The RA’s Michelangelo Tondo takes centre stage at the National Gallery

Published 2 June 2017

It may be only a short step from the RA to the National Gallery, but the loan of the Academy’s rarest treasure to the Michelangelo and Sebastiano show is a triumph of technical skill.

  • From the Summer 2017 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Ever since it entered the Royal Academy’s art collection in 1830, Michelangelo’s Taddei Tondo has been venerated as a tour de force of Renaissance sculpture. Commissioned in Florence by the wealthy young cloth merchant Taddeo Taddei, this circular relief was carved around 1504 (the term “tondo” derives from the Italian for “round”, rotondo). Michelangelo left the work unfinished – he probably found himself burdened with too many other projects – but that lack of completion is the reason it is relished: the tondo shows Michelangelo’s chisel ranging from spontaneous suggestion at one extreme to definitive realisation at the other.

    George Beaumont, the enlightened connoisseur, collector and landscape painter who bequeathed it to the Royal Academy, marvelled at the tondo’s ability to lay bare the whole of Michelangelo’s working process “from the first hint to completion”. He purchased it in 1822 from the French artist Jean-Baptiste Wicar, and then brought the tondo from Rome to be displayed in his London house at 34 Grosvenor Square. Beaumont’s friend John Constable RA, who drew a lively sketch of the tondo, described it as “one of the most beautiful works of art in existence”. Displayed in more recent years in the RA’s Sackler Wing, it remains the only Michelangelo marble in Britain.

    Now, for the first time in over half a century, the Academy has loaned this crown jewel of its art collection to another institution: the National Gallery. The tondo is a key work in Michelangelo & Sebastiano, the National Gallery’s fascinating exhibition that explores the creative partnership between the two Italian masters. In the words of Christopher Le Brun, President of the RA, the loan provides “fresh ways of looking at this remarkable sculpture, as well as introducing it to wider audiences, before it returns to the RA to be redisplayed as part of the Academy’s 250th anniversary in 2018”. Rather than sending the tondo back to the RA in July, the National Gallery is keeping it after the exhibition closes, where it will be included in a free display, until the Academy’s dramatic new spaces are ready in time for the anniversary.

    Alison Cole’s excellent book on this sculpture has just been published by the Royal Academy. “Some parts have been worked up to near perfection, others left tantalisingly roughed out and every chisel mark exposed, allowing us almost to look over Michelangelo’s shoulder as he worked this great lump of marble,” Cole tells me. “One of the many wonders is the three expressively differentiated heads, and the way they revolve around the small anxious head of a bird in their midst. This bird, held clumsily in St John’s hands and fluttering in a blur of movement, holds the key to all their reveries and reactions”.

    Many experts agree that it is a goldfinch, symbolising Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. So the holy Child ducks away from this winged augury and clutches the Virgin’s left arm. His anxiety is acute, and yet he stares back at the bird as if struggling to understand the full implications of his future martyrdom. Michelangelo conveys the impulsive energy powering the Child’s little body as well as his meditative intelligence. And the Virgin, who remains calm yet seems downcast by a prophetic sense of sorrow, reaches out her right arm as if to prevent the Baptist from bringing the ominous goldfinch any closer. The result is intensely moving, and centres on a direct conflict between vitality and extinction.

  • Take a closer look at the Taddei Tondo

  • When the National Gallery asked to borrow the sculpture, a considerable amount of anxiety was voiced within the RA. For one thing, a fissure running through the marble had been reported by the conservator John Larson in 1991. “It was a real shock when he discovered it,” explains Maurice Davies, Head of Collections at the RA. “Although it was a very fine hairline fissure, a natural thing in the marble, everyone here thought the tondo was too fragile to move. The National Gallery’s request was discussed at no less than three meetings of the RA Council, the committee of artists who oversee the Academy. The sculptor Stephen Cox RA turned out to be a key figure. He wrote a paper on the tondo and urged that it should be lent. So after a round-table discussion with a range of experts, a strong sense emerged that the sculpture should be lent.”

    The most difficult question centred on how best to transport the tondo from Piccadilly to Trafalgar Square. “The biggest challenge was lifting it off the supporting brackets on the wall of the Sackler Gallery,” says Davies. “We had a structural engineer design a great big stainless steel framework to contain it, and that went all the way to the National Gallery in a truck. The journey was made very early in the morning, to avoid London traffic at its worst. There was still a fear of vibrations or jolts from possible emergency stops. But the truck drove so slowly that two of us walking alongside it almost got there first!” Davies says that the journey went “wonderfully” and “not an iota of change can be detected” in the marble.

    Now installed, at the far end of the exhibition’s first room, the tondo looks even more impressive than it did before. Framed very simply on an otherwise bare wall, and superbly illuminated, the sculpture is animated by Michelangelo’s sympathy for the alarmed Christ Child as he lurches away from the almost ghostly goldfinch. Gabriele Finaldi, the National Gallery’s Director, is delighted to see the tondo displayed here. “I knew that the RA would be well-disposed to the idea of lending it,” he says when we meet in the exhibition, “because the National Gallery has been very generous with loans to RA shows in the past. Every precaution was taken with packing and moving this work, and it’s salutary to point out that Beaumont probably transported it across the Alps on a bed of straw in a wooden box.” Finaldi also tells me that the tondo was displayed, during the mid-19th century, above a fireplace in the RA library, “which occupied a building here on the east side of the National Gallery – a space now occupied by the ‘grab and go’ of our new cafeteria!”

    When I congratulate him on installing the tondo so well, Finaldi explains that “the supports are very discreet and allow the carving to stand out. We have tried to light it in terms of its physicality, and the tondo hangs near Sebastiano’s 1517 painting The Virgin and Child with St Joseph, St John the Baptist and a Donor, which has a similar grasp of eloquent bodily movement. We hope to be saying, in this first room, that here is the idea of our show. Sebastiano painted his picture just over a decade after the tondo was carved, and it’s quite possible that he had seen it in Florence. We’re thrilled to be able to display it here.”

    Richard Cork is an art critic, historian, broadcaster and curator.

    Michelangelo & Sebastiano is at the National Gallery until 25 June 2017.

    Buy Michelangelo: The Taddei Tondo by Alison Cole in the RA Shop.

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