Siena, Coral, Gold : The Art of Storytelling

The Virgin Mary has just given birth. She’s reclining under a sumptuous red cover decorated with gold embroidery, while baby Jesus is given a bath. That Cennino Cennini, a fourteenth century Sienese artist, chose such an intimate rendition of the nativity is unexpected, but equally intriguing is the setting. Instead of a fantasy land or a barn from the biblical story, the event is taking place in a palace that any contemporary viewer in Siena would have found familiar. Cennini wanted to emphasize that God was not in some distant, faraway land. He was right here, in this city.

angel-sano-di-pietro

During my days as an art student, I was repeatedly told by my teachers to listen to the colors. It was the same advice I received years later as a perfumery trainee. In order to compose an accord that would be more than just a pleasant odor, you have to listen to scents. Each note has its feel, shape and character. Like fragrances, colors are powerful, and they can convey emotion as readily as gestures and lines.

Walking through the exhibit of Sienese paintings at Brussels’s Centre for Fine Arts, I realize once again how true this is. From the thirteenth century until the fifteenth century, Siennese masters like Sano di Pietro, Duccio, Simone Martini, the Lorenzetti brothers, Sassetta, and Giovanni Di Paolo developed their own unique style that diverged from the rigid Byzantine tradition. The saints wore contemporary clothes, divine beings displayed human emotions, the angels had sunkissed faces, and the scenes were set in vivid colors–coral, rose pink, blue, jade green, and ochre.

You sense the power of these paintings through the colors alone. They are otherworldly, but they pull you into their orbit. You can almost hear the water splashing on the stone floor, smell the Madonna lilies in Saint Catherine’s hands and feel the texture of gold threads on the Virgin Mary’s veil. The Sienese masters excelled at the art of storytelling, and even after many centuries, their tales come alive.

BOZAR’s exhibit includes more than sixty masterpieces from Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena and the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Rouen. It runs until January 18th, 2015, and if you’re in Brussels or have a chance to visit, please don’t miss the opportunity. If not, then I recommend taking a look at the video and a gallery of selected works at BOZAR’s website. Do these colors tell you a story?

BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts
Rue Ravenstein entrance

Sano di Pietro (1405–1481). Ange de l’Annonciation (detail), Musée du Petit Palais d’Avignon. Via wikipedia, some rights reserved.

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37 Comments

  • Austenfan: I must have seen most of these on one of my numerous visits to Siena itself but would love to see them again. Something to look forward to for the holidays perhaps.
    I adore Siena, it’s just so beautiful and quiet. December 10, 2014 at 7:38am Reply

    • Victoria: I visited Siena only once years ago when I still lived in Italy, and it has long been my dream to return there. I remember it as a beautiful, charming place. And the food was great, of course, but this is a constant across all of Italy. December 10, 2014 at 7:54am Reply

      • Marco: I hope you tried Siena’s famous panforte, spice cake! December 10, 2014 at 10:39am Reply

        • Jessica: Is it like gingerbread? December 10, 2014 at 11:52am Reply

          • Victoria: More like fruitcake. It’s made with lots of candied fruit and nuts, bound with a little bit of dough. It also includes lots of spices, so it can taste rich and peppery. Delicious with red wine. December 10, 2014 at 3:32pm Reply

            • limegreen: Thanks for the lovely post, Victoria.
              Panforte is wonderful, and the heft of it is so amazingly dense. Due to a combination of bad Italian and poor sense of the metric system, I made the mistake of ordering much more than I needed in a bakery shop in Sienna. (I’m afraid I don’t buy bakery goods here by weight!) Oops! Took it home where it weighed down my luggage! I ended up cutting it up and making little gifts for friends who loved it.
              “Fruitcake” in American vernacular has become associated with nothing special (or worse) and until one tries panforte, one really has an appreciation of what “fruitcake’ should be! December 10, 2014 at 6:43pm Reply

              • Bela: I agree: Panforte is unique. It’s more like a large Florentine biscuit, with smaller pieces of nuts and candied peel.

