MADONNA DELLA SCALA (MADONNA OF THE STAIRS )
The Madonna of the Steps; ca.1490-91; 22 x 15.5 inches)
This is the earliest known sculpture by Michelangelo, created when he was only fifteen or sixteen years old. It remained in the Buonarroti family until two years after the master’s death, when it was presented by a nephew, Leonardo, to Duke Cosimo I. Ten years later, Cosimo II returned it to the Buonarroti family.
Michelangelo’s genius is evident as a teenager in this, his first masterpiece, whose figures are so fluid that they look as if they were drawn with a pencil and molded in wax. He admired Donatello’s technique of rilievo schiacciato, a form of shallow relief carving requiring delicate chiseling of the marble, both to model the figures as well as create the sense of recession in space. However, it astonishes that, as a teenager, Michelangelo’s conception of the Madonna and Child would be so different from the depictions of his predecessors.
Traditionally, the Madonna is shown in the usual Quattrocento votive pose, gazing toward her Child. But here, remarkably enough, she gazes off into the distance, seemingly intent and alert. Her watchful air provides a definite contrast to the trusting, sleeping child and the antics of the background figures, likely inspired by Michelangelo’s siblings. Her hands and forearms together form a protective circular form that completely encloses the Child. Moreover, his head and face are half hidden under her robe. Contrary to all pictorial tradition, the Christ Child is turned away from the viewer and has fallen asleep at her breast. His right arm, which is surprising in its muscularity, hangs languidly behind him. Yet his Herculean build makes it clear that he is no mortal child, but godly by nature.
The Madonna, seated on a simple stone block in the foreground, fills the entire picture plane. Her crossed legs indicate a relaxed position. This, and the way her robe winds around her right calf, is a device unique to the young master and would reappear in his later works. He is even unconcerned that her halo runs out of the picture plane. Michelangelo also breaks from past artistic tradition with his lack of concern with carving a finished frame to encompass the design. Rather, he lets the background suggest the perspective of space, with playful figures clearly subordinated to the dominating foreground figure of the Madonna. In short, in this earliest of sculptures, Michelangelo has succeeded in elevating his portrayal of the Madonna to the realm of the universal, giving her a majestic gravity far removed from the everyday world.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni
(Florence 1475 – 1564 Rome)
Madonna of the Stairs
Bronze, brown patina
Height x width: 22 x 15 ¾ inches
Edition: 1/100 of an edition of 100 bronzes cast in 2015. The original plaster prototype is a precise cast that was derived from Michelangelo’s original marble in Casa Buonarroti, Florence.
Selected Reference Literature:
Vasari, Le vite dei più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori…, 2nd edition, 1568; F. Bocchi and G. Cinelli, Le Bellezze della Città di Firenze, 1577; Ludwig Goldscheider, Michelangelo: Complete Edition, 1962, p. 9, pl. I; H. Hibbard, Michelangelo, 1974, pp. 26-29; K. Weil-Garris Brandt et alia, La Giovinezza di Michelangelo, exh. cat., 1999, pp. 69-75; L. Berti – Pina Ragionieri, “Note circa la ‘Madonna della scala’ di Michelangelo, in Critica d’Arte, 10, 2001, pp. 16-20; J.T. Spike, Young Michelangelo, 2010, pp. 48-51.
The Madonna of the Stairs Michelangelo’s is earliest known sculpture, completed in 1491 or 1492, when he was sixteen years old. Not mentioned by Condivi, the Madonna of the Stairs was first published by Vasari in 1568 as part of the collection of the Duke Cosimo de’ Medici, who had recently received it as a gift from Michelangelo’s nephew, Leonardo. It was probably around this time that a bronze cast was made for the Buonarroti family to retain in exchange for the marble. In 1616, Grand Duke Cosimo II de’ Medici magnanimously restored the marble to Michelangelo’s grand-nephew, Michelangelo Buonarroti the Younger, for display in the commemorative gallery under construction in the Casa Buonarroti.
At the time of its execution Michelangelo was under the protection of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the Magnificent, who desired to revive the art of casting and carving statues in Florence. The youth was sent to study in Lorenzo the Magnificent’s garden of San Marco, where Donatello’s best pupil, Bertoldo, directed a school of ancient and modern sculpture. Vasari describes how the Madonna of the Stairs reflects the depth of Michelangelo’s absorption of the lessons of Bertoldo, and of his master’s master, Donatello.
It is not many years ago that Leonardo owned, in memory of his uncle, a bas-relief in marble of Our Lady executed by Michelangelo a little more than an arm’s length high; in this work Michelangelo, as a young man who wanted to imitate Donatello’s style, acquitted himself so well that it seems to have been done by Donatello himself, except that it contains more grace and a better sense of design. – Vasari.
It was no small praise to claim, as Vasari does, that Michelangelo when but a novice had already surpassed the greatest Florentine sculptor to precede him. Vasari adds that Duke Cosimo especially valued the Madonna of the Stairs as Michelangelo’s only known sculpture in rilievo schiacciato, or shallow relief, the technique in which Donatello specialized. In many places, the stone is hardly touched while the forms are drawn with incisions. The accidental overlapping of the frame and of the halo also imitate forms from the earlier master.
The Madonna of the Stairs is the key example of the young artist who imitates diverse models: a fifteenth-century didactic exercise that taught an accurate and analytical approach, and stimulated the desire to emulate and surpass the most prestigious examples of ancient and modern art. – Weil-Garris Brandt.
What makes the Madonna of the Stairs a masterpiece and not a student exercise is Michelangelo’s unique adaptation of the bas-relief technique. Donatello excelled in the creation of illusory courtyards and arcades teeming with figures. The unfolding space defies the shallowness of his lines. In the Madonna of the Stairs, the stairs and wooden railing recall the interior setting in Donatello’s Feast of Herod that was part of Lorenzo’s collection and is today in Lille, France. But Michelangelo’s monumental non-perspective turns these motifs inside out. His stairs climb straight up like a ladder. Rather than creating space with diagonals, his stairs cut it off.
The Madonna is shown seated on a similarly weighty block. “Michelangelo’s first religious sculpture may also reflect another idea that was widely diffused…in which Mary was likened to a stairway by which God came down to earth as Jesus, and by which we mortals in turn may ascend to Heaven” (Hibbard). Mary’s giant form dominates the composition. Her profile, somber and foreboding, resembles the pose and distant gaze of funerary portraits found on classical steles, or plaques. This unusual portrayal of the Madonna perhaps alludes to the death of Michelangelo’s mother when he was six years old.
The cube on which the Virgin sits might symbolize a kind of Pythagorean or Hermetic perfection…The foundation-stone of Christianity is of course Christ, whom she holds in her arms and to her breast. – Hibbard.
When Michelangelo completed the Madonna of the Stairs, he brought it home. We do not know whether he did out of frustration because his patrons did not retain it, or because of his absolute triumph that his very first sculpture in bas- relief had confounded everyone’s expectations.
Published by Arte Divine and cast by Addonis Bronze, the Madonna of the Stairs represents the highest quality casting and finishing of art bronzes that exists in the world.