NEW HAVEN — Ten years ago, Yale University Art Gallery acquired a painting by an artist from Siena called Francesco Vanni. Vanni is barely known today, but he was so highly thought of toward the end of the 16th century that he was commissioned by the pope to paint a 24-foot-high altarpiece for the new basilica of Saint Peter’s in Rome. (Yes, that Saint Peter’s.) By then, his paintings already filled the churches of Siena.
The Yale painting, “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt,” is one of only two paintings by Vanni outside of Europe, and it’s a beauty. The other, “Virgin Offering the Christ Child to Saint Francis,” is owned by the RISD Museum in Providence. Both are now hanging with more than 60 other prints, paintings, and drawings in “Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena.”
The show was supposed to open in 2010 to mark the 400th anniversary of Vanni's death. But delays to Yale University Art Gallery’s renovations set the opening back three years. Organized by John Marciari, who has since moved from Yale to the San Diego Museum of Art, and Suzanne Boorsch, the gallery’s curator of prints, drawings, and photographs, the exhibition is Yale’s first loan exhibition since its reopening last year.
Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena
Unofficially known as “The Madonna della Pappa,” “The Rest on the Flight Into Egypt” shows an angel appearing before the Holy Family. Blond, braided, and beribboned, she offers up some moistened bread (or “pappa”) on a decorated ceramic bowl with a golden spoon, which the Madonna’s slender fingers take up in an improbably delicate grip.
This is not, we surmise, your typical refugee experience. Something special is going on.
From his throne in the arms of the Madonna, the swaddled baby looks on with that glimmer of hilarity common to all infants whose desires are about to be spankingly met. A gray-haired Joseph completes the tableau. Having plucked some cherries from the branches that, according to legend, bent down to offer their fruit as the Holy Family passed by, he offers them now to his son. The infant seems regally unfazed by this first immodest experience of superabundance.
It’s the picture’s coloring that is most remarkable. It pops — almost uncomfortably — along the line where the Madonna’s traditional pink and blue robes connect. Elsewhere, however, the coloration is rich but entrancingly subtle. You feel a tender interplay between the moody gray-blue sky, the bright red of the cherries, and above all, the oil-slick flicker of blue and yellow on the angel’s pink gown.
Where did this artist come from?
The Siena of the late Renaissance was not the same Siena that had stood for hundreds of years as an artistic counterweight to Florence, producing painters as great as Duccio, Simone Martini, and the brothers Lorenzetti. Economically, it was in decline, and it was controlled by Medici Florence.
Don’t expect artists, however, to reflect the political realities of their times. Just as Matisse’s response to 20th-century carnage was to paint bourgeois interiors and odalisques, the reaction of Sienese artists to Florentine domination was to steer pointedly away from that city. Vanni led this charge. He looked not to the great artists of Florence but to Urbino, where the great Federico Barocci had repaired, after being poisoned by a rival in Rome (or so the story goes).
Barocci's palpably sincere pictures combined Venetian color with Tuscan composition. Building on the genius of Parma’s Correggio, they pointed the way out of Mannerist excess and toward the Baroque.
More importantly, their fluent naturalism and clear narratives dovetailed with the official program of spiritual renewal that was the Counter-Reformation. (When Filippo Neri, the leader of the burgeoning Oratorian movement — and a man who reportedly did not even like painting — first saw Barocci’s “Visitation” in the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, he famously collapsed in ecstasy.
Vanni’s compositions are littered with quotations from Barocci. But the two painters never met. So part of this exhibition’s purpose is both to understand the link between the two artists better, and to reexamine the received idea that Vanni was merely an imitator of Barocci.
Whatever else he was, Vanni in the 1580s was young, talented, devout, and eager to learn. He belonged to a church group in Siena closely associated with Neri’s Oratorians in Rome. So even though he didn’t see Barocci’s “Visitation” himself, he heard all about it. And so it’s no surprise that within a year of that painting’s sensational appearance (Romans were lining up to see it), he resolved to change course.
He ditched his Mannerist style. He took up life drawing, clarified his thinking, and went to Bologna to learn from the Carracci brothers, whose aims also chimed with Barocci’s and with the Counter-Reformation in general.
Vanni was on his way. The first part of this show, though not rich in paintings, has works on paper that deftly illustrate the key aspects of this early story. There is a beautiful pen and ink drawing with wash made after Barocci’s “Madonna del Popolo” and a chalk drawing after Ludovico Carracci.
Several studies for an early painting, “The Baptism of Constantine,” suggest a momentous decision by Vanni: He began drawing from life. On one sheet we see him making two attempts to render the shape of a hand holding the bow of a viol de gamba. (Try it yourself. Come back in a few years.)
Also displayed are a magnificent, large scale map of Siena — one scholar recently described it as “absolutely extraordinary for the quality of its figurative connectedness, for its perspectival intelligence, [and] for its topographical precision” — and the only three etchings Vanni ever made. One of the etchings shows Saint Catherine of Siena receiving the stigmata — a slightly controversial choice, since Franciscans had claimed that only Saint Francis received these wounds (the same ones received by Christ).
Perhaps inevitably, Catherine was the saint Vanni depicted more than any other. A highlight of the show is a series of 11 engravings depicting the life of Saint Catherine, accompanied by two related drawings. Each image is divided into three episodes, making a total of 33 (the number of years both the saint and Christ lived). Each is a little miracle of pictorial organization.
Further into the show, multiple studies for the major commissions that began to come Vanni’s way have been grouped together. The most beautiful are the studies for “Saint Hyacinth Saving a Drowned Boy.” They include a grisaille (monochrome) study in oil from the Louvre, and several drawings in red chalk that are full of tenderness and animation.
Look out in particular for the study of a burly but elegant man, seen from behind and leading an unseen horse, and a stout woman, seen in profile but facing away. Both suggest that Vanni’s switch to studies from life paid off handsomely.
Later highlights include the RISD Museum’s “Virgin Offering the Christ Child to Saint Francis,” and a small oil study of the Virgin and Child with two saints, acquired by Yale this year.
In many ways, as the curators point out, Vanni at his peak epitomized the artistic program of the Counter-Reformation: narrative clarity, a respect for both artistic tradition and religious orthodoxy, and above all, an enriched pictorial naturalism. All this was aimed at drawing in the Catholic devout and bolstering belief in the face of the Protestant threat.
Does the human heart want more, however, than bolstering and affirmation? Caravaggio thought so. His appearance on the scene, like a sudden afternoon gust ahead of a storm, was initially resisted by Vanni, but eventually succumbed to. The huge influence of Caravaggio’s stirring realism and heightened drama overshadowed the final years of Vanni’s highly successful career. It instigated a whole new way of thinking about the role of art — and about the role of artists too.
Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.