Monday, September 10, 2007
Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (c 1305-c 1348)
Sienese painters. The time of their birth and death is not known. Their dated works extend over a period of thirty years, from 1316 to 1348. Pietro was the elder. He was the pupil of Simone di Martino, some of whose formulae he has preserved faithfully; but he was profoundly influenced by Giotto. He introduced the dramatic into the Sienese school. Unfortunately he could not control his wonderful feeling for the lifelike and in the end he sometimes failed to distinguish history from the passing events of everyday life. His first known work is the History of St. Humilitas, a religious of Vallombrosa (d. 1310). The picture dated 1316 at the Academy of Florence bears the impress of the liveliest sense of reality. It abounds in small, but often delightful genre scenes. In his Assisi frescoes, where he continued Giotto's Life of Jesus, this realism strangely loses tone. In the Cenacle, for example, Pietro devotes an entire piece to a kitchen interior where lads wash the dishes while a dog licks the plates. This lack of dignity is perhaps mere familiarity coupled with good humour. Fondness for this sort of picture is in part the cause of our liking for the creations of the Dutch school; it cannot even be said that details of this kind may not be impressive as is seen in Veronese's Marriage at Cana. But Pietro, like most of the artists of the Middle Ages, is too lacking in style and in art. Or rather he has only an intermittent sense of them. Some of his pieces at least show of what he was capable; such as the admirable painting at Assisi, which represents the Blessed Virgin in half-life size between St. John and St. Louis, and in which the fresco work attains the beauty of enamelling and of the goldsmith's art, while the countenance of the Virgin, tearfully regarding the Divine Child, expresses most beautifully maternal anguish, reminding us of the darkouoen gelasasa of Homer. In presence of such a canvas it is impossible not to deplore the frivolity of a master who sacrificed his lofty plastic faculties and gift of moral expression to the painting of so many trivial realities and insignificant emotions.
Though still more gifted than his brother, Ambrogio also wasted his talents, but owing to a different error, viz., a craze for the allegoric and didactic. He was however one of the most delicately poetic minds of his generation, and no one at Florence could rival the serious and dreamy beauty of his female faces, as in the St. Dorothy of the Academy of Siena (1326), in which seems to be revived the soul of the adorable saints of Simone di Martino. There is not in the art of the fourteenth century a more impressive canvas than that of the Academy of Florence in which St. Nicholas of Bari, on the shore of a cliff-bordered sea, contemplates the sunset (1332). He excelled in lyric subjects but he attempted painting in a grand philosophical manner. His most important work is that at the Palazzo della Signoria of Siena, the allegory of Good and Evil Government (1338-40). The taste of the Middle Ages for these moralities and psychomachies is well-known. There is hardly a French cathedral in which we do not find sculptured representations of the contest between vice and virtue, allegories of the virtues, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, the figures of the Church and the Synagogue. Already Giotto had painted at Assisi the allegories of the Franciscan virtues, and Petrarch was soon to compose his Triumphs of Love, Glory, Time, and Eternity.
For the past sixty years the Republic of Siena had been at the summit of its fortunes. It was desirous of immortalizing the memory of its greatness. From this point of view the frescoes of Ambrogio are of great interest; this is perhaps the first example of lay painting and of art used to represent ideas and life, without any religious conception. It was a course in Aristotelean philosophy and at the same time a hymn to the city. The composition is developed on three walls, forming a sort of triptych. The middle fresco displays under a dogmatic form the ideal of democracy. The Virtues which direct the State are seated on a platform; this is the tribunal or the legislative assembly. The most famous of these figures is that of Peace, which, reclining on her throne in magnificent drapery and resting on her arms, is certainly imitated from an antique medal or statue (such imitations are not rare in the thirteenth century: cf. the sculptures of Capua, the work of Giovanni Pisano, and some statues at Reims). But the other figures are little more than abstractions and can be identified only with the adventitious aid of a multitude of inscriptions, devices, and phylacteries.
On the other two walls are similarly developed the effects of good or evil social hygiene. After the theory follows the application. The left wall (Evil Government) is unfortunately almost ruined. But the opposite one, which is more intelligible, suffices to convey an idea of the painter's method. The length of the painting is divided into two halves, one of which shows the city and the other the country. And in each of these parts is a host of episodes, a great collection of little pictures of manners, which analyse in a thousand ways the condition of a happy society. The general idea is resolved into a multitude of anecdotes. We see dances, banquets, children at school, weddings, some peasants leading their asses to market while others are tilling the ground; in the distance is a port whence vessels are sailing away. All these various scenes are most entertaining and furnish much information about Sienese life and customs in the Middle Ages. But one is lost in the complexity of this chronicle and the confusion of this journal. The result is an extremely curious work, though one almost devoid of artistic value.
To sum up, Ambrogio remains one of the most interesting minds of his time by the very variety of his contradictory talents and the turn of mind at once idealistic and realistic which he displayed, without, unfortunately, succeeding in bringing them into unity. As a whole the work of the Lorenzetti (starting from very different points of view) consists in an attempt to reconcile art with observation and familiar reality. Pietro's aim is to move, Ambrogio's rather to instruct. The former is a dramatist, the latter a moralist. Both tend equally to genre painting. Unfortunately fresco, especially in their day, was the mode of expression least suited to this. They required the miniature, or German engraving, or the small familiar picture of the Flemish or the Dutch. Their talent remained isolated and their premature attempt was doomed to failure. In spite of everything they remain the most lifelike painters of their generation; and some fifteenth-century painters, such as Sassetta or Sano di Pietro, owe them much in this respect. Besides, Ambrogio, was the first who attempted in Italy philosophic painting and the picturesque expression of general ideas. His Sermons in pictures have not been lost. He created a tradition to which we owe two of the most important works of the fourteenth century, the anonymous frescoes of the Anchorites and of the Triumph of Death. at the Campo Santo of Pisa and those of the Militant and the Teaching Church in the Spanish chapel. In fact it is from these that the finest conceptions of the Renaissance are derived, and the honour of having indirectly inspired Raphael with the Camera della Segnatura cannot be disputed with Ambrogio Loienzetti. It is a glory which the greatest artists may well envy him. [Adapted from Catholic
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