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Rounding up the Story of Tondo in Art

July 31, 2016
Alias of Ksenija Pantelić

The circular shape has equally attracted and challenged the artists going back to the origins of painting, both in the East and the West. One of the earliest examples of the circular images originates in the distant times of the ancient Greece. It is here that we witness the first models of tondo production in the shape of the round paintings that decorated the vases or the insides of the shallow wine cups called kylikes. Due to the need of naming the circular production in art, be it in the painting or sculpture medium, the Italian word rotondo (round) was used and it helped to coin the term tondo, (plural tondi or tondos).

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Left: Michelangelo – Taddei Tondo / Right: Michelangelo – Tondo Pitti. Images via wikipedia.org

The Story of the Tondi

As mentioned above, since the Greek antiquity, artists have attempted to master painting in a different shape than the traditional rectangle. For them, the rectangle, considered as essential for pictorial perspective by the concepts of Leon Battista Alberti, took a step back to the circle they wished to master. The shift allowed the painters to emphasize the center of the image creating an atmosphere of self- sustainability, or separation from its environment. This made the perfect setting for the religious or mythological images, and for this use, most of the early tondo paintings were produced, alongside the need to commemorate the important events in life, such as marriage or childbirth, or as a decorative mural in the lavish Italian Renaissance interiors or hospitals. It is in fact here, in the 15th and 16th-century Italy, that this style of painting had its revival.

During the Renaissance round pictures became popular and were produced on large dishes and trays, and also on plaques and medallions. Especially interesting are the decorative objects or trays that were produced in honor of childbirth and marriage. Both of the two rituals were richly celebrated and the decorative wooden trays, painted with mythological, classical or literary themes, were called desco da parto. These were given as gifts and one of the most famous examples of this form of decorative domestic creativity is the Triumph of Fame by Lo Scheggia. It is important, not only for its beauty but also its association with the Medici family. Taking inspiration from the wooden trays, famous artists such as Raphael or Michelangelo elevated the form using it to create some of the breathtaking religious art pieces. Interestingly, the Doni Tondo, now at the Uffizi in Florence, is the only completed panel painting which is known to survive today by the famous sculptor. We also see examples of the round shape creations in architecture and in the elaborate relief carvings and rose window designs as well.

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Luca Della Robbia – Virgin and Angels Adoring the Christ Child, glazed terra cotta. Image via special anomaly.com

Famous Examples and Authors of Tondo Art

Throughout Italy, countless examples exist of the decorative glazed terra cotta. Many of these works presented religious imagery, but also family arms and guilds, not to mention its use for the decorative works in churches and ceilings. The famous Della Robbia family is possibly one of the most influential names that we associate with this production. Typically white with green or yellow highlights, today they are considered highly valuable pieces. Alongside these pieces are the famous ceramic tondi created by Filippo Brunelleschi for the Hospital of the Innocents, which are still viewed as notable examples of early Italian Renaissance architecture. We must not forget the cupola or the rounded dome that was also an architectural development of this period and proved to be an excellent ground for tondi production.

One of the most famous painters of this period, Sandro Botticelli along with Rafael and even Michelangelo, produced numerous paintings in the tondo format. In most cases, the paintings of the tondo shape depicted images of Madona and child with little or none importance placed on the background. The most challenging problem the renaissance artists were facing when working on tondo is definitely the perspective. Due to the circular shape of the canvas, it was an issue placing the figures properly and describing them in a realistic manner, and each one of them used the shortenings and volume differently to achieve the perfect result. Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo is one of the most successful examples of renaissance rendering of the circular image, with its figures arranged triangularly and masses divided by volume and color contrasts.

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Left: Damien Hirst Artwork. Image via pinterest.com / Right: Damien Hirst – Artwork. Image via damienhirst.com

The Importance of the Circle Throughout Modernity

The circle, usually seen as positive, and symbolizing unity or perfection, continued and continues today to be used by many modern and contemporary artists. Some of the famous painters, such as the Impressionism painter Monet, or the fathers of the avant-garde Cubism movement, Braque and Picasso, along with pop artist Andy Warhol, whose beautiful application of line art in his illustrations, in the drawing Butterflies in 1955, along with the paintings of Jackson Pollock, or the highly geometrical art of Sol LeWitt showcase how different authors used the circular shape to compliment their rectangular production.

Today, possibly the most famous contemporary artist that has again revived this format is Damien Hirst but there are numerous other artists, both interested in figuration and abstraction that involve this format whose strong associations with the symbolic art, as much as the piece is non-figurative, as is the case with Miriam Cabessa or the minimalistic works of Marc Vaux, are highly suggestive. It is because of this that the circle will never lose its interest and will continue to be a great source of inspiration. This continuous interest we owe to the humble beginnings of the vase paintings.

Editors’ Tip: The Florentine Tondo

Exploring the important phenomenon in Italian Renaissance art, this book is an excellent volume focused on the circular production in painting and sculpture. Aiming to further explain surface of Renaissance culture, the author of the book Roberta J. M. Olson, illuminates the cultural period shifts, patronage, and cultural context of the time. Allowing us a deeper understanding into the iconography and pattern making of the circular works, alongside the bibliography and the technical information about the each piece, this book is a significant contribution to the understanding of this specific genre.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured images in slider: Fra’ Filippo Lippi – The Bartolini Tondo. Image via turismo.intoscana.it; Sandro Botticelli – Giuliano de’ Medici. Image via arthistorynewsreport.blogspot.rs; Giovanni di ser Giovanni Guidi – Left: The Triumph of Fame. Right: Reverse Impresa of the Medici Family and the Arms of the Medici and Tornabuoni Families. Image via metmuseum.org. Michelangedlo – Doni Tondo, cca 1507, Uffizzi, Florence. Image via commons.wikimedia.org