                I used to buy some every year in Ventimiglia (when I lived in Nice). It lasted ages. These days I couldn’t eat it because of my IBS. 🙁 December 10, 2014 at 9:06pm Reply

              • Victoria: I agree! Panforte makes one realize how a fruitcake should taste. It’s very possible that this 13th century sweet is an ancestor of modern fruitcakes. Of course, a good fruitcake is a marvel. I made one based on the recipe by my English friend’s mother, and we could hardly wait to eat it–it had to be aged first for the flavors to marry. It was mostly a mix of raisins, sultanas, candied orange peel, candied pineapple, with a touch of sweet spices. December 11, 2014 at 9:16am Reply

        • Austenfan: I have and I also loved Pan Pepato. December 10, 2014 at 12:02pm Reply

          • Victoria: And now I’m thinking that a perfume based on pan pepato or panforte would be very interesting, no? December 10, 2014 at 3:32pm Reply

            • Austenfan: It would, because neither are overly sweet, very spicy and rich but not overly sugary. December 11, 2014 at 7:06am Reply

              • Victoria: Nothing to do with panforte, but I just remembered that I liked Sienne l´Hiver by Eau D`Italie for its unusual cool woody-smoky and earthy scent. December 11, 2014 at 9:57am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes! It was sold everywhere, and I loved all of the versions I tasted. December 10, 2014 at 3:30pm Reply

  • Christine: Thank you. Such beautiful images. December 10, 2014 at 9:10am Reply

    • Victoria: They really are! I was just mesmerized by the colors. December 10, 2014 at 10:19am Reply

  • Wrenaissance Art: The school of Siena was right on that cusp between the Gothic and the Renaissance. The tension between realistic depiction and the demands of adhering to iconographic convention makes these frescos so beautiful.
    Those colors had such symbolic meaning–lapis lazuli was the pigment used for blue, so was reserved mostly for Mary to indicate her heavenly status. December 10, 2014 at 9:35am Reply

    • Victoria: Really fascinating. I love the Gothic art as well, and I have a soft spot for the Byzanthine iconography (that’s the Eastern Orthodox tradition, and these images are familiar to me).

      I wonder how they created this intense coral. Some of the angels had bright pink wings that reminded of images from the Arabic Tales. December 10, 2014 at 10:22am Reply

  • Marco: My father’s family is from Siena and we’re going to spend Christmas there. December 10, 2014 at 10:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Lucky you, Marco! I have always wanted to visit Siena at this time of year. It must be so beautiful decorated for Christmas. December 10, 2014 at 3:29pm Reply

  • Ann: They are beautiful. My favorite art period is Northern Rennasaince and my favorite painter is Vermeer. Hans Holbein’s portraits are great too. So many artists to choose from! December 10, 2014 at 11:22am Reply

    • Victoria: Holbein’s portraits are really impressive. He captures so much of his sitter’s personality. December 10, 2014 at 3:31pm Reply

  • Jessica: How interesting! I followed your links and googled some more and learned something new today. I’m traveling to NYC for the holidays and hope to visit some museums there. Maybe I’ll find one of these Sienese artists. 😉 December 10, 2014 at 12:02pm Reply

    • Victoria: I envy you, Jessica! NYC around this time is such a fun place to visit, and you’re sure to discover a lot. I don’t know much about which masters are exhibited in NYC, but the Metropolitan Museum of Art has several galleries dedicated to the Gothic and Renaissance art. Duke Federigo de Montefeltro’s library (purchased and brought in its entirety to the Met) alone is worth the visit. December 10, 2014 at 3:37pm Reply

  • Aurora: Thank you Victoria for this beautiful post. The angel is enchanting, such delicate flushed cheeks, I wish I could see this exhibition meanwhile browsing the site will have to do.

    In the christian tradition when heavenly hosts appear it is said that delicious perfumes waft around them. December 10, 2014 at 12:09pm Reply

    • Victoria: Glad that you liked the angel as much as I did! He is splendid as are all of the Madonna’s with their delicate features and dark almond-shaped eyes.

