Art of the Lorenzetti Brothers

Biographic outline Description of works

Biographic Outline

Lorenzetti, Pietro (b. cca. 1280, Siena, d. 1348, Siena) and Ambrogio (b. cca. 1290, Siena, d. 1348, Siena), were brothers, Pietro probably being the elder. They were Sienese painters who extended the side of Duccio's art that was concerned with rendering solidity of form and emotional depth: in this they were opposed to Simone Martini and were influenced by the sculpture of Giovanni Pisano (as Duccio himself was) and also by contemporary work in Florence by Giotto and his immediate followers. Like some of their Florentine contemporaries such as Daddi they form a stylistic link between Duccio and Giotto, between the Schools of Siena and Florence.

Pietro was perhaps Duccio's pupil, but his earliest known work, the polyptych in the Parish Church, Arezzo, which was commissioned in 1320, shows an independent style already, even though it has Ducciesque characteristics and is comparable with the polyptych by Simone Martini at Pisa, also of 1320. Pietro's beginnings are much complicated by two facts, the interpretation of which is controversial. Firstly, there is a payment from Siena Town Council for a picture in 1306: it was made to 'Petruccio di Lorenzo', whom most scholars would now identify with Pietro. Secondly, the Santa Umiltą panels in Florence (Uffizi) were recorded in the 19th century as dated - but the date could be read as 1316 or 1341 (i.e. MCCCXVI or MCCCXLI). Stylistically, the later date is now thought more likely. There are several frescoes and other panel pictures by Pietro, the most notable being the frescoes at Assisi (S. Francesco Lower Church), the Carmelite Altar (1329, Siena, Pinacoteca), and the Birth of the Virgin (1342, Siena, Opera del Duomo). The Assisi frescoes show the impact of the art of Giotto on him, and they are certainly the most tragically grand and simple works produced by a Sienese in the 14th century. The Birth of the Virgin is probably later - the date of the Assisi frescoes is very controversial - and, by comparison with the more complex Presentation by his brother (also 1342, Florence, Uffzi), it seems very simple, yet it has great narrative power and it shows Pietro as a colourist. The setting is reminiscent of his brother's Presentation, but simpler and less accurate in its perspective.

It is thought that Ambrogio was the more inventive of the two. He may have been in Florence c.1318 and the earliest work attributed to him, a Madonna of 1319, from Vico l'Abate, is much more influenced by Florentine ideas than by Sienese. He entered the Guild at Florence in 1327 and was in the city again in 1331-32, so that he was in constant touch with the art of Giotto and his followers. His most important works are the frescoes of Good and Bad Government in the Town Hall of Siena (1337-39). There is a large allegorical fresco, a sort of political manifesto, which shows the influence of Giotto in the bulky forms of the allegorical females, but the two most interesting are those representing Good Government in the Town and in the Country, where the streets of Siena are represented in perspective of astonishing mastery at that date, and the great panoramic landscape in the Country with its small figures riding through the peaceful countryside (the bandits have been hanged by the Good Government) is perhaps the first landscape in modern art to be used as an essential component of a composition, both reflecting and creating a mood. Ambrogio is last recorded in 1347, and it is probable that both brothers died in the Black Death of 1348 which ravaged Siena with particular severity and killed off most of the artists - hence the rapid decline of the Sienese School in the second half of the 14th century.

Description of works

The range and variety of Simone Martini's painting illustrate many aspects of Italian Gothic art of the first half of the fourteenth century. But, just as no other artist emulated the concentrated austerity of Giotto's work c. 1320, so few seriously imitated the grace and elegance of Simone's figure painting. Alongside both men there developed what may be seen as a series of intermediate styles, more robust than that of Simone, but also more extravagant in the treatment of detail and setting than the style of Giotto. In Florence, this type of painting is well exemplified by the work of Taddeo Gaddi who was a competent and interesting artist but he is overshadowed by two Sienese artists, the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

