Archive for the Duccio’s Maesta Category

Siena: The Palazzo Publico

Posted in Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Art, City Views, Duccio's Maesta, Siena, Simone Martini, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on May 2, 2011 by rphull

In the last post, we took a look at Duccio’s Maesta (1308-1311), his enormous altarpiece of many panels that, in its original form, was an elaborately framed, two-sided work–perhaps the most glorious single artwork of the late medieval period.  It honored the Virgin Mary as the Queen of Heaven . . .

. . . and was located inside Siena Cathedral.  Thanks to political links between the City State of Siena and France, the Maesta and the cathedral show a strong French Gothic inflection.  The altarpiece with its pinnacles and upward thrusting momentum has a lot in common with the French Gothic facade of the cathedral in which it was located:

Over the years, the frame was removed and lost and the altarpiece itself dismembered, with some panels making their way into distant collections.  Most of the parts remain in Siena, though, and as noted earlier we’ll be taking a look at them (now in the cathedral’s museum) on the first part of our visit to this elegant and opulent Tuscan city.

Later that day, we’ll visit the city hall, the Palazzo Publico, erected in the late 1200s as the governmental headquarters the city.  Here’s a general view of this imposing edifice,

which provides the backdrop for the Piazza del Campo, site of the festival Palio della Contrade, which features the racing of the horses each August.  Might worth a return trip.  Looks dangerous, though.

The piazza will likely be a little calmer the day we gather there to get ready to enter the Palazzo Publico to see works by the Sienese artists Simone Martini and Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

In the council chambers where the city leaders met to deliberate are two famous frescoes by Simone Martini.  At one end of the council chamber, filling the entire wall, is Martini’s version of the Maesta, the subject that Duccio had originated.  Here’s how Martini treated the subject of Mary as a royal figure presenting the princeling Jesus:

So–two Maestas, one by Duccio and one by Martini.  Martini had been Duccio’s student and follows his master’s lead by painting the subject with slender, elongated figures and strong French Gothic overtones (Martini’s virgin wears a robe decorated with the fleur-de-lis).  But Duccio painted an altarpiece made up of panel paintings, while Martini painted a fresco filling an enormous wall.  Duccio painted for the cathedral, while Martini painted his Maesta for a secular setting, the site of governmental deliberation.  Martini’s Mary oversees the deliberations of the council, urging the members toward righteous decisions.

At the other end of the council chamber is another big fresco, traditionally attributed to Martini (some current scholarship questions the attribution, but let’s go with the traditional assumption that the painter was Martini):

This is Martini’s fresco depicting the military man Guidoriccio da Fogliagno, hired by Siena to lead troops to protect the city and bring neighboring villages under Siense influence.  Here’s another view of Guidoriccio and his horse, who wear matching outfits:

Consider the irony, or perhaps the common sense, of the placement of Simone’s two frescoes.  Mary, enthroned as queen of heaven and implicitly queen of Siena, sits in majesty at one end of the room, while at the other end the soldier Guidoriccio patrols the perimeter of the city.  I guess this is a case of covering all bases, of taking out different types of insurance (spiritual, military) just to be sure of comprehensive coverage.

In an adjacent room, the Sala della Pace (Hall of Peace), we’ll see a remarkable set of frescoes by another Sienese master, Ambrogio Lorenzetti.  His paintings fill the upper walls of the room and deal with the Effects of Good and Bad Government (always timely subjects).  Here’s a general view of the Sala della Pace, showing on the right Lorenzetti’s masterpiece, The Effects of Good Government in the City and Country:

That’s the Siena city wall dividing the composition in two.  Within the city, bustling prosperity prevails:

Up among the rooftops just to the right of center, laborers work a construction site.  In the foreground, shops do a brisk business and prosperous citizens stroll to and fro.  The city, under good government, is so pleasant a place that young women dance in the street:

Reminds us of the woman celebrating more recently in the streets of Cortona:

Meanwhile, in the Siena countryside, conditions are flourishing, as well:

Aristocrats head out for a day in the country, while peasants come to town with their produce and products.  Vineyards are bountiful, villas dot the land.  Lorenzetti’s Effects of Good Government projects an ideal, to be sure: this is civic propaganda of a sort, but the vision is of community we all hope for–prosperous, safe, beautiful in its built and natural environments.  Lorenzetti completed this painting in 1339.  The hope for such an idyllic place was dashed by the onset of the Black Death, the Great Plague of 1348.

On the other side of the room, behind us from this view, is Lorenzetti’s depiction of the Effects of Bad Government:

Goodness.  The buildings are dilapidated, a corpse lies in the street.  Ironically, the work itself is in a state of disrepair.  Those splotches are where the plaster has fallen off over the generations.  Clearly, it’s in the city of happily dancing girls, the city of prosperity and good government, that we want to be:

Look at these great gowns.  One features a very nifty dragonfly design.  To this day, Italy is a place of fashionable dress, exemplified by Gabriella, our guide in Siena in 2008:

A final word:  The Sienese artists of the early 14th century were leaders in making art relevant to secular life: daily life in the city and country, government, politics.  Martini’s image of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and Lorenzetti’s of Siena and its environs address life beyond the church, life in the civic and communal realm.  The Sienese artists of this era began to create art about modern life.

