Doni Tondo: Michelangelo’s Holy Family
A very original frame...
In the early 1500’s (probably around 1507) Michelangelo painted a Holy Family on a round-shaped panel for the rich Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni who, says historian Giorgio Vasari, enjoyed collecting beautiful things both from ancient and modern authors. This painting is the only panel unanimously attributed to Michelangelo and it is best known as Doni Tondo, from the name of his buyer. The round shape (tondo) was commonly used in the Florentine tradition to celebrate the birth of a child (desco da parto). The panel is now conserved at the Uffizi, in Florence, and it is still in its original frame, probably designed by Michelangelo and superbly carved by Marco and Francesco del Tasso. It was painted after the sculpture of David and it clearly reflects, in the colours which shape the volumes, the experience of Michelangelo as a sculptor. The panel anticipates Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel ceiling and has an evident role in determining the canons of painting during the whole XVI century, initiating the period of Mannerism. The use of the colours in this painting is noteworthy. It is perfectly coherent with the bright colours of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, recovered by the 1980’s restoration. This is a good point against the criticism levelled to the restoration.
Mr. Doni and Mrs. Strozzi
The occasion for the painting may have been the baptism of the Doni’s first-born Mary in 1507 or, less likely, the marriage of Agnolo Doni with Maddalena Strozzi in 1504. Michelangelo was a friend of Doni and he had already gained a considerable fame by the sculpture of David. The holy family was the appropriate theme to a baptism and the round frame, despite the constraints it imposes to the painter, was the appropriate shape for a domestic occasion. Vasari tells a story about the commission of the panel which says a lot about the character of Michelangelo and his relationship with money. After finishing the painting, Michelangelo sent it covered to Doni’s house, asking for 70 ducats. But Doni, who was a prudent man, thought this amount was too much and that 40 could be enough. Michelangelo did not appreciate the fact at all, so he sent to say that if Doni wanted the panel, he had now to pay 100 ducats, rather than 70. Then Doni, who liked the painting, decided to give the artist the original 70 ducats, but Michelangelo was not satisfied with this proposal and claimed even more: 140 ducats.
The work is testified to be at Doni’s home still in 1591, while in 1677 it results to be at the Uffizi, in the Medici’s collection, where it has always been until nowadays.
The painting and the frame were restored in 1985 and put under the protection of a bulletproof glass. This has probably been providential in preserving the panel from the explosion of the bomb in the mafia attack of May 27, 1993.The tondo was moved to the new room (N. 35), dedicated to Michelangelo, in January 2013 (see the video below).
The superb frame of the panel is commonly considered designed by Michelangelo himself and carved by Marco and Francesco Del Tasso, descendants from a family of engravers (their father, Domenico, died in 1508, is the author of the choir of the Cathedral of Perugia). The frame is characteristic for the five protruding heads, derived from the Ghiberti’s door for the Baptistery of Florence. The highest head is Christ, the other four are two prophets and two angels. It has been suggested that the four heads, all gazing at the face in the lower point of the frame, suggest the observer the initial point of view of the scene, from where the lines of movement depart. The three crescent moons in the upper left side of the frame and the four lion heads recall the coats of arms of the Strozzi and Doni families.
The scene is composed of four level, in a space which seems to be spherical because of the contrasting colours of the figures in the foreground, that detach them from the blurred figures in the background. The first level is entirely occupied by the three figures of the Holy Family. They form a statuary group. Mary, positioned between the legs of Joseph, has the principal position, Joseph stays protective at her shoulders. The Child, who Mary takes from or passes to Joseph, completes and fills the space between Joseph and Mary. He is the conjunction between the two. The group of the family is conceived as a sculpture and it is caught in the exact instant which Mary turns to take (or to pass) the Child. The plasticity of the forms is rendered by the use of colours cangianti, continuously varying from the light tones to the dark tones. This technique, which will become common among the mannerist artists, such as Pontormo and Bronzino, allows Michelangelo to work the surface of the panel as a solid, three-dimensional material. The group is resting on a green grass, where the clumps of clover may allude to the Trinity. The colours of the Mary’s robe are the traditional red and blue, but the chromaticity of the scene is enriched by the yellow of the Joseph’s robe, expressing authority, and the green of a mantle. The muscular yet graceful form of the Madonna anticipates the figures of the Sibyls in the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
The other levels are blurred, to indicate a temporal distance (rather than a spatial distance) between the present time, represented by the clear Holy Family, and the past time. The second level is a child St. John the Baptist, the patron of Florence, who intensively looks at the group where the other child, Jesus, is. This level is separated from the first one by a small wall, St. John seems to stay in a pool, which in turn separates him from the third level, five figures of nudes. At last, the last level is a blue landscape with a lake and a cliff.
