Simone Martini, St Augustine, Polyptych, c. 1325, Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum.
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.
This post provides context for an earlier post on Simone Martini’s representation of luxury garments.
These silk brocades, damask, and lampas weave silk textiles were produced in Siena, Lucca, Venice and other Italian centers during the trecento. Designs were often copied from Islamic textiles, which were highly-coveted in the West and extravagantly cut against the bias, partly because the garment would fall better and partly because the wearer wanted to advertise the fact that s/he could afford such luxuries.
Italian fashions were expensive, but, on the whole, restrained and elegant (Giorgio Armani and Miuccia Prada are the heirs to this legacy). It was in the Burgundian territories, the other great cloth manufacturing center, that conspicuous displays of wealth and waste attained attained the full-on decadence described brilliantly by Johan Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1919).
Simone Martini, St Elizabeth of Hungary, 1317, Cappella di San Martino, Assisi, San Francesco, Lower Church.
Simone Martini, San Ansano, c. 1330, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Simone Martini, St Louis of Toulouse Crowns Robert II of Anjou, 1316, Naples, Museo Nazionale Capodimonte.
Simone Martini, Meditation of St Martin, 1317, Cappella di San Martino, Assisi, San Francesco, Lower Church.
Simone Martini, Miracle of the Child(with alleged self-portrait of Simone), 1317, Cappella di San Martino, Assisi, San Francesco, Lower Church.
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.