by Sue Hubbard
Siena, a mediaeval city of windy streets, dark alleys and red roofs is one of Italy's jewels. It may now be full of school children and tourists eating ice cream as they wander amongst the stylish shops or stop to have a drink in the Piazza del Campo – which twice yearly is turned into a horse racetrack for that lunatic and partisan stampede, the Palio – but it was in the Middle Ages that Siena reached its zenith. Having been ruled by the Longobards, then the Franks, it passed into the hands of the Prince-Bishops. During the 12th century these were overthrown by Consuls who set up a secular government. It was then that Siena attained the political and economic importance that led to its rivalry with that other gilded Tuscan city, Florence. The 12th century saw the construction of many beautiful buildings: numerous towers, nobles' houses, Romanesque churches, culminating in the construction of the famous black and white duomo.
The great age of Sienese art arguably started with Duccio. No contemporary accounts of him, nor any personal documents, have survived. Though there are many records about him in municipal archives: records of changing of address, payments, civil penalties and contracts that give some idea of the life of the painter. Little is known of his painting career. Many believe he studied under Cimabue, while others think that he may have actually traveled to Constantinople and learned directly from a Byzantine master.
As a young man Duccio probably worked in Assisi, though he spent virtually his entire life in Siena. He's first mentioned in Sienese documents in 1278 in connection with commissions for 12 wooden panels for the covers of the municipal books. In 1285, a lay brotherhood in Florence commissioned him to complete an altarpiece, known now as the Rusellai Madonna, for the church of Santa Maria Novella. By that date he must already have had something of a reputation, which guaranteed the quality of his work.
At the beginning of the 14th century Siena was competing with Florence for political and artistic supremacy in central Italy. Duccio seems to have played an important role in this economic and artistic expansion. In 1295, along with other masters from the cathedral stonemasons' lodge, he was appointed to a committee that was to decide where a new fountain should be installed. Seven years later, in 1302, he received payments for an altarpiece with a predella – now lost – which he was due to paint for a chapel in the Palazzo Publico, the seat of the municipal government. The last reference to him in any municipal archives is dated October 1319. In it his seven children declare they are foregoing their inheritance in favour of their mother. This implies their father must have died sometime around 1318. But in 1308 the city of Siena commissioned him to produce a panel for the cathedral's high altar. This work is now known as The Maestà.
It was on June 9, 1311 that the completed painting was brought into the cathedral. A contemporary chronicler wrote: “And on that day when it (the Maestà) was brought into the cathedral, all workshops remained closed, and the bishop commanded a great host of devoted priests and monks to file past in solemn procession. This was accompanied by all the high officers of the Commune and by all the people; all honorable citizens of Siena surrounded said panel with candles held in their hands, and women and children followed humbly behind. They accompanied the panel amidst the glorious pealing of bells after a solemn procession on the Piazza del Campo into the very cathedral; and all this out of reverence for the costly panel… The poor received many alms, and we prayed to the Holy Mother of God, our patron saint, that she might in her infinite mercy preserve this our city of Siena from every misfortune, traitor or enemy.”
The huge altarpiece was originally over 5 meters high and 5 meters long and painted on both sides. The whole panel remained on the cathedral's high altar until 1506, when it was then displayed on a different altar. In 1711 it was dismantled in order to distribute the panels between the two altars. This is the reason for the work's fragmentary state. At first the whole frame, the predellas and the crowning sections were removed. The panel was then sawn into seven parts. The two predellas were each painted on a horizontally laid piece of wood, and could easily be taken apart. But the main panel posed a problem. On the front are eleven boards arranged vertically, to which five boards, laid horizontally, were nailed from the back. These had been glued and nailed together so it was difficult to saw in two. In the process of this barbarism the picture-surface was severely damaged – particularly the Madonna's face and robes. It was not until 1956 that it was fully restored.
This philistinism had additional consequences. Once the whole structure was dismantled, several individual scenes found their way to museums or private collections. Others simply went missing. So the picture we have today of the Maestà is built up out of reconstructions. This is incomplete as the frame and five individual pictures have been lost. And art historians, as is their wont, have been unable to agree on the sequence of scenes depicted on both predellas and the reverse side.
The front panels make up a large enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels, and a predella of the Childhood of Christ with prophets. The reverse shows the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ in a total of forty-three small scenes. Several of these panels are now dispersed or lost. The base of the panel has an inscription that reads: “Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus.”
There's no evidence, however, that Duccio painted frescoes. His known works are on wood panel, painted in egg tempera and embellished with gold leaf. Duccio was the master of tempera and used the medium with delicacy and precision. He borrowed from Byzantine art with its gold backgrounds and familiar religious scenes but was more expressive and experimental. His paintings are full of warm color and exquisitely observed details, sometimes inlaid with jewels and ornamental fabrics. His use of modeling – the play of light and dark colors – reveals the bodies beneath the heavy drapery; hands, faces, and feet which, under his brush, became more rounded and three-dimensional. There's also a new, complex organisation of figures, breaking down the sharp lines of Byzantine art. He was one of the first painters to place figures in architectural settings, to investigate depth and space. They also interact with tenderness and convey real emotion. This was something new. What he gives us is no longer simply an archetypal vision of Christ and the Virgin. It is a mother with her child. Though Duccio flirts with naturalism The Maestà still remains an object of heavenly veneration with its beautiful colours, but one that is capable of showing not only the divine but also human love.
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Sue Hubbard is a London-based award-winning poet, freelance art critic and novelist. Her latest poetry collection is The Forgetting and Remembering of Air (Salt) and latest novel, Girl in White (Cinnamon Press). She is spending a month in Siena as writer-in-residence at the Siena Institute of Art.