At Siena in the Italian region of Tuscany the square (piazza) known as Prato di Sant’Agostino is dominated by the former Church of Sant’Agostino. It built over a 200-year period from the year 1258 onwards.
This church has endured much, including a number of serious fires over the centuries. Now it is no longer even a church, but deconsecrated and serving the city as a gallery for art exhibitions. Possibly this was not a cruel fate for the building, because of the great collection of art it already possessed when it had for centuries been a church in Augustinian possession. This however does not inhibit appreciation of the restoration work of the architect, Luigi Vanvitelli, after the fire that devastated the building in 1755.
Siena is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in Italy and in the world. Siena often crossed swords – literally! - with its much larger neighbour, Florence in the epic and cruel battles that forged the history of medieval Tuscany, Italy. One of the most famous battles was at Montaperti on 4th September 1260, when the Sienese routed the Florentines. Siena reached its peak of splendour in the twelfth century. During that period most of the civic monuments were built and the construction of the monumental new duomo (cathedral) was attempted (and never completed). In 1348, however, Siena was laid low by the Black Death, which exterminated three-fifths of the population.
Ten years earlier, Siena hosted an Augustinian General Chapter. The Chapter enforced the regulations concerning the administration of money as provided in the Augustinian Constitutions against possible abuses. Under penalty of removal from office, no Prior was allowed to receive, handle, or spend money belonging. to the monastery, nor to interfere in any way with the office of the Procurator beyond the regulations of the Constitutions. In addition, the Prior acting contrary to this decree was to be incapable, for three years, of any office to which the care of souls was annexed. At this Chapter also extensive regulations were made for reforming studies in general. Finally, special regulations for the studium generale (Augustinian study house) at Paris were added, in particular for the administration of money belonging to the community and to the fund for students and staff members.
In the fifteenth century, the Augustinian convent at Siena attracted Augustinian scholars and teachers, not only because of its studium (house of study) for Augustinian candidates but also because of the highly prestigious local university in Siena. As well, there was the fabled library in the Augustinian friary. Illustrative of this situation was Andrea Biglia O.S.A. (c. 1395 - 1435), a fifteenth-century Augustinian doctor and humanist with connections to Milan, Florence, Perugia and Siena. Siena afforded Andrea, moreover, the genial company of other Augustinian scholars.
Living simultaneously with Biglia at the Augustinian Monastery of Sant'Agostino in Siena were five other Augustinians who were Doctors of Theology: Gabriele di Spoleto, Bartolomeo di Massa, Leonardo di Sicilia, Paulo de Biella, and Pietro di Genova. Life in Siena afforded Biglia with an occasion to practice his oratory, and leisure for writing, particularly at the nearby Augustinian hermitage of Lecceto, where he made his translations of Aristotle.
Images (at left): Picture 1: Siena drawn in 1490 AD. Picture 2: Former Church of Sant’Agostino, Siena. Picture 3: Interior of the former Church of Sant’Agostino, Siena.
And on 1st October 1432, he was favoured by Gerardo da Rimini O.S.A., the Vicar General (i.e., the acting General until formally appointed at the General Chapter in 1434) of the Augustinian Order, with an appointment to serve as magister regens (regent of studies) in Siena. In 1559 Siena became part of the grand duchy of Tuscany, effectively losing its own independence.
Attached to the Church of Sant'Agostino was the Augustinian convento for the priests and brothers who ministered at the church. Both buildings became government property at the time of the confiscation of church property during the rise of Italian nationalism over 120 years ago. The church was in the care of the diocese once the Augustinians were no longer there. Regular public worship in the building was discontinued in 1982. In recent times it has been used to display art, and for classical music concerts.
Some of the works of art now on view there were ones that had been commissioned for the building during the previous centuries when it was a church of the Order of Saint Augustine. Although parts of the original church date back to the 13th century, it has undergone a number of modifications since then. The most important modifications were carried out by the architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773) after the building was devastated by fire in 1748. Vanvitelli completely rebuilt the interior. Work began on the construction of the pilasters that were to support the roof of the renovated church. The task of managing the work, which would not be completed until 1755, was done by master builders from Siena Sebastiano and Giuseppe Minacci. The Augustinian Order paid the sum of 10,000 scudi for this project. The builders did not, however, receive the approval of Vanvitelli, who wrote a letter denouncing the mangling of the church by “ignorant builders”. Although, Vanvitelli was the most famous Italian architect of his day, his modifications to the Chiesi di Sant’Agostino are one of the least noted of his works. Vanvitelli was again commissioned by the Order of Saint Augustine for renovations to the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rome, including changing the tower and its bell chamber and dome. This work was completed in 1763.
