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Italian ART HISTORY
Churches – Historical Archives in Stone
Religious buildings reflect centuries of spiritual and cultural history. True appreciation demands more than simply listing the obvious – which is why the CHURCHES OF SIENA project stands as a model for others to follow. Since 1976, scientists from the MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE
in Florence headed by former Director MAX SEIDEL have been looking
beyond art and architecture to discover what other historical aspects these buildings reveal.
he project began with the church of Sant’Agostino – and with a dramatic find. Sifting through the source material back in 1977, researchers came across a report dating from 1575 that described the Bichi Chapel, a side chapel dedicated to Saint Christopher, as “painted with pictures throughout” (tota depicta). No trace of these pictures remained: after a fire in 1747, the church had been renovated from the ground up. Following plans by leading Neapolitan architect Luigi Vanvitelli, the vaulting of the chapel had been lowered and the walls whitewashed. Electrified by the prospect of revealing the original design and the paintings, tests were arranged that yielded promising results. The Italian authorities approved further investigations, financed by the sponsors of the MPI for the History of Art in Florence. And, to our great satisfaction, there on the side walls were two fully intact, large-scale, mainly monochrome frescoes by the Sienese painter Francesco di Giorgio, depicting the Virgin Mary and the birth of Christ. As work progressed, more of the Renaissance decoration came to
light behind the baroque barrel vaulting: lunettes, in the center of which were large tondos with illustrations of the seated Eritrean and Tiburtine Sibyls, the work of the Tuscan artist Luca Signorelli.
A CHAPEL AS A VICTORY MONUMENT
A find of this kind, which enriched not only the city of Siena, but Italian painting in general, added a powerful impetus to the Siena Project headed by Peter Anselm Riedl and Max Seidel, the latter also a Director at the Institute from 1993 until his retirement in 2005. The discovery of the frescoes also served to confirm the effectiveness of the methods the project employed; however, it is important to resist the temptation to aim future work solely at seeking such spectacular finds. Seidel, a bona fide scientist, is almost more excited about the conclusions that could be drawn regarding the political iconography of Siena around 1490. The chapel commissioned by Antonio Bichi was designed as a monument to the victory of a political faction that had been ousted and then returned to power.
The second façade of Siena’s cathedral on the eastern side of the building. The three portals open onto the baptistry, while the clerestory and oculus level belong to the choir of the church above.
A pilaster and capital in the underchurch, which has retained its original, brightly colored decoration.
The intention was to make a mark, and the finest painters of the age were engaged to do so. The art historian is at pains to emphasize how important it has been to the success of the project as a whole to work in a close and trusting relationship with Italian specialists, some of whom have also agreed to come on board as authors. Their activities have complemented the work
PHOTOS: MPI FOR THE HISTORY OF ARTS, FLORENCE
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” However. 6: Floor level inside the cathedral. an “historic and aesthetic unit comprised in equal measure by the historical data pertaining to the building and the individuality of its furnishings and décor. This relationship highlights what Max Seidel describes as one of the essential methodological goals of the project: contextual research. both preserved and lost. The main emphases were on the history of each building. The Board of Trustees of the Institute recommended to then Director Herbert Keutner that a study be made of the churches of Siena. is a remnant of the side aisle surviving from the abandoned Duomo Nuovo project of the mid-14th century. which originally hung above the main entrance of the church. on an Italian initiative in 1993. This is located in the transept. enabling the revealed frescoes to be seen in a wider context. relates Seidel. Every church has its own history. the family chapel of the Venturini was extensively modernized with stucco and frescoes of contemporary design and with the addition of a new altar. of the project. Naturally enough. Now. While the results achieved through a sophisticated study of archives. The combination of ancient and modern is quite remarkable here. Especially significant is the integration of the churches in a wider historical and intellectual framework. The plague of 1348 cut the city to the quick. up to and including the Pope. For example. which is now dominated by the Baroque influence. the primary focus is on the church itself. in doing so. the already familiar statue of St. Monika Butzek and Wolfgang Loseries point to the example of the Venturini chapel. Peter Anselm Riedl. even within each church. On the contrary. The commission to undertake this study was awarded to Walter Paatz in 1929. The Siena Project also fulfils this task. however. The loggia. for example. As a highly significant financial metropolis and the seat of numerous banks. says Seidel. which must include the design and decoration of the Bichi chapel. it is evident that medieval panel paintings were inserted into this modern frame.FOCUS Italian ART HISTORY The Siena cathedral viewed from the west. they also coordinate contributions by external specialists and take care of final editing of the volumes containing the results of their work. The altar figure designed for the Bichi chapel was also temporarily returned to its original place – a statue of Saint Christopher sculpted by Francesco di Giorgio. 3: The former oratory of San Giovannino. yet again and again. they were merely a compilation of existing knowledge based on literature already available in the specialist domain. there were events that impacted on all the city’s religious buildings. As a result of the frescoes. 