THE ANGLO-AMERICAN love affair with Siena and its art was at its most passionate and quarrelsome in the early years of the twentieth century when so much remained to be discovered and when stakes were being claimed for Sienese art, only then emerging from the shadows of neglect. The city itself was a relative latecomer to any art-loving tourist’s itinerary (even in 1901 the Havemeyers and Mary Cassatt omitted it from their lengthy buying spree in Italy). Handbooks began to proliferate (in 1900 Baedeker’s 13th revised edition for Central Italy contained an expanded section on Siena); bluestockings such as Margaret Symonds and Lina Duff Gordon wrote accessible guides and histories; scholars and aesthetes – F. Mason Perkins, Robert Langton Douglas, William Heywood, Edward Hutton – took up residence to study and write. A few years either side of 1900 a visitor could hardly avoid seeing an art historian making notes or hearing them exchanging views – in English, Italian or German – in the churches, the Galleria Municipale, the Palazzo Pubblico. The city depicted at the start of Henry James’s novel Confidence (1879) was much the same as the one he recorded in letters twenty and more years later – its beauty unchanged, its donkeys just as obstinate, the hotels only a shade less shabby. Although scholars, notably Gaetano Milanesi, had been weevilling in the city’s seemingly inexhaustible archives for some time, documentation was now being harnessed to aesthetic appreciation. While there was a definite move towards chronological clarification and archival evidence, purple ink was liberally spilled in favour of Sienese elegance, purity, charm and spiritual uplift.
The Burlington reflected both these approaches. We move from Langton Douglas’s pioneering article on Sassetta and Sano di Pietro (May 1903) and a highly detailed review (September 1904) by Mason Perkins of the great exhibition that year of Sienese art, organised in Siena by Corrado Ricci, to an attempt by G.T. Clough (September 1906) to characterise the ‘Sienese temperament’ through the lens of San Bernardino’s sermons. Clough quotes the saint’s imprecations against the showiness and intemperance of Siena’s citizens; their constant quarrelling; their lack of respect for marriage; their sartorial extravagance. Bernardino even condemns the building of chapels and the flourishing of donors’ coats of arms on the paintings within – the very meat and drink of the Burlington’s contributors.
The most important of these was Bernard Berenson whose two-part article on Sassetta – suffused with his recent study of St Francis – was published in 1903 in the Magazine’s October and November issues. In a sense this was an atonement for his earlier dismissal of the Sienese school and his single reference to ‘the ever winsome Sassetta’ in his Central Italian Painters of 1897. Certainly Berenson’s change of mind is pretty comprehensive, a volte face that enflamed Langton Douglas, scholar, dealer and former Anglican chaplain in Siena, to reply in an article peppered with the settling of raw and recent scores (December 1903). Not without some justification, Douglas felt that Berenson had filched too much from his own early article. While smoothly acknowledging Berenson’s change of mind but hinting at faults and hesitating dislike, he draws his dagger for Berenson’s ‘friend and follower’, the American-born Mason Perkins whose attributional arguments he finds ‘a lamentable example of the unintelligent use of scientific method’. This was the start of a feud that reverberated for decades. Berenson was prickly and contemptuous; Douglas aggressively hostile in his protection of his ‘intellectual property’; Berenson found it incomprehensible that the Burlington, which he had helped to found, should have published Douglas’s article; and the episode saw the first fissures appear in the slow crumbling of Berenson’s friendship with Roger Fry. The Magazine sustained heavy losses – Berenson, Douglas and Perkins, the most important figures in its coverage of Sienese art, rarely contributed again, Douglas only returning to its pages twenty-five years later and Berenson not for over forty years.
Other scholars made amends: for example, a notably precise three-part article on Sassetta by Giacomo di Nicola was published in 1913. Thereafter, important contributions were rare and it was not until the arrival on the scene of John Pope-Hennessy in the 1930s that Sienese art once more made an impact. The older, feuding scholars had been individually helpful to the young Pope-Hennessy when he was working on his Giovanni di Paolo (1937) and Sassetta (1939), a help fully acknowledged in those publications. But in a 1987 review of Colin Simpson’s Artful Partners in the New York Review of Books, he turned on Perkins and Douglas with ferocity, particularly the latter, denying him any achievements as a scholar or acumen as a dealer. Stung perhaps by an outraged reply in the NYRB from Douglas’s daughter, Pope-Hennessy softened his account, in his autobiography Learning to Look (1991), of the Anglo-American ‘sodality’ – Perkins, Hutton, Douglas – who felt they ‘had a hot line to Siena’ and who are remembered for their early kindness.
All this may seem a far cry from the cool-headed scholarly articles in the present issue, assembled to celebrate the ambitious exhibition The Arts in Siena in the Early Renaissance, running in the city from 26th March to 11th July (to be reviewed in a later issue by Timothy Hyman). We must admit, however, that anyone wishing to gain some idea of the particular characteristics of Sienese art and its special distinction within Italian art as a whole will be frustrated by these articles. Aesthetic speculation is left on the side of the plate; the main meal is the fodder of commissions and production, of payments and carpentry, of tiers, piers, dowels and frames. Here is the fretwork of art history based on the abundant documentation that has survived. For those who find it wanting in flavour and variety, a visit to Siena in the next few months cannot be too warmly recommended.