Pietro Lorenzetti's first certain work is of 1320; the first dated work of Ambrogio is 1319 (although this is only an attribution). Both artists were therefore older than Taddeo Gaddi of Florence, although younger than Simone Martini. Pietro's work of 1320 is an altarpiece in the Pieve of Arezzo. It is of interest because it has a general similarity in its format to Simone's 1310 altar at Pisa. Pietro's figure style, however, is very different. The figures are more solid and appear to be larger, being in any case of almost three-quarter length. The Virgin has a broad solid face and looks intensely at the child (an idea probably derived from Giovanni Pisano) which she supports with a tense rigid hand. Simone's Pisa figures are expressionless but Pietro's Arezzo figures have a brooding seriousness. What is striking about Pietro's personal style as it is revealed in this altarpiece is the lack of any trace of the nascent Parisian elegance to be found before this date in the work of Duccio and Simone. In the history of altarpieces, the upper scene of the Annunciation provides a surprise. The action takes place in a defined setting which incorporates in its structure the frame of the altarpiece itself. The wooden pillars of the frame are to be understood as part of the house in which the Virgin sits. This type of confusion between the real and the painted world is found again in Pietro's Birth of the Virgin of 1342 and was taken over from the repertoire of fresco painters. The Birth of the Virgin is formally a triptych, in fact it is a single scene. In the centre St Anne in a position similar to the Etruscan sarcophags. The composition is Byzantine but the painting as a whole is Italian showing the influence of Giotto. It is signed and dated, the inscription on the frame bolow the central panel is: PETRUS LAURENTII DE SENIS ME PINXIT MCCCXLII.

Important panels by Pietro include the signed and dated altarpiece of the Carmelite church (Siena, 1329) which was dismembered in the 16th century. The signed Man of Sorrow (Lindenau, c. 1330) was the right panel of a diptych, the left panel being a half-length standing Madonna with the Child. Its composition is based on a prototype small mosaic icon executed around 1300 in the Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Rome. The panel is signed on the lower part of the frame: PETRUS LAVRETII DE SENI ME PIXI. The dated altarpiece of the Virgin and Child Enthroned (Uffizi, 1340) was painted for the church of San Francesco in Pistoia, where remained until 1799, to be transferred in the Uffizi Gallery. Among the latest work of Pietro Lorenzetti, the picture shows the tender motif of the silent colloquy that binds Mother and Child, which is characteristic of the style of other contemporary masters, as Giotto or the sculptor Giovanni Pisano. The predella paintings, described by Vasari, are lost. The signed and dated Umiltą Altarpiece (Uffizi, 1341) representing scenes of the life of Beata Umiltą was in the Convent of the Donne di Faenza in Florence. The polyptych was later dismembered.

The first dated work of Ambrogio is the Madonna of Vico l'Abate. It shows all components of his art: Byzantine art, the plasticity of a Duecento Sienese relief and the dynamism of Giovanni Pisano. The Nursing Madonna (Siena, c. 1330) is related to the Madonna of Vico l'Abate, it demontrates the changes in the art of Ambrogio due to the influence of his elder brother Pietro with whom he worked together in the second half of the 1320s in the Franciscan monastery in Siena. In the large panel of the Maestą at Massa Maritima (c. 1335) Ambrogio Lorenzetti followed the examples of the Maestą representations by both Duccio and Simone Martini. The small Maestą panel (Siena, 1335-40) was probably the central part of a triptych. It can be considered as an improved version of the Maestą at Massa Marittima.

The Altarpiece of St Proculus (Uffizi, 1332) was executed for the church of S. Procolo in Florence during Ambrogio's second and prolonged sojourn in Florence. It is a dismembered triptych representing the Madonna and Child on the centre and St Nicholas of Bari and St Proculus at the sides. Originally it had a predella, too. The St Michael Altarpiece (Asciano, 1330-35) was the central part of a polyptych executed for the Benedictine monastery church established by Guido Tarlati, bishop of Arezzo, in 1319. The two panels from the church of St Procolo in Florence representing four scenes from the Legend of S. Nicholas of Bari (Uffizi, 1332) were presumably painted as side wings of a triptych which had a figure of St Nicholas in the central panel (which has disappeared) during the second visit of Ambrogio to Florence between 1327 and 1332, or later. On the first panel the upper scene represents St Nicholas giving dowry to three virgins. An impoverished nobleman is ready to prostitute his three daughters as no one will accept them in marriage without dowries. To save them from such a dishonourable fate, Nicholas, on three consecutive nights, throws each of them a bag full of gold through their window. The lower scene shows Nicholas' consacration as bishop. On the second panel the upper scene represents the resurrection of the dead child. In the lower scene Nicholas, as bishop of Myra saves the town from famine by miraculously drying and multiplying the sacks of wheat which had fallen into the sea.

Important late panels of Ambrogio are Presentation in the Temple (Uffizi, 1342), and The Annunciation (Pinacoteca, Siena, 1344).

