Even after he had carved the David and the Pietà, two of the greatest figures the world will ever see, Michelangelo had to scrounge around for commissions from a man like Doni.
Doni was a Florentine merchant. He commissioned Michelangelo’s only oil painting—the Tondo Doni—but then didn’t want to pay its price, which made Michelangelo turn marble-white with rage.
Tondo Doni by Michelangelo (photo released into the public domain by the Yorck Project, published here)
The story goes that when Michelangelo had finished painting the board (it was a wooden panel, not a canvas) he wrapped it up nicely and told a servant to deliver it. “Oh, beautiful!” exclaimed Doni when he opened it. “How much did your master say he wanted for it?”
Silence. Doni was shocked at the price. He liked to have pretty pictures around his house but for seventy ducats he could buy some really useful things. Seventy ducats was way out of line. He had bought an old Roman copy of a faun for eighty ducats—and that was antique. This young artist who wasn’t even a painter but a sculptor had a lot of cheek to be asking so much for a simple painting.
“Here’s forty,” Doni told the servant. “That’s enough. You tell your master the painting is very pretty.”
A half hour went by while Doni waited for news. “That Michelangelo knew he was asking too much,” he thought. “When he sees those forty ducats, he’s going to be happy enough.”
Ring, ring. Michelangelo’s servant at the door with a message. “My master says you must return the painting or send along one hundred ducats.”
“Is your master crazy? He only asked for seventy before.”
“Now he wants one hundred. You may also return the painting to him, Sir.”
Doni thought a while. He looked over at the picture, which sat propped up on a chair beside the window. It was a very original Holy Family picture—he’d never seen one like that, with St. Joseph lifting the baby Jesus to hand Him over to Mary, who is about to take Him in her arms. He had planned to surprise his guests with the new painting by putting it just above the dinner table. “All right,” he said. “Tell your master he’s a greedy man and that he’s lucky the rest of us value other things above money. Here’s thirty more ducats. Now he has his seventy.”
Fifteen minutes while Doni went over to the picture and began to study it up close. “That little boy looking up from behind St. Joseph must be St. John,” he thought. “And those nude boys in the background—what are they? Whatever. It’s a beautiful painting with some mystery to it—that’s what I like: novelty, mystery. The damn thing is probably worth two or three hundred ducats, so congratulate yourself, Mr. Doni.”
The doorbell. Michelangelo’s servant again. “My master says you must return the painting or give him one hundred forty ducats.”
Doni turned red. “But that’s twice the amount you told me at first. Does he think I’m a fool?”
Portrait of Agnolo Doni by Raphael ( Wikipedia public domain photo)
Doni turned to a visitor who sat in the great atrium of his house, listening with amusement to the funny exchanges.
“These artists are the most shameless people on earth. I think I’ll just send back his ugly painting. Florence is full of Holy Family paintings—does he think his is such a work of genius? He’d better be happy if he finds someone generous enough—charitable enough—to give him ten lousy ducats. I’ve reached my limit.”
And he ordered his servants to put the painting back into its wrapping and take it to Michelangelo’s messenger, who stood watching with a frown. “A fellow can only be pushed so far,” he told the guest, who had to conceal his smile.
The guest was Doni’s neighbor and also a collector of rare and beautiful things. He had made more of a fuss over the painting than Doni himself. As the servants toted the painting by Doni and his visitor to hand it back to Michelangelo’s messenger, it suddenly struck Doni that Michelangelo would now be free to sell the painting again. And his neighbor might—would his neighbor actually try?—to buy it himself, that filthy schemer. It wouldn’t be above him.
So Doni became jealous of the painting and changed his mind about returning it. “Come into my office,” he told the messenger quietly; and went off with him, out of earshot of the guest. “Tell your master I’ve reached my limit. Here are forty ducats more. That’s obviously much above what even the artist thinks the painting is worth because it is forty ducats more than he originally asked.”
The messenger did not put out his hand to take the money. “That won’t do, you know,” he said. “My master is furious with you. When I went with the news that you had given him forty instead of seventy, he looked as though the Devil had gotten inside him. He said that when you ordered the painting you promised to pay him whatever he asked; and that he asked a fair price and you tried to cheat him. Now in punishment he has doubled the price. I’m sure he won’t accept a penny less.”
Doni ended up shelling out the seventy more ducats. Vasari tells the story to show how small-minded patrons can be but also to have us admire Michelangelo’s toughness. It probably came from Michelangelo himself—where else?
Those old Renaissance personalities were tough as nails and God deliver us polite weaklings from Florence the Jungle. None of those artists and craftsmen were pushovers. Was Michelangelo tougher than most? No doubt. “Terribile,” said the very Pope Julius of Michelangelo. Pope Julius could be pretty awful himself.
This story is taken from Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, first published in 1555. The addtional neighbor and his role in the buying of the painting is my invertion.
Read more about Doni’s painting–Michelangelo’s only surviving easel painting– here.
I really like your style, swallows! You can tell a story (about art, no less!) in a very exciting way…and you know well the psychology of the “to be continued”…
I’ve recently read about a research some scientist from Southern California University (?) did concerning the cheap-expensive perception… They gave the same red wine to drink to I-do-not-remember -how-many subjects in 6-7 echantions (the SAME wine) but each echantion had a different price tag, from 5 $ to 90 $. They were asked which wine was the best, which one they like most… Each and every one of the subjects choose the most expensive tagged one…
I did maybe told already about a art merchant who told me he sold better the 3000 $ painting than the 300 $ ones, simply because of the price… People with money prefer to buy expensive stuff (even if the quality is the same or even worst) believing if it’s expensive it must be better or at least good… There is something in this…
Thanks, Danu, but it’s easy to get a reader like you excited!
I don’t have any trouble believing the results of that wine-tasting or of what the art merchant told you. The price certainly works that way on everyone’s imagination–price and also the company the painting is in, right?
Right! I wonder if I shouldn’t add a few zeros to my prices… After all, it’s all a convention and a Van Gogh you could have bought with 10-15 francs in 1889 is now 10 000 000 or 15 000 000 USD, if not more… This money history of art is rather spectacular, isn’t it?
This is a good story, the idea being exactly what Warhol said that the price of a work of art is whatever anybody is prepared to pay for it, even if in addition he should have mentioned his connections and in more general terms who controls what in the art world. Have you ever read any art critic recently? Suggest any names? I wsould be glad to know.I mean names that carry some weight?
I’m sorry, enghtj55, I’m not up-to-date on art critics. You might check the International Herald Tribune. They have the best writers I know and they will give you some idea of the politics of the art world. I always feel fidgety while reading art critics and then, afterwards, empty and a little sad or angry. Most of them live by making verbal arabesques. As to price-tags, Warhol must have known what he was talking about.
Good response, Swallows. You’ve made me laugh. Have you ever read “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”? It’s about the ongoing battle between Whistler and John Ruskin. Ruskin was a pompous art critic, and he and Whistler sniped at each other through the local newspaper. I think you’d really appreciate Whistler’s sense of humor and his stunning ability to set down the overblown Ruskin. A book I highly recommend (paperback) if you can slog through the somewhat antique language.
Thanks, Brenda–no, I’ve never read that book but now, on your recommendation, I will. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it.
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