Art of Duccio di Buoninsegna


1. Biographic outline 2. Milestones 3. Formation of his style
4. Early Works (before 1285) 5. Rucellai Madonna (1285) 6. Cathedral window (1288)
7. Altarpieces (1286-1308) 8. MaestÓ (1308-11) 9. Late works (1312-19)

Biographic Outline

Considering the general scarcity of documents regarding the lives of Italian medieval painters, information concerning Duccio di Buoninsegna (b. cca. 1255, Siena, d. 1319, Siena) is unusually plentiful. (See detailed references in the milestones.) This allows us not only to trace the more important stages of his artistic career but also reveals the restless temperament underlying the elegant dignity of his style. During the course of his lively existence the artist incurred a number of fines and debts on the basis of which we can make a fairly accurate estimation of his character and, although not occurring within a strictly professional context, these show him to be rebellious to any form of authority.

Encouraged and protected perhaps by his artistic renown, Duccio's hotheadedness frequently led him into trouble. The fines for nonpayment of debts, which appear regularly in written sources, confirm a disorganized way of life and difficulties with managing money. Despite continual reprimands from the law-courts, showing his persistence in a disrespectful attitude especially towards public authority, Duccio was able to follow a brilliant career which progressed and reached its peak thanks to the same authorities that penalized him. His defects as a citizen were effectively overshadowed by his creative inspiration which, although still attached to the Byzantine world, was discovering new stylistic solutions that were to become the measuring stick for the most important local artists.

His probable date of birth (c. 1255) has been calculated from a document in 1278. The designation "pictor" confirms not only his attainment of professional independence but also the beginning of an artistic style which was soon to develop the distinct character shown a few years later, in 1285, when Buoninsegna painted the Rucellai Madonna for the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The works attributed to him in this early period - the Madonna of Buonconvento and the Crevole Madonna - place him among the followers of the great Cimabue. He probably stayed in Assisi in the first half of the 1280's where he was part of Cimabue's following at the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi.

His artistic production between the Rucellai Madonna and the MaestÓ for Siena Cathedral, placed on the main altar on 9 June 1311, consists of a group of works of now undisputed attribution: the Madonna of the Kunstmuseum in Bern, the Madonna of the Franciscans in the Pinacoteca in Siena, the Madonna and Child known as the Stoclet Madonna (present whereabouts unknown), the Madonna an Child with Six Angels in the National Gallery of Umbria, in Perugia, and the little Triptych no. 566 in the National Gallery of London.

In the artistic environment of Siena Duccio became well-known. Duccio, in undertaking to decorate the covers of the Biccherne, to supply the designs for the round stained-glass window of the choir of Siena Cathedral and to execute a work of such monumental importance as the MaestÓ, shows a proficiency which is versatile and skilled in the extreme. In 1295 Duccio is mentioned as the only painter called upon to be a member of a special committee.

On the eve of the Battle of Montaperti, which was to result in the defeat of the Florentine troops on 4 September 1260, in front of the Madonna with the Large Eyes on the main altar of the Cathedral, Siena declared an "act of donation", in which it placed itself publicly under the protection of the Virgin. This gesture of loyalty formally sanctions the beginning of the intense cult of the Virgin which was to reach its peak in the extraordinary MaestÓ, the masterpiece of Duccio, painted between 1308 and 1311.

Many theories have been advanced regarding authorship of the works of his last years, but the only painting in which the hand of Duccio can be detected is the Polyptych no. 47 in the Pinacoteca of Siena.

Duccio died before 3 August 1319.

Formation of Duccio's Style

We know nothing of Duccio's very early style, but an examination of a series of works attributed to him in the period immediately before the Rucellai Madonna - also called the Laudesi Madonna - places him among the followers of the great Cimabue. Because of the strong formal affinities between the two painters apparent in these pictures, they have been subject to numerous disputes over authorship. The only ones attributable to his early period - around 1280 - and accepted by most art historians as the work of Duccio are the Madonna of Buonconvento and the Crevole Madonna.

The theory that Duccio stayed in Assisi, appears to be the most plausible explanation for the controversial problem of his formation. From an accurate examination of the style of the early works and of the documents it would seem that between the end of the 1270's and the first half of the 1280's, when no written mention is made of Duccio's presence in Siena, he was part of Cimabue's following at the Upper Church of San Francesco at Assisi, where his hand can be detected in the frescoes in the transepts and the nave. In assuming Cimabue to be the probable link between Duccio and Florence, the Florentine commission of the Laudesi Madonna immediately afterwards finds a reasonable justification. Traces of the period Duccio spent as a pupil of Cimabue can be seen in the round stained-glass window of the choir of Siena Cathedral, executed in 1288, the preparatory drawings of which have been rightly attributed to Duccio.

