The events of Duccio’s life can be only partially drawn through a constellation of points offered by civic records, contracts, and the political and cultural life of Siena, the city in which he was born and worked. The Maestà came towards his life’s end and was the pinnacle of his achievement.
Duccio may have trained with the Italian painters Guido da Siena or Cimabue. His first artistic commissions were to paint ceiling coffers and biccherne covers, small panel paintings that bound the volumes housing Siena’s financial records. Siena’s governors took great pride in their city’s prosperity and their fiduciary responsibilities, and commissioned the best native artists to decorate the books, which were publicly displayed.
Duccio’s approximately 12 existing works include commissions from Siena’s city leaders but also from Florence, where the Dominican church Santa Maria Novella commissioned his Rucellai Madonna, indicating a reputation beyond his home base. Siena, while not a port or river city, was along a major route used by pilgrims traveling from Rome to France during the years of the Avignon papacy, which stimulated cultural and economic activity and competition.
Duccio’s work and occasional appearance in civic records (that show infractions for non-payment of taxes and occasional unruly behavior) situate him in Siena for most of his life. For a period around the turn of the fourteenth century scholars place him in Paris or Rome, where he may have absorbed other artistic influences. By the time of the Maestà commission, Duccio was managing a large studio in Siena where the painters Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Simone Martini were likely to have trained (works by Pietro Lorenzetti and Simone Martini are also in the NGA collection). Contracts show that the Maestà was undertaken in stages, without the entire program of the work being outlined in advance. The scale of the project indicates that Duccio likely enlisted a number of other artists to work on it, especially with respect to the rear panels, and that he was under some pressure to complete the whole in a timely fashion. Nonetheless, its unified nature suggests that Duccio strongly directed the other artists.
Political considerations also have shaped our understanding of this artist and his contributions to Western art over time. In the thirteenth century, Florence and Siena were bitter rivals, the former aligned with the Papacy, the latter with the authority of the Roman Emperor, a position Siena was forced to cede in 1268. Over time, Florence assumed a greater economic and cultural significance, its classically-inspired art more closely associated with the flowering of the Renaissance, while Sienese art became associated with an older style, based in archaic Greek or Byzantine models.
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