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Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011), “Master of Città di Castello/Maestà (Madonna and Child with Four Angels)/c. 1290,” Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries, NGA Online Editions, (accessed June 04, 2023).

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Mar 21, 2016 Version

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The Sienese artist who made this panel is named for the town—Città di Castello— where another of his paintings, bearing another image of the Virgin and Child in “majesty” (maestà in Italian), remains today. The Maestà--especially in this tall format--was frequently commissioned for the meeting places of lay brotherhoods. In Siena, where devotion to the Virgin was particularly strong, it was a highly visible image, dominating the city’s most prominent works of art: a fresco by Simone Martini (Sienese, active from 1315; died 1344) in the town hall and Duccio’s magnificent Maestà altarpiece in the cathedral. (The National Gallery of Art is fortunate to own two panels from the latter: The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel and The Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew. Similarities to this artist’s style can be seen in the almond-shaped eyes and lyrical drapery folds.) The anonymous master of our Maestà was probably one of Duccio’s students, but it is likely that his painting is earlier than that of either his teacher or Simone (commissioned 1305 and 1315, respectively). It may, in fact, be the first work of the Master of Città di Castello to have survived, certainly a product of his early career.

What suggests this? This artist is interested in abstraction and in capturing the spiritual world, not in making the Virgin and her divine child conform to what we see around us. Although Mary’s unusual semicircular throne—which relates to her as the Throne of Wisdom—could be found in the few decades on either side of the turn of the 14th century, and the gold striations in her robe would typify Sienese style until the middle of the 1320s, a preference for abstraction over naturalism points to an earlier date for this painting.


This panel, of large dimensions, bears the image of the Maestà represented according to the iconographic tradition of the Hodegetria.[1] This type of Madonna and Child was very popular among lay confraternities in central Italy; perhaps it was one of them that commissioned the painting.[2] The image is distinguished among the paintings of its time by the very peculiar construction of the marble throne, which seems to be formed of a semicircular external structure into which a circular seat is inserted. Similar thrones are sometimes found in Sienese paintings between the last decades of the thirteenth and the first two of the fourteenth century.[3] Much the same dating is suggested by the delicate chrysography of the mantles of the Madonna and Child.[4]

Recorded for the first time by the Soprintendenza in Siena c. 1930 as “tavola preduccesca,”[5] the work was examined by Richard Offner in 1937. In his expertise, he classified it as “school of Duccio” and compared it with some roughly contemporary panels of the same stylistic circle. Offner concludes that it belonged to “a slightly more primitive period than the Maestà of Duccio, namely the first decade of the fourteenth century.”[6] In the early 1950s, when the painting began to reemerge from its long oblivion, various scholars, perhaps at Bernard Berenson’s suggestion, pointed out its kinship with the Badia a Isola Maestà,[7] a classification that also convinced Gertrude Coor Achenbach (1960) and Enzo Carli (1965).[8] In the National Gallery of Art, however, the panel was cataloged simply as “Follower of Duccio,” and this classification was in general accepted in the art historical literature. Berenson (1968) noted that the anonymous artist was “close to the Master of Città di Castello,” while James Stubblebine (1979) considered him a “provincial follower” of the same Master. Stubblebine, who attempted to reconstruct the oeuvre of this artist, invented for him the name “San Quirico d’Orcia Master.”[9] The painting’s kinship with the so-called Master of 1310 was also proposed (Conti 1981) but almost immediately rejected (Bacchi 1987).[10] In the more recent literature, the painting generally has been cited under the conventional name of Master of San Quirico d’Orcia (Martini 1997, Bagnoli 2003, Schmidt 2005) or attributed to the Master of Città di Castello (Boskovits 1982, Freuler 2001, Freuler 2004).[11]

