Paintings in The Towers of Tuscany
The Towers of Tuscany takes place from 1338 to 1348 during the last decade of the “Golden Age” of Sienese painting that began in 1300. Sofia Carelli and her father, Antonio Barducci, are fictional characters and the works they created never existed. However, the subjects they depicted in panels and frescoes are typical of the period, as are Sofia’s struggles to develop her own style. Like most painters in Siena at the time, Sofia and her father were following in the footsteps of Giotto and Duccio, the first western painters to infuse their figures with a new realism.
Sofia paints several small panels of the Nativity during the novel. She adds a tower to one Nativity panel (Page 9) and makes Joseph an old and tired man in the Nativity panel given to Matteo Salvini (Page 196). Here is a version of the Nativity scene painted in 1325 by Taddeo Gaddi. The tower to the right, the old and tired Joseph, the ox and ass looking on, and Mary’s delicate lifting of the sheet to cover the child all recall moments in the novel.
Sofia had painted one of the oxen with its neck extended and its snout high in the air, straining to pull the saint off her feet. (Page 52). The panel Sofia painted was similar to the one shown to the left which was painted by Giovanni di Bartolommeo Cristiani, a Florentine active between 1367-98 (a few decades after the narrative).
While her brush moved, her mind moved faster as she thought how to arrange the figures of the archangel Gabriel and the Holy Mother in an Annunciation panel. She would make Mary young and beautiful, of course, but she would also show something of her fear, maybe have her turning away slightly from Gabriel. (Page 200) Here is the Annunciation by Simone Martini painted in 1333 and now in the Uffizi in Florence.
Simone Martini’s Frescoes
Sofia is taken to see Martini’s frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico (they are still there in Siena). She marvels at Martini’s use of architecture in the fresco of General Guidoriccio (detail right) that was subsequently covered by a map and heavily damaged.
The Virgin and Child was one of most popular subjects for painters in early fourteenth century Siena. Small panels depicting the Virgin and Child were commonly painted as devotional items, and very large versions painted on wood or fresco adorned churches and public buildings. Sofia is commissioned to paint a Maestà that uses her lover’s betrothed for the face of Mary. To the left is a detail from Duccio’s Maestà painted in 1308-11, the same Maestà that Sofia views in Siena Cathedral.
Almost all painting of the period depicted religious subjects. One of the very first secular works is Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government fresco in the Palazzo Publicco completed in 1339. Before her marriage, Sofia sees Lorenzetti working on the fresco in Siena. Depicting architecture fascinates Sofia until finally she paints the small panel of the towers of San Gimignano that will survive to our time. To the right is another of Lorenzetti’s secular paintings – City by the Sea that is the direct inspiration for the panel Sofia paints at the end of the novel.