The Best-Dressed List: Fashions and Fabrics in the Art of Simone Martini

SIMONE MARTINI was the pre-eminent painter of luxury garments, fashion design and textiles in late medieval Italy. His was born around 1284 in Siena, a major European textile-production center, and he concluded his career as the court artist to the papal curia at Avignon, where his duties included designing costumes and decorative textiles, as well as painting and interior decoration. Sienese silk textiles—damasks, brocades and lampas weave—of the trecento were highly prized for their intricate patterns and depth of color (see the following post for examples). Inevitably, Sienese painters became skilled not only in the representation of patterned textiles, but, beginning with Duccio, in the representation of patterned fabrics draped over the human body. This involved painting both intricate designs as well as the breaks in those patterns occluded by folds or interrupted by seams and hemlines. The latter ability in turn could only be achieved by the artist hiring models and studying tailored clothing. As Hayden Maginnis’s description (below) of the representation of the plaid cape worn by Gabriel in the Annunciation makes clear, Simone had first-hand knowledge of expensive, often intricate, sewn garments and how they moved when worn. Simone would have taken the time to inform himself about such matters because his clients, included members of the extended French royal family, including the King of Naples, Robert of Anjou, and King Ladislaw and Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, and other high-profile dignitaries like the pope and the poet Petrarch, all of whom used costume as an index of their social rank, wealth and taste for for whom extravagance and opulence were not only appropriate, but expected. Due to political alliances within Italy, Siena fell from prominence in the 15th century and the specialization in luxury fabrics passed to Florentine artists such as Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico and Botticelli.

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