Giovanni di Paolo – also known as Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia – was born in Siena, probably towards the end of the fourteenth century. Although his training is not recorded, it is likely that he had early Lombard patrons, and was influenced by Lombardian book illumination. His first recorded commission was in 1417 for a Book of Hours, and Giovanni executed both illuminations and panel paintings throughout his career. In 1420 he was paid for two important, now untraced, paintings for the convent at San Domenico and for the monastery of St Marta in Siena. The first work securely attributed to him is the Triumph of Venus 1421 (Louvre, Paris).
In the early 1420s Giovanni painted four altarpieces for San Domenico, Siena. The panel with Christ suffering and triumphant (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) is probably from the first. The other polyptychs – the Pecci altarpiece 1426, the Branchini altarpiece 1427, and the Guelfi altarpiece 1445 – are now dispersed. In the Pecci altarpiece, Giovanni adhered to the Late Gothic tradition, with its sinuous lines and decorative details, while the Branchini altar shows the influence of Gentile da Fabriano. Giovanni joined the Sienese painters’ guild, the Ruolo dei pittori, in 1428, and became its rettore in 1441. In 1436, he produced the predella of the Fondi Altarpiece for San Francesco, Siena, and the Madonna della Misericordia, for the Servite church, Siena. In the period 1438–44 Giovanni created sixty-one miniatures of the Paradisoto illustrate Dante’s Divine Comedy (British Museum, London). In 1440 he painted the Crucifixion for the church of the Osservanza, Siena (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena). In the mid-1440s Giovanni collaborated with Sano di Pietro on a panel (untraced) for the Compagnia di S Francesco. He also produced his only fresco, the Crucifixion, in the hermitage of St Leonardo al Lago, and the Antiphonal made for the Augustinian monks at Lecceto (Biblioteca Communale degli Intronati, Siena). Two masterpieces of 15th-century Sienese art, Giovanni’s Paradise c.1445 and theCreation, and the Expulsion from Paradise c.1445 (both Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), are generally held to have been part of the Guelfi altarpiece, the last painted for San Domenico.
From the 1440s Giovanni created numerous fine, artistically mature works, many of which are dated. He returned to earlier themes, devising new and innovative solutions. He also depicted subjects rarely treated in Sienese art, including scenes from the lives of Sts Catherine of Siena, Ansanus, John the Baptist, Clare and Galganus. In 1445 and a decade later he painted two versions of the Coronation of the Virgin (S Andrea, Siena and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Between 1447 and 1449 Giovanni executed an important altarpiece for the church of Sta Maria della Scala, Siena, now dispersed. In the 1450s his style showed more clearly defined volumes and spatial relations, features which are evident in the architectural backgrounds of his most ambitious narrative cycle, the scenes from the Life of St John the Baptist. The St Nicholas altarpiece 1453 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) shows a close adherence to the style of Sassetta, an interest which proved fertile and around 1450–55 led to the production of some of his greatest works, including the altarpiece the Virgin and Child with SS Peter Damian, Thomas, Clare and Ursula(Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) and perhaps four predella panels with scenes from the Life of St Clare(various collections). The altarpiece which Giovanni produced in 1463, for Pius II’s new cathedral in Pienza, remains in situ. His last works are the predella of the San Galgano Altarpiece, c.1470 and the altarpiece for San Silvestro di Staggia, once signed and dated 1475 (both Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena). From the Sienese quarter known as the Poggio dei Malavolti, near Sant-Agostino, Giovanni di Paolo made his will and died in 1482. 1