This artist, architect and innovator was very active in the Marche region and even contributed to the construction of Mondavio castle.
After inaugurating our blog with an article on the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of Staatliches Bauhaus, we are returning to the subject of architecture with a personality who can be rightly considered one of the leading figures in the Italian Renaissance. Our interest is even greater because of the strong links that Francesco di Giorgio Martini has with our region and with Mondavio in particular. More than anybody else, this Sienese ingeniarius embodied the intellectual traits of his age, dedicating himself to activities ranging from painting to sculpture, architecture, the invention of new machines and even essay writing.
Franciescho Maurizio di Giorgio di Martino spent his youth in Siena studying classical writings on architecture, including works by Vitruvius and his contemporaries Leon Battista Alberti and Piero della Francesca.
THE EARLY YEARS OF PAINTING
In 1460, aged just over twenty, Francesco was engaged as a painter in the workshops of Lorenzo di Pietro, better known as Vecchietta. He began by producing small but excellent works, including miniatures for an antiphonary of the Abbey of Monteoliveto Maggiore (now conserved in Chiusi cathedral) and others for the De animalibus codex of Alberto Magno (now conserved in the Convento dell’Osservanza in Siena). In 1469 Francesco di Giorgio joined with Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi and created some of his best paintings, clearly influenced by the representation of light typical of the Florence school and artists like Piero della Francesca and Domenico Veneziano. His “Madonna col Bambino e un Angelo” (Madonna with Child and Angel), conserved in Siena art gallery, is an excellent example, and depicts the Virgin with elegant lines and a delicate chiaro-scuro plasticity. Francesco's frequent engagements soon began taking him further and further away from Siena and eventually led to his break with Neroccio, the closure of their workshop and the dissolution of the company of painters quam simul habuerunt established by notarial deed on the 6th July 1475. That same year, he finished the large altar piece entitled “Birth of Christ, two Angels and the Saints Bernard and Thomas Aquinas” for the convent of Monte Oliveto Minore fuori Porta Tufi. By this time, the Sienese International Gothic style that had characterised his early works had evolved into the decidedly Renaissance style of his mature years.
FRANCESCO DI GIORGIO AS SCULPTOR
Francesco di Giorgio's first major commission was a monumental, polychromatic wooden statue of John the Baptist, which he completed in 1964 for the Compagnia della Morte in Siena. This work clearly shows the influence of Vecchietta. His most renowned works, with which he rightly reserved a place in the history of great sculpture, were his bronze bas relief creations. His “Lamentation over the Body of Christ Descended from the Cross” dates from 1476 and coincides with the start of his transfer to Urbino to serve the Montefeltro family. This bas relief portrays, at the foot of the Cross, the humanist duke Federico, his wife Battista Sforza and his son Guidubaldo. The best example of Francesco di Giorgio's mastery of figurative art probably consists of two gypsum moulds (bronze castings from which have never been found) representing an “Allegory on Discord” and blending elements of classical myths with a contemporary setting in the square of an “ideal city”.
Finally, dating from 1489-90 are two magnificent bronze candle holders in the form of angels carved for Siena cathedral, probably in collaboration with Giacomo Cozzarelli.
ARCHITECT AND ESSAYIST
Even though he was appointed as architect to the town of Siena on the 25th December 1485, at a very generous salary on the condition that he would not accept work from elsewhere, Francesco di Giorgio Martini nevertheless continued to serve patrons almost all over Italy. Documents of the period prove that the government of the Republic of Siena tolerated and authorised his constant movements to undertake prestigious commissions in the cities of Urbino, Milan, Pavia, Naples, Gubbio, Lucca, Ancona, Loreto, Rome, Cortona and Spoleto. He spent a number of years in the Marche region at the court of Federico da Montefeltro, completing the construction of the Ducal Palace in Urbino that had been begun by Luciano Laurana and also working on the cathedral, the church of San Bernardino and the monastery of Santa Chiara. He also achieved great success with his works of military engineering, designing a large number of castles and fortresses throughout the dukedom. He worked on the conversion of Monte Cerignone castle, an old Malatesta stronghold, on Cagli castle, of which only the monumental main tower now remains, on Frontone castle and on Sassocorvaro castle, with its characteristic tortoise shape. He also refurbished the mediaeval fortress of San Leo, giving it a more noble appearance in line with Renaissance canons. After 1488 he worked on Mondavio castle for Giovanni della Rovere (prefect of Rome and lord of Senigallia and Mondavio), but left it unfinished when he died in Siena in 1501.
The keep is particularly impressive, with a polygonal base and a typical merlon and crenet battlement. Together with the keep, the outer walls were significantly rounded to minimise the damage provoked by projectiles.
As for the defensive systems, Francesco di Giorgio Martini wrote this in his treatise on civil and military architecture: “I consider that a town with its fortifications and castle should resemble the human body and that the head, neck and limbs should all correspond; the castle should be the head, with arms connected to it and fortified walls around it linked to the body of the town”. On the importance of architecture he wrote these definitive words: ”If an architect is not particularly perspicacious, ingenious and inventive, he will never be able to exercise his art to perfection”, and also: “I see architecture only as a subtle imagination conceived in the mind and manifested through construction”.
THE GENIUS THAT INSPIRED LEONARDO DA VINCI
As already stated, Francesco di Giorgio was a true ingeniariusand dedicated himself to the invention and design of all sorts of machine: recirculating mills, chain driven pumps, moving elevators, spring loaded ballistas, pulley operated cranes and hoists, carts with driven wheels, ploughs with adjustable shares, digging machines, hydraulic saws, column jacks, siege ladders and towers, floating bridges, equipment for salvaging sunken ships, heating systems, theatre acoustics and measuring instruments for architects and surveyors. The National Library in Florence and the British Library in London conserve a number of codices containing anonymous drawings that have been attributed to Martini, such as "palombaro" or flying man and a figure with a parachute. Leonardo Da Vinci's drawings on these subjects were almost certainly inspired by his acquaintance with the works of the Sienese architect. This influence is indeed acknowledged by da Vinci himself in notes in the margin of the “Madrid II Codex”, where he refers specifically to subjects dealt with by Francesco di Giorgio Martini in his second treatise.
With his truly advanced art and vision, this genius of the Renaissance was without doubt a precursor of the modern age.