by Sue Hubbard
Siena, a mediaeval city of windy streets, dark alleys and red roofs is one of Italy's jewels. It may now be full of school children and tourists eating ice cream as they wander amongst the stylish shops or stop to have a drink in the Piazza del Campo – which twice yearly is turned into a horse racetrack for that lunatic and partisan stampede, the Palio – but it was in the Middle Ages that Siena reached its zenith. Having been ruled by the Longobards, then the Franks, it passed into the hands of the Prince-Bishops. During the 12th century these were overthrown by Consuls who set up a secular government. It was then that Siena attained the political and economic importance that led to its rivalry with that other gilded Tuscan city, Florence. The 12th century saw the construction of many beautiful buildings: numerous towers, nobles' houses, Romanesque churches, culminating in the construction of the famous black and white duomo.
The great age of Sienese art arguably started with Duccio. No contemporary accounts of him, nor any personal documents, have survived. Though there are many records about him in municipal archives: records of changing of address, payments, civil penalties and contracts that give some idea of the life of the painter. Little is known of his painting career. Many believe he studied under Cimabue, while others think that he may have actually traveled to Constantinople and learned directly from a Byzantine master.
As a young man Duccio probably worked in Assisi, though he spent virtually his entire life in Siena. He's first mentioned in Sienese documents in 1278 in connection with commissions for 12 wooden panels for the covers of the municipal books. In 1285, a lay brotherhood in Florence commissioned him to complete an altarpiece, known now as the Rusellai Madonna, for the church of Santa Maria Novella. By that date he must already have had something of a reputation, which guaranteed the quality of his work.