PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). THE TUSCAN PAINTERS. Domenico Ghirlandaio

The high society of XVth century Florence, which we barely were able to envision disguised in Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey of the Magi, is clearly represented in the works of the two great masters of the following generation: Domenico Ghirlandaio and Alessandro or Sandro Botticelli, both sons of artisans, but that thanks to their artistic talent had the opportunity to gain the friendship and favor of the most exalted Florentine families of the time. Both were called to Rome around the year 1481 to paint, together with Perugino, some frescoes on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican; but their artistic production was mostly manifested in Florence.

Ghirlandaio (2 June 1448 – 11 January 1494), artistically more balanced than Botticelli, remained somewhat removed from the great picture of the aristocratic Florentine life that he had to portray. He led a large and efficient workshop that included several members of his family and took under his tutoring many apprentices, including Michelangelo. Ghirlandaio was baptized Domenico di Tommaso di Currado di Doffo Bigordi. He was the eldest of six children born to Tommaso Bigordi by his first wife Antonia di ser Paolo Paoli; of these, only Domenico and his brothers and collaborators Davide and Benedetto Ghirlandaio survived childhood. Initially, Domenico was an apprentice of his father, who was a goldsmith. The nickname “Il Ghirlandaio” (meaning “garland-maker”) was coined by Domenico’s father, who was famous for creating the metallic garland-like headdresses worn by Florentine women of the time. Later, Domenico was trained in painting and mosaic by Alesso Baldovinetti, and in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio. Ghirlandaio is best known for his fresco cycles, a technique in which he excelled. One of his earliest commissions was in the 1470s and came from the Commune of San Gimignano to decorate the Chapel of Santa Fina in the Collegiate Church of that city. These frescoes, executed between 1477-1478, depict two miraculous events associated with the death of Saint Fina.

View of the Saint Fina Chapel (right aisle of the Collegiate church of Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano, Tuscany).

This chapel was destined to enshrine the relics of Saint Fina, the saint patron of San Gimignano. Between 1477-1478, Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the frescoes on the side walls with two scenes from the saint’s life. These frescoes were Domenico’s first known major commission. The style of these frescoes, which combine both historic and contemporary events, was perhaps inspired by Filippo Lippi’s frescoes on the Stories of St. Stephen and St. John the Baptist for the Prato Cathedral, and was later used by Ghirlandaio in the frescoes of the Sassetti Chapel in the basilica of Santa Trinita at Florence that will be discussed ahead.

Announcement of Death to St. Fina, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1477-1478 (right wall of the Cappella di Santa Fina, Collegiate church of Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano).

Fina, the pious daughter of poor parents, died on the feast day of Saint Gregory in 1253 after a long and painful illness. She was just 15 years old. According to legend, after the death of her mother, Fina lived an ascetic lifestyle so strict that, in the end, she was barely able to move. Vermin and rats gnawed at her body until death finally liberated her from her prolonged sufferings. In the Announcement of Death to St. Fina fresco, Pope Gregory the Great, in full regalia, appears floating in a glory of red winged angels to bless the young woman and announces her imminent death. Fina is shown praying while lying on a wooden plank. At the instant she died, white, beautifully scented violets blossomed forth from her death bed, these are typical March flowers at San Gimignano. The witnesses to this miracle are her old nurses Beldia and Bonaventura. Against the rear wall there’s a bench with a series of objects: a golden bowl, an almost empty decanter covered by an inverted glass to protect the valuable wine (both objects as a possible reference to the sacrament of Holy Communion), and on the far right, an open pomegranate lies on a box possibly a reference to royalty, fertility, resurrection and unity of the Church, and also there’s an uneaten apple as symbol of original sin. Despite the fact that Fina died in poverty, Ghirlandaio decided to create an opulent frame for the picture and framed the room with pilasters on either side crowned by golden capitals and supporting a huge architrave. On a framed panel on the rear wall are the Latin words that St. Gregory spoke to Fina: “Be prepared my daughter, for on my feast day you will be taken up into our community and live there forever with your bridegroom”. A window in the rear wall leads to a distant landscape and citadel. To the left, a door opens to reveal a garden with rose bushes. A rat under the left corner of the bench in the background is a reference to Saint Fina’s martyrdom (she was eaten alive by rats and worms).

The Funeral of St. Fina, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1477-1478 (left wall of the Cappella di Santa Fina, Collegiate church of Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano).

In the fresco of The Funeral of St. Fina, the saint is lying on a rich cloth and pillow in front of a monumental altar. The living violets of her death bed have been changed into gold brocade. Because her old nurse Beldia had held Fina’s head for so long, her arms became paralyzed. Now, kneeling behind the bier in the center of the scene, Beldia’s arms are healed by the touch of Saint Fina’s hands. Another healing is taking place at the feet of the dead woman. Here, a blind boy regains his sight by touching his eyes to the saint’s feet. A third miracle is taking place in the background on the left, where an angel has appeared to ring the tower’s bell. In the background we can see the towers of San Gimignano (the Torre Grossa, still standing today, is the the town’s tallest) visible on the right. The vanishing point in this composition is the altar cross flanked by two candles. The inspiration for this composition was Fra Filippo Lippi’s fresco in the choir of Prato Cathedral, the Funeral of St. Stephen. In the group of expressive characters, Ghirlandaio revealed his unique ability to create convincing character studies, a skill that brought him fame and many well paid commissions. Here, Ghirlandaio’s depicted his first true-life portraits, with gestures and face expressions familiar from daily life. The citizens depicted in the painting probably include the work’s donors.

For the Church of Ognissanti in Florence, Ghirlandaio painted in 1480 a panel representing St. Jerome in His Study which was a companion piece to Botticelli’s panel of Saint Augustine in His Study. For the refectory of this same church, Ghirlandaio painted a life-sized Last Supper. Between 1481 to 1485, Domenico was commissioned to paint some frescoes at the Palazzo Vecchio, that included the celebrated Apotheosis of St. Zenobius (from 1482) located in the Sala del Giglio, an over-life-sized work that depicted an elaborate architectural framework, figures of Roman heroes, and other secular details, a work that excelled in the treatment of perspective and over all in its compositional design.

