Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel I (Santa Trinita)

Santa Trinita zoom in

photo: LivornoDP

Santa Trinita nave        Other side

photos: Larry Lemsa

1. Francesco di Tomasso Sassetti, Santa Maria Novella, and Santa Trinita

Ghirlandaio ‘Franceso Sassetti’      ‘Franceso and his son Teodoro’
Teodore       In Situ

Francesco Sassetti’s father, Tomasso, worked as a money changer in the service of the Medici. Bartolomeo and his younger brother Francesco also worked for this powerful banking family. The brothers oversaw payments for the construction of San Lorenzo and the Palazzo Medici. Francesco later moved to Avignon and Lyon, where he worked for the French branch of the Medici banks. He also worked in Genoa and Geneva. It is in the latter city where Francesco made his fortune. By 1466, he had a capital of 52,000 florins, real estate, jewels, and a large collection of Roman coins and classical manuscripts.

Ghirlandaio ‘Teodoro’

In 1458, Francesco married Nera d’Corsi, the daughter of the gonfaloniere di giustizia. Francesco was a devout and generous man. He also had a bastard son, and in his will, he stated that the brothers should treat their half-brother as an equal. Francesco and Nera had five daughters and five sons. In 1479, their luck ran out. Francesco lost a lot of money due to financial problems at the Medici banks in Brussels and London. Then, in the same year, his eldest son, Teodoro, died at the age of 19. In a letter, his associate Giovanni Tornabuoni complained about Francesco to Lorenzo de Medici. In 1484, Francesco resigned. Francesco was a typical patrician of his time, who was interested in classical antiquity. He had important humanist friends such as Poliziano, Marsilio Ficino, and Bartolomeo Fonzio (also known as Fontius). Fonzio and Poliziano advised Francesco on the decoration of his chapel.

Ghirlandaio ‘Francesco Sassetti and His Son Teodoro’ detail: Teodoro
photo: Regan Vercruysse

One year before his death in 1489, Francesco wrote in a letter to Lorenzo de Medici that he was no longer wealthy. Francesco Sassetti was buried in a dark toga, a Roman custom that was popular among Florentine humanists.

Santa Maria Novella zoom out

Santa Maria Novella facade
photos: Allan Parsons and facade: Diego Delso

Since the early fourteenth century, the Sassetti family held the rights to the high altar of the choir chapel (not the chapel itself) in Santa Maria Novella. Additionally, the Sassetti family had a burial chapel in this church, likely in a space beneath the choir. In 1324, Baro Sassetti, a Dominican monk, promised the Dominicans of Santa Maria Novella an altarpiece for the choir by the painter Ugolino da Siena. In 1429, 220 florins were bequeathed for the altarpiece. However, Baro Sassetti’s promise was never fulfilled. The Sassetti family’s rights to the high altar were temporarily suspended.

The Tornabuoni Chapel      Bottom view      Zoom in      Stained -glass window

Tornabuoni chapel Santa Maria Novella
photos chapel: Diego Delso, delso.photoPierre-Selim Huard; window: Diotime; view: Abrey82

Negotiations were necessary. On February 22, 1469, much to the dismay of the Ricci family, Francesco regained the rights not only to the high altar but to the entire choir. According to the Sassetti family chronicle from 1600 and the chronicle of monk Modesto Biliotti from 1586, the Dominicans refused to grant Francesco the rights to the choir chapel any longer. The reason for this was that Francesco wanted to have a fresco cycle of Saint Francis painted in the choir of Santa Maria Novella. A cycle of Saint Francis in the most important place, the choir, in the main church of the Dominicans in Florence was, of course, unthinkable. A cycle by Franciscus in the main location, the choir, of the Dominican church in Florence was naturally unthinkable. The actual reason why Giovanni Tornabuoni, and not Francesco, obtained the rights for the main chapel in Santa Maria Novella in October 1486 remains unclear. It’s possible that the Dominicans had more trust in the wealthier Tornabuoni family. Additionally, the Sassetti family had previously failed to fulfill a promise to provide an altarpiece for the choir.

