Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art, this is Alessandro. Today I want to share Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo with you; a painting that depicts a classic scene of the Holy Family and remains one of the most significant Renaissance works of art. This is Michelangelo’s only universally accepted finished panel painting still in existence.
Although it’s an uncommon shape for a painting by modern standards, during the Renaissance it was very fashionable for rich families to collect these circular works of art.
NAME Doni Tondo
LOCATION Uffizi Galleries, Florence
YEAR 1504 or 1507 (?)
DIMENSIONS 120 cm diameter (47+1⁄2 in)
MATERIAL Oil and tempera on panel
Who Commissioned Doni Tondo?
So now you’re probably wondering, well who was rich enough to commission the Doni Tondo and from none other than Michelangelo himself? The Roman Catholic Church? A royal family? Nope.
Doni Tondo was also commissioned by Agnolo Doni, a rich merchant and tradesman, to commemorate his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi which is why the painting is called ‘Doni Tondo’. They were both members of very wealthy and powerful Tuscan families.
The date mystery
Ok, so the painting was commissioned to Michelangelo, but when? You have probably noticed that I didn’t give you any specific date as I usually do. There is a reason and it’s related to an interesting story with hints hidden inside this work of art.
Instead we’ll move forward (for now) with the main theory that Agnolo Doni commissioned the tondo to commemorate his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi in 1504. The richly decorated frame is important because it is in fact the original frame designed by Michelangelo. We can see Jesus carved on the top, two prophets in the middle and two angels on the bottom. Among the decorations we can also see 3 crescent moons that were the symbol of the Strozzi family. Let’s start from this concept to analyze the painting.
The Shape “issue”
The first thing that strikes me about this painting is its unique shape. In Italian, tondo, such as in ‘Doni Tondo’ means ‘round’ and indicates a circular work of art like this one. There are also other examples of these circular pieces or ‘tondi’ as the Italians call them. These “tondi” were also created by other great Renaissance artists like Botticelli with his Madonna of the Magnificat.
As you can see, with Botticelli it’s almost as if the figures are viewed from the window of a washing machine – it appears as though there are space limitations here and Botticelli struggled to fill the scene without compromising the figure’s postures.
In contrast, the scene here in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is very well-balanced and without visible distortion. Granted, Botticelli painted his tondo 20 years before Michelangelo, which means Michelangelo had the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes. However, there’s another component that helped Michelangelo with Doni Tondo. Michelangelo always defined himself as a sculptor and just a few years before painting Doni Tondo, he created the marble Pitti Tondo and Taddei Tondo. Thanks to these tondi he learnt how to manage the circular space in a balanced manner, which likely contributed to his success painting a circular canvas.
The Doni Tondo scene
First of all, this is an oil and tempera on panel which was not common, at least for the Florentine style, to use intense, vibrant colors. Joseph is wearing a bright orange and blue/grayish robe while Mary, as usual for her iconography, is wearing blue and pink/reddish clothing.
The Doni Tondo is a simple scene. We have the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary and Joseph) in the foreground. The young John the Baptist in the middle-ground, who is conventionally depicted wearing a fur and holding his staff. And lastly, in the background there are five nude male figures in the composition that appear unbothered or unaware of what’s happening in the foreground. Simple, right?
Mary is the most prominent figure in the composition and takes much of the center of the image. Remember that detail because it is a first fundamental hint. Mary is depicted very young, with a soft, delicate face, but with evidently muscular arms. This detail is not coincidental. As I said before, Michelangelo used to define himself primarily as a sculptor, not a painter. Which sounds crazy considering the immortal masterpieces he left, but stay with me while I explain.
Michelangelo – The sculptor
His sculptor techniques are clearly shown in his paintings and that’s why the figures are so well defined, almost modeled, like he wanted to create natural light and shading effects similar to what we would see on a statue. Consequently, the figures depicted by Michelangelo tend to have a larger volume and are highly detailed, even women and children.
It’s not a coincidence that we can identify some sculptures from which Michelangelo probably got inspired on creating Doni Tondo. For example, Mary’s head lies in the same position of Dying Alexander, while Joseph’s posture resembles the classic statue Belvedere Torso. Even for Jesus we can find some ancient examples, like the Child with Goose, that I actually prefer to call “Child with panicked Goose”.
Doni Tondo – Structure
As you can see, the connections with classical sculpture are clear and the consequence is that in this painting we can identify the pyramid structure: very popular in many works of art as you can see in The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne by Leonardo on the left and the Madonna del Cardellino by Raffaello on the right.
We are talking about 3 of the greatest painters ever lived. The difference being that Michelangelo was able to create the idea of a pyramid with true volume. The characters painted seem to fill the canvas space perfectly.
