by Roderick Conway Morris

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Duomo, Siena
Maestà by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-11

Siena's misconstrued master

By Roderick Conway Morris
SIENA 6 December 2003


Duccio di Buoninsegna lived in what even at the time was seen as Siena's golden age, and artistically he was its brightest star. This was the period during which the town took on the appearance it has preserved until today; when so many of its characteristic streets, palaces, churches, institutional buildings and fountains were constructed and decorated, and the imposing gothic Palazzo Pubblico, or city hall, rose up with its dizzying tower to dominate Siena's fan-shaped central square, the Campo.

The Palazzo Pubblico was the seat of the Nine, the guiding council of a system of republican government that lasted from 1287 until 1355, guaranteeing during most of its existence stability and prosperity after decades of anarchy and strife. As a chronicler wrote of this era: 'The city lived in great peace and tranquillity, and everyone attended to their business, and hence to the good of the surrounding countryside, and everybody loved one another like brothers.'

Duccio was born around 1255-60, about a decade before Giotto. But Duccio is lesser known, and generally less well understood. An excellent exhibition, 'Duccio: At the Origins of Sienese Painting,' at Santa Maria della Scala, the city's ancient hospital, and the Museo dell'Opera, the Duomo's museum, now aims to illuminate the artist's career and his influence on his successors. The show continues until Jan. 11, and coincides with the opening to the public of a rare cycle of 13th-century frescoes recently rediscovered beneath the Duomo.

A primary reason that appreciation of Duccio's works fell behind that of his Florentine near contemporary was that they were frequently misidentified. A leading culprit in this respect was the 16th-century Florentine writer Vasari's sketchy, and by his own standards, poorly researched, account of him. Vasari attributed to Duccio the marble pavement of Siena's Duomo which, remarkable though it is, was designed some 40 years after his death and bears no relation to his style. At the same time, Vasari gave Cimabue as the author of the celebrated 'Rucellai Madonna' (now at the Uffizi), a claim that was accepted until the end of the 19th century. With the support of contemporary documentary evidence, the picture has subsequently been universally attributed to Duccio.

That the young Sienese won this important commission in Florence in the face of local competition is strong evidence of the impression his talents made on the Florentines of that age. And, while Duccio initially owed much to Cimabue, a pair of Madonna and Child panels, by Cimabue and Giotto in collaboration, and by Duccio respectively, made not long before the Rucellai Madonna (1285), reveal that Duccio was already forging a style of his own.

His success in the rival city of Florence and his mastery of his art led to Duccio's appointment, while still barely into his 30's, to make the great rose window in Siena's Duomo, depicting the Virgin Mary, the Evangelists and the city's patron saints. Once again, later commentators failed to recognize this as his work, passing over a key step in his development. And even when Duccio's authorship was established beyond reasonable doubt, the impossibility of examining the window at close hand still made it a somewhat remote quantity.

The window, more than 18 feet (5.6 meters) in diameter, was brought back to earth in 1996 to undergo a painstaking process of conservation and releading, and can now be seen face to face in all its glory at Santa Maria della Scala before it is restored to its usual place when the show ends.

Unfortunately, ignorance of the fact that Duccio actually painted the glass and insensitive cleaning methods obliterated areas of his work during earlier restorations. Nonetheless, substantial parts of this finer detail survive, bearing witness to the hands-on role he played at every stage of this unique piece.

Duccio's supreme creation, his great altar piece for the Duomo, the 'Maestà,' or Madonna and Child Enthroned in Majesty, had an even more complicated history. It was removed from the Duomo in the early 16th century and after a series of peregrinations between other churches, sacristies and store-rooms (when Vasari visited Siena he failed to locate it) it was finally put on display at the Museo dell'Opera in 1878. Its exposure once again in a prominent public place led to a radical re-assessment of Duccio's status as an artist, which has been continuing ever since.

This gorgeously, exquisitely painted double-sided panel (its two faces were separated in 1771), is more than 14 feet wide (4.5 meters) and more than six feet high (two meters), and contains more than 140 figures. The front face shows the Virgin and Child surrounded by a host of angels and saints, while the back relates in 26 individual scenes the entry of Christ into Jerusalem and his Passion. Around the central panels within the altar's grand architectural frame, which no longer exists, there were once a number of other figures and scenes, some now lost, others dispersed to various collections, some of which have loaned their panels back to Siena for this show.

The 'Maestà' took just three years to complete (1308-11), and when it was carried in a procession amid the ringing of bells and general rejoicing from the artist's studio to the Duomo, a contemporary witness declared it 'the most beautiful picture ever seen or made.' The 'Maestà' was a landmark in the history of art in the prominence it gave to its creator's name. For clearly with the approval of the grateful city that had commissioned it, the artist painted on the plinth beneath the Virgin's feet in elegant Gothic script: 'Holy Mother of God, be Thou the cause of peace in Siena, be life to Duccio because he has painted Thee thus.'

For sheer complexity of conception and perfection of execution, the Maesta can only be compared with one or two of the great fresco cycles of the age. Giotto had completed his frescoes at the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua only shortly before. Duccio's skills as a painter, and their progressive development throughout his career, suggest that he could have followed the ground-breaking road towards greater naturalism that Giotto took, had he wished to do so. Instead, he chose another enterprise altogether: to blend the Byzantine art of the east with the gothic art of the west. Through this synthesis he became the last great artist of the middle ages in Italy, and gave permanent physical form to the glittering memory of Siena's golden age.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023