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Siena's Archivio di Stato

The seminar has taken us to many artistic treasures, with the aim of making cultural connections to Dante's Commedia. I am delaying writing about many of them until I reach an appropriate point in my series of posts on the poem, which is obviously going to continue for a while after I return home. The most recent place we visited is the set of exhibits in Siena's Archivio di Stato, in the former palazzo of the Piccolomini family, which is just down the street from my apartment in the Via Pantaneto. That collection includes an incredibly complete set of tax and customs records for the city of Siena, going back to the 13th century. The records of the Biccherna and Gabella, as they were called, were bound into codices every six months, and the city government began to commission painted wooden panels as covers for these codices. Over the city's history, these panels were commissioned from the leading Sienese artists, a commitment to local art that continues today in the commissioning of the Palio, the standard that is the prize of the famous horse race of the same name, from a local artist.

Some of these panels are now in the collections of other museums, like the Met in New York, and some of you may have seen the special exhibit of the biccherna panels, following their restoration, at the Corcoran in Washington in 2002. The panels still kept here in Siena are now in a beautiful display in the Archivio, which the public can visit for an hour, free of charge, on weekdays and Saturdays, starting at 9:30, 10:30, or 11:30 am. It is not to be missed. The Biccherna panels offer a history of Sienese art in miniature, over the course of which you can watch the Byzantine formality yield to a Gothic sense of realism, then supplanted by Renaissance one-point perspective, and so on. The panels also offer crucial historical information, showing the monks and nobles who served as tax officers.

Especially in later years, the panel was given over to a depiction of an important event in Siena during the six-month period of that codex of records. The panel shown above, by Francesco di Giorgio Martini, shows the city of Siena during a series of earthquakes in August 1466. You can see what the Duomo looked like and how the towers of Siena were more numerous and much taller in that period. The Sienese, fearing that those towers were going to collapse if the earthquakes continued, left the city in large numbers and lived in temporary shelters, which are shown in the foreground. The one shown to the left is a tribute to Ambrogio Lorenzetti's figure of Ben Comune in the Fresco of Good Government, in Siena's Palazzo Pubblico. Another favorite on my first visit (I am going back on Saturday) was a panel from a year in which a new sumptuary law was passed in Siena, forbidding wealthy women from wearing extravagant gold-lined cloaks. The image on the cover that year shows, more wistfully than judmentally, a beautiful woman in just such a beautiful, golden get up.

Just as dazzlingly, a second room in the Archivio has a display of archival documents all related to the text of Dante's Commedia, including a copy of one of Boniface VIII's papal bulls, a manuscript with someone's favorite passages of the Commedia copied out, and many other amazing treasures, all with little signs that describe the piece and give the relevant passage from Dante's poem. Many of these are simple civil documents, like the record of a charitable donation by one of the Sienese mentioned briefly by Dante. Some of them relate more directly, like the record of a fine levied against the musician Casella and his friend, a poet Dante knew here in Siena, following a complaint that they were singing and carrying on too loudly late one night. When Dante encounters Casella in ante-Purgatory, Dante asks his old friend to cheer his heart with one of the songs he made on a poem of Dante's. Casella does so and they are quickly chastened by Cato, who urges them not to think anymore on worldly things. Art imitates life.

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