Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel III (Santa Trinita)

2.2 The Four Sibyls in the Chapel Vault

In the vaults of a chapel, it was customary to depict four evangelists, prophets, or church fathers. For instance, a few years after completing the Sassetti Chapel, Ghirlandaio painted four evangelists in the ribbed vault (bottom view) of the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella. For the first time, four sibyls are painted in the vaults of a chapel.

Ghirlandaio Sibyls in the Chapel Vault Sassetti chapel

This aligns well with the Tiburtine Sibyl: the sibyl who, along with David, foresaw the Day of Judgment. Additionally, one of Francesco Sassetti’s five daughters is named Sibilla. Three of the four sibyls hold a scroll with a text. The fourth, the only one without a headscarf, is in the process of writing a text on her scroll. As mentioned earlier, the chapel is not only dedicated to Saint Francis but also to the coming of the Redeemer. The texts of the sibyls predict the coming of the Messiah. For instance, we see the text with the Erythraean Sibyl: IN VLTIMA AVTEM ETATE, or In the final age.

Erythraean Sibyl

Ghirlandaio Erythraean Sibyl  Sassetti chapel

With the Agrippina Sibyl, the text reads INVISIBILE VERBVM PALPABITVR GERMINABIT, which can be freely translated as: The invisible truth will unfold through hard work, it will sprout. With the Cumaean Sibyl, the text reads HEC TESTE VIRGIL MAGNVS, or With this as witness, the great Virgil. This latter text is based on one of Virgil’s ten pastoral poems, the so-called Eclogues. In the fourth Eclogue, the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Golden Age are announced. The birth of a special child would herald the new era. In the Middle Ages, this was interpreted as the announcement of the birth of Christ (click here on Wikipedia for more information about the Eclogues).

Agrippina Sibyl

Ghirlandaio Agrippa Sibyl  Sassetti chapel

Thus, the words spoken by Tibur to Emperor Augustus: ‘This child, emperor, is greater than you, therefore you must worship him,’ are further elaborated on the front and upper side of the chapel with the text on the scroll of the Cumaean Sibyl in the vault. The texts that Ghirlandaio painted on the scrolls are based on a book by the Dominican: Filippo Barbieri. This monk preached in Florence in 1474 and wrote a book (multiple editions between 1481 and 1483) about sibyls with many illustrations.

The inscriptions with the sibyls that Ghirlandaio painted match exactly with the texts that Filippo Barbieri attributed to his sibyls. The texts on the scrolls of the sibyls in the vault refer to what is depicted in the altarpiece, namely the birth of the Redeemer. They do not refer to the stories of Saint Francis, which Ghirlandaio painted on the three walls of the chapel.

3. Six Stories of Saint Francis

The stories of Saint Francis were already painted in Florence in the fourteenth century by Giotto in the Bardi Chapel (click here). Taddeo Gaddi also depicted these stories on panels of the doors in the sacristy.

Benedetto da Maiano ‘Stigmatization of Saint Francis’      In situ

Benedetto da Maiano 'Stigmatization of Saint Francis' relief
photos: Sailko

About eight years before Ghirlandaio began painting in the Sassetti Chapel, the sculptor Benedetto da Maiano carved reliefs for a pulpit with stories of Saint Francis, including the stigmatization of Saint Francis (according to Wikipedia). All three of these works were created for the main church of the Franciscans in Florence: the Santa Croce.

Benedetto da Maiano Pulpit      Relief      Zoom out

Benedetto da Maiano Pulpit  Santa Croce
photos: Rufus46 en Mattana

Ghirlandaio utilized the works of Giotto and Maiano for his compositions. The reading direction of the painted events from the life of Saint Francis goes from left to right and from top to bottom. However, the sequence is not entirely chronological. For instance, on the back wall, a miracle performed by the saint after his death is depicted, while in the fresco on the adjacent right wall, the last scene shown is the funeral mass of Saint Francis (Click here for a diagram of the entire cycle with the order of the stories).

3.1 The Renunciation of Earthly Goods

In the lunette on the south wall (left), the cycle begins with Francis who has cast off his clothes. He kneels before Bishop Guido II and speaks the words: “Now I can truly say: Our Father in heaven.” Francis’s earthly father, Bernardo, stands opposite the bishop. He carries his son’s clothes over his left arm. In his right hand, he holds a belt. Ghirlandaio gratefully utilized Giotto’s fresco on the same subject. Where Giotto in his fresco in the Bardi Chapel strongly emphasizes the father’s anger, Ghirlandaio chooses a different emotional state. Bernardo does not use the belt to lash his son but seems to let it fall from his hand. While a friend restrains him, his painfully contorted face, tired eyelids, and collapsing posture speak volumes. Bernardo seems to realize that he can do nothing but resign himself to what is happening before his eyes. His son is already under the bishop’s protection.

