Ambrogio Lorenzetti
Biography of Sienese School Fresco Painter.

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Allegory of the Good Government
(1338-40) Fresco, Palazzo Pubblico,
Siena, Italy. Detail, showing
The figure of Peace.

Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c.1285-1348)

Ambrogio Lorenzetti was one of the masters in the Sienese School of painting of the trecento and an important contributor to Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400). His art career developed alongside that of his elder brother Pietro Lorenzetti, with whom he maintained good relations despite his own exceptionally independent character and the originality of his stylistic ideas. But both shared an interest in the Proto-Renaissance art of the Florentine school, seen from the point of view of the Sienese tradition. More innovative and more highly regarded than his brother, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's best known paintings include the triptych Virgin and Child between St Nicholas and St Proculus (Uffizi, Florence), the fresco series Good and Bad Government (1338-9, Siena), Presentation in the Temple (1337-42, Uffizi, Florence), and The Annunciation (1344, Pinacoteca, Siena).

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Early Works

The Virgin and Child in the Church of S. Angelo at Vico l'Abate (Florence), dated 1319, is probably Ambrogio's earliest work. Coinciding with the death of the great Sienese painter Duccio di Buoninsegna - creator of masterpieces like the Maesta Altarpiece and the Stroganoff Madonna - it combines the various formal elements native to Sienese culture, such as elegance of line, and those of Florentine painting, which sought to depict volumes in space. Documents reveal that Ambrogio was in fact in Florence in 1321, and the influence of Florentine models is clear in works generally attributed to this artist's first period, from 1320 until about 1330; the two versions of the Virgin and Child (Brera; Metropolitan Museum of Art NY); the two Crucifixes (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena; Montenero sull'Amiata, Church of S. Lucia); and the frescoes depicting the Martyrdom of the Franciscans at Ceuta and St Louis of Toulouse before Boniface VIII (Siena, Church of S. Francesco). In the last, the space is boldly used in the manner of a Florentine painter descended from Giotto or Maso di Banco, but with a far more realistic touch. Some critics consider that these frescoes belong to the cycle executed for the cloister of the Abbey, probably dating from 1330-1, whereas others believe them to be older.


Forerunner of International Gothic

The year 1332 saw a noticeable change in Ambrogio Lorenzetti's style with his Virgin and Child between St Nicholas and St Proculus (Uffizi). This triptych may be identified as one of the works executed that year for the Church of S. Procolo in Florence. As Lorenzetti's draughtsmanship developed, so he freed himself from the influence of Florentine art. He may even have begun to influence Florence in his turn, both by his subtle, realistic power and by his use of space (almost prefiguring the International Gothic school and its interest in the very close and very distant, an interest which was to become almost the exclusive province of the northern European painter). Florence may have benefited, too, from the psychological thread which links the images in Ambrogio's works.

All these elements were blended into a highly coloured humanity, which looks almost 'modern' in style, perhaps because of the realism of the gestures and the wholly secular gaiety derived from the demands of the narrative and an ornamental use of trompe l'oeil. It is from this point of view that the four Scenes from the Life of St Nicholas (Uffizi) should be judged, along with the surprising Allegory of the Redemption (Siena, P.N.), often attributed to his brother Pietro. Other notable works include the panel paintings taken from the Church of S. Petronilla (including, among others, The Virgin and Child, St Mary Magdalene, St Dorothea; Siena, P.N.) and the frescoes of the chapel in Montesiepi (Maesta, the Annunciation, Scenes from the Life of St Galgano), in which all Ambrogio's inventive force appears in his use of inner surfaces to simulate space.

Mature Works

Henceforth withdrawn into himself, he discovered expression in a deeper sensitivity, as in the great Maesta of Massa Marittima (Municipio), or in the fresco of the Maesta in the sacristy of the Church of S. Agostino (Siena), or, among the works generally reckoned to date from before 1340, in the astonishing polyptychs in the Asciano Museum (formerly in the Badia di Rofeno) and of Rocccalbegna (churches of S. Pietro and S. Paolo), in which the depictions of St Peter and St Paul rival the highest achievements of the Italian 14th century. All these works bear comparison with Lorenzetti's famous fresco painting of the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, painted between 1337 and 1339 (Siena, Palazzo Publico).

Nothing survives of the frescoes executed in 1335 by Ambrogio and his brother Pietro Lorenzetti on the facade of the Church of S. Maria della Scala (Siena) representing Scenes from the Life of the Virgin. From the great fresco depicting the Virgin in Majesty, painted in 1340 in the loggia of the Palazzo Pubblico, there remains the central group with the Virgin and Child, a work which makes possible the dating of such later works as the Madonna del Latte of the Seminario (Siena) or the little portable altarpiece with the Virgin in Majesty, Saints and Angels (Siena, PN.), with its use of perspective, surprising for the era, and its admirable freshness of colour.


In 1340, after the departure of Simone Martini for Avignon, Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti became Siena's most highly regarded painters and took on increasingly ambitious works. From 1342 comes The Presentation in the Temple for Siena Cathedral (now in the UffIzi), a work which forms a climax to Ambrogio's experiments with perspective. His pictures are marked by a richness of ornamentation and a worldly luxury which were to serve as a model to Sienese painters for almost a century. Thus, The Annunciation (1344, Siena, P.N.), formerly in the Palazzo Pubblico, presents such assured perspectives, monumentallity in the figures and elegant originality of draughtsmanship that it synthesizes all the experiments undertaken by this sensitive, refined artist throughout a career notable equally for learning and bold innovation. Lorenzetti is worthy in all respects of his reputation as one of the greatest Italian Old Masters of humanistic Gothic art.

Note: Other members of the Sienese School of painting during the fourteenth century, apart from the Lorenzetti brothers, include: Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255-1319), Simone Martini (1285-1344), Sassetta (c.1395-1450), and Matteo di Giovanni. Fifteenth century members include Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82).

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