( Originally Published Early 1900's )
That admirers of minute designs and florid detail could appreciate grandeur as well, no one can doubt who has seen the plans of the Sienese cathedral. Its history is one of a grand result, and of far grander, tho thwarted endeavor, and it is hard to realize to-day, that the church as it stands is but a fragment, the transept only, of what Sienna willed. From the state of the existing works no one can doubt that the brave little republic would have finished it had she not met an enemy before whom the sword of Monteaperto was useless. The plague of 1348 stalked across Tuscany, and the chill of thirty thousand Sienese graves numbed the hand of master and workman, sweeping away the architect who planned, the masons who built, the magistrates who ordered, it left but the yellowed parchment in the archives which conferred upon Maestro Lorenzo Maitani the superintendence of the works.
The facade of the present church is amazing in its richness, undoubtedly possesses some grand and much lovely detail, and is as undoubtedly suggestive, with its white marble ornaments upon a pink marble ground, of a huge, sugared cake. It is impossible to look at this restored whiteness with the sun upon it; the dazzled eyes close involuntarily and one sees in retrospect the great, gray church front at -Rheims, or the solemn facade of Notre Dame de Paris. It is like remembering an organ burst of Handel after hearing the florid roulades of the mass within the cathedral.
The interior is rich in color and fine in effect, but the northerner is painfully imprest by the black and white horizontal stripes which, running from vaulting to pavement, seem to blur and confuse the vision, and the closely set bars of the piers are positively irritating. In the hexagonal lantern, however, they are less offensive than elsewhere, because the fan-like radiation of the bars above the great gilded statues breaks up the horizontal effect. The decoration of the stone-work is not happy; the use of cold red and cold blue with gilt bosses in relief does much to vulgarize, and there is constant sally in small masses which be littles the general effect. It is evident that the Sienese tendency to floridity is answer able for much of this, and that having added some piece of big and bad decoration, the cornice of papal head, for instance, they felt forced to do away with it or continue it throughout.
But this fault and many others are forgotten when we examine the detail with which later men have filled the church. Other Italian cathedrals possess art-objects of a higher order; perhaps no other one is so rich in these treasures. The great masters are disappointing here. Raphael, as the co-laborer of Pinturicchio, is dainty, rather than great, and Michelangelo passes unnoticed in the huge and coldly elaborate altar-front of the Piccolomini. But Martina, with his doors of the library; Barili,. with his marvelous casing of the choir-stalls; Beccafumi, with his bronze and neillo—these are the artists whom one wonders at; these wood-carvers and bronze-founders, creators of the microcosmic detail of the Renaissance which had at last burst triumphantly into Sienna.
This treasure is cumulative, as we walk east-ward from the main door, where the pillars are a maze of scroll-work in deepest cutting, and by the time we reach the choir the head fairly swims with the play of light and color. We wander from point to point, we finger and caress the lustrous stalls of Barili, and turn with a kind of confusion of vision from panel to panel; above our heads the tabernacle of Vecchietta, the lamp bearing angels of Beccafumi make spots of bituminous color, with glittering high-lights, strangely emphasizing their modeling; from these youths, who might be pages to some Roman prefect, the eye travels upward still further, along the golden convolutions of the heavily stuccoed pilasters to the huge, gilded cherubs' heads that frame the eastern rose.
It is incredible that these frescoes are four hundred years old. Surely Pinturicchio came down from his scaffolding but yesterday. This is how the hardly dried plaster must have looked to pope and cardinal and princes when the boards were removed, and when the very figures on these walls—smart youths in tights and slashes, bright-robed scholars, ecclesiastics caped in ermine, ladies with long braids bound in nets of silk—crowded to see themselves embalmed in tempera for curious after-centuries to gaze upon.