"He loved to portray from nature and in this he was considered the best master of his day."
≈ Giorgio Vasari
Simone Martini (ca. 1283-1344), one of the masters of the Sienese school, imbued his figures, both heavenly and human, with a tenderness and fluidity that set his work apart. Less concerned with moral instruction than with spiritual beauty and grace, his sweep of line and precision craftsmanship made him a definitive artist of the Gothic Italian genre.
Simone was born in Siena to a craftsman father and was apprenticed in the workshop of Sienese master Duccio di Buoninsegna, where he developed his style and reputation early. A bit competitive with his teacher, Simone created his own versions of many of Duccio's greatest works. But, in doing so, he applied his own sense of decorative charm to the traditional subjects, and soon became known for his unique combination of older Byzantine and French Gothic styles with innovative three-dimensional volumes and bright, spacious compositions painted with a graceful and sinuous line.
detail 1: the angel alights
in a magnificant golden swirl
(rollover to enlarge)Simone cemented his position in Siena with the a 1315 fresco of the Maestą in the Palazzo Pubblico. Over the succeeding years, his career evolved from one important commission to the next, always at the service of the highest powers and social levels, and Simone is thought to have grown quite rich.
Many of Simone's important works show a modernist's developing sense of landscape and realism. Carefully observed details of homes and architecture provide us a realistic view of Medieval Siena. Vasari wrote that Simone "loved to portray from nature and in this he was considered the best master of his day." According to one story, when the government commissioned a series of paintings depicting towns they'd conquered, Simone set out to personally sketch each area.
Another innovation lay in Simone's talent in depicting individual figures and portraits. He paid particular attention to facial features that gave his subjects complex characters and emotions. Figures were always finished with scrupulous attention to detail and elaborate decorations and gilding.
detail 2: a sinuous Mary shrinks away
as Gabriel suddenly appears
(rollover to enlarge)It wasn't until his early forties that Simone, recorded as being a rather unattractive man, married the young sister of painter Lippo Memmi, a frequent artistic collaborator. Perhaps in gratitude, he presented the Memmi family with the considerable sum of over two hundred gold florins.
Martini's 1333 Annunciation, painted with Memmi for the Chapel of Sant'Ansano in Siena's Cathedral was the last known painting he executed before moving to the emerging art center of Avignon, where the influence of his art helped set the stage for the grandeur of the International Gothic style.
The Annunciation's central panel, slightly over eight feet high and ten feet wide, is famous for its exquisitely refined use of line. The work perfectly embodies the delicate, ethereal charm always at the heart of Simone's work.
As the fluttering archangel Gabriel alights in a dazzle of robe and patterned cloak, we see his words inscribed in a line that spans the dramatic, golden space between the two figures — "Ave Gratia Plena Dominus Tecum" ("Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you"). Swathed all in blue and started by the appearance of the heavenly figure, a fearful Mary shrinks back, eyes slightly averted. Her delicate, yet dramatic gesture highlights Mary's emotional state — showing us clearly, as described by St. Luke, that she was greatly troubled upon hearing the angel's words.
The rhythmic lines that define both the figures and the areas between themdemonstrate Simone's sensitivity in relating and manipulating form and space. The shapes define the story as well as the feeling — as the Virgin sways back,
detail 3: ornate arched and gilded frame,
characteristic of the International Gothic style,
encloses the Holy Spirit and angels
(rollover to enlarge) we vividly feel her fright, sadness and isolation. Though Gothic in style and subject, characters are no longer mere narrative symbols, but purposeful and expressive personalities that anchor the scene in the human sphere.
The iconography of the painting includes four prophets — Jeremiah, Ezechiel, Isaiah and Daniel — painted within the medallions at the top of the intricately-carved wooden frame that overlays the panel. The roundel at the top center likely contained an image of God the Father, since the dove, symbol of the Holy Spirit, is painted directly below.
Simone's composition is essentially linear, with a Byzantine's disregard for space or setting. Yet, unlike earlier icons, the bodies, fabrics and shapes are solid and well-defined, and the composition includes many realistic features, inlcuding the veined marble floor, the Virgin's book, the vase of lilies and inlaid decorations on the throne.
Overall, Simone has given us a Virgin and angel suffused in the glow of heaven while firmly rooted in the human world.
Building on the techniques developed by Giotto and Duccio, Simone moved past older methods of composition, pushing art toward animated gesture and complex spacial rhythm. Combining this with his talent for expressiveness and mood, he created art that continues to be admired for both its Gothic spirituality and vibrant realism.