Sculpture in the round
The Carrara marble relief "Madonna and Child with the Infant St John" is the gem of the Royal Academy of Art's permanent collection. It is known as the "Taddei Tondo" after the Florentine patron, Taddei, who commissioned it in the 15th century. The Tondo (or "round", describing the sculpture's shape) was bought in 1822 from a French dealer/collector for £1,000 by Sir George Beaumont, who bequeathed it to the Royal Academy in 1830.
Its creator, Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), was born in a mountain village in Tuscany. Although he left the rocky, Apennine landscape as an infant, he later mentioned how this stony environment was significant for his career as a sculptor, as was the fact that his wet nurse was a stone-cutter's wife. Michelangelo was born into the minor nobility. He was a shy and self-contained boy, which is not surprising: he lost his mother at the age of six and his father was a harsh man who beat his five sons. At 13, Michelangelo went to Florence as an apprentice in the busy studio of the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, before studying sculpture under a pupil of the great Florentine sculptor Donatello.
At this time, Florence was a rich, glamorous and extremely lively city, its wealth based mainly on textiles. On festival days, people in extravagant costumes thronged the streets, tapestries hung from buildings, bells pealed and trumpets blew without cease. At these times the artists' studios were engaged in making banners, or exquisite silver bridles for the horses.
When Michelangelo was about 18, a monk called Savonarola became famous for his charismatic, puritanical sermons inflaming the mob against the decadence of the Florentine Republic and its rulers, the Medici family. In later years, Michelangelo wrote that, ever after, he could hear the exact tones of Savonarola's words ringing in his ears. The Medicis were expelled from Florence and Savonarola became a kind of religious dictator there for four years. In 1497 there was a great Bonfire of the Vanities, in which items of luxury, including art works and books, mirrors and jewellery were burnt. But Savonarola likewise was soon to be burnt at the stake, having been denounced by the Pope.
Michelangelo had left Florence in 1494, returning only in 1501, after the demise of Savonarola, to carve the figure of David, which was to help focus the patriotic fervour of the city and to become one of the most famous sculptures in art history. It was around the time that "David' was completed that Michelangelo sculpted the "Taddei Tondo". He was still not 30 years old.
Michelangelo, although a devoutly Christian artist, was also influenced by the classical sculpture that was being unearthed in Rome at the time, and he became very interested in pagan mythology and the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato. The Platonic idea, often alluded to in the sonnets that Michelangelo wrote throughout his life, is that ideal forms underlie all the forms that we see in the natural world, although we see the ideal only through the particular. Michelangelo chose to express his feelings and ideas through the human figure alone. Unlike his older rival Leonardo da Vinci, he never studied other natural forms.
Although he supported his demanding father and four brothers financially - and they were very important to him as family - and while he had two other deep and important relationships in his life, with Tommaso Cavalieri and Vittoria Colonna, his real relationship was with his work. It was in his painting and sculpture that he showed how conflict and tension can be acknowledged rather than hidden or denied, and how beauty can be heroic and vital. "When that which is divine in us doth try/To show a face, both brain and hand unite/To give, from a mere model frail and slight,/Life to the stone by Art's free energy," he writes in Sonnet XIV. Famously, he expressed the idea that the form is hidden in the block of marble, only waiting to be released. "To break the marble spell/ Is all the hand that serves the brain can do." (Sonnet XV).
Michelangelo spent much time at the marble quarry at Carrara, choosing suitable pieces from which to release the forms he held so vividly in his imagination. He outlined these figures in charcoal on the rough blocks of stone before carving them into existence. He said: "I understand sculpture as that which is made by force of taking away; that which is made by adding on is similar to painting."
The "Taddei Tondo" is probably unfinished; it shows the Madonna seated on a rock with Jesus and the Infant St John, who is offering a goldfinch to his cousin. The goldfinch, often seen gathering seeds among thorny bushes, represents Christ's crown of thorns. There are other references to the future: St John has a christening bowl at his waist, a prediction of his role as the Baptist, and Jesus recoils from the bird that foretells his suffering and death. Jesus's pose is taken from an ancient Roman relief on the so-called Medea Sarcophagi. Like most great artists, Michelangelo did not hesitate to borrow poses from other artists, even though the Medea story, (Medea murdered her children) sits strangely with the Christian one shown here.
Although many people are more familiar with the Royal Academy of Arts as a venue for temporary exhibitions, its large permanent collection, built up since 1768, includes 850 paintings, 350 sculptures and 15,000 prints and drawings. For more information ring 020 7300 5000.Education tel: 020 7300 5731 or 020 7300 5995 for group bookings
Annie Harris is head of education at the Royal Academy
* Michelangelo Buonarotti 1475-1564
Michelangelo Buonarotti - "father and master of all the arts" - was one of the greatest Renaissance artists. Works include, in his native Florence, the statue of David (1501-04); in Rome, the ceiling of the Roman Sistine Chapel (1508-12), the fresco of the Last Judgment (1535-41) and statues of the Pieta (Jesus down from the Cross). As architect, his greatest work was the Basilica of St Peter in Rome; as poet, he wrote sonnets, letters and a journal.
The "Tondo" offers many ideas for discussion. The Madonna represents protection; she protects the city, the family and the community with her maternal presence. She represents the Church.
Key stage 1: Collect stones or objects in which you can imagine a face or the figure of a person, either from the shape or from a form within the object, adding your own details.
KS2: Does the actual form of the Tondo, in encircling the Madonna and Child and the Infant St John, perhaps protect them too? Can you see the roughly carved right hand of the Virgin as it reaches behind Jesus to St John's face? She looks tender and accepting, as if she is saying to St John: "It's all right. Don't worry." The boldest movement in the composition, emphasised by the edge of the Madonna's cloak, is the curve of Jesus' body as he seeks protection in his mother's lap. There is a 3-D circle created by the flow from the Virgin through her right arm to St John and back through the Infant Jesus to the Virgin. Students could make their own Tondo, designing a figure composition so that it fits within a circle, transferring the design to a disc of clay and then carving out the figures.
KS3: sculpt in clay a figure, only finishing and smoothing part of the figure, leaving the remainder rough, as if the face or figure is emerging from shadow, or as if it is trying to free itself from the clay.