- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Exhibits of early Italian painting are rare in Washington, and one of decorated books from Siena is even more unusual. The most recent show of Italian painting here was the National Gallery of Art's much-admired blockbuster "Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo's 'Ginevra de' Benci' and Renaissance Portraits of Women" last September. Now come the exquisite, embellished Sienese "biccherne" panels used as book covers for civic account ledgers that comprise the current "Art and Economics: Sienese Paintings From the Dawn of the Modern Financial Age" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.
The Sienese were the only artists who departed from traditional religious scenes to depict people and their everyday lives, and while the exhibit lacks such big names as Leonardo da Vinci and Domenico Ghirlandaio, it includes paintings by such important Sienese artists as Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Sano di Pietro.
This show of 50 panel paintings and 12 related illustrated books could well be the sleeper exhibit of the summer-fall art season.
Dramatic spots light the individual paintings like brilliant jewels, causing them to shimmer from the surrounding midnight-blue walls. Their beauty and craftsmanship are hardly surprising, since Siena was one of the peninsula's wealthiest and most powerful city-states. The works are all the more extraordinary because of their utilitarian nature.
Consider "Bartolomeo of San Galgano, Bursar" (1276), the earliest biccherna in the show, portraying the subject working at his accounts with a Latin text surrounding him. The artist employed the early Sienese decorative style of strong linear delineation and the two-dimensional patterning inherent in the glossy, egg tempera surface.
The paintings do not comprehensively document the history of painting in Sienna from the 13th century through the 17th century, but they do show the transition from the medieval style of the "Bartolomeo" panel to the rounded, illusionistic Renaissance approach introduced by Duccio di Buoninsega (active 1278-1318). Although no panels by him are extant, his influence on many of the artists in the exhibit is evident. Through the centuries, the Sienese clung to their original two-dimensional, decorative style and fused it with later ones.
By controlling the main pilgrimage route between Rome and the rest of Europe, especially France, Siena had achieved a position of great prominence and influence. In addition, the Sienese were the primary bankers to the Papal States by the end of the 12th century and traded across Europe and the Far East. The city-state was an oligarchy that selected members of the upper, merchant classes to rule. They, in turn, set up the Office of the Biccherna that managed the commune's finances through the appointment of a managing official and four stewards for a period not to exceed six months (to prevent corruption). Monks were often selected as bursars similar to our treasurers from nearby monasteries such as San Galgano. The biccherne covers took their names from their supervising office.
From such simple, direct portraits as "Bartolomeo," biccherne paintings rapidly evolved to include coats of arms of the responsible stewards and images of bursars working with their assistants. "The Bursar and His Clerk in Their Office" (1394) showed what their office looked like. Scissors, a knife and a cushion for drying ink were placed on a table. Boxes for money and books edged the table.
Artists progressed to showing landmarks in Siena with paintings of the duomo (cathedral) and town hall. "Cover of the Register of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, Depicting the Cathedral of Siena" (1377-1395) shows the duomo from the hospital. The hospital, which remained open until just 20 years ago, was important on the pilgrims' route for medical treatment and rest. Wealthy from contributions of the faithful, it was an important patron of the arts.
Artists also depicted such actual contemporary events as marriages, jousts and battles. Sano di Pietro's "Noble Matrimony" (1473) shows the marriage of a daughter of a bursar to a Neapolitan nobleman.
By the 15th century, artists began to make small, handsome wall paintings, called "gabelle," in place of book covers. They were no longer restricted by the size of the account registers and created paintings freer in style and size. The exhibit also includes books with related manuscript illuminations.
Appropriately enough, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena sponsored the exhibition that so distinctly shows the marriage of art and money. Its first presentation in Rome last winter and spring was timed for the introduction of the euro, now the common currency of most European Union nations.

WHAT: "Art and Economics: Sienese Paintings From the Dawn of the Modern Financial Age"
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue and 17th Street NW
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays; open until 9 p.m. on Thursdays, through Sept. 23
TICKETS: $5 for adults, $8 for families, $3 for seniors and member guests, $1 for students with valid IDs.
PHONE: 202/639-1700

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