Art of Simone Martini (Page 2)

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

Early Works

When Simone painted in 1315 the Maestà in the Palazzo Pubblico his personal artistic style was fully developed. But we don't really know what he painted before then. He was probably working in Siena at the very beginning of the 14th century, learning the trade in Duccio's workshop, as some paintings recently attributed to his very early period would appear to suggest.

The Madonna and Child, no. 583 in the Siena Pinacoteca, after a variety of attributions is now accepted as the earliest known painting by Simone. It was the central panel of a polypytch (on either side there are holes to fasten the side panels to it) and the attribution is based on stylistic considerations: on the one hand, close ties to Duccio's painting; on the other, typical features of Simone's art. The Madonna is looking at the spectator: her erect position, the cloak enveloping her body, her sweet but sad eyes, are all elements typical of Duccio's art. But alongside these we find some totally new features: the sculptural quality of the veil around the Virgin's face and the play of light and shadow (notice how similar she is to Mary Magdalene in the Maestà, third figure from the throne with the jar of ointment in her hands); the restless movements of the Child, who turns his head towards the Saint to his left (the figure originally depicted on the side panel) and holds onto his mother's hand; his round body, his mouth, his curly hair and the perfect shape of his ear are all given exact volumes and concrete forms (similar typologies are to be found also in the Child between Saints Stephen and Ladislaus of Hungary in the Basilica in Assisi).

It is interesting here to draw a parallel with another early work, recently discovered and assumed that Simone painted it between 1311 and 1314. It is the Madonna in the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Ponte at San Gimignano; or rather, the head of the Madonna, since in 1413 the fresco was almost entirely redone by Cenni di Francesco: the face survived only thanks to a legend according to which the good state of conservation of Mary's face was the result of a miracle and it should therefore not be touched. Despite the terrible conditions of the painting, the edge of the cloak, the clear veil and the lighter areas of the chin and cheeks are reminiscent of Madonna no. 583; but the latter's archaic composition suggests that it must have been painted a few years earlier than the San Gimignano fresco, around 1308-1310.

The Madonna of Mercy from Vertine also dates from this period. It is a splendid tempera painting only recently attributed (and not unanimously, at that) to Simone. Here, we can still clearly see the influence of Duccio, especially in the positioning and typology of the characters sheltered under Mary's cloak. But a new spirit prevails: a sense of real space between the heads and a feeling of life and movement in the imposing figure of the Virgin (the drapery folds do not conceal the position of her legs and she is quite noticeably turning in order to embrace all her protégés) are evidence of the evolution of the artist's more archaic ideas towards new forms of expression. The effect of rich and precious ornamentation (a striking feature of the Maestà) is reproduced in the use of gold and silver, colourful gems set in the surface, and transparent varnishes. Although we cannot be sure that this Madonna was actually painted by Simone, no one can deny the analogies, both in technique and style, with Madonna no. 583.


After the early works that have been attributed to him in a fairly plausible way, although purely on stylistic grounds, we come to a concrete element: the Maestà in the Palazzo Pubblico is the oldest painting that we can safely attribute to him. The end wall in the Sala del Mappamondo is entirely covered by this fresco. Surrounded by a frame decorated with twenty medallions depicting the Blessing Christ, the Prophets and the Evangelists (in the corners, each one with his symbol) and with smaller shields containing the coats-of-arms of Siena (the black and white standard) and the Sienese people (the lion rampant), the fresco shows a host of angels, Saints and Apostles, with the Madonna and Child in the centre. To the left of the splendidly decorated throne, Saints Catherine of Alexandria, John the Evangelist, Mary Magdalene, Archangel Gabriel and Paul; to the right, in almost identical positions, Barbara, John the Baptist, Agnes, Archangel Michael and Peter. Below, kneeling, are the four patron Saints of Siena: Ansano, Bishop Savino, Crescenzio and Vittore, accompanied by two angels who are offering Mary roses and lilies. The whole scene, set against a deep blue background, is surmounted by an imposing canopy of red silk, significantly held up by Saints Paul, John the Evangelist, John the Baptist and Peter. In the lower section of the fresco, on the inner frame, are the remains of an inscription which has been reconstructed as follows: "Mille trecento quindici era volto/ E Delia avia ogni bel fiore spinto/ Et Juno gia gridava: I' mi rivolto!/ Siena a man di Simone m'ha dipinto" (1315 was over and Delia had made the lovely flowers blossom, and Juno cried: I'm turning over. Siena had me painted by the hand of Simone). There is no doubt that the artist mentioned was indeed Martini, but the interpretation of the date is controversial: some think that it refers to June 1315, others believe that it means June the following year, for 1315 was over, Delia (Spring) had already made the flowers bloom, whereas Juno, to whom the month of June was dedicated, was about to show her second half.

