Art of Simone Martini (Page 4)

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


1. St Louis of Toulouse 2. San Gimignano Polyptych 3. Pisa Polyptych
4. Orvieto Polyptych 1 5. Orvieto Polyptych 2 6. Boston Polyptych
7. Crucifix 8. Blessed Agostino Novello 9. Altomonte Panel

St Louis of Toulouse Crowning Robert of Anjou

There is considerable stylistic similarity between the Assisi frescoes and the painting of St Louis of Toulouse Crowning Robert of Anjou, now in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples but formerly in the Franciscan monastery of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Probably painted in 1317 on the occasion of the canonization of Louis, Bishop of Toulouse, the altarpiece shows the scene of the coronation set in a lilied frame with a truncated cusp and a predella panel with five scenes illustrating episodes from the Saint's life. The painting actually depicts a double coronation and its iconography is strongly celebratory: while Louis is offering the worldly crown of the Kingdom of Naples to his brother Robert (he himself had renounced the crown in order to take his vows), he receives the heavenly crown, the symbol of his sanctity. On the one hand Simone is stressing an event of great spiritual value, while on the other he does not forget to draw attention to a gesture of political significance. And the scene is actually described like an investiture, with lavishly decorated costumes; the coat-of-arms of the French kings and the great quantities of gold used in the decorations exalt the solemn and formal nature of the gesture.

The predella scenes, on the other hand, are much more lively and realistic; their animated narrative quality is more like the St Martin cycle. From left to right, in the first panel we find Louis accepting the nomination to Bishop of Toulouse on condition that he be allowed to enter the Franciscan Order. This event took place in secret in Rome in December 1296, in the presence of Boniface VIII; Louis's father, Charles II, for political reasons wanted his son to become Bishop of Toulouse, for he needed to have direct control over an area that was particularly important for the King of France, Philip the Fair. And who could be a more trustworthy Bishop than his own son? But Louis had already given up his throne in order to follow the example of St Francis, and he had no intention now of becoming a pawn in a political manoeuvre, for this went against his spiritual aspirations; so, in return for accepting this religious office (which was not religious at all. . . ), he requested to be allowed to enter the Franciscan Order. In the following panel Louis publicly takes his vows and is consecrated Bishop: this is the official conclusion, on 5 February 1297, of the secret agreement made between Pope Boniface and the Saint.

The third scene is based on the proceedings for the canonization of Louis in 1308: with great modesty, the Bishop Saint served and fed the hungry. These scenes relate perfectly to the subject-matter of the altarpiece, the coronation of King Robert, for they exalt the humility of Louis: he is humble because he gave up his throne, he is humble in the presence of Boniface VIII, he is humble in his daily life. But the truth was different. Even more important than his humility, Louis was poor: poor like St Francis, poor like the unpopular Spirituals, and above all poor unlike a King's son, especially one who was a Bishop and had just been canonized. The patron who commissioned the painting (Robert of Anjou, Mary of Hungary, or any other member of the royal family) clearly requested Simone to conceal, or at least not to emphasize, this aspect of the Saint's virtue; he was to celebrate another aspect of it, equally valid from a spiritual point of view, and totally innocuous politically: Louis is a follower of Christ in his humility, not in his poverty. After the scene of Louis's Funeral, depicted as a magnificent ceremony worthy of a high prelate (actually, it appears that it was an austere and simple service), in the last panel we find the scene of a miracle involving a small child: a man prays with a statuette of St Louis in his hands asking for his intervention and his child, who had died shortly before, miraculously comes back to life. With its lively narrative quality and especially because of the iconography involving the death of a child, this scene is very similar to the episodes depicted in the altarpiece of the Blessed Agostino Novello. The spatial construction of the altarpiece, both in the main panel and in the predella scenes, shows a very conscious elaboration of Giotto's methods, which Simone had already used in the Assisi frescoes. The drapery of the cope, the lion's feet on the faldstool half-hidden by the dais, the geometric patterns on the carpet, as well as the arcades, loggias and the shadowy areas in the episodes below, are the product of very subtle perspective observations which reveal to what extent Simone had by this stage developed a mature approach to spatial construction and the reproduction of volumes.

