In Avignon, about the year 1330. On the blue screen of a summer sky, an enormous mass of walls and towers is prominent, through a network of scaffoldings. It is the Palace of the Popes which rises, under the active impulse of John XXII. Not far from there, on the terrace of a rich dwelling, three people are assembled, two men and a woman. The younger of the two men seems to be dreaming before the grandiose spectacle by listening to the rumbling of the Rhone at the foot of the wall. Near him stands, in a studied pose, a very beautiful girl, with a serious and thoughtful face, whose gaze frequently stops on the third personage. The latter, middle-aged, sits before an easel and his brush fix on the canvas the features of his model, Laure de Noves, immortalized by the love of Petrarch, the dream poet who stands motionless by his side. The painter is Simone de Martini, better known in the history of art as Memmi.
The portrait of Laure has not reached us, and it is a pity if we judge from the famous sonnets in which Petrarch glorifies this painting: “Certainly,” he wrote, “my dear Simone was in the Paradise, whence this noble lady came; it was there that he saw her and painted her on paper to make his beautiful face known on earth.”
Vasari pretends that the sonnets of Petrarch have done more for the fame of Memmi than his own works; he nevertheless recognizes a considerable value. This value is, moreover, attested by the favor which he enjoys in his lifetime, and by the very rare paintings which we know of him.
Memmi was born in Siena, about 1284. He was, it is believed, the pupil of Giotto. In any case, if he did not work in the studio of the great Florentine painter, he collaborated with him on several works of great importance, notably in the decoration of the church of St. Peter in Rome.
These works had earned him a great reputation, the noise of which reached John XXII, who wished to attach himself Memmi. The latter was brought to him by Cardinal Annibal da Ceccano, who was traveling from Rome to France. The Pope welcomed the painter with honor and confided to him the decoration of his private apartments, the rooms of the Conclave and the Pontifical chapel. Unfortunately, this part of the palace collapsed a century later during the siege of Pierre de Luna, the antipope Benedict XIII.
The works of Simone Memmi are therefore very rare. There are, however, frescoes of him in the palace of the Popes, but they are buried under the criminal whitewash of the military chambers, installed there. Some of his paintings are found in the museums of Florence, Naples, Munich, and Berlin. In spite of their small number, they suffice to assure the glory of the great painter of Siena. Let us not forget that it is a 14th-century artist at the beginning, that is to say, a period when art had not yet emerged from the Byzantine, hieratic and cold tradition. It can be said of this art that it constitutes the glacial period of painting. With a beautiful courage, well supported by Giotto, Memmi endeavored to shake off the yoke, to soften this rigidity, to animate the faces with the tenderness of expression, in a word to introduce life into bodies without soul and without movement. The works of Memmi are distinguished by a grace a little mannered and by a taste very marked for the fineness of the decoration and ornamental preciosity; they are true works of goldsmiths’ work.
This very personal way is found in Christ walking on Calvary which we give here and whose actual proportions are not significantly superior to those of our reproduction.
Christ, wearing a red robe, carries his cross and advances to the right, dragged by the executioners. His body is slightly inclined, and his head half turns towards a soldier who, behind him, removes the Virgin and the holy women. In the background, the Madeleine, dressed in a red dress, rises with groans, her hair scattered. It is followed by a crowd that crosses a bridge. On the horizon are the ramparts of a city.
Memmi stayed in Avignon for many years. There he met Petrarch, whose family, under the Ghibellines, had been exiled from Florence. A true friendship, as we have seen, was formed between the painter and the poet. Memmi was in great favor at the pontifical court, first with John XXII, then with Benedict XII and especially with Clement VI, the most magnificent and the most artistic of the Popes of Avignon, Memmi couldn’t collaborate in the great works that the pontiff dreamed of undertaking, for he died in 1344, scarcely two years after the accession of Clement VI.
Christ walking on Calvary is a canvas glued on board and plastered. It is impossible to follow its destiny during the course of centuries. We find it in 1834 in the collection of M. Saint-Denis. It was bought on behalf of Louis-Philippe, at the price of 200 francs. This admirable little painting is to be found today in the Hall of Primitives, with the paintings of the School of Siena.
Height: 0.25 – Width: 0.10