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Episode 13

The National Gallery Podcast

In the November 2007 podcast, light the fuse and stand well back for talks about Saint Catherine. Also, explore a different Renaissance in Siena while hearing about how our new exhibition was put together.

14 min 30 sec | November 2007

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and over the next 15 minutes, I’ll be bringing you this month’s news from the National Gallery, London. Coming up:

Mik Amabilino: With the firework you have that imagery built into it, because particularly the traditional Catherine wheel destroys itself as it burns, and it spins throwing out shards of light.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Light the fuse and stand well back. How did a Christian martyr wind up with a firework for a namesake? We hear the story of Saint Catherine – the star of a series of free talks in the Gallery this month.

‘Renaissance Siena’ exhibition

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start though with a visit to our major new exhibition, ‘Renaissance Siena’, which has just opened. In a moment, we’ll take you behind the scenes as the objects arrive from around the world with many to go on display in the UK for the very first time. We’ll hear how the galleries were transformed to house not only paintings but precious sculptures, manuscripts and ceramics. But first, we investigate why Sienese art from the Renaissance period has been overlooked for so long. Leah Kharibian travelled to Siena from where her report begins.

Leah Kharibian: You know life doesn’t get much better than this in my opinion. I’m sitting on the balcony of my hotel room and it’s just the most amazing view I’ve got. You can probably hear all the swifts who are wheeling overhead and in front of me, I’ve got this hillside that is covered in these wonderfully ancient looking Italian houses. On the crest of the hill, there’s a castellated building with Gothic windows, there’s a church with a tower, there’s a dome, and rising over the whole lot of it is the bell tower of the Palazzo Publico, the Sienese town hall. It really is like looking at a Renaissance painting.

But if I were to ask anyone – name me a Sienese Renaissance artist – I think, well I think all of us probably would be a bit stumped. Francesco di Giorgio, Matteo di Giovanni, Neroccio De Landi – they’re not really household names. Whereas if I were to say: Leonardo da Vinci, Fra Angelico or Botticelli – well, you’d know exactly what I was talking about. Now, no-one would deny that those last artists, who were all Florentines, were great artists, but it’s really interesting that in comparison to Florentine artists, the Sienese have not really been very well treated by art history. Earlier on I caught up with Luke Syson who was doing some filming in the Palazzo Publico, who was making a DVD to accompany the ‘Renaissance Siena’ exhibition and I asked him about this disparity between Florence and Siena.

Luke Syson: Florence and Siena were always great rivals, and of course, Siena in a way felt terribly threatened during most of this period by Florence, which, after the black death, picked itself up much quicker and by the 15th century was infinitely bigger and more successful. And so the Sienese, in a sense, maintained their own identity in a particular way and create works of art that sustain that identity. So when judged by purely Florentine standards, it can look odd, visionary, eccentric, all those wonderful things…

Leah Kharibian: And these Florentine standards, have they become what we now really accept as the norm?

Luke Syson: Yes, they’ve become the norm, because in a way they were enshrined by another Tuscan right in the middle of the 16th century, Giorgio Vasari, who’s working for the Florentines, and he writes his ‘Lives of the Artists’ on either side, literally, of the Florentine conquest of Siena. And so he’s writing from the perspective of the winning side, and the winning side means Florence. And so at that point, Florentine art and Tuscan art have to be synonymous – they have to be the same, and Sienese art becomes the poor relation.

Leah Kharibian: So when people come to the show, you want them to be looking at Sienese art a little differently? It’s not going to be what they’re expecting, perhaps?

Luke Syson: It’s a different Renaissance this, and I think that that’s what’s so wonderful about it is that you see a whole new set of ingredients, of styles, which are less familiar, and which in a way we’re much more able to understand them from the point of view of the 20th century where we’ve been less obsessed with what’s real and more obsessed with what art can do. And that’s what Sienese art is about, it’s what art can do, it’s the whole range of the possible.

