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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Domenico Ghirlandaio may not be the most well-known of the Renaissance painter, yet this 15th-century Florentine artist left an indelible mark on art history. He was also a source of learning and inspiration for the artists who came after him.

One of the artists to pass through his workshop was the immortal Michelangelo. Surely that is a claim to fame in itself. Ghirlandaio was born a goldsmith's son in 1449, so art already ran in his family. His father, Tommaso Bigordi, was known as Il Ghirlandaio (the garland-maker) as he was well-known for making the metallic garland jewellery so popular with Florentine ladies at that time. So his son, instead of being known as Domenico Bigordi was known as how we refer to him today. All Tommaso Bigordi's children used this term as a surname. This artist's early death at the age of 45 meant that perhaps he could have achieved much more had he lived longer. Even up to the age of 45, his career had been quite illustrious. He had painted for wealthy Florentine patrons and he had been commissioned by the Vatican. At that time and place, there was no higher honour.

His Development as an Artist

Very little is known of Domenico Ghirlandaio's formation as an artist. However, it is highly likely that he began his career as an apprentice in his father's workshop. Here he would have learned to love beauty and appreciate skilled craftsmanship. It was recorded by Giorgio Vasari, the Italian painter and biographer, that young Domenico's father recognised his son's emerging talent and decided to apprentice him to some talented Florentine painters. He was first apprenticed to Alesso Baldovinetti. He later studied under after Andrea del Verocchio.

His Crowning Achievements

Domenico il Ghirlandaio was essentially a fresco painter. He sometimes painted wooden panels in churches where his frescoes were exhibited. He never painted with oils, unlike other painters of his time. He is known for the wonderful detail in his frescoes of spiritual scenes. He often painted portraits of his contemporaries into these frescoes, alongside the religious figures. These people would have been members of the Florentine aristocracy. His work can be found in nearly every local church in his area dating from his time. In 1482, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned him to paint a fresco in the Sistine chapel. This fresco is called 'The Calling of the First Apostles'.

This was probably Domenico Il Ghirlandaio's most prestigious assignment till then. Yet two other sets of frescoes on which he worked have become his most famous works. The first set of frescoes were commissioned by a wealthy Florentine banker, Francesco Sassetti. The fresco set appears in the Sassetti chapel in the Church of St Trinita in Florence. The fresco paintings are six in number. They depict scenes from the life of St Francis of Assisi, Sassetti's patron saint. In these frescoes, the artist depicts several members of his patron's family, as well as several members of the powerful Medici family. This was Sassetti's idea. He worked with and for the Medici family. It was his aim to show that his own family were close to and trusted by this powerful family.

Sassetti was ambitious and upwardly mobile, it sees. The other set of famous frescoes was commissioned by Giovanni Tuornabuoni. They were painted in the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence. This comprised of a series of religious scenes and in keeping with his usual style, featured contemporary figures. One figure can be recognised as the deceased daughter-in-law of Giovanni Tuornaboni, the wife of his son Lorenzo. Domenico painted the portrait of the young woman after her premature death, using images of the woman for inspiration. Although this young woman's life was very short, she is immortalised forever in the work of a famous artist. This body of work survives five hundred years later.

He Was a Team Leader, Not a Lone Artist

It is true that Domenico Ghirlandaio worked on numerous art commissions throughout his short life. Some of these projects were quite extensive, particularly these two fresco sets. However, it must be said that he was ably assisted by two brothers, Davide Ghirlandaio and Benedetto Ghirlandaio. He was also assisted by his brother-in-law, Sebastiano Mainardi. Besides the four family members, there was also a well-trained group of assistants on hand to help with these projects. One of these assistants on Tuornabuoni fresco project was probably the young Michelangelo.

These large frescoes give great detail to the contemporary world of many details of 15th-century Florentine life. Especially with regard to clothes and furnishings. However, besides his magnificent frescoes, he is also known for his smaller panel paintings. The portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tuornabuoni, the young daughter-in-law of the artist's patron Giovanni Tuornabuoni, is much appreciated for its charming detail. But it should be mentioned that his fresco work was executed by a team rather than by just the artist himself.

Influences on the Artist

The Renaissance was a time of openness to new learning. He was constantly learning as he moved through life, tackling different projects. The earliest work attributed to this artist which is dated in the 1470s shows strong influences from a fresco painter named Andrea del Castagno. Although we see strong religious influences in the work of Ghirlandaio, we also see an admiration of classical antiquity. He works an odd Roman arch into a picture and you realise that he's similar to many other Renaissance artists in the fact that he admires the art and architecture of the classical Graeco-Roman civilization.

Indeed, when he then stayed in Rome to execute the Pope's commission, it's probable that he used the time to avail of the opportunity to study and learn from classical art. Art scholars and historians have pointed out that he appears to have been influenced heavily by the early Flemish painters, particularly with regard to his attention to the minutest of details. Evidently, some of these Flemish works had made its way to Florence.

His Lasting Legacy

It's ironic that while this artist was considered to be one of the greatest painters of his age, he was ultimately dwarfed by the great painters who came after him. For centuries, he was simply forgotten. Now he is known again and recognised for being a most inspiring painter of the Renaissance. He is even recognised by many as the teacher of Michelangelo, who followed in his footsteps and painted frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. Contemporary art critics see him as part of the '3rd Generation' of the Florentine Renaissance. He was a contemporary of Verocchio from whom he studied. He was also a contemporary of the Pollaiolo Brothers and Sandro Botticelli. Although his name appeared to have been forgotten throughout the centuries, his contribution to Renaissance art is undeniable and should never be forgotten.

Art historians and scholars have now redressed the balance and he is certainly recognised as one of the foremost Renaissance painters. One of the greatest contributions to today's generation from Domenico Ghirlandaio is the insight he has given us about the Florence of his time, the 15th century. Most of our knowledge of Florentine furniture and decor comes from him and his meticulous attention to detail. The background to his religious paintings is very often the Florence of his time and not the Jerusalem of Jesus Christ's time. Our knowledge of 15th-century Florence is richer and deeper because of him. Like Shakespeare, he made his work contemporary for everyone and passed on a legacy of knowledge and details we wouldn't otherwise have.