Michelangelo Buonarroti (Caprese, Italy 1475 – Rome, Italy 1564), Holy Family, known as “Doni Tondo”, 1506-07, oil and tempera on panel, 120 cm (diameter), Florence, Uffizi Gallery.
Let us begin this year's theme with a great work. It is the Holy Family as depicted by Michelangelo in his only painting on panel that is certainly autograph. We are at the beginning of the 16th century and Florence is home to the three greatest geniuses of the Italian Renaissance: Leonardo, Raphael and Michelangelo. The panel was painted for Agnolo Doni, a wealthy cloth merchant, a leading member of the Florentine upper middle class who married the noblewoman Maddalena Strozzi on 31 January 1504 (on that occasion Raphael painted the portraits of the couple, also on display in the Uffizi Gallery). The panel was probably commissioned on the occasion of the birth of the daughter Maria, and the choice of theme seems to be a tribute to that important family, gladdened by the arrival of their first-born.
The scene represented really does seem to be a matter of everyday life. Were it not for the pyramidal composition of the main characters, who occupy almost the entire surface of the panel, the scene might look like a kind of outing to the countryside, with the child playing with his mother's hair, held up by an attentive and caring father. We are struck by the choice of colours of the couple’s clothes, which seem to give a marble thickness to the folds; we are also struck by the choice of making a round painting (the circle is perfection, all its points are equidistant from the centre!), a form that Michelangelo had already experimented with in a couple of sculptures representing the Virgin and Child; finally, we are struck by the play of gazes and gestures of both parents, leaning towards that Son who is so small but already so important.
If we focus on the depth represented in the panel, we notice that behind Joseph there is a low wall that divides the space where Jesus, Mary and Joseph are from what is in the background, where we can glimpse five naked figures and a child dressed in fur on the right, close to the wall. The naked young probably represent pagan humanity (it is not for nothing that two famous Greek statues seem to be mentioned, whose replicas from the Roman era were found in Rome in those very years: the Apollo of the Belvedere and the Laocoon, both now in the Vatican Museums), whereas the child close to the wall is John the Baptist, the prophet who marked the passage between the Old and New Testaments (his presence seems to confirm the occasion of the birth and baptism of the little Maria Doni). Michelangelo felt a continuity in human and Christian history, not a rift, so much so that the wall simply marks a passage, a boundary, rather than a separation. This seems to echo the words of St Paul to the Ephesians: “For he is the peace between us, and has made the two into one entity and broken down the barrier which used to keep them apart, by destroying in his own person the hostility” (2:14). And in this story of salvation, Joseph, the bridegroom and the father, has a unique and special place.
“WITH A FATHER’S HEART: that is how Joseph loved Jesus, whom all four Gospels refer to as “the son of Joseph”.
Matthew and Luke, the two Evangelists who speak most of Joseph, tell us very little, yet enough for us to appreciate what sort of father he was, and the mission entrusted to him by God’s providence.”
Pope Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde, introduction, 8 December 2020
(Contribution by Vito Pongolini)