Late Medieval Poliorcetic Art
Spot the trebuchet
Some controversy exists as to exactly when Guidoriccio da Fogliano and his horse were added to this fresco in the Italian town of Siena. However, it definitely looked like this in the 14th Century. A successful siege was in fact something to crow about at the time, so Simone Martini painted Guidoriccio da Fogliano at the Siege of Montemassi inside the central civic structure of the city to remind everyone that they had done something pretty cool once, back in the day.
Now, I could waste your eyeballs blathering on about the mercenary figure centered in the fresco, his career being hero and then traitor and then hero again, the rod of command he’s waving, the caparison on his horse, blah freaking blah. What interests me, however, are the siege works.
Look at the circumvallating palisade, all studded with pikes. The castle and fortified town of Montemassi are surrounded. Without an army to relieve them, eventual surrender would be certain. Engineers and diggers did all this work; one guy gets the individual glory, but the story of the siege belongs to the people of Siena.
I should like to see this famous scene with my own eyes one day. The impressionistic terrain and vibrant colors are spectacular. The tall towers and battlements without crenellations tell the story of a castle that was already obsolete. Compare it to the fortress behind the dashing condottiere, the one flying the Siena flag, which has crenellations.
These defenses are state-of-the-art. Tents also suggest a large army, which to be fair was a pretty great military achievement at the time, too.
Of course, this fresco appeared before the advent of gunpowder siege artillery in Italy. Spoiler alert: the military might of Siena represented in this civic artwork lasted until 1494, when Charles VIII blasted their suddenly-obsolete walls down with cannons on behalf of Florence.
Which brings me to the thing that I love most in this fresco. Yes, that is the arm of a counterweight trebuchet inside the castle, confirming that such engines were indeed used for defensive barrage and counterbattery fire against attacking armies in the late medieval period. We have text evidence for this usage and archaeology of designed hard points for ancient artillery, too, so I am not surprised to see evidence in period art. Just delighted.
I like to think that Simone Martini got to see such an engine, and perhaps even observe it working, or at least had its workings described in detail by witnesses. The throwing arm seems to be made of bound wooden beams; the sling ends of some trebuchet arms may have actually been a bit curved like that in hopes of adding momentum; the guy ropes are used to crank it back into place after shooting. How well did he know trebuchets, I wonder?
Art historians: feel free to school me in the comments.