Pietro Lorenzetti (or Pietro Laurati; c. 1280 – 1348) was an Italian painter, active between approximately 1306 and 1345. Together with his younger brother, the painter Ambrogio Lorenzetti, he helped introduce naturalism into Sienese art. In their artistry and experiments with three-dimensional and spatial arrangements, the two brothers foreshadowed the art of the Renaissance.
There is little documentation on the life of Pietro Lorenzetti. Although he was born and died in Siena, the dates of his life are not precise. He is believed to have died in 1348, probably from the Black Death that swept through the area. The chronology of his works is also in much debate. Pietro Lorenzetti was responsible for works in Assisi, Florence, Pistoia, and Cortona, as well as Siena. His influences included Duccio, who he may have worked with in his workshop possibly alongside Simone Martini. Giotto's influence is also evident, as is that of Giovanni Pisano and his sculpture work. He collaborated with his younger brother Ambrogio on a now lost fresco, which decorated the façade of the Ospedale della Scala in Siena.
Many of his religious works are in churches in Siena, Arezzo, and Assisi. His last documented work is the Nativity of the Virgin (c. 1335–1342), now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. Although Lorenzetti's integration of frame and painted architecture in this work is usually discussed as a unique phenomenon, it is evident in the frescoes of Assisi some decades earlier. One probable conclusion can be made that he did not read Latin as there was documentation of a translator being paid in association with his work on The Birth of the Virgin.
His masterwork is a fresco decoration of the lower church of Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi, where he painted a series of large scenes depicting Crucifixion, Deposition from the Cross, and Entombment. In these works, massed figures display emotional interactions, unlike many prior depictions which appear to be iconic agglomerations, as if independent figures had been glued on to a surface, with no compelling relationship to one another. The narrative influence of Giotto's frescoes in the Bardi and Peruzzi Chapels in Santa Croce (Florence) and the Arena Chapel (Padua) can be seen in these and other works of the lower church. The Lorenzetti brothers and their contemporary competitor from Florence, Giotto, but also his followers Bernardo Daddi and Maso di Banco, seeded the Italian pictorial revolution that extracted figures from the gilded ether of Byzantine iconography into pictorial worlds of towns, land, and air. Sienese iconography, generally more mystical and fantastic than that of the more naturalistic Florentines, sometimes resembles a modern surrealist landscape.
The Arezzo Polyptych, also referred to as the Aretine Polyptych, is an altarpiece that was commissioned by the bishop Guido Tarlati, for the Santa Maria della Pieve, Arezzo. This three-story tempera on panel altarpiece is resplendent in gold groundwork.
The altarpiece is significant in that it is the first dated work of Pietro Lorenzetti, and one of only four paintings with verifiable documentation including the Carmelite Altarpiece, the Uffizi Madonna, and the Birth of the Virgin. According to Giovanni Freni, “The dating of the altarpiece, established with certainty as c. 1320-4, has allowed scholars to identify with precision a specific stage of the painter's activity and style."
Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi
One of Pietro Lorenzetti's most ambitious and largest works was the fresco cycle of the Passion of Christ in the left transept of the Lower Church of San Francesco in Assisi. Contained within the Lower Church are seventeen very well preserved frescoes which represent one of the crowning achievements of Pietro Lorenzetti's early career. In them he built upon the influences of “Giotto's monumentality, the impulse of Giovanni Pisano, thirteenth century Expressionism...and the teachings of Duccio.” The conditions for the execution of the frescoes would have been difficult as very little natural light would be available and the lower church would be near darkness. The exact time line of the frescoes is in question; some scholars believed the cycle was painted in sections over several years as the style had some similarities to Lorenzetti's Carmelite Altarpiece. The reasons are varied, from painting only in the dry season to the bloody skirmishes in the area at the time. The more recent technical and stylistic evidence presented by Maginnis poses strong arguments that Lorenzetti's Passion Cycle was completed in one campaign between the years 1316 or 1317 and 1319.
Believed to be one of his earliest works—begun as early as 1310—is the Madonna and Child with Saint Francis and John the Baptist, not in the Lower Church but in the chapel of Saint John the Baptist. According to Maginnis the “finest and most complete realization of the ambition to conjoin real and painted space was left to Pietro Lorenzetti, working in the left transept. There, his well-known fictive altar-piece is, in reality, much more.”
