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Travels with a Curator: Santa Maria della Scala, Siena

I am Xavier Salomon, the Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at The Frick Collection, and today we travel to Italy in the footsteps of an artist who created one of my favorite sculptures at The Frick Collection. When Henry Clay Frick bought the group of bronzes, Italian Renaissance and Northern bronzes, that belonged to J.P. Morgan, among them was a relief, a bronze relief, by an artist called Lorenzo di Pietro, known as “il Vecchietta.” And this is a view of the enamels gallery at The Frick Collection in the 1920s, and what you see on the left on a small easel under the Gerard David painting is precisely this relief, which has moved a number of times around the collection. Here is the relief, which shows the Resurrection of Christ. And this is a really extraordinary work of art. First of all, it is the only work by Vecchietta signed and dated in an American collection. He is a very rare artist, obviously, outside of Italy, and what you see here is this very pictorial depiction of the Resurrection of Christ: Christ at the top, surrounded by angels with different angels in different levels of– different degrees of relief and the sleeping soldiers at the very bottom. The work is signed on the sarcophagus and it’s signed as the work of Lorenzo di Pietro, known as il Vecchietta, from Siena, a painter, and it is dated 1472. It’s a very strange signature because why would an artist producing a piece of sculpture sign it as a painter? And once you start looking at Vecchietta’s work you realize that this was something he did over and over again. He was an artist who worked both as a painter and as a sculptor, we also know he’s documented as an architect, and he signed, curiously enough, all of his sculptures as a painter and all of his painting as a sculptor. So he clearly is promoting his work as both sculptor and painter through his own works. This relief comes from the Chigi collection in Rome, and the Chigi family originally was of Sienese origins– Vecchietta is an artist from Siena. And we don’t know who this work was made for and we don’t actually know what it served as. It’s been argued that it could have been the door of a tabernacle, it would have been part of a funerary monument, it was just a devotional object by itself. We don’t really have any clues as to how this object was used or how the object reached the Chigi collection, presumably in Siena first and then in Rome. In the early twentieth century, the Chigi family sold it and through dealers it reached the Morgan collection and eventually, in the early twentieth century, The Frick Collection. Therefore today, we travel to Siena. And what I would like to do is to travel to the place that has the largest group of works by Vecchietta. So if you ever want to get a sense of who this artist is, both as a painter and as a sculptor, Siena is the place to go, and there is a specific institution that has most of his works. Here is an aerial view of Siena, showing you the wonderful rolling hills of the countryside, but also at the very top of the hill, the cathedral, and just in front of the cathedral is the institution we will be talking about today. Siena effectively has two centers: The first is the Piazza del Campo, which is the civic center of the city, with the Palazzo Pubblico, which is the main palace that held the civic institutions of the city. And this, of course, is the square where the Palio is run every year in July and August. But at the top of the hill is the cathedral, which instead is the religious center of the city, the location of the bishop of the city. And just across from the cathedral is this structure, which looks from the outside rather modest and strange. It is a combination of different buildings from slightly different periods, and you see that the windows don’t quite match and they’re all slightly different. This is the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, and this was a hospital created in the Middle Ages, in the eleventh century, which originally depended from the cathedral across the square. But in its history, very early on, the institution detached itself from the cathedral and over time became more and more of a civic institution. This was a hospital for people who were sick, but also it functioned in a number of different ways: It had a church within it. It had various different semi-public spaces. It also functioned as a bank, people could deposit some of their money here. It also worked as a center to welcome pilgrims, and Siena was along the route of the Via Francigena, which was a pilgrimage route that crossed the center of Italy, going up towards France. The façade shows that this was a building that was built and rebuilt over a number of years. And the central part of the façade, where you see the stone covering at the bottom, was originally decorated with frescoes above it as well. And the section to the left of that wall is where the church of the Santissima Annunziata, dedicated to the Annunciation of the Virgin, was and still is to this day. This hospital obviously functioned very specifically in 1348, during the Black Plague, and it was the center of the victims and people who were sick of the Black Plague in Siena at that time. And this was a moment of heightened function for the hospital and a very key moment in its history. And only ten years later, in 1359, the hospital acquired a group of very important relics of various saints and religious figures, which came originally from Constantinople, and we will see how the artist Vecchietta was involved with that group of relics. The hospital actually functioned until the 1980s, so there were still people being cured on the site in the 1980s. But today this is entirely open to the public, it is partly a museum, partly an exhibition center. And if you visit Siena, of course, everyone visits the Palazzo Pubblico and the cathedral, but it is also worth going to Santa Maria della Scala. And if you’re interested in Vecchietta, Santa Maria della Scala is the place to go. We don’t know why Vecchietta was called Vecchietta. “Vecchietta” means, in Italian, an old lady, and so we don’t know if this nickname was something fun to