Simone Martini images and biography
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(c. 1280-1344)

See also: Renaissance Art

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It is quite conceivable that if Simone Martini had had for master a painter less powerful than Duccio, the example of Giovanni Pisano - excepting perhaps Donatello, the most determining influence in all Italian art - and the example of Giotto as well, with both whose works he certainly was acquainted, would have roused him to a sense of the real issues in the creation of a work of art. In him we might have had another painter with Giotto's feeling for both tactile values and for the materially significant, but with different ideals to reveal and a different message to convey.

But Simone had behind him an art, as iIllustration so perfectly satisfying both to himself and to his townsmen, as Decoration so adequate, far though it was from perfect, that it would have taken overwhelming genius if, even then, the conditions of a medieval town had permitted it to transcend them and start afresh. There was no departing from Duccio's moulds, in so far as they existed, and individual temperament could manifest itself only by chiselling on the casts that had come out of them.

That Simone felt hampered by Duccio's precedent we see clearly in works which show him in close rivalry with his master, and it is therefore not in the more dramatic and passionate Gospel themes themes in which Duccio excelled that we shall discover Simone's peculiar greatness. In this field Duccio had carried expression to its utmost limits. To retrench on this domain would have been most unacceptable, and the only alternative, for one who would not copy, was to leap over the widest limits of artistic expression into the outer waste of mere Illustration. In his scenes from the Passion, Simone, so much above Duccio even there in tactile values, in movement, in charm, falls far below him in dramatic rendering, sacrificing the restraint and severity needed for conveying the real significance of the world tragedy to the obvious portrayal of facile emotion.

Even when he is freed from Duccio's example, it is not as an artist with a feeling for the solemnity of actions which have almost a sacramental import that Simone reveals himself. The charm, the beauty, even the pride of life attracted him more. For him also painting was not in the first place an occasion for presenting tactile values and movement, but equally little was it an opportunity for communicating his sense of moral and spiritual significance. Simone subordinates everything and he was great enough to have much to subordinate to his feeling for magnificence, beauty, and grace.

In the Council Hall of Siena we see him in all his splendour. On one side, radiant in beauty, the Queen of Heaven sits in the midst of the noblest of the Saints, the loveliest of the Virgins, and the sweetest of the Angels. They hold a more than regal canopy over her head, they kneel in worship at her feet, they offer flowers. It is a vision as gorgeous and as elaborate as the facade of Orvieto Cathedral, but here all is melted into a glow of feeling for beauty of feature, charm of pose, and loveliness of colour. On the opposite wall you see medieval pride of life incarnate. It is Guidoriccio da Fogliano riding through the land. Horse and rider are emblazoned with the proud heraldry of a long lineage. How completely Guidoriccio possesses his steed, how firmly he holds his commander's staff, with what a level look he fronts the world!

Then what extraordinary grace of motion and beauty of line in Simone's miracles of the Blessed Agostino Novello! What charm of feeling in that exquisite fresco at Assisi wherein we behold the young St. Martin receiving his knighthood! The Emperor girds his sword about the fair youth, a knight fastens his spurs, while many gay squires look on and listen to the twanging and piping of the minstrels. One of the squires has a profile of the subtlest beauty, and profiles like it nay, more subtle and mysterious still are far from rare in Simone's paintings. In this small chapel at Assisi you see types of beauty so strange, so penetrating, that, far from suggesting our favourite classic or modern ideals, they waft our thoughts away to Japanese Geishas and Egyptian Queens.

To convey his feeling for beauty and grace and splendour, Simone possessed means more than sufficient. He was master of colour as few have been before him or after him. He had a feeling for line always remarkable, and once, at least, attaining to a degree of perfection not to be surpassed. He understood decorative effects as a great musician understands his instruments. Where shall we see colour more symphonic than in the single figures among his Assisi frescoes? What has line accomplished that can outvie the miraculous contours of his 'Coronation of King Robert'? How subtle the beauty, how dainty the movements, how sweet the olive in the Uffizi 'Annunciation'! As you look at the angel's mantle it is as if you were seeing the young sunlight on driven snow. Simone is the most lovable of all the Italian artists before the Renaissance.

- From Bernard Berenson, "Italian Painters of the Renaissance"

Simone Martini Images

1333 The Angel and the Annunciation




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