Defining the Gothic in Italy : the Cistercians of San Galgano and civic architecture in Siena 1250-1350

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2000

Authors

Johns, Ann Collins, 1955-

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Abstract

The art and architecture of late medieval Siena is often described as "Gothic", especially vis-a-vis Florence; yet the issue of "what is Gothic" remains sparsely examined in Sienese architecture. For instance, the long tradition of nationalistic scholarship has preempted inquiry into the relationship between the nearby Cistercian abbey of San Galgano and stylistic developments in Sienese architecture, both ecclesiastic and civic. It is in civic architecture that the imprint of Cistercian forms can most clearly be recognized in Siena, and thus I focus on the relationship between San Galgano, the communal government of Siena, and the resultant architectural interchanges. I explore the connection between Burgundian forms and a nascent civic aesthetic, and I investigate why the city of Siena chose to turn to a foreign-derived, rurally-based order of monks for architectural guidance. I suggest that a grafting of local building practices and Cistercian style took place at the abbey of San Galgano, in effect translating Burgundian principles of design into a native idiom. A similar translation occurred when the regionally informed Cistercian architecture of San Galgano was transformed into Sienese civic structures, during the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. The clearest evidence of this transformation occurs in the communal water sources or fonti. The fonti--built in the heyday of Siena's political power, in the latter half of the Duecento--in turn may have provided a model for future civic construction. Many of these projects were seemingly supervised by the monks of San Galgano, who had taken on key roles within Siena's government. What had occurred with the Cistercians in their monastic communities was a translation of an ecclesiastic style--the Gothic--into something more institutional and utilitarian. The Sienese may have perceived the functional, modular, and visually unifying potentialities inherent in Cistercian architecture, qualities that could easily be merged into the local idiom. I suggest that the architectural possibilities of the Burgundian form of the Gothic were amply evident to the Sienese, and that Cistercian principles of design were incorporated, far more than has previously been discussed, throughout the architectural fabric of medieval Siena

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