At university I had a tutor who would announce once a year, when the subject duly came round, ‘I’m too emotionally involved with Simone Martini. I can’t lecture on him. I’m now going to the Buttery. Any or all of you are welcome to join me there.’ And he would depart, trailing clouds of glory for the more romantically minded, but furthering my education in Sienese painting not a jot. I could have done with this book then.
For Simone Martini is one of the key figures discussed in this excellent new study, an early Sienese master along with the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. The book’s subtitle is ‘The Art of a City Republic (1278-1477)’ and the text analyses the relationship between politics and art, and the new urban realism which came out of it. ‘No other art,’ writes Hyman, ‘has engaged so imaginatively with the experience of moving about in one’s own city.’ Sienese painting is distinguished by a sense of spatial experimentation (the architecture lovingly and accurately depicted), by a warm intensity of colour and by a delight in narrative.
Many of the religious pictures here discussed are depictions of the Virgin, for the city maintained a special relationship with the Madonna, and elevated her worship to a cult. (Apparently, at least half of all commissioned Sienese paintings were of her.) The first masterpiece to be examined is by Duccio (c. 1255-1319), his great polyptych for the high altar of the cathedral — the Maestà, or ‘Virgin and Christ Child Enthroned in Majesty with Angels and Saints’. In this beautiful panel painting, Duccio manipulates the medium of egg tempera with great delicacy, in rhythmic stipplings and hatchings, building up to gold leaf for the haloes. The predominant influence is still Byzantine, evident in the emphasis on decorative pattern-making, but there is a new naturalism afoot.
Simone Martini (c. 1284-1344) merits a chapter to himself, Hyman asserting that of all early Italian painters it is Simone who has ‘the widest emotional and stylistic range’. Certainly he managed to synthesise Duccio’s Byzantinism, fashionable French High Gothic and Giotto’s Latinising influence into a coherent and individual language. Pietro Lorenzetti would have known Simone from when they worked together on the Maestà in Duccio’s team of assistants. He pursued a style more sculptural than Simone, and given to tragic intensity. However, it was left to his younger brother, Ambrogio, to produce what Hyman calls ‘in many ways the defining achievement of Sienese painting’ — the vast fresco known as ‘The Well-Governed City’. This allegory of good and bad government comes at the centre of the book, and is at the heart of Hyman’s thesis. Here are all the defining features of Sienese art — and particularly the inventive integration of figure and architecture, and figure and landscape — put to the service of the state.
The development of Sienese art is tracked through the wondrous revelations of Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo up until Francesco di Giorgio’s bronze bas relief ‘Lamentation’ of 1476. It is a lucidly written but dense book, five years in the making and the fruit of more than 20 years’ thought. The result is not a light read but a demanding one, a text packed with information clearly presented. My only complaint is that there is perhaps too much quotation of other sources, as if the author doubts his own credentials and thus needs to call on higher authorities. He shouldn’t. Timothy Hyman is, of course, a distinguished painter as well as a writer, and each of his activities feeds and refreshes the other. His book should become required reading for anyone visiting the city.