Art of Simone Martini


1. Biographic outline 2. Milestones 3. Simone's style
4. Early works 5. Maestą 6. Frescoes in Assisi
7. Altarpieces 8. Guidoriccio 9. Late works

Biographic Outline

It is convenient to think of Simone Martini (b. 1280/85, Siena, d. 1344, Avignon) as a pupil of Duccio, although nothing is known of Simone's life before 1315. From this point on, however, its main outlines are reasonably clear. He spent much of his life in Siena and Tuscany. He may have visited Naples c. 1317 and he certainly visited Avignon c. 1314, staying there until his death in 1344. At least one other visit to Avignon had probably already taken place.

If one were to reconstruct the life of Simone Martini using only documented facts one would have a very short account, with a great many gaps. However, making use of many of the elements that have been handed down by traditional accounts, we shall be able to reconstruct the great artist's life story.

Let us begin this short historical and chronological account from the date of Simone's death, which we know for certain as 4 August 1344. If we are to believe Vasari, who tells us that on Simone's tomb there was an epitaph stating that he had died at the age of sixty, then the artist must have been born around 1284.

What did Simone look like? He was probably not a very handsome man, at least according to Petrarch, who was a close friend of his. Some scholars claim that the Christ before Pilate on the back of Duccio's Maestą in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena is a portrait of Simone; others believe that he is the knight with the blue hat who is witnessing, half amused, half in disbelief, the Miracle of the Resurrected Child in the Chapel of San Martino in the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi.

He may have been born in Siena, in the neighbourhood of Sant'Egidio; or perhaps, according to another theory, he was born in the countryside around Siena, near San Gimignano, the son of a Master Martino specialized in the preparation of the arriccio (or first coat) applied to wall surfaces to be frescoed. Simone most probably learnt the trade in the workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna, but he only became well-known as an artist when he painted and signed the Maestą in the Sala del Mappamondo in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena in 1315. If we consider that the Comune of Siena chose Simone as the artist to paint such an important fresco, we can assume that he must already have had quite a good reputation before he was commissioned the Maestą. Working for the Comune on the decoration of the Palazzo Pubblico, the heart of the city both literally and symbolically, was an experience shared by all those who are today considered the greatest Sienese painters of the late l3th century and the first half of the l4th: Duccio, Simone and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

From the reconstruction of Martini's life and work, it appears that he travelled frequently from Siena to Assisi and viceversa. It seems that between 1312 and 1315 he did the drawings for the stained-glass windows in the Chapel of San Martino in the Lower Church in Assisi, for these windows certainly look earlier and more archaic from a stylistic point of view than the frescoes in the same chapel (finished by 1317). In 1315 he painted the Maestą in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and probably also did some more work in Assisi, on the frescoes in the Chapel of San Martino. Also in 1315, as a result of the canonization of Louis of Toulouse, Simone probably received the commission for the Naples Altarpiece, a signed painting which is traditionally supposed to have been painted in Naples, although there is no evidence to support this theory. Based on a document in which Simone is not referred to as a painter, but as a "miles," a term used in the Middle Ages to mean a knight, Simone must have been knighted for having paid tribute to King Robert, his family and the French royal lineage both in the frescoes in Assisi and in the Naples Altarpiece. It was fairly common procedure in the late Middle Ages for a sovereign to knight an artist for such merits.

A large and quite varied group of panel paintings is normally dated around the late 1310s and the early 1320s. Our documentation on this group of paintings is so scarce that we know for certain the dates of only two of them: the polyptych for the church of Santa Caterina in Pisa (1319) and the one in the Museum at Orvieto (1320). As far as the others are concerned, especially the numerous polyptychs produced in the Orvieto workshop, most recent scholars tend to date them at the early 1320s, but entirely on stylistic grounds, for there is no documentary evidence at all. In any case, an accurate study of Simone's production in Orvieto is extremely difficult, for all the paintings attributed to him show quite considerable interventions by assistants.

All through the 1320s the Biccherna registers (the Comune of Siena's accounting ledgers) record payments to Martini, evidence that he must have worked a great deal in Siena before leaving for Avignon. These documents refer to a variety of paintings, many of which have not been identified or have not survived. In 1321 Simone was paid to restore his own Maestą, which had been damaged already by rainwater infiltrations in the wall, and for the work he had done on a painted Crucifix (which was eventually completed by his pupil, Cino di Mino Ughi).

In 1324 he married Giovanna, the daughter of Memmo di Filippuccio and the sister of Lippo Memmi. Simone may have been a rich man, for his activity as a painter certainly provided him with a substantial revenue. Shortly before his marriage, in January or February 1324, he bought a house from his future father-in-law and presented to his wife-to-be a generous wedding gift. Perhaps with an excess of sentimentalism, this gift has been interpreted as a sign of gratitude: after all, Simone was already past forty and not very handsome, so he was grateful to the young girl for accepting to marry him. Whatever the truth may be, the gift is undoubtedly evidence of his generosity, a trait that comes across quite clearly in his last will and testament as well. Simone married into Lippo's family, then, and this further strengthened a bond of friendship and artistic collaboration that lasted throughout their careers, reaching its highpoint in the Annunciation in the Uffizi where it is actually quite difficult to distinguish Simone's work from Lippo's.

