Florence day 5 (continuation 18)

The painting in the Santa Maria Novella 10/11

Domenico Ghirlandaio and the Tornabuoni Chapel 4/5

Portraits of contemporaries

Ghirlandaio ‘Angel Appearing to Zacharias’
Domenico Ghirlandaio 'Angel Appearing to Zacharias' fresco Tornabuoni Chapel

Here too, as with the story on the opposite wall of Joachim being chased out of the temple, Ghirlandaio uses this prominent and eye-catching place to portray the most important male members of the family. Vasari also mentions the following:

‘‘Besides this, to show how every kind of talent, but most particularly that of letters, flourished in that period, Domenico created four half-figures in a circle who are arguing with each other at the bottom of the scene; these figures represented the most learned men that could be found in Florence in those days, and they are as follows:

Ghirlandaio Zacharias Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Demetrius, messer Angelo Poliziano Tornabuoni

the first is Messer Marsilio Ficino, who is dressed in canonical attire; the second, wearing a red cloack and a black scarf around his neck, is Cristoforo Landino; Demetrius the Greek stands in their midst and is turning around, while the man who has slightly raised his hand is Messer Angelo Poliziano; and all of these figures are quite lifelike and lively.’

Giorgio Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’, trans. J.C. Bondanella and P.E. Bondanella, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2008, part II p. 79 (original edition 1568), p. 219.

The contemporaries are grouped into groups of three or more and do not participate in the story that takes place near the altar. In order to depict all the figures, Domenico Ghirlandaio applied a peculiar technique. On the left and right we see half-figures coming out of a room under the floor of the temple, something that doesn’t look particularly appealing. Would the patron, Giovanni Tornabuoni, at the last moment have demanded to depict these few figures?

Before Ghirlandaio started this fresco cycle, he did convincingly paint figures ascending stairs at the bottom of a picture plane for the Sassetti Chapel. If the answer to the above question turns out to be yes, then this might be an explanation for the unfortunate decision to add a few more figures.154

Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘The Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule’ c. 1485 Sassetti Chapel Santa Trinita
Domenico Ghirlandaio ‘The Confirmation of the Franciscan Rule’ c. 1485 Sassetti Chapel Santa Trinita


Ghirlandaio ‘Visitation’ 
Detail      Visitation
Ghirlandaio Visitation fresco Tornabuoni Chapel

The contract concluded between Ghirlandaio and Giovanni Tornabuoni in 1485 indicated what was to be painted: ‘human figures, buildings, castles, cities, mountains, hills, plains, rocks, costumes, animals, birds and beasts of every kind.’155

Giovanni Albizzi-Tornabuoni fresco
1488 Thyssen-Bornemisza large size
Ghirlandaio Giovanni Albizzi-Tornabuoni fresco 1488 Thyssen-Bornemisza

The story continues in the middle register. On the right we first see the birth of John the Baptist. As with the birth of Mary on the opposite wall, this event takes place in a typical Florentine interior. Here too the light enters through a painted window, while the natural light comes from the left. Elisabeth sits upright in her bed. In her left hand she is holding a book. At first glance she appears to be an ordinary woman, but an inconspicuous halo indicates that we are dealing with a saint. Behind her a young servant is handing out carafes with water and wine.

Ghirlandaio ‘The birth of John the Baptist’
Ghirlandaio 'The birth of John the Baptist' Tornabuoni Chapel fresco


Ghirlandaio 'The birth of John the Baptist' detail Tornabuoni Chapel

Ghirlandaio ‘Zacharias Writing John’s Name’
Ghirlandaio ‘Zacharias Writing John’s Name’ fresco Tornabuoni Chapel
Ghirlandaio detail fresco Zacharias Writing John’s Name and a study drawing for Zacharias Writing John’s Name
British Museum London
Ghirlandaio detail fresco 'Zacharias Writing John’s Name' detail Tornabuoni Chapel
Study drawing and detail of the fresco
Ghirlandaio studietekening Uffizi


Study after ‘Sagra del Carmine’ Masaccio
Michelangelo Study after 'Sagra del Carmine' Masaccio

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