He had been commissioned as architect of Saint Peter’s Basilica in 1726, and did some consolidation and adjustments to its dome in 1750. In 1732 he had done the façade of the Church of Saint John Lateran, the official cathedral (duomo) of Rome. The interior of the Church of Sant’Agostino in Siena is shaped like a Latin cross. It has a single nave; this gives an extraordinary impression of light and space. The church accommodates three altars. The grand major altar is of marble. It is the work of Flaminio del Turco (1608). The construction of the external portico was designed by Agostino Fantastici and dates back to 1819.
Art works and library
The most ancient of the altars is the second one on the right, with the Crocifissione ("Crucifixion and Saints") painted by Peter Perugino (post 1450-1523) in about the year 1506. By 1481 Perugino had become sufficiently well known to be commissioned to paint frescos on the walls of the newly built Sistine Chapel, Rome, along with Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli (Signorelli later completed the work). He also did a fresco there as an altarpiece, but this was destroyed to make way for the Last Judgment by Michelangelo.
Images (at right): Picture 1: Architect Luigi Vanvitelli, who worked on Church of Sant’Agostino in Siena. Picture 2: Artist Perugino, painted of "Crucifixion" (as in Picture 3). Picture 3: "Crucifixion" in Church of Sant’Agostino in Siena.
Siena’s Augustinian Priory (convento – taken from the Augustinians by the government about 130 years ago) has the extremely rare good fortune of bequeathing to posterity an inventory of its manuscripts in the year 1360; the inventory is extant but, unfortunately, not copies of the handwritten works that it lists. "Books" is an inaccurate term here, because the printing press was not present in Europe until the late 15th century; in the year 1360, in contrast, what existed on the library shelves were handwritten manuscripts (i.e., flat pages bound together), or rolled scrolls.
What is additionally exceptional is just how many books (and, also, books by Augustine) that the Siena Priory possessed. Of the 487 works in the Siena Priory referred to above, only 154 were attributed to Augustine, but subsequent scholarship would identify only 73 of these as genuine works by Augustine; the percentage of pseudo sermons is even greater.
The Siena Priory's collection in the year 1360 included theological texts such as De trinitate, De civitate dei, the Enchiridion, and De spiritu et littera; pastoral works such as De bono conjugali, De cathechizandis rudibus, and De cura pro mortuis; polemical works such as Contra Julianum, De predestinatione sanctorum, and Contra Adiniantum; philosophical works such as: De libero arbitrio, Soliloquia, De quantitate animae, De doctrina christiana, and De magistro; such exegetical works as Expositiones Augustini super evangelia, De Genesi ad litteram, and the Questiones evangeliorum, although the Enarrationes in Psalmos is not listed; and such religious works as De opere monachorum, De vera religione, and De sancta virginitate, in addition to the Confessiones and the Retractationes.
Photos (at left): Picture 1: Rear view of Church of Sant’Agostino, Siena. Picture 2: Entrance area of former Church of Sant’Agostino, Siena. Picture 3: Interior of the former Church of Sant’Agostino, Siena.
In short, the friars at Siena had access to Augustine's writings, albeit having it interspersed with almost an equal number of pseudo-Augustine works. At the same period, the friars in smaller Italian Augustinian priories were less fortunate: at Massa Marittima, there were only five works by Augustine in a library of seventy-four books, at Montichiello and Colle di Val d'Esta no Augustinian works in libraries of fifty-five and fifty-two works respectively. The Augustinian collection at Siena in 1360 was probably outstanding in its size, for the most extensive of all medieval libraries located at the University of the Sorbonne in Paris possessed over 1,000 books, yet had only 149 works/titles of Augustine, which was five less than in Siena. (The Sorbonne did not even have a full copy, i.e., one containing all books/chapters, of either Confessions or of City of God.)
