Michelangelo’s Only Easel Painting

Tondo Doni, 1504-1505, (diameter: 120 cm)  Uffizi, Florence  (Wikipedia public domain photo)


Tondo, short for rotondo, is a round painting or sculptural relief. Doni is the name of the man who ordered it.

It is the only easel painting by Michelangelo that has survived, one of his few tries with the brush before Pope Julius ordered him to decorate the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel—all three thousand square feet of it.
At work on this “little” picture was “a Hercules at the spinning wheel”, as the French novelist Stendhal put it.

At first glance, you might think it is just another Holy Family picture, like this one, painted three years later by Raphael:

The Holy Family (1507) by Raphael (Wikipedia Public domain photo)


But glance again. The Virgin is reaching upwards and backwards to take hold of the Child that St. Joseph, kneeling behind her, is handing over her shoulder.  Why such a strange contortion?
And what are those naked youths doing in the background? What do they mean?

It’s an allegory, said some: the Virgin stands for the Church and the nudes in the background represent prophetic figures.

Others, just back from theology class, declared the nudes “symbols of mankind ante Legem [before the divine Law was given], Mary and Joseph, of mankind sub Lege, and Jesus, of mankind sub gratia [with God’s grace after the Revelation].”   They might be angels too, or allusions to primordial life or to baptism.

To Walter Pater, the nineteenth-century English art critic, the nude youths were like “fauns of a Dionysian orgy” and symbols of paganism; they stood in contrast [some contrast!] to the figures in the foreground, which symbolize Christianity.

But no one knows for sure.

In any case, most people, starting with Angelo Doni who ordered the painting, didn’t like it much.

Portrait of Angelo Doni (1506) by Raphael (Wikipedia public domain photo)


That may have been why he was slow to pay Michelangelo (see that story here) and why he took the painting out of its ornate frame and put in another one by Lorenzo di Credi.

“The play of the arrangement of limbs ruins the impression; the idyll of parental felicity becomes a gymnastic exercise,”  complained one critic [Justi].

“The problem of the contorted position isn’t completely resolved…With sentiments of this kind, nobody ought to paint a Holy Family”, wrote Jakob Burckhardt, the Renaissance historian.

Victorian art critics were put off by the Virgin’s bare, masculine arms, too, as well as by the immodest view of the Baby.

The painting is odd in other ways. There’s something confusing about the perspective: the Holy Family is seen from one point of view and the nudes in the background from another. Michelangelo put a gray strip between the parts of the picture to hide the discrepancy. Why such a complication?
One theory is that this was done to accommodate the painting to the place at Doni’s where it was going to be hung.

But all these peculiarities are welcomed by art historians: “This odd articulation of the picture’s perspective—and even more, …the spiral disposition of the Virgin—ought to make us consider the Tondo Doni the starting point of Mannerism,” wrote Ettore Camesasca. “And the work contains the germ of everything that makes the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel unique…The Madonna is a sister of the Delphic Sibyl; the youth half-concealed by Joseph’s shoulder is a forerunner of one of the nudes of the Sistine ceiling.”

The Delphic Sibyl (1510) Fresco, 350 x 380 cm., in the Cappella Sistina, Vatican (Wikipedia public domain photo)


The colors are particularly bright and must have been a surprise to the people who knew only Michelangelo’s sculpture. “[They] would have aroused the enthusiasm of Ingres”, says Camesesca.

It isn’t an oil painting.  It was made with “the usual Italian mixed technique of the period: drawing on a plaster ground, a thin layer of green earth, in covering resin, and a graduated heightening with white in tempera. The overpainting is done with transparent resin, except in the flesh parts, which are painted in pure tempera.”  (Ludwig Goldscheider)

Michelangelo never worked in oils. He must have envied Raphael and Titian for their great paintings in that medium. Remember: the famous Virgins of Leonardo and Raphael and Correggio were not yet painted in 1504, when Michelangelo did the Tondo Doni. Botticelli’s were the ones he might have studied. Actually, this tondo looks more like a painted version of Michelangelo’s sculptural reliefs of the same years:

The Tondo Taddei (1504) (Creative Commons license at Wikipedia)

The frame for the Tondo Doni was designed by Michelangelo too, or at least approved by him.

The Tondo Doni in its original frame (published at Wikipedia)


Besides some fully-sculptured heads in relief, a grotesque mask, vines and other ornamental features, it bears the arms (those making up the family coat-of-arms) of Angelo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi, his wife. The painting was probably commissioned on the occasion of their wedding in 1503 or 1504.

See the frame and some excellent photos showing how a reproduction was made.

My sources were: La obra pictórica completa de Miguel Angel in the Clásicos del arte series published by Noguer-Rizzoli Editores, Barcelona. Notes by Ettore Camesasca

Michelangelo: Paintings, Sculptures, Architecture by Ludwig Goldscheider, Phaidon,

Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, first published in 1555.


This entry was posted in art, art history, great artists, mannerism, Michelangelo, Renaissance, Sistine Chapel and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Michelangelo’s Only Easel Painting

  1. Ken Januski says:

    Hard to believe that the Raphael portrait and the Michelangelo tondo were done at about the same time. It does make me wonder if Michelangelo wasn’t just thoroughly a sculptor who had to show every single plane and facet of any object he portrayed. The Raphael leaves so much of that in mystery as did the Titian self-portrait in the last post. I think that this is one of the strong points of oil painting – the ability to just suggest something without the need to sketch it all out, to show every single fold as in the drapery.

    Don’t mind me – just my rambling thoughts on this and the last post.

  2. erikatakacs says:

    His painting is very sculptural, almost like a painted relief. The Sibyl even more so. His colours are so bright! I’m sorry but the Raphael looks very average placed next to his explosive colours, original composition, and gesture. Not to mention his daring to place nude youth in the same picture of the holy family!

    • 100swallows says:

      Hi erika! I choose the Raphael to look that way by comparison; but of course Raphael’s originality doesn’t go the same way. There’s no reason why he should have to compete in oddly-twisting figures and unlikely additions to a religious picture, like nude guys sitting around. Actually, his Holy Family pictures show an earthly (unearthly) peace. As for colors, he was at least the equal of Michelangelo.

  3. justme22 says:

    Hi Swallows,
    This is a great post about Michelangelo’s only easel painting and I’m glad you are continuing this work. I was lucky enough to see the painting about 7 yrs ago in Florence. It was impressive and larger than I thought, the frame is quite something too, and yes the colours are bright and vibrant, as though the figures are in the bright sunshine and you could use a pair of sunglasses. As the colours also are bright on his Crucifixion of St. Peter and Conversion of Saul frescoes in the Pauline Chapel at the Vatican. So I wonder why people are so shocked when the same bright colours were revealed in the Sistine ceiling after the last cleaning.

  4. i’m a fellow artist and i comment michelangelo’s works and i choose him for my artist

  5. Jean-Francois David says:

    The twisting mary figure is very similar to the laocoon’s left son twisting motion so much that they seem done by the same hand. The tondo doni was done in 1504-05 and the Laocoon in 1506. I’m convinced that the Laocoon is a Michelangelo forgery, done from 3 different models (Torso Belvedere, dancing faun, three sathyrs and a serpent) and his own renaissance style blend togheter: . Jean-Francois David jfdavid2005@hotmail.com

  6. Pingback: Michelangelo Was a Hard Bargainer | The Best Artists

Leave a Reply