Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel I

The Tornabuoni Chapel      Bottom view      Zoom in      Stained -glass window

Tornabuoni Chapel   Santa Maria Novella Ghirlandaio
photos: Diego Delso, delso.photoSelim Huard; window: Diotime; Abrey82
Ghirlandaio Self-Portrait from: Adoration of the Child Jesus’

Ghirlandaio Self-Portrait        ‘Adoration of the Child Jesus’

After painting the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinità, Ghirlandaio became the most famous painter in Florence. His work was much appreciated, especially by wealthy families, because of his beautiful and richly decorated frescoes and his portraits of contemporaries. Even the common people were enthusiastic, as Ghirlandaio placed biblical scenes in a Florentine setting. The Sassetti family had wanted to buy the rights to the main chapel in the Santa Maria Novella, but the powerful Tornabuoni family prevented them from doing so. Giovanni Tornabuoni’s sister, Lucrezia, was married to Piero de Medici and became the daughter-in-law of Cosimo Il Vecchio and the mother of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Giovanni Tornabuoni divided his life between Florence and Rome. He was the papal treasurer and headed the Medicibank in Rome. Giovanni Tornabuoni knew Domenico’s work well. He had already seen his work in the library and in the Sistine Chapel. Moreover, he had commissioned Domenico to decorate his wife’s tomb in the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The Web Gallery of Art contains many images of the Tornabuoni Chapel.

Vasari wrote about the frescoes of the Cappella Maggiore (main chapel), which had already been painted by Orcagno. The vaults were severely damaged by moisture. Many Florentines wanted to pitch in to repair the chapel. The Ricci family, who had the rights to this chapel, could not come up with the money for the repairs and a new fresco cycle. Ricci and Giovanni Tornabuoni reached an agreement whereby the Ricci’s coat of arms would be placed in a more prominent place.

An extensive contract between two painters from Florence, Domenico and David Ghirlandaio, was signed on 1 September 1485, for the attractive sum of twelve hundred ducats of gold and another two hundred, if the chapel was painted properly. The famous contract reads as if the commissioner clearly knew what he wanted. The desired subject was a repetition of the tomb in the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, but its scale would be much larger. The life of Mary and John the Baptist would become the main theme. Many details were written down in the contract: something that was unique for a contract from the quattrocento (Contract see: Cadogan, J.K., ‘Domenico Ghirlandaio Artist and Artisan,’ Yale University Press/ New Haven, London 2000 350-351; een Engelse vertaling is te vinden in: Chambers, D.S., Patrons and Artists in the Italian Renaissance’, Columbia, SC, 350 -351).

Young John the Baptist in the wilderness

Giovanni wanted to depict the four evangelists on the cross-ribbed vault against a background of azzurrino and gold. Next, the commissioner described the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin (left wall, west side) and John the Baptist (right wall, east side), which were to be painted on the side walls. In doing so, which was very unusual, he listed exactly which scenes should be depicted and where. Furthermore, the contract specifies which materials were to be used, such as azzurro ultramarino for the figures, the less precious Prussian blue for the ornaments and the so-called azzurro magno for the background. Giovanni also mentions the technique to be used by Domenico: posti in frescho. He continues, and this is highly unusual, with regard to how the stories are to be decorated; ‘figures, buildings, castles, towns, villas, mountains, hills, plains, water, rocks, robes, animals, birds and beasts’.

Domenico Ghirlandaio 'Young John the Baptist in the wilderness' Tornabuoni chapel

Vaults bottom view

photos: Diego Delso,

The fresco cycle as a whole

Connecting the history of Mary with John the Baptist was certainly not something new; there are numerous examples of this in Florence, such as in the Baroncelli and Rinuccini Chapel in the Santa Croce, respectively by Taddeo Gaddi and Giovanni di Milano, and also Orcagna’s altarpiece in the Orsanmichele. The scheme of the cycle may well have been copied from a canvas hanging in front of the main altar: the so-called paliotto (altar cover). Both the paliotto and the painted frescoes show exactly the same scenes from the life of Mary.

The life of John is often depicted in Florence, more often than that of Mary, for John the Baptist, after all, was the city’s saint. Examples include: the Peruzzi Chapel with the frescoes by Giotto (Santa Croce), the doors of the Baptistery (Andrea Pisano) and the silver altarpiece for the Baptistery.

