Ghirlandaio and the Sassetti chapel V (Santa Trinita)

3.5 The Resurrection of the Notary’s Son

The miracle of the resurrection performed by Francis is a relatively rare subject. Moreover, this theme breaks the chronology of the cycle, as Francis performed this miracle after his death. In the adjacent and final fresco about Francis, his requiem mass is depicted.

Ghirlandaio ‘The Resurrection of the Notary’s Son’      In situ

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son'  Sassetti chapel

Two drawings have been preserved. These are preliminary studies planned for the back wall (Rosenauer. A., ‘Ein nicht zur Ausführung gelangter Entwurf Domenico Ghirlandaios für die Cappella Sassetti.’ Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 25 (1972), pp. 187-96). In these sketches, it is not the resurrection of the notary’s son that is depicted, but Francis (recto) appearing to his brothers in Arles (verso) and showing his stigmata. Giotto painted the same theme in the Bardi Chapel of Santa Croce. The appearance fits perfectly with the two other adjacent frescoes. On the left, the stigmata with Francis in the posture of a crucified. On the right, finally, the death, with the physician and scholar Jerome checking if the stigmata of Francis are real. This illustrates Francis’ ideal of living as Christ did. On the front (recto) of the sheet with the drawings, the appearance of Francis taking place in a church is depicted. On the back (verso), the measurements ‘5 ¼ braccia’ are written. This happens to be exactly the height where the current fresco on the altar wall begins. Not only the measurements are indicated, but there is also a square drawn in the background. In the resurrection of the notary’s son, a square is also depicted, namely the Piazza Santa Trinita.

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son' detail bier Sassetti chapel
photo: Frans Vandewalle

However, the story of the resurrection in the Legenda Aurea takes place in Rome at the Piazza San Marco. Why did Ghirlandaio not paint the appearance of Francis and why is the miracle of the resurrection set not in Rome, but in Florence? The reasons lie in a tragic event in the life of the Sassetti family. The eldest son of Francesco and Nera, Teodoro, died at the end of 1478 or the beginning of 1479. A few months later, on March 12, 1479, a son was born. As was customary at that time, he was named after his deceased brother. Considering Nera’s age, it was unlikely that she would have another child. Just at the time when Francesco was negotiating the rights to the chapel, God showed him and his wife mercy after their great loss by the birth of a new son. This is the reason for choosing the miracle performed by Saint Francis, Francesco’s patron saint, in which he resurrected a dead boy. Chroniclers from Florence mention that the chapel was painted because of a vow made by Francesco Sassetti. Although the exact reason is not known, it may be related to the death of his eldest and the birth of his youngest son. The age of the boy Ghirlandaio painted on the bier is about six years old, the same age as the youngest son, Teodoro, at the time this scene was painted.

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son' detail: boy falls out window

A small boy falls out of the window

“In the city of Rome, a small boy fell from the window of a mansion and died on the spot. Saint Francis was invoked and immediately the boy came back to life” Cited and translated from ‘Jacobus de Voragaine De hand van God De mooiste Heiligenlevens uit de Legenda Aurea’Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep, Amsterdam 2006 blz. 256

In the background by the Palazzo Spini, a boy falls from the window with a red ball in front of him. A man comes running, attempting to catch the boy. A woman, probably the mother, comes out of the door. Some bystanders watch the unfortunate fall, which will be fatal.

The idea to depict not Rome, but Florence and specifically the Piazza Santa Trinita with the church after which the square is named, is therefore obvious. This way, the miracle of the resurrection also refers to the death and birth of their eldest and youngest son.

In the middle of the image, the bier is depicted. On the right, the old Romanesque facade of the Santa Trinita before 1593 can be seen. Monks come out of the church to accompany the dead to his grave. In front of and to the right of the bier, two Franciscans are kneeling. They pray, look to the heavens, and ask Francis to bring the dead son back to life. According to the legend, the Franciscan Pao, a well-known preacher in Rome, asked the boy’s father if he believed that Francis could bring his son back to life. The father answered yes. He had to promise to become a faithful servant of the saint and to make a pilgrimage.

Above, we see that the prayer of the two monks is answered. Francis appears wrapped in rays of light and makes a blessing gesture towards the boy on the bier. Ghirlandaio captures the moment just as the boy has come back to life. In the background, near the Ponte Santa Trinita, everyday life continues as usual. For instance, there are two men sawing a beam.

