Giovanni di Paolo (about 1399–1482), manuscript illuminator and panel painter, was one of the most distinctive and imaginative artists working in Siena, Italy, during the Renaissance. He received prestigious commissions over the course of his lengthy career from a range of patrons—private individuals and families, guilds, the pope, and numerous religious orders, including the Dominicans, Franciscans, Servites, and Augustinians.
This fall, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles is featuring an exhibition that reunites several panels from one of Giovanni’s most important commissions—an altarpiece for the Branchini family chapel in the church of San Domenico in Siena—for the first time since its dispersal. The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena (October 11, 2016–January 8, 2017) presents illuminated manuscripts and paintings by Giovanni and by his close collaborators and contemporaries to provide context for the Branchini Altarpiece. Through recent technical findings, the exhibition also reveals Giovanni’s creative use of gold and paint to achieve remarkable luminous effects in both media.
Painterly Traditions in Renaissance Siena: Giovanni di Paolo the Illuminator
Many archival documents and signed works testify to Giovanni di Paolo’s prolific career in Siena. As an emerging artist, he drew inspiration from the visual traditions of northern Italy, and in fact, his first documented manuscript commission (1417) was a now-lost book of hours for a Milanese law professor. In the 1420s, Giovanni and fellow Sienese artists responded enthusiastically to the courtly splendor of Gentile da Fabriano, who had arrived from the Marche region and who immediately worked with and sometimes under the supervision of Siena’s leading creative personalities. The works gathered in the exhibition reveal Giovanni to be an artist whose style drew uniquely from Sienese and Florentine models, as evidenced especially by his brilliantly colorful paintings on both panel and parchment. The arts of devotion, whether choir books or altarpieces, were of central importance to his clientele, and when displayed together, these wondrous objects allow us to glimpse the spiritual luster of a distant past.
There are only four known leaves or cuttings attributed to Giovanni in American collections—each of which is on display in the exhibition—by contrast to the dozens of panel paintings from dispersed altarpieces now found in museum collections from Los Angeles to Chicago to New York and elsewhere.
In the Getty collection, an initial A from a gradual contains a scene of the biblical King David kneeling before the triune Judeo-Christian God, who is manifested on a cloud and whose presence radiates across the brilliant gold background. Giovanni repeated this figure at the top center of a small, portable, folding triptych and incised numerous lines emanating from God the Father to suggest an astral appearance of the divine above The Virgin and Child with Saints and also to mediate the celestial and terrestrial realms of The Annunciation (set in the pinnacles of the triptych’s wings).
Additionally, the fanciful dragon that forms the letter A in the Getty illumination was borrowed by Giovanni’s collaborator Pellegrino di Mariano, who painted an historiated initial of The Three Marys at the Tomb in a gradual for the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala in Siena (the coat of arms of which was reworked later).
Giovanni and Pellegrino worked together on the choir books for the Augustinian hermitage in Lecceto near Siena, and the Getty’s cutting was painted around that moment in the 1440s. Two additional miniatures, reunited for the first time in almost three decades, were likely painted by a younger Giovanni during the period in which he worked extensively for patrons of the Dominican church of San Domenico.
The twisting form of Saint Michael Slaying the Dragon, for example, almost exactly mirrors a similar figure on Giovanni’s Christ Suffering and Christ Triumphant, which was probably commissioned for the altar of the Bishop of Grosseto, Francesco Bellanti, at San Domenico (not exhibited).
The gaunt Saint John the Baptist is a figure type often employed by Giovanni across his long career; the green leaves of the trees around the saint were painted atop gold leaf, characteristic of Giovanni’s technique on parchment and panel. (These two cuttings have also been attributed to Sano di Pietro, Giovanni’s sometimes collaborator, and to the Master of the Osservanza; a third related cutting features an angel before a small triptych.)
The Branchini Madonna: Giovanni’s Masterpiece
In 1427, the Branchini family commissioned Giovanni to paint an altarpiece for their family chapel in the church of San Domenico. The spectacular central panel, representing the Madonna and Child, is considered to be Giovanni’s masterpiece.
This impressive picture, now housed at the Norton Simon Museum, is in a fine state of preservation; it is rare for a panel of this scale to have survived almost completely intact. Surrounded by multi-winged seraphim, the Virgin Mary is presented holding the infant Jesus, who reaches tenderly for his mother and slightly touches her diaphanous veil. God the Father above, surrounded by a heavenly host of angels, gestures in both blessing and judgment. The dove representing the Holy Spirit radiates divine light. A variety of luminous effects were achieved with stamping and tooling gold, applying translucent paints over gold, and setting glass gems into Mary’s crown. Seen in candlelight, the whole ensemble would have been spectacularly spiritual. Attention to such natural details as the flowers strewn beneath Mary and the sumptuous fabrics contribute to the overall splendor and the theological message. Roses, carnations, marigolds, and cornflowers, for example, are symbols associated with the Holy Family and the Trinity and interestingly are also elements woven into the textiles.
Giovanni added several personal touches to the panel, such as the Latin inscription at the bottom of the frame: “Giovanni of Siena, son of Paolo, painted [this in] 1427.” Additional inscriptions include the opening lines of the Ave Maria around the hem of the Virgin’s robe and a poignant petition written within Mary’s halo: “I painted this for you, Virgin. Protect this man.” There were probably two full-length standing saints on either side of the central panel (some scholars believe that a panel of Saint John the Baptist in the Harvard Art Museums may have been among these).