From the mid-thirteenth century Siena broadened its artistic horizons to welcome the innovating spirit of Frederic II and the refined tastes from beyond the Alps, marking a cultural transition towards new stylistic tendencies. Many factors contributed to transforming Siena into one of the most vital centres of artistic experimentation: the presence of the Pisano family, first Nicola then his son Giovanni, of Arnolfo di Cambio, of the goldsmith Guccio di Mannaia, and of enterprising local artists who did not hesitate to go to France to study the Gothic trends in loco. In those days the various areas of artistic experience involved culture, technical training, operational ability, practical aims, structural and aesthetic requirements, all of equal importance and interchangeable on the level of an essential basic unity. This seems to be the case of Duccio who shows a proficiency which is versatile and skilled in the extreme.

A stylistic analysis of his works between the Rucellai Madonna and the MaestÓ for Siena Cathedral reveals a progressive abandonment of the more conservative forms (rigid head and shoulders posture of Eastern tradition and light and shade treatment from Cimabue), giving place to innovating trends in painting: curving outlines, delicate colouring and intimacy of gesture.

The evident Gothicism of the MaestÓ, both in form and arrangement, and the absence of Duccio's name from Sienese records of the last years of the thirteenth century, could be evidence of a possible trip to Paris; however it appears that the Duch de Siene or the Duch le Lombart, mentioned in the Livre de la Taille of Paris as resident in Rue des Precheurs, in the quarter of Saint-Eustache, was only someone with a similar name.

In its structural complexity, its size and its compositional excellence the MaestÓ marks the culminating point in the evolution of the altarpiece while the pictorial achievement conveys the city's intention: Mary, indisputed protagonist, rules over the community of the faithful.

The new creative impulse of Duccio's workshop carried on after Duccio's death. From the thirteenth-century 'Master of the Badia at Isola', to Ugolino di Nerio, the works of minor artists reveal clear traces of Duccio's style. This is reflected with faithful precision by the Master of Cittß di Castello and the 'Master of Monte Oliveto', for example, but it also reappears in the more delicate contemplative interpretation of the young Simone Martini and of Pietro Lorenzetti.

Early works

The theory that the style of Duccio was formed by Cimabue at Assisi has been generally accepted and upheld insofar as it sheds light on both the obscure period of the painter's youth and the frequent connections between Florentine and Sienese art. The case of Duccio is an illustration of the cultural exchange between the two cities, which also affected other Sienese artists, evidently the more sensitive and alert, who were orientated towards Florence. The first actual meeting of the ways occured with Coppo di Marcovaldo, who had been taken prisoner after the Battle of Montaperti and in 1261 bought his freedom by painting the Madonna del Bordone for the Church of the Servites. A faithful adherence to Cimabue's standards is apparent in several ther contemporary works, too.

In comparison with these, the significance of the almost contemporary work of Duccio stands out for its effortless individual interpretation of the carefully studied lesson of the master. The master-pupil relationship was established very early on, when the first scaffolding for the frescoes had already been erected in the Upper Church of San Francesco, and it ended during the time of closest collaboration, around 1283-84 when work had got as far as the vault of the Doctors. These are the most likely stages of their association: the Angel on the splay of the big window of the north transept in the Upper Church at Assisi, the Madonna in the Church of the Servites in Bologna, the Madonna Gualino in the Galleria Sabauda in Turin, the Madonna of Castelfiorentino, the Crucifix in the Odescalchi Collection, the Madonna in the Museo d'Arte Sacra of the Val d'Arbia in Buonconvento, the Crevole Madonna in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena, the Expulsion of the Forefathers and the Crucifixion in the third bay of the south wall of the Franciscan Basilica, two of the Winged Genii which occupy the four corners of the vault of the Doctors in Assisi. Executed in a time-span of little more than five years, the paintings show strong stylistic affinities. In some cases (the Madonna in Bologna and the Madonna in Castelfiorentino) the painters seem to have achieved a real joint effort: the earlier style of the conception of these paintings suggests that the plan was Cimabue's, while the luminous treatment of colour implies that Duccio executed the work.

