Painting of the 14th and 15th centuries in Siena II. Simone Martini.

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.

On one of the walls of the Great Council Hall (Sala del Consiglio) of the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena (Italy), Simone Martini painted one of his first documented works, the Maestà (1315).

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.

The Maestà by Simone Martini (Sala del Consiglio, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena). This large fresco occupies the whole north wall of the Council Hall of the Communal Palace of Siena. This fresco is considered as one of Simone Martini’s masterpieces and one of the most important examples of 14th-century Italian painting.
Detail of the Virgin and Child Jesus from the Maestà of the Communal Palace of Siena. Simone Martini’s prototypes would heavily influence other artists throughout the 14th century. Simone’s style exemplified the Sienese tradition as opposite to the sobriety and monumentality of Florentine art. His compositions are noted for their soft, stylized, decorative features, sinuosity of line, and courtly elegance. The art of Simone Martini owes much to French manuscript illumination and ivory carving, as these type of objects were brought to Siena during the 14th century by means of the Via Francigena, a main pilgrimage and trade route from Northern Europe to Rome.

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.

Other frescoes in the Sala del Consiglio of the Communal Palace of Siena include that on the western wall: “Guidoriccio da Fogliano at the siege of Montemassi” (ca. 1330). This fresco is traditionally attributed to Simone Martini, although to this day there’s still no consensus about its author and dating.
The Guidoriccio fresco shows Guidoriccio da Fogliano, the commander of the Sienese troops, on horseback against the background of a landscape in which the siege of Montemassi takes place. If the dating of 1330 is indeed correct, this could be one of the first secular portraits (i.e. strictly non-religious) and one of the first monumental landscape paintings known. On the left of Guidoriccio, Montemassi can be seen surrounded by ramparts. To his right there is a siege engine with the flag of the Sienese Republic in top. Further to the right there is a group of tents at the foot of a hill, with white and black flags and pennants flying. At the bottom of the fresco the year of the conquest of Montemassi by Sienese troops (1328) is given in Roman numerals.
In the middle of the Guidoriccio fresco, Guidoriccio da Fogliano, a condottiero (or mercenary officer) and commander of the Sienese troops, is depicted on horseback. He is shown in profile with a Field Marshal’s baton in his hand. This fresco has been seen as a unique mix of realism and artistic imagination. Even to this date, the horseman is considered an emblem of the city of Siena which is still frequently found on souvenirs and local products.

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 Altar of St. Louis of Toulouse,  ca. 1317, tempera on wood, by Simone Martini (Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples). Martini painted this altarpiece for the Angevin, Robert the Wise, King of Sicily. It represents St. Louis of Toulouse seated with his brother, Robert the Wise, kneeling before him. The altar consists of a large upper panel containing the image of the saint, and a predella beneath, set in an arcade, containing five small scenes showing episodes of the saint’s life. This is the first altarpiece to survive intact complete with its historiated predella.

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.

Above and below, views of the San Martino Chapel (Lower Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi, Umbria, central Italy). This chapel features a cycle of frescoes by Simone Martini (painted between 1313–1318), portraying the life of Saint Martin of Tours in 4th-century France.

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.

The side walls of the San Martino chapel feature ten frescoes based on episodes of the life of St. Martin, bishop of Tours. Portrayed here are “St. Martin Sharing the Mantle with a Beggar” (left), and the “Apparition of Christ and Angels in St. Martin’s Dream”.
Other frescoes from the San Martino Chapel by Simone Martini. Left: the “Investiture of St. Martin as Knight”, and right: the “Renounce of St. Martin to the Weapons”.

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”.

Under the entrance arch to the San Martino Chapel, Simone Martini painted eight saints. Pictured above from left to right are: St. Anthony of Padua and St. Francis, and St. Mary Magdalene and St. Catherine of Alexandria. Pictured below from left to right: St. Louis of France and St. Louis of Toulouse, and St. Clare and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

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.

The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus, by Simone Martini in collaboration with Lippo Memmi, 1333, tempera and gold on panel (Uffizi Gallery, Florence). This painting is considered Simone Martini’s masterwork and one of the most outstanding works of Gothic painting. The painting originally decorated the altar of St. Ansanus in the Cathedral of Siena. This work has no similarities with any other contemporary painting in Italy, though it can be compared to French illuminated manuscripts of the time, as well as to paintings from Germany or England. His “northern European” style helped Martini to be called to work in the papal court at Avignon where, before him, Florentine painters and their Giottesque classical manners were not very welcomed in the Gothic culture of the area. This painting includes a large central panel showing the Annunciation scene, and two side panels with the images of St. Ansanus (left), and a female saint (right), believed to be St. Maxima or St. Margaret; four tondos or circular paintings crown the cusps, from left to right: Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Isiah and Daniel.

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.

The central panel of Simone Martini’s Annunciation (detailed above) shows the archangel Gabriel entering the house of the Virgin Mary to tell her that she will soon bear the child Jesus. The Archangel Gabriel holds an olive branch in his left hand, a traditional symbol of peace, while pointing with the other hand at the Holy Ghost’s dove (flying above). Gabriel greets Mary with the words shown on raised inscription on the gold background: “AVE GRATIA PLENA DOMINUS TECUM” (“Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee”). The angel’s appearance is sudden, as suggested by his marvelously painted fluttering cloak and spread wings. Mary is distressed, drawing back and wrapping herself in her cloak. The Holy Ghost’s dove is descending from heaven within a mandorla of eight angels, and is seen about to enter the Virgin’s right ear. Mary, sitting on a throne, is portrayed at the moment that she’s been interrupted reading, looking with surprise at the celestial messenger. The totally gilt background includes a vase full of lilies, an allegory of purity often associated to the Virgin Mary. The use of Gothic-style lines, plus the addition of realistic elements such as the book, the vase, the throne, the pavement in perspective, and the realistic action shown by the expression and body language of the two figures make of this painting a substantial departure from the bi-dimensionality typical of Byzantine art.

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.

The frontispiece miniature of Petrarch’s Virgil, by Simone Martini, ca. 1336 (Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan).  Thanks to Petrarch’s sonnets it is known that the poet and Simone Martini became very good friends. At the request of Petrarch, Simone illuminated his dear copy of Virgil’s poetry. This illustrations by Martini show classical and naturalistic overtones depicted in sophisticated gestures, white cloth drapery, the delicate figures of the shepherd and the peasant, and is a clear anticipation of the typical style seen in early 15th-century French illuminated manuscripts.