The Renunciation of Earthly Goods

Ghirlandaio 'Renunciation of Earthly Goods' Sassetti chapel

Ghirlandaio subtly and reservedly conveys the mood of the resigning father. Unlike Ghirlandaio, Giotto’s bystanders play an active role, such as the children who angrily want to throw stones. The circle around the kneeling Francis and the figures with their backs to the viewer do lead the viewer to the central event, but the bystanders are not involved. They are, in fact, portraits of contemporaries of Francesco Sassetti.

Ghirlandaio 'Renunciation of Earthly Goods' detail: Geneva

Geneva       Zoom out

According to art historians Borsook and Offerhaus, who wrote a monograph on the Sassetti Chapel, the city in the background where the event took place is Geneva, not Arezzo. They base this, among other things, on a comparison with a painting depicting Francesco with his son Teodoro. Geneva is also seen in this work. It was the city where Sassetti made his fortune. In the lunette on the altar wall, Francis is seen again, but here he kneels not before a bishop, but before a pope.

3.2 The confirmation of the Franciscan order’s rules

Between 1480 and 1482, Ghirlandaio painted Francis and his brothers kneeling between two rows of high-ranking clergy. A third group at the bottom of the image plane ascends the steps, while one of the cardinals looks aside at the figures on the steps.

Ghirlandaio ‘Preliminary study for Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule      In situ

Ghirlandaio 'Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule'  Sassetti chapel
photo: jean louis mazieres

On the far right and left are portraits of contemporaries, including Francesco Sassetti himself. The last two groups are unaware of what is happening in the center.

Ghirlandaio 'Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule'  detail: Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio and Loggia dei Lanzi

On the background, it is a hive of activity. People are walking, sitting, or discussing with each other. Someone is leaning out of a window of the Palazzo Vecchio while people are going in and out of the Palazzo. A boy is trying to climb up the ringhieria using the rings. To the right of the Loggia dei Lanzi, a shop is open, above which we see a figure looking out of a window, and white cloths hanging outside. Just like the portrayed contemporaries in the foreground, no one notices that the pope is confirming the rules of Francis.

Ghirlandaio places the central event at the right edge of the midplane. Nevertheless, the painter manages to ensure that the confirmation is not just a minor detail. The wall behind the high clergy prevents the view to the background, as do the four cardinals in the foreground who are seen from the back. Through the facial expressions and a pointing gesture of a cardinal, the viewer’s eye is directed towards Francis and the pope. The figure ascending the steps in the foreground looks upwards. He forms a diagonal line that continues through Francis and thus directs the gaze further through his outstretched arms to the letter and Honorius III. Ghirlandaio, by the way, based the idea of the steps on a relief by Donatello in the old sacristy of San Lorenzo depicting the martyrdom of John the Baptist. This scene is considered a very good work of Ghirlandaio. It was painted by him personally.

During the restoration of the chapel between 1967 and 1968, it was discovered that the portraits were added later. This can still be seen with a strangely floating half-figure. Nowadays, an upper body without a lower body and legs can be seen next to the three sons of Francesco Sassetti on the left in the image plane. The layers of paint, applied secco, have peeled off over time, revealing the originally painted upper body of the original figure.

Ghirlandaio ‘Preliminary study for Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule’ c. 1483

Ghirlandaio 'Preliminary study for Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule
Kupferstichkabinett Staatliche Museen-Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin

The art historian Welliver discovered that Ghirlandaio changed the confirmation of the order’s rules three times. The first phase was followed by a second, and finally came the third phase. The preliminary study that has been preserved shows that the final fresco was significantly altered. In this drawing, now in Berlin, the confirmation takes place in the old St. Peter’s in Rome.

Pucci, Lorenzo de Medici, Sassetti and his son Federigo
f.l.t.r. Pucci, Lorenzo and Francesco Sassetti

The barrel vault with coffers in the church interior is based on the Basilica of Maxentius. In Ghirlandaio’s time, this basilica was thought to be the Temple of Peace. From the interior of St. Peter’s, only three arches remain in the painting. In the background, we now see Florence with the Palazzo Vecchio with the ringhiera, the Piazza della Signoria, and the Loggia dei Lanzi. There is no background in the drawing. The preliminary study also reveals that no portraits were planned. Ghirlandaio later added portraits of contemporaries. For instance, in the drawing to the left of Honorius III on the steps, there are members of the curia. They disappear in the fresco and are replaced by four standing figures.

