Ghirlandajo (DOMENICO DI TOMMASO BIGORDI), a famous Florentine painter; b. 1449; d. January 11 1494. His father, Tommaso di Curradi Bigordi, is spoken of as a dealer (sensale) in jeweler. According to Vasari he owes his surname Ghirlandajo, i.e. the “Garland-maker”, to a branch of his trade of which he made a specialty, namely, the manufacture of silver or gold crowns or diadems, which formed a kind of headdress affected by the young women of Florence. Like Verrocchio and the Pollaiuoli, Domenico began as a gold-smith. There existed once in the Florentine church of the Annunziata silver ex-votos and lamps of his workmanship, destroyed during the sack of 1530.
Traces of his early training in the goldsmith’s art are recognizable in the splendor of his ornamental decoration, the carvings of his pilasters, also in his friezes and the garlands with which he adorns his work. Artistic ability seems to have run in the family, for Domenico had two brothers, slightly younger than himself, David and Benedetto, his collaborators in nearly all his great works. Together with their brother-in-law, Mainardi, who had married their sister Alessandra, the three Ghirlandajos conducted in their day, under the name and leadership of Domenico, the principal atelier of Florence for the production of works of art. Domenicos master was that singularly distinguished collector and antiquary, Alessio Baldovinetti (1427-1499). By more than one characteristic, e.g. his straining after realism, his anxiety for a perfect expression of life, his taste for analysis, and his technical skill in the use of colors, Alessio was a precursor of Leonardo da Vinci. Domenico was much less impulsive and more fully master of himself, but he assuredly owed Alessio his success in fresco, in which many think him the most perfect painter of his age.
Ghirlandajo’s earliest works, e.g. the frescoes of St. Andrea Brozzi, and those in the Vespucci chapel (discovered in 1898) of the church of Ognissanti at Florence, date perhaps from 1472 or 1473, and as yet exhibit little individuality. His “Descent from the Cross”, executed when the artist was twenty-three years of age, is disfigured by the coarse realism of Castagno. His “Virgin Most Pitiful” (Vergine della Misericordia) follows yet the medieval conventionalism, but is remarkable for the beauty of its portraits, in which line Ghirlandajo always excelled. Henceforth his artistic genius seems to have taken a definite form and to have changed but little in its development. There was little time for anything except the regular pursuit of his work in the life of this tireless artist. His enormous output covers a space of little more than fifteen years (1475-1491), and owing to its steady progress can scarcely be divided into periods. Untroubled by passion or conflict his genius grew and expanded like a flower. Though one of the most accomplished artists of the fifteenth century, his life exhibits none of the troubles, complex situations, or contradictions that meet us in the stormy life of Botticelli. The first characteristic work of the young master was executed when he was twenty-five (1475), in the collegiate church of San Gimignano. He drew his inspiration from the life of Santa Fina, a maiden of that city who died in the odor of sanctity, March 12, 1254 (de’ Medici, “Vitadi Santa Fina”, Siena, 1781), to whose memory a chapel had recently been erected (1468) by Giuliano and Benedetto da Majano. The two scenes treated by the artist, the “Vision” of the Saint and her “Burial”, exhibit all the elements of his future great work. The first scene is on a large scale, is treated with much taste and in as familiar a manner as was permitted to an Italian artist. In the “Burial” of the Saint something more personal appeals to us. The simple local event, the mere absolution pronounced over the remains of a modest village maiden, is magnified and elevated to a lofty and powerful significance, in the treatment of the assembled multitude. It is no longer an ordinary burial; the entire city, represented by its clergy, magistrates, and citizens, assists at the function, while the beautiful towers of San Gimignano are shown as decoration of the background. In reality what he seeks to put before us is an entire society harmoniously grouped; the picture is a serene portrayal of national life and a triumph of national sentiment. Of a short journey to Rome about this time we possess no accurate information; the artist returned to Florence to paint the fresco of the “Las Supper” in the refectory of the same convent (1480). This very noble composition is the most idealistic of the artist’s works, the only one in which he deals with abstract concepts and does not depict contemporary life.
