Great Works: City By The Sea (c.1340), Ambrogio Lorenzetti

Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena

In the 1920s, the painter Fernand Léger saw a creative potential in cinema – in its ability to "isolate the object or the fragment of an object and to present it on the screen in close-ups of the largest possible scale. Enormous enlargements of an object or a fragment give it a personality it never had before, and in this way it can become a vehicle of entirely new lyric and plastic power. I maintain that before the invention of the moving picture, no one knew the possibilities latent in a foot, a hand, a hat."

But never mind the interesting artistic possibilities. Concentrate on the basic perception. What Léger had noticed was something both obvious and revolutionary. Films can make things huge. Simply through close-up photography and long-distance projection, they can produce images that magnify the size of things many, many times. No previous kind of image-making did things so big.

In the 20th century, the massively oversized image became normal. It happens not only in cinema but also in billboards. "In frames as large as rooms" – as Philip Larkin put it – they dominate the urban visual landscape, with toilet rolls the size of dustbins.

The traditional art of painting hardly competes at all. Remote ceiling paintings may render things bigger than their actual size. But this manages only to keep them within the range of our visibility. It doesn't present us with something that looks gigantic. With wall-hung pictures, their figures and objects are seldom much bigger than life-size, and often less than that.

There's no technical obstacle to painting over-scale. A still-life picture could have shown a fruit or a pot that was 10 feet across. It's never done. Paintings go to the other extreme. Without feeling anything strange in it, their images are typically smaller, sometimes much smaller, than the things they represent.

Not enlargement, but reduction, is their normal mode. Think of what happens to scale in landscapes. Trees become shrubs. Buildings become shoe boxes. But this effect is not merely a neutral convention. Diminution can have – to use Léger's phrase – its own "lyric and plastic power".

Ambrogio Lorenzetti's City by the Sea is one of the treasures of Sienese art. It's also a questionable picture. What kind of scene is it? Some people see it as a fragment cut from a larger image. Some see it as an independent landscape. Either way, it is not isolated. City by the Sea has a companion image, Castle on a Lake, of the same size and shape, and with a view that seems approximately continuous. They're perhaps both decorative panels from a wooden coffer.

Another question: which city is it? The city here has been identified as Talamone, Siena's nearest port. If so, it is hardly a working port. There are two little ships plying the sea above. And bottom right, a naked man sits on a bank and dangles his feet in an inland water, his clothes beside him. Apart from that, the land is unpeopled.

This is a deserted townscape we survey. It's presented, not as a living city, but as an ideal architectural specimen. We see its buildings in an overview, in an early type of perspective, oblique parallel projection. Things don't converge or compact as they get further away – parallels stay parallel – but they're set at a slant, both upwards and sideways, to display their three-dimensionality.

The city is a demonstration of lucid construction. It rises out of, and stands out against, a rough, rocky landscape, an outbreak of explicitly rectilinear geometry. In areas where the paint is lost, you can see how the ruler has been at work. The incised guide-lines, by which the picture's many straight-edges were marked out, appear plainly.

Nothing is confused. The houses, churches, towers and keeps, though densely clustered together, and closely pent in by the city walls, are each visually distinguishable. They're translated into simple planes and solids, slotted with arches and cut out with castellations.

All corners are sharply clipped with light and shade. The light comes broadly from the left, but it can happily come from any direction when the forms of a doorway or a windowsill need bringing out. There's a kind of colour-coding, too, for extra differentiation. Pink and light turquoise, cool greys and warm greys, map out the various elements of the town, its walls and roofs and pavements. Everything works to make this tiny city clear.

A tiny city! Of course, that's how we see it. And literally it is. The image itself is just eight inches high by one foot across – a bit bigger than it appears here, but not much. In proportion to any actual buildings, the painted buildings are in an extreme reduction.

But the miniaturism of the image only confirms what we feel about the city already. It is like a scale model. It is an exercise in two-dimensional model-making. All those ways in which the city's structures are simplified and clarified and sharpened make it like a piece of small-scale carpentry, a building-block kit, a city in a bottle.

And even within the overall downsizing, there are further shrinkages. The towers that poke above the roofs are made pencil-thin, and pencil-breakable. The town walls are almost sheet-thin. Their castellations could be taken between finger and thumb and snapped off.

This fragility adds to our sense of the city as something hand-sized and hand-made – but also as something exquisite, delicate, precious: a toy-town in a dream.

About the artist

Ambrogio Lorenzetti (active 1319-48) was the greatest painter of 14th-century Siena, though not much of his work has survived. His fame rests mainly on his masterpiece, the frescos of 'Good Government' and 'Bad Government' in Siena's town hall, panoramic views with complex townscapes and landscapes and a political moral in praise of his home town. He is assumed to have died in the Black Death. As for the 'City by the Sea', Lorenzetti's authorship is sometimes doubted. It's also ascribed to another Sienese painter, Il Sassetta, who was working almost a century later – in which case the little picture is done in a deliberate revival of an old-fashioned, authentically "simple" style.

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot