The Life of Domenico Ghirlandaio
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449 - January 11, 1494) was a Florentine painter from the Renaissance and a contemporary of Botticelli and Filippino Lippi, head of the large and prosperous workshop. He studied with Baldovinetti and later taught Michelangelo.
His full name is given as Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi; it appears therefore that his father's surname was Curradi, and his grandfather's Bigordi. The painter is generally termed Domenico Bigordi, but some authors give him, and apparently with reason, the paternal surname Curradi. Ghirlandajo (garland-maker) was only a nickname, coming to Domenico from the employment of his father (or else of his earliest instructor), who was renowned for fashioning the metallic garlands worn by Florentine damsels; he was not, however, as some have said, the inventor of them. Tommaso was by vocation a jeweller on the Ponte Vecchio, or perhaps a broker.
Domenico, the eldest of eight children, was at first apprenticed to a jeweler or goldsmith, probably enough his own father; in his shop he was continually making portraits of the passers-by, and it was thought expedient to place him with Alessio Baldovinetti to study painting and mosaic. His youthful years were, however, entirely undistinguished, and at the age of thirty-one be had not a fixed abode of his own. This is remarkable, as immediately afterwards, from 1480 onwards to his death at a comparatively early age in 1494, he became the most proficient painter of his time, incessantly employed, and condensing into that brief period of fourteen years fully as large an amount of excellent work as any other artist that could be named; indeed, we should properly say eleven years, for nothing of his is known of a later date than 1491.
His grand works in Florence
In 1480 Ghirlandajo painted a Saint Jerome and other frescoes in the church of Ognissanti, Florence, and a life-sized Last Supper in its refectory, noticeable for individual action and expression. From 1481 to 1485 he was employed upon frescoes in the Sala dell Orologio in the Palazzo Vecchio; he painted the apotheosis of St Zenobius, a work beyond the size of life, with much architectural framework, figures of Roman heroes and other detail, striking in perspective and structural propriety. While still occupied here, he was summoned to Rome by Pope Sixtus IV to paint in the Sixtine Chapel; he went thither in 1483. In the Sixtine he executed, probably before 1484, a fresco which has few rivals in that series, Christ calling Peter and Andrew to their Apostleship, a work which, though somewhat deficient in color, has greatness of method and much excellence of finish. The landscape background, in especial, is very superior to anything to be found in the works, which had no doubt been zealously studied by Ghirlandajo, of Masaccio and others in the Brancacci Chapel. He also did some other works in Rome, now perished. Before 1485 he had likewise produced his frescoes in the chapel of S. Fina, in the Tuscan town of S. Gimignano, remarkable for grandeur and grace, two pictures of Fina, dying and dead, with some accessory work. Sebastian Mainardi assisted him in these productions in Rome and in S. Gimignano; and Ghirlandajo was so well pleased with his co-operation that he gave him his sister in marriage.
He now returned to Florence, and undertook in the church of the Trinita, and afterwards in S. Maria Novella, the works which have set the seal on his celebrity. The frescoes in the Sassetti chapel of S. Trinita are six subjects from the life of St Francis, along with some classical accessories, dated 1485. Three of the principal incidents are St Francis obtaining from Pope Honorius the approval of the Rules of his Order; his Death and Obsequies, and the Resuscitation, by the interposition of the beatified saint, of a child of the Spini family, who had been killed by falling out of a window. In the first work is a portrait of Lorenzo de Medici; and in the third the painters own likeness, which he introduced also into one of the pictures in S. Maria Novella, and in the Adoration of the Magi in the hospital of the Innocenti. The altarpiece of the Sassetti chapel, the Adoration of the Shepherds, is now in the Florentine Academy. Immediately after disposing of this commission, Ghirlandajo was asked to renew the frescoes in the choir of S. Maria Novella. This choir formed the chapel of the Ricci family, but the Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families, then much more opulent than the Ricci, undertook the cost of the restoration, under conditions, as to preserving the arms of the Ricci, which gave rise in the end to some amusing incidents of litigation. The frescoes, in the execution of which Domenico had many assistants, are in four courses along the three walls,the leading subjects being the lives of the Madonna and of the Baptist. Besides their general richness and dignity of art, these works are particularly interesting as containing many historical portraitsa method of treatment in which Ghirlandajo was preeminently skilled.
There are no less than twenty-one portraits of the Tornabuoni and Tornaquinci families; in the subject of the Angel appearing to Zacharias, those of Politian, Marsilio Ficino and others; in the Salutation of Anna and Elizabeth, the beautiful Ginevra de Benci; in the Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, Mainardi and Baldovinetti (or the latter figure may perhaps be Ghirlandajo's father).
The Ricci chapel was reopened and completed in 1490; the altarpiece, now removed from the chapel, was probably executed with the assistance of Domenico's brothers, David and Benedetto, painters of ordinary caliber; the painted window was from Domenico's own design. Other distinguished works from his hand are an altar-piece in tempera of the Virgin Adored by Sts Zenobius, Justus and others, painted for the church of St Justus, but now in the Uffizi gallery, a remarkable masterpiece; Christ in Glory with Romuald and other Saints, in the Badia of Volterra; the Adoration of the Magi, in the church of the Innocenti (already mentioned), perhaps his finest panel-picture (1488); and the Visitation, in the Louvre, bearing the latest ascertained date (1491) of all his works. Ghirlandajo did not often attempt the nude; one of his pictures of this character, Vulcan and his Assistants forging Thunderbolts, was painted for Lo Spedaletto, but (like several others specified by Vasari) it exists no longer. Two portraits by him are in the National Gallery, London. The mosaics which he produced date before 1491; one, of especial celebrity, is the Annunciation, on a portal of the cathedral of Florence.
General considerations and assessment
In general artistic attainment Ghirlandajo may fairly be regarded as exceeding all his precursors or competitors; though the names of a few, particularly Giotto, Masaccio, Lippo Lippi and Botticelli, stand higher for originating power. His scheme of composition is grand and decorous; his chiaroscuro excellent, and especially his perspectives, which he would design on a very elaborate scale by the eye alone; his color is more open to criticism, but this remark applies much less to the frescoes than the tempera-pictures, which are sometimes too broadly and crudely bright. He worked in these two methods alone never in oils; and his frescoes are what the Italian's term buon fresco, without any finishing in tempera.
A certain hardness of outline, not unlike the character of bronze sculpture, may attest his early training in metal work. He first introduced into Florentine art that mixture of the sacred and the profane which had already been practised in Siena. His types in figures of Christ, the Virgin and angels are not of the highest order; and a defect of drawing, which has been often pointed out, is the meagreness of his hands and feet. It was one of his maxims that painting is designing. Ghirlandajo was an insatiate worker, and expressed a wish that he had the entire circuit of the walls of Florence to paint upon. He told his shop-assistants not to refuse any commission that might offer, were it even for a lady's petticoat-panniers: if they would not execute such work, he would. Not that he was in any way glasping or sordid in moneymatters, as is proved by the anecdote of the readiness with which he gave up a bonus upon the stipulated price of the Ricci chapel frescoes, offered by the wealthy Tornabuoni in the first instance, but afterwards begrudged.
Vasari says that Ghirlandajo was the first to abandon in great part the use of gilding in his pictures, representing by genuine painting any objects supposed to be gilded; yet this does not hold good without some considerable exceptions the high lights of the landscape, for instance, in the Adoration of the Shepherds, now in the Florence Academy, being put in in gold. Many drawings and sketches by this painter are in the Uffizi gallery, remarkable for vigour of outline. One of the great glories of Ghirlandajo is that he gave some early art education to Michelangelo, who cannot, however, have remained with him long.
This renowned artist died of pestilential fever on the 11th of January 1494, and was buried in S. Maria Novella. He had been twice married, and left six children, three of them being sons. He had a long and honorable line of descendants, which came to a close in the 17th century, when the last members of the race entered monasteries. It is probable that Domenico died poor; he appears to have been gentle, honorable and conscientious, as well as energetically diligent.