Sienese Painting at the London National Gallery

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'RENAISSANCE' is so vague a term that trying to date its period precisely is idle. The exhibition, Painting in Renaissance Siena at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1988-9, covered the years from 1420 to 1500, which brought in the supreme Sienese master, Sassetta, but paid scant attention to his near-equal, the Griselda Master. The National Gallery's current exhibition (24 October 2007-13 January 2008), Renaissance Siena: Art for a City begins at about 1460 and continues to 1530, which excludes Sassetta and avoids any contention about how many of the scenes from the life of St Anthony of Egypt are Sassetta's own work. In compensation, the three pictures from which the Griselda Master takes his title are restored from the gallery's reserve collection, where they have pined for far too long. In addition, four floors above the exhibition there is a delectable row of Sassetta's pictures of the life of St Francis, including one in which he shakes hands with a wolf that has promised to amend its behaviour.

The Sienese claimed close bonds with the Blessed Virgin Mary. In times of crisis they placed themselves under her protection by leaving the keys of the city on her altar, as they did in a ceremony before the Battle of Porto Camollia painted by Domenico Beccafumi (Devonshire Collection, Chats-worth House, Derbyshire). The introductory picture by Sano di Pietro in the exhibition is of the Virgin's protection of Siena. Distressed that her dear city had recently suffered an incursion by Neapolitan mercenaries, she raises an admonitory finger over the towers of a miniature Siena, telling the Borgia Pope Callixtus III to safeguard its gates, through which an elfin muletrain carries sacks of grain to the crowded city. Callixtus listens attentively, instantly raising his finely gloved hand in blessing (Siena Pinacoteca).

In a letter of 1873 the Welsh painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones announced that Siena had won his heart and even went on to quote Ruskin's intemperate statement that Siena was worth fifty times Florence. One can see why Burne-Jones was enamoured with fifteenth-century Sienese painting. It was almost self-love, since its painting had the daintiness, finish and fantasy of his own at its best. It also had his failings: languor, inanimation and a lack of vigour. Yet it avoids his worst fault, which was artificiality. There is plenty of gilt and embossing in Francesco di Giorgio's St Dorothy and the Infant Christ (London National Gallery) but it is not a representation. It is a precious icon and a decorative artifact such as his antecedent Pietro Lorenzetti would have contrived; no pastiche of a distant age, such as Burne-Jones derived from such writers as Tennyson and William Morris. Francesco di Giorgio is aware of Florentine naturalism but chooses to ignore it. St Dorothy, her head aslant beneath her glittering halo, with the renunciatory smile of imminent martyrdom, gazes at the infant Christ as, holding her hand palm-to-palm, He steps confidently forward with His stoutly carried basket of summer-flowers in mid-winter, the miracle St Dorothy had promised her executioner.

Another work by Francesco di Giorgio hangs nearby: an Annunciation (Siena Pinacoteca) in which the scholarly Virgin turns from a shelf of leather-bound books, startled by the apparition of the Angel Gabriel. Mary, taken aback as she gazes at the angel large-eyed with mingled wonder and alarm under the greenish-tinged pallid flax of her braided hair, is caught in a posture half-way to flight. In contrast to Mary and the entrancing turquoise and white architecture behind her, the angel is ungainly and ill-painted. Francesco was, as well as a painter, a sculptor (whose unimpressive statue of Aesculapius is in the exhibition), an engineer responsible for Siena's water-supply and an architect of the ducal palace at Urbino. Like Leonardo he was versatile but unlike Leonardo he disliked leaving work unfinished, which sometimes meant that he finished it perfunctorily or handed it on to one of his many Studio assistants. …