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Francesco di Giorgio Martini: 10 Things You Should Know

di Giorgio was a painter, sculptor and architect who tackled art at every level. This article looks more closely at the life, works and scandals of this Early Renaissance master.

The Nativity, di Giorgio, c. 1495, via Art in Tuscany
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10. Francesco Di Giorgio Martini Lived During The Birth Of The Renaissance

Francesco di Giorgio Martini was born in 1439 in Siena, Tuscany. At this time, the Renaissance was getting into full swing in the nearby city of Florence and some of the shockwaves were felt in Siena. Workshops began to spring up across the city and, interestingly, because Siena lacked an aristocracy of elite families, most of the new artworks produced at this time were commissioned by the Senese state, rather than by individuals.

A view of di Giorgio’s native Siena, as it stood during the Renaissance, via Wikimedia
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A view of di Giorgio’s native Siena, as it stood during the Renaissance, via Wikimedia

9. Di Giorgio Started His Artistic Career As A Painter

Di Giorgio entered the emerging school of Sienese painting by training under Vecchietta, who himself had been a pupil of Jacopo della Quercia, among other important artists. Early paintings attributed to di Giorgio show a tension between tradition and innovation, as he retains some of the features of older medieval art, while incorporating certain new approaches that were a product of the Renaissance.

For example, the human figures in his Nativity are not wholly proportionate, but the background space clearly demonstrates an understanding of perspective and depth. This contrast has led art critics and historians to speculate about whether di Giorgio may have assigned too much of his work to less skilled assistants.

Nativity, di Giorgio, 1470-1474, via The Met
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Nativity, di Giorgio, 1470-1474, via The Met

8. He Also Showed Great Skills As A Sculptor

As was typical for an artist of his day, di Giorgio was not only trained in painting, but also learnt how to produce sculptures, work metal and even plan buildings as an apprentice. In 1464, the first written record of his work appears, showing that at the age of 25 he had made a statue of John the Baptist for the sum of 12 lire. The figure stands on a plinth decorated with a tiny skull, indicating that di Giorgio had received his commission from the Sienese military corp ominously named the Compagnia delle Morte.

The statue later found its way to a church in the ancient town of Foligno, where it was attributed to di Giorgio’s teacher Vecchietta for many years. It was not until 1949, when the piece underwent restoration, that the true maker was rightly credited for the work. The statue now stands in Siena’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo as a testament to one of the city’s great early artists.

St John the Baptist, di Giorgio, 1464, via Wikipedia
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St John the Baptist, di Giorgio, 1464, via Wikipedia

7. His True Contribution Was To Architecture

In addition to his paintings and sculptures, di Giorgio made a great contribution to the field of architecture. During the Renaissance, an artistic education entailed a rigorous understanding of mathematics, particularly geometry and mechanics. As a result, di Giorgio had the makings of an excellent engineer, and soon after he became independent of his master, he was given a contract by the state to improve Siena’s aqueducts and fountains.

Working alongside one of his peers, di Giorgio successfully made such improvements, significantly enlarging the fountain in the central Piazza del Campo. The fountain, originally built over 50 years earlier by Jacopo delle Quercia, required a particularly technical approach since it stands over 1000ft above sea level, the highest fountain in Italy.

The Fonte Gaia in Siena, which di Giorgio helped to expand during his early career as an architect, via ZonzoFox
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The Fonte Gaia in Siena, which di Giorgio helped to expand during his early career as an architect, via ZonzoFox

 


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6. Di Giorgio Beautified Many Of Siena’s Churches

As well as these urban improvements, di Giorgio put his artistic skills to use in Siena’s churches. As an apprentice, he had contributed to an almighty altarpiece in the Santa Maria della Scala, which shows Christ crowning the Virgin Mary, elevated above crowds of worshippers. After gaining renown as an architect, he was charged with the design of the church of San Sebastiano in Vallepiatta, which was built in the shape of a Greek cross and topped with a cylindrical cupola. His final architectural project was Siena’s magnificent Duomo, which he embellished with marble floor mosaics and bronze statues of angels to flank the altar.

The Coronation of the Virgin, di Giorgio, 1473, via Web Gallery of Art
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The Coronation of the Virgin, di Giorgio, 1473, via Web Gallery of Art

5. Di Giorgio Did Not Limit Himself To Religious Buildings

While still in his 30s, di Giorgio found himself under the patronage of Frederico da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino, famed for his military prowess, immense library, and an entourage of scholars and artists. The Duke commissioned several paintings and statues, but most importantly, charged di Giorgio with the construction of his fortifications. With funding from Frederico’s son, the new Duke, di Giorgio continued his great architectural work in Urbino, most famously producing the Santa Maria delle Grazie al Calcinaio church, perched on the steep hillside.

