Duccio was followed by another famous painter who extended his school outside his homeland, beyond Tuscany and even Italy. Thanks to him the school of Siena enjoyed a moment of greater reputation than that of Florence. Giotto never crossed the Alps, on the other hand it is certain that this disciple of Duccio, Simone Martini (ca. 1284-1344), worked in Avignon in the Papal Palace, as well as in Assisi, Rome and Naples. With the works of Simone Martini in Avignon the characteristics of the Sienese painting penetrated French territory and then extended to other places in Europe. These Sienese features (composition and coloring of Byzantine tradition and linearism of Western Gothic style) constitute what is called Italo-gothic style, an antecessor of the International Gothic.
We know little about Simone Martini. In some of his paintings he collaborated with his brother-in-law (Lippo Memmi) and with his brother Donato. His friendship with Petrarch became famous, because, as he was in Avignon when Simone Martini arrived, the circumstance of being both Tuscan led them to meet and engaged in conversation. It has been said that the painter of Siena came to portray Laura, the poet’s lady, and for that he thanked him by quoting him in some of his verses.
Petrarch’s friendship with Simone Martini must be mentioned in the first place when talking about this artist’s work because it can help to make us know the spiritual character of this Sienese painter, just as Dante’s praise served to teach us the character of Giotto’s passionate soul. In the history of the Renaissance, Petrarch indicates a more advanced degree of humanism than Dante’s. But this high intellectualism exposes to great dangers: Petrarch and Simone Martini’s intellectual and refined humanism can be imitated, while Dante’s sentimental and passionate humanism cannot be falsified. There have been many Petrarchist writers of merit, but no Dantesque writer has managed to produce anything of perdurable merit.
The first work we know by Simone Martini is in his own homeland, Siena. The Palazzo Pubblico (or Communal Palace), testimony of the city’s greatness, had just been completed in the first years of the 14th century. Its magnificent facade occupied one of the sides of the city’s main square; its prismatic tower (Torre del Mangia), slender, more than 100 meters tall, rose dominating the entire valley, and was even taller than that of its rival city, Florence. Inside this building, in the room of the Council of the Elders (Sala del Consiglio), Simone Martini was commissioned to paint the Virgin, patroness of the city, to preside over the meetings. She is surrounded by the patron saints, the same who accompany the Madonna in Duccio’s altarpiece in the cathedral, and at her feet has several kneeling angels offering her glass vases full of roses. Here the Virgin is no longer the delicate semi-Byzantine figure of Duccio’s altar, but an elegant lady, blond and fine, as were the Sienese girls, with curly hair, sweet and small eyes, and lips of delicate expression. She wears a royal crown, like the French Virgins did, while Duccio’s Madonna goes without it like the Byzantine Virgins. Her tunic and mantle are made of fine fabric reproducing the clothing of the 14th century. The Holy Baby is a funny blond bambino; who blesses with one hand, while in the other carries a written scroll. The patron saints hold a large canopy that covers the entire group. The throne is Gothic in style, which also contrasts with the ancient ivory thrones of Duccio and Cimabue and with the Roman style marble and mosaic furniture that Giotto adopted for his Virgins. From his first works Simone Martini seems to show a certain predilection for French Gothic art, which somewhat influenced him, even before he moved to the Pontifical Court of Avignon, the city where he died.
The saints and apostles surrounding Martini’s Maestà are less individual, less expressive, than the figures Giotto painted; they followed Duccio’s tradition, with their aristocratic calm and soft expression, without a hint of violence. Simone Martini painted this work for the Council Chamber in 1315, just four years after Duccio’s altarpiece was finished, which indicates that by then he was already a famous painter. After finishing this work, Simone probably went to Naples, but in 1324 he was back in Siena, year in which he married, and lived there until 1328. It was then that he painted the portrait of the “honorable Captain of War” Guidoriccio da Fogliano, who had just subjected the villages of Montemassi and Sassoforte that had revolted against the Republic of Siena. This fresco is one of the most interesting works of the Sienese Communal Palace; in it the two populations are shown in the summit of the mountains, and at their foot the camp grounds of Siena’s forces, while the obese Captain rides a horse drawn against a sky of intense blue. It is a terrible desolate and sad landscape, crossed by palisades, crenelated towers and war machines, on which even before combat had taken place, the icy wind of death is already blowing.
