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Duccio di Buoninsegna

(c. 1255—1318) Italian painter, founder of the Sienese school of painting


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(d Siena, 1318/19).

The most famous painter of the Sienese School. Little is known of his life: he is first recorded in 1278, records of several commissions survive, and he is known to have been fined on several occasions for various minor offences (one perhaps involving sorcery), but only one fully documented work by him survives. This is the famous Maestà commissioned by Siena Cathedral and completed in 1311 (it is usually said to have been begun in 1308, but Pope-Hennessy has argued that a document of that year is an interim contract, not the initial contract, and that this large and elaborate double-sided altarpiece must have taken more than three years to paint). Today most of the altarpiece is in the cathedral museum in Siena, but several of the predella panels are scattered outside Italy—in London (NG), Washington (NG), and elsewhere. It has been described by John White (Art and Architecture in Italy: 1250–1400, 1966) as ‘probably the most important panel ever painted in Italy. It is certainly among the most beautiful. Compressed within the compass of an altarpiece is the equivalent of an entire programme for the fresco painting of a church.’ The whole of the front of the main panel is occupied by a scene of the Virgin and Child in majesty surrounded by angels and saints, and corresponding to this on the back are 26 scenes from Christ's Passion. Originally there were subsidiary scenes from Christ's life above and below the main panel. Although Duccio drew much on Byzantine tradition, he introduced a new warmth of human feeling that gives him a role in Sienese painting comparable to that of Giotto in Florentine painting. He recreates the biblical stories with great vividness, and as no one else before him he succeeds in making the setting of a scene—a room or a hillside—a dramatic constituent of the action, so that figures and surroundings are intimately bound together. The other main work attributed to Duccio is the large Rucellai Madonna (Uffizi, Florence), which is probably the picture documented as having been painted by him for S. Maria Novella, Florence, in 1285. Several other smaller panels can be attributed to him or his workshop with a fair degree of confidence, but there is no evidence that he ever worked in fresco. His exquisite colouring and supple draughtsmanship set enduring standards in Siena (Simone Martini was his greatest disciple) and his influence reached as far as France, notably in the work of Pucelle. It is possible that he visited France: a ‘Duche de Siene’ is documented in Paris in 1296 and 1297.

Subjects: Art.


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