Why Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo is a Masterpiece

Also known as the “Holy Family” or the “Doni Madonna”, this rare piece is the one and only intact wood panel painting of Michelangelo from the year 1507 to have survived to this day. Among Michaelangelo’s other works, this one is quite peculiar. It is shaped in the form of a ‘tondo’, which is Italian for ‘round’. This is a shape that has constantly been associated with the renaissance period of domestic ideologies.

Looking at the painting, Mary is the most prominent figure in the composition, taking up much of the center as she appears to be sitting/kneeling directly on the grass ground. Above her, Jesus depicted as a young toddler, and Joseph can be seen. Joseph appears to be in the middle-ground of the painting, between the Holy Family and the background. Behind the Holy Family is a noticeable horizontal slab that somehow divides the whole piece into two particular sections while at the same time including an image of a boy whom experts believe to be John the Baptist. Behind John, the Baptist are five naked men whose physiques are heavily emphasized which appear to be aesthetically proportioned and built as seen in the way their bodies are curved, the texture of their skins, and the way they resemble entities from earlier times or even mythological eras. At the farthest part of the artwork behind the 5 men, it shows a somewhat mountainous ridge as the painting’s distinct background. Proceeding to the artwork’s circular frame — tondo, there are 5 noticeable three-dimensional head figures which are believed to be a figure of Jesus, two prophets, and 2 civilians. Another element found in the circular frame of the artwork is the carvings that can be seen around it. These carvings are in the form of crescent moons, stars, vegetation, and lion heads which somehow shows the story of the (Agnolo) Doni, the patron of Doni Tondo, and (Maddalena) Strozzi family which can be seen throughout the rest of the frame. All in all, these are the aspects that are easily noticed when looking at the Doni Tondo.

As a way to further discuss what the Doni Tondo really conveys, let us first discuss the different noticeable elements and principles of arts that are inherent to the piece. Initially, we can see how the value of the colors of the Holy Family’s clothes greatly differs from the other elements of the piece giving the viewers an idea of where to look. The use of olive green, light blue, light pink, orange and dark blue somehow provide contrast on the color used for the skin of John the Baptist and the 5 men alongside the mountainous ridge. The element of value is also shown as a way to provide a sense of depth in the piece. This can be noticed when we compare how vivid the colors are in the elements in the foreground compared to the background. The colors present somehow exhibit a triadic harmony since the piece plays with the colors of blue, green, and orange. In addition to the colors, we can see how the different textures were really shown in the Doni Tondo. This is shown through the difference in appearance of the silk-like cloth used by the Holy Family and the rough, natural texture of the soil and foliage. This could also be seen through the cloth of the Holy Family which is somehow smoother in appearance compared to the cloth used by John the Baptist. This element of texture also contributed to the sense of depth present in the piece as the elements found in the background appear to be less smooth than the elements in the foreground. The element of shape is subtly incorporated within the piece. Geometric shapes could be seen when evaluating how the pieces of elements were placed. For example, the heads of the Holy Family actually form an inverted triangle and in evaluating their arrangement, it also leads us to an upright triangle having its base parallel to the legs of Mary going upwards converging towards the head of Jesus and Joseph. Organic shapes are also present in the forms of the leaves found on the ground and the mountainous ridge found in the background.

Proceeding in the principles of arts found in Doni Tondo, we will immediately notice how Michelangelo used the principle of balance towards the whole piece. He successfully used all the negative spaces behind the Holy Family through the inclusion of John the Baptist and the 5 men in the piece. Notice that the number of people behind the Holy Family is not divided equally but they are positioned in an asymmetrical manner while still promoting a sense of balance. Given that the Doni Tondo is a tribute to the Holy Family and the birth of Christ, the principle of emphasis was obviously used to highlight a specific aspect or image of the Holy Family that is somehow different from the common images that we see of them. This specific aspect or image will be discussed later on. Another principle that could be seen in Doni Tondo is scale and proportion. Knowing that the piece is composed of a foreground and a background, the use of scale and proportion is highly observable when looking at the size of Jesus, Joseph, and Mary compared to the size of John the Baptist and the 5 men, including the mountainous ridge which simply suggests the sense of depth that is present in the artwork. In terms of the principles of harmony, unity, and movement, these can be seen in the two parts of the piece which is the foreground and the background. In the foreground, the elements used in the Holy Family promote a sense of harmony and unity as shown in the colors used, the contrast present, and how they are shaped which is somehow reflective of an upright triangle. The movement present within the Holy Family either shows that Mary is getting Jesus from Joseph or the other way around. In the background, we can see how the use of monotonous colors worked and provided a harmonious feeling with the help of how they are placed horizontally or side by side with each other. The movement present in the background somehow suggests that the 5 men are discussing as seen in the way their heads are tilted towards each other. On the other hand, John the Baptist’s movement as seen through the way his body is oriented and his head tilted suggests that his attention is focused on the Holy Family.