San Gimignano Polyptych

By the end of the second decade of the l4th century Simone's fame had spread beyond the walls of Siena, and his art, which had incorporated the new northern trends that transformed even the most devout moods into worldly scenes, had developed its own recognizable style. A large group of followers, who worked together in a workshop, gathered round the illustrious figure of the master and his fervent entrepreneurial ability. For many years the artists of his workshop continued to imitate the style and innovations of Simone: his brother Donato and his future brothers-in-law Lippo and Tederico Memmi are the only ones whose name has come down to us. Alongside them there was certainly a large number of other artists and assistants who worked together as a composite team and produced the paintings of the so-called "Simone Martini school." It would appear that already as early as the years when Simone was working on the Siena Maestą and the Assisi frescoes the master's collaboration with his assistants was very intense, for in 1317 Lippo painted a remarkably faithful copy of Simone's Maestą in the Palazzo Comunale in San Gimignano, in which he followed Simone's style practically to the letter.

It also appears that the polyptych mentioned by Vasari was painted around this time for the church of Sant'Agostino in San Gimignano. For a long time it was thought that this polyptych had been destroyed but recently a group of scholars have reconstructed its original appearance and traced the various pieces in several museums and collections throughout the world: the central panel was the Madonna and Child now in the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, while the side panels are the three panels in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and a St Catherine in an Italian private collection. The design of the polyptych with all the panels on a single register, the round-arch shape of the panels, as well as a rather archaic solidity of the figures and their severe and solemn rhythms, all suggest a fairly early dating: after Assisi (and there is a great similarity with the saints on the underside of the arch), but undoubtedly before the more Gothic Pisa Polyptych. Scholars almost unanimously agree that this polyptych is the autograph work of Simone, who probably also painted a Blessing Christ to be placed above the central panel.

The Polyptych of Santa Caterina (Pisa Polyptych)

In 1319 a polyptych was commissoned for the convent of Santa Caterina in Pisa. This polyptych, now in the Museum of San Matteo, is without doubt the most important and grand of Simone's signed paintings: forty three busts of apostles, martyrs, bishops and prophets are placed in the cusps and under the trefoiled arches of the panels. The altarpiece consists of seven elements, each one in three parts: a cusp, a smaller panel divided into two sections, and a larger panel depicting a single saint. There is also a predella consisting of seven smaller size panels.

Over the centuries the polyptych has been reconstructed according to many different theories, but presently it is arranged as follows: in the cusps, next to the Blessing Redeemer, we find David playing the harp, Moses with the Tables of the Law and the prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel and Ezechiel. On the level below, on either side of the Archangels Gabriel and Michael in the middle, we find the apostles, arranged in pairs below trefoiled arches: each one is carrying a copy of the Gospel and is identified by an inscription on the gold background. From left to right, Thaddaeus, Simon, Philip and James the Less, who are talking animatedly about the Scriptures; they are followed by Andrew and Peter. Then, on the other side of the archangels, Paul and James Major (a shell in relief has been placed between the letters of his name); Matthew writing his Gospel, resting the book on the frame of the panel, together with Bartholomew, followed by Thomas and Mathias. On the middle level, together with Mary Magdalene, St Dominic, John the Evangelist, the Madonna and Child (and above the frame there is the inscription "Symon de Senis me pinxit"), and John the Baptist, we find Peter Martyr and Catherine of Alexandria.

The reconstruction of the predella, on the other hand, is much more certain. It revolves around the central panel where the Man of Sorrows is assisted by the Virgin and St Mark. At the sides, from left to right, we find Saints Stephen and Apollonia, Jerome and Lucy (?), Gregory and Luke, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, Agnes and Ambrose, Ursula and Lawrence.