Among the notable art works in the church is a wooden Madonna and Child, probably of the Sienese School. It is sometimes ascribed to Jacopo della Quercia (c. 1374 –1438). He was the best known Sienese sculptor of the Italian Renaissance. He was a contemporary of Brunelleschi, who designed the Augustinian Church of Santo Spirito in Florence. He is considered a precursor of Michelangelo. Jacopo della Quercia died in Siena on 20 October 1438, and was buried in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Siena. There is also in this church The Temptations of St Anthony by Rutilio Manetti and a Baptism of Constantine by Francesco Vanni.
Cappella Piccolomini (Piccolimini Chapel)
In the Church of Sant’Agostino in Siena, a small doorway leads into the Piccolomini Chapel (Cappella Piccolomini). There is located the fresco, Madonna and Child with Angels and Saints by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1290 – 1348). The fresco was a very contemporary religious painting of a style called a Maestà that was then in vogue in the cathedral (duomo) of Siena. The Maestà foreshadowed the art of the Renaissance. Maestà is an Italian word that translates as "majesty." It is used in art to describe a particular type of Madonna painting during the early Renaissance. A Maestà always features the Virgin Mary, holding the infant Christ, but with certain conditions. Mary is always depicted as (1) sitting on a throne, (2) wearing a crown-like halo and (3) attended by saints, angels, or both.
A classic Maestà - an altarpiece composed of many individual paintings - by Duccio di Buoninsegna, painted on wood as a massive retable (backdrop to an altar), was placed in the cathedral (duomo) at Siena in 1311. The painter of this fresco in the Capella Piccolomi, i.e., Ambrogio Lorenzetti, may also have had association with the Augustinian eremo (hermitage) at Lecceto, just outside of Siena. A beautiful altarpece executed for the Lecceto church was of the school of Lorenzetti. Entitled Madonna del Latte ("Madonna of the Milk"), it still exists, preserved in the diocesan seminary at Montarioso, Siena. Above the altar of the Piccolomini Chapel is a large canvas of The Epiphany (painted 1485), one of the finest works of Sodoma (painted in 1518). The colours in The Epiphany are beautiful and rich, and the mountains are the finest that Sodoma ever painted. The artist named Sodoma was Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (1477-1549), who worked mainly in Siena, influnced by the art of Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci.
It is alongside Slaughter of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni (1430 – 1492), painted in 1482. There is a particularly fine polyptych by Simone Martini depicting Beato Agostino Novello and Four of His Miracles. This polyptych is covered in detail on Augnet in pages about Agostino Novello O.S.A., under his name of Augustine of Tarano O.S.A. Slaughter of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni (1430 – 1492), painted in 1482. There is a particularly fine polyptych by Simone Martini depicting Beato Agostino Novello and Four of His Miracles. This polyptych is covered in detail on Augnet in pages about Agostino Novello O.S.A., under his name of Augustine of Tarano O.S.A.
The church also contains the fifteenth-century Bicchi Chapel (Cappella Bichi). The Bicchi family were major landowners near Siena, and occupied Bicchi Castle. In it is a fresco cycle by Francesco di Giorgio Martini. It was discovered beneath the baroque overlay in the early 1970s. The frescoes attributed to Francesco di Giorgio Martini (also called Peter de Francisco Orioli, 1458 – 1496) depict the Nativity of Mary (con Storie della Vergine) and the Nativity of Jesus (Natività).
There are frescoes by Luca Signorelli on the ceiling. As well, this chapel (cappella) has a precious pavement. These are floor tiles made of maiolica in the year 1488. Maiolica is a type of clay earthenware covered with an opaque white tin glaze. This type of pottery was especially popular in Italy during the Renaissance. These floor tiles are rectangular, laid side by side across specially adapted joists.
This technique probably came from the Moors in Spain. Is also known by the names majolica, faience, and delft. Maiolica is distinguished by its white, opaque glaze, due to the presence of tin oxide, a powdery white ash. Tin was an expensive imported substance, which made maiolica a far more expensive commodity than ordinary pottery.
Siena: Chiesa di Sant'Agostino, plus other photos of Siena. http://www.fotoeweb.it/firenze/siena.htm
Sant'Agostino (Siena). From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sant'Agostino_(Siena) AN4244