St. Jerome in his Study, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480, 184 x 119 cm (Chiesa di Ognissanti [Church of All Saints], Florence).
The fresco of St. Jerome in his Study was commissioned by the Vespucci family together with a Saint Augustine in His Study painted by Sandro Botticelli (1480). Both frescoes depicted two Doctors of the Church in their studies, with a number of objects related to their role as precursors of humanism. In this fresco, Ghirlandaio -heavily influenced by St. Jerome in his Study by the workshop of Jan Van Eyck from 1442 (see picture below) and that was part of the art collection of Lorenzo de’Medici at the time- depicted St. Jerome as the scholarly translator of the Bible. Also inspired by Andrea del Castagno’s works, Ghirlandaio created a serene and conventional figure, and focused on the still life represented by the objects on the writing desk and the shelves behind Jerome. Jerome is portrayed with his head resting on the left hand, while writing with the other. The open books and the cartouches, with Greek and Hebrew letters, indicate his activity as translator of the Bible. On the writing desk is the date (MCCCCLXXX, “1480”), as well as a sealed letter, glasses, two inkwells, scissors and a candle holder. The desk is covered by an oriental carpet, a luxurious object often depicted by Ghirlandaio, and perhaps inspired by Netherlandish painters. The objects on the shelves include a cardinal hat, two pharmacist vases, a cylindrical case, a necklace, a purse, some fruit, two transparent glass bottles and an hourglass. The light comes from the upper right corner, producing a well defined shadow of the saint on the drapery behind him; but also from the foreground, illuminating the objects on the desk.

Saint Jerome in his Study, oil on wood panel, by Jan van Eyck‘s workshop, 1442, 20.6 x 13.3 cm (Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit).
Last Supper, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1480, 400 x 880 cm (Chiesa di Ognissanti, Florence).

The Last Supper fresco executed in the refectory of the convent of the Ognissanti is a famous example of the Tuscan tradition of depicting the Last Supper in monastic refectories. The basic arrangement of this fresco, and other two Last Suppers Ghirlandaio painted, is the same as that in the fresco by Andrea del Castagno in the Florentine Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia (ca. 1450). In this version of the Last Supper, Ghirlandaio depicted Jesus and the disciples without particular characterizations, appearing rather peaceful and at ease, even Judas, who’s sitting on his own in front of Christ. All the Apostles cast shadows. The lunettes, above the Apostles, offer an opportunity to paint trees in a Tuscan garden that’s supposedly beyond the wall; these include fruit-trees, cypresses, and an isolated palm-tree. To the right wall, a peacock perches on a windowsill, while other birds fly around in the air. The table is covered by a white tablecloth with blue embroidery. Plates, decanters, glasses, saltcellars and knives are carefully arranged in front of each guest, as are the bread and cherries. St. Peter is shown picking up his knife angrily and is pointing to Christ with it and his thumb, appearing ready to defend the Lord. The younger apostle on the left wearing green garment is energetically pushing at the table with his arm as if about to jump up and start an argument with Judas. On hearing Christ’s claim that the traitor is among them, the two Apostles on the far right appear to be asking each other: “Am I the one?”, while the ones next to them appear melancholic. Soon after he completed this fresco, Ghirlandaio was called to Rome to help with the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. It is likely that Leonardo da Vinci was familiar with this treatment of the subject, as well as that of Castagno, and painted his own Last Supper in a more dramatic form to contrast with the stillness of these works, so that more emotion would be displayed.

By 1481, Ghirlandaio was summoned to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV as one of a team of Florentine and Umbrian painters that were commissioned to work on a series of frescos depicting popes and scenes from the Old and New Testaments on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. There, Ghirlandaio painted the Vocation of the Apostles, a now lost Resurrection of Christ, and The Crossing of the Red Sea that has been also attributed to Biagio d’Antonio or Cosimo Roselli who were also part of the commission.

Vocation of the Apostles, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1481-1482, 349 x 570 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City).

This fresco of the Vocation of the Apostles is part of the cycle of the life of Christ in the lateral walls of the Sistine Chapel and it relates the initial selection of the Twelve Apostles among the disciples of Jesus. It is located in the third compartment on the north wall. In the early 1480s Pope Sixtus IV summoned a number of famous Tuscan and Umbrian artists to Rome in order to decorate his new court chapel, the Sistine Chapel. Between 1481 and 1483, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli, Piero di Cosimo and others, probably under the direction of Pietro Perugino, covered the side walls of the chapel with frescoes. On the left wall are scenes from the life of Moses, and on the right scenes from the life of Christ, this scheme as a sign of continuity between the Old and the New Testaments. In accordance with the Pope’s wishes, in each painting several episodes of a story were presented simultaneously. In this fresco, Ghirlandaio depicted several groups of people, tightly packed together in rows. In the background to the left, the fishermen Peter and Andrew are called by Jesus. At the center Christ is blessing the kneeling brothers Peter and Andrew, His first disciples. They follow Him and appear again in the background on the right. There they witness Christ calling James and John, who are sitting in a boat mending their nets with their father, Zebedee. The group of women on the left, including a woman in blue seen from behind, anticipates the female figures Ghirlandaio would paint in later works. On the right are members of the most influential Florentine families who maintained residences in Rome, in the center stands Giovanni Tornabuoni, representing the Medici family’s merchant bank, his son Lorenzo Tornabuoni is in front of him, wearing a black garment. To the right of Giovanni Tornabuoni stands the humanist John Argyropoulos, with a white beard. The nobleman beside him, with white hair and no hat, is thought to be either Francesco Soderini from Florence, or Raimondo Orsini from Rome. The young man behind him, with the brightly shining face, is thought to be Antonio Vespucci. Separate from the other Florentines, behind Christ, stands Diotisalvi Neroni, an earlier friend of Cosimo de’ Medici. The entire upper half of the fresco is devoted to an extensive landscape with a high horizon. The Sea of Galilee, framed by hills and mountains, is snaking its way like a river into the background, where it vanishes in the distance. In the sky brightly colored birds are flying.

