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The World of the Early Sienese Painter. (Reviews).

Hayden B.J. Maginnis. The World of the Early Sienese Painter

(With a Translation of the Sienese Breve dell'Arte dei Pittori by Gabriele Erasmi) University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001. xxiv + 310 pp. + 16 color and 108 b/w pls. $65. ISBN: 0-271-02004-0.

This volume is the second in a trilogy by Maginnis. It follows his innovative Painting in the Age of Giotto: A Historical Reevaluation, of 1997, and is to be succeeded by a history of early Sienese painting. In the first book, among other important ideas, Maginnis posited a more prominent role for the Sienese in early Renaissance art than they are usually accorded. The present book proceeds to examine the "historical and cultural circumstances of early Sienese painters," concentrating on the century from 1260 to 1360 (xix). Maginnis has conducted an exhaustive examination of the exceptionally extensive surviving documentary records on Sienese artists, and he presents here both the contents of the archives and insights derived from them. Nearly a third of the volume consists of translations and transcriptions of documentary material, including Gabriele Erasmi's translation of the guild's statute as well as appendices containing newly published documents regarding painter's property, minor masters, and book cov ers. The text of the rest of the book is also dominated by references to documents.

Maginnis opens with an eloquent and useful prologue that describes the major cultural movements of the preceding thirteenth century, particularly the "recovery of Aristotle and... the changing character of Christianity" (2-3). Subsequent chapters explore characteristics: of the city as a whole, including its economy, government, and religion, and interpreting the state's support of religion as a "civic Christianity"; of the painter's place within the city, including the interesting calculation that most painters lived in close proximity to each other; of the painter's craft, including working arrangements and a consideration of the implications of specific choices of technique and format; and of local patronage, particularly that of the largest public institutions. A final chapter looks beyond Siena at wider cultural Phenomena such as beliefs about the power of images and attitudes toward visualization and narrative.

Numerous noteworthy observations about life in Siena emerge from this collection of material. Maginnis asserts convincingly, for example, that nowhere is there documentary evidence of any particular interest in mystic saints or mysticism, despite the common modern interpretation of Sienese art as mystical. He also makes a continuing case for the collaborative nature of Sienese art, both within the artists' workshops and in civic patronage. Even more interesting is his connecting of such artistic attitudes to the more general character of Sienese culture, which was also often both collaborative and practical. Other useful descriptions of Sienese life are found throughout the volume, ranging from the development of the altarpiece format to the rural property holdings of artists.

When Maginnis draws conclusions from his material, the world of the Sienese painter comes vividly alive. Maginnis warns in his preface, however, that because he has chosen to include many of the specific facts that he gleaned from long hours in the archives, the material is "rather heavy going" (xxi). At times his self-admitted "high degree of specificity" obscures the bigger picture. The four central chapters on life in Siena present within the running text extensive amounts of documentary material, some of which is repeated in the indexes. One wonders whether some information might have been presented in lists or in appendices, clearing the decks for a more readable analysis of the culture.

In his devotion to finding what the documents reveal, Maginnis has, perhaps understandably, not always emphasized other writers who have tried to describe the culture of early Renaissance Siena, nor does he often define where his findings parallel or differ from earlier attempts. It would seem appropriate to include in the bibliography, for example, Siena, Florence, and Padua: Art, Society, and Religion 1280-1400 (Yale, 1995), edited by Diana Norman, as well as the same author's Siena and the Virgin: Art and Politics in a Late Medieval City State (Yale, 1999). And Bruce Cole's The Renaissance Artist at Work (Harper and Row, 1983) and Sienese Painting (Harper and Row, 1980), although aimed at much more general audiences, also deserve at least a mention.

These are minor bibliographic omissions, however, in a book whose great contribution is its focus on the use of documentary material to define a culture. Maginnis' thorough examination of the original records provides an accessible collection of basic information that will provide fundamental and reliable direction for future scholarship.
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Author:Dunkelman, Martha
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:752
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