Room 38 is intended to celebrate the fortuitous moment where three of the greatest artists of the age converged together in Florence. When the present configuration of Room 38 was unveiled in 2018, Gallerie degli Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt stated, “the new installation replaces the display of isolated masterpieces side by side with the principle of dialogue among works, artists and their patrons, urging visitors to discover and to explore the artistic interaction among the great masters of the past. That is why a third figure has entered the scene, a painter whom dialogue with Raphael has restored to his proper place as a major artist in his own right. Fra Bartolomeo (1473–1517) was a Dominican friar in San Marco and a very close friend of Raphael with whom, from the moment the latter arrived in Florence in 1504, he forged an intense and extremely fruitful relationship that visitors will now be able to explore further through the paintings on display.”
The centerpiece of Room 38 is clearly Michelangelo Buonarroti’s Doni Tondo (c. 1506-1508), to which an entire wall is dedicated. It is the only known finished panel painting done by Michelangelo and is considered by some art scholars to be the most important work created in the 16th century.
Based on the timing of the work, scholars believe that it was commissioned by the Florentine merchant Agnolo Doni to celebrate either his marriage to Maddalena Strozzi or the birth of the couple’s daughter Maria. Doni is the only patron aside from the Pope to obtain works by both Michelangelo and Raphael. (Doni’s commission from Raphael, discussed below, also appears in Room 38).
Michelangelo began work on the Doni Tondo after the unearthing of the celebrated Greek sculpture known as the Laocoön in January 1506 (now displayed in the Vatican Museums).
The influence this statute had on Michelangelo’s style cannot be overstated. After Michelangelo saw Laocoön and His Sons, the body-heroic permeated throughout his works, including the Doni Tondo. For instance, compare the pose of the nude behind the Holy Family in Michelangelo’s Tondo with the son to Laocoön’s right:
The influence can also be deduced in the posture of the Holy Family itself, which wraps around itself in an eerily serpentine manner reminiscent of the Laocoön. Moreover, the Holy Family is depicted as though they themselves were Greek statutes, which, at this time, was highly unorthodox. (I would be remiss if I did not mention that Michelangelo hated painting as an art form and believed himself to be a student of the – in his opinion – higher art of sculpture. In fact, Leonardo famously criticized Michelangelo’s painting, stating, “You should not make all the muscles of the body too conspicuous … otherwise you will produce a sack of walnuts [un sacco di noce] rather than a human figure.” Leonardo da Vinci, quoted in Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017)).
Michelangelo takes his unorthodox depiction of the Holy Family even further by omitting their typical halos from the picture; allowing Joseph, as opposed to Mary, to hold baby Jesus; and discards the traditional contemplative, diminutive pose in favor of a dynamic scene, i.e. a story that has been captured in motion. Indeed, Michelangelo is playing with traditional themes and tropes, but twisting – both literally and figuratively – them into his own unconventional style.
Although much debate has occurred over the purpose of the nudes in the background of the Doni Tondo, the general scholarly consensus is that they represent the pagan ages, when men were naked in their ignorance. With the nudes behind the wall is a small boy who can be identified as St. John the Baptist based on his dress. (St. John is typically depicted dressed in furs, symbolizing his sojourn into the wild). St. John is known as the Harbinger of Christ, and therefore, because he was born into the pagan world (before Christ), he remains behind the wall. Another interpretation that has been put forward is that the ignudi are disrobing in order to be baptized, which also would explain John the Baptist’s presence, although not his depiction as a small child. Finally, I would like to note that the frame of the Tondo was likely designed by Michelangelo himself. It depicts Jesus and the four evangelists.
In addition to the Doni Tondo, Agnolo Doni also commissioned portraits of himself and his wife, Maddalena Strozzi Doni. These portraits, however, were commissioned from Raphael, who was working in Florence at the same time as Michelangelo. (In fact, Michelangelo felt an intense rivalry with Raphael, who he saw as the new “up and comer.”)
Raphael’s early work, like these portraits, owes much to Leonardo da Vinci. You can see Leonardo’s influence in the posture of the sitters, the setting of the portraits, as well as the depiction of the subject’s psychological state through his/her movements.
Raphael mimics Leonardo’s treatment of his sitter’s hands, using the hands to tell the story. Indeed, Maddalena’s hands are decked out in jewels, demonstrating her wealth and social status. Moreover, Raphael depicts his sitters at half-length in front of a balustrade and against a landscape, just as Leonardo places Mona Lisa. Rather than adopt Leonardo’s style in toto, however, Raphael departs from Leonardo’s teachings to enhance the brilliance of his patron’s jewels. He achieves his effect by eschewing Leonardo’s techniques of chiaroscuro and sfumatura. The jewels depicted on both of these portraits convey separate meanings, which would have been well recognized by contemporaries. For instance, rubies alluded to vitality; sapphires to wealth; pearls to purity; emeralds to fertility. The emerald jewel is actually set in a unicorn, which alluded to chastity. Thus, by placing the emerald in the belly of unicorn, Raphael symbolized that Maddalena, as a chaste and faithful wife, will provide her husband with a legitimate heir.