Lorenzetti's fresco cycle begins with The Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the Washing of the Feet, the Capture of Christ, the Flagellation and the Way to Calvary.
These first six scenes were painted beginning at the top of the vaulted roof and working to the bottom, to avoid any possible dripping from above onto a freshly painted scene.
In the Last Supper with the addition of the kitchen scene there are innovations deserving high merit: the cat, the dog, and the pile of plates cast definite shadows, the angle of which is determined by the relation of those objects to the fire.
The Crucifixion after them, being the largest of the frescoes but also heavily damaged, is still considered one of Lorenzetti's great paintings.
Two scenes on the end wall, the Deposition from the Cross and the Deposition in the Tomb, show the mourners removing Christ lovingly from the cross then placing his lifeless limp body in the tomb with slow measured movements; this demonstrates Lorenzetti's technical ability and maturity, resembling Giotto's use of naturalistic human emotions.
The Suicide of Judas is painted on the facing wall, at the corner between the entrance to the transept at the top of the stairs, where it is painted as to appear part of the architecture of the transept. This is the only fresco with an inscription (scariotas).
In front of the Crucifixion is the Stigmata of Saint Francis. The portrayal of the life of Saint Francis appears in the nave of the church, suggesting a parallel between the life of Christ and that of Saint Francis. Lorenzetti carries the idea further by placing Saint Francis next to the Capture of Christ replacing Agony of Garden from the original Passion story with Saint Francis.
The upper scenes on the same wall and the final two stories of the Passion cycle, the Descent of Christ to Limbo and the Resurrection are horn shaped in a small difficult space. The two scenes represent examples of similar styles to the first six scenes, especially the face of Christ.
Madonna of the Sunsets below the Crucifixion in a painted frame is the Madonna and Child, Saint John the Evangelist, and Saint Francis. Mary has a unique gesture, holding her thumb up pointing back to Saint Francis, raising his hand to accept his calling.
The last image of Lozenzetti's Assisi frescoes, portraits of Saints Rufino, Catherine of Alexandria, Clare, and Margaret appear above a bench with an artistic illusion, appearing three-dimensional. The end of the bench casts a shadow following the form of the painted moldings. There is only one light source and the painted shadow appears to originate from that light source.
Birth of the Virgin
A triptych altarpiece, Birth of the Virgin was commissioned for the Siena Cathedral and completed in 1342 by Pietro Lorenzetti. This tempera on panel painting, like many Sienese paintings, celebrates the Virgin, the patron saint of Siena. Around this time, a majority of Sienese paintings honored the Madonna with depictions of her life. Scenes of the Nativity of Mary, or Birth of the Virgin, are no exception.
Birth of the Virgin was the third painting in a series completed for the Siena Cathedral, which started with Duccio di Buonisegna's Maestà and included Simone Martini's Annunciation. Duccio, Simone, and Pietro were all members of the Sienese School. Duccio's high altarpiece, the Maesta, was commissioned in 1308. Timothy Hyman says the Maesta was “part of the Commune's wider programme to promote and strengthen Siena's civic identity.” The central panel of the Maesta honors the Virgin through the depiction of The Virgin and Christ Enthroned in Majesty with Angels and Saints. As Hyman writes, if a viewer compares Duccio's Maesta with Pietro's the Birth of the Virgin, one can “...recognize Pietro's colour-world as startlingly different: dense, saturated, opaque, planar."
Simone Martini's altarpiece, the Annunciation, was completed in 1333 and displayed beside Duccio's Maesta. Again, the Virgin is glorified in Martini's altarpiece, which depicts the Annunciation, or the angel Gabriel's announcement to the Virgin Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus. As Hyman states when comparing Duccio's Maesta with Simone's Annunciation, "Simone's blue-mantled figure silhouetted against the gold was both an echo and a rupture; the still icon transformed into narrative, the hieratic divinity swept up into dramatic action."
While Duccio's Maesta and Simone's Annunciation were displayed behind the choir screen, Pietro's Birth of the Virgin was on view in the central part of the Siena Cathedral. In contrast to Duccio's regal depiction of the Virgin in the Maesta and Simone's Annunciation with a scene that appears supernatural, the Birth of the Virgin is notable for Pietro's representation of the Virgin in a corporeal setting. In this scene, a bath is being poured for the Virgin, midwives attend St. Anne who lounges on a plaid blanket-covered bed, and an expectant father awaits news of the birth. The figures are modeled and solid. Although the holy persons are signified with crowns of light, they appear otherwise terrestrial. If not for their crowns of light, and St. Anne's unnaturally large body, this painting could be interpreted as a genre painting depicting the everyday lives of ordinary people. If one compares this intimate household scene adorned with richly colored textiles to the gold groundwork that creates an otherworldly effect in Simone's Annunciation, one quickly notices that Pietro has created a more accessible Virgin.
