Most Italian cathedrals have formed a small Episcopal museum called Museo dell’Opera del Duomo or “Museum of the Works of the Cathedral”, where are now kept precious artistic relics that once were part of the main building of the cathedral. The small Museo dell’Opera del Duomo of Siena houses, among other objects, a large altarpiece that had once been the main altar of the cathedral of Siena. This painting, which today is divided into fragments, attracts viewers with its irresistible charm. It is the work of a master of the same city, called Duccio di Buoninsegna (born ca. 1255-1260, died ca. 1318-1319), a contemporary of the Florentines Cimabue and Giotto. At the foot of the Virgin, who occupies the main place of the altarpiece, Duccio placed his signature with these words: “Holy Mother of God, give Siena peace and be You the life for Duccio, who has painted you like that”.
The need for peace that Duccio implored for his homeland was not impertinent, because during the 13th and 14th centuries Italian cities destroyed each other mercilessly with irreducible hatred, and only formed confederations and alliances in order to annihilate their neighboring rivals with more force. Siena, the quiet population whose peaceful life is barely altered these days by the rapid passage of tourists, at the beginning of the 14th century disputed with Florence for the hegemony of Tuscany. The Sienese had defeated the Florentines in the battle of Montaperti (September 4, 1260), remembered by Dante as a terrible humiliation, and as a result of this victory the city enjoyed a happy and peaceful period of time. The bourgeois of Siena took advantage of this period of tranquility to activate the works of the cathedral and hired Duccio, who was already a famous painter, to execute a new altarpiece to replace that of the old Madonna of the Great Eyes, the miraculous patroness of the city. By a document of the year 1308, Duccio promised to work on a new icon for the price of 50 daily salaries. This document also stipulated fines and penalties to force the master in case of non-compliance or delays; because it seems that the great Sienese painter wasn’t a man so prompt in the performance of his duties as he was skilled in the art of painting. It is known, for example, that in 1299 he refused to swear allegiance to the Captain of the People of Siena, and that in 1302 he was fined in connection with acts of witchcraft.
Duccio worked on the new altar for two years; on June 11, 1311, the painting was transferred from the artist’s workshop, located in a house outside the city gate, to the cathedral in a solemn parade amid the jubilation of the entire town. Duccio’s work remained in the presbytery of the cathedral until the 16th century when canonical authorities discontented with the simple beauty of this altarpiece, replaced it with a rich marble altar. Today it is preserved incomplete in the Museo dell’Opera, since many fragments were sold and are now scattered in several museums in Europe and in the United States.
This altarpiece of Duccio is now considered a capital work of the Siena school of painting. In the center is the Virgin sitting on a marble throne surrounded by angels and saints, from where her traditional popular name comes: la Maestà. She is accompanied by the other patrons of the city: Saint John the Evangelist and Saint John the Baptist, the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Saint Agnes and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, with the four holy martyrs of Siena, namely Sabinus, Ansanus, Crescentius and Victor. All these figures, which occupied the anterior (front) part of the altarpiece, show a softer, finer and more aristocratic beauty than the characters of the Florentine master contemporary of Duccio, the great Giotto. The Master of Siena was close to the Byzantine school, but, instead of portraying the figures of saints and angels with its dry, hieratic and precise formula, he enlivens them with a soft feeling of new piety. The angels of Duccio, who in this painting form a group with 20 figures, show wonderful grace and novelty. Those who are behind the throne of the Virgin rest their heads on the hand, placed on the marble of the canopy, as if looking out from the back to also contemplate the divine image of Mary. This last is perhaps the least original figure in the painting; it is the traditional type of Byzantine Madonna somewhat vivified, as the Florentine Cimabue had already painted her in his own way.
This great altarpiece of Duccio was also painted on its back because the altar could be seen on both sides; and as the wood was thick enough, when the altar was divided it was sawed and today, in the cathedral museum, the back of the altarpiece appears as a separate painting. This second part of Duccio’s altar is very interesting, because it reveals the standards of the Byzantine iconography and how Duccio modified them by adding the distinguished “Sienese” beauty. This posterior part doesn’t have a general composition with great figures, like the front part, but it is divided by straight lines into squares filled with scenes of the Passion. The iconography of these representations is almost Byzantine, Duccio did here nothing more than to repeat the models of the paintings that arrived from the East, where in several small compartments were painted the year’s holidays or calendars with evangelical representations. The master of Siena reproduced, for example, the same landscapes of the Calvary or the Sepulcher of these Byzantine paintings; he also copied the figures, with the folds of their robes drawn with gold lines without using chiaroscuro; the groupings of the characters were also the traditional ones employed in the evangelical representations of the Greek codices or calendars of the court of Byzantium. But in some of these scenes, Duccio gave them backgrounds of real landscapes and infused all the figures with their own soul and a soft personality.
It is also interesting to compare this series of evangelical representations of Duccio’s altarpiece with those Giotto painted for the chapel of Padua. Both series have the same models which were the consecrated types of Eastern Christian art; both were rejuvenated with the spirit of the newly born italic peoples, but Giotto and Duccio each infused life in their own images with different sets of feelings and sentiments that would eventually form two great artistic schools. Giotto, son of the people, endowed with a frank, natural and passionate soul, both in the Franciscan legend of Assisi and in the popular gospel of the frescoes that decorate the Chapel of Padua, was always the artist who portrayed his figures with all the frankness of expression of their spontaneous feelings of pain or tenderness; sometimes Giotto’s characters lose their composure and adopted exaggerated pathetic attitudes in their gestures without hiding their crying or grief. The same representations, on Duccio’s altar, lost their expressive force but gained fragility without becoming poor insensitive figures. It wasn’t easy for Duccio to have known Giotto’s works in the chapel of Padua; both began their own artistic revolution in very different ways. If during the 14th century the schools of Florence and Siena developed parallel, with their own qualities, the Florentine school of painting, always penetrated by the soul of Giotto with its spirit of freedom, led the way for the coming artistic evolution to continue, and for this reason the Renaissance ends up being Florentine, mainly during the 15th century. On the other hand, the school of Siena, which in the 14th century had such excellent masters as Simone Martini and Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti, slowly wore down in its own aristocratic themes. After having managed to enclose their figures in an environment of noble dignity, painters of later generations ended up repeating themselves and so, by force of repetition, the art of Siena stagnated and did not progress further. We have long talked about Duccio’s altar because it wasn’t only the initial work of a school but its own summary, with the qualities and defects that this school always showed. Few more paintings are known by this first master of Siena; from the city’s books of records we know that he painted there some years, when he wasn’t yet the famous author of the Madonna. But it has been attributed to him a work of great importance, a Virgin with several angels that Vasari and other historians assumed the work of Cimabue. Before Duccio painted the monumental altarpiece of Siena, he signed a contract in April 1285 to paint a Virgin with angels for the new church of Santa Maria Novella of Florence, this Virgin must be the same that was in the Rucellai chapel and that today is kept in the Uffizi Gallery with the name of “Madonna Rucellai”. In this painting the artist doesn’t show such an accentuated personality and it is understood that, by observation of the common Byzantine model of the seated Virgin that Cimabue and Duccio tried to imitate, works of Cimabue could later be confused with those of Duccio. But the delicate and limpid color of the “Madonna Rucellai”, and above all the exquisite decorative movement of the wavy line of the edge of her mantle were absolutely strange to the style of Cimabue and very characteristic of Duccio and of the Sienese in general.