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Free Content The Nudes in Limbo: Michelangelo's Doni Tondo Reconsidered

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This article has won the Villa I Tatti Prize for Best Essay by a Junior Scholar (2011), awarded in November 2012. The author proposes a new interpretation of the iconography of Michelangelo’s tondo with the Virgin Mary painted for Agnolo and Maddalena Doni in 1504 or 1506, now in the Uffizi Gallery. She argues that the nudes in the background may allude to the resurrected bodies of the unbaptised dead. The proposed explanation of Michelangelo’s painting as a ‘Nostra Donna’ with St Joseph, St John the Baptist and people in limbo is based on both contextual and visual arguments. These encompass, firstly, a study of the Doni family history and the circumstances in which the tondo was produced; secondly, several texts on baptism, original sin and limbo, in particular by Antonino Pierozzi and Girolamo Savonarola; thirdly, a study of other tondi as well as of paintings of different genre which present either some allusion to baptism or the theme of naked figures painted in the background of a sacred group. Particular relevance is given to the Carondelet Altarpiece by Fra Bartolomeo and Mariotto Albertinelli, the iconography of which may be considered as influenced by the Doni tondo. The essay does not suggest that the tondo merely illustrates contemporary ideas on limbo, but rather that contemporary ideas on limbo (especially for their insistence on the resurrection of the body) may have been a source of inspiration for Michelangelo as well as a source of consolation for his patrons. The proposed reading may also help in deciding about the contested date of the painting. For more information about the Villa I Tatti Prize visit

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2011-03-25

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  • The Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes publishes new research, of a documentary and analytical character, in the field of cultural and intellectual history. The subject matter includes art and architecture, religion, science and literature as well as intellectual, political and social life, often with an emphasis on their relation to the civilisation of antiquity.

    The Journal was founded in 1937, as one of the first publishing projects of the Warburg Institute after its arrival in London; it was intended as a interdisciplinary forum, more extensive in scope and varied in content than the Vorträge previously published by the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg in Hamburg. Produced at the Warburg Institute and edited by members of staff from that Institute as well as from the Courtauld Institute of Art, it remains reliant on the extensive libraries and photographic collections which these institutions possess; it also depends on the collaboration of scholars from the two institutions, who, along with outside experts, participate in the review process.

    Volumes of the Journal are issued annually.

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