Ghirlandaio 'Preliminary study for Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule detail: Pucci, Lorenzo, Sasseti, Frederigo

Ghirlandaio ‘Francesco Sassetti and his Son Teodoro’

The young boy is Federigo, and next to him stands his father, Francesco Sassetti. The twelve-year-old son was destined for a clerical position. Francesco hoped that he would become the prior of Santa Trinita. The third person, next to Francesco with the black hair, is Lorenzo de Medici. The old man with gray hair looking out of the fresco is a portrait of Antonio Pucci. On the left, opposite and at the same level as Francesco and Lorenzo, stand three men. Francesco points with his outstretched right hand towards his three sons. They are Francesco, Cosimo, and his eldest son, Teodoro. Ghirlandaio made a posthumous portrait of Teodoro. In the year that Francesco acquired the rights to the chapel in Santa Trinita, his eldest son died. A few months later, on March 12, 1479, his wife, Nera, gave birth to another son at an advanced age. The baby was named after his deceased brother.

The boy in the miracle of the resurrection of the notary’s son, below the confirmation of the order’s rules, is 6 or 7 years old, the same age as the youngest son, Teodoro, was at that time. In the fresco of the miracle of the resurrection of the notary’s son, Francesco’s five daughters are also depicted. Lorenzo de Medici, standing next to Francesco, also extends his hand in a calming gesture. He seems to be silencing his children, who are climbing the steps, because of the solemn event taking place.

Climbing the steps

Ghirlandaio 'Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule' detail: climbing the steps

Leading the way is Poliziano, next to him is Lorenzo’s youngest son, Giuliano. Behind them are the sons Piero and Giovanni, the boy with blond hair. When Giovanni was thirty-eight years old, he was appointed Pope Leo X. The last two figures are Matteo Franco and Luigi Pulci. There is a letter from 1485 in which Matteo describes Lorenzo’s children, whom he taught, as follows:

“Charming Giuliano was lively and as fresh as a rose. The most beautiful of the two, Piero, was like an angel, a pure beauty. Giovanni was also handsome, not very fresh in color, but lively and natural.” Cited from: Quermann, A., ‘Ghirlandaio’, Könnemann, Köln 1998 p.65

It is obvious that Francesco Sassetti had himself, his wife, sons, and daughters portrayed by the painter (in the resurrection of the notary’s son), but why Lorenzo de Medici with his three sons?

Giorgio Vasari ‘Guiliano de’ Medici’ 1533 – 1534

This is related to the turbulent years during which Francesco negotiated the rights to the chapel and the time when the frescoes were designed and painted. On April 26, 1478, in the same month that Francesco was negotiating the rights to the chapel in Santa Trinita, Giuliano de’ Medici was killed with 19 stab wounds on Sunday during the holy mass in the Florence Cathedral, in front of ten thousand churchgoers. Giuliano’s brother, Lorenzo, was wounded but managed to escape with the help of Poliziano (click here on Wikipedia for more information about the Pazzi conspiracy against the Medici). Francesco Sassetti owed his career and fortune to the Medici. In times of trouble, the Medici continued to support the Sassetti family. Naturally, during the conspiracy, Francesco sided with the Medici. By depicting Lorenzo and his sons, Francesco shows his gratitude and loyalty to the Medici.

Antonio Pucci

The old man next to Lorenzo, Antonio Pucci, played an important role in the negotiations for peace between Florence and the papal court in Rome. This peace was concluded on December 3, 1480. Two years later, the peace was celebrated, and Santa Maria della Pace was built. The Medici bank was reopened in Rome, and as a sign of goodwill, artists such as Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, and Domenico Ghirlandaio were invited from Florence to paint frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. Thus, the confirmation of the order’s rules with Florence in the background and the pope with the curia is also a reference to the recently concluded peace. Additionally, Antonio Pucci’s son was married to Francesco’s daughter, Sibilla Sassetti. Seven months after his son’s marriage, Pucci recaptured Pietrasanta shortly before his death. He received a state funeral. All the more reason to immortalize him in this fresco.

Ghirlandaio: Antonio Pucci

Niccolò di Forzore Spinelli  ‘Poliziano’ (mirror image)

Poliziano is depicted not only in the confirmation of the order’s rules but also in the funeral of Saint Francis, positioned far left in the image plane. He was a humanist, professor of Greek and Latin, and a friend of Lorenzo de Medici. He taught Lorenzo’s sons, Piero and Giovanni. Poliziano also engaged in the debate in Florence about who exactly founded the city: Sulla or Augustus? Initially, Poliziano defended that it was Sulla, but in 1480-1481 Poliziano found evidence that Augustus was the founder (Caesar founded Florence). With Augustus began a very prosperous period known as the Pax Romana. The citizens of Florence saw themselves as successors of this Roman flourishing period. Rome had declined, and the republic of Florence had taken over the torch of civilization. However, a new era is yet to come, as the Sibyl Tibur prophesied to Augustus. With the coming of the Savior, the eternal age of Christ will begin: the golden age.

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