Monday, 12 November 2007

Renaissance Siena: Art for a City; National Gallery London, until 13 Jan



The National Gallery recently restored a triptych panel by the so-called Master of the Story of Griselda of the sequence for which he has become famous. The curator was so struck by its quality that he decided to put together a larger exhibition entitled Renaissance Siena: Art for a City, and the result is an extremely enjoyable collection of work. Siena was often considered the second city in Tuscany in terms of power and influence after Florence, and there is no doubt at all that this secondary position is reflected in the quality of the art it produced. But in a way that is what made this exhibition so enjoyable. You are seeing how a relatively normal Italian Renaissance city got on with creating its saints, its iconography, establishing its authority in artistic terms with the best artists it could grow at home and import from elsewhere.


What I went to the exhibition to see was those recently-restored panels detailing the Griselda story and it was certainly worth it for that. The panels are thought to have been produced for a double wedding in the Spanocchi family and would have decorated the nuptial bedchamber. It would seem that they were placed in a row as they are all lit from the left. The first panel details Gualtieri out hunting and seeing Griselda (left background, and left middle ground). He goes to Griselda father to ask permission for her hand in marriage (right background), takes her outside, has her stripped naked (left foreground), and then marries her in her sumptuous bridal clothes (centre).


The second panel details Gualtieri's supposed killing of their two children (left background), his seeking a divorce (under the left arch), showing her the forged papal bull giving him permission to divorce her (under the central arch) and her scandalous disrobing (under right arch). She goes home in her camicia, or undergarment, to her father who is waiting for her.


The third panel details the wedding banquet. Gualtieri has asked Griselda to return to the castle and prepare the household for his impending wedding (left background). She agrees and welcomes the wedding guests, including the supposed bride and her brother (far background). Under the far right arch Griselda speaks to Gualtieri, explaining that he should not test his new wife like he did another (i.e. her). Under the far left arch Gualtieri reveals that is was all a test, a test that she has passed, and he embraces her (rather awkwardly). The central two panels details the restoration of order and Gualtieri and Griselda's re-marriage and happily-ever-after moment.

These are fascinating panels, not just for the very interesting representation of marriage, such as is discussed by Christiane Klapische-Zuber in "The Griselda Complex", but also the marriage iconography being used in such a specific nuptial context (see Baskins on Italian cassoni etc). Also, the artist has clearly created a very uneven composition, where there is much skipping and jumping between scenes, where one is often unsure what is happening, where clothes and headgear must be read in order to understand who's who. These are such vital concerns in the story that it represents an interesting example of a rich textual background informing the visual tradition. The animals playing on the floor in the final panel provide a wonderful marginal commentary to the story too, with chained monkeys and bears and such looking at various characters. One wonders at the central panel and its use of a forged papal bull in the context of often delicate relations with Rome. The bull is the central point in the panel, the vanishing point, clearly indicating that it is upon this authority that Gualtieri acts. As the central panel it balances the two others, provides their centre of gravity, or their fulcrum. Interesting too is the theory that the final panel was produced first, in time for the wedding, and that he others were added later. In the Spanocchi house, then, the resolution came first, and the problems were represented later. Given that the wall would have been prepared to receive the panels in advance, a bride might well have had a sense of foreboding at the two empty panels waiting for a story, explaining how Griselda ended up like that. I am troubled too by the awkwardness of Griselda's embrace of Gualtieri in the final panel. It speaks volumes in a scene in which she says nothing.

Go to see this exhibition.

1 comment:

Andrew K said...

I'd hav egone to see it if I could, but charming images anyway.

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