The Gualino Madonna and the Bologna altarpiece anticipate the skill Duccio was to show in modifying the traits of his teacher, softening the over-harsh contrasts of line and colour. This is immediately apparent in the Madonna of Buonconvento and the Crevole Madonna, unanimously considered the earliest works attributable to Duccio. The basic approach of the two paintings is of evident Byzantine tradition: the elegant stylization of the hands, the typical downward curving nose, the red maphˇrion under Mary's veil, the dark drapery animated by shining gilded lines. New details appear, to a lesser extent in the Buonconvento Madonna and repeated with greater confidence in the Crevole painting, such as the subtle play of light on the Virgin's face, over her chin and cheeks, and a clear attempt at plasticism in the folds of the garment around the face.

The more carefully considered compositon of the Crevole Madonna shows a faint but decided French influence: the elegant forms of the angels in the upper corners, the veiled transparency of the Child's garment, held up by a curious knotted cord, and most of all, the intimate gesture of the Infant Jesus, held in a tender embrace. With regard to the anonymous 'Master of the Badia at Isola' it is worth recording that in all probability he was at the beginning in such close relations with the master as to lend credibility to the opinion that Duccio's hand can be detected in some of his early works. As an example can be cited the very beautiful Madonna no. 593 in the Pinacoteca of Siena whose face is really so close to Duccio's Crevole Madonna that it could easily be attributed to him and dated to that period.

Rucellai Madonna (1285)

The picture's name derives from the Rucellai Chapel of Santa Maria Novella where it remained, after being moved to several different places inside the church, from 1591 to 1937, the year of the Giotto exhibition. It was then transferred to the Uffizi. The panel was commissioned in 1285.

The painting has been the subject of much controversy among critics. In the fifteenth century it was thought to be the work of Cimabue, and this attribution, supported by Vasari, was accepted until the beginning of the 20th century. The design of the frame decorated with roundels, the three pairs of angels flanking the throne and the sweeping gesture of the Child's blessing hand, show undeniable similarities to Cimabue's MaestÓ, now in the Louvre but at that time in the Church of San Francesco in Pisa. This may have been the inspiration of Duccio; Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives (not always completely reliable), documents a not improbable sojourn in Pisa. Another detail of Florentine origin is the punching on some of the haloes, decorated with relief granulation, an engraving technique not practised in Siena, where incising the surface with a chisel was preferred. The elements from Cimabue are enriched with delicate Gothic overtones, unknown at that time, but which were to become a permanent feature of Sienese art. The brilliance of colour, the curving outlines and the sinuous movement of the gilded edging of Mary's cloak are all new. The entire structure of the throne reflects the influence from beyond the Alps: the panels are slender mullioned windows, the foot-rest is supported by a light double arch, the back is crowned with delicate arching and little pinnacles.

The iconographical interpretation is also new in that the angels holding up the throne no longer form the crowning part of a solemn and magnificent background but are all looking towards the Virgin in attitudes of intense emotional participation. The connection with the 1285 contract is borne out by the painted frame that fulfils a specific iconographical purpose in accordance with the intentions of the Confraternity of the Laudesi. This was founded within the Dominican order, around 1244-45, with the object of fighting heresy by means of an intensive preaching programme. In the medallion placed at the top is the image of Christ. On his left are twelve figures, mostly prophets and patriarchs, among whom are: John the Baptist immediately next to the Redeemer, King David crowned and with the psalms, the young Daniel holding a roll. On the right of the Virgin, the Apostles, to whom the Child is turning to give his blessing, represent the New Testament. Peter and John the Evangelist are the first of the saints, many of whom are complete with books and scrolls that refer to the Gospel and in a more general sense underline the importance of preaching. The roundels in the lower section, more easily visible to the faithful, contain images of the saints to whom the Laudesi and the Dominicans were particularly devoted. In the centre is St Augustine of Hippo, whose rule guided the Dominican friars. On the left are Catherine of Alexandria and Dominic. On the right is Zenobius, early medieval bishop and patron of the city, accompanied by Peter the Martyr, the then recently canonized founder of the Confraternity. The significance of the frame and the medallions is therefore not solely ornamental but conveys the commissioners' desire for self-proclamation: the Dominican brotherhood was to be visualized as a lay group championing the cult of the Virgin.

The Cathedral Window

Between 1285 and 1308, the year the Sienese MaestÓ was commissioned, documented information exists only on the stained-glass window in Siena Cathedral. The large "oculus" on the wall of the apse is divided into nine compartments, of which five form a cross, while the other four occupy the remaining sectors. On the vertical arm is the story of the Virgin with the Coronation, the Assumption and the Burial. On the horizontal arm, from the left, are the patron saints Bartholomew, Ansano, Crescenzio and Savino. In the corner compartments are the four Evangelists with their names and symbols: in the top left St John and in the top right St Matthew; below are St Luke and St Mark.