The Crossing of the Red Sea, fresco possibly by Domenico Ghirlandaio, Cosimo Rosselli or Biagio d’Antonio, 1481–1482, 350 cm × 572 cm (Sistine Chapel, Vatican City).

The Crossing of the Red Sea, a fresco of uncertain attribution, has been assigned to one between Domenico Ghirlandaio, Biagio d’Antonio or Cosimo Rosselli. The painting’s style is more reminiscent of that of Cosimo Rosselli or Biagio d’Antonio. This particular scene is part of the Sistine Chapel’s fresco cycle depicting the Stories of Moses and shows several scenes at the same time. The sequence begins from the right background, where Moses and Aaron are begging the pharaoh to free the Israelites. On the right foreground are the Egyptian soldiers, shown in typical Italian Renaissance military garments, armor and weapons, who are drowning after the Red Sea waters, which had miraculously opened to allow the Israelites to cross them, close around them. The pharaoh is portrayed in a frantic scream, while other figures try to return to the Egyptian shore by swimming. Before the army is a column hovering over the waters: this is a representation of the fire pillar sent by Yahweh to scare the Egyptians. In the upper central area is a hail storm, sent by God too to punish the Egyptians. Also depicted are some sunrays and, more to the left, a rainbow, symbols of the upcoming liberation for the Israelite people. On the left are the Israelites, led by a young Moses with his typical yellow garment and green cloak, and a command baton, after they have just crossed the sea. Their safeness is testified by the presence of recreational activities, such as the prophetess Miriam playing a chordophone in the foreground. They continue their trip in procession, disappearing on the left, in a naturalistic landscape.

Fresco decoration of the Sala dei Gigli (Hall of the Lilies), by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1482-1484 (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence).

In 1482 Ghirlandaio received the official commission from the Signoria, Florence city government, to produce the fresco decorations in the Sala dei Gigli in the third floor of the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. The overall effect of these frescoes had to be magnificent and should express the pride of the city and Republic of Florence. Ghirlandaio divided one wall by means of painted pilasters, with three arches between them. The two outer arches are over a doorway and a blind window. The result is that the entire wall appears as a mighty triumphal arch. For these frescoes, Ghirlandaio probably only traced the outline of the paintings and left a large part of the work to his assistants.

In the center of the wall decorated by Ghirlandaio in the Sala dei Gilgli in the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence) is St. Zenobius, one of Florence’s patron saints, enthroned and flanked by two saintly deacons, Eugenius and Crescentius. In the tympanum above the bishop is a terracotta relief of the Madonna and Child with adoring angels, a work similar to those produced by the workshop of the Della Robbia family. In the background on the left, behind Zenobius, there is a view of Florence Cathedral.
For the fresco decoration of the Sala dei Gigli (Palazzo Vecchio, Florence), Ghirlandaio painted under the side arches standing historical characters who embody civic and republican virtues. In these figures Ghirlandaio depicted very detailed variations of Roman armor and the classical contrapposto postures. In the picture above, from left to right are Brutus, Mucius Scaevola and Camillus. In the picture below, from left to right are Decius, Scipio and Cicero.

Between 1482 and 1485, Domenico painted a fresco cycle in the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinita, a commission by the banker Francesco Sassetti, the then director of the Medici bank, whose Rome branch was directed by Giovanni Tornabuoni, whom would become Ghirlandaio’s patron. This fresco cycle included six scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, between them Saint Francis obtaining from Pope Honorius the Approval of the Rules of His Order, Saint Francis Death and Obsequies and a Resuscitation of a child of the Spini family, who had died as a result of a fall from a window. Ghirlandaio represented the themes of the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, and introduced in these compositions, disguised as secondary figures, several portraits of members of the Medici and Sasseti families together with their close acquaintances, as if they were entitled to be part of the holy scene not only because of their piety, but because of their refined elegance revealed both by their clothing and by their refined gestures. The first fresco mentioned contains portraits of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Sassetti and Lorenzo’s children with their tutor, Agnolo Poliziano. The Resuscitation fresco shows Ghirlandaio’s portrait.

Fresco decoration of the Sassetti Chapel by Domenico Ghirlandaio, between 1483-1485 (Sassetti Chapel, Basilica of Santa Trinita, Florence).

Francesco Sassetti was a wealthy partner of the French branches of the Medici bank located in Avignon and Lyon. Ghirlandaio decorated the Sassetti chapel in the Basilica of Santa Trinita (Florence) with frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi which are considered his masterwork. The panel altarpiece was also painted by Ghirlandaio. In this chapel, Domenico combined secular, religious, and classical themes to produce a unique masterpiece. The fresco cycle covers three walls framed by trompe-l’œil architectural elements. The donor and his wife were portrayed as life-sized figures kneeling in prayer at the side of the altarpiece with the Adoration of the Shepherds. The vault was frescoed with figures of Sibyls, surrounded by flaming aureoles and holding banderoles describing their prophetic role. Only the faces of the Sibyls are attributed to Ghirlandaio; the bodies were probably executed by his workshop. For the design of these frescoes, Ghirlandaio studied Giotto‘s frescoes in the Bardi Chapel, ca. 1325-1328, in the church of Santa Croce in Florence, and took inspiration directly from them. The Stories of St. Francis frescoes extend over the three walls and include six scenes. As in other own works, Ghirlandaio incorporated faithful portraits of contemporaries and views of Florence in this fresco cycle.

The Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1483-1485 (Sassetti Chapel, Basilica of Santa Trinita, Florence).

