Although I saw a few nice churches in Haggerston and Hackney last week, it didn’t seem quite exciting enough to write up as a blog, and this week I was far too crippled to even consider much more than a trip to Piccadilly to catch the RA’s George Bellows exhibition before it closes, so I thought I would try something a bit different. There are some things that as an Art Historian that I get very excited about, even if they are not part of my current research. Outward appearances are obviously part of the attraction, but it’s only when you really consider and study things at length that you can see how special they were in their own time. I thought I would share a few on this blog, and the first, on the occasion of the loan of the artist’s Grieving St. John from the Barber Institute in Birmingham to the National Gallery in London, is the fourteenth-century Sienese master, Simone Martini.
I first encountered Simone on my undergraduate course at Manchester University, and was enchanted by his Uffizi Annunciation (despite the fact that I was roped off from it at my visit to the Uffizi), but it was not until I became obsessed with his enigmatic Holy Family at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool that, of all the giants of the Trecento (the catch-all term for the fourteenth century in Italy) – Giotto, Duccio, and the Lorenzetti brothers, Simone became my favourite. I must admit I was slightly flattered when a guard said on my first visit to see the St. John in Birmingham that he had never seen anyone look at the painting as long as I did (I’ve already been tapped on the shoulder with an Evening Standard by an anxious guard in the National – “too close”!). I also had a rather remarkable encounter in Antwerp this year, where I wandered into a small museum with a group of friends entirely at random, and was confronted in the first room by his incredible portable Passion Polyptych, which was on show there while the main Musee des Beaux-Arts was closed. To have one of the paintings that, in the whole world, you have most wanted to see just crop up like that is an experience I will never ever forget.
So if you are in London before September, go and see the St John from the Barber – there are only four Simones in this country (Liverpool, Cambridge and another one, perhaps for hardcore fans only, in Birmingham) so it’s quite a treat. The panel is in a bit of a state (so much I wonder how they dare let it travel), but this is quite fun for an art historian as you can see how the gesso ground has been laid over linen wrapped round the engaged frame. However the damage does not harm the sheer pathos of the painting, the Disciple who Jesus Loved wringing his hands in despair at a Christ as the Man of Sorrows that must have been detached and lost long ago (that this was original context of the panel is all but proven by Henk van Os in this article). Depending which part of his face you look at, I almost see his expression change, from more stoic contemplation to when his agony gives in and his lip begins to tremble. It is remarkable how many saints have been painted through the centuries, but that this apparently simple bust can be so incredibly captivating. What did make Simone so special?
Although Simone was tremendously influenced by the revolution in painting best espoused by Giotto, when painted figures took on the bulk and material presence of Roman sculpture in apparent defiance of the more flat and symbolic Byzantine-style painting of the thirteenth century, he was, at heart, an unashamed Goth. By which I mean he cultivated in his painting a courtly, aristocratic style more like the Gothic style in northern France than the outward Romanitas of some of his contemporaries. Yet Simone was not just a man who could paint really well, for that was not enough for any artist wanting to make a name for himself at this time. He was evidently highly skilled at managing a workshop and was relentlessly inventive at a time when the opportunities for artists to try new things were not as plentiful as in the Renaissance when the painter had established himself as a special kind of person.
Simone almost certainly worked in the workshop of the Sienese master Duccio, which would mean he was involved with the epoch-making Maesta altarpiece for the high altar of Siena’s Cathedral, even perhaps being respected enough in the workshop for Duccio to delegate the design of the some of the scenes of Christ’s Passion to his fledgling talent (as suggested in this article by James Stubblebine). Scholars have tried to attribute some Ducciesque Madonnas to Simone, and while this sort of thing is a very inexact science, a Madonna and Child and a Madonna della Misericordia in the Siena Pinacoteca do have the ineffable charm that foreshadows Simone at his height. The commissions for the Maesta fresco on the wall of Siena’s town hall and the St Martin’s chapel at the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi mark his early success going solo with his own workshop and distinctive style, making these graceful courtly works with plenty of references to northern Gothic, such as the very pointy throne of the Madonna below. Simone quickly replaced Duccio as the favourite painter of the government of Siena, before the latter had even died. In fact, Duccio seemed like a bit of an awkward bugger to work with and the council may have been glad to be rid of him.
The Dominican Order of friars also seems to have taken a liking to Simone and commissioned a great many altarpieces from his workshop (this is all in this article by Joanna Cannon and no doubt her forthcoming book on the Dominicans). The first and grandest is the altarpiece for their house in Pisa. Simone expanded the structure of the Duccio shop altarpieces of assemblies of saints individual little compartments arranged into an unprecedentedly complex multi-storey arrangement, an idea he may have got from the niches for statutes that peppered the facades of Gothic Cathedrals. These sorts of altarpieces – polyptychs – became tremendously popular for the next two centuries, as the early collections of any large art gallery can attest.
The other thing Simone seems to have pioneered is the use of punch-mark decoration. Before, halos in the gold ground of the panel had been decorated by enscribing patterns with compasses, but Simone came up with the idea of having lots of little tools, which could be hammered into the gold surfaces to create exceedingly complex and glittering effects. His novel new method spread through Siena to Florence, and became one of the beautiful elements of fourteenth-century craftsmanship in Italy, and would also endure until the end of the Middle Ages.
He also appears to have been good friends with a number of public figures, including the poet Petrarch, who according to one of his sonnets, he made a picture of his beloved Laura. Petrarch writes that Simone must have been in paradise when he made the image he was so enamoured with the result. Cardinal Napoleone Orsini, one of the greatest artistic patrons of the Trecento, also commissioned a now lost portrait from Simone, but also was probably the owner of the portable Passion Polyptych (split between Antwerp, the Louvre and Berlin) and probably also the Liverpool Holy Family. In his closing years, Simone was invited to live at the new Papal palace in Avignon. Like Leonardo da Vinci, Simone seems to have enjoyed a semi-retirement in the south of France, but active enough to fresco Avignon Cathedral’s porch with a fresco of the Virgin Mary seated on the ground, which would become known as the Madonna of Humility and become an extraordinarily popular devotional subject in Italy and even northern Europe.
So in his career Simone managed to introduce new forms with his towering polyptychs, new methods with his elaborate punching, and new content with the Madonna of Humility. His masterpiece however, may be his Annunciation in the Uffizi, commissioned as part of an ensemble for the four altars of the city’s patron saints.
Co-signed with his brother-in-law and business partner Lippo Memmi (no one has ever presented a convincing explanation of the division of labour – I think it’s entirely possible Simone did pretty much all of it by himself) it shows his mastery of both creating a beautiful patterned surface and playing with pictorial space. You can on one hand see the painting as entirely flat, Gabriel and Mary interlocking as a jigsaw puzzle. However, the manner in which Gabriel’s cloak tumbles towards the viewer makes you almost want to reach out and touch it. Yet also he cleverly foreshortens the marble floor in the centre compartment differently to the pedestals of the flanking saints. The viewer is simultaneously impressed by the artist’s powers of imitation and illusion, but also reminded that what we see is, after all, just a painting. This double enforcing of the material and the illusionistic, an internal contradiction (like Wittgenstein’s “duck-rabbit”), may have helped a fourteenth-century viewer move from the banalities of the everyday to ponder the infinities of the divine is an innovation that would, yet again, become very popular in the devotional strategies of painting of the second half of the fourteenth century. But it also makes a painting like the Uffizi Annunciation very modern. Simone’s a painter, and he wants you to know this is a painting, and a damn good one at that.
After Simone died in Avignon in 1344, Lippo kept his workshop going in Siena. Lippo seems to have had a “while the cat’s away” attitude after his business partner left for France, cultivating his own artistic identity, making paintings that for a long time in scholarship were attributed to a mysterious “Barna” following the Renaissance art historian Vasari. “Barna” almost certainly never existed, and it was Lippo who played up the illusionisms of his senior partner, eschewing some of realism. As the frescoes at San Gimiganano attest, Lippo was a wonderful artist, but not one of the relentless innovation of his brother-in-law. While I’d go with Lippo, I’d always be thinking of Simone…