The painting represents the archangel Gabriel, who announces the birth of Jesus to the Virgin Mary. It clearly presupposes a complementary image of the Virgin Annunciate in a separate panel, which in fact has always been recognized in the Virgin Annunciate now in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Simone Martini, Virgin of the Annunciation, c. 1330, tempera on panel, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. © The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg/Vladimir Terebinen, Leonard Kheifets, Yuri Molodkovets. The latter, identical to the Washington panel in format and in its ornamental punched decoration, comes from the Roman collection of Count Gregory Stroganoff (1829–1910) and entered the Hermitage after the collector’s death. The two halves of the diptych probably were separated in the nineteenth century, given that the very similar state of conservation of the two panels suggests a similar fate: the paint surface of both was ruined by drastic overcleaning, probably at the time of their separation in the mid-nineteenth century, when they appeared on the Italian art market.
In 1901, when it was still in the Stroganoff collection in Rome, Giovanni Bernardini recognized the Virgin Annunciate now in Russia, albeit with some uncertainty, as an autograph work by Simone Martini. It was almost unanimously recognized as a work by the Sienese master after its display at Mostra dell’antica arte senese in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena in 1904. Lionello Venturi then identified the image of the Angel of the Annunciation as the companion panel of the former Stroganoff Virgin Annunciate in 1935. Venturi’s opinion was confirmed in manuscript opinions by Adolfo Venturi, F. Mason Perkins (both without date), Giuseppe Fiocco, and Wilhelm Suida (both dated 1938). The first catalog of the National Gallery of Art (1941) also accepted the attribution to Simone Martini, citing a written expertise by Roberto Longhi, who confirmed Simone’s authorship, and the opinion of Bernard Berenson(June 26, 1865–October 6, 1959)
Art historian and connoisseur. Son of a Lithuanian timber merchant who emigrated to the United States with his family in 1875, he was educated at the Latin School, Boston, and at Harvard University, where he studied Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and German. In an unsuccessful application for a traveling fellowship to Europe, he wrote, ‘Art prevails in this programme because it is there that I feel myself weakest. One can study literature here . . . but art not at all.’ On his subsequent visit to Europe in 1885, financed by friends, his rapid visual self-education led to the decision to settle in Italy and to devote his life to the study of Italian art.
—William Mostyn-Owen, Grove Art © Oxford University Press, who rejected the attribution. In the subsequent literature opinions were divided: numerous publications accepted the attribution to Simone, even if many scholars preferred to speak of a product of the artist’s shop or at any rate showed some uncertainty about its autograph status. Some even proposed alternative names for its artist.
Rarely, however, has the problem of the diptych now divided between St. Petersburg and Washington been addressed in any systematic or analytic fashion. Art historians have mainly limited themselves to brief and categorical statements, without carefully weighing the evidence. In my view, it is precisely this superficial examination of the two panels, combined with the difficulties of evaluating them because of the marked abrasionA gradual loss of material on the surface. It can be caused by rubbing, wearing, or scraping against itself or another material. It may be a deteriorative process that occurs over time as a result of weathering or handling or it may be due to a deliberate attempt to smooth the material. of their paint surfaces, which accounts for the uncertainties in their attribution and date.
Almost all those who have cited the small panel in the Gallery and its companion, irrespective of their opinion regarding the attribution of the work, have agreed in assigning the two paintings to the years of Simone’s residence in Avignon. But its Avignonese origin has been asserted rather than proved, as if the profusion of gold, elaborate punched ornamental decoration, and refined elegance of poses were in themselves sufficient evidence that the two paintings belonged to the final phase in the art of Simone Martini—that is, to the period of his maximum exposure to the tendencies of the transalpine GothicTerm used to denote, since the 15th century, the architecture and, from the 19th century onward, all the visual arts of Europe during a period extending by convention from about 1120 to c. 1400 in central Italy, and until the late 15th century and even well into the 16th century in northern Europe and the Iberian Peninsula. The early gothic style overlapped chronologically with Romanesque and flourished after the onset of Renaissance art in Italy and elsewhere. The term gothic is applied to western European painting of the 13th century to the early 15th century. Unlike gothic architecture, it is distinguished more by developments in style and function than in technique, and even in these areas there is considerable national and regional diversity. The applicability of the term to Italian painting is debated, as is its usefulness in accounting for developments in Netherlandish painting from the early 15th century. Contact with Byzantine art was close in the early 13th century, but after c. 1250 survived principally in the Holy Roman Empire and Italy.