In the best site in the Sassetti Chapel, highly visible above the altar, are the most famous scenes painted by Ghirlandaio. In the fresco representing The Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule, Ghirlandaio boldly moved the scene of the represented events from Rome (where they originally took place) to Florence. Here the events take place on the most important square in Florence, the Piazza della Signoria. The event corresponded to the visit of St. Francis to Rome to obtain the confirmation of his order from pope Honorius III. In the center is the consistory hall decorated with gold drapes, and with prelates and personages witnessing the pope’s blessing. Several members of the Medici family are also present, honoring Sassetti. Lorenzo de’ Medici (“the Magnificent”) is recognized on the right side in profile with dark hair. To his right is Antonio Pucci, and Francesco Sassetti dressed in red is to Lorenzo’s left; Sassetti’s young son Teodoro is by his side. On the left, dressed in red, stand the sons of the donor: Galeazzo, Cosimo, and also Teodoro. Coming up the steps with their tutor leading are Lorenzo’s two elder sons, Piero and Giovanni, and with them Giulio, the orphan of Giuliano who was killed in the Pazzi conspiracy, with their blond hair. They are led by their tutor, Agnolo Poliziano, a classical scholar and a friend of Lorenzo who honored him in his house. In the background is Florence, with its most celebrated buildings: the Loggia dei Lanzi, the facade of the Palazzo Vecchio with its solemn raised podium that was later replaced by the present-day flight of steps; the gilded Marzocco lion (symbol of Florentine democracy); a back-drop of houses in the far left-hand corner and a bell-tower (possibly that of San Piero Scheraggio) where the Uffizi would later be built. In the background is a bustling of small figures, citizens and curious onlookers, to the right we can see laundry being hanged out to dry in the sun, and a small shop open.

The Death of Saint Francis, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1483-1485 (Sassetti Chapel, Basilica of Santa Trinita, Florence).

Grieving Franciscan brothers surround the dead founder of their order in Ghirlandaio’s Death of Saint Francis fresco for the Sassetti Chapel. Some are kneeling in order to kiss the stigmata on the saint’s hands and feet. A figure dressed in red is bending over the dead body in order to examine the wound in the saint’s side. This is Girolamo who like the doubting Thomas with Christ, doubted the stigmatization of St. Francis until he was able to touch the wound. To the left a priest is celebrating the funeral mass wearing a pair of spectacles on his nose, an unusual motif. The general composition is directly derived from both Giotto‘s work in the Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce and Filippo Lippi’s Funeral of St. Stephen in Prato Cathedral. However, here Ghirlandaio opens up the imaginary architecture at both sides, opening the view onto a Tuscan landscape lush with rivers and streams. To the right are members of the Franciscan Order in all their simplicity. This fresco also includes some portraits, most probably of monks of the nearby church of the Ognissanti, so dear to Domenico, or those of the Santissima Trinita. The three people on the right, a father with his son and nephew, are probably connected to the Sassetti family. On the far left the tutor Poliziano is again portrayed alongside Bartolomeo Fonzio.

Resurrection of the Boy, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1483-1485 (Sassetti Chapel, Basilica of Santa Trinita, Florence).

This fresco of the Resurrection of the Boy, located right beneath the one with the Confirmation of the Franciscan Order (discussed before) in the altar wall, is devoted to the Sassetti family’s private history. In 1478 their son Teodoro died; but a few months later Nera Corsi Sassetti gave birth to a second son. As they felt him to be a gift from God, they requested to Ghirlandaio to paint the Resurrection of the Boy. This was how the Sassetti intended to express their gratitude for their new-born son Teodoro II. These events take place just outside the church of Santissima Trinita at the Ponte Santissima Trinita. To the center-left, in the distance, we see a boy falling out of the windows of the Palazzo Spini while playing with a red ball falling to the street below him. Some passers-by see the falling child, rush up in help, but it is too late: the child is dead. The boy who died in the fatal accident is already lying on a bier surrounded by mourners. Then, however, two Franciscans succeed in interceding with Saint Francis on their behalf, and the child is brought back to life. Ghirlandaio again moved this miracle from Rome, where it actually took place, to Florence, just outside the church in which the fresco is painted. To the right, some monks are leaving the church’s portal in a procession. This will pass along the street across the river, past the passerby, a rider and two working carpenters. In the crowd in front of the Palazzo Spini, the donor’s daughters and some of his friends are portrayed, all of them loyal supporters of the Medici. Florentine citizens are standing together on the right side. On the far right, Ghirlandaio included a self portrait looking out of the picture. Next to him we see the profile of his brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi, who also worked on the frescoes. The resurrected boy is in the middle of the composition, sitting with his hands together on a bed covered with Eastern-style drapes. St. Francis, appearing as an apparition, blesses him from the sky.

Meanwhile, a masterpiece by the Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes (the Portinari Altarpiece, 1475-1476) representing an Adoration of the Shepherds, arrived in Florence in 1483. This panel executed in oil paint rather than in the common technique of the tempera employed in Florence, exemplified the flexibility of that medium for the treatment of textures and for the control of light intensity and shade. This influential work of art, had a profound effect on Ghirlandaio’s own work due to the naturalism with which van der Goes depicted the shepherds.

Ghirlandaio then painted the altarpiece for the Sassetti chapel, also an Adoration of the Shepherds (from 1485) deeply influenced by vander Goes’ panel. The shepherds, which included a self portrait of the artist, are portrayed with a realism that was a novelty in the Florentine painting of the time. This altarpiece is still in situ in the Church of Santa Trinita, and it is the centerpiece surrounded by the six frescoes depicting the Life of St. Francis. On either side of the panel are portraits of the kneeling donors painted in fresco on the wall, but they occupy the same position and relationship to the central scene of the Adoration that the donors do on the outer panels of the Portinari Altarpiece by van der Goes.

Adoration of the Shepherds, tempera on panel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1483-1485, 167 x 167 cm (Sassetti Chapel, Basilica of Santa Trinita, Florence).

This altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds gives us a clear idea of ​​Domenico’s spirit and education. His shepherds are simple people from the country, whom city people enjoy observing among their flocks; the Virgin is a young Florentine, with elegant manners; in the distance we can see the Cavalcade of the Magi placed in a populated hilly landscape like those of contemporary Tuscany. A triumphal arch, dedicated to Pompey the Great, stands in the middle of the road. The sarcophagus with an inscription and the classical columns that support the ceiling of the manger, everything indicates that this painting was executed by Ghirlandaio after his return from Rome. Ghirlandaio’s self portrait is included in the scene as one of the shepherds, the first one kneeling next to the Child. He leads the shepherds and directs the attention of both the shepherds and the observers to the miracle of the birth of Christ. This group of shepherds pushing their way into the picture from the right, with their harsh, life-like features, are heavily influenced by those in Hugo van der Goes’ Portinari Altarpiece. The classical sarcophagus is both a manger and a iconographical element indicated by the Latin inscription along its front that reads “augur of Pompey, was falling by the sword in Jerusalem he said: the urn that covers (conceals) me shall bring forth a god”. This is an ancient prophecy by Fulvius. This manger will also serve as a crib for the Christ Child. Behind the sarcophagus are an ox and a donkey, symbols of the Jews and the Gentiles. In the distance we see a town (representing Rome) set in the midst of hills and woods that in appearance would seem to belong more to the North of the Alps than to Tuscany. The farthest city, on the right, is a symbolic Jerusalem with the domed edifice; in front of it is a dead tree, a reference to its conquest. Next to Mary is St. Joseph looking upwards while, in the background, an angel is announcing to the shepherds the coming of Christ. The long procession that winds along the sloping road to the left reminds us of the Adoration of the Magi that Gentile da Fabriano had painted for Santissima Trinita 60 years earlier. This procession of the Magi is passing under a triumphal arch. The arch has a inscription that reads: “The priest Hircanus erected [this arch] in honor of Gaius Pompey the Great”. On the left, the two nearest Magi are staring at a light visible from above the hut’s roof, coming perhaps from the star of Bethlehem. The three pieces of rock in the very foreground are a hint to the Sassetti, whose name in Italian means “Small rocks”. Perched on one of them is a goldfinch, symbol of Christ’s Passion and resurrection. All the painting shows the importance of the influence that Flemish school had on Ghirlandaio, as every element including in the scene has a symbolic meaning.

The easy with which Ghirlandaio was able to transform a traditional mystical composition into a picture filled with the worldly people of his time is best exemplified in the series of frescoes that he painted in the apse of the great church of Santa Maria Novella, in Florence. At the time, this square apse still conserved the remains of the frescoes from the 1300’s that represented scenes of the life of the Virgin, although so discolored that they required replacement. It is possible that Ghirlandaio respected the themes originally outlined by these old frescoes, but as novelty, he placed the holy figures inside highly ornate and decorated rooms with all the Florentine luxury of profusely carved and inlaid walnut furniture and splendid ceilings, and in turn the figures were dressed in richly embroidered robes with the splendor and good taste that only were able to be afforded by the nobility of his time. This series of frescoes were financed by the Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families and were painted between 1485 and 1490, the subjects being the lives of the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist. The chapel’s stained glass window was also designed by Ghirlandaio.

Because these frescoes of Santa Maria Novella were commissioned by the opulent Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families, also related to the Medici, they include no fewer than 21 portraits of several members of these families, together with their clientele of artists and scholars. For example, Juana Albizzi, married to Lorenzo Tornabuoni, is recognized in the Visitation scene. In the Nativity of the Baptist, another lady of the Tornabuoni family slowly walks to the center of the composition, accompanied by her entourage with her two maids and a servant carrying a flower basket. In the Nativity of Mary, painted on the best illuminated area in the apse, an elegant young woman, Luisa Tornabuoni, comes forward accompanied by several aristocratic ladies, as if she were the main character in the scene. We can see that in these frescoes women also participate in the tastes and glory of their time, and perhaps their prominence in those two Nativities was reserved for them as a gallant gesture. But in another fresco, which represents the appearance of the angel to Zechariah, the two main figures, Zechariah and the angel, appeared lost in the background within a decorative niche formed by the architectures. The first plane is fully occupied by the various groups formed by the rich patrons of the chapel with their relatives, including the painter himself. In this fresco we can see portraits of Marsilio Ficino, the first Hellenist of his time, and a great friend of Cosimo de’ Medici, who by then was somewhat old, with his cape and white hair; we can also see Poliziano, the illustrious poet and tutor.

Frescoes in the Tornabuoni Chapel of the Church of Santa Maria Novella Florence) by Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop, between 1486-1490.

The frescoes of this apsidal chapel of the Tornabuoni in the Church of Santa Maria Novella represent a major example of chapel decoration at the end of the Quattrocento. The patron was the wealthy Giovanni Tornabuoni, the relative by marriage of the Medici, and in order to finish this work timely Ghirlandaio enlisted his whole workshop in the undertaking, including possibly a then 13-year-old apprentice called Michelangelo Buonarroti. By using painted classical pilasters and entablatures, Ghirlandaio divided the two enormous walls into six horizontally rectangular zones. These are placed above each other in three layers and are crowned by a pointed tympanum. The chapel’s rear wall, in contrast, has three high-pointed arch windows flanked on either side by three smaller, vertically rectangular paintings, as well as the large tympanum above them. For this chapel Ghirlandaio also designed the colorful stained glass windows, as well as the altarpiece. These panel paintings, however, are scattered between the Gemäldegalerie (Berlin) and the Alte Pinakothek (Munich). The chapel’s vault contains the Evangelists. On the left wall Domenico frescoed the stories of Mary, while on the right the life of St. John the Baptist. As in other of his frescoes, Ghirlandaio rigorously integrated into his paintings the way in which light came to the interior through the three windows: the scenes on the left wall are lit from the right, and those on the right wall from the left. In the lunette of the window wall is the Coronation of the Virgin.

