Ambrogio Lorenzetti's City by the Sea is one of the treasures of Sienese art. It's also a questionable picture. What kind of scene is it? Some people see it as a fragment cut from a larger image. Some see it as an independent landscape. Either way, it is not isolated. City by the Sea has a companion image, Castle on a Lake, of the same size and shape, and with a view that seems approximately continuous.
Both paintings are now attributed to Sassetta, as being part of the Arte della Lana Altarpiece. The triptych, the first known work by Sassetta, was commissioned by the "Arte della Lana", i.e. the woolmerchants' guild for the church of the Carmelite Order in Siena in 1423.
Art in Tuscany | Sassetta
Great Works: City By The Sea (c.1340), Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Ambrogio Lorenzetti (recently attributed to Sassetta), City by the Sea (view of Talamone), Siena, Pinacoteca
Siena in the Middle Ages
Siena reached the height of its splendour in the Middle Ages, when in 1147 it became an independent comune after a century of rule under the bishop. After gaining its independence, the city adopted an expansionistic policy, considerably increasing its domains. But the development and riches brought by trade also accompanied social conflict, which soon developed into a bloody struggle for supremacy between Guelphs and Ghibellines, the two opposing factions that supported respectively the Church and the Empire. Due to its Ghibelline status, Siena went to war against neighbouring Florence, which supported the Pope. Its troops gained a formidable victory against the Florentines at the Battle of Monteperti, on September 4th 1260. Only nine years later, however, Siena was in turn defeated by Florence and the city passed into Guelph hands, heralding a new government and a long period of prosperity.
Siena reached its golden age of architecture during the 14th century, when the city was able to erect many of the most important buildings that survive to this day. These include the Campo, the Palazzo Pubblico (then known as Palazzo dei Signori in reference to the city’s ‘Nine’ governors) the Duomo and the Torre del Mangia. This was also the period in which Senese art flourished, with masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. At this time the city invested enormously in costly projects such as the building of the fortified village of Paganico or the port at Talamone.
But Siena was also known for its lavish feasts and tournaments, such as the Gioco dell’Elmora, in which young men fought one another with clubs and stones. This game was supplanted in 1291 with the Gioco delle Pugna, in which the contenders fought with their hands covered by a wicker structure, or other games such as the Pallonata or the Bufalata. Piazza del Campo was frequently used for a variety of horse races, which developed over the centuries into the city’s best known event, the Palio.
In emulation of ancient Rome, Siena wished to underline its independence. But the great Plague of 1348 decimated the city’s population, bringing decadence and financial collapse. In the fifty years that followed, the city underwent considerable political upheaval, famine and rebellion, which culminated in the end of the government of the ‘Nine’ and loss of independence when in 1390 the city was annexed to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
Despite losing their independence, the people of Siena retained their proverbial courage and cunning. St Catherine of Siena, who during her lifetime was called Caterina Benincasa, died in 1380 after playing an instrumental role in bringing back the Papacy to Rome from its exile in Avignon, thereby proving that the city had not altogether lost its political influence.
Siena in the Renaissance
Just as it reached its greatest political, financial, social and artistic splendour during the 14th century, during the following century the city of Siena appeared destined to live out its final twilight.
With the end of the government of the Nine, Siena entered a period of political instability. In 1403, the ruling Monte dei Dodici was accused of trying to seize definitive power and deposed. There followed a time during which the city was ruled by the Monti Popolari, known as the “Tripartito”, which remained in power until 1480.
During the Renaissance, Siena was a relatively small town of about 15,000 inhabitants. The Senese community as a whole was heavily involved in the duties of public office and each individual had a strong sense of personal duty towards the public administration. This explains why many of the city’s great art treasures were commissioned by the city and not by noble families, whose members were far too busy carrying out their functions as Podestà. The Opera del Duomo at the time grew into a kind of artistic and architectural commission that administered the Palazzo della Mercanzia and the Cappella di Piazza.
Although in many ways a good thing, the great sense of civic duty that characterised the Senese meant that a good deal of animosity would spring up between any number of people and factions on any number of issues concerning the public administration. A remarkable man named Pandolfo Petrucci was thus able to take advantage of such a chaotic situation, gradually developing his influence to such an extent that he became the ruler of Siena in all but name. An able political manipulator, Petrucci effectively governed the city for about twenty years, from 1400, without actually doing away with its traditional government bodies. Under Petrucci’s rule the architecture of Siena developed considerably. Petrucci erected his own opulent palazzo, naming it Palazzo del Magnifico, but his untimely death when still a young man plunged the city into a new period of political upheaval.
Weakened by internal strife, Siena became an easy prey in the territorial designs of the great European powers such as France and Spain. In 1553 Florence allied itself with the Holy Roman Empire and invaded. Siena, which at the time numbered less than 10,000 inhabitants, fell the following year, passing under the direct rule of Cosimo De’ Medici in 1557, who celebrated by ceremonially entering the city and watching a play in the Palazzo Palazzo Pubblico. From this moment onwards, Siena followed the fortunes of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and its ruling Medici family.
On a constitutional level, Siena was not annexed to the Florentine state, retaining its Republican Statute (1544-45) as a newly formed state until the second half of the 16th century with the reforms introduced by Peter Leopold.