The Moving of the Tondo
It is evident, by the organization of the painting, the intention of Michelangelo to insert the Holy Family inside the history, rather than inside the nature, as Leonardo had done in the contemporary painting of the Virgin with the Child and Saint Anne. This has encouraged the flourishing of theories about the meaning of the work. According to the most credited theory, the different levels of the panel symbolize the different periods of the humanity. The nudes in the background represent the pagan world, the era ante legem: i.e., before the word of God. They are represented naked probably to allude to the baptism of the neophytes. In fact, the figure of St. John the Baptist, who seems to be immersed in a pool of water, is the conjunction between the old and the new era, represented by the group of the three figures in the foreground: Mary representing the world post legem (the book on her legs) and Jesus, representing the world sub gratia. It is meaningful the similarity between the child John Baptist (the Precursor of Christ) and the child Jesus.
Another interpretation underlines the familiar-domestic scope of the painting, rather than its religious meaning. Mary is turning to donate (this may be an allusion to the family name Doni) the child to Joseph. In this gesture, there is a sharing of responsibilities between the two spouses. The nudes in the background might also be seen as neo-platonic athletes of the virtue, symbolizing the struggle against non-active life.
Some details of the panel (Mary does not wear the veil, does not have any religious symbol and she seems to hide the genitals of Jesus with the hand) have given rise also to more eccentric theories. A psychoanalytic interpretation is that the mother has the hand on the pubis of the child, as to initiate him to sexuality, putting him in her lap. In this way, his destiny would be the homosexuality, as a child initiated to the sexuality too early. The child looks puzzled, because he is observed with inquiring eyes by a non protective father, much older than the mother. The child, therefore, is determined to become an adult on his own and to reach the youngsters who are behind him: he does not want to be manipulated by adults. It is curious to note how, after 500 years, this vision completely overturns the Vasari’s description of the painting in The Lives (1568 edition): “Michelangelo makes the wonderful contentment of the Christ’s mother and her affection to share it with that blessed old man (Joseph) to be known in the turning of her head and in keeping her eyes fixed at the great beauty of the child. Joseph takes the child with equal love, tenderness and devotion, how it can be noticed from his face very well….”
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Influences and correlations
The Madonna with Child, painted by Luca Signorelli around 1490, is considered the nearest reference to the work of Michelangelo. This painting had belonged to Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici, that Michelangelo had got to know well during this apprenticeship at the neo-platonic garden of Medici. The nudes in the background, derived from Piero della Francesca (the Death of Adam, in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi), are allegories of virtues of the pagan world. The affinity with the nudes of Doni Tondo is evident, but it is not the only influence that this painting may have exerted on Michelangelo. The monochromatic decorations upon the figure of the Madonna, inspired to the Flemish art, represent two prophets and two angels. Between the two prophets, we see a St. John the Baptist. Nudes, prophets, angels, St. John: they are all elements we find in the painting and the frame of Doni Tondo.
The other references traditionally cited are the group of Laocoön, discovered in 1506 and surely known by Michelangelo, and the Apollo of Belvedere for the poses of the nudes in the background. The torsion of Laocoön really may have someway inspired also the composition of the Madonna. Another possible influence often cited by scholars is the Virgin with Child and St. Anne, by Leonardo. This painting is dated 1510, but Michelangelo should have known it by an earlier preparatory panel. The use of gradient colours by Leonardo goes in an opposite direction with respect to the clear, sculpted colours of Michelangelo, but the strong link among the figures of the group may have influenced him.
Let us have a quick look now at what Michelangelo’s great contemporaries, Leonardo and Raphael, did on the same subject. We have already cited the Virgin with Child and St. Anne. Leonardo is attracted by the naturalness, his forms are merged inside the nature. His representation is completely female, St. Anne, not Joseph, is at the vertex of the group and she watches Mary with tenderness. The two women seem to have the same age. The child plays with a lamb, which may prefigure his passion.
Raphael is celebrated for the sweetness of the many Madonnas he painted. In the Holy Family with a Palm Tree (1506) and in the Alba Madonna (1511) he adopts, as Michelangelo, the round shape, that here confers the scene a greater intimacy. The Madonna d’Alba tilts towards the little St. John following the round shape of the panel in an affectionate hug. Joseph and Mary are placed, in the Holy Family, at the two sides of the panel and form a sort of protective arch that encloses the child.