Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, c.1504-05. Photo: RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

John Constable RA, Sketch of Michelangelo's Taddei Tondo, 1830. Photo: RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Object of the Month - April 2017


Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564),
The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, c.1504-05

The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John, known as the 'Taddei Tondo' is the only sculpture in marble by Michelangelo Buonarroti in a UK collection. The infant figure of St John the Baptist stands to the left with his attribute of a baptismal bowl. He presents what may be a dove or a goldfinch to the infant Christ, who momentarily turns towards his mother, symbolically anticipating his future destiny.

The bird is widely believed to be a goldfinch, which represents the Christ's Passion, the time of suffering before his Crucifixion. The goldfinch is said to have removed a thorn from Christ's crown when he was carrying the cross. Many accounts suggest that Christ's pose - reaching away from the bird and towards his mother - shows fear of the symbol of his future destiny. More recently, other scholars have argued that Christ's pose is playful as the goldfinch was a common pet in this period.

The marble is believed to have been carved from 1504 to 1505 during Michelangelo's first Florentine period. It is unfinished, probably because Michelangelo left it when he travelled to Rome in early 1505 to work on Pope Julius II's tomb. Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) suggested that he did not complete some works out of creative frustration, an idea which has crystallised into the notion of the artist as troubled genius.

The sculpture gained its nickname as it was commissioned by the wealthy cloth merchant and connoisseur Taddeo Taddei and 'Tondo' is a Renaissance term for a circular work of art. Despite its ecclesiastical appearance, it was intended for a domestic setting and it remained in the Casa Taddei in Florence until the early 19th century. In her new book on the marble, Alison Cole argues that the fact that the sculpture was displayed incomplete shows that it was a prized work of art: 'after all, the following year, at the age of 31, Michelangelo was described by the Florentine state as Italy's greatest artist.'

In 1822 the Tondo was purchased by the collector and amateur painter Sir George Beaumont who brought it to London where, according to the artist Sir David Wilkie RA, it 'became the chief talk of all the artists'. Beaumont left his works of art to the nation; his bequest of Old Master paintings led to the establishment of the National Gallery and Michelangelo's Tondo was promised to the Royal Academy. The Tondo was received by the Royal Academy following Lady Margaret Beaumont's death in 1829. Within a week of the artwork being at the Royal Academy, Constable sketched it describing it as 'one of the most beautiful works of art in existence'.

The 'Taddei Tondo' is currently on display at the National Gallery in only the second loan since it has been part of the Royal Academy Collections. It will return to be displayed in our new collection displays for our 250th anniversary in 2018.

The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John can be seen in Michelangelo & Sebastiano at the National Gallery until 25 June 2017.

Michelangelo: The Taddei Tondo by Alison Cole has recently been published by Royal Academy Publications.