Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 11, 2003
Alessandro Bagnoli Duccio: At the Origins of Sienese Painting Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2003. 539 pp.; 300 ills. €48.00 (8882154831)

On June 9, 1311, Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Maestà was placed on the high altar of Siena cathedral. A mid-fourteenth-century Sienese chronicle describes its first presentation to the city:

On the day on which it was carried to the Duomo, the shops were locked up and the Bishop ordered a great and devout company of priests and brothers with a solemn procession, accompanied by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Commune, and all the populace and all the most worthy were in order next to the said panel with lights lit in their hands, and then behind were women and children with much devotion; and they accompanied it right to the Duomo making procession around the Campo, as was the custom, sounding all the bells in glory out of devotion for such a noble panel as was this.1

With similar pomp and reverence almost seven hundred years later, the entire city of Siena is celebrating the first major exhibition devoted to the art of Duccio. The Sienese pride in him is justified: his synthesis of traditional Byzantine forms, northern Gothic elegance, and the burgeoning Tuscan interest in naturalism had a lasting impact on the early Italian Renaissance. An exhibition devoted to this artist is long overdue. Duccio: Alle origini della pittura senese examines early Sienese art and follows its development from pre-Duccio to Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers. Organized by Alessandro Bagnoli, Roberto Bartalini, Luciano Bellosi, and Michel Laclotte, Duccio is dominated by panel paintings, though a few illuminated manuscripts, biccherne (account book covers), treasury objects, and sculptures are included. The vast majority of works are from Sienese collections.

Through stylistic analysis and a few new attributions, the exhibition attempts to describe the artistic origins of Duccio and to underscore his impact on artists of succeeding generations. The selection of works, beautifully organized and presented, achieves this goal to a large degree. The exhibition’s wall texts, however, are aimed too carefully at a general audience, so visitors searching for in-depth research should pick up the magnificently illustrated and well-researched catalogue. With introductory essays for each chronological section of the exhibition and another on the history of Siena in Duccio’s time by Gabriella Piccinni, the book also contains helpful reviews of previous attributions for each work, a documentary appendix, and a fully updated bibliography. (The catalogue is in Italian; an updated English edition will be available December 2003.)

Appropriately, Duccio is presented in three main sites clustered around the cathedral, which is just a stone’s throw from the house where Duccio resided. The Ospedale of Santa Maria della Scala has been transformed into a large exhibition space where close to one hundred works are on view, while the large Maestà panels are displayed, as they have been for some time, in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. A separate ticket gives entrance to a third venue, the so-called crypt of Siena cathedral, containing breathtakingly well-preserved frescos by Duccio’s forerunners. The exhibition brochure and website also list Duccio-related works in the city of Siena and the surrounding territory, including frescos in chapels specially opened for the occasion.

In the first two galleries at Santa Maria della Scala, a series of works by Duccio’s precursors, including Dietisalvi di Speme and Guido da Siena, offers a visual prelude to Duccio. The works here illustrate the impact of Byzantine art on the Tuscan duecento, as seen in panels such as the Virgin and Christ Enthroned, usually cloistered in the Sienese convent of the Poor Clares (cat. no. 9), and several of the important manuscripts displayed, such as the group of drawings on parchment attributed to Vigoroso da Siena, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (cat. nos. 17–19). The inclusion of manuscripts also alludes to Duccio’s assumed, though undocumented, experience as an illuminator.

The exhibition’s initial overture crescendos with a group of Madonna and Child paintings highlighting Duccio’s relationship to Giotto and Cimabue, who are otherwise absent from the show. A powerful pairing of the Madonna from Castelfiorentino (cat. no. 21), attributed to Cimabue and the young Giotto, and Duccio’s Crevole Madonna (cat. no. 22) provides an exercise in discerning the stylistic affinities and distinctions among the three masters. Following these, the magnificent stained-glass window from the apse of the Siena cathedral (cat. no. 26) further illustrates the mutual influence of Duccio and Cimabue. In fact, the window was attributed to Cimabue for many years, but after the most recent cleaning and restoration, the exhibition organizers emphatically reassert Enzo Carli’s attribution to Duccio. This window is a rare example of Gothic stained-glass production in Italy and is thus evidence of the multimedia skills of artists such as Duccio. Expertly cleaned by Camillo Tarozzi under Bagnoli’s direction, the window’s brilliant palette of green, gold, purple, and yellow can finally be appreciated.

