National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Tour: Painting in Siena in the 14th and Early 15th Centuries

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Siena, where most of the works on this tour were painted, is dominated even today by its cathedral, a dazzling facade of dark and light stone. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the centerpiece of its interior was a gold and brilliantly colored monumental altarpiece—Duccio's Maestà, some panels of which are in the Gallery's collection. Both the fame of the Maestà, which drew large numbers of pilgrims to Siena, and Duccio's influence as a teacher had a long-lived impact on the style of Sienese art. While painters in nearby Florence adopted rounder, more realistic forms, most Sienese artists in the early fourteenth century continued to prefer Duccio's linear and decorative style, which used gold and strong color to create pattern and rhythm.

Probably among Duccio's students was Simone Martini, whose reputation led him to work for the French king of Naples and for the pope, then living in Avignon. Through Simone the brilliant colors and rich patterns of Sienese art met the graceful and lyrical figures of French manuscript painting, evolving to form the International Style. Its refined and courtly manner dominated the arts across Europe at the end of the Middle Ages. Simone's chief competitors in Siena were the brothers Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, whose influence can also be seen on this tour. Like Simone they were probably assistants in Duccio's workshop, but while Simone painted with refined elegance, the Lorenzetti were concerned with the definition of three-dimensional space, narrative detail, and the depiction of everyday life.

In the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, a greater emphasis on human experience and perceptions prompted artists of many kinds to begin "speaking in the vernacular." Poets in Sicily invented and perfected the sonnet, and Dante wrote the Divine Comedy—not in Latin but Italian. Also for the first time, sermons were given in native Italian dialects by members of influential new religious orders, particularly the Franciscans and Dominicans, who left the shelter of monasteries to preach in cities and towns. Religion focused increasingly on human and humane concerns. The simple virtues of the early Franciscans—who renounced worldly possessions and identified strongly with Christ and his suffering—helped to shift emphasis onto Christ's human nature and to demand of religious art a new and closer identification with people's experience. Artists responded by enhancing the sense of particular time and place with detailed settings familiar to their viewers, by expanding the range of gesture and emotion, and by embroidering their narratives with anecdotal details.


1204Constantinople sacked in the Fourth Crusade
1228Canonization of Saint Francis
1234Canonization of Saint Dominic
1252Florence mints the first florin gold coins
1259Kublai Khan becomes Mongol ruler in China
1273Thomas Aquinas completes Summa theologica
1291Mamluks retake last Christian kingdom in the Levant, ending period of the Crusades
1295Marco Polo returns after twenty years in China
1302Dante exiled, begins writing the Divine Comedy
1309Papal court moved to Avignon (the Babylonian captivity)
1318Death of Duccio
1337Death of Giotto
1341Petrarch honored as poet laureate in Rome
1344Death of Simone Martini
1348Black Death kills up to half of the population in many Italian cities
1353Boccaccio's Decameron
1377Pope Gregory XI returns papacy to Rome
1378–1417Popes in both Rome and Avignon (Great Schism)
1379Founding of the Medici bank in Florence
1419Brunelleschi designs dome for Florence cathedral

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