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

View of the Sassetti Chapel

Santa Trinita, Florence

"... He did a chapel in Santissima Trinita for Francesco Sassetti with stories of St Francis, an admirable work, remarkable for its grace, finish and delicacy" (Vasari).

Francesco Sassetti had gained his wealth as a partner in the French branches of the Medici bank in Avignon and Lyon. He also spent over ten years representing the Medici bank in Genoa and occasionally in Geneva. But he was not always successful later on in his role as the chairman of the bank, and in 1484 was replaced by Giovanni Tornabuoni. By the end of the 1470s, Sassetti had already acquired the rights of patronage to a small side chapel, the second to the right of the choir in the Florentine church of Santissima Trinita. It was probable at this time that Ghirlandaio was commissioned to paint the chapel, which he decorated with frescoes between 1482 and 1485.

The donor and his wife had themselves portrayed as life-sized figures kneeling in prayer at the side of the altarpiece the Adoration of the Shepherds. The donors are adoring the Christ Child, just like the shepherds in the panel painting. An incomplete inscription under their portraits names the day on which the chapel was consecrated, 25 December 1485, hence also the date by which it would have been completed. This year corresponds with the complete inscription on the altarpiece. In the Sassetti Chapel the artist combined secular, religious, and classical themes to produce a unique masterpiece.

In the scenes from the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Ghirlandaio incorporated portraits of contemporaries and views of Florence: he recreated religious events to the Florence of his day. In contrast to the newly built Saint Fina Chapel, the Sassetti Chapel was old and in the Gothic style. On each of its three walls Ghirlandaio painted two scenes from the life of Saint Francis, completed by a seventh fresco in the tympanum over the arched entrance to the chapel. At the crown of the entrance arch, the Sassetti coat of arms is surrounded by a garland of fruit, a sculptural work made of terracotta. The fresco in the tympanum above shows a sibyl prophesying Christ's dominion over the world to Emperor Augustus. The fresco idealizes the classical period as the precursor to the Christian age, and this provides a link with the chapel's high point, the altarpiece, which depicts the birth of Christ. The grisaille figure of David outside the chapel can also be interpreted in this way.

On the two side walls of the chapel are the black marble sarcophagi of Francesco Sassetti and his wife Nera Corsi, set into niches with round arches. Here the sculptural decorations are dominated by classical motifs; the sculptor Giuliano da Sangallo is sometimes identified as the artist. The tomb niches are framed by grisaille frescoes, in which Ghirlandaio cites motifs from classical coins. Above each are two monumental frescoes by Ghirlandaio, which clearly owe a debt to traditional images. There are still echoes of the pictorial order established by Giotto in Assisi over 160 years earlier. Ghirlandaio studied Giotto's frescoes in the Bardi Chapel, dating from about 1325, in the Franciscan church of Santa Croce in Florence, and made direct use of them.

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