According to Gibson (2001), “Every real form attests to an ideal form which it more or less resembles, the idea of which, however, it never perfectly actualizes.” Evaluating the Doni Tondo, it seems that Michelangelo is trying to portray a different aspect of how we, as humans, should perceive the Holy Family. Contrary to the usual images of the Holy Family that we commonly see which incorporates elements of holiness such as halos, subtle suggestions of perfection, and a sense of serenity. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo gives us a more human approach in picturing the Holy Family. In Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, he depicted the Holy Family in the most natural and human form they can be — without the halos and the majestic glow. We can see how playful and human the image of a baby Jesus was portrayed as he appears to be climbing up the shoulders of Mary. On the other hand, Mary appears to be a complete contrast of the images usually incorporated into her. In this piece, she is depicted as a physically adept woman which is actually logical since she helps Joseph in his woodworks. Joseph is given the chance through this piece to actually show how much he is focused and serious in raising Jesus as his son. The way he supports Jesus’ back and the way he looks at him with so much attention suggests a sense of fatherless at the end of Joseph.

References

  • Barolsky, Paul. “Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo and the Worshipful Beholder.” SOURCE: Notes in the History of Art 22, no. 3 (2003): 8–11.
  • Buzzegoli, Ezio (December 1987). “Michelangelo as a Colourist, Revealed in the Conservation of the Doni Tondo”. Apollo: 405–408.
  • d’Ancona, Mirella Levi (1968)
  • Gilson, Etienne. Forms and Substances in the Arts. Commonwealth Secretariat, 2001.
  • Michelangelo, Doni Tondo. (2020, July 27). Retrieved September 14, 2020, from https://colourlex.com/project/michelangelo-doni-tondo/

Ann Treboux

Why Michaelangelo’s Women Were So Manly?

Deconstructing the reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts”

Night by Michelangelo. Her sturdy contoured legs and her left breast looks misshapen and stiff. Source-Public Domain

Michelangelo wrote in one of his poems, “I’m ugly.” He believed he did not meet societal beauty standards.

Despite this, he spent his entire life in pursuit of sublime perfection.

Michelangelo’s David is indeed the most perfect statue in the world. It exudes the aesthetics of high Renaissance art and the technical prowess of Greek sculpture.

Giorgio Vasari, described the statue’s perfection in an essay in 1550 — “For in it may be seen most beautiful contours of legs, with attachments of limbs and slender outlines of flanks that are divine; nor has there ever been seen a pose so easy, or any grace to equal that in this work, or feet, hands and head so well in accord, one member with another, in harmony, design, and excellence of artistry.”

But when it comes to Michelangelo’s women — why do they seem to be imperfect and apparently masculine? Why does the female anatomy seem unladylike?

Let’s deconstruct the possible reasons behind Michelangelo’s “men with breasts.”

Night (Left) and Dawn (Right). Source-Public Domain

Consider Michelangelo’s Night. A nude reclining on the sarcophagus at Giuliano di Lorenzo de Medici’s feet. The woman has an angelic aura but as we slide down, her body looks muscular. For instance, her left breast looks misshapen and stiff.

As we move further down, she has sturdy contoured legs.

Definitely, a mismatch between her divine face and the rest of her body.

On the other hand, Dawn, Michelangelo’s other masterpiece seems to have curvy bosoms but she has a muscular physique too.

Erwin Panofsky, a contemporary art historian said, “Dawn was a young woman’s easily life — softened yet firm, full of vigor and energy, not yet hardened by life. Panofsky even uses the word virginal to describe her. In direct opposition, then, there’s Night.

Panofsky says that Night’s body has been distorted by childbirth and lactation.”

Similarly, if we take a closer look at the Sistine Chapel and analyze female prophets from the twelve apostles, you might be convinced that Michelangelo represented women with androgynous attributes.

Imagine Cumaean Sibyl with her gigantic body and hefty biceps. Although Libyan Sibyl’s face looks ethereal, her physique resembles an Olympian.

Cumaean Sibyl (Left) and Libyan Sibyl (Right)

Delphic Sibyl (Left) and Persian Sibyl (Right) in Sistine Chapel

Michelangelo illustrated the female prophets as monumental as their male prophets but something was clearly off with the female bodies.

Why Michelangelo’s women were so unwomanly?

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael
  • Jill Burke, a lecturer in Italian Renaissance art history at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, says that during the Renaissance period, nude female models were not readily available. It wasn’t considered appropriate for a female to be nude in front of an unknown painter.

And so, a painter like Michelangelo who literally witnessed anatomical dissections first hand might not have imagined a woman’s figure very well. While this is the most accepted theory, Burke contradicts herself.

