It was standard practice in the trecento artist’s workshop for the master to paint the important figures (or at least their faces), while studio assistants filled the peripheral and marginal areas—pinnacles, spandrels, borders, soffits, etc with a large cast of saints, angels, and prophets. While these figures are usually identifiable by attribute or inscription, they tend to be generic in physiognomy and appearance, and were not meant to draw the viewer’s attention away from the principal images.

The startling exception to this rule is the work of Simone Martini (c. 1284 -1344), many of whose secondary and marginal characters are individuated as fully as the protagonists. The range of facial expressions, moods, postures, and degree of personalization is astonishing, given the fact that it has no immediate narrative context. The subtlety, imagination and attention invested in these figures is such that it is hard to imagine Simone himself was not responsible for their execution, just as Orson Welles often directed insignificant reaction and establishing shots himself, normally left to the second unit director.

Saints usually look benign or blandly joyful. Simone Martini’s heavenly host suggests, however, that beatification is not without its trials and annoyances. From the Angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel, who comes crashing into the Virgin’s bedroom, impatiently pointing upwards and frowning at her reluctance to become the Mother of God, to the weary and bored John the Baptist wishing he hadn’t worn sandals to the Maestà; from to the glaring St Martin of Tours who is about to fling the cardinal and donor of the chapel over his shoulder for some unmentioned lapse in protocol to the angry St Joseph chiding the sulking Christ, never have the the saints or the Holy Family seemed so irritable, truculent, disdainful, bored, embarrassed, sarcastic or angry. Everyone is on the verge in Simone’s world.



The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna

In 1285, the Florentine confraternity of the Laudesi commissioned the workshop of Duccio di Buoninsegna to paint an image of the Virgin and Child for the chapel they sponsored in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Like the other urban confraternities, the Laudesi provided care and services for each other at the time of a member’s demise, overseeing funeral rites, financially assisting surviving family members and collectively praying for the soul of the deceased. The latter took the form of laude, or hymns sung by the group in praise of the Virgin, begging her intercession on behalf of the defunct member. The singing of the lauds and other confraternity activities were performed in the group’s chapel, under the supervision of the Dominican friars. The panel painting of the Virgin and Child commissioned of Duccio was, therefore, was destined to serve as the visual focus of a devotional, musical performance by a prestigious, civic-minded group, conducted in a large stone-vaulted chapel.

Continue reading “AN INCOMPLETE HISTORY OF MEDIEVAL ART V: The Social and Material Contexts of Duccio’s Rucellai Madonna”

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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