Although he considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was also an accomplished painter. Pope Julius II (1503-1513) commissioned him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, a project Michelangelo worked on between 1508 and 1512. The great artist later returned to this chapel when he was sixty years old. His job this time was to decorate the wall behind the altar with his great fresco of the Last Judgment, executed between 1535 and 1541 on the orders of Pope Paulus III (1534-1549). In the years before he embarked on his first great adventure in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo painted a tondo – a round painting – which is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It is known as the Doni Tondo and it is both the only painting by Michelangelo in the city and apparently also the only panel painting that the Florentine artist ever finished.
The Doni Tondo was commissioned by Agnolo Doni, a wealthy banker, probably on the occasion of his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi. This marriage took place in 1503 or 1504, and it is generally assumed that Michelangelo painted the tondo before his departure to Rome in 1508. This allows us to date the painting to the years between 1503 and 1508. What is very interesting is that the painting is still in its original frame, a frame that Michelangelo presumably designed himself or helped to design. The frame is peculiar in that it has five protruding human heads, two male, three female, the meaning of which is unclear. The rest of decorations comprise floral motifs, vegetation, birds and some horned figures, perhaps satyrs. The tondo itself depicts the Holy Family (Sacra Famiglia), that is, Jesus Christ as a child, the Virgin Mary and the aging Joseph. Mary is clearly the central figure. She is sitting on the grass and has just put down her book to receive the infant Jesus from Joseph. Michelangelo’s composition is unusual; in other paintings of the Holy Family Jesus has a much more central position. The colours of the Doni Tondo are vibrant and beautiful.
In the background of the tondo, we can see a rocky landscape. Four naked adolescents and one scantily clad young man can be seen sitting on or leaning against a ridge. On the right, one of the naked young men seems to be pulling at the clothes of the man who is not yet fully undressed. The exact meaning of the presence of these nudes is uncertain, but we know that Michelangelo had a profound interest in the male anatomy. Also present in the background is the young Saint John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence.
It is interesting to compare Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo to another tondo depicting the Holy Family that is also in the Uffizi. I am referring to Luca Signorelli’s painting known as the Sacra Famiglia di Parte Guelfa. Signorelli (ca. 1450-1523) was some 25 years Michelangelo’s senior. He was born and raised in Cortona, where he also died after a long and distinguished career that saw him contributing to a wall fresco in the Sistine Chapel and executing a series of frescoes in the cathedral of Orvieto. Signorelli painted his tondo for the Guelph party in Florence, the traditional supporters of the Pope. It was to be put on display in their headquarters in the Palazzo di Parte Guelfa. The work was executed in ca. 1490, so some fifteen years before Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. It is quite plausible that Michelangelo saw Signorelli’s painting, although it seems unlikely he was directly influenced by it.
Signorelli’s tondo has a much more traditional composition, with the infant Jesus in the centre between the Virgin Mary and Joseph. Mary is browsing through a book and there is another book on the ground just in front of her. Joseph has his arms crossed before his chest and seems to be bowing towards his stepson in reference. While Mary and Jesus have haloes hovering above their heads, Joseph has multiple rays of light emanating from his. His most conspicuous piece of clothing is obviously his multi-coloured scarf, which was very well done by Signorelli. While Mary is sitting and Joseph is bending down, Jesus actually seems to be standing. The three figures take up most of the space in the painting, but behind them we are just able to discern a landscape with rocks and a tree. On the left, three small figures are walking along a narrow path.