On 23 June the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
presents the temporary exhibition Ghirlandaio and Renaissance Florence. Comprising a survey of quattrocento Florentine art, its starting point is one of the great icons in the Museums permanent collection: Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio between 1489 and 1490. Displayed in conjunction with this masterpiece of Florentine art is a carefully-chosen group of 60 works including paintings, sculptures, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, medals and various decorative objects. They have been selected to illustrate three key areas of art and culture in late 15th-century Florence: the genre of portrait, the theme of love and marriage, and religious iconography.
Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni (1489-1490) The story that lies behind Ghirlandaios painted image of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni is as captivating as the work of art itself. More than 500 years after it was painted, the panel now opens a window onto Florentine, Early Renaissance culture: a journey in time that will reveal to us the nature of life in this flourishing 15th-century city, its social and commercial relations and its religious convictions and domestic life.
The Museo Thyssen-Bornemiszas painting is the only surviving 15th-century female portrait for which the original location is known. In addition, it includes a number of details, such as the jewels and Book of Hours, that refer to key moments in the life of this young woman, including the story of her marriage. The young Giovanna, born in 1468 into one of the citys leading families, married Lorenzo, a high-born youth from another prominent family the Tornabuoni, who were related to the Medici- in 1486. The panel reveals how his life was blighted by the death of his young wife while she was pregnant with their second child and how the grief-stricken young man turned to one of the great masters of the day and a friend of the family, Domenico Ghirlandaio, to commission a portrait that would allow him to commemorate and honour the memory of his wife for posterity through an image that would reflect her interior as well as her exterior beauty: ARS VTINAM MORES / ANIMVMQVE EFFINGERE / POSSES PVLCHRIOR IN TER / RIS NVLLA TABELLA FORET: If only art could reproduce the character and spirit! In all the world a more beautiful painting will not be found.
This is the inscription to be found on the cartouche that Ghirlandaio included in the portrait. The words are a variant of the end of an epigram by the poet Martial. The text has a double meaning, firstly referring to the virtues possessed by Giovanna during her lifetime and which could barely be reproduced in images, and secondly, exalting the art of painting and expressing a concept on the lines of see what painting is capable of. There is also no doubt that the commission from the Tornabuoni, to whom the artist was closely linked, encouraged Ghirlandaio to exert all his efforts and produce the best of which he was capable. The panel is still in magnificent condition, allowing us to appreciate the great care with which it was painted. The face, hands, clothing and objects surrounding Giovanna are painted with great beauty and delicacy. The panel occupied a place of honour in one of Lorenzo Tornabuonis apartments in the family palace, which was among the most sumptuous in Florence along with those of the Medici. It was displayed in a wide, gilded frame in the chamera del palco doro, a room that had a gilded ceiling and other gilded elements and was located close to the chamera di Lorenzo, bella, which was the young mans private chamber.
Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni is undoubtedly one of the finest surviving examples of the female portrait, a genre that flourished to a significant degree in late 15th-century Florence. The depiction of the figure in strict profile follows an older model derived from classical art and medals and is used to create an idealised and dignified image of the sitter. This effect is heightened through the linear style with which the figure and composition are depicted, the long, elegant neck and perfect, inexpressive features, all of which are appropriate to the posthumous character of this portrait and the particular nature of the commission. While there are numerous examples of quattrocento portraits of this type, it had become relatively uncommon by the date of execution of this panel, by which time artists favoured the Flemish model of the half- or three-quarter profile for depictions of the patrician classes. The exhibition brings together a sizeable group of works of both types: Portrait of a Woman in Profile (ca.1475) by Piero del Pollaiuolo, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Profile Portrait of a Woman by Sandro Botticelli, loaned from the Galleria Palatina (Palazzo Pitti, Florence) conform to the idealised, archaic type, while Portrait of a Woman (ca.1485) by Ghirlandaio and Workshop, from the Lindenau Museum, Altenburg, is a magnificent example of the second, more realistic and accessible type.
Few portraits are securely attributed to Ghirlandaio, and many of them are in fact considered to be workshop productions or painted by one of his assistants. Some of these images can be seen in the present exhibition and are the subject of detailed study. In this sense it is important to understand the functioning of a workshop such as that of Domenico Ghirlandaio, who became the principal painter to the Florentine bourgeoisie, as well as the exact nature of his collaboration with his assistants, including his brother David, Sebastiano Mainardi, Francesco Granacci and even the young Michelangelo. In the 1480s Ghirlandaio principally focused on painting frescoes for chapels and for this reason did not have a workshop as such, since he principally worked in situ. It is only in 1490 that we find a known location for his workshop, in a building near the Palazzo Tornabuoni. It produced a large body of portraits that were innovative with regard to composition and style, the relationship between figure and background, the influence of Flemish painters, and the manner in which the viewer is involved in the representation. All these elements undoubtedly derive from Ghirlandaio himself, whose principal task would be the conception of the works, the execution of which he entrusted to his assistants.