Both the Lorenzetti brothers were important fresco painters. Both were indebted to Giotto, sometimes obviously. For instance, the scene of St Louis of Toulouse before Boniface VIII which Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted c. 1325 for the chapter house of San Francesco, Siena, appears to develop a composition established in one of Giotto's scenes in the Bardi Chapel at Santa Croce, Florence. There is, however, a strong emphasis on the assembled court which overshadows the central action in a most un-Giottesque way. Ambrogio made use of the near-contemporary subject-matter to introduce a considerable variety of costume and facial type among the various spectators. This work has, indeed, many general similarities to the St Martin frescoes of Simone Martini.

A similar delight in descriptive detail, which must be understood as a characteristic of the period, emerges clearly in the mural paintings coming from the workshop of Pietro Lorenzetti. There is a series of frescoes from this workshop, painted c. 1330 in the Lower Church of S. Francesco, Assisi, and representing the story of the Passion in the Orsini Chapel as well as an outstanding Madonna and Child in the left transept. The latter lyrical picture is one the the earliest example of the Santa Conversazione. Below, on the narrow predella the Crucifix in golden background can be seen between the coat-of-arms of the Orsini Family. On the right is the profile portrait of the donator.

The story of the Passion contains four scenes on the entrance wall of the chapel, the Descent to Limbo, the Deposition, the Entombment and the Resurrection. As with this scenes, some instances occur of indebtedness to Giotto. The Deposition scene is striking for the compactness of the grouping, the bulk of the figures and the control and restraint of the action and feeling. In other scenes, on the contrary, descriptive detail tends to run riot in a wholly un-Giottesque way. The Crucifixion scene is conceived on a panoramic scale, perhaps under the influence of Giovanni Pisano's Crucifixion relief on the Pisa Cathedral pulpit. The painter depicted a vast scene with jostling horsemen, and used the opportunity to insert all manner of different costumes, uniforms, hats, helmets, and also types of reaction and types of face. The painting indeed makes its impact in the contrast between the heterogeneous mass of people and the still isolation of the crosses above.

At some point during the 1330s Ambrogio Lorenzetti must have supplanted Simone Martini as the chief painter in Siena (perhaps as the result of a visit by the latter to Avignon); for in 1338-40 he undertook to fresco the walls of the Sala del Nove, a room immediately adjoining the room in which are Simone's Maestą and Guidoriccio frescoes. Since this room was the council chamber of Siena's chief magistrates and it is not surprising to find as the subject an allegory on the theme of Good and Bad Government. Nor is the personification of Virtue and Vice unusual: it has a long history in medieval art. Enthroned on one wall are Justice, the Common Good, Providence, Temperance and other Virtues, while adjacent is painted Tyranny enthroned, with corresponding Vices. However, accompanying these are two large town- and landscapes, illustrating the effects of the respective types of government. These frescoes, the first great panoramic views of town and country since classical times, illustrate dramatically the extraordinary command of structure and the control of space and distance achieved in Italy during the first half of the century. It is true that the elements of this juxtaposition of town and country are already present in Duccio's painting of the Entry into Jerusalem, and the delight in descriptive detail is a feature common to most artists of this period. Italian artists, however, were able to organize this wealth of detail on a large scale into a spatially convincing whole.

The genesis of the idea for these huge panoramic views is not at all clear, but it seems certain that the well-governed town is intended to be Siena. (The "Ill-governed Town" is unfortunately almost ruined as a fresco.) This is indicated by the dome and campanile of the cathedral in the top left-hand corner; and although this part of the wall was repainted in the fourteenth century soon after the fresco was finished, there is no reason to suppose that these features did not exist from the start. These indications link this fresco to the genre of architectural portraiture which emerged probably in the late thirteenth century. Already by that date painters were beginning to specify a particular milieu by including a handful of recognizable objects. Thus, in the St Francis cycle at Assisi, the artist who worked the scene of "St Francis and the Poor Man of Assisi" included in the background a not entirely accurate version of the small classical temple front still to be seen in the main street of Assisi - for this was where the scene took place. For Rome, artists soon developed a sort of shorthand which included such instantly recognizable monuments as the Pantheon, Trajan's Column, the Torre delle Milizie or the Pyramid of Sestus. The fresco of the city and countryside of Siena is really an extension of this idea, put to a novel use and executed with the enormously extended means now at the artist's disposal.