Before discussing the attribution, an effort should be made to define the chronological frame within which the Washington panel was painted. This can best be done by examining what is no doubt its most peculiar feature, the throne on which the Virgin is seated. Elaborate in construction, it is undoubtedly built of marble. This was a novel feature in late thirteenth-century Tuscan paintings. Marble thrones, hitherto used in Roman painting, appear for the first time in Siena in the great rose window designed by Duccio di Buoninsegna (Sienese, c. 1250/1255 - 1318/1319) for the cathedral (c. 1287–1288) and in the frescoes of the upper church of San Francesco in Assisi painted by Giotto (Florentine, c. 1265 - 1337) and his companions in the years around 1290.[12] The massive thrones that appear in various paintings of the period were then developed further: they became more elaborate, more lavish in ornament, more richly articulated, and also more rational and optically convincing. During the first decade of the fourteenth century, painted thrones assume ever more pronounced Gothic features. In this development, the Maestà painted by Duccio for Siena Cathedral (c. 1308–1311) may be considered a sure point of chronological reference. Though the marble throne on which that Madonna sits still lacks gothicizing features, its elaborate intarsia paneling, moldings, and foliated friezes suggest that it should date to a phase subsequent to that of the Washington painting. 

None of the panels with which the Gallery painting has been compared [13] is securely datable, but the list of the analogies so far pointed out can be extended with the addition of one or two other works that can be dated approximately and usefully compared with the Washington Madonna. Historical considerations suggest, for example, that the fresco in the chapel of Saint Nicholas adjacent to the Collegiata at Casole d’Elsa, attributed by recent studies either to a so-called Casole Master (also known as Master of the Albertini) or to the Master of Città di Castello, postdates 1296 and probably predates 1312.[14] In that work [fig. 1], Mary’s throne may be considered a further variant of the massive marble structures derived from Duccio’s rose window in Siena Cathedral; despite its heavy structure, its richly articulated forms, illuminated by a light flowing into the painting from the left, and its backrest surmounted by a kind of gabled baldachin reveal that this is a work executed probably not later than the years around 1300 and hence close to the other version of the Madonna and Child now in the National Gallery in London, usually given to the same artist. To better define the chronology of the Washington panel it will be useful also to take into consideration some Sienese frescoes of the school of Duccio that can be dated c. 1305. The thrones that appear in these frescoes, though still classicizing in style, are more rational in design, more elaborate in structure, than that of the painting being discussed here.[15]

Returning to the problem of the hand that painted the panel in Washington, it should be premised that the attribution to the Badia a Isola Master, which the art historical literature has since abandoned, did have the merit of suggesting an early date for our painting. Recent studies recognize the Badia a Isola Maestà as the work of an exponent of the first generation of followers of Duccio. A late dating, to the second decade of the fourteenth century or after, does not seem justified for the painting discussed here, whose “halo style” recalls the Badia a Isola Maestà.[16] Various other clues suggest an earlier date: for example, the fact that the light here (as in the Badia a Isola Maestà) does not come from a single source, as it does in paintings realized by Duccio and his close followers in the years around 1310. The markedly elongated proportions of Mary in turn recall such examples as Duccio’s Madonna in the Kunstmuseum in Bern or the protagonists of the Maestà of the Casole Master. The blessing gesture of the child, with his arm stretched out to the left, is characteristic of paintings dating to the final years of the thirteenth century, without the foreshortening that the frontal blessing of the Madonna of the National Gallery in London implies.[17]

On the other hand, the Washington Maestà should not be retained in the stylistically incoherent group collected under the name of San Quirico d’Orcia Master.[18] Indeed, with the possible exception of one painting, the Madonna of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the shared authorship of the works hitherto linked with the Washington Maestà seems very much open to doubt. So, may the Maestà in the Gallery be assigned outright to the Master of Città di Castello, who most scholars have recognized as the artist of the Detroit panel? The hypothesis is plausible, on two conditions: first, that the chronology of this painter be revised;[19] and second, that the works formerly assigned to the Casole (or Aringhieri or Albertini) Master be included in his catalog. If, as I suggest above, the Maestà in the National Gallery in London belongs to the figurative culture of the last decade of the thirteenth century, Maestà no. 18 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena [fig. 2] and the Casole d’Elsa fresco should date slightly later, around 1300, in view of their tendency towards a more pronounced classical style. The artist’s career could then have continued, without any improbable changes of direction, with paintings generally given to the Master of Città di Castello, the earliest of which seems to be the Madonna and Child in a private collection recently published by Gaudenz Freuler (2001),[20] followed by the Maestà of Città di Castello itself. Such a sequence would seem to be corroborated by Mojmir Frinta’s (1998) examination of the punch marks used in them: he has identified the use of this punch both in the panels attributed to the Casole Master and in the works of the Master of Città di Castello.[21]