Leah Kharibian: So take your Florentine glasses off…

Luke Syson: Take your Florentine glasses off – absolutely, and look at it with an eye for the fantastic, the unreal, the expressive, the elegant, and the visionary.

Leah Kharibian (in the Gallery): That was Luke Syson talking in Siena over the summer, but back in London now, with under two weeks to go before the show opens and Luke’s here in the galleries overseeing the hang of the exhibition and it’s a very exciting moment, isn’t it Luke, when all the things come out of their cases?

Luke Syson: It’s really extraordinary – it’s like a kind of extended Christmas, really, and these things which you’ve seen all over the world in the different museums that usually house them, suddenly arrive in London, and you know, we unpack them, and inspect them to make sure nothing’s happened in transit, and then put them on the walls and in cases and so on.

Leah Kharibian: But this is quite a different exhibition from the usual National Gallery exhibition, which is normally just paintings – I mean this has got a whole variety of different sorts of objects, hasn’t it?

Luke Syson: We’ve got sculptures, drawings, manuscripts, medals, as well as paintings of course, and each of those things has their own demands in terms of their display – some need to be cased, some need to have proper climate boxes made for them, and each of those things then needs to be incorporated in the overall look of the exhibition as well as, of course, the story.

Leah Kharibian: Now, the build of this exhibition also seems to be something beyond the usual for the National Gallery – I mean, the main gallery is like a Sienese palazzo inside – it’s very beautifully done, and you’ve also got this extraordinary group of works – eight of them in all – of virtuous men and women of the classical world and of the Old Testament. And is this the first time that they’ve been brought together for some years?

Luke Syson: Absolutely, this is the first time that these pictures will have been in the same room for something over 200 years and yes, absolutely, we wanted to make sure that they were given a space that would evoke how they were originally set, so in the bedchamber of a Sienese patrician palace and in particular of course what we’ve done here is make new frames…It’s an architectural frame with pilasters and capitals and arches – absolutely consistent with what we know of how these things were displayed in the first instance.

Leah Kharibian: Now, we have here the man who actually made this frame, the Head of Framing at the National Gallery, Peter Schade, and you actually built this in the studio here at the Gallery, is that right?

Peter Schade: Yes, that’s right. It was all me, here in the Gallery, in the building. I started off by doing the arches first, making the arches, slightly inspired by those Griselda panels over there.

Leah Kharibian: And which are a series of pictures that are in the National Gallery already.

Luke Syson: What’s great about these pictures is that they’re painted by the same artist who painted four of these panels and possibly even for the same patron, so what Peter decided to do was to base the frame design to some extent on the colonnade that’s in the third of those pictures of the story - Boccaccio’s story of Griselda.

Leah Kharibian: It’s all been very carefully put together and it’s absolutely beautiful, I mean, it really does look like a Renaissance frame. Just having seen it go up on the wall – you’ve got it perfect. Well, Luke and Peter – thank you very much indeed. 

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Peter Schade and curator Luke Syson talking to Leah Kharibian.  To see these treasures and Peter’s wonderful frames for yourself, come along to ‘Renaissance Siena’, sponsored by Monte dei Paschi di Siena. It’s open now and tickets are available at – and you can hear more from curator Luke Syson, on the exhibition audio guide.

Saint Catherine and the history of fireworks

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next – an outspoken campaigner for the rights of minorities. No, not the latest pop star turned charity activist, but a devout, determined woman who is celebrated in many of our paintings. Best known, perhaps, in relation to the firework that bears her name, Saint Catherine is the subject of a series of Gallery talks this month. I asked pyrotechnic Mik Amabilino how a Christian martyr came to be a source of wintery garden fun. But first Dana Brenan from the Gallery’s information office told me the saint’s story.

