In 1504 one event will stir the spirits of the art world in Florence. It is the wedding of two members of rich Florentine families: Agnolo Doni and Maddalena Strozzi.
Competition will be created among artists in Florence on how to get an order from Agnolo Doni knowing that he was a collector and lover of art and jewelry, for which he considered himself an expert in the field. He was a very rich cloth merchant, but according to Vasari he wanted to order works of art and not pay for them.
On the occasion of his wedding, he ordered from Michelangelo the painting “Holy Family”, known today as “Tondo Doni” for which they agreed on a price of eighty ducats, and when Michelangelo brought the painting he wanted to pay him half the price. Michelangelo threatened to take the picture back, so Agnolo had to pay the agreed amount.
His wife Maddalena comes from the respected Strozzi family, a longtime rival of the Medici family. She was fifteen years younger than her husband, and she was of that same age at the time of their wedding.
On this occasion, Agnolo Doni commissioned Raffaello to make a portrait of him and his wife in the same manner. Raffaello made them around 1506-1507, showing exceptional mastery.
In addition to the incredible certainty of his brush stroke, the author has penetrated deeply into the psychology of the depicted persons. Agnolo is portrayed as cold, intelligent, calculating, self-satisfied and with a sharp look in which there is no exaltation. He is completely relaxed with his left hand leaning on the balustrade, a type of pose that will later be a favorite during the Mannerism, and especially during the Baroque. Maddalena is presented as a woman with great energy, strict, with a cold and somewhat contemptuous look, the lowered corners of her lips are pure arrogance. In this way he wanted to emphasize her noble origins. Maddalena’s pose with folded arms, as well as the whole atmosphere of the painting reminds us of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but here we don’t see that mysteriousness typical of Leonardo, so you feel an incredible calm.
Raffaello is known as a painter who paid great attention to detail, in addition to their rich clothes, he emphasized their high social status with the jewelry they wear. The couple’s rings are decorated with ruby that symbolizes prosperity, sapphire of heavenly purity, the emerald refers to secret knowledge, and the impressive size of Maddalena’s pearl pendant symbolizes virginity and was probably a gift from Agnolo.
These two paintings should be seen together because they are made as a pair.
It is believed that the connection between these two portraits is not only semantic but also material, the paintings were held together by hinges like folding boxes. If we look at the cloud and the landscape in the upper right corner of the portrait of Agnolo and the upper left corner of Maddalena’s, we can see mutual crossings, namely the landscape passes from one painting to the other.
On the back of these wooden panels scenes in monochrome technique are painted that do not belong to Raffaello. They were made by an unknown painter known as the “Maestro di Serumido “. The answer to the question of why these scenes were painted lies in the assumption that the portraits of the Doni couple were once a diptych that could fold like a book, so that the viewer could see mythological scenes on the cover. These two episodes are taken from Ovid’s poem “Metamorphoses”.
On the back of Agnolo Doni is the “The Flood”, a depiction of how the gods punish the sinful human race with a flood, and on the back of Maddalena is the “Rebirth of Humanity”. Ovid speaks of how the gods allowed the elderly childless couple Deucalion and Pyrrha to escape the flood and rebuild humanity. At the command of Zeus, the couple threw stones over their shoulders, and when they touched the ground, every stone thrown by Deucalion became a man, and if thrown by Pyrrha, it became a woman. Both scenes are allegories representing the single wish for their marriage to be fruitful.
We do not know whether these representations helped the couple with offspring, but be it as it may in 1507 the Doni had a daughter, and in 1508 a son. Thus this tale of the rich Florentine merchant and his wife gets a happy ending.