In The Towers of Tuscany, my novel about a 14th Century woman painter, the main character, Sofia Carelli, visits the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena and admires two amazing frescoes by medieval artist Simone Martini.
On a trip to Italy in 2011, I also viewed these same frescoes, which is where the inspiration for including them in the novel came from. What fascinated me was the idea of my Sofia viewing the frescoes just a few years after they were created. Just imagine how lustrous and beautiful the colours would have been. We are so accustomed to seeing these frescoes in all their ancient, faded glory. I love to imagine the impact they must have had when they were still just about brand new.
The Palazzo Pubblico on the Piazza Il Campo in Siena looks pretty much the same as it did back in the 14th Century. It was begun in 1297 and completed in the first half of the 14th Century, just a few decades before the action in “The Towers of Tuscany.” The Palazzo Pubblico was the seat of municipal power in Siena. The Council of Nine and the Podesta (the chief magistrate) were housed here.
The walls of almost every room in the Palazzo Pubblico are covered in frescoes–many from the 14th Century. A distinguishing feature of these frescoes is that they were commissioned by the Council of Nine, not the Church. During this period, most of the art depicted religious themes. However, several of the frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico depict secular themes. It is important to the plot of the novel and Sofia’s development as a painter that she views these secular-themed frescoes.
In this blog, I’m focusing only on the amazing Simone Martini frescoes in the Sala del Mappamondo (the Great Council Hall) on the main floor of the Palazzo Pubblico. In another post, I’ll talk about the very famous (and very important) Lorenzetti frescoes in the nearby council chambers that Sofia will also see.
One of Martini’s frescoes is religious; the other is secular.
The east wall of the Great Council Hall is completely covered by Simone Martini’s religious fresco of the Maestà, which he painted in 1325. The Maestà shows the Madonna with Child enthroned and flanked on either side by a glittering array of angels and saints. Here’s a picture of the eastern half of the hall with the elaborately frescoed arches and the Maestà fresco at the far end.
Martini’s Maestà fresco is notable because, according to Diana Norman in “Painting in Late Medieval and Renaissance Siena“, it is an adaptation of a common religious subject for a secular setting. The painting includes the usual saints flanking the Virgin and Child seated on a throne, but the piece has a much more worldly feel than other Maestàs of the period, particularly the Maestà by Duccio that hung in Siena’s cathedral and that Sofia views in another chapter of the novel.
As Norman says, the “impression given by [Martini’s Maestà] is of an intricately worked textile.” (p. 91) The picture to the right cannot do justice to the shimmering beauty of the piece even now, almost 800 years after it was painted.
At the other end of the large hall, two more frescoes are attributed to Simone Martini. One depicts the famous solider Guidoriccio da Fogliana on his prancing horse with two fortified towns in the background, and the other, smaller fresco, depicts Guidoriccio accepting the surrender of the fortress of Montemassi in 1328. Until 1981, a large portion of this second fresco was hidden under layers of whitewash.
There is quite a bit of controversy surrounding these two frescoes. Traditionally, the fresco of Guidoriccio on his prancing horse (see below) was attributed to Simone Martini. It’s a very famous image, used on posters all over Siena. In fact, in my room at the Palazzo Masi in Siena (highly recommended by the way), a poster of this fresco hung over my bed.
When the fresco of Guidoriccio accepting the surrender of Montemassi was uncovered in 1981, a whole new can of art worms was unleashed. The attribution of the above fresco of Guidoriccio on his horse to Simone Martini was called into question. Some experts believed it was painted later than the fresco of the surrender. Diana Norman’s excellent book summarizes the controversy. I’m not an art historian and I’m not going to take sides. However, for the purposes of “The Towers of Tuscany,” I chose to believe that the “surrender” fresco was painted by Martini, and that the fresco above of Guidoriccio on his horse had not yet been painted. Call it literary license!
Here is a picture of the Martini fresco of the surrender that Sofia admires. Notice the scrape marks. They were made by a circular map of the world that was mounted over the fresco in later years.
Nowadays the two 14th Century frescoes appear on the same wall as two paintings from the 16th Century, which is a shame because the styles clash. Personally, I very much prefer the flat, stylized work of Martini to the later works.
From Chapter Nine of “The Towers of Tuscany,” here is Sofia viewing the frescoes:
Sofia nodded absently while continuing to peer at the fresco. Guidoriccio’s gown was rendered particularly well and the expression on the face of the vanquished Count Aldobrandeschi captured just the right combination of haughtiness and defeat. One of Guidoriccio’s arms was raised in what appeared to be an expression of conciliation, but at the same time Sofia noticed the other hand resting lightly on the hilt of his sword. The famous general left no doubt where the power lay. The figures were real people, not saints or angels. They had flaws and wore the clothes she saw every day in the streets.
She looked again at Martini’s Maestà at the opposite end of the huge room. His depiction of the Holy Mother flanked by hosts of saints and angels captured the very essence of heaven. The figures seemed to flicker and float in the candlelight. They were real and yet not real. Sofia turned back to the fresco of Guidoriccio. Martini’s colors and lines were bold and vigorous. Sofia closed her eyes and saw her home city of San Gimignano as she had many times viewed it with her father on walks outside the city walls. Could she ever dream of painting it? Smiling, she opened her eyes and shook her head. The notion was absurd. Who would commission it? And besides, she hoped never to see the towers of San Gimignano again.
One of the themes of “The Towers of Tuscany” is the development during the mid-14th Century of secular painting. As a painter, Sofia spends quite a bit of time struggling to render the proportions of buildings at a time when painters were just beginning to experiment with perspective. Within another few decades, perspective will be mastered. I prefer these flat early works with towers the same height as the figures. There is something almost mystical about towns and fortresses that appear to float atop stylized rocks and hills.
No visit to the beautiful town of Siena is complete without a visit to the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena to view the Martini frescoes and the even more famous frescoes by Lorenzetti.
Sources for Pictures
View of the Sala de Mappamundo: http://www.sightswithin.com/Simone.Martini/La_Madonna_in_maesta/Interior_View.jpg
View of the Maesta by Simone Martini: http://www.sightswithin.com/Simone.Martini/La_Madonna_in_maesta.jpg
Submission of a Castle fresco by Simone Martini: http://www.ilgiunco.net/2010/06/16/il-castello-di-giuncarico-e-il-suo-affresco/
View of Guidoriccio on his horse: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Simone_Martini_015.jpg
View of the wall containing the two Martini frescoes and two paintings from the 16th Century: http://www.sightswithin.com/Simone.Martini/Guidoriccio_da_Fogliano_all%27assedio_di_Montemassi.jpg
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