Apparition of the Angel to Zechariah, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop, 1486-1490, width 450 cm (Tornabuoni Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

The Apparition of the Angel to Zechariah fresco is located on the right wall of the Tornabuoni Chapel and corresponds to the first scene of the stories of St. John the Baptist. In this fresco Ghirlandaio portrayed a considerable number of contemporary political figures and members of the donor families. Ghirlandaio arranged them in groups of three, four and five figures on various ground levels, so that they do not overlap. As a result, the front groups are standing at the edges of the picture inside some depressions in the ground. Again, Ghirlandaio also excels here as a superb portraitist. To the right there are portraits of various members of the Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families. Giovanni Battista Tornabuoni, Giuliano, Giovanni Tornaquinci and Gian Francesco Tornabuoni are standing in front of a self portrait of the painter, whom is only seen up to his chest. Some women are standing behind them underneath an arch on which are written words celebrating the happy period in which the chapel was completed. Above this group of men, Ghirlandaio depicted a classical relief, on a background of golden mosaic, representing a military commander addressing his soldiers. On the left lower corner the group of 4 men represents the fine world of contemporary Florentine culture. These were the most learned Florentines of the day, from left to right: Marsilio Ficino wearing a canon’s dress, Cristofano Landino in a red mantle and a black ribbon round his throat, Angelo Poliziano and Demetrius the Greek. The group of men standing to the right of the Angel are portraits of contemporary Neoplatonists. The Biblical episode of the apparition of the Angel to Zechariah is portrayed within magnificent Renaissance church architecture. Zechariah is portrayed on the altar in the center, with the Angel Gabriel suddenly appearing on his left to announce to him that he will have a son.

Visitation, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop, 1486-1490, width 450 cm (Tornabuoni Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

The Visitation fresco, located in the right wall of the Tornabuoni Chapel, is the second scene of the cycle of the Stories of Mary. The Virgin Mary and Saint Elizabeth meet in the center of the composition. Ghirlandaio then uses the remaining space to display a wealth of images: landscape and cities, animals and plants, a bold use of perspective, classical buildings and reliefs and, not least, portraits of noble and beautiful women. In the background, side by side, are features that reflect the two sources of Ghirlandaio’s pictorial inspiration: classical art and Flemish painting. On the right, the classical era is represented by a building with classical style reliefs, while the men seen from behind, leaning over a wall, are derived from superb Flemish paintings (see Jan van Eyck’s background figures of his “Madonna of Chancellor Rolin” ca. 1436). Behind St. Elizabeth (dressed in orange) are her companions. The third figure from the right is Giovanna degli Albizzi-Tornabuoni (the wife of the donor’s son Lorenzo Tornabuoni). By placing the bare wall that extents to Mary’s side, Ghirlandaio created a bold and convincing spatial situation, as this wall follows the converging lines of perspective thus giving a vivid sense of spatial depth. On the left a paved road leads through a gateway into the lower part of the city by the waterside; hurrying up the road is a servant carrying a bowl on her head. Behind the two central figures, Mary and Elizabeth, a sandy path leads up to the other side of the wall. In the distance, beyond the wall, the tower between the two trees is very similar to that of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. All the elements in this painting were explicitly required in Tornabuoni’s contract with Ghirlandaio: the landscape, the city, the animals, the perspective, the portraits and the classical elements.

Birth of St. John the Baptist, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop, 1486-1490, width 450 cm (Tornabuoni Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

The fresco depicting the Birth of St. John the Baptist located on the right wall of the Tornabuoni Chapel as part of the cycle with the Stories of St. John the Baptist, depicts the saint’s birth within a contemporary Florentine setting: while Elizabeth is in bed recovering, attended by a servant and being visited by female representatives of the donor family, a nurse is suckling the child and a woman brings fruit and wine from the city, in conformity with the Florentine custom. Here, Ghirlandaio made a masterful use of contrasting complementary colors: red bedspread/green wall hanging, maid dressed in red and green, golden orange hues of the pilasters and entablatures/light blue of aged Elizabeth and the young maid coming in with the fruit basket. The only portrait that can be identified is that of the poet Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the mother of Lorenzo de’ Medici. In addition to the marvelous basket of fruit, Ghirlandaio added another two still-lifes to the picture in order to make it appear more home-like and realistic: on the far left two objects, a brass jug and bowl (that we are already familiar with from the fresco of the Last Supper in the church of Ognissanti, and from the frescoes in the Santa Fina Chapel, that we discussed before), and at the top of the bed’s headboard, next to the window, where there is a symmetrical arrangement of a box, two pomegranates and a vase (a reminiscent of both Saint Jerome’s study and the frescoes in the Saint Fina Chapel, discussed before). In the foreground, a baby St. John is being nursed by a young woman, while a servant is already stretching her arms out energetically for him, in order to give the newborn a bath in a green bowl next to her. Next to them, a beautiful unknown woman from the donor’s immediate circle is looking at us. She is holding a small cloth in her hands and is dressed in a gentle pink, a hue picked up in her cheeks. Two women wearing white head-dresses accompany her; the elder is probably the donor Giovanni Tornabuoni’s sister, Lucrezia Tornabuoni. The last figure on the right, a maid carrying gifts, is quite agitated, which contrasts with the composed attitudes of the others, she resembles the figure of Salome painted by Filippo Lippi in the Prato Cathedral. Elizabeth is depicted on the bed in a calm and majestic posture, with a book in her left hand.

Birth of Mary, fresco, by Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop, 1486-1490, width 450 cm (Tornabuoni Chapel, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence).

