Simone Martini
Biography of Sienese Gothic Painter.

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One of the surviving panels from a
rare Polyptych Altarpiece by Martini.
(1320-25) Fitzwilliam Museum,
Cambridge, Mass, USA)

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Simone Martini (1284-1344)

The influential Italian painter Simone Martini was an important member of the traditional Siena School of painting. According to Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, Martini had been a pupil of Giotto (1270-1337) but experts now think he was apprenticed with Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319), from whom he absorbed the technique of harmonizing colour. He is especially noted for his trecento experiments in using line for decorative purposes to such an extent that his mature works are almost abstract compositions. After being entrusted with a Maesta for Siena's town hall in 1315, Martini divided his time between the French Kingdom of Naples, Pisa, Orvieto, Siena, Florence and the Papal court at Avignon. He produced a number of masterpieces of Gothic art, including: Maesta (1315, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena); his altarpiece For Robert of Anjou, King of Naples (1317); his fresco painting in the Chapel of St Martin, Assisi (c.1317); the Guidoriccio da Fogliano fresco (1328), opposite his Maesta in the Palazzo Pubblico; and (his greatest work) The Annunciation with St. Margaret and St. Ansanus (1333, Uffizi, Florence) completed jointly with his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi (active 1317-47). Also noted for his style of Medieval manuscript illumination, he collaborated on a number of Gothic illuminated manuscripts, becoming highly influential in this field. He is considered to be a highly important contributor to Pre-Renaissance Painting (c.1300-1400).

For an idea of the pigments
used by Simone Martini
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

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Fine Art Painting.
For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.


The Sienese Maesta (1315)

It is almost certain that Simone Martini was the pupil of Duccio at a time when the latter was working on the Maesta Altarpiece for Siena Cathedral. However, Martini's earliest signed work, a Maesta fresco on the same theme, painted in 1315 (Palazzo Pubblico, Siena), contains but a few traces of Duccio's teaching. This vast composition shows the influence of French Gothic art, particularly in the architectural features of the Virgin's throne. The angels and saints under a canopy gathered around the Virgin and Child give to the whole an aura of courtly ceremony. It seems likely that Martini came into contact with northern art at such an early age through the miniatures, metalwork and ivories of the Ile de France, which were famous and widely distributed throughout the larger Italian cities. In any event, this early Maesta fully reflects Martini's signature style, with its sumptuous materials, the Byzantine aloofness of the Madonna, as well as the Gothic-style decorative line, gesture and pose. His use of foreshortening to create depth is consistent with the desire on the part of many Gothic painters for greater naturalism and real-life effects.


Altarpiece For Robert of Anjou, King of Naples (1317)

An important event from this period was Martini's contact with King Robert of Anjou at Naples, who awarded him the title of miles (knight) on 23rd July 1317, a title which carried with it a great deal of money. His dealings with the court of Robert of Anjou probably went back even further, though the date 1317 is the most likely one for the great altarpiece representing St Louis of Toulouse Crowning King Robert (Capodimonte Museum, Naples), since the canonization of the Franciscan saint, brother of the King, had taken place that year. What is more, if this work is compared with Martini's Sienese Maesta of 1315, the evolution of Martini's style corroborates the dating of 1317. The predella of the Naples altarpiece, depicting five episodes from the life of the saint, reveals the close attention paid by the artist to a rational interpretation of the Tuscan discoveries of the day, in particular those of Giotto - notably the use of perspective - without abandoning all reference to the spirit and taste of the Gothic style outside Italy.

Fresco Decorations: Chapel of St Martin, Assisi (c.1317)

The interpretation is further developed in the cycle of frescoes for the chapel of St Martin in the Lower Church of Assisi (probably Martini's most perfect achievement, and one of the high points of Gothic art). The frescoes for the chapel (Scenes from the Life of St Martin), for which Martini also designed the stained-glass art, had been commissioned by Cardinal Gentile da Montefiore, who died in Tuscany in 1312. The dealings of this prelate with the house of Anjou explain why Martini was chosen to illustrate the legend of the former Bishop of Tours, and to exalt Louis of Toulouse to the rank of saint. These scenes of courtly life and of secular activities are based on ideas that are essentially Tuscan and above all, 'Giottoesque'.

Even a glance at Martini's religious paintings reveals how much importance he accorded to the definition of space, to architectural structures and to a calm and balanced rhythm in many of the compositions: The Dream of the Saint, The Saint Meditating, The Dedication, The Dedication of the Chapel by Cardinal Gentile. He brought a new optical depth and elegance to the language of Gothic art, prefiguring the International Gothic style. It was perhaps this perfection of stylistic balance between such widely differing influences that led critics to ascribe a later date to the frescoes (between 1320 and 1330) whereas now it seems far more likely that the work was completed by around 1317.

With the polyptych (the half-length Virgin and Child, surrounded by numerous Saints and Prophets) executed for the Church of S. Caterina in Pisa (M.N. Pisa) in 1319, and the two Orvieto Polyptychs (Opera del Duomo; the one donated by Monaldeschi is dated 1320) we are back on more certain ground chronologically. These works confirm the artist's precocious stylistic maturity; The Holy Martyr (National Gallery of Art, Ottawa), which was a part of one of the Orvieto polyptychs, is the most striking example. The painting of St Ladislas (Church of S. Maria della Consolazione, Altomonte) probably dates from 1326. This unique and finely detailed work is one of the few to have survived from this period.

