Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 29, 2015
John Marciari and Suzanne Boorsch Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena Exh. cat. New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery in association with Yale University Press, 2013. 256 pp.; 194 color ills.; 13 b/w ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300135480)
Exhibition schedule: Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, September 27, 2013–January 5, 2014

Francesco Vanni (1563/64–1610), the leading Sienese painter at the turn of the seventeenth century, was an innovative religious iconographer, a gifted draftsman, and an occasional printmaker. Despite his considerable accomplishments, he has never been the sole subject of a full monograph or exhibition—until now. Inspired by Yale University Art Gallery’s acquisition in 2003 of Vanni’s Madonna della Pappa painting (ca. 1599), the exhibition appeared only in New Haven. The accompanying catalogue provides an extensive examination of the artist’s works, focusing on his preparatory drawings for altarpieces, his three autograph etchings, and the many prints by other artists based on his designs. Most of Vanni’s paintings are large altarpieces, produced for churches in Siena, elsewhere in Tuscany, and Rome. Many of these are illustrated in color in this beautifully illustrated catalogue, although few paintings were in the exhibition. The more than eighty catalogued works provide an illuminating insight into the artist’s drawing techniques, design process, iconography, and reliance on prints. The book includes two richly informative essays, one by John Marciari considering Vanni’s biography and accomplishments as a painter, and a second by Suzanne Boorsch that examines the artist as a printmaker and designer of prints. Building on the earlier work of such scholars as Peter Anselm Riedl, Susan Wegner, and Marco Ciampolini, this informative, reliable, and insightful publication represents the best comprehensive study of Vanni in English.

Marciari’s essay provides an illuminating introduction to Vanni’s life and production as a religious painter, observing that although he lived in a city controlled by Medicean Florence, his works show more influence from Rome, Bologna, and the Marches than from Florence. Marciari speaks authoritatively of Vanni’s role in the Catholic Reformation, noting his associations with such key figures as Cesare Baronio and Federico Borromeo, the emphasis in his art on the new spirituality, and his connections to the Oratorian orbit as an early member of the Confraternity of the Sacro Chiodo, one of Siena’s forty-two confraternities. Vanni’s devotion to the Catholic reform is demonstrated by his concern with accurate iconography and even by his role as a witness in the canonization proceedings for the Sienese Caterina Vannini. Perhaps most important in this regard are Vanni’s contributions to the iconography of Saint Catherine of Siena.

A key issue in Marciari’s essay and catalogue entries is his consideration of the respective influences on the artist of the Carracci and Federico Barocci. He argues that, notwithstanding Barocci’s considerable influence on Vanni, the impact of the Urbinate master has been overemphasized by scholars, and the Carracci played a larger role than has been recognized. Marciari believes that Vanni traveled to Bologna during 1586–87, a trip that is undocumented but confirmed by the appearance of Carraccesque influences in Vanni’s work. Barocci’s subsequent influence on Vanni, in Marciari’s view, was prompted by his exposure to the Carracci, who were already aware of Barocci. That Carracci-inspired interest, Marciari suggests, took Vanni to Arezzo, where he saw his first Barocci painting: the Madonna del Popolo (1575–79), which he copied in a beautiful, full compositional study in ca. 1586. After this date, which also marks the arrival of Barocci’s famous Visitation altarpiece (1583–86) in Rome, Vanni began to adopt aspects of Barocci’s style, figures, compositions, and even procedures in his own works. This baroccismo culminates in the monumental Saint Ansanus Baptizing the People of Siena altarpiece of 1593–96 for Siena cathedral, a composition shaped by Barocci’s Madonna del Popolo. Twenty-five drawings for this altarpiece are known today, seven of them in the exhibition, but Marciari believes that this number is only a fraction of Vanni’s original production. If so, these numerous preparatory studies would represent yet another aspect of Barocci’s influence.

Marciari’s authoritative catalogue entries include a number of groups that prepared some of Vanni’s principal altarpieces, such as his Saint Hyacinth Saving a Drowned Boy (ca. 1596–98). The seven catalogued studies for this major picture exemplify the diversity of Vanni’s drawing types and techniques, including a finished, monochrome bozzetto in oil on paper that Marciari considers the earliest example of this type by the artist and several beautiful figure studies in red chalk and red wash. Other groups, such as the drawings for Saint Ansanus Baptizing the People of Siena (ca. 1593–96), the Martyrdom of Saint Lucy (ca. 1596–98), and the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena (ca. 1601) showcase Vanni’s masterful compositional studies and figure drawings in other media and at different stages of the design process.