A noble wedding
The marriage between Giovanna degli Albizzi and Lorenzo Tornabuoni is the best documented of all those that took place in late 15th-century Florence. So splendid was this event that it was still written about a century later, and there are numerous works of art directly related to it, including the frescoes commissioned from Botticelli for the familys country residence. The most splendid acquisitions were undoubtedly those made to decorate and furnish Lorenzos chamber, the symbolic centre of the couples new home. The paintings for the chamera di Lorenzo, bella in the Palazzo Tornabuoni still survive, most of them in outstandingly good condition. Four of them will now be seen together for the first time in 500 years, including the magnificent tondo of The Adoration of the Magi, a masterpiece by Ghirlandaio and an exceptional loan from the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. The exhibition provides a unique occasion on which to see these works displayed together and juxtaposed with other paintings and objects that illustrate the context of the wedding. The exhibition brings together a fascinating group of secular images of various types that reveal the cultural values described in the nuptial poem that the humanist Naldo Naldi wrote on the occasion of this event. The texts and works of art related to the wedding also open a door onto elite Florentine culture and express prevailing opinions on concepts such as love, beauty and fidelity. In addition, they offer a wide-ranging survey of traditions, values and social ideals, as well as revealing the taste for the ornate and the refinement characteristic of late 15th-century, Florentine patrician society.
In addition to the details of her wedding, a wealth of information survives on Giovannas short but intense life, recorded in a variety of sources, including the Ricordi - a sort of diary - written by her father, Maso di Luca. Recently rediscovered, it is now included in the exhibition and offers a glimpse of family life at the period. Her account books with annotations on movements of money and goods, for example, those relating to the wedding, also provide detailed information on Giovannas life.
For this well-born young woman, the noble, cultured, elegant Lorenzo Tornabuoni, only son of Giovanni de Francesco Tornabuoni and Francesca di Luca Pitti, was the best possible match. His father, who had become extremely wealthy as head of the Medici bank in Rome, was also an important art patron, commissioning Domenico Ghirlandaio to paint the capella maggiore in Santa Maria Novella. Lorenzos sister Lucrezia had married Piero di Cosimo de Medici, thus establishing even closer links with the citys most powerful family. The celebrations for Giovanna and Lorenzos wedding lasted three days, from 3 to 5 September 1486. All the details of the celebration are known, from the brides clothing to the dowry that she brought (which including an illuminated Book of Hours similar to the one depicted in her portrait, as well as clothes, jewels, and toiletry items), and details of the various feasts, banquets, dances and jousts that took place during the days in question.
On 11 October the following year, their first child, Giovannino, was born. The name was chosen in honour of Lorenzos father, who would immediately order the iconographic programme of the frescoes in the chancel of Santa Maria Novella to be modified in order to include the scene of The Baptism of Saint John, thus adding a religious significance to the sentiments of joy and gratitude for the birth of his grandson. Giovanna suddenly died while pregnant with her second child. The exact date of her death is not known but the burial took place on 7 October 1488 in Santa Maria Novella. Her image, slightly larger than life-size, which Ghirlandaio included in the scene of The Visitation in his famous frescoes, refers to the idea of hope for eternal life, as Christian dogma interprets the encounter between the Virgin and Saint Elizabeth as imbued with the promise of future redemption.
Private devotion and religious iconography
The small Book of Hours depicted at the upper right of Giovannas portrait is the type of volume that her father gave her when she left the family home to take up residence with her husbands family. The Book of Hours was a prayer book that was read every day during the hours given over to prayer and meditation. In Florence, most Books of Hours intended for the laity (as in this case) were richly illustrated in order to manifest their owners spirituality. Religious iconography played a key role in the life of Florentine merchants. The chambers of almost all their mansions, both in their city palaces and country residences, contained religious images that expressed and emphasised the familys religiosity while invoking protection for the members of that family. Religious art, both in churches and in the home, encouraged the spiritual life, representing in visual form the key moments of the Christian story.
