Regarded as the founder of the Sienese school of painting of the thirteenth century and one of the greatest masters of early Italian art. His birth date and teachers are unknown, and his greatest work, the Majestas in the museum of the Siena cathedral, is the only surviving example of his art that is unquestionably by him. Duccio is first mentioned in 1278, when he was paid for painting several chests for the municipal archives. From then until 1311 he is mentioned with regularity in Siena, though as often for payment of fines and wine bills as for painting commissions. There can be little doubt that he was a spendthrift as well as active politically and in frequent trouble with the authorities. At his death his widow and family refused their inheritance, which was doubtless a liability rather than an asset. In 1285 he was commissioned to paint a Madonna for the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence, for which the payment was 100 pounds, 50 florins, a very respectable amount. Most scholars agree that this was the famous Rucellai Madonna, now in the Uffizi, but which hung until recently in the Rucellai chapel in Santa Maria Novella. Several other documents of the 1280’s and 1290’s record payments to him for painting book covers. In 1302 he was paid a sizable sum for a Majestas for the chapel of the Palazzo Pubblico, but this work is unknown today. In 1308 he was commissioned to paint a Majestas for the high altar of the cathedral, with the understanding that all the work was to be done by his own hand. In November of 1310 he was requested to hasten his work, and on June 9, 1311, it was finished. It was carried in triumph from his shop to the cathedral with the clergy and nobles of the town in the procession.
The Rucellai Madonna of 1285 was ascribed by Vasari to Cimabue. It was first given to Duccio in 1898, and since then has been the subject of controversy among scholars, though all agree that it is Sienese and most agree that it is by Duccio. The great Majestas of 1311, which forms the basis for all other attributions to Duccio is still in relatively good condition. It was originally a single altarpiece on both sides, the front showing the Madonna Enthroned with saints and angels, and the back divided into many panels showing scenes from the life of Christ. Originally it stood on the high altar of the cathedral but later it was partially dismembered and moved to the cathedral museum, where it may be seen today. A few panels have been lost, and others have turned up in the London National Gallery and the Kaiser Friedrich Museum. In this work Duccio’s style is based on Byzantine forms and iconography, much of which must have been available to him in manuscript illustrations. While preserving the hieratic dignity of the Byzantine style, he invested its forms with a gentle grace and humanity personal to him and paralleling in tendency the innovations of Giotto in Padua. Figures and settings are presented in convincing form and space, and the emotional expressiveness of the figures goes well beyond that of his Byzantine models, though by no means as far as Giotto’s. His style is elegant and aristocratic, and emphasizes linear pattern at the expense of plasticity. Other works generally attributed to him are a Madonna adored by Franciscan monks and a polyptych of the Madonna and Saints, both in the Siena gallery, and a Madonna in the Uffizi, but all attributions to Duccio are fraught with endless dispute and conjecture. There is no record of his having made any frescoes. Duccio started a vast school, and there are many Ducciesque paintings extant as well as many names of followers, but the only two names that can be linked with particular paintings are Ugolino da Siena and Segna di Bonaventura. Out of Duccio’s style came the tradition of Sienese painting that was carried on by Simone Martini, and, more remotely, by such fifteenth-century painters as Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo.