Biography of Sienese School Painter Stefano di Giovanni.

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St Jerome (1423)
Pinacoteca Nazionale, Italy.

Sassetta (c.1395-1450)

One of the finest Old Masters of the Early Renaissance in Siena, Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) was the leader of the Sienese School of painting during the mid-15th century. His work combined the older decorative style of the International Gothic with the new ideas emanating from the Renaissance in Florence. An artist of great power and invention, who continued Sienese tradition in its beautiful colouring and elegant drawing, his most important work was an altarpiece consisting of eight panels which featured scenes from the life of St Francis, painted 1437-44 for the Church of S. Francesco in Borgo San Sepolcro - the home town of Piero della Francesca (1420-92). Sassetta ranks with Giovanni di Paolo (c.1417-82) as the greatest Sienese painter of the quattrocento,and an important influence in Pre-Renaissance Painting in Siena. His reputation declined rapidly after his death, only to be revived by the art historian Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) during the early 20th century.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Sassetta in his painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

For a list of the top painters
involved in Renaissance Art,
during the 14th/15th/16th
centuries, see:
Proto-Renaissance Artists (14th C)
Early Renaissance Artists (1400-90)
High Renaissance Artists (1490-1530)

For a guide to easel art, see:
Fine Art Painting.
For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.

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Best Artists of All Time.

For an explanation of the
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concerning the visual arts, see:
Art Definition, Meaning.

Early Works

Born Stefano di Giovanni, Sassetta was probably trained in the Sienese studio of Paolo di Giovanni Fei. The altarpiece of the Eucharist (1423-6) painted in tempera for the Cappella dell' Arte of Lana is his earliest known work. It is now in separate pieces. The panels of the predella are in Budapest (St Thomas at Prayer). Other parts are in the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle (a Holy Communion), the Vatican (St Thomas before the Crucifix), a private collection (Miracle of the Consecrated Host) and in the Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena (The Last Supper, St Anthony Beaten), which also has eight Saints from the pilasters and two Prophets from the pinnacles. The Angel and the Virgin from the Annunciation of the pinnacles are now, respectively, at the Massa Marittima Museum and Yale University Art Gallery.

St Anthony Abbot, in a private collection in Italy, is the only surviving large panel. In this work the artist employs a method which, by translating perspective through rhythm, encloses the supple Gothic cadences in a fragile three dimensional framework. Its 'modernity', however, consists in providing only a clear, limpid setting for the most abiding medieval dreams. This profound difference from the humanist and rational position of the Florentines marked all Sienese painting throughout the century.


Mature Works

Between 1430 and 1433 Sassetta, like Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319) before him, executed the great altarpiece for Siena Cathedral, dedicated to the Madonna of the Snows (Pitti Palazzo, Florence). His art was becoming increasingly subtle, an original synthesis of the strict rules of perspective established by Giotto and the later Florentine school, and the poetic unreality of a guileless vision. The predella, which depicts the History of the Founding of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome, is an especially fine example of Sassetta's art, where the light of the new age opens up the concentric heavens of medieval cosmology.

From this time on there was no painter in Siena who did not owe something to Sassetta who, for his part, followed with interest the cultural progress of his epoch and that of Florence in particular. If the central motif of The Virgin and the Angels in the polyptych of the Church of S. Domenico in Cortona still bears an extremely delicate stamp of Gothic art, the precise construction of the four lateral figures of the Saints, and the serene tonal harmonies, derive from Fra Angelico (1395-1455), whose mystical spirit also corresponded to that of Sassetta.

The Adoration of the Magi (Chigi-Saracini Collection, Siena) and the little panels showing the Procession of the Magi (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which surmounted the original polyptych, where the brilliance and luxurious taste of Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370-1427) is reflected, likewise reveal a contrast in their basic elements, together with a strict unity of style. This gives rise to the belief that this polyptych predates The Madonna of the Snows, which itself was painted shortly before the surviving parts of a Crucifix with The Virgin and St John and a panel with St Martin Sharing his Cloak with the Beggar (Chigi-Saracini Collection, Siena). Here, the mingling of subtle calculation and an ingenuous imagination reflect the advances in perspective made by the Tuscan school. Other versions of the Virgin and Child (Pinacota Nazionale, Siena; Grosseto Museum; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC) and an exquisite predella, part of an unidentified polyptych, depicting the Agony in the Garden, the Kiss of Judas and the Ascent to Calvary (Detroit Institute of Arts), also date from the fourth decade of the century. Sassetta's synthesis of the influence of Fra Angelico, Masolino (1383-1440) and Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), with an imaginative Gothic world is one of the most original in Tuscan art.


Sassetta's painting style corresponds to the transitional period when the courtly International Gothic idiom gradually gave way to the early Renaissance, revealing the influence of Masaccio (1401-28) and Masolino. In his compositions, Sassetta manages to preserve the elegant contour work and spatial perspective that Simone Martini (1285-1344) introduced into Sienese art about a century earlier, while developing his own often fairy-tale like narrative, and delightful if unsophisticated colouring.


In 1437 Sassetta was commissioned to execute a large altarpiece of St Francis for the Church of S. Francesco in Borgo San Sepolcro, but he did not complete it until 1444. It represents the Virgin Enthroned between St Anthony and St John the Evangelist (Louvre), the Blessed Ranieri Rasini and St John the Baptist (Berenson Collection, Settignano), and, on the reverse, Eight Scenes from the Life of St Francis (seven in National Gallery, London; one at Musee Conde, Chantilly) surrounding St Francis in Glory (Berenson Collection, Settignano). Only two panels survive from the predella showing the Miracle of the Blessed Ranieri (Gemaldegalerie, Berlin; Louvre). This is undoubtedly Sassetta's masterpiece, the fruit of a career and of an art that reflect the ideals of a dying civilization. The stories of St Francis are exalted as in a mystic and courtly legend.

Sassetta died in Siena of an illness, caught, it was said, while working out of doors on fresco paintings for the Porto Romano. Of these only The Glory of the Angels in the vault has survived.

Amongst those Sienese painters most directly influenced by Sassetta are Sano di Pietro, Pietro di Giovanni d' Ambrogio, and the Master of the Osservanza triptych, some of whose works are still attributed to Sassetta, especially the famous series of panels illustrating the Life of St Anthony (National Gallery of Art, Washington DC; Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY; Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut).

Other major Sienese painters include Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1320-45) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Active 1319-48), Domenico (1400-47) and Taddeo (1362-1422) di Bartolo, and Matteo di Giovanni (1430-95).

Works by Sassetta can be seen in several of the best art museums in Italy and America.

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