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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 matters seem to have reached a head, and late in December he was compelled to borrow from the Opera del Duomo, for which he was then working, the sizable sum of fifty florins, which was to be repaid by January 1, 1310. He was working at the time on the Maestà, and to regulate what was clearly a rather unorthodox transaction, a calculation was made of the sum which would be due to him when the narrative scenes on the back were complete. Thirty-four narrative scenes were still unfinished, but since some of them were of double size and single figures were involved as well the basis of computation was for thirty-eight scenes. They were assessed at an aggregate value of ninety-five florins, that is at two and a half florins each. The fifty florin loan was set against this sum. But Duccio was not let off so lightly as this document suggests. In October 1308, before the loan was formally approved, the contract for the Maestà was tightened up, in an effort to compel him to play a larger part in its execution than he had done before.

There is a parallel for this procedure in Florence a hundred years later, when the contract with Ghiberti for the bronze door of the Baptistry was renegotiated in somewhat the same way. It should be said at once that this is not how the genesis of the painting is normally explained. White and Stubblebine, in the books under review, believe (as did Weigelt and Brandi and every earlier Duccio scholar) that the document of 1308 is the commission for the Maestà. This cannot be correct. We have one bona fide Duccio contract, for the Rucellai Madonna in the Uffizi, which stipulates, as we should expect, the form and subject of the painting. The Siena document does not do this; it is concerned solely with modality, and it seems to refer back to a lost antecedent contract.

This is much more than an academic point. We know when the Maestà was finished; it was transported to the Duomo to the sound of trumpets in the summer of 1311. If, therefore, the document of 1308 were a contract, we should have no alternative but to assume, as White puts it, that “exactly two years and eight months [elapsed] between the signing of the initial contract and the delivery of the altarpiece.” The conventional postulate of rapid execution, though contrary to the whole nature of the painting—offhand I can recall no altarpiece which looks more closely cogitated or which is executed more meticulously—is none the less accepted both by White and Stubblebine. They explain it in two different ways. White considers that “the actual work of painting a large panel was much more like frescoing a wall than might at first be thought,” and implies that the paint was slapped on by Duccio at top speed. In face of the sustained creative effort manifest throughout the painting this is a wildly improbable hypothesis.

Stubblebine proposes a different solution, that Duccio himself painted the main panel and the predella beneath it, but did not intervene personally on the back, which was delegated to six other painters, three of them younger artists, Simone Martini and the brothers Lorenzetti, who attained prominence in the second decade of the century. According to this theory, they were invited not merely to carry out cartoons by Duccio, but were allowed a measure of discretion over the character and space construction of their panels. The case is adroitly argued, but on a number of occasions in the past five years I have read the article in which it was originally propounded in front of Duccio’s painting, and I think that it is wrong.

In the trecento large altarpieces were almost invariably carried out by the designing master with the help of members of his shop. But it is hard to believe that in a commission of such solemnity Duccio would have granted his disciples the latitude that is postulated in this book. As I read the documents, studio intervention is more probable in the parts of the altarpiece painted before October 1308 than in those painted afterward, that is on the front of the altarpiece rather than on the back. Stubblebine differentiates between the front predella, which is wholly by Duccio, and the scenes from the life of the Virgin at the top, which were, he claims, adapted by Segna di Buonaventura from Duccio’s cartoons.

This distinction seems to me incontrovertible. In the main panel the decorative, linear robes of St. Savinus and the two female saints could well be due to Simone Martini, though the heads are manifestly Duccio’s. The narrative scenes on the back show intermittent evidence of studio intervention—whoever painted those spindly servants in front of the table in the Marriage at Cana, for example, it cannot have been Duccio—and with the figures (the figures not the space they occupy) a number of Stubblebine’s groupings seem to me persuasive. I mean by this that the figures he ascribes to the same hand often are by the same hand, not that the hand is necessarily that of Simone or one or other of the Lorenzetti. But the absolute narrative consistency of the whole cycle would be inexplicable if all the panels were not Duccio-planned. One suspects it is those wretched two years and eight months that have led Stubblebine to the over-radical solution he advances here. If the altarpiece were begun in 1304 or 1305 or 1306 the productive rhythm would have been more staid and orthodox, and a number of the differences between the narrative panels on the front and on the back would be attributable to changes in Duccio’s personal style.

