Art of Simone Martini (Page 5)

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


The fresco of Guidoriccio da Fogliano, depicting the conquest of the castles of Montemassi and Sassoforte in 1328, formed part of a fresco cycle "Castelli" which occupied the upper part of the wall opposite to the Maestą in the Sala del Mappamondo. The cycle, commemorating the castles conquered by the Sienese, was initiated in 1314 by the representation of the Castle of Giuncarico, it was continued by the Guidoriccio and in 1331 by the Castles of Arcidosso and Piano. The latter were destroyed in 1361 when Lippo Vanni painted the Battles of Valdichiana and Poggio Imperiale.

In the 1970s, the famous fresco, which had always been, considered the greatest example of Martini's artistic excellence, was re-attributed to a much later artist. The controversy that followed this re-attribution, further stimulated by the discovery of a fresco below the Guidoriccio (a very beautiful one, and certainly much older as we can see from the overlapping of the intonaco), turned into an animated diatribe that has not yet been placated.

Those who do not believe that the Guidoriccio fresco is by Simone suggest that it may well be the overall repainting of an earlier fresco. A recent cleaning has shown that the whole of the lefthand section, including the Castle of Montemassi, was repainted in the 15th or 16th century. An ultrasound echogram has also shown that in the righthand section, where the camp appears in the foreground, there are four overlapping layers of intonaco on the wall. In other words, the silent landscape of the Guidoriccio fresco probably conceals something much older. In order to clarify matters, it is necessary not only to remove the large stucco patch that extends vertically along the righthand edge (by doing so we would be able to determine precisely the order in which the intonaco was applied, thereby establishing the chronological relationship between the Guidoriccio and the Battle of Valdichiana that Lippo Vanni painted in 1363), but also a small patch of sky to verify whether this pale blue-grey expanse conceals some precious treasure.

Late works

In 1333, with the assistance of Lippo Memmi, Martini painted for the Chapel of Sant'Ansano in Siena Cathedral an Annunciation that is now in the Uffizi in Florence. The double signature visible inside the 19th-century frame, "Symon Martini et Lippus Memmi de Senis me pinxerunt anno domini MCCCXXXIII," has given rise to the problem of distinguishing between the parts that are by Simone and those that are by Memmi. The following are the theories expressed most recently by art historians: some suggest that Lippo is responsible for almost the entire painting; others attribute to Martini the St Ansano, the Archangel and Mary, and to Lippo only the figure of St Giulitta; others still feel that the altarpiece is a perfect example of the artistic collaboration of the two masters, the best product of their joint workshop.

The iconography of the painting is extremely clear. At the top, within the medallions, there are four prophets, identifiable thanks to the inscriptions on their scrolls: from left to right, Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Isaiah and Daniel. The roundel in the cusp (which is now empty) probably contained an image of God the Father, since the dove of the Holy Ghost, immediately below, was usually portrayed together with an image of the Almighty. Gabriel's greeting, "Ave Gratia Plena Dominus Tecum," is inscribed on the gold background, and there are other words inscribed along the edges and on the sash of the Archangel's robe, but they are not easy to read. This splendidly linear composition, in which the two-dimensional feeling does not prevent the volumes from being well-defined and the edges sharp, is full of acute and realistic observations: the veined marble on the floor, the half-opened book, the vase in the middle with the lilies, the inlaid decorations on the throne.

Thanks to the evidence provided by two sonnets by Petrarch, we know that Simone arrived in Avignon, accompanied by his family and several collaborators, around the beginning of 1336. He had been called to Avignon by one of the Italian Cardinals, probably Jacopo Stefaneschi, who had also moved to the new papal seat. It was for Cardinal Stefaneschi that Simone frescoed the church of Notre-Dame-des-Doms in Avignon. The portal frescoes, the Saviour Blessing and the Madonna of Humility, the synopias of which are now in the Palace of the Popes, although in very bad condition, are interesting and reveal a very high quality.

Also thanks to Petrarch's sonnets we know that the poet and the painter became very good friends. Simone must undoubtedly have been influenced by the proto-Humanist cultural world of Petrarch, and we can see clearly how the manuscript illumination of Petrarch's Virgil in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, with its classical and naturalistic overtones (sophisticated gestures, white cloth drapery, the delicate figures of the shepherd and the peasant), anticipates the typical style of early 15th-century French manuscript illumination.

The altarpiece known as Passion Polyptych (or Orsini Polyptych), with panels now in a number of European museums (Angel of the Annunciation and Virgin of Annunciation, as well as Crucifixion and Deposition in Antwerp, the Road to Calvary in Paris and the Entombment in Berlin) is signed "Pinxit Symon "on the two panels of the Crucifixion and the Deposition. It presents several problems, both in terms of stylistic analysis and dating. Some scholars, stressing the fact that it is so different stylistically from all the other works of Simone's Avignon period (nervous lines and expressions), think that it may have been painted earlier and then transported to France; others believe that it may be a late work, commissioned by Napoleone Orsini, who died in the Curia in Avignon in 1342. Orsini's coat-of-arms appears in the background of the Road to Calvary. The polyptych was probably transferred to the charterhouse of Champmol, near Dijon, in the late 14th century.

The last known work of Simone's career as a painter is the Liverpool Holy Family, signed and dated "Symon de Senis me pinxit sub a.d. MCCCXLII." The iconographical subject, so rare, and actually used here for the first time, comes from the Gospel according to Luke, as we can see from Mary's book, "Fili, quid fecisti nobis sic?" (Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us?, Luke, 2:48). The scene shows Joseph leading Jesus back to his mother, after the three days he had spent with the doctors in the temple. The characters are bound by a feeling of intimacy and familiarity; they are portrayed in natural and spontaneous poses, with Mary reproaching her son, and reveal a deep and totally human family love.

Whatever Simone may have painted during the last two years of his life, nothing has survived.

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