Artistic Self-Consciousness in Pietro Lorenzetti's Arezzo Altarpiece Open Access Deposited

Date Uploaded: 03/25/2022
Date Modified: 03/25/2022

“With his Right Hand”: Signatures, Pictorial Gestures, and Artistic Self-Consciousness in Pietro Lorenzetti’s Arezzo Polyptych

Pietro Lorenzetti signed no fewer than nine paintings during his career, more than any other European artist until Jan van Eyck a century later. He also left an unprecedented “double signature” on one work, with the first inscription prominently visible to the public and the second hidden and known only to the painter. Written along the lower edge of altarpieces and panels, Lorenzetti’s signatures are usually simple and concise, following formulas previously adopted by medieval Italian artists. But two of his earliest inscriptions, on the Cortona Madonna (ca. 1315) and Arezzo Polyptych (1320-1324), differ by including the word “dextra”: “Petrus Laurentii hanc pinxit dextra senensis.” These signatures can be translated as “Pietro di Lorenzo of Siena painted this [work] with his right hand.”

Like his unparalleled proclivity for signing paintings, Lorenzetti’s use of “dextra” in these inscriptions can inform us about his specific works, pictorial language and artistic personality. By stating that the Arezzo Polyptych was painted “with his right hand,” Lorenzetti naturally drew attention to his manual dexterity and the glorious product of his extensive handiwork. Simultaneously it put Lorenzetti’s paintings in relation to the work of esteemed artists such as Giunta Pisano who had already referred to their own expert hands in their signatures. If we look at the Arezzo Polyptych’s content, Lorenzetti’s “dextra” encourages viewers to consider the formal connections between the artist’s hand and the hands of figures he painted, including the dextra Dei depicted in the Annunciation and the pointing hand of John the Baptist indicating the Christ Child, both of which are vertically aligned with Pietro’s signature. Such visual resonances between text and image suggest that Lorenzetti was self-consciously linking his creative act with the divine work of God and the saints.

What inspired Lorenzetti to sign so many of his paintings, and, on occasion, to do so in such a self-aggrandizing way? The painter was surrounded by several significant artists who created prominent works with signatures. They include Giunta Pisano, Margaritone d’Arezzo, Giovanni Pisano, and Duccio, and if Lorenzetti did not collaborate directly with them, he surely would have seen their paintings and sculptures in Arezzo, Assisi, Siena, and elsewhere. Moreover, having secured at a young age several highly important commissions in Tuscany and Umbria, including the fresco cycle in the left transept of the Lower Church at Assisi, Lorenzetti would have had more than enough self-confidence to inscribe himself—and his right hand—into the Arezzo Polyptych.

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