The Tornabuoni Chapel      Bottom view      Zoom in      Stained -glass window
Scheme fresco cycle

Tornabuoni Chapel   Santa Maria Novella Ghirlandaio
photos: Diego Delso, delso.photoSelim Huard; window: Diotime; view: Abrey82


Three gothic windows

On the left wall, the stories of Mary are depicted and on the opposite wall, the stories of John the Baptist. The Web Gallery of Art has good images (the left wall the right wall and the back wall with the vaults) and indicates the correct order, in numbers from one to seven. The reading direction, when entering the chapel, is from front to back and from bottom to top (map and scheme of the fresco cycle). On the bottom, where visitors can see the frescoes at eye level, the stories are painted in more detail. This is where Domenico himself took up the brush. The paintings in the second, but mainly in the third band are less refined. In addition, there are more landscapes to be seen here. At this height, the painting was carried out by many hands. Not a single scene is connected to another. However, there is one exception to this rule: the two portraits of the patron and his wife on the back wall, next to the three large windows. Each wall reads as an independent whole and both are equally important. The side walls are not connected to each other. The whole structure of the fresco cycle is carefully thought out. The natural incidence of light through the three large windows in the rear wall has been taken into account. The scenes on the left wall show light coming from the right while those on the right wall show light coming from the left, just as the real light falls through the three gothic windows in the chapel. 

The painted architectural framework creates a clear structure for the different stories and consists of classic details covered with rich material, such as gold leaf for the pilasters to suggest inlays of mosaic. Fictitious architecture is also painted in the ribs, including egg-and-dart moulding. Ghirlandaio painted many classical monuments in various scenes. For this, he used the drawings in his sketchbook that he had made during his stay in Rome from 1481-1482 (Studie Architecture verso; The Morgan Library & Museum).

Painted Renaissance architecture dominates this Gothic church. Each scene forms an independent pictorial reality that is closely attuned to the viewer. The painted pilasters and capitals actually appear to protrude from the picture, while the cornice seems to fall backwards slightly. Ghirlandaio enlarged the figures in the upper scenes: from one hundred and sixty centimetres at the bottom, to two hundred and forty in the lunettes. This was quite necessary considering the distance between the viewer and these frescoes. Most stories are depicted in a central perspective. As a viewer, you need to keep moving if you want to see each and every story properly. Only the scenes at the back wall are unified through a shared perspective.

The birth of the Virgin

Ghirlandaio 'The birth of the Virgin' Tornanbuoni chapel

Much has been written about the abundance of architecture and ornaments as if they were excessive and too much. All of these details were considered confusing and would divert attention away from the story, according to the critics. The meticulousness in the painting of architecture can also be seen in the clothing, furniture and other household items.

Pleasant views and trifles for the viewer. However, these elaborate realistic details serve an important function in Domenico’s painted story. In his book ‘The Pictura’, Alberti writes the following about this:

“The first thing that evokes delight in a representation is the abundance and variety of details. Just as in food and music, new things and abundance please us for various reasons, but mainly because they are different from the old ones we are accustomed to, so the mind takes great pleasure in variety and abundance. Therefore, in a painting, the variety of bodies and colors is pleasing. I would call a representation very abundant if, in the right places, old men, mature men, youths, children, mothers, girls, babies, cattle, dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings, and activities are present together; I will praise every abundance as long as it is in line with the subject. Because it is true that when the spectators stop to observe the details, the abundance of the painter receives appreciation. I would like this abundance to be adorned with some variety, but serious and tempered by dignity and truth. I disapprove of painters [like Gentile da Fabriano] who, just to appear abundant or not to leave any spot empty, do not follow any composition but scatter everything disorderly, making the representation not accomplish any action but seem to be in complete confusion.” Cited and translated from: Alberti, L.B., ‘Over de schilderkunst,’ (vertaling Lex Hermans, Inleiding en annotaties Caroline van Eck en Robert Zwijnenberg) Boom, Amsterdam Meppel 1996 blz. 107

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Adoration of the Magie’ 1423 Uffizi

Gentile da Fabriano ‘Adoration of the Magie'

Ghirlandaio has followed Alberti’s advice perfectly. A striking detail is not only pleasant, but it also identifies the main characters of the action and situates the story in time and space. Therefore, it must be clearly recognizable. There is no disorder or chaos in Ghirlandaio’s work.

Continuation Florence day 5: Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni chapel II