The next gallery features a painted crucifix from the private Sienese collection of the Salini (cat. no. 25), which is attributed to the young Duccio for the first time. If this striking and unusual depiction of the “living” Christ on the cross is by Duccio, he made a tremendous artistic leap that the show fails to explain. The strongest visual comparison in favor of this attribution is the face of Christ on this work with that in the Dormition panel of the window, but the catalogue photographs, which pair the two faces on opposite full pages (182–83), are more convincing than the works in person. The crucifix deserves much further study; an iconographic analysis would be revealing and might help to address problems of attribution and date.

Several smaller paintings follow the Salini crucifix as a prelude to the works of Duccio’s later period. The jewel-like Bern Madonna (cat. no. 27) is a delight to see but would have been even more effective if paired with the Madonna of the Franciscans (cat. no. 24), which was instead displayed next to the Crevole Madonna. Such a juxtaposition would have illustrated Duccio’s skills as a miniaturist and his interest in patterns and fabric. These elements are highlighted well, however, by the gorgeous triptych lent by the Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (cat. no. 29), though one also wishes that triptychs from the National Gallery, London, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had also been included.

The part of the exhibition devoted to Duccio’s Maestà (cat. no. 32) is divided between two venues. Apparently, the large front and back panels housed in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo were too fragile to be moved. Thus, the organizers chose to display a number of other small panels from the predella and pinnacles of the Maestà, several from collections outside Italy, at Santa Maria della Scala. Though the placement of these panels within the main exhibition helps to continue the narrative of Duccio’s artistic development and showcases recent restoration efforts, the precious opportunity to reunite the fragments of Duccio’s magnum opus in a single installation is lost.

The second floor of the Ospedale is devoted to post-Duccio works, first presenting the three generations of Sienese painters following him, from the Maestro di Badia a Isola (cat. no. 39) to Bartolomeo Bulgarini (cat. nos. 63–66). Here the installation, with paintings dispersed sparsely throughout the large space, does not allow for effective stylistic comparisons, though the works selected do illustrate these artists’ heavy reliance on Duccio. As the main part of the exhibition concludes, paintings by Simone Martini (cat. nos. 67–68) and the Lorenzetti (cat. nos. 69–73) highlight both their debt to and their departures from Duccio, and finally, objects of goldsmith work and sculpture reference Duccio’s relationship to northern Gothic art.

Across the piazza and down its southern steps is perhaps the exhibition’s most significant contribution to the study of early Sienese painting: the opening of the “crypt” of Siena cathedral. Once a narthex-type entry hall leading from the baptistery to the cathedral, this space contains a cycle of slightly pre-Duccio frescos illustrating scenes from the life of Christ. Though Enzo Carli speculated in 1946 that the crypt was decorated, the cycle was only rediscovered in the last decade, and restoration work has finally allowed for limited, timed visits. The thirty minutes spent viewing the murals, with their deep azurite blue backgrounds and preserved gold leaf, were among the most enjoyable of the show. In their placement, style, and iconography, the paintings reflect the strong Byzantine accent in the Tuscan duecento. One hopes that, once certain conservation issues are addressed, public viewing of these works will continue and lead to further research on Duccio’s relationship to monumental art.

Scholars trained in connoisseurship approaches will find Duccio’s emphasis on attribution and style satisfying and thought provoking, if not always convincing. This narrow focus, however, limits the presentation of new scholarly approaches. Both the catalogue and show might have considered context and iconography as well, as studies by Florens Deuchler, Diana Norman, and others have done. There remains much to learn about Duccio in terms of the development of narrative in trecento painting—how his work relates to religion and popular piety, for example. One hopes that the compelling combination of works and the solid restoration efforts on view in Siena will spark future Duccio scholarship and take consideration of this artist in new and different directions.

Holly Flora
Andrew W, Mellon Curatorial Fellow, The Frick Collection

1 The Dictionary of Art, ed. Jane Turner (New York: Grove, 1996), s.v. “Duccio (di Buoninsegna).”