Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Simone Martini comes to Liverpool

No, this is not about the signing of an Italian striker by one of our local football teams, but some musings about the city where I was born, some years ago. It was so long ago that there was only one flavour of potato crisps, so it didn’t need a name and only got one after the cheese and onion invasion. The ivy-clad towers of my natal manor were destroyed by the Luftwaffe in WW II, but fortunately I was not in it at the time.
(If I don’t seem to write much about the interests declared in my profile, it’s not that they’re not interesting; it’s just that I’ve got other interests, such as finding things I didn’t realise I was interested in. But tonight I'm sticking to the songsheet.)
Liverpool will be the European city of Culture for 2008. The city’s pride is the Walker (not the guy who makes the potato crisps) Art Gallery, one of whose most treasured exhibits is Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple.
As a child, Christ is said to have strayed from his parents during a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem and stayed behind to talk with its learned scholars. The picture is one of a naughty kid getting an earful from his parents. His father, Joseph, head on one side, looks puzzled; while his mother, Mary, hands raised, is laying down the law. Her words on finding him are written in Latin on the book she holds: 'Son, why have you dealt with us like this?'
Martini signed the picture along the bottom edge of the frame with the words (also in Latin) 'Simone of Siena painted me in the year of Our Lord 1342'. He was very successful in impressing the papal court with his talents, and when the popes, fearing the political upheavals in Italy, moved their court to Avignon in southern France for much of the 14th century, Martini went with them and spent the rest of his life there. This picture was painted in Avignon. From its detail and lavish use of colour, especially the more expensive golds and blues, it is generally believed that the picture was commissioned by a high ranking member of the papal court, possibly even the pope himself.
That Martini’s talent, like that of his fellow Sienese mentor, Duccio di Buoninsegna, has long lain in the shadow of Florentine painters like Giotto has as much to do with writers as painters. With Florence’s artists being trumpeted by writers of the stature of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, Martini and Duccio were always going to be outsiders in the PR stakes. (For Florence and Siena you could substitute Manchester and Liverpool.)
But the legacy of Duccio, Martini and Giotto and their contemporaries was an essential launch pad for the quiet revolution that was the Italian Renaissance; and I find I take a totally unjustified pride in the fact that one plank of that pad has ended up in my home town, where anyone can pop in and admire a 700-year-old work of art.
(That’s two for the price of one: Liverpool and 14th century Italian painting.)

Everton play their Cup replay against Chelsea tonight. We who are about to die salute you.

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