Painting of the 14th and 15th centuries in Siena III. Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Sassetta.
After Simone Martini, his brother Donato and his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi, a third generation kept with highest dignity the characteristic style of Siena’s painting. It was mainly represented by the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, who mixed the softness of the Sienese style with some of the characters of the school of Giotto. They worked in Siena, their homeland, and in Assisi. Both had to die in 1348 during the terrible “black death” plague that decimated a big portion of Europe’s population and left the city of Siena devastated, but Ambrogio -active since 1317- became an artist who enjoyed true fame.
Pietro Lorenzetti (ca. 1280-1348) and his brother Ambrogio (ca. 1290-9 June 1348) introduced naturalism into Sienese art. Their experimentation with three-dimensional and spatial arrangements presaged the Renaissance. Pietro’s work was influenced by Duccio,Giotto, and Giovanni Pisano. His masterwork are the frescoes of the lower church of the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, where he painted scenes related to the Crucifixion, Deposition from the Cross, and Entombment of Jesus. The individual figures of his frescoes show different arrays of emotional interactions, unlike earlier depictions of the same scenes with agglomerations of characters following a defined iconographic scheme.
Pietro’s brother, Ambrogio, painted between 1338 and 1339 two large frescoes in the Communal Palace of Siena (Palazzo Pubblico), specifically in the Salon of Nine (Sala dei Nove), a room next to the Council Hall where Simone Martini’s Maestà was painted. Two of its large side walls have no interruption and therefore lend themselves to decoration. One of the frescoes is a great allegory of the Good Government, with its virtues and the advantages of peace, showing Siena and its region enjoying order and prosperity. The other is a composition to show the disastrous effects of the Bad Government. Both compositions are full of symbolic representations. The one of the Good Government consists of a colossal figure of the city dressed in imperial clothes, as if it truly was the personification of the Empire, but the initials C.S.C.V., Comune Senarum Civitas Virginis, indicate that it is a male representation of the Siena Municipality. Next to this gigantic figure are the virtues of Good Government: Magnanimity, Moderation and Justice, Prudence, Strength, Peace and Security. The Peace is the most admirable figure of this composition and gave her name to the room which is also known as Sala della Pace (Peace Hall). She is a young woman reclining on a couch, dressed simply in a white almost transparent tunic, and her blond hair crowned with spikes, above her is the legend: PAX. At the foot of these figures, citizens are seen in a friendly consortium and beyond it’s a view of Siena, with a group of young patrician girls dancing at the city gate, merchants on horseback, peasants returning from the field, etc. It follows a landscape in which the gentle hills of the country, sown with olive trees and vineyards, are represented with the figure of Security flying through the air and holding in her left hand a gallows from which an evildoer is hung.
The Bad Government is represented on the opposite wall, accompanied by the vices that characterize it: the Tyranny, the Pride, the Vanaglory, the Betrayal, the Cruelty, etc. This composition seems to be more conducive and is better suited to the conception of a thinker and sociologist than to that of a painter. This coincides with the opinion a scholar of the time, Andrea della Valle, had of Ambrogio Lorenzetti: “In his ways he looked more like a philosopher and a gentleman than an artist.”
Other of the Lorenzetti brothers’ masterpieces are the frescoes of the Basilica of San Francesco of Siena. In this Franciscan church the painters tried to represent, not St. Francis’ life, but that of other saints of the Order. They were completely new scenes. In one of them, Saint Louis of Tolouse appears before the Pope Boniface VIII to take the Franciscan robe. In other is the torture of the martyrs of Ceuta by order of the Sultan, a dramatic composition that shows influences from the school of Giotto.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti also painted several Maestà (Virgin with the Child sitting on the throne), a Presentation to the Temple in 1342 (today in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence), an Annunciation in 1344 (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena) and extraordinary landscapes that, for the first time in Western painting, show a geometric rigor and an almost metaphysical air, like his famous “City by the Sea” (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena).
The artistic trends initiated by the Lorenzetti brothers had no followers. Siena’s workshops preferred to repeat the usual themes of virgins and aristocratic saints that certainly had unlimited clientele. At the end of the 14th century, the Sienese art only had two paths left to follow: one, to return to the study of Nature, or two, to die in the environment created by Duccio and Simone Martini.
However, there was much conceptual delicacy, compositional elegance and color quality in the works made by the series of painters of the school of Siena from the second half of the 14th century to the final years of the following century. It almost seems impossible that this delicacy and love for refined beauty could have been kept in a city continually shaken by wars, internal struggles, complots and uprisings, hunger and plague. However, during this period the richly decorated palaces of Siena’s merchants and bankers were built: the Salimbeni, the Tolomei, the Bonsignori, the Malavolti, the Piccolomini; and the artisan guilds saved money to commission the best artists with altarpieces for their employers: the leather dyers guild commissioned a splendid polyptych to Sassetta, the bakers guild to Matteo di Giovanni and the butchers guild to Giovanni di Paolo.
During this time, the Sienese school remained completely faithful to its medieval influences; only very few of some of the portentous novelties that appeared during the 15th century in Florence were applied to Sienese painting. But, despite this circumstance, those Sienese artists were able to exert an obvious influence in certain schools outside of Italy.
Taddeo di Bartolo and Stefano di Giovanni di Consolo, called Sassetta (ca.1392-1450 or 1451), are the most outstanding, together with the anonymous master who has come to be called Maestro dell ‘Osservanza a name taken from one of his works (dated 1436), and finally a painter who stood out for his intense poetry, Giovanni di Paolo. The so-called Sassetta died in 1450 or 1451 from pneumonia contracted while painting an Assumption of the Virgin at the top of the Porta Romana of Siena. This work was destroyed during World War II; but instead it have been conserved, though dismembered among three different museums, the paintings on wood of his masterpiece: the altarpiece of St. Francis for the church of Borgo San Sepolcro. This work shows that Sassetta, without abandoning the Gothic linearism of Simone Martini, assimilated the rational sense of space and the new forms brought by the Florentines. This allowed him to express with great imaginative freshness and with a special charm the colored spectacle of the world that in art characterizes the painters known as “primitives”.
Less artistic personality, but an undeniable appeal, is shown in the works of the last two Sienese artists that we must mention here: Matteo di Giovanni and Sano di Pietro. Di Pietro was a fervent follower of St. Bernardino of Siena, whose figure often reproduced alongside that of the Madonna as well as scenes of him preaching. He had a quiet existence in Siena and died in 1481.
Linear perspective: A system of creating an illusion of depth on a flat surface. All parallel lines (orthogonals) in a painting or drawing using this system converge in a single vanishing point on the composition’s horizon line. Linear perspective is thought to have been devised about 1415 by Italian Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi and later documented by architect and writer Leon Battista Alberti in 1435 (Della Pittura). Linear perspective was likely evident to artists and architects in the ancient Greek and Roman periods, but no records exist from that time, and the practice was thus lost until the 15th century. The three components essential to the linear perspective system are orthogonals (parallel lines), the horizon line, and a vanishing point. So as to appear farther from the viewer, objects in the compositions are rendered increasingly smaller as they near the vanishing point.