The series of his great works began with a second journey to Rome. From October 27, 1481, to March 15, 1482, the artist was at work in the Sistine Chapel. In these six months he painted six portraits of popes and two large frescoes, the “Resurrection” (over which, in the sixteenth century, a mediocre Flemish work was painted), and the “Call of the Apostles“. The latter, with Perugino’s “Giving of the Keys to St. Peter”, is yet the chief masterpiece of that period of Sistine decoration. On his way back to Florence, he painted an “Annunciation” (1482) at San Gimignano. The remainder of his life seems to have been passed at Florence, where three great undertakings absorbed his activity. From 1482 to 1484, he executed at the Palazzo della Signoria the “Maesty di San Zenobio” and the noble figures of Roman statesmen, modeled after those of Taddeo di Bartolo in the Palazzo Publico of Siena. Of all the frescoes which made this town-hall of Florence the worthy companion of the Sistine Chapel, only those of Ghirlandajo have been preserved. In 1485, he completed in the Sassetti chapel at the Trinity six frescoes illustrative of the “Life of St. Francis”. They were not finished when he received the order for his greatest work, the fifteen frescoes of the “Life of St. John the Baptist” and the “Life of the Virgin” which adorn the Tornabuoni chapel in Santa Maria Novella. These paintings, finished in 1490, are rightfully numbered among the most celebrated in Florence. They are Ghirlandajo’s most popular work, and are reckoned among the greatest Italian masterpieces. Their merit is not owing to the subject. Dramatic emotion is entirely absent. Never did an artist, not even Michelangelo in his incident from the Pisan war, his tombs of the Medicis, permit himself such liberties with his ostensible subject; or presume in the face of all tradition and probability to substitute arbitrarily a subject chosen in conformity with his own tastes and preferences. Only rarely, and in uninteresting traits, does Ghirlandajo force himself to serious conformity with the conventional treatment of his subject.
As a rule Ghirlandajo avoids representing movement. His calm and clear imagination, well-ordered and harmonious, is better adapted to depicting neutral gestures and attitudes nearly always borrowed from daily life. In most of his scenes and the most beautiful, e.g. the “Nativity of the Virgin” or the “Visitation”, the historical motif and the actual event are of no moment. The gospel theme is reduced to a minimum, and becomes a mere pretext for a great and magnificently conceived “tableau de mceurs”, or representation of contemporary life. The beautiful everywhere diffused, reality in its highest forms, the artistic setting of things, daily life with its infinite variety of subjects, constitute the inexhaustible, charm of these marvelous scenes, in which one must not seek depth, emotion, or poetry. No one ever conceived the life about him under such graceful and noble forms as Ghirlandajo. Devoid of imagination, and compelled therefore to substitute for the great drama of the past the multitudinous spectacle of the present, he nevertheless attained, under the circumstances, the highest flights of fancy. Instead of the always hypothetical reconstruction of an imaginary scene, we have the thousand-fold more valuable representation of the very world in which the artist lived, and at one of the periods in which life seems to have been most agreeable. The Florentine republic, at its most dazzling height, lives again for us in these incomparable frescoes. Still earlier, in his “Call of the Apostles” (Sistine Chapel), the artist had introduced in a group of fifty figures foreign to the subject portraits of the principal Florentines then in Rome. In his “Visitation” we behold Florentine ladies of the middle class out walking. In “Zachary driven from the Temple” we admire the portrait of the charming Lorenzo Tornabuoni, prince of the Florentine youth and husband of the beautiful Giovanna degli Albizzi, also those of the artist himself and of his brothers. But it is in the “Apparition of the Angel to Zachary” that this realism finds its fullest expression. This interview, which must have taken place in the retirement of the sanctuary, is presented by the artist before thirty members of the Tornabuoni family, magnificently staged on the steps of the Temple. It is in fact a solemn glorification of the great line of Florentine bankers who built this admirable chapel. In the aforesaid “Life of St. Francis” may be recognized the banker Sassetti, Lorenzo de’ Medici, Agnolo Acciajuoli, Paolo Strozzi; in the Sistine Chapel fresco the scholar Argyropoulos, etc.
