A Misfit Master

Duccio: Tuscan Art and the Medieval Workshop

by John White
Thames & Hudson, 280, 191 illus pp., $37.50

Duccio di Buoninsegna and His School

by James H. Stubblebine
Princeton University Press, 2 vols, 540, 600 illus pp., $55.00

The Maestà the high altarpiece painted by Duccio for the Cathedral in Siena, is arguably the greatest panel painting that has ever been produced. On the unusually wide main panel are the Virgin and Child enthroned with saints and angels. Beneath it and above it are a narrative predella with scenes from the infancy of Christ, and seven scenes from the life of the Virgin. On the back there were originally forty-two scenes from the New Testament. When it was completed, in 1311, the main panel must have looked physically more convincing, that is more tactile and more lifelike, than any painting in Siena that had preceded it, and the narrative panels must have seemed bewildering in their abundance and inventiveness. They evinced a variety of structure for which there was no precedent, and established almost all the compositional devices used by painters in Siena through the first half of the fourteenth century.

They made use, moreover, of an empathetic narrative technique whose subtlety and inwardness continue to surprise us when we look at them today. Like Giotto in the Padua frescoes, Duccio in the Maestà extended the expressive possibilities of painted narrative. So large and various and comprehensive was the altarpiece that it dominated painting in Siena for almost two hundred years. Four years after it was finished, one of Duccio’s pupils, Simone Martini, painted a fresco of the Maestà in the Palazzo Pubblico; it was opulent and lyrical, but lacked the weight and concentration of Duccio’s altarpiece. A quarter of a century later another Duccio pupil, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, again paid tribute to the Maestà in an altarpiece, at Massa Marittima, which achieved the gravity of Duccio’s painting but not its fluency. In 1432 it inspired Sassetta’s Madonna of the Snow, and fifty years later it still provided a point of emulation for Matteo di Giovanni. When we speak of conservatism in Siena, what we mean is that in the first decade of the fourteenth century, through the transcendent genius of one artist, a stylistic standard was established to which later painters could not but conform.

We know very little about Duccio di Buoninsegna, but he seems (if my reading of the documents is correct—the authors of the two books under review would, I suspect, disagree with it) to have been something of a misfit, if not a delinquent. Almost all the early references to him which do not relate to the painting of nonexistent book-covers record antisocial transgressions for which he was fined. In 1279 he paid a small fine for trespass; in 1280 he was condemned to a much larger one for some unspecified offense; he was had up on two or three occasions for military malingering; in 1302, a specially bad year, he was accused of a criminal offense wrongly alleged to have been witchcraft, was fined once more for trespass, and was charged three times for debt; and he was still borrowing money in 1313.

In the fall of 1308 …

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