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Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Doni Tondo

If we were to take a poll as to the most influential artist in history, the results might be quite interesting. Certainly Picasso would be listed, as would van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Carravaggio, Leonardo, Raphael, Titian, and probably a few others. But the artist nearest to God himself would undoubtedly be Michelangelo Buonarroti. A giant in his own time, his works often influenced other artists even before they were completed. His stature in the eyes of the art world has only grown as time has given testimony to the scope, depth, power, and beauty of his talent. No other artist in the history of the world can be said to have single-handedly changed the course of art in western civilization. So great was his talent in so many areas, art historians never know for sure whether to think of him first as a painter, a sculptor, or an architect (he even wrote poetry). Certainly, given the chance to write his own epitaph, he would choose to be remembered as a sculptor, yet his painting, limited as it was to but a few great masterpieces, was possibly even more influential than anything else he did.
The Doni Tondo, 1504-05, Michelangelo Buonarroti

And interesting case in point is his earliest known painting, the Doni Tondo.  Tondo means round.  It was a holy family, painted in tempera on a wooden panel about four feet in diameter with an ornate, deeply carved, gold leaf frame almost as much a work of art in itself as the painting. Joseph, in the middleground, hands a rambunctious Christ child over to his mother who reaches for the boy over her right shoulder while just beyond the parapit is John the Baptist, and beyond that, a group of five, nude, pagan youths bear witness to Michelangelo's preoccupation with the human figure even in such an unlikely context. The figures of the holy family have solid sculptural mass, brilliant color, and the feeling that they were sculpted first, then painted.

The painting is thought to have been a gift from Agnolo Doni to his wife Maddalena Strozzi on the occassion of the birth of their first child, Maria in 1507. The Doni family were wealthy Florentine bankers. Even at this point in his career, before Jullius II had so much as considered a new ceiling for his chapel, Michelangelo was having a profound influence on painters such as Florentine artist, Agnolo Bronzino, and Palma Vecchio of Venice. It's believed Michelangelo himself may have been influenced by the Florentine painter, Luca Signorelli who also rendered a holy-family tondo about 1491 having some similiar sculptural qualities which Michelangelo seems to have admired. However in no way does Signorelli's work match the brilliance of color we see in the Doni painting, and later, even more forcefully in the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. The mystery seems to be why a man who was so good at it, seems to have abhored painting so much.

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