Behind these living persons it is Florence itself which forms the background of the scene, that admirable city of the end of the fifteenth century in which Botticelli, Leonardo, Angelo Poliziano, and the young Michelangelo were then living. In the “Life of St. Francis” are depicted the square of the Trinith with the old bridge of Taddeo Gaddi, the facades of the Spini and Gianfigliazzi palaces, the Signoria, with the Marzocco and the Loggia of Orcagna. In the “Visitation” the view of Florence is that seen from the ter-race of San Miniato (background of the picture of the “Virgin of the Donor” by H. Van Eyck at the Louvre) with the dome of Brunelleschi, the campanile of Giotto, and the tower of the Signoria. Profusely scattered through these pictures are Renaissance ornaments, decorated pilasters, the “pretti” friezes like those of the famous tribune of Donatello—”Nativity of the Virgin”,—terra-cottas of della Robbia, antique bas-reliefs—”Apparition of the Angel to Zachary”,—quite a museum of the artistic fancies of Florence. In the “Preaching of St. John the Baptist”, the figure of the saint is borrowed from Donatello, while in the audience the naked child seated among the hearers in the foreground is the reproduction of a celebrated antique, “the Child with the Goose”. But he is most admirable in his power of creating new “antiques”, i.e. of grasping at once their counterparts in actual life. Italian art possesses nothing more beautiful, more Attic, than certain of his “canephores” or young girls of the people, e.g. who form the retinue in the “Marriage of the Virgin”, or the exquisite figure filling a bronze water-basin in the “Nativity”. In fact all this ideal summary of Florentine life breathes the pride and joy expressed, in the “Zachary and the Angel“, by the inscription: “The year 1490, when the city beautiful among the beautiful, illustrious for her wealth, victories, arts and monuments, was sweetly enjoying abundance, health and place.”
Ghirlandajo executed several altar-pieces, e.g. the charming “Madonna Ingesnati” (Uffizi), the “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1485, Accademia), the “Adoration of the Magi” (1488, Hospital of the Innocents) and the “Visitation” of the Louvre (1491). His portraits, however, are the most thoroughly characteristic of his genius. The most exquisite of these, that of Giovanna degli Albizzi (1488, Paris, former Kann collection) has no equal in Florentine portraiture of the fifteenth century, and is far superior to Botticelli’s famous “Bella Simonetta”; indeed, it can scarcely be compared with any other than that of Pollaiuolo at Chantilly. Finally, the “Old Man and the Child” at the Louvre is a work of incomparable ingenuity, displaying a cordiality perhaps unique in Italian art. The picture is one of those which most forcibly recall Flemish good nature; its tenderness and grace of sentiment compel us to overlook the ugliness of the model. About 1480 Ghirlandajo married Costanza di Bartolommeo Nucci (d. 1485). By her he had two sons, Bartolommeo, b. 1481, who entered the Camaldolese Order; and Ridolfo, b. 5 Fed., 1483, who was, like his father, a painter. In 1488 the artist took as his second wife Antonia di ser Paolo di Simone Paoli. He died, almost suddenly, of a malignant fever, at the age of forty-five years. His serenity and his joy in life are typical of the Florentine genius prior to the mystical crisis and the deep emotions of that Counter-Renaissance, which was to let loose the wrath of Savonarola, and interfered so profoundly with the artistic vocation of a Botticelli and a Fra Bartolommeo. Ghirlandajo was a joyous soul, amiable, productive, somewhat impersonal, and had the rare good fortune to represent perfectly the Florentine spirit in its golden prime. Like Carpaccio at Venice he is perhaps the most national of the Italian masters. He was the instructor of Michelangelo.