Dana Brenan: Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a young woman who was born at the beginning of the fourth century in Alexandria. She was of noble parents – very well educated – and while a young woman converted, in secret, to Christianity. In the time of Macencius – he was persecuting Christians – and even though Catherine could have remained silent, she refused and she went to the emperor in public and started arguing and debating with him about his behaviour and how wrong it was – that Christianity was the right way to go. The emperor was angry with her about this, but he was intrigued by her intellect and also by her beauty and determined to make her his mistress. But to do so he had to convert her back to his beliefs, and so he arranged for 50 philosophers to come to Alexandria and to debate with her and to convince her that she was wrong. At the end of hours of debate, she had converted them back to Christianity.

The emperor was so angry with this, but he was determined to make her his mistress, and it was at this point that she informed him that not only had she taken a pledge to remain a virgin, but that she had had a dream and in that dream she had married Christ and it was at this point that the emperor just lost everything – he just became so angry, he decided that she had to die. And so he had his carpenters build four wheels that would spin in different directions, and they had iron spikes and big swords hanging from them and her body was to be sandwiched between these spinning wheels and so torn apart.

Miranda Hinkley: And so hence the wheel that she’s often depicted with in many paintings in the Gallery, like this one here, ‘The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine’ by Parmigianino, she’s depicted with a large wheel with spikes coming out.

Dana Brenan: There’s always a wheel with her – that’s how you identify her, is by her wheel. This one is particularly impressive because it’s so large and because you can actually see the big iron spikes sticking out of it. When Catherine saw the device, she was obviously afraid, but she prayed to God and God answered her prayers and had the device torn apart, and as the bits flew into the crowd it killed thousands of pagans. The emperor saw this but was not deterred – he was determined that she was going to die and so ordered her executed. And as his soldiers dragged her away to be beheaded, she heard a voice from heaven and it was Christ speaking to her and confirming her vision, that she was his bride and that a seat was next to him in heaven waiting for her. And so she went to her death willingly and passively and her example of the way she lived her life, and the way she used her intellect in debate has been an example to women for nearly 2000 years.

Miranda Hinkley: Mik, you’re a pyrotechnic and you’ve actually tailor-made Catherine wheels for special occasions.

Mik Amabilino: Yep, that’s true, and I’ve tried to integrate ancient, medieval, and modern techniques into bigger displays and one piece I’ve made was based on the styles of the Idiaden in Malta, was an 18-foot-high flower that grew in lancework, which is coloured fireworks depicting an image, and the whole 10 foot diameter top piece then revolved with the inner petals revolving in a opposite plane, so you had this big kaleidoscope effect happening.

Miranda Hinkley: So there seems to be a connection, doesn’t there, between the fact that fireworks happen at this time of year, which is also the time for the big pagan fire festivals as well.

Mik Amabilino: There are various festivals around it – you had Lammas which originally the Lugh festival which was the festival of light and of the sun, where pagans would have rolled burning wagon wheels down hills. This was then taken over by Christians as Lammas festival, which is the festival of the loaves and so they would have taken the imagery with it.

Miranda Hinkley: And so you can see how the pagan symbolism becomes superseded by the Christian symbolism of Saint Catherine and her wheel…

Mik Amabilino: Indeed. Saint Catherine was a logical progression from that because throughout history there’d been various wheels of torture in various forms and these had often taken the form of wagon wheels. So for these images to be taken over into fireworks, and particularly the image of Saint Catherine and the wheels of torture bursting asunder - with the firework you have that imagery built into it. Because particularly the traditional Catherine Wheel destroys itself as it burns and it spins throwing out shards of light, which are of course, in reality tiny burning pieces of metal, but to medieval people this would have been seemed like magic and would have been associated with God and with mysticism. It was a good logical progression for the Church to take.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Mik Amabilino and Dana Brenan. Talks about Saint Catherine take place in the National Gallery at 1pm on Thursdays throughout the month and last around 40 minutes. See our website for more details.

That’s all for now – join us again in December when we’ll be revealing what the Gallery’s got planned for the festive season. Until then, goodbye!