—Peter Kidson, Grove Art © Oxford University Press in such a flourishing cultural center as Avignon was at the time. Sometimes, however, pertinent observations apparently contradicting such an interpretation have been made. Fern Rusk Shapley (1966), for example, concluded her comment on the Gallery's painting by declaring, “The style is, in any case, very close to that of Simone’s Annunciation of 1333, in the Uffizi”; and Andrew Martindale (1988), one of the few scholars to dedicate a thorough analysis to the style and form of the panels that concern us here, observed that the immensely elegant and elongated figure of Mary had more in common with the Virgin of the San Ansano altar (that is, the Annunciation in the Uffizi, Florence) than with that of the Holy Family (Christ Discovered in the Temple, dated 1342) in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, and that “the images [of the St. Petersburg-Washington diptych] . . . lack the robustness which spans the differences even between the Avignon frescoes, the Ambrosiana Virgil and the Liverpool Holy Family.” Some objective data should also be taken into account: for example, as Brigitte Klesse (1967) pointed out, the pattern of the brocaded robe of the angel in the panel in the Gallery recurs in that of the corresponding figure in the Uffizi Annunciation. Also, the punches used in the diptych divided between St. Petersburg and Washington frequently recur in the Annunciation now in Florence and in even earlier works, paintings that date to Simone’s period in Orvieto, for example, but are seldom found in works that date to his Avignon period.
To these observations, which prompt a reconsideration of the usual dating of the diptych, we can add others that similarly suggest that the two panels are indeed earlier than usually claimed. Let us first consider the St. Petersburg panel of the Virgin Annunciate. Of course, the elimination of the Virgin’s throne especially would have been prompted by the need to press the figure of Mary, like the angel she confronts, into the foreground and bring her as close as possible to the spectator. But the swiveled pose of her body clearly echoes that of the Madonna of the Annunciation in the Uffizi (apparently the model that other Sienese paintings, such as the Virgin Annunciate formerly in the Stoclet collection, imitate) and not that of the small panel in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten in Antwerp. The same may be said of the motif of the book held half-open by Mary, her finger inserted between its pages as an improvised bookmark, and of the proportions of the Virgin herself. Her figure is characterized by the pronounced elongation of the bust and a smooth and placid contour formed of a succession of long, slightly crescent lines, carefully avoiding any disturbing agitation of the hem of her dress. A restless jagged cadence, by contrast, is a typical aspect of the panels now divided among the museums in Antwerp, Berlin, and Paris; of the illuminated frontispiece of the Virgil codex in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana; and of Christ Discovered in the Temple, a panel signed and dated 1342, in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.
Rather similar observations can be made about the Washington panel of the archangel Gabriel. In particular, the emphasis placed on the magnificent gold embroidered robe, as on the proud pose of the heavenly messenger, kneeling but only slightly bending forward as he proffers the olive branch with the tips of his fingers to the Virgin, underlines the resemblance of the image to its counterpart in the Uffizi. The face, with its mysterious expression accentuated by delicate slit eyes that create the impression that the archangel is looking furtively and yet probingly at Mary, and with his firmly clenched lips, may recall the face of the child Jesus in the Liverpool panel; however, the fluid cadence of the draperies, their large and sweeping folds animated only by the fluttering hem, seem to me to betray rather different intentions than those that inspired the artist during his period in Avignon. In the Angel of the Annunciation in Antwerp, for example, the artist no longer seeks to dazzle the spectator with the glitter of the exotic oriental silk brocade worn by Gabriel but prefers instead to play with the matching of delicate tones of pink and pale purple, highlighting the mantle with the archaic medium of chrysography, which articulates the folds and underlines the forms more distinctly than the transparent lacquers painted on gold. These aspects, together with the extraordinary elegance of the drawing, seem to me to confirm that the Gallery panel and its companion panel in St. Petersburg (which, as far as it is possible to judge from their existing state, were painted by the same hand) belong to the catalog of Simone’s autograph works, though to a phase preceding his journey to Avignon. That phase can be placed between the works executed in the early 1320s for Orvieto and the dated Uffizi Annunciation of 1333.
Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)
March 21, 2016