make fun of him or where it came from, but he signed documents and works as Vecchietta, including the Frick relief, and that’s what he was known as. His name was Lorenzo and he is Lorenzo of Pietro because his father was called Pietro. This room, which is known as the Pellegrinaio, which was one of the main large spaces of the hospital and is decorated in the fifteenth century by a number of different artists, is the first site where Vecchietta is documented as an artist. And he painted one of the scenes in the Pellegrinaio, the scene that you see immediately to the left in that lunette-shaped space, and this is painted in 1441. Here are some more views of the Pellegrinaio showing you frescoes by other artists on the ceiling and along the walls, but this one scene that Vecchietta paints there in this incredible architectural setting of sort of gray and pink marble is actually a scene to do with the origins of the hospital and the history of the hospital. The origins of the hospital, by the fifteenth century, are shrouded in legendary stories, and they are linked to the presence of an individual called Sorore, who by that point was blessed, the Blessed Sorore, the Beato Sorore, who was said to have created the hospital, and he was buried in the hospital and his relics were venerated there. In fact, we now know that the Blessed Sorore never really existed, he’s a purely fictional character, but the creation of the hospital was linked to his life. And the center part of this fresco shows the Blessed Sorore kneeling and having a vision, the vision that will cause the creation of the hospital. And the vision shows a ladder going all the way up to heaven and the Virgin Mary is at the top in the dome of this fictional church, and little babies, children, maybe representing the souls of sick people, are climbing up the ladder to heaven. So effectively, the hospital is a site between life and death, it’s a site where souls eventually reach heaven. The name of Santa Maria della Scala, “scala” in Italian means ladder, in fact comes from a very different thing. The hospital was located across from the cathedral, is located across from the cathedral, and the cathedral is on top of steps, and so it was known as the “hospital of the steps” because it was just a geographical reference to the fact that it was across from the steps of the cathedral. But, of course, the word “steps” got very confused with the word “ladder” early on and so it became Santa Maria della Scala, “of the ladder.” And this legend of the Blessed Sorore is, as I said, a purely fictional story to justify in some way, with this religious vision, the founding of this hospital. And so Vecchietta’s first links to the hospital, as far as we know, are to do with the creation of this fresco. He goes back, however, about five years later, and between 1445 and 1449 he frescoes another space in the hospital, which is the sacristy attached to the church of the Santissima Annunziata. And the frescoes of the sacristy unfortunately today are in very poor state, and you see them here in very bad need of restoration. But these show, on the vault, medallions with prophets and saints and Christ and the Evangelists and below it, in these other lunette-shaped areas, spaces, above scenes from the New Testament and below them parallel scenes from the Old Testament, so linking Old and New Testament, but basically following the prayer of the Creed. So each scene refers, in some way or another, to the Christian creed. In this space originally, Vecchietta created the so-called Arliquiera, and the Arliquiera are shutters, effectively, wooden shutters for a cupboard. The term “arliquiera” refers to these sort of objects, these sort of pieces of furniture, in reality, which were used to contain relics. So if you remember, the relics that arrived in 1359 from Constantinople to Santa Maria della Scala were preserved in that sacristy that I just showed you, and Vecchietta created these cupboard doors. So you have to imagine that they would be opened, and within this cupboard the most precious relics of the hospital were kept. These panels with gold backgrounds show at the top, of course, the Annunciation–and the church of the hospital was a church of the Annunciation–the Crucifixion, the death of Christ, and the Resurrection– and if you look at that Resurrection scene at the top right, with the three soldiers, the sarcophagus, think of the links between that and The Frick Collection relief– and below it a series of saints and blesseds from the history of Siena, including the legendary Beato Sorore. When you opened the Arliquiera, and here you see the back of those same panels, you had scenes from the Passion of Christ, and so once the reliquary was opened you would have these flanking it, and once it was closed you had the saints. The Arliquiera was moved, later on, a number of times in the space of Santa Maria della Scala and was eventually placed in the Pinacoteca, in the museum of Siena, and it was there until very recently and just recently has been replaced and brought back to Santa Maria della Scala, so if you go today, that’s where it is– not quite in its original location but close enough to where Vecchietta intended it for. If you go to Santa Maria della Scala, you also see sculptures by Vecchietta. And here is one of his marble works, a beautiful statue of St. Peter, which is also signed by Vecchietta the painter, and this actually is one of the objects at Santa Maria della Scala which was not made for Santa Maria della Scala. This was made originally for the Loggia della Mercanzia, which is this beautiful building between two of the main streets of Siena, the Banchi di Sopra and the Banchi di Sotto. If you go just below this loggia, downstairs, you reach the Piazza del Campo, so it’s very close to the civic center of Siena. There is the St. Peter on the left, you see him on this pilaster, and he is paired on the opposite side, so three arches down to the right of this image, with a St. Paul, also made by Vecchietta, and once the St. Peter was restored, the original was put in Santa Maria della Scala and a copy was left on the Mercanzia. So you can see close up this great marble sculpture by Vecchietta at Santa Maria della Scala, even though it is not something made