Not all paintings are rectangular or square. The circle has since Antiquity been a symbol of perfection, and its association with divinity made it a popular shape for paintings in the Renaissance, with round masterpieces produced throughout the period.
Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Magi, c.1440-1460, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
A round painting is called a “tondo,” from the Italian “rotondo,” which means “round.” In fact, any large round painting, sculpture or relief is called a tondo today, because that shape was popularized in Italy during the Renaissance. It even applies to early examples of round paintings, which are found at the bottom of wine cups from Ancient Greece.
Among the Renaissance masters who used the tondo format, we have Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Veronese.
Botticelli, Madonna of the Magnificat, 1481, Uffizi, Florence
Botticelli, The Virgin Adoring the Child, c.1480-1490, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Most of Michelangelo’s paintings are frescos on walls and ceilings. He produced only two or three movable paintings in his life, and one of them is a tondo:
Michelangelo, The Holy Family / Doni Tondo, c.1506, Uffizi, Florence
Other stunning examples include some of Raphael’s madonnas:
Raphael, Alba Madonna, c.1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Raphael, Madonna della Seggiola, c.1513, Palazzo Pitti, Florence
As well as the 21 ceiling tondos of the Saint Mark Library in Venice, three of which are by Veronese:
Paolo Veronese, Honor, c.1557, National Library of Saint Mark, Venice
Paolo Veronese, Arithmetic and Geometry, c.1557, National Library of Saint Mark, Venice
Paolo Veronese, Music, c.1557, National Library of Saint Mark, Venice — Source: marciana.venezia.sbn.it
View of the library’s Salon — Source: anagrafe.iccu.sbn.it
After the Renaissance, the tondo format did not disappear, but painters used it very rarely. Two examples from the 19th century are a painting of emigration by Ford Madox Brown and a playful trompe-l’oeil by Pere Borrell del Caso:
Ford Madox Brown, The Last of England, 1855, Birmingham Museum, Birmingham
Pere Borrell del Caso, Two Laughing Girls, 1880, Museum for Catalan Modernism, Barcelona
In the modern age, one of the few artists who often used the tondo format is Swiss painter Fritz Glarner, a student and friend of Piet Mondrian:
Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting Tondo No.1, 1944, Kunsthaus Museum, Zürich — Source: flickr.com
Fritz Glarner, Relational Painting Tondo No.4, 1946, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra — Source: nga.gov.au
In the end, the rectangle of course remains the most common shape for paintings and the square comes second, but the tondo has a special place in Western art history, from wine cups in Ancient Greece to modern art, with a period of great popularity during the Renaissance.