In my younger days I studied in an old palace, one broken up into a couple of apartments, in a room with a fresco on the ceiling. I was a junior in college studying abroad in Siena, Italy. The fresco, dated about 1524, was by the Mannerist master Domenico Beccafumi. Distracted by the art with its complicated, pastel-hued and dramatically lighted scenes, overpopulated with partially clad figures, and appearing to recount totally mystifying legends, I often discovered I had a crick in the neck and not much homework accomplished.
Giorgio Vasari wrote of Beccafumi in his famous “Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects,” available since 1550. The artist was born and lived most of his life in Siena. Most of his works are still on view in that city, including the just-mentioned fresco in the Bindi-Sergardi palace (in Via dei Pellegrini, with viewing by appointment only). His dates are 1486 to 1551. Artistic influences appear to include Michelangelo, Raphael, and Fra Bartolommeo. His creative focus produced an enchanted world, whether depicting pagan myths or religious motifs, portraits or historical scenes. Dramatic lighting, geometrical design elements, and slightly acidic colors are hallmarks.
One interesting feature a friend and I learned to look for when seeking out this artist’s works is that of a circle or halo allowing a view into the heavens, as if there were a secret passage in the sky where angels could peer down on earthlings. In one nativity scene, in the church of San Marco in Siena, there is a dove in the center of such a circle, a circle made up of the arms of angels. Another example, in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico, there is a fresco which, with vertiginous effect, shows a female figure holding a scale (scales of justice) and a sword; she is viewed as through a cupola cut into the ceiling, with the sky visible and, yes, angels looking down.
Among the tales told in the Bindi-Sergardi fresco is that of the ancient Greek painter Apelles, who is depicted in the act of drawing three beauties, with the ladies posing in dishabille in a public square near a circular loggia. Another scene has the Roman general Scipio showing restraint in victory, with various ladies looking on and the remnants of battle on horseback in the background. Graceful pictures of ladies and children (angels) adorn other scattered segments of the ceiling. The room scale is probably drawing-room size, or less than 20 feet square (relying on memory here).
Beccafumi is usually dismissed as a minor master. The formulaic quality of some of his figure works, especially the women, is probably responsible for some of this criticism. Yet his strange world is fascinating, whether one is a junior in college or a senior citizen recollecting happier times.