The Guidoriccio da Fogliano Fresco (1328)

Not until 1328 is there another dated work by Martini. This was the great commemorative fresco for Guidoriccio da Fogliano, which decorates a wall of the Sala del Mappamondo in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, opposite his earlier Maesta. The inspiration of this work is highly original. It shows the Sienese condottiere riding through the countryside, outlined against a vast landscape of hills, castles and military camps which commemorate the conquest of the fortresses of Montemassi and Sassoforte. This clearly secular, equestrian scene sheds an idealized light on the daily life of the time, and represents the first historical attempt at the poetic glorification of a contemporary event. The altarpiece of the Blessed Agostino Novello (showing the saint himself and, on either side of him, four Scenes from his Life; Church of S. Agostino, Siena) is also thought to date from around 1328. It is a vivid and serene narration of miraculous deeds, showing close affinities with the Giotto-esque art of Florence as well as with the contemporary discoveries of Pietro Lorenzetti (active 1320-45).

The Annunciation Altarpiece (1333)

In 1333, Simone Martini's name and that of his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi appeared on the great altarpiece of the Annunciation (flanked by S. Ansano and S. Giulietta), formerly installed in the chapel of S. Ansano in Siena Cathedral (Uffizi, Florence). The two saints are generally considered to be the work of Memmi, while the Annunciation itself, a tempera work of unbelievable refinement and rhythmic abstraction, the epitome of Gothic stylization for generations of Sienese artists, is by Martini.

Avignon (c.1335-44)

The leading part played by Martini in the development of Gothic painting does not stop here; it acquired a new dimension thanks to the works produced during his later years at the court of Avignon in Provence where he arrived with his brother Donato around 1335. During the ensuing four years he completed a series of paintings in which the discoveries of Gothic abstraction are softened by a tender feeling for reality.

The small portable altarpiece probably executed for Napoleone Orsini (who died in Avignon in 1342), most of the panels of which were found in Dijon in 1826, is full of vivacity and pathos. The scenes represent the Ascent to Calvary (Louvre); the Crucifixion, the Deposition, the Annunciation (all Antwerp Museum); and the Entombment (Berlin-Dahlem). The wing from a diptych depicting the Christ discovered in the Temple (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) dates from 1342. With this work Simone Martini's career came to an end, but at a high level of attainment, for the paintings must rank among the most influential works of art in Provencal culture.

The frescoes painted by Martini on the portal of Notre Dame des Doms (Christ Giving Benediction, the Virgin of Humility Adored by Cardinal Stefaneschi) have largely disappeared, but the extraordinary sinopia (reddish-brown pigment) remains. The fresco representing St George Slaying the Dragon is lost. The lighter aspect of the painter's work is best seen in the miniatures (Allegory of Virgil with Aeneas), painted by Martini for a manuscript of Virgil belonging to Petrarch (Ambrosiana, Milan), rather than in the graphically literal memento conserved in the Vatican library.

A number of other works are occasionally attributed to Simone Martini. They include: a Madonna from Lucignano (now in P.N. Siena); the Polyptych in the Gardner Museum in Boston; the Crucifix in the Church of the Misericordia at S. Casciano in Val di Pessa; a polyptych with panel paintings dispersed as follows: a Madonna (Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne), three Saints in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and a Saint in a private collection; St John the Evangelist at the Barber Institute of Arts, Birmingham; and a diptych with the Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation (Hermitage, St Petersburg; National Gallery of Art, Washington DC).

For biographies of other painters from the Proto-Renaissance era, including Gothic, International Gothic, Sienese and Florentine artists, see: Cimabue (Cenni di Peppi) (1240-1302), Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334) Ambrogio Lorenzetti (Active 1319-48), Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), Masolino (1383-1440), Pisanello (Antonio Pisano) (c.1394-1455), Limbourg Brothers (fl.1390-1416) and Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (c.1395-1450). See also: Medieval artists (1100-1400) and Proto-Renaissance artists (1250-1400).

Influence and Legacy

Apart from Lippo Memmi and his brother Donato (of whom no individual works are known), he had a number of collaborators and exercised a direct influence over several pupils, including the Master of the Madonna of the Palazzo di Venezia, the Master of the Strauss Madonna, and Ceccarelli, and followers like the Master of the St George Codex, and Barna da Siena.

His influence continued beyond 1350 in the work of Lippo Vanni, Andrea Vanni, and Niccolo di Ser Sozzo Tegliacci. In fact his themes - the Annunciation served as a model for countless artists - and the refined elegance of his technique had a considerable effect on the whole of the Siena school well into the 15th century. See, for instance, the innovative works of Giovanni di Paolo (c.1400-82). There are obvious traces of his style in Pisa, Lucca, Naples and in Provence, notably in works by Enguerrand de Quarton (c.1410-1466) and the Master of the Altarpiece of the Annunciation.

Paintings by Simone Martini can be seen in some of the best art museums in Europe and America.

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