Beneath the five large panels of the main altarpiece were five smaller panels, which formed the predella. Four of these are known—three are in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena and one is in the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands—and they contain narrative scenes from the life of Mary and Christ. The location of the missing panel is not known, but it likely depicted The Annunciation to Mary. As is often the case with the predella of an altarpiece, the artist’s creativity and innovation flourished in both the painting technique and conception of the subject matter.
The hallmarks of Giovanni’s style at this time in the 1420s are the attention to detail, the brilliant colors, the exploitation of the shimmering gold and lavish decorative elements along with early optical effects to render three-dimensional space, and the progression of episodic narrative. Particularly noteworthy is his use of gold as a compositional element in the landscape in The Flight into Egypt, along with cast shadows for the shepherd and trees in the background. On some of the vertical edges are fragmentary floral decorative elements that link the panels together and relate to the contemporary practice of decorating altar space with real flowers and ones crafted from precious materials.
Siena and Florence: Gentile da Fabriano the Santa Maria degli Angeli Illuminators
In fifteenth-century Tuscany, the towns of Siena and Florence thrived on rivalry among artists, patrons, and even religious institutions. At times, a level of influence existed between the two cultural centers, as movement of individuals and commodities between cities often coincided with civic competitions or festivals. The elegance and splendor of royal courtly arts, common in the late Gothic period (about 1380–1450), commingled with a new approach to rendering three-dimensional space, the body, optical effects, and landscapes based on classical forms and models, a style that would eventually embody a “Renaissance,” or rebirth in aesthetics and learning.
Gentile da Fabriano, for example, was commissioned to paint a scene of The Coronation of the Virgin for his native town, Fabriano, when he was at the height of his fame. The gold-encrusted panel functioned as a processional standard held aloft in parades that honored the Virgin Mary. Alongside Christ and the Virgin, groups of musical angels watch and sing. Gentile used extensive tooling, decorative patterning, gold leaf, and rich pigments to create a sumptuous surface resembling tapestry.
The panel originally had The Stigmatization of Saint Francis on the reverse (now in the Fondazione Magnani in Parma). Some scholars have suggested that the young Giovanni di Paolo may have worked with Gentile on the Branchini Altarpiece. Giovanni’s Madonna, in fact, may be based on a lost masterpiece painted by Gentile in Siena, the Madonna dei Banchetti. Gentile must have influenced Giovanni’s technique, as there are many similarities in their painting methods. A sophisticated layering of paint and gold, as well as a careful execution of elaborate and fine decorative details is evident in the work of both artists, each a master at depicting the luxury brocaded textiles and animal furs that were so valued during this period. The combination of all of this creates a sumptuous visual delight.
Several additional works in the exhibition highlight the significance of artists’ journeys in central Italy and emphasize the importance of devotional and liturgical commissions for the blending of regional painterly approaches to figure and surface. The illuminated choir book, for example, is one of the most significant art forms to demonstrate the combined efforts of multiple artists, sometimes from different cities. A large Ascension designed by Lorenzo Monaco (and completed by followers of Fra Angelico) and the sculptural figure of Saint Placidus by Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci were once part of the most highly praised multi-volume choir books made for the Camaldolese monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Florence.
Another contemporary, Don Simone Camaldolese, trained as an illuminator in Siena but moved to Florence. There he joined the extremely productive workshop in which Don Silvestro and Lorenzo worked and collaborated. Don Simone’s Nativity was once part of an antiphonal used by the friars at the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence. Silver and gold leaf shine brightly around the joyous scene of Christ’s birth, announced by angels clad in glistening garments to humble shepherds above.
The Legacy of a Wondrous Painter-Illuminator
Giovanni di Paolo’s style is often characterized today as idiosyncratic, frenetic, provincial, or (anachronistically) surreal, and yet he was one of the most sought-after artists in Renaissance Siena. As a painter-illuminator, he constantly sought new ways to represent narrative scenes that had well-established iconographies, and he rendered human figures with both striking realism and graceful stylization. His works transcend time and space—especially the illuminations he provided in a copy of Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia (British Library, Yates Thompson 36), commissioned for Alfonso V, king of Aragon, Naples, and Sicily in the mid-fifteenth century.
During the Renaissance, the church of San Domenico was one of the most significant sites to witness Giovanni’s creativity. In addition to the Branchini and Bellanti Altarpieces, discussed above, Giovanni completed altarpieces for the Malavolti family (formerly believed to be Pecci; 1426; Castelnuovo Berardegna) and for the Parte Guelfa (1445; Florence, Galleria degli Uffizi). On the latter altarpiece, the figure of Saint Thomas Aquinas holds open a luminous manuscript, wherein Giovanni painted a decorated initial V, which begins the phrase Veritatem meditabitur guttur meum et labia mea detestabuntur impium (“My mouth will meditate on truth, and my lips will detest the impious man”). This textual cue engages the viewer to read and ponder. Text and image, surface decoration and painterly effects—each of these features represent hallmarks of deeply imaginative artist, whose brilliant works on parchment and panel continue to inspire awe and wonder and ask the viewer to engage deeply with his art.
The Branchini Altarpiece has been studied by conservators and curators at the Getty Museum as part of a conservation partnership with the Norton Simon Foundation and the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands. The Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena, the Burke Family Collection, James E. and Elizabeth J. Ferrell, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art have generously lent related works of exceptional quality to the exhibition.
Support for this project and exhibition has been provided by the Getty Museum Paintings Council.