Earlier in this century monographs on artists generally consisted of a narrative text followed by a list of works. This form is unsatisfactory because it makes no provision for indispensable semantic argument. Modern monographs, therefore, have tended to adopt the form of an elaborate catalogue, in which the problems posed by individual works can be thrashed out. John White’s Duccio reverts to the earlier form; it consists of a continuous text and two or three appendices, but it has no catalogue. The attributions in it, however closely they may have been thought out, are presented as assumptions unsupported by rational argument, and so is the very unconvincing chronology.

I yield to none in my admiration for White’s earlier work—his studies of the Maitani reliefs at Orvieto and of Donatello’s high altar at Padua are models of their kind—but I question if his new book should have been printed in its present state. There are several Whites jostling one another in the text. There is a statistician, dividing the remuneration received by artists by the size of the painting they produced, and comparing the result, with appropriate allowance for changes in the value of money, with the sums other artists might have been expected to receive if, at a later date, they had obtained a commission of commensurate size. There is a carpenter, and a garrulous old man he is, boring the pants off readers whenever he appears. There is a geometer, obsessively concerned with the proportional system of design evolved by Roriczer, and an aesthete with a sometimes embarrassing concomitant of sentimentalism. Much of this material has already been printed in the form of articles. In a preface White declares it “incumbent on the art historian to use the full range of tools at his or her disposal.” But in this eccentric book he uses only some of them, and the yield, in any understanding of Duccio or his work, is an extremely meager one.

Stubblebine’s Duccio di Buoninsegna and His School is based on altogether different principles. Recognizing the simple truth that Duccio cannot be studied White-wise in isolation, he reproduces the whole known body of Ducciesque panel paintings. Planned as a catalogue, his book aims to do for Sienese painting at the beginning of the fourteenth century what Offner did for Florentine trecento painting. Offner believed that primitives must be attributed in the first instance to workshops, not to individual artists, and that ascription to a specific painter was warranted only when a work was demonstrably of exceptional quality. To this day the only areas in Tuscan painting where we feel firm ground beneath our feet are those which he surveyed.

The difficulty in extending this method to Ducciesque painting is its pervasive anonymity. A few artists were considerate enough to sign their paintings. One of them is Segna di Buonaventura, who inscribed four panels with his name, on the basis of which other paintings (and parts of Duccio’s Maestà) can with some confidence be assigned to him. But with other artists (even great artists like the Master of the Badia a Isola) we are less well placed. By and large Stubblebine’s analysis of the attributions to these nameless masters is acute and sensible. The trouble is a subjective one, that no two art historians have precisely the same standard of similitude. In my living room I cohabit with an unimportant little fragment which Stubblebine ascribes to the Tabernacle 35 Master, but looking at it year in year out I cannot persuade myself that it is by the painter of the tabernacle, or that the painter, as he is reconstructed here, is a coherent personality.

Four years ago a small Crucifixion was sold at auction in London for a million pounds as by Duccio. Stubblebine is confident that it was painted about 1330 by Ugolino da Siena. But all we know of Ugolino as an artist is that he painted the high altarpiece of Santa Croce in Florence—the friars no doubt were hoping for another Maestà, but that was not what Ugolino gave them—whose missing central panel once bore his name. The altarpiece was painted about 1325 (this date rests on inference, not on solid evidence), and the narrative panels from it that survive are in every way less delicate than the little Crucifixion and less intense. Possibly the Crucifixion really is by Ugolino, but if so the narrative scenes on the altarpiece must have been painted by one of his brothers or some other member of the family shop. Conversely a little Madonna bought as a Duccio for the National Gallery is accepted by Stubblebine as a Duccio, though its affinities seem to me to lie elsewhere. Particularly treacherous is the problem of chronology, for with these paintings there are virtually no dates. Stubblebine’s catalogue in short is not definitive, but it marks a new stage in the study of this field, and whatever reserve one may feel at individual judgments in it, it is a valuable and an extremely important book.

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