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History, Preservation, and Reconstruction in Siena: The Fonte Gaia from Renaissance to Modern Times
Chiara Scappini, Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow

The Fonte Gaia, located in the Piazza del Campo in the heart of Siena, is one of the city's most significant monuments and the foremost artistic expression of Sienese civic pride. Yet this fountain is not the original, eloquent masterpiece completed in 1419 by hometown sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The present fountain is a reconstruction by Tito Sarrocchi who finished it in 1858 at the behest of the governors of Siena. The complex of reliefs and statues that decorates Quercia's Fonte Gaia is considered one of the major expressions of fifteenth-century Italian sculpture. However, the survival of the fountain has proven to be more precarious than the transmission of its reputation to posterity. Despite the acknowledged importance of the Fonte Gaia, no one previously has analyzed - or even recognized - that Sarrocchi, influenced by nationalism and theories of revival architecture circulating in Siena, altered Quercia's beloved civic landmark when he imaginatively restored it in the nineteenth century. Today, legions of casual visitors unwittingly admire a nineteenth-century sculpture whose story remains untold.

This dissertation, after first reviewing the fountain's early history, examines the fountain's yet unexplored vicissitudes from the late fifteenth century until its replacement in the nineteenth century. It clarifies the fountain's original appearance, analyzes the circumstances of its later transformation, and the cultural context that led to the fountain's replacement. The study focuses on the fountain's physical structure and complex iconographic program, in order to examine how its restoration embodied nineteenth-century revival ideology, Italy's political transformation, Viollet-le-Duc's theories on restoration, and the nineteenth-century art movement 'Purismo' (inspired by artists of the fifteenth century). These previously unrecognized factors were critical to the Fonte Gaia's history, to the development of conservation practices in the nineteenth century, and to Sienese art in general.

Years of exposure to the elements (and vandals) caused serious degradation to the unusually porous marble of the original monument. The Sienese archivist and art historian Gaetano Milanesi and the civil engineer Gasparo Pini finally addressed its woeful condition in 1844, when the restoration was first proposed. At the time, Milanesi was occupied with editing a new annotated version of Giorgio Vasari's 'Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects', originally published in 1550 and enlarged in 1568. Vasari's placement of Quercia's Vita at the beginning of his second phase of the Renaissance certainly influenced Milanesi's perception of his fellow Sienese, leading Milanesi to argue for the "restoration" of Quercia's Fonte Gaia. Tito Sarrocchi was hired to undertake the "restoration of Quercia’s fountain," and his new fountain was officially celebrated in 1868. Through a close examination of archival sources this study will reassess the contribution Quercia's Fonte Gaia made to Renaissance art in the fifteenth century, trace its demise, and reveal its rediscovery and modifications in the age of nationalist art history in the nineteenth century.


 

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