Design Fragment for the Left Side of the 'Fonte Gaia' in Siena

Jacopo della Quercia (Jacopo di Pietro d’Angelo di Guarnieri) Italian

Not on view

This is one of the most historically important early Italian drawings in a United States collection, and is associated with a famous sculptural project in Renaissance Italy. The details of the project are complex but illuminate the crucial role of this drawing in the development of the commission. They are summarized here with new research.

In 1408, Jacopo della Quercia was contracted by the magistrates (signori) of the republic of Siena to execute the Fonte Gaia ("Fountain of Joy"), a great rectangular basin with figural sculptures in marble, intended to replace a previously existing structure on the northwest edge of the Piazza del Campo, the main public space of the town. The damaged original fragments of the Fonte Gaia are today in Santa Maria della Scala (Siena) but remained in situ until 1858 when the ensemble was substituted with a facsimile copy by Tito Sarrocchi. Eleven years in the making, the Fonte Gaia served practical, symbolic, and aesthetic functions, as part of a larger program of public monuments initiated by the fiercely republican government of the comune that rose to power in 1404. It was the principal source of public waters in the center of Siena (a land-locked hill town), serving as a large cistern with several spouts that was supplied from the vast network of subterranean aqueducts, or bottini, which had been completed with a 25 km expansion at enormous expense in the late fourteenth century. The documents about the Fonte Gaia commission (preserved in the Archivio di Stato of Siena) confirm that drawings produced by Jacopo della Quercia served an important legal purpose, allowing the patrons to discuss and approve the state of the fountain as it progressed. Although much about the two drawing fragments in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum has been debated (including their authorship, iconography, and precise purpose), the new visual-archaeological evidence and a critical reading of the documents clearly confirm the attribution to Jacopo della Quercia himself.

On December 15, 1408, the magistrates of the republic established that the total cost of this major civic monument, dedicated to the Virgin as protectress of Siena, was not to exceed 1,700 gold florins. The commission for the Fonte Gaia was authorized and the terms of the contract with Jacopo were stipulated on January 22, 1409. This document refers to a deadline of twenty months for the completion of the fountain, as well as to its dimensions and decoration "with figures, foliage ornament, and marbles that are clearly shown in the above-mentioned drawing" ("cho’ le figure, foglame, e marmi che nel disegno soprascritto chiaramente si dimostrano"). A memorandum of January 18, 1415, however, assessed the defects of the design and the incomplete state of the work as it stood: Jacopo della Quercia seems to have begun to produce the sculptures only in 1414, and between 1415-16 most of the sculptures or their preliminary models may have actually been complete. It also noted the need to expand the size of the fountain and to provide for the decoration of the exterior faces of the basin. On December 11, 1416, a new contract for the Fonte Gaia was drafted, since the prescribed deadline for completion of the monument had also long passed. This document of 1416 refers to a first drawing done in 1408, as well as to a new drawing on a piece of parchment or vellum ("carta edina"), as "designed and made by the hand of the said master Jacopo, presented by the lord magistrates themselves in the town council" ("dicti anni MCCCCVIII, secundum formam primi designi facti in Palatio magnificorum dominorum Priorum in sala dicti Palatii tendenti versus Campsum fori, et quod postea fuit facta nova location, secundum novum designum factum manu dicti magistri Iacobi … et eo modo et forma et prout continetur et designatum est, et apparet in quadam carta edina manu dicti magistri Iacobi designata et facta, presentata per ipsos dominos Regulatores in Consistorio"). The Fonte Gaia was finished with the last payments to Jacopo della Quercia and the cancellation of the previous contracts for the project, recorded on October 9 and 20, 1419.

The two surviving fragments at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria and Albert Museum pertain to the left and right portions of the Fonte Gaia, and originally constituted a large, very detailed single drawing on vellum of which the central portion is lost. The Victoria and Albert fragment has also been cut down substantially along the upper and bottom borders. The minute control of the figural and ornamental details especially evidence Jacopo della Quercia’s early training as a goldsmith. Seen close up and in good light, the drawing style of the figures with parallel- and cross-hatching is also surprisingly expressive. The general iconography of the Fonte Gaia alludes to the virtues of good government of the republic of Siena, which are also celebrated in the fourteenth-century frescoes of the Palazzo Pubblico, which faced the original fountain across the Piazza del Campo. Two standing female figures, each accompanied by two infants, terminate the design of the fountain at left and right foreground in the present drawing fragments. They represent respectively Acca Larentia (she wears a fur) and Rhea Silvia (she wears a crown), who are the birth and foster mothers of the twins Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, and who according to local legend were also the founders of Siena: these figures are much more individualized in the drawings than in the final marble sculptures. In addition to the she-wolf of Rome in the foreground of the Metropolitan Museum fragment, two other symbolic animals adorn the far corners of the low walls, an ape in the Metropolitan Museum fragment and a she-dog in the Victoria and Albert Museum fragment, possibly alluding to the kinds of sinfulness of the Roman twin’s mothers. The rows of niches in the interior of the three low walls of the basin house the figures of Christian virtues.