Raphael, Michelangelo’s contemporary counterpart painted St. Catherine of Alexandria with a curvy body, supple bosoms, and a sensual aura. How did Raphael know how to paint a woman?

  • Another theory that seems relevant is the patriarchal nature of the Renaissance period. Historian Thomas Lacquer has written, “there was only one canonical body and that body was male.” This means that a male prototype was the most superior and everything else was considered imperfect.
  • Historians have argued at length that Michelangelo was naturally inclined to male bodies. So, in response, to portray a beautiful woman, he’d simply design her to appear as close to a man as possible. This does not mean he was misogynistic. In fact, Ascanio Condivi, Michelangelo’s official biographer, wrote that he had a close relationship with his mother and a devoted relation with a widow named Vittoria Colonna. He might not have been sexually attracted to women but it’s highly unlikely that he despised them.

Medical justification of the sculpture ‘Night’

In November of 2000, a letter was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine by a physician named James Stark. He visited Medici Chapel in Florence with an art historian Jonathan Katz Nelson. And just like others, he was drawn to the weird appearance of Night, especially her left breast.

The excerpts from Stark’s letter.

“I found three abnormalities associated with locally advanced cancer in the left breast. There is an obvious, large bulge to the breast contour medial to the nipple; a swollen nipple-areola complex; and an area of skin retraction just lateral to the nipple… These features indicate a tumor.

These findings do not appear in the right breast of “Night” or in “Dawn,” another female figure in the Medici Chapel, or in the many other depictions of women in works by Michelangelo.

We suggest that Michelangelo carefully inspected a woman with advanced breast cancer and accurately reproduced the physical signs in stone. Even if he did not see the disease in a model, he could have studied the corpse of a woman; moreover, autopsies were legal at that time.

Given that Michelangelo depicted a lump in only one breast, he presumably recognized this as an anomaly. Many doctors in his day could probably diagnose this condition in a woman.

Historians of breast cancer agree that the disease and its treatment were discussed, often at length, and described as cancer by the most famous medical authorities of antiquity and by several prominent medieval authors.

For these reasons, there is a strong possibility that Michelangelo intentionally showed a woman with disease and that he may have known that the illness was cancer.

If Michelangelo indeed depicted “Night” as having a consuming disease, this would complement the imagery in the Medici Chapel of life and death, and further help us understand his study of the female body.”

References-
1. The Problem of Michelangelo's Women
2.Men with Breasts (Or Why are Michelangelo’s Women so Muscular?) Part 1
3. Nine times history's greatest artists made bad artworks

Ann Treboux

My Poor Ass: Michelangelo Wrote a Poem About How Much He Hated Painting the Sistine Chapel

OCTOBER 19, 2021

Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, or the artist known as Michelangelo (there’s no record of him answering to “Mike”), is perhaps the most celebrated Renaissance artist of all time. Among his many works, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome remains his grandest accomplishment.

And he was a nervous wreck about it.

Michelangelo had come into renown as a sculptor and considered painting the 12,000 square feet of the ceiling beyond his capabilities. He was wrong, of course, but the artistic anxiety caused him considerable distress. He even made sure the first portion of the ceiling, The Flood, was tucked away and largely out of sight in case he messed it up. He famously worked 65 feet in the air on custom scaffolding, and after four years of effort from 1508 to 1512, the physical toil of craning his neck upward was apparent. (He did not, as is sometimes thought, paint while lying down.)

To relieve some of the emotional tension, Michelangelo took to poetry. He wrote an Italian sonnet in 1509 expressing his frustrations over tackling such a formidable project, with years of toil ahead of him. The work, sent to friend Giovanni da Pistoia, reads:

I’ve already grown a goiter from this torture,
hunched up here like a cat in Lombardy
(or anywhere else where the stagnant water’s poison).
My stomach’s squashed under my chin, my beard’s
pointing at heaven, my brain’s crushed in a casket,
my breast twists like a harpy’s. My brush,
above me all the time, dribbles paint
so my face makes a fine floor for droppings!

My haunches are grinding into my guts,
my poor ass strains to work as a counterweight,
every gesture I make is blind and aimless.
My skin hangs loose below me, my spine’s
all knotted from folding over itself.
I’m bent taut as a Syrian bow.

Because I’m stuck like this, my thoughts
are crazy, perfidious tripe:
anyone shoots badly through a crooked blowpipe.

My painting is dead.
Defend it for me, Giovanni, protect my honor.
I am not in the right place—I am not a painter.

Fortunately, he persevered, and his work in the Sistine Chapel has been a source of inspiration and awe for 500 years and counting—an artistic feat that may never be duplicated, and one well worth the sacrifice of his poor ass.