With a composition so full of movement, the Pisa Polyptych is extremely innovative, especially in its structure. The seven elements, the predella panels and the ones on the upper level, each consisting of two sections, not only allow the artist to include a vast number of characters, but they also allow him to describe each one with a wealth of iconographical details. For this reason, alongside characters who would traditionally be included in any polyptych, we also find figures connected to the religious Order who commissioned the altarpiece: Jerome, Gregory and Augustine as well as more recently canonized saints, such as the founder of the Order, Dominic, and Peter Martyr. Notice that Thomas Aquinas is portrayed with a halo, whereas he was not actually canonized until 1323. There is a wide range of different connections between the various characters, although they are all portrayed here as part of a vast propaganda programme, aimed at spreading the ideological message of the Dominicans. Just one example. Preaching is the primary activity of all the monks portrayed; scrolls, parchments, books (half hidden, half open, fully open like the text Thomas Aquinas is holding, very small ones like the one of the Child) are a subtle reference to the evangelizing mission of this Order. In all, there are 27 books in this polyptych.

Simone's absolute mastery of volumes and shapes, obtained thanks both to Duccio's chiaroscuro technique and to his own recent experience in Assisi, is here blended with a very fluent use of vertical lines, of subtle and elegant modelling. The Gothic mood that Simone is here interpreting in terms of light, with a wide range of bright colours, creates a new relationship between image and space, between each individual measurement and the proportions of the whole composition.

Orvieto Polyptych 1

The new concept of a painter's workshop in the Middle Ages, with such a close collaboration between the master and his assistants, so close that they frequently exchange paintbrushes and even signatures, does not help us in our examination of the group of panel paintings dating from the early l320s. Without going into the extremely difficult question of the identification of the various different hands, at least in many cases the presence of collaborators is unmistakable.

The Orvieto Polyptych is one such case. Even though we cannot be entirely certain of the year in which it was painted (despite the suggestion that there is a missing letter in the inscription "MCCCXX"), the style of the work is very much under the influence of the art of Giotto and the overall mood is one of great solemnity. The frontal composition and the use of certain stylistic elements (such as a fairly rigid volumetric construction) that the Pisa Polyptych appeared to have surpassed, suggest that only the figure of the Madonna is actually by Simone. Originally consisting of seven elements (and while St Peter, Mary Magdalene and St Dominic are all shown in exactly the same pose, St Paul is facing towards the right), this polyptych is now in the Cathedral Museum, although it was painted originally for the church of San Domenico. The painting was commissioned by the Bishop of Sovana, Trasmundo Monaldeschi, the former prior of the Dominican monastery, who paid a hundred gold florins for this altarpiece; he is portrayed in the panel together with Mary Magdalene.

The Boston Polyptych

Although recently some scholars have expressed their disagreement, in the past the Polyptych in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, was always considered contemporary to the Orvieto Polyptych, or at the most dating from just a short while later. Originally in the church of Santa Maria dei Servi in Orvieto, the altarpiece consists of five panels: in the middle, the Madonna and Child; on either side, from left to right, Saints Paul, Lucy, Catherine of Alexandria and John the Baptist, all within a trefoiled ogival frame. In the cusps, the musician angels and the symbols of the Passion (the column and the whip of the Flagellation, the cross, the crown of thorns, the spear and the sponge) as well as the figure of Christ showing his wounds, suggest the iconography of the Last Judgment. Stylistically this polyptych is closer to the Pisa Polyptych than it is to the one painted for the Dominicans in Orvieto, especially in details such as the slender figures, the long and graceful hands, more fluent and lighter volumes. In recent years it has become almost unanimously recognized as being by Simone, except for the St Paul, about whom there is still a fair amount of doubt.