And the idea of space is amplified also thanks to a couple of techniques. The first one is the little wall at the end of the garden that is not straight, but slightly curved. The second is even more apparent and it’s the wall in the background that gives the painting some volume and a 3 dimensional appearance. That wall was inspired by a real one. Donato Bramante built that wall with a unique design for a new exedra in the Vatican around 1503 and 1504. That’s another hint about the date and a metaphor of something that is getting built (like a marriage or maybe something else).
Behind the wall, we can see a smoky blue aerial perspective landscape which gives the idea of depth and helps to focus our eyes on the main scene. If you want to learn more about the aerial perspective, check out the Mona Lisa post since Leonardo was very well known for this technique (here’s the link).
The nudes: a foundamental hint
Now back to the background, the nude figures apparently don’t make any sense in the scene, but they have a specific meaning: they likely represent the metaphor of the old men who were living based on their instincts, so before knowing the word of God, while the Holy Family represents the best example of new men who live based on the Catholic values.
Look at this figure in particular. This is a clear reference to the beautiful and highly dramatic statue of the Laocoon.
I talked about it in one of my last posts (click here if you want to know more about it). What’s important here is that the Laocoon was discovered in 1506 and Michelangelo himself was present since it was one of the biggest art discoveries of that time.
That’s a problem since this evidence moves the execution date forward, at least two years after the wedding… It’s interesting also noticing that not only are the bodies very similar, but there is another important detail: when the statue was found the right arm was missing, so it wasn’t a coincidence that Michelangelo didn’t paint it, hiding that portion behind Joseph.
Let’s talk about Joseph. Joseph is way bigger than Mary. I mean, look at his right leg and the left shoulder and try to imagine him standing… he would be huge. Let’s compare him with the Canigiani Holy Family by Raffaello.
Joseph is still behind because he is, and no offense to Joseph, but less important than Mary and Jesus in the bible. In the bible he is depicted as older, weak, and somewhat passive.
With Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo however, he looks strong and prominent while passing Jesus to Mary. Jesus who has his head in the sky, like Joseph, while Mary is sitting on the ground and that represents her earthly nature. Jesus is considered the connection between men, earth, and God (the sky). And so Michelangelo is suggesting that Joseph may be Jesus’ dad: God himself?
To answer, look at how Michelangelo painted God in the Sistine Chapel in the scene The Creation of the Sun, Moon, and Plants just a few years later. Here God is frowning, but they seem to resemble each other closely.
So, it seems that what we have here is still a Holy Family, but with a deeper meaning and many little details that suggest the painting was actually done a few years after the wedding between Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi.
Another piece of evidence? The plants in the garden. Botanical experts identify the one on the left with the clitoria, symbol of fertility, the one on the right as anemonoides nemorosa, that represents the brevity of the joy of love and the uncertainty of the feelings.
It’s a combination of hints difficult to explain, right? Except if we look at the meaning from a specific point of view. Let’s imagine a couple who struggles to have kids, that’s probably a challenge for the love in a marriage (especially back then). And then finally they are able to have a child.
The importance of the heir
Now the question is: did Agnolo and Maddalena have a baby? The answer is yes, but 3 years after the wedding. Back then, having an heir was considered a fundamental part of marriage in order to keep the bloodline pure, especially if the families were wealthy. In 1507 Maddalena finally had a child who was born on the 8th of September. The child shared the same birthday as Mary, and because of this, Maddalena and Agnolo named their child Mary or Maria.
Now everything seems to make a lot more sense. Starting with the reason why Mary is the main character, who has a braid, which is another symbol of fertility. God is passing Mary the son she was waiting for. And there is another detail I want to mention. In the Annunciation scenes, Mary is often represented with an open book. Here there is a book, but it’s closed probably because the savior of all men, her son, has finally arrived.
In summary: the nudes represent the sin or the pagan world, John the Baptist in the middle-ground who is the connection with the Holy Family. All of them are separated in three different sections. The arrival of this Jesus is the most significant in this painting, thanks to Mary.
So now that we put all these elements together, the information strongly suggests that the painting was made to celebrate the birth of Maria Doni in 1507, not the marriage in 1504.
Additionally, in the late medieval and early Renaissance period there was the tradition of giving a symbolic gift, called desco da parto (a painted birth tray or birth salver), on the occasion of a successful birth.
So that’s probably the gift that Agnolo Doni gave to his wife. And, being wealthy, Agnolo was able to afford something more than a birth tray, like an expensive Michelangelo’s masterpiece.
I hope you enjoyed the story told by this beautiful painting and Michelangelo’s impressive talent. If you enjoy these posts, don’t miss the videos and please consider subscribing and sharing with your friends to allow me to create new content for you. You can also support me on Patreon where I upload new art-inspired wallpapers and imagery every single week. Feel free to leave your comments or questions down below and thank you all for watching. See you soon with another great work of art.