Doni Tondo: A Visual Analysis of Michelangelo’s Masterpiece

Doni Tondo or Doni Tondo by Michelangelo
The Doni Tondo or Doni Madonna, is the only finished panel painting by the mature Michelangelo to survive. © Petar Milošević

Located in the gallery of Uffizi, Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo (Tondo Doni) portrays the holy family and represents a unicum in Michelangelo’s artistic production. 

In front of real people, I would never admit that I like to be right. In front of a keyboard, on the other hand, it is easier for me to admit that when I am right, my ego feels a subtle pleasure; one which is obviously disguised as false modesty. Perhaps it is precisely the search for this sensation that leads me to talk about a work, whose dynamics of realisation confirm my idea of ​​how we should approach art: the Doni Tondo. 

To achieve my goal, I will start from the stylistic and historical examination of the work, and then arrive at completely personal and subjective considerations.

Doni Tondo Michelangelo analysis

Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo was created between 1505 and 1507 by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Although the artist was still young at that time, he had already completed some of his most important works, which had been received with great enthusiasm by both his clients and the general public alike. This was a perfectly balanced period in Michelangelo’s life, because the enthusiasm of personal success was added to the dynamism of a young age and the awareness of his own abilities and talent.

The Doni Tondo is a tempera painting that represents an unicum in Michelangelo’s artistic production because it is the only work attributed to him with certainty that is made on a mobile support. 

What does Tondo mean? The term tondo is obviously linked to the circular shape of both the work and the frame that encompasses it. The wooden surface of the frame enhances the beauty of the painting because it is conceptually connected to it. In fact, although it was made by the hands of Marco and Francesco del Tasso, it was executed according to a design by Michelangelo himself. 

The frame of Doni Tondo
The Frame of the Doni Tondo.

Who are the five heads on the frame? The frame, decorated with intertwined plant racemes, animals and satyrs, has a surface that we could almost define as three-dimensional because in addition to the elements just mentioned, it includes five small sculptures: five heads that protrude from the base of the support. These heads represent Christ with prophets and sibyls; their pose and position makes it seem that each of them observes and participates emotionally in the scene depicted inside the tondo.

The painting depicts the holy family in the foreground as its members are the main protagonists of the work, while in the background we see a young Saint John the Baptist with further intriguing characters placed behind him.

The theme of the holy family in a historical-artistic context such as the one we are examining was quite common at the time. In fact, we must not forget that the works of the past, as regards the choice of subjects to be created, were mostly divided between representations of religious virtues and representations of the civil virtues. Yet Michelangelo’s interpretative reading of this decidedly common theme is completely original and offers us new insights and philosophical perspectives that give us the feeling of never having seen other paintings of this type.

Painting ennobled by the conceptuality of sculpture  

The first “technical” observation linked to tondo reveals, simply by looking at the figures, what Michelangelo’s belief was about painting. According to the artist, the subjects depicted in the paintings had to be made following the same preparatory criteria as the sculptures, with the same meticulous attention in the reproduction of details, especially the anatomical ones. In a certain sense, painting had to be “ennobled” by the conceptuality of sculpture in order to reach and equal the perfection of the art of removing.

Doni Tondo marry body shape
The perfect twist of Mary’s body suggests the idea of ​​tension and movement.

This detail can be perceived immediately, simply by observing the central group of the scene, where the perfect twist of Mary’s body, depicted in the foreground, suggests the idea of ​​tension and movement typical of the bodies of all Michelangelo’s sculptures. Behind her to complete the expression of perfect and harmonious formulation, we find Joseph holding Jesus on his lap. The strength and muscular tension, much sought after by Michelangelo in his sculptures, are obtained not only in the drawing of the anatomical details, but also through a wise use of chiaroscuro.

In the tondo the subjects are illuminated by a light that starts from the left and spreads on the surface of the painting, illuminating the bodies and the drapery that surround them with varying levels of intensity. The colours of the garments, thanks to this diffusion and inclination of light, reach not only a unique intensity and liveliness, but also the perfect depth much sought after by the artist, obtained above all thanks to the unique chromatic harmony imagined and then created by him.

Light is the key and the secret through which Michelangelo not only obtained unexpected chromatic shades, but also the element through which he was able to play to present the individual elements depicted in an impeccable perspective.

What makes Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo such a memorable work?  

After these necessary clarifications, certainly fundamental in the study of the history of art, I can finally put aside the more technical and formal language and proceed to say what I think and what made the study of this work not only enjoyable, but one of the most memorable works of this lively historical period.

Surely the refined beauty of the drawing is the reason that pushes one to observe and remember this masterpiece, but appreciating the beauty of the painting itself is not enough to grasp its essence. Michelangelo is the man whom I consider foremost amongst those of the renaissance who possesses a thirst for infinity, because in him in particular I find the idea of ​​centrality of being. 

See also: The Perfected Thought by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Moreover, I clearly perceive the perfect search for beauty and its essence, typical of the classical period. In every gesture, first thought out and then reproduced, Michelangelo gives us through his art, much more than what we see. In fact, he tells us stories that are not limited to presenting individual subjects but also the knowledge connected to the subjects themselves.

In him the best elements of art and culture merge. Examining each of his works is like reading the summa of theology, philosophy and the study of the anatomy of time, with the constant feeling that the work of art examined is not only the culmination of the perfect artistic gesture, but the point of arrival of a story that finds fulfilment and realisation in it.

Hence, the group of the Holy Family is not only the idealistic and idealised representation of the family, but is also the point of arrival of the expectation of all humanity, obviously interpreted from the Christian perspective in which Michelangelo moved.

