The painting in the Santa Maria Novella 7/11

Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni Chapel 1/5

The chapel, the Tornabuonis and the contract

After painting the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinità, Ghirlandaio became the most famous painter in Florence.138 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. The Web Gallery of Art contains many images of the Tornabuoni Chapel.

Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita
Domenico Ghirlandaio Sassetti Chapel in the Santa Trinita

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.

Vasari wrote about the frescoes of the Cappella Maggiore (main chapel), which had already been painted by Orcagno.139 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.140

Nave Santa Maria Novella Tornabuoni Chapel or Cappella Maggiore
Nave Santa Maria Novella Tornabuoni Chapel or Cappella Maggiore


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’.

Cross-ribbed vault
Ghirlandaio Tornabuoni Chapel Cross-ribbed vault

photo: f_snarfel

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.141

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 (Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).

Tornabuoni Chapel or the Cappella Maggiore
Tornabuoni Chapel or the Cappella Maggiore Santa Maria Novella

photo (mouseover): jean louis mazieres

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.142 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.                  

Ghirlandaio ‘Giovanni Tornabuoni’
rear wall   
  Ghirlandaio ‘Francesca Pitti-Tornabuoni’
rear wall   
Ghirlandaio 'Giovanni Tornabuoni' rear wall   Ghirlandaio   Ghirlandaio 'Francesca Pitti-Tornabuoni' rear wall    Tornabuoni 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.

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.143 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.

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.

Ghirlandaio ‘The Birth of Maria’  Tornabuoni Chapel
Ghirlandaio 'The Birth of Maria'  Tornabuoni Chapel

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 gives pleasure in a ‘historia’ [a narrative or historical painting] is a plentiful variety. Just as with food and music, novel and extraordinary things delight us for various reasons but especially because they are different from the old ones we are used to, so with everything the mind takes great pleasure in variety and abundance. So, in painting, variety of bodies and colours is pleasing. I would say a picture was richly varied if it contained a properly arranged mixture of old men, youths, boys, matrons, maidens, children, domestic animals, dogs, birds, horses, sheep, buildings and provinces; and I would praise any great variety, provided it is appropriate to what is going on in the picture. When the spectators dwell on observing all the details, then the painter’s richness will acquire favour. But I would have this abundance not only furnished with variety, but restrained and full of dignity and modesty.’

Gentile da Fabriano ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ detail 1423 Uffizi
Gentile da Fabriano 'The Adoration of the Magi' detail 1423 Uffizi

‘I disapprove of those painters [Gentile da Fabriano] who, in their desire to appear rich or to leave no space empty, follow no system of composition, but scatter everything about in random confusion with the result that their ‘historia’ does not appear to be doing anything but merely to be in a turmoil.’

Leon Battista Alberti, ‘On Painting’, trans. Cecil Grayson, Penguin Books, London 1991, book 2, 40, pp. 75 (original edition 1435).

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.

Seven stories of the Virgin on the left wall

The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple

The story of the life of Mary starts, as soon as you enter the chapel, at the bottom of the wall on the left. Here the sacrifice that Mary’s father, Joachim, wanted to make is refused. He is expelled from the temple by the priest. Ghirlandaio depicts only one story from before Mary was born. So there is no Annunciation, which is unusual. Ghirlandaio probably used only one story of Mary’s mother and father because, according to the contract, Giovanni Tornabuoni originally wanted to start with Mary’s birth. Later on, he added the expulsion of Joachim from the temple. Presumably there was just no room for more stories of Joachim and Anna, because the other scenes were already determined. Ghirlandaio manages to niftily add a second story of Joachim and Anna: the Birth of Mary. Ghirlandaio does not depict two, but only one story within a single frame. It was common to show the Expulsion from the Temple and the Annunciation, just as Taddeo Gaddi had done in the Baroncelli Chapel. Ghirlandaio painted only one scene, in order not to affect the readability of the story. In this way, he adopted an efficient and clear method of storytelling that is strongly reminiscent of Giotto’s approach.144

The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple
Ghirlandaio 'The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple' Tornabuoni chapel

The opening scene, on the right wall in the story of John the Baptist, starts with the Annunciation: the angel visits Zechariah (below right when entering the main chapel). Both opposite frescoes, ‘The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ and ‘The Annunciation to Zechariah’, have quite a lot in common, such as a temple and its predominantly male spectators. The latter in contrast to ‘The Birth’ and ‘The Visitation’.

Ghirlandaio ‘The Annunciation to Zechariah’ Tornabuoni Chapel
Ghirlandaio 'The Annunciation to Zechariah' Tornabuoni Chapel

photo: jean louis mazieres

Wouldn’t it have made more sense to depict a Joachim’s Annunciation as a counterpart to Zechariah’s Annunciation? Certainly, however, it was common to start a cycle about the life of Mary with the expulsion from the temple.145 The fresco ‘The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple’ depicts four figures on the left. The old man with the red cap is Domenico’s teacher: Alesso Baldovinetti. Domenico is looking at you. To the far left, the man with a little red cap, is Domenico’s brother: David. The boy on the right, without headgear, is a pupil and brother-in-law of Domenico: Bastiano da San Gimignano (Sebastiano Mainardi). The attribution of Vasari to David and Domenico Ghirlandaio is generally accepted, but this does not apply to the old man, who is said to be Alesso Baldovinetti. This old man could also be Domenico’s father, Tomasso Bigordi. Moreover, the identification of the young man on the right without headgear is not undisputed either. Is he the son-in-law, Mainardi, or Domenico’s younger brother: Benedetto Ghirlandaio? Either way, it is certain that Domenico has portrayed himself surrounded by family.146

The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple detail
Ghirlandaio The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple detail Tornabuoni Chapel

Domenico and David are not depicted as passive spectators, which is very unusual. David raises his hand in response to the expulsion of Joachim. However, on the left, the other group of spectators is passive. The man in the left group watching the viewer is Lorenzo di Giovanni Tornabuoni, the son of the commissioner of the fresco cycle. It is for good reason that he is positioned at the bottom of the picture plane, close to the viewer. Moreover, this is the first fresco of the cycle of Mary’s life that the viewer sees when he enters the chapel. The folds of Lorenzo’s cloak underline the passive postures, in contrast to the cloaks of Domenico and David. The poses of Lorenzo and Domenico have much in common. Both seem to evoke the viewer to take a closer look at the story. A recommendation already made by Alberti in his book on painting.

According to the thesis by Cadogan, who wrote a monograph on Domenico Ghirlandaio, Domenico refers to his talent as a painter and Tornabuoni refers to the money he donated to this chapel. The Santa Maria Novella, a Dominican church, was the parish of Tornabuoni and Ghirlandaio. Domenico himself was named after Saint Dominic. If the above assumption is correct, then Domenico and his family put themselves on an equal footing with the patron.

Not only the depicted spectators in the scenes are contemporary and from Florence, this also applies to the architecture. A loggia has been painted in the background outside the temple, where the priest does accept someone else’s sacrifice. The medallions in the spandrels are reminiscent of the Ospedale degli Innocenti and the Spedali, which is located opposite Santa Maria Novella. After Ghirlandaio had completed this fresco cycle, the Ospedale di San Paolo was built (1489-1498); the building you see as you leave the Santa Maria Novella.

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