Perfect Traveller tracks down a Masterpiece by Duccio.

Perfect Traveller tracks down a Masterpiece by Duccio.
01 June 2016 0 Comment

In 1771“The Maesta’” by Duccio (1308) was dismantled and left to rot! Kilby digs deep to find out why and discovers the locations of this masterwork today.

On the 4th of October 1308 a contract was drawn up between the Cathedral of Siena and the painter Duccio di Buoninsegna. This document is preserved in the State Archives of Siena, where upon you can read the details of the most important commission ever given, up to that date. Because Duccio had a ‘difficult’ reputation and was prone to drink and fighting and did not take kindly to authority, Siena was determined that its greatest talent was to comply totally to the contract, with clauses such as: the painting should be entirely by the artists own hand, he must work uninterruptedly accepting no other work until the great picture should be completed. On top of which he had to swear upon a bible and agree to the contract in its entirety. A princely sum of sixteen soldi per day was paid to the artist and considering this one commission lasted years, was a nice little earner for this rebellious master!

Upon completion the early 14th century chronicler Agnolo di Tura del Grasso described The Maesta’ as “the most beautiful picture ever seen and made.” In Siena on June 9, 1311 a public holiday was declared as the city prepared itself for the installment of Duccio’s masterpiece in the great duomo of the city. Imagine the Bishop following the massive painting, along with a company of priests and brothers, followed by the Signori of the Nine and all the officials of the Town Hall and all the people of Siena in order of the most distinguished down, as it found it’s way to the cathedral. This was one of the most important occasions in the history of this illustrious city and a great day for Duccio and his art. Who on that day could have imagined what was in store for this magnificent work of art and how in 1505 it was removed from the high altar of the church for repairs and placed in a side chapel where it was promptly ignored! The propaganda and gaudy grandeur of the Renaissance was on the rise as was a change in faith and power. The simple but profound message of the medieval artist, based entirely upon the belief of their faith and painted to project the stories of the gospel to all, was now replaced by the miracle of ‘realism’ and personalities of the art world.

On August 1, 1771 the altarpiece was literally dismembered, with many panels split and separated. The scholar Guglielmo della Valle in 1785 protested against the havoc wrought and the damaged caused to The Maesta’ to no avail. In 1878 those parts and panels of the original altarpiece still in Siena were brought together in the Museum of the Opera del Duomo where they remain to this day. Eight of the missing panels are scattered about several museums in Europe and America including the “Temptation on the Mount” which is now in the Frick Collection in New York! A document written in 1308-9 mentioned “little angels” placed above the altarpiece and it has been confirmed that at least one of these angels by Duccio is in the Museum of Art in Philadelphia.

The passage of time and the brutality of ignorance married to the overreaching ego of powerful clerics in an ever cynical church put paid to the greatest painting of the Italian Gothic period. You might agree when you stand in front of the genius of Duccio, wherever you might find his work.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

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