The portraits were once a diptych, and thus each has a drawing on its reverse side. Both drawings are based on episodes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a Latin narrative poem that proved popular among the so-called Renaissance men. The episode depicted on the reserve of Agnolo’s Portrait is known as “The Flood,” which tells the story of Jove’s destruction of most of humankind via a flood (very similar to the Judeo-Christian story of Noah). This episode correspondences to the one depicted on the reserve of Maddalena’s portrait, which tells the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, a couple who is allowed to survive the flood. Deucalion and Pyrrha, who were unable to have children, were allowed to survive the Flood by the Gods, and then they restored life to humanity. These episodes are believed to be the work of Raphael’s colleague, whose identity remains unknown.
Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch (Madonna del Cardelino), painted in 1506, also shows traces of Leonardo’s influence, whose own depictions of the Madonna and Child were typified by their simple yet intimate settings. This work was allegedly a wedding gift for Raphael’s friend, a merchant named Lorenzo Nasi. It is known as the Madonna of the Goldfinch because the scene depicts the Christ Child stroking a goldfinch, a symbol of his passion. According to legend, while Christ was carrying the cross upon which he was to be crucified, a goldfinch plucked a thorn from Christ’s head, splashing Christ’s blood on its chest, and from that time onwards, goldfinches have had red spots on their chest to commemorate the Goldfinch’s mercy. Interestingly, goldfinches have since ancient times been used to depict a person’s soul, which many ancient peoples believed would fly away after death.
Like Leonardo’s Madonnas, Raphael’s Virgin does not sit atop a throne as was typical up until this time, but atop a rock, creating the conceit that nature is her throne. Through this allusion, Raphael makes the radical statement that divinity is in nature and surrounds us all. Like in Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo, the viewer is meant to recognize St. John the Baptist based on his fur loincloth while the Christ child is depicted naked, emphasizing his human nature. St. John, Christ, and the Virgin are grouped together in a pyramid, as though they are one form, yet each figure retains his/her individuality and purpose (St. John as the Harbinger, Christ as the Savior, and Mary as the Mother). Raphael pirated this formula from Leonardo, who likewise depicted the Holy Family as separate pieces of a single unit, creating depth and balance within the work.
Raphael also chose to depict Jesus contrapposto, a posture that a child would never naturally take, thereby alerting the viewers of his innate wisdom. In the past, artists would indicate Christ’s wisdom by depicting the infant as a small man, as the Maestro del Bigallo did in his Madonna Enthroned, supra.
Fra Bartolommeo is the final of the three artists showcased in Room 38. As his title implies, Fra Bartolommeo was a Dominican Friar and lived and worked in the monastery of San Marco, in the manner of his direct predecessor Fra Angelico. Like many other Florentines of his time, Fra Bartolommeo was capitative Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the firebrand preacher who took Florence by storm and gained enough power and influence to send Florence’s ruling family, the Medici, into exile. Fra Savonarola had such a hold on Fra Bartolommeo that Bartolommeo retired from painting for a time based on Savonarola’s teachings against much of the artistic world. Yet, to many’s surprise, Bartolommeo once again took up the brush six years after Savonarola’s execution to paint The Vision of St. Bernard (c. 1504), which Bernardo del Bianco commissioned for the Bianco Chapel in the Badia Fiorentina.
The scene depicts the moment recalled by St. Bernard, who was too weak to perform a homily when the Virgin appeared and gave him the strength to write it. Behind St. Bernard stand Saints Barnabas and Benedict, whose presence is likely due to St. Bernard’s adherence to the Benedictine Rule.
Like Raphael, Fra Bartolommeo was clearly influenced by Leonardo da Vinci. Each of the figures interact with one another and respond through their expressions and hand gestures, thereby conveying to the viewer their inner emotions. Fra Bartolommeo has also employed Leonardo’s techniques of sfumato (the blurring of contours and edges of figures because the eye does not see hard lines when it processes the real world) and contrapposto. Absorbing Leonardo’s innovative style, Fra Bartolommeo added his own radical take on painting religious scenes as regards his portrayal of the Virgin Mary. Prior to this work, the Virgin Mary was typically portrayed as a passive figure that was usually seated, whether that be enthroned as before the High Renaissance or seated in nature as Leonardo and Raphael chose to place her, and disinterested. Here, however, Fra Bartolommeo depicts the Virgin as an active participant in the scene. This change may be explained by the theory of the Immaculate Conception, which was gaining traction at this time due to the Church synods at the Councils of Basel and Trent. A common misconception is that the Immaculate Conception related to Mary’s conception of Christ via the Holy Spirit, but it actually is a reference to St. Anne’s conception of Mary, who, according to the Immaculate Conception doctrine, was without sin since the moment of her conception and was therefore a worthy vessel for Christ. (Although starting to be generally accepted at this time, the doctrine did not become official church doctrine until Pope Pius IX issued the bull known as the Ineffabilis Deus on December 8, 1854).