Of the scientific instrumentation used to examine the Metropolitan Museum drawing fragment, ultraviolet light especially clarifies that the wash modeling in iron-gall ink was originally much more extensive and powerful, and that it has greatly faded with age and light. Hence, the monumentality and overall sculptural quality of the original design, with its graded tonal transitions in the areas with wash and with pen-and-ink hatching in the deepest shadows, have been considerably diminished. The arguments that these drawings are by a painter (Priamo della Quercia, doc. 1426-1467, brother of Jacopo being one of the proposed candidates), rather than by a sculptor, therefore fall apart. When the two drawing fragments are seen together side by side, as in the present exhibition and as they were displayed in 1998 and 2010, it becomes clear that the Victoria and Albert portion depicts design elements in a greatly more incomplete state and is of more modest overall conception than the Metropolitan Museum fragment. A possible explanation is that the drawings may represent a kind of visual legal document, or ricordo, of the actual state of progress around 1415-16 of the carved monument and the fact that it was greatly unfinished in its right half at that point in time. The pilasters and much of the moldings are left unarticulated (almost blank) in the London fragment, while the New York drawing seems only slightly unfinished toward the lower right where the very summarily sketched outlines indicate a mount projecting forward from the low back wall that provides a ground-line for the she-wolf. The moldings at the bottom of the architectural framework toward right are also drawn in reserve and are therefore blank (this is verified by the view under the microscope and with infrared reflectography). These architectural lines stop quite short of the design of the mount. Close-up examination of both drawing fragments confirms that these passages of apparent unfinish are an intentional matter of facture, not ones due to compromised physical condition: they are not simply a case of the ink being faded in the blank parts of the designs.

The New York and London drawing fragments portray a still fragmentary sculptural ensemble in which the passages of most incomplete execution generally occur in the middle to right portions of the fountain’s decoration, although the degree to which the drawings are accurate records of the work in progress may be open to question. The New York and London drawing fragments also provide a greater amount of content and specific details much beyond what the Fonte Gaia documents describe, but represent a much less complex overall design than the fountain that was finally executed in marble by 1419. The drawing fragments therefore must date to 1415-16 or so, roughly speaking during the period of time in which the design of the Fonte Gaia was being reevaluated on the basis of the work in progress, and the new contract and "novum designum" for the greatly modified fountain were being drafted.

The visual conventions of form adopted by Jacopo della Quercia in the New York and London fragments also shed light on the precise function of the monumental original drawing. In both drawing fragments, the detailed design of the precisely ruled architectural framework for the fountain with its sculpted allegorical figures, animals, and vegetal patterns of ornament is depicted with precise outlines and modeling in wash in a clearly expository manner so as to indicate the general illusion of the three-dimensional forms receding in space. The figures, animals, and ornament were then further individuated with clarity by the deeper modeling with strokes of spirited hatching. On the two lateral walls, the framing elements of the niches, pilasters, and moldings overlap the forms of the figural sculptures, but the overall design is constructed according to a parallel projection of all diagonal lines, or isometry, rather than a true, pictorial one-point perspective in the Renaissance style pioneered by Filippo Brunelleschi in which orthogonal lines converge on a single vanishing point. These pictorial conventions in the Fonte Gaia design fragments are rooted in Late Gothic practice and fit within a larger typology of architectural-sculptural drawings by Sienese artists from the second half of the fourteenth century onward. Such early Sienese drawings depict carefully ruled architectural ensembles decorated with meticulously drawn figural and ornamental sculpture, and are executed in pen and ink on parchment, as, for example, the drawings for the façade of the Baptistery of Siena and for a lavish, unexecuted pulpit perhaps intended for the Orvieto Cathedral (Siena, Opera del Duomo inv. 20; Orvieto, Opera del Duomo; London, British Museum 1899,0617.2; and Berlin, Kupferstichkabinett KdZ 3392).

The result of the early historiography on the Fonte Gaia project has been that the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Victoria and Albert drawing fragments are usually published with a question mark after the attribution to Jacopo della Quercia. While the documents alone should suffice to settle the attribution beyond doubt, the scholarly debates have chiefly arisen from two problems. Firstly, the term disegno in Italian embraces the dual meanings of "design" and "drawing," and in making attributions a previous generation of scholars often overly preferred to regard the authorship of the design idea as separate from the actual execution of a drawing. Secondly, it is a choice of how narrowly or widely one interprets the phrase "manu dicti magistri Jacobi," "made by master Jacopo's hand." In the Italian vernacular, the phrasing in documents is frequently rendered as "fatto di sua mano." The phrase "di sua mano," "by his hand," and like wording have been much better understood by art historians with regard to early paintings and sculptures. The large physical scale of projects often entailed the delegation of labor among collaborators and workshop assistants, and this consequently raises nuanced dimensions of authorship in examining a design with respect to its execution. But, one must emphasize, this is more often than not the wrong paradigm for the analysis of early modern drawings. When referring to actual drawings, at least of a reasonably portable scale, the Italian Renaissance artist, patron, and author applied the phrase "di sua mano" in a most literal and practical sense (that was usually also legally binding in the case of contractual documents), to mean that a drawing was physically made by the artist’s hand. At the same time, one must also emphasize that the understanding of the phrase, "di sua mano," as meaning that a drawing was physically by the artist’s hand went much beyond the sphere of official contractual drawings: the phrase is used in this narrow, literal sense in a variety of written sources of the early modern period (letters, ricordi, and writings on art including, Giorgio Vasari’s Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori).

Carmen C. Bambach (2014)

Design Fragment for the Left Side of the 'Fonte Gaia' in Siena, Jacopo della Quercia (Jacopo di Pietro d’Angelo di Guarnieri) (Italian, Siena 1374?–1438 Siena), Pen and medium brown ink, brush and brown wash, over traces of leadpoint and ruling, on vellum, glued onto secondary paper support

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