Besides these official commissions from the Republic’s government, Simone worked very little in Siena; his temper was more in accordance with that of the Angevin princes of Naples, enlightened patrons of the arts. The French dynasty of Naples, founded by Charles I of Anjou (brother of King Louis IX of France or St. Louis), produced several illustrious princes and some saints; the princesses themselves used to be superior spirits of Christian piety and aristocratic distinction. One of the kings of Naples, Robert of Anjou, a friend of Petrarch, wore the crown when his older brother Louis (St. Louis of Toulouse) abdicated to become a Franciscan. Within the Franciscan Order he reached a holy reputation and had just been canonized. King Robert wanted to glorify his brother friar by commissioning Simone Martini to paint, in 1317, a painting for one of the altars of San Lorenzo Maggiore in Naples. In it, the saintly prince, dressed as a Franciscan, holds the staff in his right hand which appears aristocratically gloved, while with the other hand he offers Robert the royal crown; two angels, descending from above, crown him with a celestial headband. Both the saint and King Robert wear finely drawn clothing, like the Virgin of the communal Palace of Siena.
At the request of the royal family of Naples, Simone moved to Assisi to work on the decoration of the basilica in those areas of the crypt that were left unpainted. We have seen in a previous essay that the upper church of the Basilica of Assisi was decorated at the end of the 13th century by Pietro Cavallini, Cimabue and later by Giotto and his disciples. The school of Siena also had to contribute to the decoration of the temple of the poor saint of Assisi. Duccio, the master, didn’t work in the basilica, but Martini and his disciples did. The kings of Naples commissioned Simone the decoration of San Martino Chapel, and on its walls the artist painted four scenes of this saint’s pious legend: St. Martin dividing his cloak with the poor; the dreams of the saint, who, asleep in his bed sees Christ appearing before him surrounded by angels with blond hair and soft cheeks like those of the fresco of the communal Palace of Siena, later the scene in which the saint is knighted and, finally, when he renounces, in front of the emperor’s tent, the weapons in favor of the cross which he holds in hand. The architectures and landscapes painted in these scenes are still conventional, in artistic terms Simone Martini’s main interest lies in the reflexive dignity of his figures. On the entrance wall of the chapel there is a piece of high wall where beautiful images of saints (both male and female) are painted inside tri-lobed little arches, they were the most revered saints of those times: Saint Francis and Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Catherine of Alexandria and Saint Mary Magdalene, and there are also the saints of the royal family of Naples, who commissioned the decoration: Saint Louis King of France, Saint Louis of Toulouse, Saint Clare and Saint Elizabeth of Hungary. Especially the latter is a beautiful lady dressed in a large robe that wraps around her youthful body, her beautiful head is braided with golden hair, she really looks like one of those devout princesses of the Angevine house of Naples who were called “queens of Jerusalem and Sicily, humble servants and daughters of the Blessed Francis”.
Other of Simone Martini’s work is a fresco from the cemetery of Pisa that represented the Assumption of the Virgin who appears being taken to heaven by a group of angels; she is surrounded by an almond-shaped halo and on a throne analogous to that of the Virgin of the communal Palace of Siena.
Simone Martini also worked in Avignon, where he wrote his will and died in 1344, seven years after Giotto’s death. Everything suggests that his stay in the Papal court at Avignon was long and fruitful, but unfortunately the palace of the Popes served for a long time as barracks and modern restorers had to repair a terribly devastated building. Only in the rooms of one of the palace towers are some remains of frescoes of the Italo-gothic style which today are attributed to Matteo Giovanetti of Viterbo, and even these are horribly mutilated.
So far we have only described fresco paintings, but Simone painted many other images on wood like the altarpiece of Naples and other now housed in the Uffizi Gallery. The Uffizi altarpiece is a wonderful beauty; it was made in 1333 for the altar of Saint Ansanus in the Cathedral of Siena and represents the Annunciation of the Virgin. It is the most popular of Martini’s works. The Virgin, wrapped in her mantle, shrinks in her seat, as if surprised by the angelic message. Her gesture is that of a young aristocrat who doesn’t hide her position despite her humble clothes. The angel is an androgynous figure with a palm in his hand; the folds of his mantle skillfully indicate how fast he appeared which surprises the Virgin and almost leaves her self-conscious. These two figures of the Annunciation contrast with the two lateral saints, who are perhaps the work of Simone’s brother-in-law, Lippo Memmi, who also signed the painting. These paintings on wood, easily transportable, contributed to extend Simone Martini’s reputation and the predilection for the Sienese style throughout Europe. Siena paintings arrived in Burgundy from Avignon. Others were taken to Catalonia, thus influencing the character of the paintings of the school of Barcelona during much of the 14th century.
Siena’s art also spread through miniatures. The Sienese style, tempered, preferring clear, bright colors, with gold backgrounds, lent itself to the illumination of books. Simone Martini himself is credited with a wonderful decorated Vatican missal, and with a Virgil’s manuscript that had belonged to Petrarch for which Martini signed its frontispiece.