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son' detail: Francis

Romanesque facade of the Santa Trinita and the Ponte Santa Trinita      Zoom out

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son'  detail: Church Ponte San Trinita

Antonio Jolie ‘Ponte Santa Trinita’ Left palazzo Spini with battlements 18th century

Antonio Jolie ‘Ponte Santa Trinita’ Left palazzo Spini with battlements

A figure leans over the bridge, looking at the Arno, while pedestrians and a man on horseback cross the bridge. Here, no one notices the miraculous event. Vasari elaborates extensively on the fresco cycle in the Sassetti Chapel. About the resurrection, he writes the following:

“[…] and then he acquired particularly great fame by, under commission from Francesco Sassetti, decorating a chapel in the Santa Trinita with scenes from the life of Saint Francis, a work admirably executed, graceful, meticulous, and lovingly crafted by him. On the first wall [altar wall], where he painted the story of Saint Francis appearing in the sky and reviving the boy from death, Domenico depicted the bridge at the Santa Trinita and represented the Palazzo Spini. Among the women witnessing the resurrection, one can see both their sorrow for the dead boy they are carrying to the grave and their joy and astonishment when he comes back to life. Domenico painted the friars, along with the gravediggers, coming out of the church following the cross to bury the child, very realistically done, as well as other figures who are amazed at what is happening here, while others are quite rejoicing. Among these, there are portraits of Maso degli Albizzi, Messer Agnolo Acciaiuoli, and Messer Palla Strozzi, prominent citizens frequently mentioned in the histories of this city.” Cited and translated from: Giorgio Vasari ‘De Levens van de grootste schilders, beeldhouwers en architecten Van Cimabue tot Giorgione, Contact, Amsterdam 1990 (oorspronkelijke uitgave 1568) Deel I Leven van Domenico Ghirlandaio blz. 247                     

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son'  detail: frairs gravediggers church

Since Vasari used the words: ‘the Palazzo Spini’ in his description, this fresco was called ‘The Resurrection of a Child from the House of Spini.’ For a long time, people searched for a miracle that could be associated with the Spini family. Only in 1971 and 1981 did art historians Rosenauer, Borsook, and Offerhaus discover that it was about the story of the notary’s son as described in the Legenda Aurea and that it took place in Rome.

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son'  detail: Nera d' Corsi

Nera d’Corsi and her son Teodoro

The veiled woman with outstretched hands bending over the bier is Nera d’Corsi. Her face does not show the grief seen in the young kneeling woman behind her. Nera’s face and posture express ambivalent feelings: sorrow, but also surprise that the boy is coming back to life. She must have been thinking of the death of her eldest and the birth of her youngest son. Is this what Vasari meant when he wrote: “one sees both their sorrow for the dead whom they are carrying to the grave, and their joy and astonishment when he comes back to life”?

As in the fresco in the lunette above, this scene also features many portraits. The three “distinguished citizens” mentioned by Vasari are likely the three men standing close to the bier. On the left are the five daughters of Francesco and Nera with their fiancés and sons-in-law. The woman in the black cloak with a veil on the left is probably Sibilla. Like her mother, she is dressed in black, positioned in the niche below the altarpiece. She was married to Antonio Pucci. The Erythraean Sibyl in the vault is also a portrait of her. Next to Sibilla is the face of Violante, who is also veiled. She was married to Neri Capponi.

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son'  detail: Portraits Len Lisbetta

The woman with folded hands is Lisbetta. The youngest daughter, Lena, looks out from the fresco, and the kneeling woman next to her is her sister Vaggia.

Portraits group right

On the far right of the image, Ghirlandaio has painted himself. He looks out from the fresco. Next to him stands his brother-in-law and painter Sebastiano Mainardi. Both are standing in front of the door of the Palazzo Sassetti. Sebastiano assisted with the painting work in the Sassetti chapel. The figure with the bald head next to Domenico Ghirlandaio is a posthumous portrait of Neri di Gino Capponi, who died in 1457. Capponi had a huge reputation as the hero of the Battle of Anghiari. Fonzio, a friend of Francesco Sassetti who conceived the epitaphs on the tombs, wrote a short biography of Capponi. His grandson and namesake was married to Violante, the daughter of Francesco and Nera. Capponi’s palace can be seen in the fresco, on the right across from the Ponte Santa Trinita. The other four figures standing next to Capponi are presumably the fathers of the sons-in-law or fiancés.

