Wednesday, December 02, 2020

The Cathedral of Siena (Part 6): The Piccolomini Library

The second post of this ongoing series on the cathedral of Siena described the major side-altar which Cardinal Francesco Todeschini Piccolomini, who served as the city’s archbishop from 1460 to 1503, had built from 1481-85. Seven years after the altar was completed, the cardinal added to the cathedral a new structure, the entrance to which is immediately to the right of the altar. This room extends out of the church’s left wall, perpendicular to it, and was intended to house the library of his uncle Pope Pius II, who had been elected to the Papacy in August of 1458, and reigned for just shy of six years. In the end, however, the library was never brought to Siena, and the room now houses the cathedral’s very impressive collection of decorated choirbooks.
The introit of Easter in a choirbook of the Piccolomini Library, illustrated by Girolamo da Cremona ca. 1473; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Between 1502 and 1507, the library was completed covered in frescos by the painter Bernardino di Betto (1452-1513), who because of his unusually small stature was generally known by the nickname “Pinturicchio – tiny little painter.” He was originally trained as a miniaturist, and brought the techniques which he had used in book-illustration to his fresco work, filling his images, especially the backgrounds, with numerous finely drawn and colored details. His style was very well-liked, and in the later part of the 15th century, and the early years of the 16th, he executed prestigious commissions in Rome for a succcession of Popes. Among these we may also count Card. Piccolomini, who was elected to the Papacy on September 22nd, 1503, but died on October 18th, which, at 27 days, is the eighth shortest Papal reign in history.
The main feature of his works in the Piccolomini Library is a series of ten large panels on the walls, illustrating the major events of the life of the cardinal’s famous uncle, Pope Pius II, who was born with the name Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini in 1405. As a young man, he received the very finest education that the Italian Renaissance could offer, and became known as one of the brightest scholars of his day. He was actively involved in the affairs of the Church, and the first panel depicts him (the smartly dressed young knight in the lower middle) traveling as an envoy to the Ecumenical Council of Basel. In the later years of his Papacy, he would write a long and very detailed memoire called the Commentaries (in the “best” and highest classical Latin), in which he tells of his adventures on this trip when his ship was waylaid by a storm, seen here in the background, almost the only example of the depiction of such an event in Renaissance painting.
The second panel depicts his visit in 1435 as the Council’s ambassador to the court of King James I of Scotland, which here looks a great deal more like the artist’s native Umbria than is actually the case. (There is a very funny passage in the Commentaries in which Pius says something to the effect that the Scots live in a state of perpetual warfare with their eternal and implacable enemies, the Scots.)
In 1442, Piccolomini was sent to the court of the newly-elected Holy Roman Emperor Frederic III at Aachen, where he was received with great honors, and made both a protonotary and the poet laureate of the Empire. Here we see the Emperor personally crowning him with laurels as a sign of the latter dignity.
At the Council of Basel, (an absurdly complicated affair, as ecumenical councils are wont to be), Piccolomini had been on the side of the Antipope Felix V. During his time at the imperial court, however, he realized that Felix’s was a lost cause, and he passed over to the side of the legitimate Pope, Eugenius IV. This fourth panel shows him making his formal submission to him.
As a young man, brilliant, successful and famous, Piccolomini led a very worldly and immoral life, fathering nine illegitimate children in various places. In 1445, however, a serious illness brought about a major conversion, and his decision to enter the clergy. He was appointed first to a canonry at Trent, and then, under the papacy of his personal friend and fellow humanist Nicholas V, to the bishopric of Trieste, and shortly thereafter of Siena. In this last period before his papal election, he arranged for the marriage between the Emperor and the Infanta of Portugal, Eleonora d’Aviz; the meeting between them is here shown at the bottom of the panel.
In 1456, Pope Callixtus III Borgia (uncle of the later-to-be-infamous Alexander VI) made him a cardinal. (This painting makes for an interesting “photograph” of the arrangement of the papal chapel.)
On the death of Callixtus two years later, Piccolomini was elected to the Papacy. His papal name “Pius” was chosen partly in reference to his secular name “Aeneas”, since Virgil constantly calls the hero of his Aeneid “pius Aeneas.” One may be tempted to dismiss this as no more than a clever literary reference from an age very much enamored with clever literary references, but this would be unjust. The Latin word “pius” means “one who fulfils his duty”, duty to God, to one’s country, and to one’s family, and therefore, among its many meanings are “pious, devout, conscientious, affectionate, tender, kind, good, grateful, respectful, loyal, patriotic.” The choice of name, therefore, should be seen first and foremost as a declaration of intent on the part of one who had only been a cleric for 13 years to fullfil the duties of the high office to which he was elected. ~ The church shown here is a highly stylized representation of the interior of the ancient basilica of St Peter, which was already in a badly dilapidated state in the reign of Pope Nicholas, and which Pope Julius II would begin to demolish in the first years of the following century. (The panel following this in sequence, which is not shown here, depicts a council called by the Pope at Mantua in 1459 to deal with the looming threat of a Turkish invasion of Europe.)
On the feast of Ss Peter and Paul in the the year 1461, Pius II had the honor of canonizing his fellow-countrywoman St Catherine of Siena, who had died in 1380; she was the fifth Saint of the Dominican Order (after Dominic, Peter Martyr, Thomas Aquinas and Vincent Ferrer), and the first woman among them. The two figures at the bottom left are believed to be portraits of the painter Raphael, who was in his early 20s when he worked alongside Pinturicchio in the painting of the library, and Pinturicchio himself.
Pope Pius died five days before the sixth anniverary of his Papal election, in the city of Ancona, on the eastern coast of Italy, while attempting to rally the Christian princes to the defense of Europe, as the Turks prepared to press further into the Balkans, and cross the Adriatic.
While Pinturicchio was working in Rome for Pope Alexander VI at the end of the 15th century, a series of rooms of the vast palace of the Emperor Nero, known as the “Domus Aurea – the Golden House”, were accidentally rediscovered on the slopes of the Esquiline hill, after being buried for many centuries. Every artist in Rome flocked to see the frescoed walls of these rooms, knowing that they were the first to see original paintings surviving from antiquity. Since the very definition of the Renaissance, the “re-birth”, was to imitate the classical past, Pinturicchio and many other artists immediately set out to copy what they saw in the rooms, which were still half-buried, and therefore known as “grottos”. The ceiling of the Piccolomini library is covered in motifs either copied from or inspired by the grottoes, in a very busy style which came to be known from them as “grottesco” in Italian. Many of the figures in the original grottoes, and in some of the Renaissance imitations of them (but not these) are either very weird or scabrous, and did not please the English of the Victorian period, for whom “grotesque” came to have its modern meaning.
A series of mythological symbols and emblems, and the simple dedication “Pope Pius III, in his pietas, (duty, devotion) to Pope Pius II.”
The Piccolomini emblem, five crescent moons arranged on a cross, is shown in the several places in the library; the crescent moons represent the Pope’s hope to liberate Europe from the threat of Turkish invasion.

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