(b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma)

The Doni Tondo (framed)

c. 1506
Tempera on panel, diameter 120 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Michelangelo painted this Holy Family for a Florentine merchant, Agnolo Doni, whose prestigious marriage to Maddalena Strozzi in 1504 took place in a period that was crucial for early 16th-century Florentine art. The presence in the city of Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael together, boosted the already lively Florentine art scene, which in the first decade of the century experienced a period of great cultural fervour. Agnolo was thus able to celebrate his marriage and the birth of his first child with some of the highest expressions of this exceptional artistic period: a portrait of husband and wife painted by Raphael and the 'tondo' by Michelangelo, which is the only finished panel painting by the artist to survive. Michelangelo had not long studied the potential of the circular shape, which was greatly appreciated in the early Renaissance for religious decorations for the home, in the marble of the Pitti Tondo (Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence) and the Taddei Tondo (Royal Academy of Art, London): in both cases, the Virgin, Child and Infant St John powerfully occupy the whole surface of the relief. The Doni Tondo is also conceived as if it were a sculpture, in which the pyramidal composition of the group takes up almost the entire height and width of the panel. It has been noted that the compactness of the group is like the structure of a dome, albeit one that is animated on the inside by the twisting bodies and the concatenation of gestures as the Christ Child is gently passed from the hands of St Joseph to those of Mary.

This composition, which is so articulated and expressive, comes from Michelangelo's own knowledge and study of the great marble sculptures from the Hellenistic Period (3rd-1st century BC), with their outstanding coiled movements and high degree of expression, which were emerging from excavations of Roman villas. Some of these important finds, such as the Apollo of the Belvedere and the Laocoön excavated in January 1506, are promptly referred to in the painting, among the naked figures leaning against a balustrade (to the left and right of St Joseph). The presence of Laocoön made it possible to date the tondo to a period coinciding with the birth of Maria Doni (September 1507). The young nudes, whose identification is complex, seem to represent pagan humanity, separated from the Holy Family by a short wall that represents original sin, past which there is also an Infant St John, which would seem to refer to the interpretation of the painting as being for a christening.

The spectacular gilt wood frame, attributed to the Tasso family of woodcarvers, displays the Doni family arms with lions on them intermingled with Strozzi crescents. As well as grotesques, the frame contains the heads of two prophets and two sibyls surmounted by one of Christ. The outstanding quality of these busts - evoking similar figures of Lorenzo Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise - has lead some scholars to believe that Michelangelo may have had a hand in designing the frame.