(b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze)


Self-portrait, 1482-85 (detail of the Adoration of the Shepherds)

Ghirlandaio (original name Domenico di Tommaso Bighordi) was an early Renaissance painter of the Florentine school noted for his detailed narrative frescoes, which include many portraits of leading citizens in contemporary dress.

Domenico was the son of a goldsmith, and his nickname "Ghirlandaio" was derived from his father's skill in making garlands. Domenico probably began as an apprentice in his father's shop, but almost nothing is known about his training as a painter or the beginnings of his career. The earliest works attributed to him, dating from the early 1470s, show strong influence from the frescoes of Andrea del Castagno, who died when Ghirlandaio was about eight years old. Giorgio Vasari, the biographer of Renaissance artists, recorded in his Lives (1550) that Ghirlandaio was a pupil of the Florentine painter Alesso Baldovinetti, but Baldovinetti was only four or five years older than Ghirlandaio himself. He worked in fresco on large wall surfaces in preference to smaller scale paintings executed on wood panels, although he used them for the altarpieces that were the centrepieces of the fresco cycles in his major undertakings. He never experimented with oil painting, although most Florentine painters of his generation began to use it exclusively in the last quarter of the 15th century.

The village church of Cercina, near Florence, has a fresco of three saints, now thought to be Ghirlandaio's earliest work, but there is general agreement that some frescoes in the church of Ognissanti in Florence, almost certainly dating from around 1472-73, show his style at its earliest developed stage. One of them represents the Pietà and depicts several members of the Vespucci family as mourners, thus already introducing Ghirlandaio's characteristic combination of portrait figures in contemporary dress with a specifically religious subject. Something of the passion for minute detail shown by the early Flemish painters can be found in Ghirlandaio's work at this period; his fresco "St. Jerome in His Study," also in Ognissanti and dated 1480, may even be an enlarged version in fresco of an oil painting by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, which had found its way to Florence. The St. Jerome fresco is particularly important because it is a companion piece to one of St Augustine by Ghirlandaio's Florentine contemporary Sandro Botticelli; the difference between the two frescoes reveals Ghirlandaio's rather pedestrian and anecdotal style.

Ghirlandaio's first major commissioned works were the two frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St Fina, painted in 1475 in the Chapel of Santa Fina in the Collegiata at San Gimignano, near Florence. Both works derive from Fra Filippo Lippi's slightly earlier fresco cycle in the cathedral at Prato and contain a number of portrait heads arranged, rather stiffly, in the symmetrical type of composition that was to become increasingly identified with Ghirlandaio. Even then he was already employing assistants; in his later works he clearly could only complete large commissions in the comparatively short time allotted by the extensive use of highly trained assistants working simultaneously on different parts of the frescoes.

In 1481-82 Ghirlandaio received an important commission in the Vatican for a fresco, nominally representing the calling of the first Apostles, Peter and Andrew, in the Sistine Chapel. Its style is reminiscent of the frescoes by Masaccio of about 1427, which had been the great innovating works of the early 15th century in Florence but by then must have seemed somewhat old-fashioned. The principal feature of this fresco is the group of portraits of the Florentine colony in Rome, who are represented as witnesses of the biblical event. It has been suggested that the inclusion of these Florentines in a fresco painted for the Vatican had political significance, because the Florentine government had recently accused Pope Sixtus IV of complicity in the conspiracy of the Pazzi, another powerful Tuscan banking family, to murder the leading members of the Florentine Medici family.

Ghirlandaio must have used his stay in Rome to study Roman antiquities at first hand, for many details of triumphal arches, ancient sarcophagi, and similar antique elements occur in his works throughout the rest of his career. A sketchbook filled with drawings of such antiquities (now in El Escorial, near Madrid) seems to be the work of a member of his shop.

Late in his short life, Ghirlandaio and his assistants, including his brothers Davide and Benedetto and his brother-in-law Bastiano Mainardi, produced two major fresco cycles. The earlier, a series of frescoes and an altarpiece painted in tempera, was executed for the Sassetti Chapel in Santa Trinità in Florence. Commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, an agent of the Medici bank, they were painted between about 1482 and 1485. The six main frescoes represent scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Sassetti's patron saint. Once more, the frescoes contain many details of the buildings and customs of the period - for example, the original front of the church of Santa Trinità itself - and, in particular, there are numerous portraits of members of the Sassetti family shown together with some of the leading members of the Medici family, what may appear to have been a closer intimacy than was actually the case. The altarpiece, dated 1485, contains further evidence of Ghirlandaio's interest in classical antiquity, for it shows the Adoration of the Shepherds with a Roman triumphal arch in the background and a Roman sarcophagus in place of the traditional manger. This painting in tempera has several direct references to contemporary Flemish paintings, especially the enormous altarpiece painted in oil by Hugo van der Goes, which had been commissioned in Flanders by Tommaso Portinari, another agent of the Medici bank, and which arrived in Florence in the late 1470s.

Ghirlandaio's last and greatest fresco cycle was painted for another Medici banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni, and represents scenes from the life of the Virgin and of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. Ghirlandaio signed the contract on Sept. 1, 1485, for these large frescoes on the walls of the choir of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The altarpiece was still incomplete when he died, but his assistants, among whom was probably the boy Michelangelo, had completed the frescoes by about 1490. The front panel of the altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek, Munich) was completed by assistants according to Ghirlandaio's design soon after his death in 1494. Even more than in the Sassetti Chapel these narrative scenes contain a wealth of detail showing patrician interiors and contemporary dress; as a result they are one of the most important sources for current knowledge of the furnishings of a late 15th-century Florentine palace.

The frescoes in Santa Maria Novella are overcrowded with detail, so that the compositions fail to make their full impact. Some of Ghirlandaio's smaller panel paintings, particularly the portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (1488), have a simplicity that makes them far more striking than the frescoes of Santa Maria Novella. The portrait representing an old man with a strawberry nose with his grandchild (c. 1480-90; Louvre, Paris) is perhaps Ghirlandaio's finest painting, notable for its tenderness and humanity, as well as a simplicity and directness of handling.

Ghirlandaio never received a major commission from the Medici family or from any other leading patrons. In the late 19th century, however, because of the high degree of realism in his work, he was ranked as a leading Florentine painter of the 15th century. Although during much of the 20th century the greater imaginative power of Botticelli or Filippino Lippi made Ghirlandaio's paintings seem dull, since the 1960s the honesty and truth of his works have brought him back into critical favour.

Ghirlandaio's son, Ridolfo, was also a noted painter. Among his best-known works are a pair representing scenes from the life of St Zenobius (1517; Academy Gallery, Florence).

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.