Nothing is known about the identity of the master glazier who undertook the job. However, it may be safely asserted that it was Duccio who made the preparatory drawings. In September 1287 the Comune of Siena entrusted the administrator of the Opera del Duomo with the task of arranging for the execution of a stained-glass window, and undertook to supply the necessary money for expenses. This agreement was evidently not kept because in May of the following year the Comune threatened to fine the camerlengo, or papal treasurer, and the administrators of the Biccherna if they did not reimburse the workman with the money for the purchase of the glass. The debt was then paid in two instalments of 100 and 25 lire, to "frate Magio". The presence of St Bartholomew, Siena's ancient patron saint, bears out the early dating since, as the MaestÓ of 1308-11 shows, he was later substituted by St Victor. At that particular moment in history, the only Sienese painter able to perform such an exacting task, and whose artistic ability had already been proved, was Duccio. A stylistic analysis further supports this conclusion.

Although the work shows marked traces of Cimabue, apparent in the Burial scene and the figures of the Evangelists, it is exemplary in that it anticipates some typical compositional solutions of the MaestÓ. The angels in the Coronation of the Virgin, resting lightly on the back of the throne, and the solid architectural structure of the latter, assay a new conception of space where the rigidity of the contours, although confined within the lead edgings, is softened by subtle upward movements. The angels' wings extending beyond the frame of the Assumption break up the geometrical severity both of the mandorla enclosing Mary and of the background decorated with insets, and lend a rhythmic energy which adapts well to the overall proportions. The solid polychrome sarcophagus in the foreground of the Burial scene, and the crowded gathering of figures with haloes reveal an austere monumentality to be faithfully echoed later on in the section of the MaestÓ dedicated to the same subject. They also clearly reflect Cimabue's style. But perfect harmony between the window and the MaestÓ was reached in 1311 when the completed altarpiece glowed beneath the rays of the coloured glass, and the iconographical project of the glorification of the Virgin was magnificently realized.

Altarpieces (1286-1308)

1. Small Madonnas 2. Perugia Madonna
3. Polyptch No. 28 4. London Triptych


The "Small" Madonnas

When examining the Madonna of Bern and the Madonna of the Franciscans, Buoninsegna's extraordinary versatility must again be stressed. A feeling of uncertainty must arise when placing these small paintings (respectively 31.5 x 22.5 cm and 23.5 x 16 cm) side by side with works of such impressive grandeur as the Rucellai Madonna and the Cathedral window, so different in size and structural organization. However, a careful analysis of the two paintings leaves no room for doubt as to authorship. The self-confident ease Duccio reveals, in a type of pictorial art which has almost become the miniature, leads us to assume that a series of works now unfortunately all lost were of similarly high quality. An examination of the covers of the Biccherna account books, decorated by Duccio at various intervals from 1278, would have thrown light on the subject. These little paintings, so close in size to the Madonnas in question, would certainly have been a further proof of the skill as a miniaturist which stands out in these last two works.

A feeling of tenderness permeates the radiant Madonna of Bern, where the Virgin and Child are portrayed in a loving embrace. The gesture of intimate affection is taken from Byzantine iconography, from the motif of the Glykophilousa, in which Mary, with a presentiment of the sad future, clasps the Infant Jesus urgently to her breast. A closer reference can be seen in the Madonna in Bologna on which Duccio worked as an assistant of Cimabue, but its size and the barely indicated gesture greatly reduce the sense of intimate tenderness. The typology of the throne, decorated with Cosmati-like inlays and already experimented in several variations in the window of the apse, follows the lines of Gothic architecture, while the characteristic curling edge of Mary's dress evens out into a smooth gilt border.

The Madonna of the Franciscans shows greater structural articulation, and was probably part of a diptych or triptych intended for private worship, perhaps of a small group of Friars Minor. Iconographically it follows the "Madonna of Mercy" type: while looking towards the spectator the Virgin holds back the edge of her robe the better to receive and protect the three kneeling friars, for whom the Child's blessing is intended. This elaborate intermingling of echoes from Cimabue and Byzantine art, with the added softness of Duccio's personal touch, includes elements of the new artistic language from beyond the Alps. The tiny square panels of the backcloth, an innovation substituting the usual gold ground, are of clear French derivation. Thus, the measured breadth of contour, the sinuous curving of the robe's hem and the smooth masses of colour form part of a wider spatial dimension, where the Gothic predilection for linearity and flowing outlines reaches its maximum expression. The features of the supplicating friars and the throne, a simple wooden seat placed obliquely to create an effect of perspective, reflect the teaching of Cimabue. The unusual posture of the Child's legs belongs entirely to Duccio, however, who repeats the gestures of the early Madonna of Buonconvento and the Rucellai Madonna.