Orvieto Polyptych 2

There is another group of works that are dated by scholars at the early 1320s. From the stylistic point of view they are very close to the production of Simone and his assistants in the Orvieto workshop. The Madonna and Child with Angels and the Saviour in the Orvieto Cathedral Museum (it is the central piece of a polyptych that also included the panel showing a martyred saint, now in the Ottawa National Gallery, and perhaps also the two panels of St Catherine of Alexandria and St Lucy, now in Harvard University's Berenson Collection in Settignano, near Florence) and the two Madonnas in the Siena Pinacoteca, one from Castiglione d'Orcia and the other from Lucignano d'Arbia, are clearly related and must date from more or less the same period. But we have no dates, no signatures and no documents containing any information at all regarding the dating of these works: stylistic analysis is the only element that critics have been able to use. This justifies the widely varying opinions that have been expressed on the subject: some scholars believe that they are totally autograph, while others think that Simone is responsible only for the drawings or for certain sections of the painting, while others still consider them entirely the work of the workshop assistants. Nonetheless, there are many analogies between the various paintings, such as for example, the features of the Madonna in the San Domenico Polyptych, with her gentle and slightly dreaming eyes, repeated almost exactly in the Madonna in the Orvieto Polyptych; or the lively pose of the Child in the panel from Castiglione d'Orcia which is exactly the same as that of the Child in the Boston painting.

A great deal has been written about the iconography of the Madonna from Lucignano d'Arbia, very unusual in Sienese painting. Mary is shown looking to the right, instead of to the left, and she holds a Child who is not yet a "puer" (as was the case in all the earlier paintings) but still an "infans" in swaddling clothes. The reason that led Simone to choose this iconography has yet to be explained, and it may have been a specific request from the client; but scholars do agree on the attribution of the panel to Simone.


The Crucifix from the church of the Misericordia in San Casciano Val di Pesa, first discovered and attributed to Simone in the early years of the 20th century, is undoubtedly contemporary to the paintings described above. Although there is no documentation at all regarding it, some scholars have suggested that it is the Crucifix that Simone painted in 1321 for the Chapel of the Nine in Siena. This theory is not very convincing, however, because if we examine our sources carefully it becomes clear that what Simone painted in that chapel was a fresco and not a panel - a fresco which was then destroyed by a fire. The closest analogies that this Crucifix presents are with the Pisa and Boston polyptychs.

Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece

After having spent several years in Assisi, Pisa and Orvieto, only occasionally returning to Siena for very brief periods during which he worked in the Palazzo Pubblico (on one occasion to retouch the Maestą, on another to paint some works that are no longer extant), Simone actually returned to Siena on a stable basis. This appears to have been a rather calm period of his life and it was at this time that he married Giovanna Memmi: perhaps feeling tired after his travels, working for so many different patrons in different places, Simone decided to settle in his home town. It was sometime around 1325 and Simone was a well established painter, at the height of his artistic maturity. His experiences working for the House of Anjou and the Franciscans, in international environments where political interests frequently took the place of religious spirit and where art became an effective means of visualizing and promoting temporal power, had made Simone much more a man of the world: he had set off from Siena as a talented but simple Sienese painter, and he returned as a famous artist, selfconfident and experienced. Back in Siena, Simone worked for the Government of the Nine adding more and more splendid works to the Palazzo Pubblico, year after year; most of these paintings have not survived and we only know about them from the payments recorded in the Biccherna ledgers. It was during this second Sienese period that Simone painted some of his most famous paintings, such as the Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece, the celebrated fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and the Annunciation now in the Uffizi, the only one that is actually signed and dated.

The story of the Blessed Agostino Novello is an example of that form of popular religious spirit that grew up in the towns of Tuscany in the late 13th century and the early 14th. The Church's official saints were considered too remote by the people and spiritually so different from the reality of the times that they could not entirely satisfy the religious fervour that developed in those years. The people felt that they needed more tangible examples of holiness, more closely connected to daily reality, rather like St Francis of Assisi had been. As a result, some of the better known citizens, whose charitable and religious deeds were known to all (and in may cases miracles were attributed to them), were canonized as saints or blessed.

