By the later 15th century, Siena’s international standing was on the wane. Smaller than Florence, Milan, Venice, and Naples, it was the regular victim of the power struggles that were then convulsing the Italian peninsula. Yet the city remained prosperous, controlling important territories in southern Tuscany, and wielding some influence over the affairs of the papacy.
Siena’s civic identity was concentrated in evoking its political independence, and its glorious past. Painters – including Giovanni di Paolo, Francesco di Giorgio, Matteo di Giovanni and Bernardino Fungai – responded to this nostalgia. In order to evoke the fluid grace of Duccio, their greatest artistic precursor, they chose gilded backgrounds for their paintings, and idealised their figures.
In 1487 a group of exiles led by Pandolfo Petrucci seized control of Siena. Petrucci, who ruled the city until his death in 1512, was suspicious of its republican past. In cultural terms, this heralded a new interest in painting from outside Siena. Luca Signorelli, who worked all over central Italy, received commissions for his muscular, energetic paintings. Pintoricchio, whose decorative style had met with success in Perugia and Rome, settled in Siena. The two artists worked together on a fresco cycle for the ‘beautiful chamber’ (camera bella) at the heart of Petrucci’s palace in the city.