If, as I am inclined to believe, the Washington panel was a product of the same workshop, it should be assigned the earliest possible date in the master’s career: it is the result, presumably, of an initial phase in the artist’s development in which not all the characteristic features of his fully fledged style have yet appeared. This, as well as the much compromised condition of the panel, may explain some stylistically anomalous features, such as the angels that flank the Virgin’s throne: with their long necks, melancholy expressions, and thin yet incisive contours, they lack the corporeal, almost sculptural modeling and the typically soft chiaroscuro we associate with the Master of Città di Castello. On the other hand, better preserved passages, in particular the face of the angel in the upper left and the bust of the child, are comparable to corresponding details in panels in the Casole Master group, for example the Maestà in London and the Madonna no. 592 in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena. The placid undulation of the contours of the figure of the enthroned Mary also recalls paintings usually included in the same oeuvre. Some compositional devices found in the oeuvre of the Casole Master that recur in the Washington panel also seem significant. I allude to the distinctive undulating curves of the exposed pale silk lining that enlivens the large, uniform expanse of the Madonna’s dark blue mantle. The Virgin’s conduct is also worth noting: she is draping a precious embroidered cloth around the body of her son, and pressing a hem of the fabric between her right forefinger and thumb in both the London and Washington versions of the Maestà [fig. 3].[22] Therefore we can propose, albeit with due caution, that the Maestà in the Gallery and those from Casole d’Elsa in London and Siena, as well as the namepiece in Città di Castello and the other works that art historians have gathered around it, constitute three successive phases in the career of the same distinctive and accomplished exponent of Sienese painting at the turn of the century.

Miklós Boskovits (1935–2011)

March 21, 2016


Possibly the church of San Francesco in San Quirico d’Orcia (Siena).[1] Pompeo Lemmi (or Lammi?), San Quirico d’Orcia; Giacobbe Preziotti, San Quirico d’Orcia, by c. 1930;[2] (Italian art market);[3] Baron Alberto Fassini, Tivoli; Corinna Uberti Trossi, Livorno, by 1949; (Ettore Sestieri, Rome), by 1951;[4] (Count Alessandro Contini Bonacossi, Florence), by 1953;[5] sold 1954 to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[6] gift 1961 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The painting was executed on a panel composed of four boards with vertical grain, on which strips of woven fabric were laid. The panel, which has a gable of obtuse angle shape, is enclosed in an engaged frame whose left-hand vertical section seems to be original. The panel maintains what seems to be its original thickness (2.4 cm). The reverse of the panel is covered with remains of a gesso coating and a sparse layer of red paint. A wooden batten, which is part of the original structure, runs across the reverse of the panel approximately 60 cm from the top. The trace of a second horizontal batten (approximately 90 cm from the bottom) is also visible; the batten itself is lost, but the area formerly covered by it is uncovered by paint or gesso and retains the clipped iron nails with which it was formerly attached. The panel was prepared with a layer of gesso over the fabric.[1] Infrared reflectography at 950–680 nm [2] revealed underdrawing in the figures’ hands and feet and a verdaccio under the flesh tones.[3] The paint layers of the obverse, applied over a gesso preparation, appear to be tempera; the gold ground is laid over a red bole preparation. 

