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Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin

Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of the Virgin, c. 1342, tempera on panel, 6 feet, 1 inch x 5 feet, 11 inches, for the altar of St. Savinus, Siena Cathedral (now in Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena) Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(piano playing) Dr. Zucker: We're in the museum of the Cathedral of Siena and we're looking at one of the great Sienese's artist, Pietro Lorenzetti's The Birth of the Virgin. This is painted by a man who was Duccio, the great Sienese's master student. Some scholars think that Pietro helped Duccio paint the Maesta. Dr. Harris: There's a lot of paintings in the Maesta, I hoped someone helped him. Dr. Zucker: (laughs) That's true. This is a painting that would have functioned as a secondary altar piece in the Siena Cathedral. It is a three part painting, it actually shows one continuous space. Dr. Harris: Well then let's remember that the Virgin Mary was the protector of the city of Siena. Dr. Zucker: This is about the birth of the Virgin, not the birth of Christ, but the birth of Mary, herself. In the central scene we have this beautiful Medieval interior. I have to say that the Sienese pay attention in the 14th Century to architecture in a way that nobody else does. There is a love of the rendering of space and furnishings. Dr. Harris: We have the vaulting in the ceiling, the windows, the painted moldings, the tiles on the floor, the chest next to Anne's bed. We almost get a sense of what it was like in a household in 14th Century Siena. Dr. Zucker: It's true, even the fact that a bedroom was kind of public space and you can see Anne reclining on the bed, she's got a real sense of mask and volume. The bed doesn't look all that comfortable, it doesn't seem to be yielding to her. Dr. Harris: No. Dr. Zucker: But the body does seem to be under that drapery in a most emphatic way. Dr. Harris: I think Pietro has [Sienjato] because his figures are really bulky and three dimensional. Dr. Zucker: Of course, Duccio, his master was already moving towards a sense of mass and volume using chiaroscuro but perhaps not as emphatically as Giotto had. Dr. Harris: She's just big and chubby the way that Giotto's figures are. Dr. Zucker: Right, almost like the Ognissanti Madonna. Dr. Harris: Exactly. Dr. Zucker: Yeah, but if you look at the attendants who are washing Mary in the basin, they're pretty substantial. The figure in green on the right looks like she could have come right out of the Lamentation from the Arena Chapel. There are more attendants coming in with fresh cloths, it looks like, on the right and fresh water. Dr. Harris: The two scenes on the right are unified in their architecture, although, Anne is separated out with the mother of Mary. Dr. Zucker: In the left panel we see a room outside, where it seems as if Joachim, Anna's husband, is being told that the birth is taking place. Dr. Harris: I love his face. He's like an expectant father who's been worried about what's going on and is now anxious to hear. The view outside must be Siena. As we walked around the streets of the city I can recognize buildings that looked like this. Dr. Zucker: Of course it's important to remember that the architecture that we're seeing is 12th and 13th Century and of course that's 12 and 1300 years after this event would have taken place, so it's completely out of chronology. I think the point was to create something that was familiar, something that the Sienese audience would recognize. I'm also taken with the attempt by Pietro Lorenzetti to create a sense of recession. Not only do you have an interior space that is architecturally detailed, but if you look at the vaulting, for example, you can see where the ribs in the vaulting come together in the central panel and the panels on the right and the left they're obscured, as they would be if we were looking at those ceilings. This is not linear perspective, but there is a real attention to the basic tenets of seeing space and rendering it on a two dimensional surface. That's also really evident in the bedspread. Dr. Harris: So there are diagonal lines that appear to be receding into space in the bedspread. Dr. Zucker: Right, but I bet if we lined them up with a pencil we would not reach a single vanishing point. Dr. Harris: No. Dr. Zucker: Right, so it's not linear perspective. There is a real sensitivity and a real attempt to create a sense of space. I think the Sienese were doing just amazing things in the 14th Century. Dr. Harris: So often we pay attention to Florence and maybe we don't give Siena quite as much attention as we should. (piano playing)