‘Sassetta and His Time:” A Showcase for an Innovative Medieval & Renaissance Tuscan Artist

Sassetta’s ‘Madonna con Bambino’ on display at the Massa Marittima show

Until July 15: SASSETTA E IL SUO TEMPO  (Sassetta and His Time).  Museum of San Pietro all’Orto, Corso Diaz 36, Massa Marittima. Open Tuesday to Sunday 9:30 am- 1 pm, 2:30 – 6 pm. Museum admission: €10.

Located in the picturesque medieval village of Massa Marittima, this exhibition showcases an expansive collection of one of the most innovative Tuscan artists of the 14th century. As one of the defining figures of the transition from medieval to early renaissance art, Sassetta’s work combines the beauty of Sienese color with the precision and skill of Florentine works in the push towards modernism. 

Born in Cortona, Sassetta (b. Stefano di Giovanni, 1400 – 1450) is believed worked throughout Tuscany, particularly in Siena and Florence, the artistic capitals of Italy during their respective eras. There is an air of mystery to his work, as historians do not know much about his life, including where or how he developed his talent. This is especially surprising, considering his attention to detail and particularity. Sassetta’s work is atypical in terms of its capacity for storytelling, creating his own narrative using emotive faces and scenes. This was immensely appreciated during his time, as it is in the present day. 

Sassetta’s first published work is in this exhibition, the Madonna con Bambino. The viewer can immediately recognize the artist’s unique sense of perspective he learned from studying the masters. He creates a distinct depth between background and foreground, in order to highlight the three-dimensional Virgin and child. This is the first example of Sassetta’s emphasis on iconography as he brings humanity to the religious figures he depicts, while incorporating the beauty of medieval art such as the use of gold and gothic trends. Sassetta painted many interpretations of the Virgin and Child across his career, each seemingly more beautiful than the last. Miraculously, one of the Madonnas in the collection was recovered from under a 17th century painting, believed to have once belonged in a Sienese church because of its message to the Sienese people in the gold inscription in her halo. 

Walking through the exhibition moves you chronologically through the masterpieces of Sassetta’s career, each showing development from the last. Visitors will see many polytryptic works of the 15th century, pieces of altars and crosses that have unfortunately been dismantled or lost throughout the years. The figures in the panels are uncharacteristically realistic for his time and town, being highly sophisticated and elegant. 

A rather abrupt period in Sassetta’s artistic development can be seen in his work created during the 1430s, when he is believed to have visited Florence for the first time. This can be seen in his Adoration of the Magi, a private collection piece displaying influence from Gentile da Fabriano. Art historians are unsure of the commissioner, but it is believed that since the King of Luxembourg visited Florence around this time that he is perhaps in the painting. The beauty of the Sienese color is breathtaking in this work, brightening a scene already filled with life and activity. From the same decade, this collection holds one of the few Sassetta works with multiple compositions that is still in one piece, created for the San Domenico Cortona church. This mature-style painting is fascinating because the saints in the image are modeled after members of the family who commissioned the work. 

Sassetta’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’

Sassetta is a notable example of the influence of Florentine art on the rest of Tuscany, even before the peak of the Renaissance. This exhibition is a tribute to one of the greatest artists of his generation, and is a must-see for lovers of art history.  (Jessica Baird)