“It is a standalone piece which speaks for itself, portraying a harmonious sense of togetherness. In this piece, we are presented with two contrasting demands: verisimilitude and placement. It would be easy to cast aside one in order to make space for the other, but Raffaello is capable of finding a solution which satisfies both needs” (Ernst Gombrich).
This painting is quoted for the first time in the Tribuna degli Uffizi inventory in 1589 ("a round painting which depicts the Virgin Mary sitting with Our Lord on her lap, with Saint John next to them, by Raffaello da Urbino. The piece is composed of four stone triangles adorned with a brocatelle pattern, with gold-threaded hickory"). The piece was likely painted in Rome under the papacy of Pope Leo X, following the discovery of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (around 1513).
Relatively little is known about the Madonna della Seggiola by Raffaello, housed within the Palatine Gallery. Already widely celebrated, the painting’s fame only grew upon its return to Florence, after Napoleon had taken it in 1799.
The piece became a mandatory stop-off on the Grand Tour. For young artists, the act of drawing the painting became a fundamentally formative moment in their lives. It was in this way that the endless ‘waiting lists’ were created: travellers and artists would organise their trip around Italy based on their turn to visit (or to draw) the Madonna della Seggiola. The Palatine Gallery opened to the public in 1834.
The piece was also well-known during the eighteenth century. Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron of La Brède and of Montesquieu, said in 1728: “to my taste, [this piece] casts a shadow over all other Virgin Marys I have seen.” An English musicologist proclaimed to be willing to walk barefoot for fifty miles just to see a piece such as this; in 1776, Marquis Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade stated that the Madonna della Seggiola and Guido Reni’s Cleopatra were ‘superb’, and able to impress even an untrained eye such as his. It was also stated that a Virgin Mary such as this could have immediately converted a non-believer.
In 1820, something launched the painting’s fame to even greater heights. Ernst Von Houwald wrote a children’s tale which would then go on to be understood as the true story behind the Madonna della Seggiola. It told the tale of a hermit who was rescued from a pack of wolves by the brave daughter of a winemaker. The hermit tells the daughter, and the oak tree in which he had sought refuge, that they will become immortal.
Many years later, the oak tree is cut down and used by the winemaker to create barrels; meanwhile, the girl gets married and has two children. One day, she comes across Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, who is struck by the beauty of the girl and her children. He looks for his tools to paint with, but realises that he does not have them with him. Instead, he takes a piece of charcoal and immortalises the image of the young women with her children in her arms, onto the lid of one of the winemaker’s barrels. This anecdote would explain the circular shape of the painting.
A number of fairly convincing clues should have suggested right away that this delightful tale has no historical grounding. Firstly, artists in the sixteenth century were not accustomed to travelling with a sketching ‘kit’ on their person. Moreover, this piece is painted onto a tablet made of poplar wood, not of oak. The work was also certainly not finished in one draft, but is the result of lengthy intellectual planning.
However, all this does not stop the tale from being widely accepted as truth: so much so that Ernst Gombrich, who was to hold a conference on Raffaello in an English university, returned again to see the painting in 1955. During this trip, he was surprised when a tour guide at the time ‘smuggled’ the anecdote into his visit as if it were historical fact, inventing the existence of Florentine documents which proved Raffaello’s poor financial status. This, in turn, demonstrated his need to paint onto the lid of a wine barrel.
No one knows whether this ‘myth’ of the winemaker’s daughter stems from the Virgin Mary’s ‘gypsy-style’ dress, which should imply that she was a commoner. The reality appears to be completely different: the chair upon which the Virgin Mary and her child are sitting is one of those used within the papal court. This is seen within its twisted backrest made from a precious red velvet, decorated with gold fringing. It is probably a “sedia nana” or a “balietta”, used for female purposes such as embroidery or, more commonly, nursing.
The Virgin Mary’s clothing is that of a high-status Roman lady. She is wearing an “asciugatoio”: an oriental piece of cloth which was wrapped around the head not unlike a turban. This accessory came into fashion in only a few areas of central Italy (not including Florence), and was often made from “vergato” silk with multicoloured threads, even of gold or silver. Often (although not in this case), the “asciugatoio” also covered a large portion of the lady’s body: something Lucrezia Tornabuoni strongly complained about when she went to Rome to meet Clarice Orsini, her future daughter-in-law and wife to Lorenzo il Magnifico.
Lucrezia found she could not ‘properly’ look at her daughter-in-law: “Clarice was in a tight Roman skirt with no shawl… I studied this girl intently… Who… I could tell from her dress was incredibly modest… We could not see her chest, because it was covered, but I could tell that it was abundant. Her body was not as bold as ours, but she still seemed to be wearing a lot of fabric; this implied to me that she was ashamed, as I could tell her every movement attempted to hide that shame…” Florentine depictions of the Virgin Mary were definitely more ‘uncovered’.
Even the woman’s shawl in the Madonna della Seggiola is incredibly refined. The combination of warm and cold colours is extraordinary, as well as totally outside the norm – even when compared to Leonardo and Michelangelo’s pieces. There is absolute mastery in the way that Raffaello composes these three powerful figures within a circular shape. In the Tondo Doni, the three characters in the foreground seem barely contained within the frame, due to their dramatic sense of tension and their imposing physicality. They almost seem sculpted in a hard, coloured stone, rather than painted onto a tablet.
In another well-known round piece, the Tondo Bartolini by Filippo Lippi – also displayed in the Palatine Gallery – the everyday scenes from the life of Sant’Anna in the background, although taking place in very different moments, appear simultaneous. Both the Virgin Mary and her baby in the foreground and these background scenes appear to be seen through a telescope. In the Madonna della Seggiola, however, the figures are perfectly adapted, and seem completely at ease within the circular frame.
The only great artist able to harmonise Florentine traditional design and a Venetian colour palette within his work, Raffaello was indubitably inspired by Leonardo in his impeccable composition of interlocking bodies. He was also inspired by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel for his powerful figures, which seem to achieve an “inimitable naturalness…as well as a sense of understanding which has perhaps never been reached by any artist…which allows us to understand the painting’s human values” (Mina Gregori).