The Sienese master Simone Martini was one of the greatest and most influential painters of his time. His work combines an astonishing mastery of naturalistically observed details with an exquisite technique. He may have spent some time with Duccio (see 2004.442), but in his monumental mural of the Madonna enthroned with saints and angels (Maestà) in the principal room of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, he had emerged as an independent master—the favored artist of the commune. The mural is dated 1315, but six years later it required considerable repair entailing the reworking of key passages. In the elegance of its figures, mastery of space, innovative framework, elaborately worked haloes, and incorporation of glass and vellum, it set the standard for what has come to be called the courtly or International Gothic style. Simone’s frescoes in a chapel in the lower church of San Francesco in Assisi (the Saint Martin Chapel)—probably dating from ca. 1315–17—were no less innovative, introducing details of contemporary life into the hagiography of a fourth-century saint and exploring with unprecedented delicacy and acuteness the emotional life of the characters. He established a partnership with his brother-in-law, Lippo Memmi, which seems also to have involved at various point his own brother Donato and Lippo’s brother Federigo. The closeness of the work of Simone and Lippo is evident in the altarpiece of the Annunciation for the cathedral of Siena (now in the Uffizi, Florence), signed by both artists and dated 1333. Around 1336 Simone moved to Avignon, the seat of the papacy, and there met the great poet Petrarch, who dedicated two sonnets to Simone’s portrait of his beloved, establishing a genre of poetic praise that was to be emulated for the next two centuries.
Simone Martini imbues the Virgin and Child with a poignant tenderness, as the figures are ensconced within the serpentine curve of the Virgin’s mantle, and each gently grasps the other’s garment. The curled fingers of the Christ Child’s right hand and the underside of his right food, which pushes playfully against his mother’s wrist, are rendered with remarkably convincing foreshortening for this period, attesting to the artist’s achievements in capturing naturalistic effects.
The present painting formed part of a five-panel polyptych that included, from left to right, Saint Ansanus (Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.13), Saint Peter (formerly in the collection of Robert Lehman and now in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid), the present Madonna and Child (Robert Lehman Collection, 1975.1.12), Saint Andrew (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 41.100.23, Gallery 625) and Saint Luke (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). For a reconstruction see: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/437675
Unusually for an altarpiece, the panels are all rectangular—not gabled—and they are all of the same size (in traditional Italian altarpieces the center panel is invariable wider than the lateral ones by approximately one third). The frames are no less unusual, being of a cassetta-type normally associated with small, portable panels. For that reason they were frequently supposed to be later. However, technical examination demonstrates that they are original; indeed, that on the Saint Luke is still engaged (the others were removed from their respective panels, which were then cradled: for the construction of the frames see Newbery and Kanter 1990). Curiously, there is no sign that the panels were hinged together, and this may be important for understanding the function of the altarpiece, as unhinged panels could be re-combined according to need.
The Lehman painting and its companion panels were widely ascribed to the mid-fourteenth century master Lippo Vanni. In 1974, Boskovits made the case for attributing them to Simone Martini, and suggested that they formed an altarpiece commissioned from Simone in 1326 for the Palazzo Pubblico and that was mentioned rather generically by Ghiberti in his Commentaries: "and in the said palace a very good altarpiece." Saint Ansanus, who appears in the other panel in the Robert Lehman Collection, is the patron saint of Siena and in this work he holds the official black and white banner—the balzana. His presence would be expected on an altarpiece for the Commune, but is not conclusive evidence.
Boskovits’ attribution of the panels to Simone Martini as well as his proposal for the identification of the altarpiece was not universally accepted (Eisenberg 1981). Both points were, however, upheld by Christiansen (1988, 1994), who undertook a thorough re-examination of the documents. He noted that the altarpiece commissioned from Simone in 1326 could not have been commissioned for the Cappella dei Signori on the main floor of the Palazzo Pubblico, since that chapel did not exist before the fifteenth century (the first notice is in 1405). He also argued that it does not seem initially to have been painted for the earlier ground floor Cappella dei Nove, which was constructed between 1307 and 1310 and for which documents mention other works. Rather, he suggested that the 1326 work must have been a multi-functional altarpiece and that the two notices related to it suggest its possible identity with the five panels that concern us. The first notice describes what was either an altarpiece or single panel painting that was kept—at least temporarily, as a fire had damaged part of the Palazzo Pubblico—in the Palazzo del Capitano ("una tavola per tenere nel Palazzo del Capitano") and for which "Maestro Simone" was paid thirty lire in April and August 1326. Six months later, in February 1327, what must be the same work—the value was the same—was lent by the Commune to the residence of the Podestà and then returned to the Palazzo Pubblico. This document makes it clear that there were three panels, not one, and these showed the Madonna and Child, Saint Peter, and Saint Andrew, thus agreeing with three of the panels of our reconstructed altarpiece. Of the two remaining saints, Ansanus was the patron of the Comune (as already noted), while according to one source, the Cappella dei Signori was initially dedicated to Saint Luke.
Christiansen then picked up the story in the fifteenth century, when the Cappella dei Signori became the principal chapel in the palace, receiving a cycle of frescoes by Taddeo di Bartolo, intarsia choir stalls by Domenico di Niccolò dei Cori, a holy water font by Giovanni di Turino, and an elaborate wrought iron grill—all still extant. In 1448 the signori set up a commission to determine the condition of the altarpiece then in situ. This must be the same altarpiece that Ghiberti ascribed to Simone Martini. It was judged to be precarious, and the commission was to decide on what action to take and how much the necessary work would cost. The carpenter Giovanni di Vicho di Magno was engaged to create a dais, a wooden canopy, and an elaborately inlaid frame, the stated notion being to make the frame conform with the inlaid choir stalls that had been executed by Domenico di Niccolò between 1415 and 1428. Further, Sano di Pietro was engaged to paint five panels with stories from the Life of the Virgin, to be placed as a predella below the panels by Simone Martini. These were to be based on frescoes that had been painted a century earlier by Simone Martini and Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti. The five predella panels were identified by Eisenberg and are now divided among the Pinacoteca Vaticana, the Lindenau-Museum, Altenburg, and the University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor. The completed altarpiece would have had a highly unusual and perhaps unique appearance, but it would have harmonized beautifully with the rest of the chapel furnishings. Taking these considerations together, and noting that Sano di Pietro’s predella panels are the same width as the framed panels by Simone, Christiansen proposed a detailed reconstruction. His arguments have been accepted by some scholars and rejected and/or modified by others. Maginnis (2001) objected to the "bizarre framing," maintaining that "there is absolutely no evidence that any quattrocento Sienese altarpiece was so framed." This is curious, as the character of the frame is fully documented (De Marchi [2010, p. 172] cites analogies). Bagnoli (1999) objected not to the reconstruction, per se, but argued that the style of the various panels points to a date earlier than 1326 and the improbability that they relate to the documents. By contrast, Leone de Castris (2003), De Marchi (2010), and Polzer (2012) have accepted the reconstruction; De Marchi suggests on the evidence of style that Simone painted first the three panels with the Madonna and Child and Saints Peter and Andrew and then added the remaining two at a subsequent moment—something Christiansen had left open as a possibility. Polzer ascribes the panels to Simone Martini assisted by the very young Lippo Vanni.
The altarpiece in the Cappella dei Signori was dismantled by 1686, when it was replaced by The Holy Family with Saint Leonard by Sodoma. Documents relating to the various dismembered parts can be found until the end of the eighteenth century, but none are specific enough to make the identification of any surviving panels with the altarpiece absolutely certain.
[2016; adapted from Keith Christiansen 2014]
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