Santa Trinita

Piazza Santa Trinita
photo: jean louis mazieres

Francesco, during the protracted negotiations with the Dominicans, sets his sights on another church for his funerary chapel. The Sassetti family owned a house on Via larga de‘legnaiuoli di S. Trinita, named after the church of the Vallombrosians located on this street: Santa Trinita. Santa Trinita was one of the most respected churches in Florence at that time, a status still evident today by the numerous chapels in this church belonging to wealthy families such as Strozzi, Davanzatie, and Spini (click here for the map and here for the scheme of the fresco cycle).

Santa Trinita Sassetti chapel

Santa Trinita Sassetti chapel
photo: Sailko

2. The Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinita

Unfortunately, the chapel was not located in the choir like the one in Santa Maria Novella, but in the right transept near the door to the sacristy (number 10 on the map). The rights to this chapel were originally held by the Petriboni family. Negotiations to acquire the chapel rights began as early as April 1478. In 1480, the purchase of the chapel was recorded in the catasto (land registry). On February 20 of the same year, the bones of the Petriboni family were removed from the chapel.

Francesco Sassetti       Nera d’Corsi

The chapel has been dedicated to Saint Francis from the very beginning. Saint Francis is the patron saint after whom the commissioner of the frescoes in the chapel was named. Additionally, the chapel is dedicated to the birth of Christ. The (damaged) inscription under the portraits of Nera d’Corsi and her husband, Francesco Sassetti, refers to the birth of Christ. A(NNO) D(OMINI) M CCCCLXXX (V) (XX) V DECEMBRIS

Ghirlandai Francesco Sassetti   

It is certain that Francesco acquired the rights to the chapel in 1480, and the work was completed in December 1485. The workshop of Ghirlandaio likely worked on the chapel sometime between 1480 and 1485. A design drawing from 1483 concerning the confirmation of the order rules has been preserved. Domenico Ghirlandaio worked in the Sistine Chapel in Rome from 1481 to May 1482. In September or October 1482, he worked in the Sala dei Gigli of the Palazzo Vecchio. On September 1, 1485, Ghirlandaio signed a contract with Giovanni Tornabuoni for a fresco cycle in the choir of Santa Maria Novella. Guild rules prevented starting a new commission before completing the old one. However, Domenico had already made design drawings for the chapel before 1480. Two of these drawings have been preserved.

Altar wall

Ghirlandaio  Altar wall Sassetti chapel
photo: jean louis mazieres

The various stories and elements, such as the tombs and the painted niches, are forged into a unity through fictive architecture. Painted classical forms such as pilasters are indeed at odds with the Gothic chapel, but this creates a clear framework for all the elements in the chapel (click here for a diagram of the frescoes and the tomb niches of the chapel).

Trial before the sultan and Funeral of St. Francis (right wall)

Ghirlandaio  Trial before the sultan Funeral of St. Francis Sassetti chapel

The history of Francis is depicted in two registers. The cycle begins at the top in the lunette on the left (south wall) with the renunciation of earthly goods. The story continues on the wall of the altar and proceeds to the lunette on the right. In the band below the lunettes, the story of Saint Francis continues, again from left to right.

Ghirlandio Nera d'Corsi Sassetti Chapel
photos: Miguel Hermoso Cuestain jean louis mazieres

Nera d’Corsi in situ

The lower part consists of an altarpiece (in situ) flanked by painted niches depicting Francesco Sassetti and his wife, Nera d’Corsi. On the right and left walls are two wall niches with sarcophagi. The altarpiece shows the birth of Christ, the adoration of the shepherds, and the journey of the three kings. Francesco and Nera kneel in adoration before the newborn. At the beginning of the 19th century, two more frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio were discovered behind the whitewash on the front of the chapel above the Gothic arch: the vision of Augustus with the Sibyl Tibur and, to the left of that, David. These two frescoes, together with the four sibyls in the vault and the altarpiece, form a vertical axis that explains the significance of the birth of Jesus for humanity. Very fitting for a funeral chapel.

Continuation Florence day 6: Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel II (Santa Trinita)