Domenico Beccafumi was born in Monteaperti, near Siena, in 1486. He had an articulated education, as explained by Vasari, who knew the painter personally. In Siena, he had the opportunity to study the Chigi Altarpiece that Perugino had executed at the beginning of the 16th century for the Church of Sant’Agostino, from which he drew a broad and profound conception of naturalistic perspective space, but also the initial chromatic management.
He then went to Florence, where he was influenced by the classicism of Fra Bartolomeo and then, as Vasari wrote, “having discovered in Rome the chapel of Michelagnolo and the works of Raphael of Urbino, Domenico, who had no greater desire than to learn”, made a stay in Rome in 1510, returning to Siena two years later.
In his city, he came into contact with Sodoma, with whom he established a relationship of mutual exchange, as can be seen in the altarpiece with the Stigmata of Saint Catherine, characterised by a misty atmosphere and an almost “liquid” and alchemical treatment of the colour that fills the troubled figures.
Among other things, the main subject of St. Catherine takes place strangely in the background, giving the work a particularly extravagant effect, also due to the disturbing figure of a hooded woman in the background, before opening up to the equally disturbing landscape. The work, defined as a “cornerstone of early Tuscan Mannerism” by Argan, marks the beginning of Beccafumi’s poetics, concentrated on the visionary nature of certain sacred episodes and on the caliginous treatment of colour, both in the definition of the landscapes in the distance and of the figures, which are often characterised by sudden, frenzied highlights that enhance the cold colouring.
The painter made a second trip to Rome around 1520 and, this time, he was able to admire not only Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel but also the Villa Farnesina frescoed by Raphael. Between the 1520s and 1530s, therefore, Domenico Beccafumi’s Mannerist style became even more defined and he was involved in the execution of some of the most important decorative cycles in the sixteenth century in Siena.
His patrons initially belonged to prominent Novesque families, such as the Petrucci and Venturi families, for whom he executed the frescoes in a room in Palazzo Bindi-Sergardi (now Casini-Casuccini), and then took charge of the decoration of the Sala del Concistoro in Palazzo Pubblico, both in Siena. Both decorations take as their subjects exempla virtutis taken from Roman history, in order to refer to the politics of the time. In the vault of Palazzo Casini-Casuccini, Beccafumi starts from a very precise source, the Factorum et dictorum memorabilium by Valerius Maximus, reporting some fundamental episodes such as The Continence of Scipio.
Ten years later, in 1536, the painter was asked, this time by a public and republican client, to decorate the ceiling of the Sala del Concistoro in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. With its programme based on the exaltation of the virtues of “good government”, indicated by scenes taken from classical texts, the figuration of the Sala del Concistoro constitutes the natural development of the previous episodes of Lorenzetti’s “Good Government” in the Sala dei Nove.
These cycles represent the highest stylistic expression of Domenico Beccafumi, through the use of geometric frames and faux tapestries and an iridescent chromaticism rich in light effects that enhance elongated and supple figures, caught in daring foreshortenings and expressive poses, typical of the painter’s Mannerism.
He executed several altarpieces during the 1930s and 1940s, including the Descent of Christ into Limbo for the Church of San Francesco, now in the Pinacoteca di Siena, from which, once again, flashes of cold light, hallucinated and evanescent figures emerge in an expressive and iridescent pathos.