Copper-plate Catherine : Francesco Vanni’s Baroque engraved print series of the Sienese civic saint

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2022-05

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Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a visionary and mystic who lived in the late Middle-Ages. She became a subject of devotion across Europe soon after her 1461 canonization, but the center of her cult remained in her hometown of Siena. Francesco Vanni (1563-1610) was a devout Sienese painter who produced more images of Saint Catherine during his lifetime than of any other subject. In 1597, over 200 years after Catherine’s death, Vanni designed a 12-page, 33-scene print cycle of her life, which continues to be the most comprehensive Catherinian cycle in any medium. Until the mid-1970’s, scholars commonly argued that the trecento was the height of Sienese artistic production, after which there was a steep decline in output and in quality. The narrative has since shifted to include more nuance, but printing in Siena, and the depiction of Saint Catherine by Sienese artists, remain under-studied. Catherine, as presented in her Vita by her hagiographer, was a saint especially well-suited to the devotional practices and ideologies of the Counter Reformation. In his print series, Francesco Vanni infused Catherine with the dynamism of the Baroque and presented her narrative in a visually interesting way that spoke to the enthusiastic piety of the Counter Reformation. His designs were successful locally and internationally because of the relative financial availability of the print medium, the use of the visual language of the Baroque, and the devotional relevance of the material.

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