Agostino Novello was one of these figures. After a brilliant career both as a layman and as a cleric (he studied law at the University of Bologna and became personal councillor to King Manfred, the son of Ludwig II; when he joined the Augustinian Order he became Prior General), Agostino Novello then renounced community life and retired to the hermitage of San Leonardo al Lago, near Siena. After his death in 1309, the worship of this saintly man spread so fast that the monks of his Order tried to have him nominated patron saint of the city: through the veneration of a member of their Order, the Augustinians were sure to gain prestige and power. But Agostino was not made patron saint of Siena, despite the fact that he must indeed have been the object of great veneration to judge by the impressive funerary monument that was built for him.

Now in the Pinacoteca in Siena, the painting hung originally in the church of Sant'Agostino, probably above the wooden sarcophagus in which the Blessed Agostino was buried; together with the altar consecrated to him, these two elements formed a burial monument. The dating of this altarpiece can only be approximated. We can only suppose that it was already finished and in place on the occasion of the celebrations in honour of the Blessed Agostino held in 1324 and for which the Comune of Siena allotted a huge sum of money.

The iconography, at least for modern observers like us, is clear but not that simple to understand. The central area, framed by a multifoiled ogival arch, encloses the figure of Agostino, who is given a saint's halo even though he had not been canonized. The wooded landscape, the old hermits in the medallions and the scene of the conversation with the angel (an episode that does not appear in any of the biographies) are all references to the hermit's life he led at San Leonardo al Lago. On the other hand, the face of Agostino, portrayed still as a young man, the red book he carries (perhaps the Constitutiones of the Order, which he had drawn up himself), as well as the fact that the miracles are all taking place in a very realistically described Siena, all suggest Agostino's political commitments and the pastoral duties he performed in the city. The miraculous powers of the Blessed Agostino are fully displayed in the scenes depicted at the sides of the central area; they are framed by trefoiled round arches and illustrate four miracles. The idea of Agostino's holiness, stressed by the sudden appearances of winged angels, was intended to capture the mediaeval public's religious sensitivity: the victims of the terrible accidents are for the most part children.

The scenes are organized according to the composition of ex-votos, each one being divided into two sections: the accident and the miracle, followed by a thanksgiving prayer. The architectural settings of the scenes depict an overall view of Siena (in the Child Attacked by a Wolf), a view of the narrow streets of the city (in the Child Falling from a Balcony) and even an interior scene (in the Child Falling out of his Cradle, also known as the Paganelli Miracle); and in fact one could say that the city of Siena is indeed the co-protagonist of this painting. The buildings of the city centre are counterbalanced by the rural landscape in the scene of the Knight Falling down a Ravine, probably a depiction of the countryside immediately outside Siena, with the towers of faraway castles standing out amidst the bare hills.

Altomonte Panel

In 1326 Filippo di Sanguineto, Count of Altomonte and an Anjou Court dignitary, came to Siena as part of the retinue of Charles, Duke of Calabria, the heir to the throne of Naples. When the Duke later left Tuscany, Count Filippo stayed behind as a royal deputy; his task was to keep under control the animosity of the Ghibelline forces, led by the very bellicose Castruccio Castracani. It seems quite likely that during his stay in Siena the Lord of Altomonte met the artist who had given such a masterly portrayal of the Anjou of Naples and of Hungary on the walls of the Lower Church in Assisi and in the Naples Altarpiece commissioned by King Robert. So he presumably seized this opportunity to commission a small painting himself, probably a diptych; the little panel showing St Ladislaus, King of Hungary, now in the Museo della Consolazione in Altomonte, was probably part of that diptych. The choice of St Ladislaus is perfectly justified by the ties of loyalty that bound Filippo di Sanguineto to the Hungarian branch of the House of Anjou, a loyalty which will later play an important role in the dynastic conflicts. Although the spatial construction of this small panel is very close to that of the Blessed Agostino Novello Altarpiece, the volumes are deeper and there is a wider range of colour. The gold background, with its elaborate and delicate etching, surrounds the saint; standing in a rigidly frontal position, armed with his battle-axe, he reminds us of his valour and his heroic actions in war.

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