A Madonna and Child, better known as the Stoclet Madonna (present whereabouts unknown), has been assigned to the last years of the thirteenth century. Because of its size (27 x 21 cm) and the new approach to space, it fits into the art of Duccio well at this particular moment.

The Perugia Madonna

The Perugia Madonna, now in the local National Gallery, was kept perhaps ab antiquo up until 1863 in the monastery of San Domenico in Perugia, hung above the sacresty door or in the "Winter Choir". It was ascribed to Duccio in 1911 and subsequent restoration revealed it to be the central panel of a dismantled polyptych. The formal stylistic elements of the traditional half-length portrait of the Madonna and Child develop into the portrayal of a solid mother and son relationship, showing a greater naturalness of gesture. Remarkable spontaneity is shown in the movement of the Child who is sitting on his mother's curved arm (a position shared by the Stoclet Madonna), clutching the soft folds of her veil. This detail in dress is of importance since it takes the place of the red Byzantine maphˇrion, evidently considered old-fashioned by the painter. The Virgin's gesture, showing the Child's hand and pointing to his feet, is also significant: it seems to allude to the future Passion of Christ. The original splendour of the painting is marred by its poor state of preservation, but although of high pictorial value it had no influence on local artistic production.

Polyptych No. 28

Definite Duccio authorship is ascribed to the Madonna of the Polyptych no. 28 in the Pinacoteca of Siena. The whole work is assigned to the production of the workshop (perhaps partly because of its very bad condition) since it reveals a considerable amount of help, valuable but extensive, in the side panels and the pinnacles.

The London Triptych

The London Triptych (in the National Gallery, London) is a portable altarpiece of medium size (61.5 x 78 cm), consisting of three panels. On the sides, to the left and right respectively, are saints Dominic and Agnes: the latter was for a long time thought to be the very rare St Aurea until her true identity was given her back on the basis of the symbol of the double cross. On the central panel is the Virgin and Child with four angels. The upper section shows seven prophets, identified by the Bible verses contained in their scrolls; from the left they are: Daniel, Moses, Isaiah, David (in a perfect central position and distinguished by his name and crown), Abraham, Jacob and Jeremiah. Opinions vary as to the dating of the triptych, but it is generally agreed to be by Duccio. The overall arrangement of the central piece belongs to the same stylistic phase as the Stoclet Madonna, where the figure of the Child (painted very small according to oriental custom) and the slight twist of Mary's body to allow for the wide gesture of her outspread arm, are similar. On the other hand, the obvious taste for decorativeness and the rhythmic linearity of contour, displaying a wholly Gothic tendency, suggest a much later date, some years after the MaestÓ. Owing to its perfect state of preservation it is still possible to appreciate the glowing tints of the drapery, with its inevitable gilded edges, and the delicate transparency of St Agnes's veil and the Child's little garment.

Late works (1312-19)

No reliable information exists on Duccio's artistic output during the years which elapsed from the completion of the MaestÓ up till his death some time between the end of 1318 and the first half of 1319. During recent restoration work (1979-80) in the Sala del Mappamondo of the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena, a new fresco was discovered below the imposing Guidoriccio da Fogliano by Simone Martini, representing a castle on a hill and two people in the foreground. The attempt to discover the identity of the unknown author of this work has given rise to much controversy among critics. Duccio, Pietro Lorenzetti, Memmo di Filippuccio, Simone Martini were suggested. However, Duccio is known principally as a painter of panels and the problem remains unsolved. The fresco, of outstanding executive quality both in the skilful choice of descriptive detail and in its overall coherence, was badly damaged by the Mappamondo, a large, revolving, circular painting by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, which was placed on top of it in 1345.

The Polyptych no. 47, originally in the Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala and now in the Pinacoteca of Siena, is less problematic. Only the central part of the work is of indisputable Duccio authorship; the remaining panels are ascribed to an able, but as yet unknown, assistant. The poor condition of the panel with the Virgin and Child has reduced both its attractiveness and the possibility of more thorough research on it. However the superb monumentality of the half-length figures and the tender embrace of the mother and son reveal the undeniable presence of Duccio. The unusual posture of the legs of the Infant Jesus reappears here, a repetition of a solution already achieved in earlier Madonnas (from the Crevole Madonna to the Stoclet Madonna).

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