Giovanni di Paolo
Biography of Gothic-style painter of the Sienese School.

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The Raising of Lazarus (1426)
From the Pecci Altarpiece.
This painting is one of 4 masterpieces
by Giovanni di Paolo in the Walters
Museum. Originally part of a predella
of the Pecci Altarpiece, designed for
the chapel of the Malavolti family in
the church of San Domenico, it
demonstrates Giovanni's mastery of
dramatic, multi-figured, narratives
painted in the late-Gothic style.
The agitation of the figures in the
crowd reflects their reaction to the
stench from Lazarus's tomb as well as
the shock of his incomprehensible recovery.

For details of the pigments
used by Giovanni di Paolo
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82)


Early Days
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An innovative and idiosyncratic member of the Sienese School of Painting (c.1250-1550), Giovanni di Paolo specialized in small-scale religious paintings executed in a highly individual and whimsical style. In addition to these small panel paintings he also created a number of International Gothic illuminations, including certain texts by Dante. Giovanni was unaffected by the novelties of the Florentine Renaissance, and his style of painting was influenced mainly by other Siena painters, as well as Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427), but his mature style was more personal, characterized by a cold, harshness of colour and elongated forms. A number of his paintings have an unusual dreamlike quality, such as the surrealistic "Miracle of St. Nicholas of Tolentino" (1455, Philadelphia Museum of Art) while his final pictures, notably "Last Judgment, Heaven, and Hell" (1465) and "The Assumption" (1475), both in the Pinacoteca Nazionale of Siena, are quite over-the-top in their depiction of their religious subjects. Although mostly ignored after his death, Giovanni was rediscovered in the 20th century by the influential scholar Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), who nicknamed him the "El Greco" of the quattrocento. His most important paintings are the panels featuring the life of John the Baptist.

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Early Days

Born in the Sienese quarter of Poggio dei Malavolti, near Sant-Agostino, he is as a result sometimes known as Giovanni dal Poggio. It is not known how Giovanni acquired his skills in drawing and sketching, although it is presumed that he was taught by followers of Taddeo di Bartolo (1362-1422) and Gregorio di Cecco (c.1390-1428). Evidence shows that his first job (1417) was decorating a Book of Hours for the Dominican Order in Siena, a task he must have found intensely worthwhile since he returned to the decoration of illuminated manuscripts many times throughout his life. In 1420 he painted two important religious works (now believed lost) for the convent at San Domenico and for the monastery of St Marta in Siena. The following year he painted the first work securely identified and attributed to him, "The Triumph of Venus" (1421, Louvre, Paris).

NOTE: For other important artists active in Siena, see: Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), Duccio's pupil Simone Martini (1285-1344), Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1320-45) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Active 1319-48).


In the 1420s Giovanni painted four altarpieces for San Domenico, Siena. The panel "Christ Suffering and Triumphant" (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) may be from the first. The other polyptychs (now all dispersed) include: (1) the Pecci Altarpiece (1426) - whose surviving fragments include the central panel ("The Virgin and Angels"), two side-panels ("St Dominic and St John the Baptist") and the altar-panels ("The Raising of Lazarus"; "The Ascent to Calvary"; "The Deposition"; "The Entombment"; and "The Crucifixion") - (2) the Branchini Altarpiece (1427) - whose surviving fragment is "The Virgin and Child" - (3) the Guelfi Altarpiece (1445) - whose surviving pieces are believed to include "Paradise" and "the Expulsion from Paradise" (both in the Metropolitan Museum). In the Pecci altarpiece, Giovanni adhered to the tradition of Gothic art, with its sinuous lines and decorative details, while in its decorative details at least the Branchini altar borrows heavily from International Gothic art, probably due to the influence of Gentile da Fabriano. In 1428, Giovanni was elected to the Ruolo dei pittori - the Sienese painters' guild.

Giovanni was at heart a representative of medieval painting, a medievalist who turned his back on the principles of the Italian Renaissance - principles put into practice by the work of his contemporary Masaccio (1401-1428) - to pursue an ideal of lofty, suffering spirituality, mingled with frenzied unreality and an archaic religiosity. The innovations in Sienese art of this period, introduced largely by Sassetta (1394-1450), affected Giovanni di Paolo's later works only formally, as may be seen in the surviving panels of the Fondi Predella (1436, San Francesco, Siena), namely "The Crucifixion"; "The Presentation in the Temple"; "The Flight into Egypt"; and "The Adoration of the Magi". Sassetta's ideas are here transformed into visions of Gothic unreality corresponding to the rediscovery of landscape by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, as shown in Giovanni's astonishing "Flight into Egypt".

Between 1438 and 1444 Giovanni focused a good deal of attention on miniature painting, creating sixty-one miniatures to illustrate the "Paradiso", the third part of Dante's Divine Comedy (British Museum). In 1440 he produced the Crucifixion (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) for the church of the Osservanza in Siena. During the mid-1440s he collaborated with the Sienese artist Sano di Pietro (1406-81) on a panel (now believed lost) for the Compagnia di S Francesco. He also produced his only known example of fresco painting (a "Crucifixion") for the monastery of St Leonardo al Lago.

In 1445 and 1455 he painted two versions of the "Coronation of the Virgin" (S Andrea, Siena and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), and around 1448, he painted an important altarpiece (now dispersed) for the church of Santa Maria della Scala, in Siena.

The Pizzicaiuoli Polyptych (1447-9), "The Presentation in the Temple", and the "Scenes from the Life of St Catherine of Siena" provide further evidence of Giovanni's capacity for translating the new ideas of Vecchietta (Lorenzo di Pietro) (1410-80) or Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio (1410-1449), for example, into archaic language. Giovanni achieved an unsurpassed level of dramatic expressiveness in various versions of the Crucifixion, and in the famous and masterly "Scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist", in which the fervour of his ascetic vision is exalted to a point where it resembles the Gothic stylization of Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425) in its most visionary form. In the early 1460s, Giovanni was commissioned by Pope Pius II (1405-64) of the exiled Sienese Piccolomini family to paint a polyptych altarpiece for a new cathedral in Pius's birthplace of Pienza. Finished in 1463, it remains there to this day.

Giovanni di Paolo's documented output is considerable, and includes many works that once formed part of polyptychs. Among the more remarkable are, in chronological order: "Agony in the Garden" and "The Deposition" (Vatican Museums), both of which were painted before 1440; "The Madonna of Humility" (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); "The Expulsion from Paradise" (Metropolitan Museum, New York); the 1445 Uffizi Polyptych; "The Adoration of the Magi" (Cleveland Museum); "The Presentation in the Temple" (Metropolitan Museum); "Calvary", (Gemaldegalerie, Berlin), of which certain elements were inspired by Gentile da Fabriano; and the "St Jerome" (Opera del Duomo, Siena). See also "The Virgin and Child with Saints Peter Damian, Thomas, Clare and Ursula" (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena); "Saint John The Baptist in Prison Visited by Two Disciples" (c.1455, Art Institute of Chicago); and "Saint John the Baptist Goes into the Wilderness" (c.1455, Art Institute of Chicago). His final works, including the St Sylvester Polyptych (1475) at Staggia (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena), display an unmistakable decline in style. Among the followers of this inimitable and rather solitary painter, the most notable was undoubtedly the more independent Pellegrino di Mariano (c.1430-92).

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Paintings by Giovanni di Paolo can be seen in many of the best art museums throughout the world.


• For more biographies of painters from Siena, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of more pre-Renaissance frescoes and panel paintings, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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