of scenes by an anonymous artist, painted on slices of marble, in which the natural patterns in the stone are employed to create backdrops of cliffs, rock outcrops, citadels, city walls, distant landscapes and skies.

The palazzo was built in the 13th century and came into the possession of the Saracini brothers, Marcantonio and Bernardino, in 1770. Both were collectors, intensely interested in the golden age of Sienese art from the 13th to the early 15th century, and together they acquired a core of so-called primitive paintings from the period. They also initiated a series of remodeling programs, continued by their successors, to give the palazzo what they saw as an authentic Gothic look.

Marcantonio's son Galgano, who lived from 1752 to 1824, expanded the collection to immense proportions, bringing the holdings of Sienese paintings up to date by buying works from the 15th to the early 19th centuries. He also made thousands of other acquisitions, including sculpture, bronzes, terracottas, ivories, tapestries, porcelain, maiolica and pieces made of exotic materials, such as coral, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell and amber.

It was a good time to buy, a time of political and economic crises, and of suppression of religious institutions, the contents of which were often sold for a song. Galgano added to the palazzo by buying neighboring properties to accommodate his mushrooming collection. These additions were integrated with the original palace by the construction of a continuous 'medieval' facade, following the ascending curve of the street.

The paintings and other objects were arranged in a series of rooms, consciously presented as a lived-in museum. In 1806, Galgano opened 16 rooms to visitors on a regular basis, adding a further five in 1819. In the same year, he wrote and published a guidebook and inventory of the collection.

A major aim of the enterprise was to glorify Siena and Sienese art, particularly in relation to the city's ancient rival, Florence. Siena's golden age pre-dated that of its competitor to the east, and Galgano was a passionate promoter of the richness and autonomy of its cultural life.

Galgano's son Alessandro Giulio and his heirs were less single-mindedly committed to this aspect of the collection, and some valuable early Sienese works, which were becoming increasingly appreciated by foreign buyers, were sold - some ending up in America.

Among these were four of five panels illustrating the Passion of Christ, by Giovanni di Paolo, one of the most important Sienese painters of the 15th century. They originally formed part of a 'predella,' or plinth, of an altarpiece, and are now at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Research continues to ascertain the location of other dispersed pictures.

Happily, some fine pieces remain: One of the finest is 'Discord,' a bas-relief depicting a massacre in a city square, from around 1475-80, one of the most celebrated works of Siena's famous artist-engineer, Francesco di Giorgio Martini.

Other masterpieces include a sumptuously colorful 'Adoration of the Magi' from the earlier part of the 15th century by Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta; and a charming late Sienese gothic triptych of the 'Madonna, Child, Angels and Saints' by the so-called Maestro dell'Osservanza.

The Saracini line ended with the death of Alessandro, when the palazzo and its contents passed to his nephew Fabio di Carlo Corradino Chigi who, as a condition of the inheritance, added Saracini to his name. His nephew Guido carried out the last phase of the palazzo's restructuring, principally to accommodate his musical academy and to make space for his concert hall.

Guido followed family traditions in his restructuring of the interior of the palazzo's tower, providing it with a new pseudo-medieval decor. In 1932, he also carried out more work on the building's facade to enhance its 'ancient' gothic appearance.

On the other hand, in a reflection of his own particular brand of eccentricity - he once described himself as 'the last romantic in a world which dreams of going to the moon instead of listening to the 'Moonlight Sonata'' - Guido decorated the concert hall in a flamboyant pastiche of 18th-century Venetian baroque, combining trompe l'oeil ceiling frescoes in the style of Giambattista Tiepolo with touches of art nouveau.

This remains the scene that greets music lovers attending the festival today. And very surprising it is too, after passing through the austere portals of what looks like a medieval palace, to arrive amid a riot of rococo.

On Guido's death in 1965, the palazzo and its collection passed to the city's centuries-old bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena. They, and the music festival, are now administered by an independent charitable foundation, the Accademia Musicale Chigiana.

A fascinating record of antiquarianism, collecting and evolving tastes, the palazzo still contains some real gems in the form of painting, interior decoration and other pieces, and constitutes a significant addition to Siena's artistic and architectural attractions.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023