The art of the Italian brothers Pietro (active 1306-1348?) and Ambrogio (1319-1348?) Lorenzetti emerged from the middle-class world of late medieval Siena and was one of the varied manifestations of Tuscan Gothic painting.
There is little documentary evidence for either Pietro or Ambrogio Lorenzetti, but their fraternal relationship is proved by an inscription transcribed from frescoes of 1335 (now lost) for a hospital in Siena. This sole record of collaboration would indicate that in spite of stylistic connections between them their careers unfolded separately, a conclusion borne out by the distinctiveness of their work.
Pietro seems to have been the elder, for there is documentary mention of him as early as 1306. His first known work is the Madonna and Saints altarpiece (signed and documented 1320; Arezzo). The format and facial types derive from Duccio, certainly Pietro's first master. An interest in space observable in the Annunciation above the Madonna and Child continues the tradition of Duccio's Maestà. In the taut interaction of the Madonna and Child, conveyed by the tension of drapery, glance, and gesture, another source of Pietro's art is discerned—the sculpture of Giovanni Pisano.
That Ambrogio's earliest known work, the Madonna and Child (dated 1319; Vico l'Abate), was painted during a sojourn in Florence (ca. 1319-1321) underscores his role as an intermediary between Sienese and Florentine styles. The clear geometry of the figures and throne and the blunt confrontation of image and observer reveal that Ambrogio had learned the lesson of Florentine monumentality and austerity. Again in 1327, when he was admitted as a painter to the Florentine guild of physicians and apothecaries, and in 1332 there is proof of Ambrogio's presence in Florence.
Two works of the 1320s—Ambrogio's frescoes for the Chapter House of S. Francesco, Siena (ca. 1326), and the predella of Pietro's Carmelite altarpiece (signed and dated 1329; Siena)—indicate the emergence of both men as narrative painters. Ambrogio's Franciscan scenes show a major concern for the depiction of space with architectural settings and for the psychological differentiation of characters, while Pietro's scenes from the history of the Carmelite order (below the main panel of the Madonna and Saints) emphasize the decorative effects of interwoven color and pattern.
Also from the 1320s are frescoes in the south transept of the Lower Church of S. Francesco, Assisi, by Pietro and his shop. In these Passion scenes Pietro achieved a masterful synthesis of drama and decoration, influenced by Giotto's art at Sta Croce, Florence. The Deposition and Entombment, with their interlocked silhouettes of mourners hovering around the racked body of Christ, are religious tableaux of immeasurable pathos.
Ambrogio's fully mature art is first encountered in the Maestà (Madonna in Majesty) altarpiece at Massa Marittima (ca. 1330). By emphasizing the dramatic involvement of the Madonna and Child with the ranks of saints and angels, Ambrogio endowed an abstract theme with a new warmth. The figures are ornamented with lavishly tooled gold, but the effect of the work is not stylish, as in Simone Martini's elegant Maestà fresco in Siena. Three beguiling Virtues seated on the steps of the throne foreshadow the allegorical complexity and freshness of invention in Ambrogio's frescoes for the Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena (signed and documented 1338-1339), the crowning work of his career.
Ambrogio set forth on the walls of the Council Chamber the most comprehensive program of secular art of the Middle Ages, a "pictorial Summa of government" (Rowley, 1958). The allegories of good and bad government incorporate a vast range of imagery drawn from medieval scholastic and antique sources. As evidence of the results of just or oppressive rule, panoramas of the city and country depict conditions of joyous prosperity or desperate decay. Here Ambrogio's models were his own town and townsmen of Siena and the fields, farms, and peasants of the rolling Tuscan countryside. The depictions of houses, shops, costumes, animals, and landscape provide both a splendid mural decoration and a document of late medieval Italian life. The tiny panels Townscape and Landscape (Siena) are probably contemporary with the Sala della Pace frescoes and are of importance as the first examples since antiquity of the depiction of places for their own sake, that is, not as background to religious or secular themes.
The last known works by the Lorenzetti brothers are three signed and dated altarpieces: the Nativity of the Virgin, by Pietro (1342; Siena); the Presentation in the Temple, by Ambrogio (1342; Florence); and the Annunciation, by Ambrogio (1344; Siena). Pietro used as the setting for the Nativity the bedroom, antechamber, courtyard, and familiar domestic objects of a middle-class Sienese house. For the first time in Christian art a religious subject was given a specifically secular atmosphere. But at the same time Pietro made of his altarpiece a sumptuous surface of color and pattern.
Ambrogio infused the ritual of the Presentation with human feeling in the motherly figure of Mary and the swaddled Infant sucking his thumb in unconcerned innocence. A few years earlier the painter had captured a mood of maternal tenderness and strength on a more intimate scale in the Madonna del Latte (Siena). The temple setting for the Presentation, in the guise of a medieval church interior, provided Ambrogio with the occasion to exploit to the fullest his interest in space defined by architecture. The illusion achieved by the use of an axial perspective system foreshadowed the "demonstrations" of space construction that became a primary concern of the Renaissance artist-theorists of the next century.
As there is no further documentary notice of Pietro after 1344 or of Ambrogio after 1347, when he addressed the Council of Siena, it is assumed that the two brothers perished in the plague of 1348, which decimated the population of Tuscany and enfeebled the next generation of creative talent.
George Rowley, Ambrogio Lorenzetti (2 vols., 1958), an individualistic and debated interpretation, is filled with acute analyses of style and a brilliant iconographical dissection of the Sala della Pace frescoes. E. T. DeWald, Pietro Lorenzetti (1930), contains sound stylistic analyses, although some conclusions have been revised by more recent critics. The article on the Lorenzetti brothers by Luisa Becherucci in the Encyclopedia of World Art, vol. 9 (1964), is particularly useful for documentation and as a review of critical opinion. John White, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250-1400 (1966), is a masterful survey of late medieval Italian art with penetrating critical essays on individual artists. Evelyn Sandberg Vavalà's Uffizi Studies (1948) and Sienese Studies (1953) present the history of Florentine and Sienese painting based on a close formal analysis of paintings in the principal galleries of the two cities. Ferdinand Schevill, Siena: The Story of a Mediaeval Commune (1909), is old but still useful.