5: The rediscovered under-church. found their way back to their – at least since the 18th century – original location. on closer examination. Apart from the shell. Domenico Venturini assembled several of them in his chapel. 2: Via dei Fusari north of the cathedral. To this day. There remains a dense and above all intact network of church buildings embedded in a city organism that has survived virtually untouched since the Middle Ages. work on which has already been completed and published. and only recently. And the earthquake of 1798 unleashed a wave of restoration. For example. causing new building projects to falter and existing structures to be demolished. underwent several phases of development from its original state in the 13th and 14th centuries. religious expression was as individual as the outpouring of art and architecture. however. The legacy of written documents is outstanding. There is still evidence to be found in many places of the subsequent works of Saint Catharine of Siena (1347 to 1380) – a charismatic woman who cared for the sick and yet associated with the highest dignitaries. but it goes much further in the pursuit of its goal of comprehensively researching each church. “Our work does not stop at the building itself. It had a renowned predecessor at the Institute in Florence that had earned high respect among experts: the “Churches of Florence” project. A LOOK AT THE BACKGROUND The origins of the Siena Project. which gave the interior of the church its present character. are closely interlinked with the takeover of the art historical Institute in Florence by the German Federal Ministry of Research in 1970. BUT STILL INTEGRAL In the early 18th century. Conversely. this is the approach adopted by the Siena Project. The proposal was the brainchild of the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees.” as Max Seidel puts it. however. This prompted an incentive to establish a long-term research project in-house. comprises a painting by Guido da Siena of the Madonna. That is the fascinating thing about the Siena Project: the hard facts gleaned about each building through highly professional fundamental research are then re-evaluated in the light of further questions and answers. the project is mainly in the hands of the two permanent staff members Monika Butzek and Wolfgang Loseries. dating from the 13th century. And indeed. Paatz and his wife had compiled five volumes in alphabetical order – a critical inventory of all of the churches of Florence. a major exhibition of the works of Francesco di Giorgio was held in the very same church of Sant’Agostino. Siena was a complex community that regulated the social conflicts between its individual strata by finely balanced constitutional means. is where it becomes apparent that the work of the Siena Project has an impact on every other collection in the world that includes artifacts deriving from the churches of Siena. Christopher now appears in a new context. these volumes were unsuitable as a methodological template for the Siena Project. to the impact of the Renaissance. Just how complex and multi-layered the problems can be is evidenced by a visit to the church of San Domenico. leaves the studies of the churches of Florence far in its wake. which was launched in 1976. the panels were taken to the Palazzo Pubblico. The altarpiece. the perspective broadens substantially once historical. who brought in the young Max Seidel. However. there are a vari34 M A X ety of contexts to consider: changes in design and decoration such as every building undergoes in the course of its existence. building structures or restoration may be restricted to bricks and mortar. LOST. And this. which remains to be reconstructed. which. 4: The grotto and passageway that led to the discovery of the under-church. There were other topics that were also considered at the time. an understanding of social and economic aspects is often necessary to appreciate the character of a church. whose construction did not begin until the late 14th century. of high esteem and low – the project might well have concentrated on the cathedrals of Tuscany. Seidel talks in terms of a “symphony” in which the individual churches play the part of “solo violins. BaM A X GRAPHIC: TARCISIO BRATTO P L A N C K R E S E A R C H 3/2005 3/2005 P L A N C K R E S E A R C H 35 . which is now at the Louvre in Paris. Not only do they perform a large part of the research work themselves. seen to the right in the background. for example. and the post-1747 Baroque remodeling. instead of focusing on one city such as Siena and all of its churches – both existing and long gone. a description of the structure and a record of the furnishings and decoration. 1 1: The square in front of the baptistry. Useful as they are. Reconstruction of the Siena cathedral: The transparent walls afford a view of the structures beneath the pavimentum. theological and philological aspects are added to the equation. by 1953. Only through an interdisciplinary approach is it possible to develop and decipher the contexts necessary to understand the churches and their contents. while Loseries joined the project a decade later. Following the earthquake of 1798. An Apostolic Visitation in 1575 during the course of the Counter-Reformation led to numerous changes in church decoration and furnishing. At a time when little value was attached to these pictures. little remains of its medieval appearance. and the peculiarities of its users and benefactors. But the Siena Project was not conjured out of thin air.” OF A A PRIME EXAMPLE CITY ORGANISM The medieval city of Siena provides an ideal setting for such a broadbased methodological approach. In a climate such as this. Despite the adversities of the war years. Mainly inventories. the two of them act as publishers. Butzek has been involved since the project began. our research gives us deeper insight into the politics and society of Siena. as a result of the Siena Project. Sant’Agostino.
