Art and Economics: Sienese Paintings from the Dawn of the Modern Financial Age
From its vantage point high in the hills of Tuscany, Siena was uniquely positioned to become one of the major commercial, banking and artistic centers of medieval Europe. Straddling the Via Francigena, the main thoroughfare between France and the Papacy in Rome, and surrounded by rich and fertile fields, Siena emerged as one of the earliest and most successful independent city states or comune of the 12th to 14th centuries. Her bankers and merchants were among the most prominent in the known world. During this period Siena was characterized by a secular regime that actively promoted the concept of "civic life," including patronage of the arts as the responsibility of good government. This became the "golden age" of Sienese painting.
This exhibition is about the confluence of three seemingly disparate elements - art, history and economic thought - in a synergy of civic life. Significantly, the first presentation of this exhibition was timed to coincide with the introduction of the "euro," the common currency of all Europe. The 50 panel paintings and 12 related manuscripts assembled here are a tribute to power of the popolo, the rule of citizens, rather than church or the nobility, that preceded modern democracies. These biccherne, the painted covers of the state ledgers or administrative balance sheets, provide a fascinating window into the daily life of an Italian city-state and evolving republic at the dawn of modern economic thinking. These remarkable works of art derive their name, biccherne, from the government agency that originally commissioned them.
In 1257 the Office of the Biccherna, the most important financial branch of Sienese government, charged with managing all the revenues and expenses of the comune, inaugurated the custom of commissioning panel paintings from the best artists in the community to function as the covers of its semi-annual collection of public ledgers. Shortly thereafter, the Office of the General Gabella, which was responsible for all duties and other taxes on commodities and business transactions, followed suit. Eventually this practice was adopted by other agencies and independent organizations of the city state such as the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala (Saint Mary of the Stairway) and the university. Today more than 100 of these fascinating works of art are part of the collection of the State Archives in Siena.
The style and subject matter of the biccherne evolved paralleling and documenting the growth of the Siena itself. The earliest extant biccherna (1258) depicts simply a portrait of the bursar Ugo di San Galgano working on the account books at his desk. By 1340 portrayals of bursar with a contributor provide visual evidence of the concept of a modern bank. As the city state's importance and self-awareness grew, the themes of the covers were expanded to include allegories of the religious and political life of Siena, and even specific historical events. In 1440 an anonymous artist depicts a stonemason building the new fortress walls. And a panel from 1467 shows the Virgin protecting the City during an earthquake while her citizens sought safety in tents constructed outside the city walls.
By the 15th century artists seemed no longer constricted by the size of the records themselves and even began to create small wall paintings. In 1555 Siena was finally defeated by its archrival Florence and absorbed into the grand duchy of Cosimo de' Medici. And, although biccherne were still occasionally commissioned into the 17th century, Siena's loss of independent power was reflected in the declining relevance of this art form.
This exhibition is presented under the auspices of the President of the Republic of Italy, through the Segretariato Generale della Presidenza della Repubblica, the Ministero per I Beni e le Attività Culturali, DirezioneGenerale per gli Archivi, and the Fondazione Monte dei Paschi di Siena in cooperation with the Ministero degli Affari Esteri. The exhibition is sponsored by Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Insurance has been provided by Montepaschi Vita. It was organized by Retablo Cultura-Arte-Immagine S.r.l. Upon return to Siena, the biccherne will be on view in the new Museum of the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala.