Updated on July 24th 2021
The Maestà by Duccio
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 for an artwork 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 was paid to the artist and considering this one commission lasted years with extensions of payment until finished, was an important stream of income for this rebellious artist!
Upon completion of this great work the mid-14th century chronicler Agnolo di Tura del Grasso described The Maesta’ as “the most beautiful picture ever seen and made.” 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 a number of 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.
The front panels make up a large enthroned Madonna and Child with saints and angels, and a predella of the Childhood of Christ with prophets. The reverse has the rest of a combined cycle of the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Christ in a total of forty-three small scenes. Sadly, the restoration of this masterpiece remains incomplete with a number of the original panels now dispersed or lost.
The base of the panel has an inscription that reads (in translation): "Holy Mother of God, be thou the cause of peace for Siena and life to Duccio because he painted thee thus." This great work set in motion the beginning of the moving away from the “stilted” symbolism of Byzantine art in Italian painting, towards a more realistic and direct representation of the world and people.
Unlike many cities in Italy that have poorly run museums, Siena by comparison is the height of efficiency which makes for a very pleasant touring experience. To visit her most important sites, and you must, a single ticket from the MUSEO DELL’OPERA will give you access to eight museums, which includes the Cathedral, the Baptistry and the absolutely stunning Crypt of the Duomo.
Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who lived and worked in Italy from 1987 to 2018. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you and in a way that is entertaining and informative; together with great travel tips. Getting off the beaten track in Italy is always an adventure and he invites you to join him in discovering an Italy that will surprise and amaze you.