Located on the left wall as part of the cycle with the Stories of Mary, the Birth of Mary fresco is one of the finest creations in the Tornabuoni Chapel. The space, skillfully constructed along perspective lines, opens up to the ceiling. The room is opulently decorated, with a relief frieze in which putti are dancing. They appear to be delighting in the birth of the Virgin Mary, as indicated by the Latin inscription at their feet that reads: “Thy birth, O Virgin and Mother of God, brings joy to all the world”. This frieze of putti was inspired by Florentine sculpture and is reminiscent of the two cantorias for the cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore by Donatello and Luca della Robbia. The daughter of the donor, Ludovica Tornabuoni, is entering the room from the left with her retinue. She is noticed by the kneeling nurse, who turns and looks at her. The stiff posture of this young aristocrat forms a stark contrast to the graceful movements of the maid pouring water preparing to bath new-born Mary. The maid holding Child Mary in her arms makes her laugh by smiling. In the top left-hand corner, on top of the stairs, we see Anne and Joachim embrace, an early incident of the story, representing Anne and Joachim at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem. To the right, St. Anne reclines in bed.

Although Ghirlandaio was celebrated because of his fresco cycles, he was also commissioned with a number of altarpieces including the Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (ca. 1483, Uffizi Gallery) and the Adoration of the Magi in the Florentine orphanage of the Ospedale degli Innocenti, in which he included a self-portrait. In this altarpiece, Ghirlandaio presented a more symmetrical composition: the figures of the Kings, companions and saints are distributed around a small Virgin under a shed supported by pilasters, above which is a choir of angels. In this work, the background landscape, inspired by real elements, a port and a city between hills, has the fantastic and terrible precision of dreamed images. Other of his panel paintings include Christ in Heaven with Four Saints and a Donor (ca. 1492, Volterra) and the Visitation (1491, Louvre), the last dated of his works.

Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, tempera on wood panel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1483, 191 x 200 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).

The Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints was originally painted for the church of San Giusto and the painting was composed in a strictly symmetrical manner. The pyramidal composition is formed by the kneeling saints at the front and the Madonna. Christ Child is depicted with his right hand raised in blessing. The archangel Michael in shining armor stands to the left while opposite him stands archangel Michael. Kneeling in the foreground are Saint Vescovo (to the left) and St. Zanobi (right). The panel is also filled with decorative accessories, such as the carpet on the steps leading up to the throne and the flower vases, elements surely influenced by Flemish works.

Adoration of the Magi, tempera on wood panel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-1488, 285 x 240 cm (Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence).

The color scheme used by Ghirlandaio in his Adoration of the Magi is impressive as he distributed the glowing colors evenly. Mary in the center wears a blue cloak over a red dress. The oldest king kneeling in front of her is wearing a variation of these colors combined with yellow. To the left of Mary, the youngest king holding the precious goblet in his hand is also dressed in blue, yellow and red. The figure standing on the right edge of the picture wearing an expensive hat also repeats this combination of colors, though now the blue and yellow are reversed. In the second figure from the right, wearing the blue hat, the Madonna’s colors of red and blue are visible again, and they are repeated in clothes of the bearded man wearing a red turban on the left edge of the picture. Between the Madonna and the man with the blue hat on the right, the artist creates a yellow highlight, though with a weaker blue accent, in the figure of Joseph. This row of figures alone produces a rhythm of color from left to right: red and blue; yellow, blue and red; red and blue; yellow and blue; red and blue; yellow, blue and red. On the left, Saint John the Baptist is kneeling and pointing to the Madonna. The orphans of the Ospedale are represented by two of the innocent boys kneeling in the foreground who were killed during the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem, a scene represented in the background at the left. St. John the Evangelist is seeing crouching on the right, while presenting one of these wounded children. The traditional ox and donkey surround the Virgin, together with St. Joseph. The hut includes an unfinished brick wall; its ceiling is supported by four columns decorated with candelabra and gilded Corinthian capitals. Above it, four angels hold a cartouche with the notes and the first words of the Gloria. In the left foreground are portraits of the donor (dressed in black), and a self portrait of Ghirlandaio, who looks towards the viewer. On the right, in the Magi procession, are three richly dressed men, which have been identified as major members of the Arte della Seta (Guild of the Silk), the main financial backer of the Hospital. Above them, the procession continues in the far background, passing under an arch. Beyond them, at the background to the right and on a hill, Ghirlandaio depicted the annunciation to the shepherds by a flying angel. Finally, in the central background with a lake landscape with ships among hills and mountains, a layman and a clerk observe the scene: they symbolize the main institutions backing the orphanage. The city in the left background is a symbolic representation of Rome, with identifiable edifices that include the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column, the Torre delle Milizie and the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. The predella accompanying this panel was painted by Bartolomeo di Giovanni, and includes episodes of the lives of the saints and of the Virgin.

Christ in Heaven with Four Saints and a Donor, tempera on wood, by Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop, ca. 1492, 308 x 199 cm (Pinacoteca Comunale, Volterra).

In Christ in Heaven with Four Saints and a Donor, Christ is depicted high in the sky with his right hand raised in blessing, enthroned on a cloud bank and surrounded by angels. The main lines defined by the folds on the garments, the contours of the figures, and their gazes all lead the observer’s eye to the figure of Christ, who crowns the composition. In the bottom right corner kneels the donor Fra Giusto Bonvicini, the abbot of a Camaldolese monastery. He is wearing the habit of the order of the so-called “white Benedictines”, an order of hermits founded by Saint Romuald. The saints worshipping Christ are arranged in a rigid symmetry. Two local female saints wearing shining red are kneeling and seen from behind, in the foreground, while the two male saints are standing like columns on either side. This painting includes one of the most successful landscapes Ghirlandaio ever painted.