Ghirlandaio 'The Resurrection of the Notary's Son'  portret: Ghirlandaio self-portrait Sebastiano  Mainardi

For the composition and some figures, Domenico Ghirlandaio drew inspiration from the work of painter Masaccio and sculptor Benedetto da Maiano. Ghirlandaio collaborated with Maiano in the Fina Chapel of the Collegiata in San Gimignano (Wikipedia). The back figure, Capponi, and Ghirlandaio’s self-portrait were taken from Masaccio’s “sagra” (Masaccio’s Sagra reconstrucion and Wikipedia It). The sagra was a festive procession held in the square in front of Santa Maria del Carmine. Famous artists such as Masaccio, Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Masolino participated in it. Masaccio immortalized this procession in the cloister above the door leading to the convent. According to Vasari, this was the source for the later portraits in the Brancacci Chapel and later also for the portraits of Capponi and Ghirlandaio in the Sassetti Chapel. The sagra in terra verde (green colors) was destroyed in the seventeenth century, though drawings based on the sagra still remain.

The boy on the bier, the bent-over mother, and the appearance of Saint Francis are based on a relief from the altar with a tomb that Benedetto da Maiano completed in 1477 in the Fina Chapel. Ghirlandaio painted a fresco cycle about Saint Fina in the same chapel (Click here at Web Gallery of Art for the Fina Chapel). Additionally, Ghirlandaio was familiar with the reliefs on the pulpit in Santa Croce, including the depiction of the burial of Saint Francis (in situ).

The altar is no longer original. In 1743, the altarpiece was replaced by a Pietà by Vittorio Barbieri. In 1920, the altarpiece was returned to its original location, but unfortunately, the altar was approximately thirty centimeters higher than the original. This disrupts the composition of the back wall. Ghirlandaio had composed the scene of the resurrection in alignment with the lower part of the altar wall. The kneeling woman and the two Franciscans in the resurrection scene harmoniously connect with the kneeling Nera and Francesco in the painted niches below. The lower part of the resurrection itself is no longer visible; it is hidden behind the altarpiece. As a result, an important motif has often been overlooked by researchers. Under the bier and now partly hidden behind the altarpiece, a sarcophagus is painted. This combination of sarcophagus and altarpiece is unusual and is based on the altar tomb by Benedetto da Maiano in the Fina Chapel. The figure in the white garment between the sarcophagus and the bier, and the strongly foreshortened face behind the bier, also in white, resemble mourners. The front figure in the white garment appears to resemble Lazarus. A possible link between the resurrection of the notary’s son, the death of the eldest son, and the birth of the youngest son of Sassetti? Still, the two figures in white remain puzzling, and a truly convincing explanation has yet to be found. The next and final story about Francis concerns his death.

3.6 The Funeral of Francis

Ghirlandaio ‘The funeral of St. Francis’

Ghirlandaio 'The funeral of St. Francis' Sassetti chapel

Vasari describes the final act as follows: “And finally, he depicted how the deceased Saint Francis is mourned by the friars, and one can see a friar kissing his hand; this last detail could not be better expressed in painting, and moreover, there is a bishop who, in full vestments and with glasses on his nose, is singing the vigil, and only because he is not heard is it clear that he is painted.” The requiem mass takes place in a church; there is a view of a landscape in the background. In the funeral of Francis, Ghirlandaio creates significantly more depth than Benedetto in his relief on the pulpit (Santa Croce) on the same subject. Two young deacons with a holy water vessel and an incense burner accompany the bishop who is “singing the vigil.”

Ghirlandaio 'The funeral of St. Francis' detail: Bishop

The bishop wearing glasses was particularly remarkable for that time. Vasari does not fail to mention this in his description. At the foot of the bier, three choirboys stand. The outer two each carry a candle, and the middle one holds up a stick with a cross on it. Behind and in front of the bier are Franciscans. Four of them kneel, each expressing their grief in their own way, their faces contorted with sorrow. The face of the deceased is very realistic. Francis looks pale, and his mouth is slightly open, with the lower lip slid down so that some of his teeth are still visible. The physician and scholar, Jerome, stands behind the bier, bending over the deceased. He studies the side wound to see if it is indeed one of the stigmata. The physician’s assistant stands behind Jerome. The Franciscan next to the physician, judging by his raised right hand, seems to find nothing. This effectively portrays emotions such as curiosity, the desire for certainty, and annoyance at the desecration of the dead. By placing three figures in a row with the scholar in front, Ghirlandaio beautifully creates more depth in the scene.

Outside the circle around the bier, we see portraits of contemporaries on both sides again. They do not seem to share in the grief of the people around the deceased. The two figures on the far left are Poliziano in the red cloak and next to him, Fonzio. The three portraits on the right are possibly Francesco Sassetti with his eldest son Teodoro and his youngest son. However, there is no concrete evidence for this. It is known, though, that the young boy was painted a secco over a previously painted figure. Ghirlandaio, by the way, forgot to give the boy two legs. Death also plays an important role in the altarpiece, although the birth of the child occupies a central place.

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