In the earliest known photograph of the painting [fig. 1], from c. 1930, the panel appeared worm eaten and irregularly broken at the edges, especially on the right side (looking from the obverse).[4] In a subsequent treatment, sawdust was used to plug holes in the wooden support and its various vertical checks. Numerous wooden “butterflies” also were inserted in the boards to bridge the joins and checks. The panel now appears in stable condition, but each of the four boards has a vertical convex warp, and the panel overall has a horizontal convex warp. The panel is badly damaged along the bottom 10 cm: the paint and gesso are almost completely lost from this area. The painted surface has suffered from neglect and ill treatment and has been subjected to restorations on various occasions. There is a large amount of inpaint and overpaint on the painting.[5] The areas that are not heavily overpainted are the Madonna’s face, the Christ child’s face and torso, and the upper left angel’s face and hands. The Madonna’s robe is reinforced, as are the trim on the angels’ robes and the throne cushions. The Christ child’s hair and swaddling cloth are heavily restored. The face of the lower right angel is almost entirely restoration, as is the bottom 30 cm of the panel. The angels’ wings are completely overpainted. In addition, a thick, yellowed varnish covers the surface.

A very clumsy and apparently early restorer, possibly as early as the fourteenth century, reinforced the design of the faces and the child’s drapery; added a flower to his left hand; overpainted the Virgin’s coif, transforming it into a veil; and modified the structure of the throne, covering the convex shape of its central part behind the Madonna’s legs with a plain checkered surface.[6] The execution of a second series of halos, smaller than the original ones, probably can be traced back to this same intervention. The smaller halos cover only a part of the older ones and have no incised decoration. At some point, perhaps in the early nineteenth century,[7] an arched top was given to the panel with the addition of modern wood; this may have been to fit it in a nichelike recess in the wall of a church. This enlargement is still visible in the abovementioned photograph of about 1930. By 1937 the panel had been treated again, probably by Mauro Pellicioli.[8] It was probably during Pellicioli’s treatment that the earlier restorations were removed, revealing the original composition of the halos, throne, faces, and drapery, as well as the original angled shape of the panel. The restorer Vannoni in Florence treated it again, in c. 1952; his work probably addressed the wooden support and possibly the framing.[9] Since then no further conservation work has been done.

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Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. Washington, 1979: 1:172-174; 2:pl. 118.
Stubblebine, James H. Duccio di Buoninsegna and His School. 2 vols. Princeton, 1979: 1:89-91, figs. 198-200, 595.
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European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 137, repro.
Bacchi, Andrea. "Pittura del Duecento e del Trecento nel Pistoiese." In La Pittura in Italia. Il Duecento e il Trecento. Edited by Enrico Castelnuovo. 2 vols. Milan, 1986: 1:317, 318.
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Torriti, Piero. La Pinacoteca Nazionale di Siena: i dipinti. 3rd ed. Genoa, 1990: 46.
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Martini, Laura. "Le vicende costruttive della chiesa di San Francesco." In San Quirico d’Orcia. La Madonna di Vitaleta: arte e devozione. Edited by Laura Martini. Exh. cat. Chiesa di S. Maria in Vitaleta, San Quirico d’Orcia, 1997: 13-14, 15 (repro), 19 n. 5.
Frinta, Mojmír S. Punched Decoration on Late Medieval Panel and Miniature Painting. Prague, 1998: 489.
Gardner, Julian. "Duccio, ‘Cimabue’ and the Maestro di Casole: Early Sienese Paintings for Florentine Confraternities." In Iconographica: mélanges offerts à Piotr Skubiszewski. Edited by Robert Favreau and Marie-Hélène Debiès. Poitiers, 1999: 112.
Bagnoli, Alessandro, Roberto Bartalini, Luciano Bellosi, and Michel Laclotte, eds. Duccio: Siena fra tradizione bizantina e mondo gotico. Exh. cat. Santa Maria della Scala, Siena; Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena. Cinisello Balsamo (Milan), 2003: 297, repro. 298, 302 n. 23, 366.
Schmidt, Victor M. Painted Piety: Panel Paintings for Personal Devotion in Tuscany, 1250-1400. Florence, 2005: 181, 202 n. 44, 348.
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Boskovits, Miklós. Italian Paintings of the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 2016: 264-273, color repro.
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