That’s all for now.  Ciao!



Siena: Duccio’s Maesta

Posted in Art, City Views, Duccio's Maesta, Siena, Tuscany-Cortona Tour 2011, Uncategorized, Willamette University Tuscany Program on April 24, 2011 by rphull

On Monday morning, June 6, we’re off to Siena, the artistic and cultural rival of Florence prior to the the Black Death, the great plague of 1348 that affected much of Europe and decimated Siena.  But the first half of the fourteenth century was Siena’s golden age, and we will be viewing a number of major paintings that set the stage for Renaissance art even though they were created prior to 1348.

Here’s a photograph looking down on the Piazza del Campo in the center of old Siena, with the bell tower of the Palazzo Publico, or town hall, rising up over the Tuscan countryside.  We’ll be visiting this building, and the intrepid among us might climb the tower to take the view.

But my post this week is devoted to a painting that we will see earlier in the afternoon at the museum of Siena Cathedral.  Here, we will view the masterwork of the Sienese artist Duccio di Bouninsegna–his Maesta, painted in 1308-11 for the cathedral:

Duccio’s assistants carried this magnificent work through the streets of Siena from the artist’s studio to the church amid cheering throngs of Sienese citizens on a sunny day in June 1311.  Seven hundred years later, almost to the day, we’ll be there.  The Maesta was an object of both religious veneration and civic pride–for where else had such a magnificent work of art been created?

Indeed, it was the largest altarpiece ever painted at the time (I don’t believe it has been surpassed in scale and sumptuousness), and apparently it was the first example of a Maesta–an image of the Virgin Mary enthroned “in majesty” surrounded by not only angels but also a full court of prophets and prophetesses, with Mary and Jesus being venerated as heavenly royalty.

A note on medium: the Maesta is a panel painting, egg tempera and gold leaf on panels of wood.  In contrast, the works at the Church of Saint Francis at Assisi are frescoes–painted directly into wet plaster on the walls of the church.  Fresco and panel were the two major modes of painting in Tuscany in the late medieval period and during the Renaissance.

Duccio’s Maesta is the first work known to have had a predella (the row of small scenes at the bottom of the main scene of an altarpiece).  In the case, the predella scenes deal with Christ’s birth and infancy.

This altarpiece was additionally spectacular because it had painted scenes on the back as well as the front.  In the Cathedral, it stood in open space that that on holy occasions worshippers could pass around it and view it from both sides.  Here’s a diagram reconstructing what the arrangement was probably like:

Duccio’s Maesta was long ago removed from the Cathedral itself and, over time, was dismembered.  The framing we see in the pictures above is conjectural.  Most of the individual paintings are presented in a special gallery of the Cathedral Museum.  The parts have not been reassembled, so we will be viewing the work in a state of desconstruction, as components that we can make whole only in our imagination.

Here are the two major pieces as they exist today, front and back:

The back side depicts the final days of Christ’s earthly life.  The story begins in the lower left corner with the Entry into Jerusalem:

This is the “Palm Sunday” scene, with throngs meeting Jesus and his disciples at the city gate and laying down palm fronds.  Sienese painting is known for its emphasis on architectural spaces, and this work is a prime example of that, with the open door leading into a mysterious dark space in the lower right and the tunnel of the arched city gate.

And here are two other well-known scenes from the back:

From the middle of the bottom row comes this scene of the Agony in the Garden, depicting the moment when Christ tells his disciples to keep watch while he enters the garden of Gethsemane to pray.  The narrative unfolds from the center, where Christ speaks to the disciples.  From there, the story proceeds outward to the right and left: Christ is seen praying at the right, the disciples have failed their duties by falling asleep at the left.  Christ ascends, the disciples descend.

Just above Agony in the Garden is this scene . . .

. . . depicting the Kiss of Judas, the moment when Judas betrays his master by identifying him, by means of the kiss, to the soldiers.  There is a lot going on here:  Judas delivers the kiss, the soldiers close in, Peter (in the greenish robe) acts to protect his master by wielding his knife and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers (but Jesus sees to it that the ear is immediately healed).  To the right, Jesus’ other disciples flee the scene–swept out of the composition by the wave-like rock formation.  Consider the gorgeous colors in this piece–the sherbet-like citrus and lime tones, and consider the elegance of the figures–slender, twisting this way and that, with the gold edge of Christ’s robe serving as an abstract diagram of all the curves and counter-curves of the composition.  This is what golden age Sienese  painting is known for: elegance, grace, and delicate beauty despite, in this case, the somber subject.

It’s somewhat inadvertent that I’m making this post on Easter day, but since I am, Happy Easter to you all!  I’ll be back before long with glimpses of several other major paintings that we will be seeing in the course of our day in lovely Siena.

For now, ciao ciao.