      I could almost smell the incense around these paintings. December 10, 2014 at 3:39pm Reply

  • Karen: Beautiful! It is remarkable that so many works of art have survived through wars, floods, fires – you name it! Their beauty still shines for us 700+ years later. Thank you for a post which has inspired me to read up more on artists from Siena. December 10, 2014 at 12:27pm Reply

  • crikey: oh, how I wish I could make it there for that. I was lucky enough to get a chance to visit the ‘Road to Van Eyck’ exhib in Rotterdam a couple of years ago–which showed the paths that threaded the gothic and the new style together. (The curator’s stated aim was to try to prove that Van Eyck was not an alien, that there were forerunners.) There are a couple of really good pieces in the National Gallery in London, too, that have that halfway between two worlds feel–with the gilding and flattened perspective, but that first big move towards verisimilitude, and more individualised faces and bodies.

    This was a side trip from wallowing happily in the northern renaissance works in Bruges for a week. Oh, and to see the start of the cleaning of the Antwerp altarpiece, and see the colours breathing, singing, and glowing again as they were freed from the old varnish that flattened and muted them. I’d love to go back and see how that’s getting on now… December 10, 2014 at 1:14pm Reply

  • Figuier: Thanks for this Victoria – the images are beautiful on my laptop, I can only image how the colours sing irl! The pink of your angel’s cheeks is beautifully picked up by the flush on his eyelids – a lovely touch.

    I’ve never visited Siena, but would love to. One of my most intense art experiences ever was the Uffici in Florence; but I particularly like seeing exhibitions which bring together paintings that usually ‘live’ in different spaces, it always makes you see them differently. This one sounds great.

    Now I’m going to spray on some Shanghai Lily for the perfume equivalent of early Renaissance lustre. December 10, 2014 at 5:07pm Reply

    • Victoria: Shanghai Lily sounds like a perfect choice to me! All of those lily petals wrapped in a veil of incense and myrrh.

      At this exhibit I discovered how much I love Sano di Pietro’s work, and if you google his name, you discover so many beautiful images in the most striking colors. December 11, 2014 at 9:09am Reply

  • Andy: I know little about art in this time period, but simply that the color of the pigments can remain so rich so many centuries later is nothing short of amazing to me. December 10, 2014 at 5:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I agree! And that their intensity is not match for the modern synthetic colors. December 11, 2014 at 9:10am Reply

  • AndreaR: I love the idea of listening to the colors! December 10, 2014 at 7:00pm Reply

    • Victoria: I have always loved that expression. December 11, 2014 at 9:24am Reply

  • bregje: Love the idea of listening to colors too!
    Also love the fact that i get to read about art,books,music,dance on a perfume-blog!

    I noticed that before and wondered about that but now i see that you were an art student it all makes sence!
    I went to artschool myself after an injury cut my dance-career short.So all my favourite subjects show up here!
    Although i’m new in the perfumeworld;)

    I once wrote a paper about icons and the colors that were used(Gold,indigo,magenta) so i liked reading wrenaissance’s comment about lapis lazuli.

    I never tasted panforte! Even though i’ve been to Italy and Sienna many times.I’m more of a savoury kind of girl.
    You can find the best foccacia in Luca, btw.

    Thanks for all your beautiful inspiring stories. December 11, 2014 at 1:09am Reply

    • Victoria: We had a similar start, except that it was reversed. I didn’t study art for long, because I decided to focus more on dance, but I loved doing it, and I got so much pleasure out of it. And I have stacks of really clumsy drawings than my grandmother lovingly preserved. 🙂

      And there is so much overlap between sensory enjoyments of all kinds. Commercially made perfumes are just a small part of it.

      I also remember delicious foccacia and bread. December 11, 2014 at 9:54am Reply

  • Rebecca: I love these kinds of posts. 🙂 December 11, 2014 at 12:30pm Reply

    • Victoria: I’m happy to share! 🙂 December 11, 2014 at 3:57pm Reply

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