Also presumably dating from the 1320s are the Altarpiece of the Blessed Agostino Novello and the small tempera portrayal of St Ladislaus, King of Hungary. In 1326 Simone must have painted a panel for the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo: we know this must have been a very important painting, both because of the huge sum of money he was paid for it and because Ghiberti, in his l5th-century Commentaries, described it as "molto buona," and we know that Ghiberti was never a great admirer of Simone's, since he thought Ambrogio Lorenzetti was a better painter. The following year Simone painted two banners which have not survived; they were presented by the Comune of Siena to Duke Charles of Calabria, the son of Robert of Anjou. In 1329/30 he painted "two little angels on the altar of the Nine" in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and a portrayal of the rebel Marco Regoli (who was hanged by his feet, a form of execution reserved for traitors and forgers) in the Sala del Concistoro; neither of these frescoes has survived. Also in 1330 Simone painted in the Palazzo Pubblico one of his most celebrated works, the fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano, a commemoration of the conquest of the castle of Montemassi in 1328 (the date, "MCCCXXVIII," under the fresco refers to the conquest and not to the fresco). The recent discovery of another fresco below this one depicting a similar scene, has raised some doubts as to the attribution. The history behind the Guidoriccio, its meaning and iconography, have been the object of a very animated debate amongst the most authoritative art historians.

The date 1333 appears on the frame of the Annunciation painted for Siena Cathedral: this is the last painting we know of that Simone worked on before moving to France. The primary consequence of the Papal See being transferred to Avignon in the early l4th century was that it transformed that small Provencal city into an artistic centre of European renown: paintings, artists and entire workshops, incentivated primarily by the Italian cardinals, were transferred to Avignon, and Simone, too, moved there in 1336. In what became the busiest art centre of the century, the style of the northern artists soon blended with the aristocratic elegance of Italian painting, especially the art of Simone, laying the foundations for the International Gothic style, an art of exquisite courtly refinement, of which Simone is generally considered a forerunner.

Although a member of a very stratified society (common citizens, imperial power and feudal hierarchy, the Pope and the Papal State), Simone was always associated with the highest social levels. His career evolved from one important commission to the next, always at the service of the highest powers. While in Siena he worked for the Government of the Nine, decorating the palace where they held their meetings; then he worked in the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi, the most important institution of the Franciscan Order, but one which was temporal enough to be influenced by the current political situation. Then he gained the favour of the House of Anjou working at the Court of King Robert; and lastly he moved to Avignon to work for the most powerful members of the Church. From local painter to artist of European renown: his art went from secular subjects commissioned by the city's lay government, to holy subjects painted for Church patrons and even for royalty. But he always remained faithful to his style, an elegant, realistic and cultured art. His growing reputation as an artist must also have contributed to the general esteem he was held in, and we find his name appearing in documents in roles that required public trust. These are all incidents that have nothing to do with his career as a painter, but they help us reconstruct his life history and his temperament.

The contrasting opinion of scholars on Simone's later works is the result of the lack of information available. Apart from the fragments of frescoes in Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon, all that has survived from this period is the frontispiece of Petrarch's copy of Virgil (now in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan), the Holy Family in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, dated 1342 and the polyptych of Stories from the Passion now belonging to the museums of Antwerp, Paris and Berlin.

Simone Martini died in Avignon in the summer of 1344. As Vasari tells us "he was overcome by a very serious infirmity. . . and not being able to withstand the gravity of the illness, he passed away." Clearly Simone was already ill and must have been aware that the end was near, for on 30 June he had already drawn up a will. The true nature of Simone, an extremely generous man, deeply attached to his family, comes across from this document. And his family loved him as much as he loved them, especially his wife Giovanna who returned to Siena from Avignon in 1347 (perhaps she was escaping the Black Death) all dressed in black, still in full mourning for her beloved Simone.

Simone's Style

When Simone painted in 1315 the Maestą in the Palazzo Pubblico his personal artistic style was fully developed, able to express original ideas and innovative compositions. But we don't really know what he painted before then. In the Maestą, the most obvious innovations present in Simone's style, an art that was very different from traditional forms, are his ideas of three-dimensional space.

A large and quite varied group of panel paintings is normally dated around the late 1310s and the early 1320s. By examining them we shall be able to follow Simone's artistic development: the pre-Giottesque style of Assisi and the reminiscences of Duccio's art are filtered through a more openly Gothic style expressed in innovative volume constructions, with images set in bright and spacious areas, with sinuous and sharp lines.

We have already spoken of Simone's realism, but it is interesting to hear what Vasari had to say about it: "He loved to portray from nature and in this he was considered the best master of his day." In mediaeval painting the first individual portraits are to be found in the work of Simone, who appears to have noticed before his contemporaries the uniqueness of the features of his single subjects. Take, for example, the sharp profile of King Robert in the Naples Altarpiece, or the obsequious expression of Cardinal Gentile Partino da Montefiore above the arch over the entrance door to the Chapel of San Martino: both of these are indicative of the extraordinary talent that Simone showed in his portraits. What a shame that the portrait of the beautiful Laura that Simone painted for Petrarch has not survived: it must indeed have been quite splendid, for the great poet wrote two sonnets inspired by its beauty.

His work was certainly popular outside Tuscany, and it may be safely assumed that, for its grace and elegance, it would have been acceptable in Paris. Simone pressed the northern tendencies of Duccio very much farther than his presumed master, and he brought to the developing Gothic style in Italy an appreciation of the obvious features associated with court art - finesse, dexterity in the handling of detail, an appreciation of secular pomp and grandeur, an eye for costume and fashion, and, on occasion, ability as a painter of heraldry and portraits. Whence he derived his taste for this type of art is not at all clear - although all these features are visible in his work by 1320. Simone, who spent most of his working life in republican Siena, was in a curious way a court artist par excellence.

He was very meticulous and took great care in his realistic landscape views. As we can see in the Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece, Simone was very accurate in his depictions of town scenes and details: arcades, mullioned windows and rooftops (and also the interior of a house) offer us a very realistic picture of 14th-century Siena. But his love of realism made him go even further: when the government commissioned a series of paintings showing the castles that the city's troops had conquered in neighbouring areas, he went in person to look at the places.

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