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

Decoration of the Sala del Gigli

Palazzo Vecchio, Florence

In 1482 Ghirlandaio received the official commission from the Signoria, the city government, to produce the decorations in the Sala dei Gigli in the town hall, the Palazzo Vecchio. Sandro Botticelli, Perugino and Piero del Pollaiolo had also been assigned to the task, but only Domenico accomplished the undertaking.

The most important consideration in the Sala dei Gigli was that the overall effect had to be magnificent, and the purpose of the monumental public work was to express the pride of the city and Republic of Florence.

Ghirlandaio divided one wall by means of painted pilasters, with three arches between them. The two outer arches are over a doorway and a blind window. The result is that the entire wall appears as a mighty triumphal arch. In the centre is St Zenobius, the patron saint of Florence, with two saintly deacons. In the tympanum above the bishop is a terracotta relief of the Madonna and angels, a work similar to many that were produced by the workshop of the Della Robbia family of artists. In the background on the left there is a view of Florence Cathedral. Under the side arches stand historical characters who embody civic and republican virtues. In these figures Ghirlandaio produced very detailed variations of Roman armor and the classical contrapposto postures, features portrayed with considerable archeological accuracy.

In the Sala dei Gigli the pictorial scheme is grandiose and the ancient figures depicted in the higher part of the fresco have an extraordinary energy. The deacons in the centre, on the other hand, are weak, rather limp and monotonous, even in the colours, which have lost their original brightness and lustre.

This work is not of a high quality. Already occupied with the Sassetti Chapel, which probably gave him more satisfaction, in the Sala dei Gigli he probably traced the outline of the painting only, leaving a large part of its execution to assistants. In addition to his two brothers David and Benedetto, and his brother-in-law Bastiano Mainardi, there were many other assistants: Bartolomeo di Giovanni, Francesco Granacci and Biagio d'Antonio di Firenze. It is impossible to attribute the responsibility to this or that assistant for the inferior parts of Ghirlandaio's fresco cycles, since he was also responsible for the parts that lack the animated style, vitality and mastery of colour that were present in others. From these sometimes considerable discrepancies we must form a jjudgment about his work that makes him at once a marvellous interpreter of people and situations, a calm, almost monotonous narrator, or a tired and empty artist at times in search of the best, at others yielding to a commonplace routine.