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from issue no. 09 - 2003

Siena, a masterpiece at the dawning of Duccio

When the Duccio exhibition opens its doors in October, one of the most important stages in the course of the exposition will be the pre-Duccio crypt discovered two years ago and restored for the occasion. Luciano Bellosi speaks about it

by Giuseppe Frangi

The facade of Siena Cathedral

The facade of Siena Cathedral

The purposes for which this great hall were constructed eight centuries ago just under the ground level of the main altar of Siena Cathedral, remain a mystery. Abutting the baptistery wall, its vaults would have risen higher than the present floor of the cathedral. It was completely frescoed, as the “lopped” scenes show, of which only the lower parts survive. Then with the work already completed, the counter order arrived; the hall was filled with debris and closed off within the foundations of the great Sienese cathedral. Until two years ago, when the workers who were engaged in the adjustment of the high altar noticed the existence of this buried space. Imagine the amazement when, upon removing the stones, the dazzling colors of frescos that no atmospheric agent had been able to “dim” shone forth. A hundred and eighty square meters of scenes of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus; the stones and the debris had not caused irreparable damages to the surfaces of the paintings, which patient and most delicate processes of restoration are engaged in repairing. A race against time, because on next October 4 the most eagerly awaited exhibition of Duccio di Buoninsegna opens its doors, and the crypt will be an obligatory stage in the course of the exposition. But what is the connection between this exceptional discovery and the genius of the Maestà? Luciano Bellosi, the greatest expert on the origins of Sienese painting and curator of the collection that will draw thousands of visitors to the Tuscan city, explains it to 30Days. Holder of the chair of art history at the University of Siena, author of a fundamental monograph on Cimabue and of the most important study of the Maestà of Duccio, Bellosi followed from close range, and almost with apprehension, the exceptional recovery, and explains: “In reality, these are not frescos”, he specifies, “but dry mural paintings, a technical weakness which requires exceptional attention on the part of the restorers. It is a long and delicate work”. Given its fragile state, access to the crypt will be limited on the occasion of the exhibition, permitting only 25 visitors to enter at a time.
In reality the ideal course of the exhibition will begin from right here, Bellosi explains, «these paintings are datable to around 1270 and are a sort of knockout blow for those who claimed that mural painting only entered the history of Sienese art with Simone Martini. At that time Duccio, little more than twenty years old, was probably an apprentice in Cimabue’s workshop in Florence, but it is possible that the bright colors of those paintings remained in his eyes». The cycle recounts scenes from the life of Christ. There is a Rest on the flight from Egypt painted on a pillar, with reference to a detail, quoted in the apocryphal gospels, of a palm that bends down over the fugitives to give them shade. There are two scenes of the Passion, a Crucifixion and a Deposition in the sepulchre, and these are the two scenes in the best condition; whereas the two paintings of the Resurrection, with the holy women at the sepulchre and the Noli me tangere, were lopped by the paving work in the cathedral. The images unfold with solemnity, with slender figures, of natural size, arranged with great compositional skill. It is the work of one of the pre-Duccio artists, knowledge of whom will be deepened by the exhibition in October. The most likely names are Dietisalvi di Speme, Guido di Graziano and Rinaldo di Siena, Bellosi explains. The principal candidate is Dietisalvi di Speme, the most accomplished figure among the pre-Duccio painters. The documents show him to have been active between 1259 and 1288, and they assign four painted tablets to him with certainty: these are the famous Biccherne, the covers of the registers in which the magistrates in charge of the finance offices kept the public accounts of Siena. Dietisalvi, the documents say, painted at least 29 of them, only four of which have come down to us.
A detail from the Crucifixion of Jesus, painted in the crypt found under the altar 
of the cathedral in 2001

A detail from the Crucifixion of Jesus, painted in the crypt found under the altar of the cathedral in 2001

“Dietisalvi and the others show that they did not yet know of Cimabue's revolution which marks in decisive manner the artistic scene beginning with the next decade”, Bellini points out. “We have the first sign of this revolution in Siena with the great stained glass window of the Cathedral realized in 1286 on cartoons executed by Duccio, obviously back from a Florentine apprenticeship”. The stained glass window, just restored, will be one of the showpieces of the exhibition. It will in fact be possible to see it from close up in the majesty of its six meters of diameter and the brilliance of its fully restored colors. «The throne of Mary is for the first time a throne conceived architectonically and no longer a wooden one as, for example, in the Madonna Rucellai, a masterpiece of the young Duccio. In the stained glass window one sees a new spatial concept; even if it is correct to say that it was not Duccio who made the most rational advances in the research. Giotto, who was younger than he and whom he probably met in Cimabue’s workshop, was the real pioneer of the new development.»
Bellosi has studied the paintings in the crypt, comparing them with the contemporary Biccherne. Through the comparison not only was he able to restrict the list of names of the possible creators, but he was especially able to focalize the key characteristic of Sienese painting: the sense of color. «In the paintings in the crypt the freshness of the pigments is exceptional; the darkness and this centuries-long seclusion have preserved them in a surprising way. The crypt in fact was virtually never used. Perhaps they thought of it as an access to the cathedral from the city. But then the project was completely revised.»
Meanwhile, as we have seen, things evolved quickly all around. In 1287 Duccio received the commission for the stained glass window in the cathedral. Contemporary with this work is the small Maestà of Berne, also in the exhibition. The exceptional Trittichetto from the collection of the Queen of England will also be on show, the most beautiful work of Duccio apart from the Maestà. Sienese art took off with the maturity of Duccio. “The originality and the refinement are the first characteristics that indicate a greatness achieved. The white veil under the Madonna's mantle in the London Triptych is a detail which fills with wonder”, Bellosi explains. But were we to try and trace a profile of Duccio, man and artist, what should we imagine it to be. Surprisingly Bellosi suggests two categories which are not initially artistic: «For me the beauty of Duccio is based on seriousness and conviction. He saw with his own eyes the power of the Giottoesque revolution, he assimilated it in his own way without mental reservations, but he had the strength to remain himself. He projected into the intensity of colors, as in those wine and dark reds, his awe towards reality. But he never lost his sense of equilibrium. The depth of stresses was never to the detriment of refinement”.
This then is Duccio. One of the greats, whose human and artistic venture we can retrace step by step today. Imagining him full of wonder in front of those paintings in the crypt of the cathedral, blazing with colors which emerge today exactly as they were before his eyes.

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