Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State / Fra Filippo Lippi: The Carmelite Painter / the Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy

Article excerpt


Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 251 pp.; 130 color ills., 90 b/w. $60.00


Fra Filippo Lippi: The Carmelite Painter

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 301 pp.; 147 color ills., 87 b/w. $65.00


The Art and Ritual of Childbirth in Renaissance Italy

New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 212 pp.; 61 color ills., 95 b/w. $50.00

Although the three very different books here under review have the appearance of conventional art historical monographs, they are driven by a common desire to challenge traditional monographic form and, in varying degrees, rhetoric. For this reason, along with their scholarly rigor and novel interpretations, they warrant attention, interrogation, and praise.

Diana Norman's Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State is the most conventional of the three publications in its language, research, and methodology. This broad, sparklingly illustrated, and accessible study, informed by its author's deep knowledge, tackles an important but often overlooked problem-the iconographic and ideological function of patron saints. The volume is structured around a series of detailed case studies focusing on a particular city-state and its virginal guardian. The core of the book consists of two parts, one addressing the iconography of the Virgin within the city of Siena, the second treating Mary's appearance in the contado, or territory, controlled by Siena. An introduction to Sienese politics and art preceding these two sections contains little that will surprise readers familiar with the subject; it establishes, however, a foundation for Norman's subsequent analyses.

Although explicitly about art and politics within Siena's city walls, the first part of Norman's book focuses, almost exclusively, on art alone. What is more, while the chapter tides-"The Cathedral," "The Town Hall," "The Patronal Altars," and "The Spedale"might sound encompassing, the material presented in each is rather specific. Norman's chapter on the cathedral, for example, is really only an examination of Duccio's Maesta and the various cults of the Virgin whence it arose. Similarly, the chapter on the town hall offers an interpretation not of the building and its decoration, but only of Simone Martini's Maesta.1 These foci are perfectly in order, given the emphasis the book places on the Virgin in Sienese art and politics. The titles of the chapters are, however, needlessly general and therefore somewhat misleading; they also result in an awkward division of the material. This becomes evident when, in the fourth chapter, the reader returns to the cathedral's crossing to hear about the Patronal Altars, for which four Marian altarpieces were commissioned. While it may make perfect sense to consider these altarpieces as a group-as a number of scholars have already done-it is not altogether clear why they should not have been analyzed in Norman's chapter devoted to the cathedral. Such confusion is, I think, symptomatic of the entire project, which consists of a number of wellreasoned and detailed scholarly theses set within the overwhelming framework of a comprehensive monograph. Norman's interesting and accurate scholarly voice echoes within this large textual suit of armor and therefore occasionally sounds hollow.

This is especially true in the section devoted to the city of Siena. With the exception of the chapter addressing the lost murals on the exterior of the Spedale della Scala, Norman is reviewing very well-known material. Synthesis is not necessarily a bad thing, but in this instance Norman's general hypothesis concerning Marian devotion in Siena as part of a civic ideology requires more substantial and sustained argumentation. Almost any reader interested in medieval devotion and its role in civic life would welcome the questions Norman poses. …