In this section the exhibition brings together a group of works that helps to explain the relationship between illuminated devotional books and paintings, and between devotional panels and altarpieces. The detailed inventory of the Tornabuoni familys possessions, drawn up in 1497, provides a very precise idea of the kind of religious works of art that decorated the residences of the Florentine elite. It is possible to recreate the types of objects and subjects represented and hence the familys taste and particular devotional emphases: in the case of the Tornabuoni, for example, it seems that they particularly favoured subjects associated with the Virgin. We also know the different subjects selected for each of the rooms in the various family residences: The Adoration of the Magi for Lorenzos chamber; The Annunciation for the infant Giovanninos room; a Descent from the Cross in the palaces chapel; a polychrome, marble Virgin, a Christ the Saviour, a painting of Mary Magdalen, and a panel of Saint Francis in Giovanni Tornabuonis rooms, for example.
Among the works chosen to illustrate this survey of the decorative and devotional motifs favoured by one of the wealthiest families in Florence are a number of outstanding paintings and sculptures. They include the magnificent Virgin and Child by Ghirlandaio, loaned by the National Gallery of Art, Washington; The Annunciation by Filippino Lippi from the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg; The Nativity with the Annunciation to the Shepherds by the Workshop of Ghirlandaio, from the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam; Lamentation over the dead Christ by Cosimo Rosselli, from the Philadelphia Museum of art; The penitent Saint Jerome by Piero di Cosimo, from the Museo Horne, Florence; a marble relief of The Virgin and Child with two Angels by Antonio Rossellino, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; another panel of The Virgin and Child by Filippo Lippi, loaned by the Fondazione Magnani Rocca in Parma; and The penitent Magdalen adoring the Cross in a Landscape by Filippino Lippi, loaned from a private collection, New York.
Technical study of the Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni
The last room in the exhibition presents the methods and results of the detailed study undertaken by the Museums restoration team on the Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni. Undertaken in conjunction with the present exhibition and furthering its discursive aims, the intention of the study was to cast further light on this masterpiece of Renaissance art, resolving some of the enigmas that the work conceals and offering a better understanding of the technique and working methods of one of the great Renaissance masters. The gallery in question thus become a scientific study room where visitors can discover the nature of the paintings creative process, how it was conceived, sketched out, modified and finally painted by the masterly hand of Ghirlandaio. As a result, it offers a different and fascinating viewpoint on one of the highlights in the Museo Thyssen- Bornemiszas permanent collection. The findings of this study are published in the exhibition catalogue and on the Museums website. They are also the subject of a subsequent monographic publication.
The panel has principally been the subject of the following procedures: material studies, infra-red reflectography analysis, x-radiography and ultraviolet photography, and a technical study of the composition. The analysis of the materials used by Ghirlandaio, including the poplar wood panel and the range of pigments and agglutinins obtained from the microscopic samples taken from different parts of the painting, have allowed for a complete knowledge of the composition of the original materials and their distribution in different layers. As a result, it has been possible to precisely define the nature of the technique deployed mixed medium of tempera and oil and the various ways in which the materials were applied and transformed during the course of the paintings creation. Infra-red reflectography yielded information on the under-drawing and hence explained part of the creative process. The discovery of Ghirlandaios preliminary under-drawing has contributed to our knowledge not only of the beauty and minutely detailed nature of his work (confirming his reputation as an outstanding draughtsman) but has also provided information on a number of compositional differences and variations between the under-drawing and the finished work. They include a change in the position of the hand and modifications to the hairstyle, outline of the bust and stomach, and the bead necklace that appears in the under-drawing but was subsequently transformed into a delicate cord in the final portrait.
The remaining details of the creative process and the paintings state of preservation were revealed through physical analysis with x-ray. A comparison between the image under visible light and xray made it possible, for example, to distinguish the use of a heavily charged brush in some areas - a technique that enabled the artist to imitate the textures of the clothes and jewels in contrast to the rapid, deft brushstroke to be seen in the areas of flesh, where the pigment is thinly applied. The technical study of the composition also yielded extremely interesting results. Since Antiquity, the ideal proportions in art were calculated on the basis of the Golden Section. It was found that the under-drawing of this portrait corresponds with mathematical exactness to the proportions of the Golden Section as used at this period, and the lines obtained (in some places incised into the preparatory layer of the panel) position the elements in the composition with absolute geometrical logic and rigour, as is also the case with numerous anatomical elements, details and objects that accompany or adorn the figure of Giovanna.