Doni Tondo full painting
Doni Tondo by Michelangelo

Symbolism in Doni Tondo (holy family)

The smallest group of nude figures in the background is a symbol of humanity before the birth of Christ, therefore we are talking about a humanity not yet involved in the destiny of salvation reserved for man after the coming of Jesus. Precisely for this reason the subjects depicted are naked; a nakedness, mind you, that is not deformed by sin like the damned souls of the last judgement.

Here, men who are not clothed with the message of salvation typical of the Christian mentality and, precisely for this reason, naked, as Adam was when he became aware of himself. They are cultured men, perhaps, enlightened by ancient philosophy, but naked nonetheless because they are enlightened only by classical philosophical thought.

On the right a St. John contemplates the holy family. The presence of the Baptist is much more than a decorative element to balance the global development of the image, here it becomes a symbol of the end of the messianic expectation and the fulfilment of the divine promise. John is the last of the prophets, the only one among them to have seen with his own eyes the fulfilment of the ancient promise made by God to man.

Radiating perfection

intriguing characters in Doni Tondo
Intriguing characters placed behind Saint John the Baptist

Absolute perfection is obviously achieved in the central group where the beauty of the bodies depicted is very different from the perfection of the nudes behind them, because it is a perfection clothed with dignity and awareness, where the certainty of being the fulfilment of an expectation is symbolised in the choice of every single pose, but also and above all in the closed book on Mary’s lap.

Baby Jesus in Doni Tondo
Baby Jesus in Doni Tondo

Many have seen in this closed book only the text announcing the Passion of Jesus to Mary, but I see it rather as the symbol of the closure of a process of waiting, completed by two “yeses”: those pronounced by Joseph and Mary, protagonists of the scene with their child. This was a mission that was initially foreign to them, but which they accepted and therefore completed.

The chromatic choice therefore in the case of the central group is no longer just a stylistic means, but it is also another means to arrive at the aim of emphasising the whole conceptual construction of the scene.

My approach to the study of Doni Tondo is not only purely philosophical and conceptual, as it might seem from what has been said so far, but it is also extremely practical and it is precisely for this reason that I am able to talk about the small details of the drawing and remember this work. The Tondo in fact, both in the choice of subjects and in the shape, is the result of an artist’s response to specific commission needs.

Who is Agnolo Doni? 

Agnolo Doni and Maddalena
Agnolo Doni and Maddalena. Agnolo was the commissioner of Doni Tondo. Portraits by Raffaello Sanzio.

Agnolo Doni, cited as commissioner of the work by Vasari, asked Michelangelo to make a painting as a gift to Maddalena Strozzi, married to Agnolo in 1504. The occasion triggering the realisation of the work was either marriage or, holding account of the presence of the Baptist, the need to celebrate the birth and baptism of Mary, the firstborn of the couple, in 1507. Both significant dates therefore justify the choice of the subject and, as we shall see, the reason for the choice of the form.

Motivation and form are also the two elements that inspire my intervention in this specific case, because they confirm my basic idea of ​​the right approach to the study of art. Each work, to be truly understood and internalised, must be inserted in the social context to which it belongs, because every artistic production is not only the result of a specific artistic style, determined by the historical period, but is the direct consequence of the social reality and general culture in which the work was conceived.

In a society as strongly permeated by religious thought as that of the Renaissance, it is obvious that the birth of a family was celebrated by choosing the Holy Family as a reference model.

The purpose of marriages in the past, leaving aside the romantic ideas about love as we understand it now, was to generate new children, who represented the continuity of one’s family of origin and, in many cases, the guarantee of an adequate workforce. In the case of marriages between nobles, such as the one between Agnolo and Maddalena, the children were also the element that sealed a new “alliance” between wealthy families. 

desco da parto
A painted desco da parto (a birth tray or birth salver) was an important symbolic gift on the occasion of a successful birth in late medieval and Early Modern Florence and Siena.

Taking into account all these clarifications regarding the importance of children, I can finally start talking about the particular rounded shape of the painting. The tondo was not an absolute novelty in the artistic production of the period, but this tondo is different from the others because it is a desco da parto, a sort of round tray often painted on both sides, used by noble families to serve food to women, who had just given birth. This identifying element of the work fully justifies both dates proposed by historians, because if given on the occasion of the wedding it would be a wish for prosperity, if given on the occasion of the birth it would be a means of celebrating the happy event through the continuation of a habit.

The Doni tondo therefore, regardless of the moment and the reasons for its realisation, would not have been made if this social habit had not existed. This is why it is easy to remember the various elements of the Doni Tondo, because regardless of its evident beauty, it is connected to a tradition and contains a story. This allows us to understand and internalise the piece and not just learn sterile technical data.

The essence of art appreciation 

I remember with horror and disdain my examination of Mediaeval Art History. I had carefully studied all the parts of the immense programme, trying to memorise the various dates so loved by my professor and reconcile them with my desire to understand the reasons behind the artistic manifestations of the period.

With the usual emotion mixed with anxiety, I sat in front of my professor waiting for the fateful first question and I was asked the date of birth and death of Robert Guiscard, a character who is remembered as a condottiero, not as an artist.

I only managed to indicate the historical period in which to insert him and alas I failed the exam. At the next exam, I presented myself with a completely different approach, let’s say in calculator mode considering how many numbers I had in mind. After many years, of these numbers, of these dates, I remember absolutely nothing.

On the other hand, I perfectly remember every single detail of the subsequent art studies, of the Doni Tondo and of all those wonderful works that I made my own, because I was able to understand them and contextualise them.

Read this article in Italian →

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