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. The canopy's supporting poles are placed in perspective, thus giving a sense of depth to the composition. Under the canopy there is a crowd of thirty people: no more processions of people in parallel rows, but concrete spatial rhythms and animated gestures. Simone was quite clearly acquainted with the perspective constructions that Giotto had used in Assisi (see Guided Tour #3), an acquaintance that might have come to him through the work of the Master of Figline or that of Memmo di Filippuccio. But his art also contains a personal interpretation of elements of the French Gothic (not necessarily the result of a journey abroad, for he could have seen ivory carvings, miniatures and goldsmithery): the pointed arch structure of the throne, the precious ornamentation of the materials and the golden reflections give the whole scene a vaguely secular mood. But there is something more. Simone has developed a new way of understanding art: the wall is not simply painted, but carved, incised, set with coloured glass, raised surfaces, strong and bright colours. The various materials, like glass, tin and so on - everything that is not tempera or coloured earth - are all handled with great confidence by Simone. Simone Martini owes a great deal to the work of Sienese goldsmiths, the Gothic shapes and the sophisticated and shining surfaces were undoubtedly influenced by the artefacts produced in the workshops of goldsmith artisans, who decorated the most precious metals with the new technique of translucid enamels.

In 1321 Simone Martini and the assistants of his workshop restored the fresco, retouching some of the figures that had been damaged: the faces of the Virgin, the Child, the angels and the patron Saints, Ansano and Crescenzio. The two different periods when Simone worked on the Maestà are very important in our reconstruction of the development of his art: the restored sections, with their more linear design and more transparent colours, are much more self-confident than the earlier parts. But let's not forget that between his first intervention and the second one Simone had been to Assisi. And that's not all. Tests carried out recently have shown that in the lower section (more or less at the height of the thighs of the kneeling Saints, about four metres from the floor) there is a clearly visible line where the colour tonality changes. Since it does not look simply like the demarcation between two different days' work, It was suggested that it indicates a short period of interruption on the work on the fresco. Therefore, we can say that even the first painting of the Maestà was carried out in two separate sessions. One can but wonder where Simone was while the host of Saints was waiting to be completed, and what superior power (it had to be indeed superior!) had distracted the artist from such an important fresco. He was probably in Assisi, measuring the wall surfaces of the chapel of San Martino, planning the scenes and perhaps even drawing his first synopias on the walls.

The lines in Italian that appear on the steps of the throne are composed in terzine rhyme, like the Divine Comedy. They explain the meaning of the fresco: the Virgin is addressing the Council of Nine, who had commissioned the fresco, and is exhorting them to govern in the name of those moral and religious principles that guarantee concord and justice. Peace in the city is constantly threatened by internal struggles between the two enemy factions, led by the Tolomei and the Salimbeni. And these Mary condemns.

The glorification of the Virgin is the iconographical element on which the painting is based: Mary's function is to protect the city, and the four patron Saints are her intermediaries. The fresco was painted in the room where the government held its meetings to discuss the future of the city: the Nine are the highest representatives of the citizenry and the Madonna's protection must first of all cover them. Political messages in depictions of holy scenes were not a novelty for the Sienese; Duccio's Maestà, carried in triumph into the Cathedral in 1311, includes both the patron Saints and a prayer to the Virgin; although in a more veiled way, its purpose was the same. But in Simone's the civic and secular content is developed fully: the sacred elements are included in a slightly ambiguous dimension, in which the heavenly court becomes the highest exaltation of a very worldly and real court. Simone's social ideals, "courtly" and aristocratic, are the same as those of his clients: the Maestà is both sacred and profane and the courtly gestures of the characters reflect a noble and elitist vision of religion.

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