Visitation, tempera on wood panel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1491, 172 x 165 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

Ghirlandaio painted the Visitation for a private chapel the Tornabuoni owned in the church of Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi. This panel’s striking feature resides in the careful and precise study of the garments. That is particularly true of the figure of Saint Mary Salome who is walking in from the right with her hands folded in prayer; wearing a classical flowing garment. On the opposite side Saint Mary Jacobi is adopting a most traditional pose, but unusually is looking out of the picture to the left. In the center of the composition we see the contrast between the youthful face of Mary and the old face of Elizabeth. The scene is set within a large classical arch and as background a landscape with a city, probably Rome as it includes a triumphal arch and the Pantheon. This painting, as other works by Ghirlandaio, is filled with precious details, like the refraction effects of light on the surfaces, the arch decorated with a frieze with pearls and shells as allusions to Mary’s purity, the light veil of the Madonna, Mary’s gilt brooch decorated with pearls and a ruby in the center as a hint to Jesus’ future Passion… The two women at the sides, Sts. Mary Jacobi and Salome, are identified by the inscriptions on the arch, their presence in the painting hints to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. On the lower right of the arch is the date MCCCCLXXXXI (1491) the year the painting was finished.

We have seen how Ghirlandaio filled without fatigue the walls of the chapels of Florence with those series of frescoes that are now so precious to us, precisely for their dual nature of secular and profane, and because they teach us how, as paganism was being renewed in customs and ideas, the Florentines were using Christian themes only as a background to develop their compositions. Artists surrendered to this new ideal with the ardor of a neophyte and in many ways they exceeded the freedom showed by the ancients before them. In this task, these artists were favored by the presence of educated maidens and matrons in those refined environments, who did not retain their spirits with scruples and fears, but instead participated in that Renaissance fervor without snobbery or petulance. Today we have abundant portraits of illustrious Florentine women of the 15th century. They are shown as wonderful people who reveal, in addition to their elegant beauty, an intelligent understanding; though none of them went down to posterity with the fame of a poet or a scholar. Ghirlandaio also painted a number of panel portraits with known sitters, such as his Profile Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (1488, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza). But perhaps his best known of his portraits is that of an Old Man and his Grandson (1490, Louvre), a remarkable work for both the tenderness of expression and the realism with which the disfigured nose of the old man was depicted. Ghirlandaio died in 1494 of “pestilential fever” and was buried in Santa Maria Novella.

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, tempera on wood panel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488, 76 x 50 cm (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid).

The Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni was created after Giovanna’s early death during childbirth and is a fine example of 15th-century Florentine portraiture. In this panel, Giovanna Tornabuoni (wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni) is idealized to the extent of becoming an “icon” of beauty for young Florentine girls. The sitter is depicted wearing a magnificent garment made of gold brocade with tight, silk sleeves. Her figure stands out, in a clear contrast of light against dark, from the black niche in the background. Giovanna also wears a valuable piece of jewelry, a necklace with a ruby in a gold setting with three silky shining pearls, hanging from her neck by a delicate cord. There is a very similar piece of jewelry placed on the shelf behind her. The red beads at the top right corner are part of a rosary, and the section that is hanging straight down emphasizes the vertical line of the sitter’s back, and at the same time directs our gaze to the closed prayer book. Between these two “pious” objects is a little note alluding to the beautiful soul of the portrayed woman by means of an epigram written by the Roman poet Martial in the first century A.D. on a white cartellino (Italian for ‘slip of paper’) on the wall: “Art, if only you could portray mores and spirit, there would be no more beautiful picture on earth”. This portrait was originally located in the camera del palcho d’oro (chamber with the golden beams) in Lorenzo Tornabuoni’s suite in his palace.

An Old Man and His Grandson, tempera on wood panel, by Domenico Ghirlandaio, ca. 1490, 62 x 46 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

An Old Man and His Grandson is one of Domenico’s best known works and its realism has been described as unique among the portraits of the Quattrocento. An extraordinary feature of the painting is the deformity of the man’s nose, evidence of rhinophyma, a medical condition. In this double portrait, Ghirlandaio succeeds not only in portraying the two figures with great tenderness, but also in conveying the deep affection between them. The boy is gently snuggling up to the old man. Their eyes meet on a diagonal: this balances the composition, and also excludes the observer from the intimate scene. The old man is sitting in the corner of a room in front of an open window showing a beautiful view of the landscape. The soft light enters through the window and lights the old man from the right and the boy from above. The same bright red color is used for the garments and cap, which produces a richness that contrasts with the gray wall behind, and makes the two figures to almost merge to form one. Here Ghirlandaio relied heavily on Flemish influences that bring to mind portraits by both Dieric Bouts and Petrus Christus. The identity of the sitters is unknown, and it cannot be stated with certainty whether they are indeed, as is supposed, grandfather and grandson. It is possible that the painting’s purpose was commemorative and that the child figure was a narrative invention intended to emphasize the man’s beneficence.

We have seen that for this people of 15th century Florence, living ahead of their times was an extremely dangerous task. In a spiritual vanguard, the most fearsome enemy is carried within. It is the nostalgia for all that has been left behind that overwhelms and weakens the march of progress. For this reason, the second great master of this generation, Sandro Botticelli, having a spirit filled with these new ideals, suffered unaffordable desires and stormy doubts. Boticelli no longer worked for popular guilds, but almost exclusively for rich and wealthy patrons, who collected his paintings in their galleries. The Medici took him under their protection, and he devoted himself entirely to executing their commissions, which sometimes represented very intimate and personal events of their lives.

But Botticelli and his art will be the focus of future essays, which will be dedicated exclusively to him. Now we will direct our attention to new artists, coming from other places outside Tuscany, who in turn spread the Renaissance art outside of Tuscany to Rome, Venice and the Adriatic provinces. It is understandable that after the appearance of an exceedingly exquisite artistic spirit and talent as that of Botticelli it was difficult to follow his path; and so these new artists had to renew their artistry with other concerns and other focuses. From neighboring Umbria, the homeland of Gentile da Fabriano and Giovanni Boccati (who followed the same aestheticism of Filippo Lippi and Botticelli though showing more refined decorative styles), will emerge the most brilliant architect of pictorial compositions of the second half of the 15th century, Piero della Francesca.