Di Giorgio’s experience in the 1470s equipped him to take on greater projects, and from 1494-1498 he worked for Ferdinand II of Naples as his chief war engineer. He constructed an ingenious network of tunnels that allowed for the controlled use of explosives, distinguishing di Giorgio as a pioneer of military strategy.

The fortifications at Rocca Roveresca in Mondavio, via Wikimedia
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The fortifications at Rocca Roveresca in Mondavio, via Wikimedia

4. His Understanding And Experience Came From An Important Treatise

Di Giorgio was something of an author too, recording his extensive knowledge of architecture in a book entitled Trattato di architettura, ingegneria e arte militare (‘A treaty on architecture, engineering and military skill’). Two similar works had already been published earlier in the 15th century, but di Giorgio’s was the most innovative and became hugely influential. Some of the main contributions found in the book are ideas for new types of staircases, and plans for star-shaped forts with wedge-shaped fortifications.

Di Giorgio’s Trattato was even found in the library of Leonardo da Vinci, suggesting that the Florentine Master was familiar with his architectural work. In fact, many of the artists’ ideas about the body and proportion seem to overlap, as demonstrated by di Giorgio’s geometrical sketches included in his book.

Geometrical plans of buildings against human bodies, di Giorgio, c. 1490, Via ArtTrav
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Geometrical plans of buildings against human bodies, di Giorgio, c. 1490, Via ArtTrav

3. Di Giorgio’s Great Works Won Him Huge Fame And Wealth

Alongside da Vinci, di Giorgio seems to have had a huge crowd of admirers, and his artistic and architectural skills were in great demand across Italy. The state of Siena wrote to him in 1485 requesting his return, offering an annual salary of 800 florins in the role of official city engineer. Di Giorgio accepted the generous proposal and began managing the various engineering projects across Siena.

Five years later he was offered an additional 100 florins by the government of Milan if he would come to the city and produce a model dome for its cathedral. It was in Milan that di Giorgio met da Vinci, who was also employed on the same project. Such high-profile projects meant that di Giorgio’s wealth grew alongside his fame, and he died as one of the richest artists of the day.

The Nativity, di Giorgio, c. 1495, via Art in Tuscany
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The Nativity, di Giorgio, c. 1495, via Art in Tuscany

2. Di Giorgio’s Life Was Not Always Free From Scandal

Di Giorgio seems to have been embroiled in a small public scandal in 1471, when an official Sienese document records than he broke into a monastery outside the city walls with a number of friends. They are mysteriously said to have ‘behaved dishonorably’ inside the building, but no other details are mentioned. Fortunately for di Giorgio and his accomplices, the artist was easily able to pay the 25 lire fine inflicted on them.

It is quite remarkable that the biographer Giorgio Vasari did not pick up on this incident in his Lives of the Artists. Never one to shy away from gossip and scandal, Vasari simply records di Giorgio as one of Italy’s most important architects and engineers, second only to Brunelleschi in the influence he asserted.

An engraving of di Giorgio from Vasari’s Lives, published in 1568, via Archinform
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An engraving of di Giorgio from Vasari’s Lives, published in 1568, via Archinform

1. Di Giorgio’s Work Has Always Been Considered Highly Valuable

Di Giorgio’s work continues to attract great interest on the art market. In 2015, an original painting was sold at Christie’s for £140,500. A sketch of the west facade of the Arch of Trajan was estimated to fetch between $60,000 to $80,000 at Sotheby’s in 2020. A painting from his workshop, produced after his death, was even valued at over $1m!

Nevertheless, it is Di Giorgio’s technical understanding of architecture, engineering and proportion that proved the most valuable aspect of his legacy. His treatise on building and his feats of engineering educated and inspired countless other craftsmen, so much so that di Giorgio can truly be said to have helped build Renaissance Italy.

An architectural sketch of Trajan’s column by di Giorgio appeared at auction in 2020 with an estimate of $60-80,000, via Sotheby’s
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An architectural sketch of Trajan’s column by di Giorgio appeared at auction in 2020 with an estimate of $60-80,000, via Sotheby’s
Florence depicted on a 15th century print, image by Bas van Hout
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