Sunday, March 27, 2016



How much Michelangelo's Madonna of the Stair (1490-92), now in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence, resembles Donatello's Madonna of the Clouds (1425-35) now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts! Donatello (1386-1466) carved his bas-relief  from a block of Carrara marble, as did Michelangelo (1475-1564.) The dimensions of the two works are similar. Donatello's bas-relief is about 13 inches by 16 inches, Michelangelo's is 22 by 16 inches. Donatello's is a square shape, while Michelangelo's is a vertical scene in a rectangle.
       Both are images of the Madonna seated with the Christ Child on her lap. She is draped in cloth in both with her head covered as she clasps the child to her bosom.

In both her head is enveloped by a halo.

Curiously, she is nearly barefoot in both, with her feet peeking out from under the long drapery of her gown. Donatello gives her sandals but Michelangelo leaves her without them.

 She looks out beyond the Child in both, and in both she is accompanied by other children or angels.

     Both are good examples of the use of various layers of carving depth to convey space and both utilize a technique referred to as "rilievo schiacciato," very flattened low-relief carving, a display of skill by the carvers. A good example of rilievo schiacciato is in the face of the angel next to the feet in the Donatello piece.
"Schiacciato" means squished; in Florence bakeries you can buy a piece of "schiacciata," a square piece of flattened or pressed bread. The head of the angel here appears barely rising out of the background; it is close to the "picture plane" of the carved scene. The sculptor's ability to render an entire face in depth with the three-dimensionality of the chin and the hair with such slight carving of the material is what even Vasari refers to as "marvelous."
          In both there is a suggestion of a cross shape, a reference to the end of Christ's life in a bas-relief of the beginning of his life. It is a common Renaissance trope to include the alpha and omega of Christ's life in sculpted or painted images of him. In Donatello's carving the cross is implied in the way the child's body folds into the mother's leg. What seems at odds in the Donatello image is

the fact that the Madonna here is shown in heaven without a throne or crown. She is often depicted as Queen of Heaven, but here she has Jesus as a young boy and yet she herself has already ascended into heaven, up above the clouds. This is not a common subject in Italian art of the 15th century; Jesus has a halo, but if the Madonna has already been "assumed," i.e., taken up to heaven, her child would have predeceased her and would be older.

Michelangelo's image is also odd. In his the cross shape is formed by the stair bannister and the arms of the children.


               We do not know the reason for either work. Vasari, in his 1551 Life of Donatello, says that Donatello carved some pieces in marble and bronze for the Pazzi garden. " SONO IN DETTO LUOGO  MADONNE DI MARMI E DI BRONZI DI BASSO RILIEVO, ET ALTRE STORIE DI MARMI, DI FIGURE BELLISSIME E DI SCHIACCIATO RILIEVO MARAVIGLIOSE.(There are in said place [the Pazzi Garden] Madonnas of marble and bronze in bas-relief, and other stories in marble of beautiful figures and in marvelous "schiacciato" relief.- trans. mine) This notation from Vasari would seem to refer to the carving in the Boston MFA and another bas-relief of the Madonna and Child (sometimes called the Pazzi Madonna, now in Berlin).
Both of these carvings could be included in Vasari's description since he purposely uses the plural, MADONNE di MARMI (Madonnas made of marble). As we know that Donatello made the Pazzi family's coat of arms, the twin dolphins, for their family palace in Florence and for the Pazzi chapel next to Santa Croce, it is not unreasonable to think that the Boston Madonna was made for the Pazzi. 
         But Vasari himself changes his mind about these bas-reliefs mentioned. In his Life of Donatello in the 1568 edition he says, "Sono in detto palazzo de’ Medici Madonne di marmo e di bronzi di basso rilievo, et altre storie di marmi di figure bellissime e di schiacciato rilievo maravigliose."(In the Medici Palace there are Madonnas of marble and bronzes in bas-relief, and other stories in marble with beautiful figures and made in wonderful "schiacciato" relief.-trans. mine) Vasari also talks in this second edition about the close relationship between Cosimo Medici  (the Elder) and Donatello, so close that Donatello is eventually buried near Cosimo in the crypt of San Lorenzo. 
           So while Vasari seems to change the patrons from the Pazzi to the Medici, it seems pretty clear that the Madonna of the Clouds was made for a private palazzo and not a public church. The specific change to Palazzo Medici also makes it more likely that Michelangelo would have seen it Vasari affirms in the second edition in his Life of Michelangelo that Michelangelo intended to carve his own Madonna of the Stairs in competition with, and out of respect for, Donatello:

