Without a doubt, Duccio di Buoninsegna is one of the most important artists in the history of art. However, he is often overshadowed by later artists like Giotto, Donatello, and Leonardo. But, it was Duccio’s flirtation with naturalism and development of the Trecento art style that helped to lay the foundation for the Renaissance. Although only thirteen of his works survive today, we can see the impact that they made on the trajectory of human creativity. That is why some art historians refer to his career as “The Revolution of Duccio”.
Who was Duccio?
But, who was the man behind this revolution? Sadly, art historians have only been able to piece together small bits and pieces about his life. As his name suggests, Duccio was from the town of Buoninsegna, near Siena, Italy. His first commission was in 1278 for twelve, decorated document boxes for the treasure of Siena. This indicates to historians that he was already well established as an artist because he received such an important commission. Two years later, Duccio was fined a large sum of 100 lire by the commune (government) of Siena for “misconduct”. This was one of many fines throughout his life, including some for the non-payment of debt, sorcery, and not reporting for military duty. It certainly paints the picture of an interesting man! Other than these disciplinary records, there is little else we know about Duccio’s life outside of his commissions. There seems to be evidence that he was married with up to seven children. But, due to his colorful life, they seemed to have distanced themselves from him.
The Trecento Period
Now that we’ve got some background on the artist, it’s time to dive into his two main contributions to art history. Firstly, is the trecento style. It takes its name from the time period, aka the fourteenth century or 1300’s. This style has three main hallmarks, inherited from the Byzantine school of art. The first is a lack of setting. His works feature rich, shiny, golden backgrounds. This is to show, in religious works, that the narrative is occurring on another, more heavenly plane.
Second, Duccio tended to paint in rich, almost jewel tones. This indicates a high level of pigment saturation and it is another influence of Byzantine art. With the sparkling light that would have reflected off of the gold background, the colors would have seemed even more brilliant. Once again, Duccio used this to show that the art was divinely inspired.
Finally, the figures in Duccio’s works all tend to have heavy folds in their robes. This was an expansion of Byzantine style to create depth and three dimensionality. In some cases, it can also indicate movement through a scene. This was the beginning of the naturalism experiment.
Flirting with Naturalism
In his art, Duccio took things a step further than the previous styles. He started incorporating elements of naturalism, playing with the idea of making his figures come to life. One of the best examples of this is his Rucellai Madonna. It was commissioned by the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence and Duccio was paid 150 florins for it! Fascinatingly, the State Archives of Florence still has the contract!
The first major element of naturalism is how Duccio worked to show the body underneath the robes. We can see this especially with the Virgin Mary. Look how her knee sticks out towards the viewer and how the robes fall around it. This gives her a sense of weight and three dimensionality.
Duccio also uses architecture to his advantage. The Virgin’s throne has been painted at an angle and the artist also employed foreshortening. This makes it seem like a three dimensional object in a two dimensional space. It also anchors the piece around the throne and the most important people in the scene!
Although there are many elements of Duccio’s paintings that are medieval and Byzantine in style, he is clearly trying new techniques to guide art in a new direction.
Impact on the trajectory of art
Duccio’s art sparked a revolution that would turn into the flame of the Renaissance. Artists like Giotto, Donatello, Leonardo and others would run with the idea of more life-like art and go on to create many of the most beloved pieces in history.
Even today, the rarity and importance of Duccio’s work is recognized. In 2004, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased one of his known thirteen pieces for an undisclosed sum. However, experts estimate that it was around $45 million! This just goes to show how important Duccio’s work is to the history of art!
Met Madonna and Child: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/438754
At Accessible Art History, I strive to create an engaging space for all who are curious about the history of human creation. Use our blog posts to learn quick facts about a variety of works or sign up for one of our online courses.
Connect with Accessible Art History here: