Painters Of Florence – Domenico Ghirlandajo

THE third great master of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s age, who shared with Botticelli and Filippino in all the most important works of the day, and enjoyed the same high reputation among his fellow-citizens, was Domenico Ghirlandajo. Born in 1449, he was the son of a silk merchant named Tommaso Bigordi and began life in the shop of a goldsmith who had acquired some reputation as a maker of the gold and silver garlands commonly worn by Florentine women. To this circumstance Domenico and his younger brother David owed the nickname of ” del Ghirlandajo,” in Tuscan dialect, Ghirlandajo, by which they became generally known. Domenico early practised his hand at portrait-painting by taking drawings of the men and women whom he saw in the streets, and he soon left the goldsmith’s shop to study painting under Alessio Baldovinetti. Both his natural gifts and early training fitted him for the position which he holds as the chief of the Florentine realists. Essentially prosaic by nature, and lacking alike the artistic feeling of Sandro and the grace of Filippino, Ghirlandajo was gifted with rare facility of hand and a keen eye for all the small details of domestic life, which he reproduces with Dutch-like accuracy and minuteness. No doubt, like other Tuscan masters, he was familiar with some of the fine examples of Flemish art which had found their way to Florence, and especially with the imposing triptych by Hugo van der Goes, which Tommaso Portinari had brought back from Bruges to adorn his family chapel in S. Maria Nuova. And the natural bent of his mind led him to tread in the steps of these Northern artists and paint every vein and wrinkle in the faces of his personages, and every brooch or jewel in their robes, with the same minute realism. Ghirlandajo’s marvellous industry, as Lodovico Sforza’s envoy told his master, was another striking feature of his character. His appetite for work was insatiable, and he is said to have declared that he would like to decorate the whole circle of the walls of Florence with frescoes. As it is, the number and variety of paintings which he executed during his comparatively short Iife is amazing.

The earliest work that we have from his hand is probably the fresco of the Madonna della Misericordia, which he painted for the Vespucci on the walls of Ognissanti. After being whitewashed, in 1616, this long-lost picture was lately brought to light, and among other family portraits contains one of a youth who is said to be the famous navigator Amerigo Vespucci. In 1475, Ghirlandajo paid a visit to Rome, and we learn from recently discovered documents that he painted a fresco over the tomb of Francesco Tornabuoni’s wife in S. Maria Minerva, and was also employed with his brother David in the Library of the Vatican. No trace of their work is now in existence, but Ghirlandajo made good use of his spare time and took careful drawings of temples, pyramids, and other classical remains which he after-wards introduced in his works. In 1476, the brothers returned to Florence, and painted a Last Supper in a Vallombrosan monastery at Passignano, the wealthiest religious house in Tuscany. Here the coarse fare which the monks supplied their guests excited the wrath of David to such a pitch that this hot-headed youth rose from table, flung the soup over the brother who had prepared the meal, and seizing a big loaf of bread, struck him so violently, that the poor monk was carried to his cell more dead than alive. The abbot, who had gone to bed, was roused from sleep by the clamour, and hurried to the parlour, thinking the roof had fallen in, only to be greeted with a torrent of abuse from David, who told him that his brother was worth more than all the pigs of abbots who had ever ruled over the Abbey !

Before this visit to Rome, probably in 1474 or early in 1475, Ghirlandajo painted one of his most attractive works, the frescoes of the Chapel of Santa Fina, in the Collegiate Church of San Gimignano. The virgin Saint, who suffered all her life from incurable disease, but brought the people of San Gimignano untold blessings by her prayers and sanctity, is represented lying on her death bed and consoled by St. Gregory, who appears to her in a vision. All the details of the humble home —the kitchen table with its brass plates, glass jugs and ripe pomegranates, the window looking out on the rocks and running stream, and the rose-bushes in the garden, are lovingly reproduced, and the aged women who watch by the bedside wear the white caps and laced bodices of the peasants of the district. In the other fresco, Santa Fina lies in the last sleep, and her dead hand is lifted to heal the paralysed arm of the old nurse kneeling at her side, while a little choir-boy kisses her feet and an angel tolls the bell. The scene with all its simple details is full of pathos, and the grave priest who reads the last prayers, and the acolytes whose whole thoughts are occupied with the heavy cross and candles they bear, are closely studied from life. On this occasion Ghirlandajo was assisted by Sebastiano Mainardi, a painter of San Gimignano, who married his sister and executed many of the works ascribed to his more famous brother-in-law, both at San Gimignano and in other places.

Soon after his return to Florence Ghirlandajo married, and is described in an income-tax return of 148o as living in his father’s house, but being without a settled home, and having a wife of nineteen, named Costanza. His next works of importance were the Cenacolo and St. Jerome, which he painted in the convent and church of Ognissanti, in 1480. The aged Saint is represented seated, pen in hand, at his writing-desk, and the variegated pattern of the table-cloth, the candle, hour-glass, inkstand and scissors, and the Cardinal’s hat and water-flask on the shelf, are all exactly reproduced. The Last Supper, which the painter afterwards repeated with little variation in the smaller refectory of San Marco, is set in a Tuscan garden where ilex and laurels, orange and pomegranate trees grow up the arches of the loggia, and blue-headed peacocks and other bright-winged birds perch on the marble balustrade. In both the traditional form of composition is retained, and there is the same absence of dramatic intention and the same careful rendering of the dishes and water-bottles, the cherries and loaves of bread. The painter’s interest, we feel, lies wholly in the external aspect of the scene before him. He has no care for the deeper meanings which lie under the surface of life, or the fitful play of human passions and emotions, but is content to reproduce what is passing before his eyes as truth-fully and exactly as possible. Unlike Botticelli and Leonardo, he has no type or ideal of his own, but his realism, as Dr. Woltmann has truly said, is kept in check by a certain dignity of style which lifts his larger compositions above the common – place, and gives them an imposing air. With the single exception of a Vulcan which he painted for Lorenzo de’ Medici’s villa at Spedaletto, Ghirlandajo was entirely engaged upon sacred subjects, which in his hands became a frame for the portraits of the chief Florentine men and women of the day. His frescoes thus acquire the value of historic documents, and give us a sober and dignified, if somewhat prosaic, record of the Medicean age. In 1481, he received a commission to paint a fresco in the same hall of the Palazzo Pubblico which Botticelli, Perugino, and Filippino had been engaged to decorate. – None of these masters seem to have executed the work assigned to them, and the only fresco of the series in existence is Ghirlandajo’s Triumph of St. Zenobius, with a group of Roman warriors above and a view of the Duomo and Baptistery in the background. The progress of the work, however, was interrupted by the painter’s second visit to Rome, and the fresco remained unfinished until 1485, for in October, 1481, Ghirlandajo was summoned with Botticelli and his comrades to take part in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. During the following year he painted a Resurrection over the doorway, which has been destroyed, and the well-known fresco of the Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew. The influence of Masaccio is apparent in this carefully-arranged and well-balanced composition; the colour is clear and harmonious, and the landscape, with the wooded shores and lake of Gennesareth in the background, lends real beauty to the picture. As usual, a number of contemporary personages who take no part in the scene are introduced among the spectators on either side.

The greater part of the three years after the painter’s return to Florence was devoted to the frescoes of the history of St. Francis with which he decorated the Chapel of the Sassetti in the Trinità. These six large compositions are Ghirlandajo’s finest and most successful works. They display his consummate knowledge and mastery of the technical side of art, and show some attempt at dramatic action and expression. The artist had evidently studied Giotto’s frescoes in Santa Croce with close attention and followed the same lines, especially in the Death of St. Francis. This last subject is rendered with a realism which excited Vasari’s warmest admiration. “The careless indifference of the choristers forms a striking contrast to the grief of the weeping friars, and the mitred bishop, chanting the prayers for the dead, with spectacles on his nose, is so life-like that, but for the fact that we do not hear his voice, no one would believe him to be painted.” But in spite of the painter’s cleverness, in spite of the marked advance in every branch of art which had been made in the last century, and the rich costumes and splendid architecture with which Ghirlandajo adorns the subject, his picture lacks the supreme qualities of Giotto’s work, and we feel how far short he falls of his great forerunner.

The portraits of many of the artist’s most illustrious contemporaries are introduced in this series. Lorenzo de’ Medici, wearing a red mantle, stands on the left of Pope Honorius, in the second fresco, while Maso degli Albizzi, Palla Strozzi, Angelo Acciaiuoli, and Ghirlandajo himself, in a red cap, with his hand on his hip, all figure in the fifth subject, where St. Francis raises a dead child to life, and the bridge of the Trinità and Palazzo Spini are seen in the back-ground. Many fair maidens and handsome youths of the Sassetti family appear in this picture, and Francesco Sassetti himself, the wealthy banker who, as Lorenzo’s agent at Lyons, played a leading part in politics, is represented, together with Madonna Nera, his wife, kneeling on either side of the altar. The altar-piece of the Nativity, a tempera painting, containing an admirable portrait of the artist, who kneels by the shepherds at the manger of Bethlehem, is now in the Accademia, and bears the date of 1485. This is one of Ghirlandajo’s best works, and is full of reminiscences of his visit to Rome. Corinthian columns support the pent-house roof, a procession of the Magi passes under a triumphal arch, and a Roman sarcophagus with a Latin inscription takes the place of the manger.

Hardly had the master completed his frescoes of St. Francis, in the Trinità, than he set to work on another great series the Lives of the Baptist and of the Virgin, in the choir of Santa Maria Novella. The commission to paint the walls originally adorned by Orcagna’s ruined frescoes, was given to Ghirlandajo by Giovanni Tornabuoni the uncle of Lorenzo de’ Medici who agreed to pay the artist the sum of 2,200 gold florins, and to add another 200, if he were satisfied with the result. When, however, at the end of four years the great series was completed, Tornabuoni expressed the utmost admiration for the work, but asked the painter to be content with the sum originally proposed. Ghirlandajo, who seems to have been singularly indifferent to gain, made no objection, but afterwards his patron’s conscience reproached him for his want of liberality, and when the painter was ill at Pisa, in 1492, he sent him a gift of 100 florins. These twenty-one subjects have been much injured by damp, and restoration and the hand of inferior assistants is plainly seen in many of the best preserved portions. But as a splendid illustration of Florentine life, the whole series is of rare interest. On the one hand we have the public and official life of the Tornabuoni, their stately banquets and processions ; on the other, we catch a glimpse of their private and domestic history. In the guests seated at Herod’s feast, in the crowds who throng the temple court, we recognise the Tornabuoni and their kinsmen, the partners of the Medici bank, Gianfrancesco Ridolfi, Roderigo Sassetti and Andrea de’ Medici. On one side we have a group of famous humanists Angelo Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino and Lorenzo’s tutor, Gentile de’ Becchi ; on the other, we see the painter, with his aged father, and his brother David, and brother-in-law Sebastiano Mainardi, the assistants who helped in the decoration of the choir. Giovanna degli Albizzi, the fair maiden who, on the 16th of June, 1486, became the bride of Lorenzo Tornabuoni, is here in her stiff brocades and rich jewels, with her young sister-in-law Lodovica and many noble dames, on their way to visit the mother and new-born babe. With her we enter the chamber where the mother lies on her couch, and friends are wishing her joy, while the nurse rocks the baby, and the maids prepare its bath. We see the frieze of singing and dancing children on the wall, the elegant Renaissance columns of the loggia, and we note how, in his anxiety to display his knowledge of perspective and anatomy, the painter has introduced a naked beggar sitting on the floor, and a peasant-woman poising a basket of fruit on her head, while a perfect gale of wind blows out the skirts of the maid who pours out the water for the child’s bath.

These frescoes, which were finally completed in 1490, filled the Tornabuoni with delight and wonder, and Ghirlandajo was next employed to paint the chapel of their villa near Fiesole, which was unfortunately destroyed by floods in the next century. Many of the master’s finest tempera pictures were painted during the four years when he was at work in Santa Maria Novella. The large Coronation, at Narni, was finished in 1486, and the round Adoration, in the Uffizi, bears the date of 1487. This subject was repeated in the altar-piece of the Hospital of the Innocents, on a larger scale. Here the Coliseum and pyramid of Cestius are seen in the distance, rising amidst the domes and spires of a populous city, on the banks of a broad river, crowded with ships and barges, and Ghirlandajo’s head appears to the left of the graceful Renaissance pilaster, which supports the temple. Four angels, throned on the clouds, sing the Gloria from an open scroll, and two little white-robed Innocents, with sword-cuts in their heads, and glories round their brows, are presented to the Virgin by the Baptist and Evangelist. The Visitation, in the Louvre, was ordered by Lorenzo Tornabuoni for his chapel in the church of Cestello, and begun by the master in 1491, but evidently finished by his assistants. In the same year Ghirlandajo was chosen, together with Botticelli, to design mosaics for the Chapel of St. Zenobius in the Duomo, but the work was never executed, owing to the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici a few months afterwards. Two years before, our master had designed the mosaic of the Annunciation over one of the Cathedral doors, and took great pleasure in the work, saying that mosaic was painting for eternity. The same indefatigable energy prompted him to undertake tasks of the most varied description. Even the candelabra of the Duomo were sent to his shop to be gilded and decorated, and he told his assistants jestingly that they must never refuse an order, were it only one for the hoops of a peasant-girl’s basket.

As might be expected, Ghirlandajo painted many admirable panel-portraits, several of which are still in existence. Among the finest are those of his patron, the banker, Francesco Sassetti, with his bright-eyed boy at his side, in Mr. Benson’s collection, and the beautiful profile of Giovanna Tornabuoni, with the fair hair and red coral beads, which he painted in 1488. This bust, one of the finest Italian portraits in existence, was formerly the property of Mr. Henry Willett, who lent it to the National Gallery, but has lately been sold to a private owner in Paris. During the last year of his life, Ghirlandajo painted many altar-pieces for churches at Lucca and Pisa, and for the Camaldolese abbey of S. Giusto, which had been granted to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s son, the young Cardinal Giovanni, afterwards Pope Leo X. In 1492, he began a large picture of Christ in Glory, for a convent at Volterra, but never lived to finish it ; for in the prime of life, and in the full tide of his renown, he was suddenly struck down by mortal disease, and died of the plague in January 1494. The sad event is recorded in the following entry, which may be found in the archives of the Confraternity of St. Paul :

“Domenico de Churrado Bighordi, painter, called del Grillandaio, died on Saturday morning, on the 11th day of January, 1493 (o. s.), of a pestilential fever, and the overseers allowed no one to see the dead man, and would not have him buried by day. So he was buried in Santa Maria Novella on Saturday night after sunset, and may God forgive him ! This was a very great loss, for he was highly esteemed for his many qualities, and is universally lamented.”

Ghirlandajo was not yet forty-five at the time of his death, and had been twice married. His first wife, Costanza, died in 1485, and in the following year he married a widow of San Gimignano, Antonia di Ser Paolo. He left a family of nine children, the eldest of whom, Ridolfo, born in 1483, became a painter of some repute, and was the intimate friend of Raphael. Several of Domenico’s scholars, especially his brother-in-law Mainardi, and Francesco Granacci, were excellent artists who did good work in Florence and the neighbourhood, but they were all surpassed by an-other student who received his early training in this busy workshop, and it is the glory of Ghirlandajo to have been the first to recognise the genius of the youthful Michelangelo.


Florence.—Accademia: 66. Madonna and Child with Saints. 195. Adoration of the Shepherds.

” Uffizi: 1295. Adoration of the Magi (tondo). 1297. Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels.

” Palazzo Vecchio: ‘Frescoes—Triumph of St. Zenobius, Roman Warriors.

” San Marco, Small Refectory : Fresco — Last Supper.

” Spedale degli Innocenti : Adoration of the Magi.

” S. Maria Novella: Choir: Frescoes—Lives of the Virgin and of the Baptist.

” Ognissanti: Frescoes—S. Augustine, Madonna della Misericordia.

” Refectory : Last Supper.

San Gimignano.—S. Trinità : Frescoes—Life of St. Francis, Sibyls.

Collegiata.—Chapel of S. Fina: Frescoes—Death and Funeral of the Saint.

Lucca.—Duomo: Sacristy: Madonna and Child with Saints. Narni.—Municipia: Coronation of the Virgin. Pisa.—Gallery: Sala, VI. 2x. SS, Sebastian and Roch.

” St. Anna: Madonna and Child with Saints. Rimini.—Gallery; Three Saints and Gcd the Father.

Rome.—Vatican: Sistine Chapel: Fresco—The Calling of St. Peter and St. Andrew.

London.—National Gallery: 1299. Portrait of Youth.

” Mr Robert Benson : Francesco Sassetti and his Son.

” Mr Mond: Madonna and Child.

” Mr Salting: Madonna and Child with St. John.

Paris.—Louvre: 1321. Visitation (partly). 1322. Portraits of Old Man and Boy. M. Rudolf Kann: Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni.

N.B.—The triptych by Hugo van der Goes, and the other pictures in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, have been lately removed to the Uffizi Gallery.