Tondo Doni, 1504-1505, (diameter: 120 cm) Uffizi, Florence (Wikipedia public domain photo)
Tondo, short for rotondo, is a round painting or sculptural relief. Doni is the name of the man who ordered it.
It is the only easel painting by Michelangelo that has survived, one of his few tries with the brush before Pope Julius ordered him to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—all three thousand square feet of it.
At work on this “little” picture was “a Hercules at the spinning wheel”, as the French novelist Stendhal put it.
At first glance, you might think it is just another Holy Family picture, like this one, painted three years later by Raphael:
The Holy Family (1507) by Raphael (Wikipedia Public domain photo)
But glance again. The Virgin is reaching upwards and backwards to take hold of the Child that St. Joseph, kneeling behind her, is handing over her shoulder. Why such a strange contortion?
And what are those naked youths doing in the background? What do they mean?
It’s an allegory, said some: the Virgin stands for the Church and the nudes in the background represent prophetic figures.
Others, just back from theology class, declared the nudes “symbols of mankind ante Legem [before the divine Law was given], Mary and Joseph, of mankind sub Lege, and Jesus, of mankind sub gratia [with God's grace after the Revelation].” They might be angels too, or allusions to primordial life or to baptism.
To Walter Pater, the nineteenth-century English art critic, the nude youths were like “fauns of a Dionysian orgy” and symbols of paganism; they stood in contrast [some contrast!] to the figures in the foreground, which symbolize Christianity.
But no one knows for sure.
In any case, most people, starting with Angelo Doni who ordered the painting, didn’t like it much.
Portrait of Angelo Doni (1506) by Raphael (Wikipedia public domain photo)
That may have been why he was slow to pay Michelangelo (see that story here) and why he took the painting out of its ornate frame and put in another one by Lorenzo di Credi.
“The play of the arrangement of limbs ruins the impression; the idyll of parental felicity becomes a gymnastic exercise,” complained one critic [Justi].
“The problem of the contorted position isn’t completely resolved…With sentiments of this kind, nobody ought to paint a Holy Family”, wrote Jakob Burckhardt, the Renaissance historian.
Victorian art critics were put off by the Virgin’s bare, masculine arms, too, as well as by the immodest view of the Baby.
The painting is odd in other ways. There’s something confusing about the perspective: the Holy Family is seen from one point of view and the nudes in the background from another. Michelangelo put a gray strip between the parts of the picture to hide the discrepancy. Why such a complication?
One theory is that this was done to accommodate the painting to the place at Doni’s where it was going to be hung.
But all these peculiarities are welcomed by art historians: “This odd articulation of the picture’s perspective—and even more, …the spiral disposition of the Virgin—ought to make us consider the Tondo Doni the starting point of Mannerism,” wrote Ettore Camesasca. “And the work contains the germ of everything that makes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel unique…The Madonna is a sister of the Delphic Sibyl; the youth half-concealed by Joseph’s shoulder is a forerunner of one of the nudes of the Sistine ceiling.”
The Delphic Sibyl (1510)
Fresco, 350 x 380 cm., in the Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikipedia public domain photo)
The colors are particularly bright and must have been a surprise to the people who knew only Michelangelo’s sculpture. “[They] would have aroused the enthusiasm of Ingres”, says Camesesca.
It isn’t an oil painting. It was made with “the usual Italian mixed technique of the period: drawing on a plaster ground, a thin layer of green earth, in covering resin, and a graduated heightening with white in tempera. The overpainting is done with transparent resin, except in the flesh parts, which are painted in pure tempera.” (Ludwig Goldscheider)
Michelangelo never worked in oils. He must have envied Raphael and Titian for their great paintings in that medium. Remember: the famous Virgins of Leonardo and Raphael and Correggio were not yet painted in 1504, when Michelangelo did the Tondo Doni. Botticelli’s were the ones he might have studied. Actually, this tondo looks more like a painted version of his tondo reliefs of the same years:
The Tondo Taddei (1504) (Creative Commons license at Wikipedia)
The frame for the Tondo Doni was designed by Michelangelo too, or at least approved by him.
The Tondo Doni in its original frame (published at Wikipedia)
Besides some fully-sculptured heads in relief, a grotesque mask, vines and other ornamental features, it bears the arms (those making up the family coat-of-arms) of Angelo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, his wife. The painting was probably commissioned on the occasion of their wedding in 1503 or 1504.
See the frame and some excellent photos showing how a reproduction was made.
My sources were: La obra pictórica completa de Miguel Angel in the Clásicos del arte series published by Noguer-Rizzoli Editores, Barcelona. Notes by Ettore Camesasca
Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Architecture by Ludwig Goldscheider, Phaidon,
Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, first published in 1555.