Simone Martini

One of the most influential artists of the fourteenth century, Simone Martini – also known as Simone Senese – was a painter and miniaturist, and a representative of the Tuscan Gothic style in Europe. Elegant and sinuous, the characters in his works were found as fascinating and enchanting at the time as they are today. The leading figure of Sienese Gothic style, Simone Martini was also the only one able to contend with Giotto for the title of supreme Italian painter of the fourteenth century.
Origins and education
There is no certainty of Simone Martini’s place and year of birth, so much so that his entire biography is reconstructed from documents and works produced from 1315 onwards. Probably the son of a certain Martino Senese who, at the end of the thirteenth century, was working in San Gimignano as a preparatory craftsman of arriccio – the first coarse layer of plaster on which the preparatory design of a fresco is sketched out with a brush – Simone would have been born around 1284 in Siena. It is logical to assume that he inherited a natural ability to paint large-scale frescoes from his father.

He most likely trained in the circle of Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255–1319), then the best known artist in the city, and his contacts with the city’s goldsmith workshops are certain. In fact, it was during this time that Sienese goldsmithing was renewed in style and technique, growing to include translucent enamels and engravings. During his youth, Simone most likely had contact with the workshop of Memmo di Filippuccio (c. 1250 – c. 1325), active in San Gimignano. The latter experience not only contributed to his professional growth but also his personal growth, for in 1324 the painter married Giovanna, the master’s daughter.
His rise to fame
In 1311, he obtained his first major civic recognition, when the Municipality of Siena entrusted him with the execution of the imposing fresco of the Maestà for the Council Chamber of the Palazzo Pubblico. The work is a tribute to Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà, carried out just a few years earlier for the city’s cathedral.

It was in 1315 that Simone completed the first version of the fresco, and his Maestà marks a watershed moment compared to his previous painting. In addition to the realism of faces and gestures, he introduces new materials and techniques hitherto foreign to painting, such as the punching technique used to give greater reflections and three-dimensionality to the haloes, decorated with reliefs and decorations typical of goldsmithing. The representation of space also changes, developing in depth thanks to the play of light given by the metallic colours. The wealth of materials is incredible and goes from the application of real gems and precious stones, for the Madonna’s robe, to the cartouche held by the Child Jesus: a real sheet of paper glued to the surface.

In 1321, Simone put his hand to it once again to further embellish the painting and change the faces of some of the characters. The work is so modern and full of stylistic novelty, but at the same time capable of interpreting the taste of the patrons, that it contributed to the artist’s immediate rise to fame; from that moment on, Simone would be called upon to work for the greatest patrons of the time: King Robert of Anjou (1278–1343) of Naples, the cardinals of the Basilica of Assisi and, once again in Siena, for the Duomo and the Municipality itself.

He was in Assisi until around 1318, working on the frescoes in the chapel of San Martino, where he was able to perfect his fresco technique and cultivate contacts with the Avignon papal court. In the meantime, in 1317, he was called to Naples by the court of Robert of Anjou, for whom he painted the spectacular altarpiece Saint Louis of Toulouse Crowning Robert of Anjou, now in the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. Once these assignments were over, Simone returned to Tuscany.

In 1330, in fact, he received a new commission for the Sala del Consiglio of the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena: the iconic Giudoriccio da Fogliano at the Siege of Montemassi, standing out on the wall opposite the Maestà, which he had painted fifteen years earlier. The work was part of a celebratory context commissioned by the Municipality, which intended to adorn the walls of the Hall with scenes depicting the conquests of the new Sienese State. It was the first time in the history of Italian art that a condottiere and his horse were the outright protagonists of the scene: they parade elegantly in the foreground, while behind them, camps and castles tell of the new military conquest. A metaphor for Sienese power, the work is rightly considered among the artist’s masterpieces.

A little later is the magnificent Annunciation with St Margaret and St Ansanus (1333), painted for Siena Cathedral and now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The panel is the result of a collaboration with his brother-in-law Lippo Memmi (records of whom date to between 1317–1348) and bears both their signatures. Considered a highpoint in terms of refinement and stylisation, it is certainly among the works most akin to transalpine Gothic taste: the linear and slender figures occupy a concrete and real space; the sinuous movements reveal Simone’s great skill in depicting psychological introspection: the Virgin’s almost frightened retreat at the revelation of the Archangel.

A sumptuous work whose theatricality is amplified by the dazzling gold background from which the exquisite details of the marble floor stand out, along with the angel’s chequered cloak and multicoloured wings, the book open between the Virgin’s fingers, up to the vase of white lilies, symbol of the purity of both Mary and the Son of God.

Annunciation between saints Ansano and Massima, 1333
The move to Avignon and his final years
It was probably his highly refined taste and attention to detail that led Simone to be very much appreciated by the papal court in Avignon, where he moved in 1336. It was here that he came into contact with great exponents of international but also Italian culture. Of note was his relationship with Francesco Petrarch (1304–1374), for whom Simone produced a delicate miniature known as the Allegoria virgiliana (Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, A 79 inf.) and a portrait of his beloved Laura, unfortunately now lost. The poet, deeply impressed by the artist’s skill and delicate style, praises his talent in two sonnets from Il Canzoniere (77 and 78).

In Avignon, Simone Martini worked for the Palace of the Popes but also for private patrons, including Cardinals Jacopo Stefaneschi and Napoleone Orsini. Documents confirm his death in 1344 in Avignon, and his funeral on 4 August of the same year in the church of San Domenico in Siena. With his passing, the splendid season of the Sienese school comes to an end, as traces of his students and collaborators were lost as they fell into anonymity, reinforcing the role and stature of this extraordinary artist.

Cover photo: Portrait of Simone Martini in the 1769/75 edition of the Series of the most illustrious men in painting, sculpture, and architecture, Giovanni Battista Cecchi

Dove e quando

Siena, 1284 – Avignon, 1344

Arte

Painting

Museums

Galleria degli Uffizi

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