analyzed and evaluated. The historic heart of Siena: In the foreground is the cathedral. plans.” says Seidel. the entire project would have scaled a height from which all future studies could be surveyed with relative ease.FOCUS Italian ART HISTORY ume containing the plans specially created by the project on the basis of photogrammetric processes contains horizontal and vertical projections. The most fascinating of Siena’s churches is without a doubt the cathedral. A similarly systematic approach is evident in the volume of illustrations. such as sky blue or orange. Set to one side is the elegant campanile. which is broken down into vedute. The specially developed photogrammetric processes were evaluated by specialists at the measurement photographic service in Dresden. whose initial task was to wade through the archive of the Siena Cathedral Masons’ Guild and create an inventory to support future access. further back is the Piazza del Campo. At present. Four window axes for the choir to the east are offset by five axes for the nave to the west. is due to go to press soon. which marks the point of intersection. a study of the cathedral was initiated in 1992 – somewhat prematurely since. it was rightly felt that. The work of recording and researching the structure. This provides an initial chronology. Not only are the walls decorated with frescoes on a grand scale. which deals with the architecture of the cathedral. The project has thus chosen to publish its results in a traditional. which appeared in 1995. in the small underground church that was not rediscovered until 1999. architectural elements and wall paintings contrast poignantly with the tightly interwoven network of modern steel stanchions supporting the floor above. the project always works its way backwards from the existing condition of the building in order to progressively reconstruct earlier states. they are accompanied by supplements that allow self-contained aspects to be published with much greater speed. some of the architectural elements – here a capital. and at the far end. Stefano Moscadelli is collaborating with Andrea Giorgi on another separate volume that deals exclusively with aspects of construction. this systematically prepared and clearly presented material forms a basis on which to depict the history of the building. It sails like a giant ship across the sea of houses from which it distinguishes itself by its sheer mass. the first volume on the architecture of the cathedral will soon go to press. all of the existing decorations and furnishings are described. The example set by the cathedral shows just how complicated the story can be. organization. supplementary volume. this time devoted to source material found predominantly outside of Siena: letters and drawings from the Vatican Library and the State Archive in Florence. an archivist was enlisted: Stefano Moscadelli. was similarly subjected to the highest standards. but to restoration works carried out by the cathedral’s own masons. The cathedral furnishings and decoration are so extensive as to require a separate volume. external and internal photographs and illustrations of furnishings and decor. which is expected to appear in 2010. Since the volumes of results in each case require extensive advance preparation. sically. The research work was tackled with the painstaking precision that only a large-scale project can achieve. with the Dominican convent of San Domenico in the foreground. In addition. while the vol- far as the exterior is concerned – took place under exceptionally difficult topographical conditions. Between them is the domed cupola. sections and reconstructions of earlier building states. given the name of the saint to whom it is dedicated (Santa Maria dell’Assuntà). its turn had not yet come. with the successful completion of this work. The medieval masonry. In a virtual tour. To do justice to these challenges. “There are more documents relating to the 13th and 14th centuries preserved here than survive for all of Germany’s cathedrals put together. which shed light on the last great phase of construction in the time of Pope Alexander VII (1655 to 1667). Let us. In turn. its clear geometric forms and the luminosity of its white marble cladding. entrusted to the two renowned medievalists Dethard von Winterfeld and Walter Haas. is as fascinating as the paintings that adorn it. However. The organization of the published volumes of results clarifies this approach: all existing sources. The building also poses the greatest scientific demands. The architectural envelope – that is. It was quickly decided to publish Moscadelli’s research in a separate. The discovery of the under-church can be credited. First of all. a total of three volumes have been completed. each of which is divided into three or four parts – one or two for the text. Monika Butzek presented another supplementary volume. and that took until 2002 to re-excavate. not only in Siena. The excavations were fraught with cost and risk. “This will make the cathedral of Siena the most extensively researched cathedral in Europe. not to the Siena Project. THE UNDER-CHURCH REDISCOVERED A year later. The panel portraying the Madonna already referred to is considered in the context of both the 13th and the early 18th centuries. The dimensions of the building are dramatically enhanced by its position on a hilly spur that drops away steeply to the north and east. The abundant source material provides some surprising socio-cultural insights. Now. one for the photographic documentation and one for the plans – as well as several smaller supplementary volumes devoted to special topics. there the shaft of a column – are also composed in powerful colors. imagine ourselves below the Siena cathedral. despite the possibilities afforded by new media. which led to some extraordinary solutions. and the resulting horizontal and vertical projections and sections form a part-volume of their own. say Monika M A X P L A N C K R E S E A R C H 3/2005 3/2005 P L A N C K R E S E A R C H 37 .” says Max Seidel. The construction work. Even the history of the cathedral’s construction is so complex that many illustrations to this day convey an erroneous and confusing image. which is followed by a detailed description of the build36 M A X ing. financing and the procurement of building materials in the Middle Ages. An individual scientist working alone would have faced insurmountable difficulties. the very space itself – whose function within the cathedral organism raises many unanswered questions. for a moment. A SHIP IN A SEA OF HOUSES The third volume. Currently. the sharply pointed gable rises above the entrance. which was completed within a century – at least as Panoramic view of Siena’s cathedral mount. but at the same time enduring form – an indispensable consideration. drawings and depictions are painstakingly compiled as a result of lengthy preliminary archive searches. at last. much scope is allotted to what has been lost.
