The Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255-c. 1318) was the first great master of the Sienese school. His art represented the culmination of the Italo-Byzantine style in Siena and created the foundation for Sienese Gothic art.
Little is known about the life of Duccio. It is thought that he was born in the 1250s, probably toward the end of the decade. The first documentary reference which has come down to us is dated 1278. Thereafter several documents give us some hints about the artist's personality. He was, for instance, frequently in debt, as receipts of payment indicate. He was fined several times for petty offenses such as blocking the street and once for refusing to join the militia fighting in Maremma. From these fragmentary references we might conclude that Duccio was one of the first bohemian artists. A document of 1319 indicates that he was dead.
Duccio's role in the development of early Sienese painting may be equated roughly with the roles of both Cimabue and Giotto in the development of Florentine painting. Like Cimabue, Duccio represented the culmination of the Italo-Byzantine style of the 13th century in Siena. Duccio and Cimabue, however, stamped their most Byzantine works with the marks of their personalities so that both helped to establish the character of their respective schools of painting. There was in Duccio's style an anticipation of the linear rhythmic movements and patterns that later evolved into the 14th-century Gothic style that equates him with Giotto. The somewhat younger Giotto, however, actually achieved a fully developed Gothic style, whereas Duccio's art merely advanced to its threshold. After Duccio, Sienese painting became wholeheartedly Gothic in the work of Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers.
The Rucellai Madonna
Our understanding of Duccio's style depends on two documented works: the Madonna Enthroned, called the Rucellai Madonna, and the Maestà. The Rucellai Madonna was commissioned on April 15, 1285, by the Confraternity of the Laudesi of S. Maria Novella in Florence. The contract was discovered in the 18th century and led to the correction of Giorgio Vasari's attribution of the Rucellai Madonna to Cimabue. Despite this documentary evidence and the discrepancy in style between the Rucellai Madonna and other authentic works by Cimabue, some scholars still cling to Vasari's attribution. Others, aware of the stylistic differences but reluctant to accept the Rucellai Madonna as a work by Duccio, have invented a third artist, the "Master of the Rucellai Madonna." The consensus of opinion, however, gives the painting to Duccio. There is nothing in the style of the Rucellai Madonna that makes its attribution to Duccio implausible. This fact plus the contract of 1285 certainly makes such an attribution acceptable.
In stylistic terms, the Rucellai Madonna remains within the Byzantine conventions. It shows a concern for coloristic design uncommon in the late 13th century. In the dress of the six angels flanking the throne, for instance, Duccio abandoned the strict symmetry and deep colors of the more traditional Byzantine works and substituted cool, silvery lilacs, pinks, and light blues, which give the painting a softer and more decorative appearance than was common. This decorativeness is further accentuated by the dancing gold line that traces the hem and opening of the Virgin's mantle.
The Maestà, Duccio's masterpiece, is fully documented. It was commissioned on Oct. 9, 1308, for the main altar of the Cathedral in Siena and was carried in triumph from Duccio's studio to the Cathedral on June 9, 1311. Between these dates there are several documents of payment and admonitions to the artist to work faster. The Maestà is painted on both sides. The front depicts the Madonna enthroned in majesty with saints and angels. In the predella, spandrels, and pinnacles are scenes from the life of the Virgin and portraits of the Prophets. The back is decorated with small panels depicting the life and Passion of Christ.
The Maestà is splendid with gold leaf and rich colors. The design of the front is conventional, with the Madonna enthroned, flanked by regular ranks of saints and angels. Duccio did, however, substitute a solid blue mantle for the gold-feathered mantle of the typical Byzantine Madonna and painted a marble Cosmatesque throne in place of the Byzantine wooden throne. As in the Rucellai Madonna, the hem and opening of the Virgin's mantle are traced with a sinuously moving gold line. In the narrative scenes on both front and back, Duccio evolved a remarkably accurate figure-setting relationship which created convincing environments for the figures to move through.
Other paintings generally attributed to Duccio include a half-length Madonna and Child for S. Cecilia in Crevole. This work, which is totally within the Byzantine style, is usually dated before the Rucellai Madonna, that is, before 1285, and is therefore Duccio's earliest extant work. The Madonna and Franciscans, dating from between the Rucellai Madonna and the Maestà, perhaps about 1300, is a charming small panel with many of the stylistic characteristics found in Duccio's larger pictures. A Madonna Enthronedin Bern dates from the same period as the Madonna and Franciscans. Other works include a half-length Madonnain in Brussels, a half-length Madonnain in Perugia, and a triptych in London. A polyptych with the half-length Madonna flanked by saints in Siena may be wholly or partly painted by Duccio. Duccio's pupils and followers adhered closely to his style, a fact that has created unusual difficulty for connoisseurs.
Further Reading on Duccio di Buoninsegna
The best available monograph on Duccio is in Italian, Cesare Brandi, Duccio (1951). There is nothing comparable in English. Enzo Carli's book for the Astra Aréngarium Series, Duccio (1952), is available in English and includes a remarkable amount of information; the reproductions are poor. Evelyn Sandburg-Vavalà's chapters on Duccio and his school in Sienese Studies: The Development of the School of Painting of Siena (1953) are excellent for an understanding and appreciation of Duccio's art.