for the hospital to begin with. However, two other great sculptural objects were made for Santa Maria della Scala by Vecchietta. And this is the ciborio, the tabernacle for the high altar of the church of the Santissima Annunziata, which Vecchietta creates between 1467 and 1472, when he signs it. This is a very large bronze object, which in the early sixteenth century was moved away from the church of the Santissima Annunziata and placed on the high altar of the cathedral. So to see this, you have to cross the square and go into the cathedral. It was originally made for the Santa Maria della Scala hospital, but it is now in the cathedral. And it is this unbelievable structure, huge bronze structure, an architectural tabernacle, which would have held the Eucharist, the holy host for mass, but it is entirely covered in decorations and various figures. And just to show you a few, around the actual tabernacle are the Three Virtues, this is Faith and she is accompanied by Hope and Charity, and these wonderful angels, very beautiful angels, sort of windswept with their draperies, who hold a chalice that contains the blood of Christ and above the chalice is a resurrected Christ. So again, think back to the relief at the Frick with a resurrected Christ, here is another resurrected Christ made by Vecchietta in bronze around the same exact time. This ciborio, this tabernacle, is dated and signed 1472, the same exact year as the Frick relief. But the tabernacle is also really wonderful because it has these decorations with sort of dragons and various ornamental details that are absolutely extraordinary. And this would have originally been gilt. And it is a truly spectacular masterpiece of Vecchietta’s work as a sculptor. And one of my favorite details about this tabernacle, which, of course, you can’t see in the cathedral unless you get close to it, is that the entire tabernacle is covered in little bugs, and these are actually cicadas, and so there is this wonderful idea that the host is kept in this tabernacle. And you can almost imagine on a summer day in Siena, the sound of cicadas, the music of cicadas singing to glorify god in the church of the hospital. If you go today to the church of the Santissima Annunziata inside the hospital, the church has been drastically altered in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, and so this is what you see today. And if you look at the altar, where the ciborio would have been, Vecchietta’s ciborio, you see another work, and you see this statue, a life-size statue of Christ. And this is also by Vecchietta, but this was made, even though it was made for the hospital and the church, it was made for a side chapel. So you have to imagine that there’s been all these changes: You know, the Arliquiera was in the sacristy, and then moved away, then brought back to Santa Maria della Scala but in a different location. The tabernacle for the high altar of the same church was then moved to the cathedral. And this statue, made for a side chapel, was eventually placed on top of the high altar of the Annunziata. And here is the statue, this is life-size, large bronze monument, an incredible work of art, and again, think of the relationship between this and the relief at the Frick. This has been identified for many, many years as a resurrected Christ and that’s how you would see it described in most of the literature. But only recently, a young scholar who has worked on Vecchietta and has written his PhD on Vecchietta, Giulio Dalvit, has actually written an article where he convincingly proves that this is actually not showing a resurrected Christ but it is showing the Man of Sorrows. There is Christ showing the wounds of the Passion and his bodily sufferings. This, again, is signed by Vecchietta and dated 1476. And what was this made for? This was actually made for Vecchietta’s own tomb. So as Vecchietta was aging, he decides to sign a contract with Santa Maria della Scala and asks to be buried in the hospital church, and he pays for the decoration of a chapel. Now, for an artist to do this in the 1470s is actually quite extraordinary and it shows how Vecchietta himself considered his role as an artist as a very important role within the city of Siena. He was, after all, one of the most important and well-known artists of the city at the time. And so he makes this large statue to go over the altar, over, effectively, his tomb. And not only he does this sculpture but he also paints a large panel painting, an altarpiece, also for the same chapel, and you have to imagine that the Christ was probably originally placed in front of this painting. So you had the gold background, these figures painted on the altarpiece, and then in front of it the sculpture of the Man of Sorrows. And this shows the Virgin and Child, flanked by St. Peter and Paul and St. Lawrence and St. Francis. They’re all saints that are associated with Vecchietta’s name: so on the left you have Peter and Lawrence, he is called Lorenzo di Pietro, and members of his family were also called Paolo and Francesco, so this is a sort of family altarpiece. It was removed from the church eventually and is now in the Pinacoteca in Siena, but you have to imagine that originally it would have been in the church. And here you see the signature of the sculpture, where again it says that this is the “opus,” the work, of Lorenzo di Pietro, the painter known as Vecchietta. The statue is really extraordinary and my favorite description of the sculpture is a description by Frederick Mortimer Clapp, who was a director of The Frick Collection, who in 1926 described this work as “an Indian yogin,” so this idea that this figure is almost Oriental in feeling and the suffering of this Christ is the suffering of a yogi figure in India. And I think it’s just such a wonderful way to describe this work, and this detail of the head shows how powerful and how haunting this statue actually is. So when you come to the Frick and you see “The Resurrection of Christ,” think about Siena and think about these extraordinary works in this hospital complex in Siena, not one of the most famous sites in the city but one that is definitely worth visiting if you are interested in the work of Vecchietta.

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