with its rediscovered frescoes on the walls and vaulted ceilings. to ensure that this heritage is viewed in the context of European and Mediterranean culture. Financing came from the Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank. remain an important aspect of the future work of the Institute.FOCUS A view of the Bichi chapel in the church of St. in return. It will be the task of future generations to continue the research. For the first time. and the Institute in Florence was obviously not in a position either to provide the necessary funds – the project cost a total of five million euros – or to accept responsibility. It was a fortunate coincidence that this find was made just at the time when the Siena Project had turned its attention to the cathedral. were major contributors to the record of these sensational finds published by the Siena Cathedral Masons’ Guild. Italian researchers have since taken up the methods and systems developed by the Siena Project in order to study some of Siena’s churches on their own initiative. Not only does it serve to confirm the validity of the work itself when individual church communities have excerpts from the volumes translated for re-publication. Butzek and Wolfgang Loseries. The project has always regarded itself as a training ground for young scholarship students and university researchers. The necessarily intensive research into the physical structure is paralleled by an equally detailed study of its contexts. It is estimated that the next five years will be taken up in dealing with the decoration and furnishings of the cathedral. namely that the Institute’s research efforts would be overly dominated by this one project. the aim is now to complete the project in the foreseeable future. it has also repeatedly impacted on the entire practice and theory of urban development in Siena. as one of the Siena Project publishers. Gerhard Wolf. are offered the prospect of integration into a functioning network. GUIDO HINTERKEUSER P L A N C K R E S E A R C H 3/2005 . The reinstatement of purity to which many Baroque additions fell victim from the mid-19th century onward is a regularly observed phenomenon. And the volumes relating to the cathedral. After 30 years of intensive research. Alone the vast array of sculptures spanning several centuries will reward these efforts. The risk that has always been at the forefront of the publishers’ minds. the apse of the preceding structure has now been traced to the east of the under-church. which cannot be considered in isolation from the general development of this discipline both in Italy and across Europe. The ripple effects of the Siena Project are already unmistakable. Research into the unique cultural landscape of Tuscany in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance will. 38 M A X becoming obsolete only after the completion of the baptistry. Nevertheless. AS A THE MEDITERRANEAN NEW HORIZON Thereafter. Concrete plans already exist for an exhibition devoted to the treasures of the cathedral. Particularly the work of young scientists would receive a huge boost. and is not part of the earlier building. he has also opened up new horizons. This phenomenon. The cathedral building not only exercised an influence on its immediate surroundings. the volume contains a detailed description of the cathedral restoration. too. says Seidel. while the risk was borne by the Italian authorities. In the volume devoted to the cathedral. Augustine in Siena. and was thus able to integrate itself into the excavations. in particular. the project will concentrate on the principal buildings that are still outstanding. but above all. however. the new Director. accompanied by a scientific catalog. this objective is realized even more distinctly than in previously published findings. possibly with the aid of non-invasive imaging techniques rather than through excavation. led by the Opera del Duomo and the local historic preservation department. The intention is to explore new ways of communicating results. has at last been banished following the takeover of the Institute by the Max Planck Society. says Max Seidel. in principle. The model can. if they were able to exploit their gift for research through the medium of an interdisciplinary project. The lesser churches will be specifically allocated to young art historians who. will set a new standard for the study of buildings on this scale. Max Seidel. including cultural exchange projects in the Mediterranean region. be transferred to any religious building. by presenting part-volumes of findings through an exhibition. and Stefano Moscadelli and Andrea Giorgi. The under-church is an integral part of the present-day cathedral. but at the same time. has taken the Siena Project under his wing. has now been researched in detail. as long-standing project members.