"Il quale Lionardo non è molti anni che aveva in casa, per memoria di suo zio, una Nostra Donna di basso rilievo di mano di Michelagnolo, di marmo, alta poco più d’un braccio, nella quale, sendo giovanetto in questo tempo medesimo, volendo contrafare la maniera di Donatello, si portò sì bene che par di man sua, eccettoche vi si vede più grazia e più disegno. Questa donò Lionardo poi al duca Cosimo Medici, il quale la tiene per cosa singularissima, non essendoci di sua mano altro basso rilievo che questo di scultura."
The said Leonardo (Michelangelo's nephew) had kept in his house even recently, in memory of his uncle, a NOSTRA DONNA (MADONNA) made in low relief by the hand of Michelangelo, out of marble, little more than a braccio long, in which, since he was a youth in this same time, wanting to imitate the style of Donatello, he carried it out so well that it seems to be by his [Donatello's] own hand, except that in it we see more grace and more design. This Madonna Leonardo gave later to Duke Cosimo Medici, who keeps it for a rare thing, since he owns no other bas-relief by his [Michelangelo's] hand than this sculpture."(trans. mine) 
(Vasari's life of Michelangelo, 1568 ed.)
     We can't be sure that whatever work by Donatello mentioned is the Madonna of the Clouds, but we can know from this passage that Michelangelo was wanting to emulate Donatello as a sculptor in bas-relief.
       Vasari suggests in this passage that Michelangelo's Madonna is an early work of the artist and most scholars agree. (Pope-Hennessy an exception, 1512.)  If so, it was carved before the St. Peter Pieta of 1498 and before his David (1501-04) which makes it tempting to think of it as a "stepping-stone" piece, so to speak, a trial carving in small scale before tackling larger projects. We know Michelangelo lived in Palazzo Medici from 1490-92, when he could have seen Donatello's bas-reliefs, including perhaps the Madonna of the Clouds.
        The fact that the Madonna of the Stairs is now in the Casa Buonarroti collection means that at some point the piece was given back to the family from the later Medici Duke and the family kept it as a reminder of the work of Michelangelo's youth, as is the case for the Battle of the Centaurs relief there.

Since the Madonna of the Stairs image is of a woman sitting at the bottom of a staircase like those in many Renaissance palazzi,

perhaps it can be dated to the year in which Michelangelo was invited to live in Palazzo Medici by Lorenzo the Magnificent. He is 15 when that happens, the date, 1490. Michelangelo stays with the Medici family until Lorenzo dies in 1492, so the dating for the Madonna of the Stairs should range between 1490-1492.   
          Donatello's Madonna of the Clouds (1425-35) is one of Donatello's clearest images of female beauty and maternal love. The Madonna is elevated to a place in the clouds, above earth, and though she doesn't wear a crown, the implication is that she is Queen of Heaven.

Michelangelo's Madonna, also crownless, has been literally been brought down to earth. Instead of a Queen of Heaven, we have a barefoot wetnurse in a Florentine palazzo sitting at the bottom of the stairs while the children fold the sheets and fight at the top. 

The earthly nurturing qualities of the Madonna are emphasized here. She is protective and embracing the child as he is swathed in her clothing. The only things which remind us of her role as holy figure are the halo and her size. She takes up the entire relief block and her head appears to tower over the 7-rung staircase. She is gigantic compared to the children and the block on which she sits. The artist is rendering her importance in her height and bulk. Donatello's Madonnna takes up most of the block, too, but we never get the impression that the angels are out of proportion to their holier mother.

We are not surprised by Michelangelo's interest in stairs. In 1524 he begins designs for the Laurentian Library next to San Lorenzo in Florence and includes stairs in the drawings:

 The stairs in the that library's vestibule are not built until later, around 1550, but the
the stairs on the short sides with 9-step stairs bear a resemblance to the stairs in his 1490-92 bas-relief, with a low seat on the bottom rung:
Even before those Florentine stairs are carried out, Michelangelo designs outdoor stairs in Rome (1536-46) when he creates the Piazza of the Capitoline Hill and the staircase that leads up to it:
He also makes drawings in 1557- 59 for two short staircases in a private palazzo:
While stairs are associated with the Madonna in theological writings from the 15th century, where she is thought of as a stairway to heaven, an intercessor for prayer to reach God, the stairs envisioned by Michelangelo in various periods in his life can be construed as his own career pathway mapped out clearly and concisely.

         For Donatello, though, the Madonna has no such clear role and his own career pathway is
haphazard and filmy. His eye on the clouds, he gives us a vision of unexpected ethereal calm.
  Michelangelo may have wanted to copy Donatello's carving, but he was assuredly more of a realist.
His Madonna's feet are definitely on the ground.

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