The Italian artist Sassetta (ca. 1400-1450), the greatest painter of the Sienese school in the 15th century, is noted for the gentle piety of his art.
The place and date of birth of Stefano di Giovanni, known as Sassetta are unknown. He may have been born in Cortona, the home of his father, Giovanni di Consolo. A baptismal record preserved in Siena dated Dec. 31, 1392, for one Stefano di Giovanni is widely accepted as evidence that he was born in Siena that year. Some scholars, however, would suggest a birth date not before 1400 on the basis of Sassetta's earliest dated work of 1423.
Sassetta's style was wholly Sienese in character, suggesting that he was trained in the shop of some Sienese master. Whether or not that master was Paolo di Giovanni Fei, as suggested by some critics, is unknown. In 1440 Sassetta married Gabriella di Buccio di Biancardo. The eldest of their three children was the sculptor Giovanni di Stefano. Sassetta died in April 1450, after contracting pneumonia the previous month while frescoing the Porta Romana, Siena.
On July 1, 1423, the wool guild (Arte della Lana) commissioned an altarpiece (now disassembled) from Sassetta for its chapel next to the church of S. Pellegrino, Siena. From 1426 to 1431 he was associated with the Cathedral Works, Siena. Among the documents from this period are records of payment dated December 1427 for a drawing of the baptismal font "in the shape that it ought to take." This suggests that he may have collaborated with Jacopo della Quercia, the sculptor who built the font.
On March 25, 1430, Sassetta was commissioned to paint an altarpiece of the Madonna with Saints with the legend of the founding of S. Maria Maggiore, Rome, in the predella. The Madonna of the Snow, as it is called, was finished by mid-October 1432. His style in this work betrays the influence of Masaccio, especially in the broad modeling of the Virgin and Child and in the arrangement of figures in the predella. Little is known of Sassetta's activities between 1433 and 1436, though this is the period when he probably painted the Crucifixion for S. Martino (of which fragments remain) and the altarpiece for S. Domenico, Cortona.
The altarpiece of the Madonna with Saints Jerome and Ambrose, dated 1436, in the Church of the Osservanza, Siena, formerly attributed to Sassetta, is now generally attributed to another artist, the so-called Osservanza Master. Some critics would extend the oeuvre of the Osservanza Master to include the Birth of the Virgin in Asciano and the group of panels with the life of St. Anthony Abbot from an altarpiece dedicated to the saint. These panels still have advocates who attribute them to Sassetta.
Two small panels, the Journey of the Magi and the Adoration of the Magi, were probably once part of a single composition. The most important extant later work by Sassetta is the altarpiece (now dismembered) commissioned on Sept. 5, 1437, and completed by June 5, 1441, for the church of S. Francesco, Borgo San Sepolcro. His style in these panels is somewhat flatter and more decorative than in the Madonna of the Snow. When Sassetta died, he left at least two major works unfinished: the fresco decoration of the Porta Romana, Siena, and the Assumption of the Virgin.
John Pope-Hennessy's monograph Sassetta (1939) gives the facts of the artist's life. See also Bernhard Berenson, A Sienese Painter of the Franciscan Legend (1909). □