Vanni’s relationship to prints is a fascinating area of his artistic production, one on which Boorsch’s essay and catalogue entries shed considerable light. Boorsch argues convincingly that Vanni’s three autograph etchings all probably date from ca. 1595, although the reproductive engravings after his designs first appear a decade earlier and continue for most of his career. She observes that it was especially the prints by professional printmakers after Vanni’s designs, rather than his own etchings, that disseminated knowledge of his style. Many of these prints portray the most famous of all Sienese saints, Catherine of Siena (1347–1380, canonized 1461), who was portrayed in one of the artist’s own etchings as well as in numerous engravings by others, working after Vanni’s design. According to Boorsch, Vanni created more images of Saint Catherine than of any other subject. Among these works, the most extraordinary is the series of a dozen engravings created by the Fleming Pieter de Jode I in ca. 1597. The first independent print series on Catherine’s life, these detailed and accomplished engravings, which elicited Pierre-Jean Mariette’s particular admiration, demonstrate Vanni’s skills as an imaginative designer in such subjects as Saint Catherine receiving the stigmata, experiencing visions, receiving a new heart from Christ, and drinking blood from the side of her Savior. Vanni also produced designs for chiaroscuro woodcuts, including a spectacular example of The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Child (ca. 1592.) whose attribution to Andrea Andreani is convincingly confirmed by Boorsch.

To this reviewer, the question of Barocci’s influence on Vanni bears further consideration. One issue, considered by Marciari at some length, concerns the inception of Vanni’s oil sketches of heads, made to prepare his altarpieces. Few of these are still known today, although, as Marciari observes, they are datable almost throughout his career, suggesting that others may yet come to light. Vanni’s earliest head study in oil on paper, previously ascribed to Bartolomeo Passarotti but much more convincing as Vanni’s work, is a striking head of Saint John the Baptist that Marciari connects with Vanni’s Baptism of 1587–88. Later heads that are catalogued or illustrated in the catalogue include: a Head of Saint Bernardino of Siena for the Virgin and Child with Saints of 1593 (which looks much less painterly than the other examples); a Head of an Old Man for the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes (ca. 1606); and a study for the angel’s head in the Madonna della Pappa (ca. 1599). The last two are very similar in style and technique to such heads by Barocci, but Marciari sees a closer affinity with Annibale Carracci’s oil sketches of heads, which he believes provided the inspiration for Vanni’s works. This is an arguable point, and Marciari’s hypothesis is undermined by the fact that Annibale Carracci’s oil sketches of heads did not prepare paintings; as far as we know, they were all independent exercises, rather than being made as means to another end. Thus Barocci’s oil heads, which did prepare heads in altarpieces, provide a truer precedent for Vanni’s preparatory oils. Domenico Beccafumi’s oil sketches of heads, justly noted by Marciari, also provide a precedent for use as preparatory works, but these are far more monochromatic than Barocci’s or Vanni’s heads. Thus in terms of style and function, only Barocci’s heads provide a real precedent for Vanni’s heads. Although there is no evidence that Barocci and Vanni ever met, or that Vanni ever visited Urbino, Barocci’s drawings and oil sketches were widely collected, and it seems probable that Vanni saw such works. As I have demonstrated elsewhere (“‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in it’: Barocci’s Design Process,” in Federico Barocci: Inspiration and Innovation in Early Modern Italy, Judith Mann, ed., Burlington: Ashgate, in press), there were numerous collections during the seicento that included heads by Barocci that were probably oil sketches. Of the seventeen such inventories known to me, three were in Bologna, and nine were in Rome, both cities that Vanni visited. Although the dates of these inventories post-date Vanni’s lifetime, several of the collectors, such as the Marchese Vincenzo Giustiniani (1564–1637), who owned the head of an angel by Barocci, were alive when he visited their cities.

Although Marciari makes a convincing case that Vanni was not simply a slavish imitator of Barocci, Barocci’s influence on Vanni’s oil sketches of heads seems definitive. Other questions about Barocci’s impact on his Sienese contemporary remain elusive, however. If Vanni did see paintings, drawings, and oil sketches by Barocci, why did Vanni create oil sketches but not drawings in pastel, since Barocci produced many more pastel drawings than oil sketches? Barocci’s prolific production of preparatory drawings for his paintings—in far greater numbers than the Carracci—also seems to have influenced Vanni; but this influence suggests an exposure to collections with a considerable number of Barocci drawings, the specifics of which cannot be corroborated today. Marciari’s suggestion that the Carracci influenced Vanni, in terms of figure style, drawing from life, and specific compositions, is convincing, but should not impede our understanding of Barocci’s impact.

The Francesco Vanni: Art in Late Renaissance Siena catalogue makes an important contribution to the study of Italian art at the turn of the seventeenth century. The judicious selections of drawings and prints as well as the careful attention to technique, iconography, and pertinent historical context are exemplary. And the choice of a Sienese master who is slightly off the beaten track provides a compelling reminder of the merits of looking beyond the usual suspects and art centers in creating beneficial and beautiful exhibitions.

Babette Bohn
Professor of Art History, School of Art, Texas Christian University