Perhaps one of the most extraordinary qualities of Birth of the Virgin is Pietro's use of spatial illusion. It is likely Pietro was influenced by the work of his brother, Ambrogio Lorenzetti. As Keith Christiansen states, “...the key impetus to his experiments with centralized spatial projection was doubtless his collaboration with Ambrogio, with whom he shared workshop materials.” Pietro creates a seamless architectural world with the integration of the frame and picture plane. The vertical columns and bed frame running parallel to the picture plane create a planar composition. In addition, Pietro's rendering of the vaulted ceilings adds dimension to the rooms and encloses this intimate scene. Depth is further generated in the left panel of the triptych, as the viewer peers outside the waiting room to see a nearby building. As Hyman affirms, "[Birth of the Virgin] reads both as a triptych... and as a deep, unified space—the most convincing interior space of the entire fourteenth century." Pietro's innovative use of spatial illusion in Birth of the Virgin solidifies his place amongst the great masters of trecento Sienese art such as Duccio di Buonisegna, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini.
The Carmelite Altarpiece
The Carmelite altarpiece by Pietro Lorezetti was a polyptych commissioned for the Carmelite order monks in 1329. It consisted of a central panel depicting the Madonna and Child with St. Nicholas and Elijah. The side panels displayed St. Agnes, John the Baptist, Catherine, and Elisha. The predella below comprised a series of five narrative paintings. Instead of taking their subject from the Bible, these five paintings show events from the history of the Carmelite Order. A striking feature of the overall design of this altarpiece is the very wide central panel of the predella, which allowed the painter to depict the consignment of the Carmelite rule in the early thirteenth century in a particularly detailed manner. The significance of Elijah in the Carmelite altarpiece is that Elijah was held to be the founder of the Carmelite order. For the Carmelite monks Elijah is the most significant saint besides the Virgin. The Carmelite alterpiece marks a new phase in Pietro Lorenzetti's style, with its illusion of three-dimensional forms.
The last official documentation of the Carmelite altarpiece is a sales record of it being sold to England in 1818. It appeared to be lost for a number of years after that, but was found after a restoration of the Asano Madonna, which, when restored to its original state was found to be Lorenzetti's Carmelite altarpiece. Saint Elijah had been painted over and rendered as Saint Anthony for the Asano order. One telling feature that allowed for its confirmation as the original Carmelite altarpiece was the Carmelite's colors being used in the costumes of the painted figures. The panel is signed and dated on the step of the throne: PETRUS LAURENTII ME PINXIT ANNO DOMINI MCCCXXVIII.
Pietro Lorenzetti's Castiglione d’Orcia Madonna
Pietro Lorenzetti's Castiglione d’Orcia Madonna is considered to be his first known extant painting. The date is unknown, but its execution happened sometime pre-1300. Certain aspects of the composition are traditional: the Virgin's head is located along the vertical axis, which crosses her right eye, fixed upon the beholder. The same arrangement is found in Duccio's Rucellai Madonna. Traditional also are the corresponding tilts of the Virgin's and the Child's faces. The Child gazes up at his mother. The Virgin's head tilts toward her son, but her eyes are fixed upon the viewer. This attribute of a certain disconnect between the mother with child resembles some of Duccio's earlier Virgin and Child renderings such as his Stoclet Madonna and Child. However, Lorenzetti's Madonna displays a realism that veers from the influence of his first master Duccio. The Virgin's body composition responds to the weight of holding the child, whereas in previous depictions of the Virgin and child by Duccio the Virgin's physicality remains affected by the realistic influences of weight and composition. The type of secure holding that Lorenzetti depicts in this painting is unprecedented in a painting, but could have been found in previous sculptures of Virgin and Child.
In Lorenzetti's Madonna the figures offer a restrained, reflective mood. The Child's dress follows contemporary luxurious fashion. The Virgin's dress is traditional, a dark blue cloak bordered by a prominent band displaying a typical Byzantine gold striation pattern.
References and sources
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