The 15th-century Italian painter Domenico Ghirlandaio was responsible for a large number of impressive artworks throughout his career. His talents transported him across the country to work on prestigious commissions for important patrons who admired his refined yet striking style.
Equally as remarkable as his paintings are the influence that Ghirlandaio had on Florentine art: he inspired many future artists, and even trained some of them in his workshop. This article unpacks the life and works of Ghirlandaio to reveal his significance in the art of the Italian Renaissance.
10. Ghirlandaio Was Born In The Heart Of The Renaissance
Born in Florence in 1448, Domenico Ghirlandaio’s early years were accompanied by some of the defining developments of the Italian Renaissance. During the previous century, Florence had been the epicenter of the cultural, financial and political boom, whose shock-waves were soon felt across the whole of Europe. The 1450s saw the Medici bank under the rule of the illustrious Cosimo the Elder, the introduction of the Gutenberg printing press and the birth of Leonardo da Vinci.
New advancements in technology, science, and art gave rise to an atmosphere of exploration, experiment, and endeavor. Growing up in such an intellectually and artistically fertile environment equipped the young Ghirlandaio with the inspiration, curiosity, and skills he would require during his life-long vocation as an artist.
9. He Came From An Artistic Family
Ghirlandaio’s family also contributed to his rich childhood environment. His father was a silk-merchant and goldsmith, famed for the ornate diadems and hairpieces he produced for the rich women of Florence. Among his other relatives, Ghirlandaio also counted both his brothers, his brother-in-law and his uncle as artists.
In the early 1460s, he was apprenticed to his father and inherited from him the nickname Ghirlandaio, which literally means ‘garland-maker’. It is said that the young Domenico painted portraits of any of the clients or craftsmen who wandered through his father’s studio.
8. And Trained With Some Of The Great Painters Of The Day
After some initial training with his father, Ghirlandaio was apprenticed to the prominent and wealthy Florentine artist, Alesso Baldovinetti. Under Baldovinetti, he studied painting and mosaic; in particular, he seems to have adopted his master’s skill for background landscapes.
Due to similarities in their style, some art historians believe that Ghirlandaio was also apprenticed to Andrea del Verrocchio, under whom Leonardo da Vinci trained. In any case, it is evident that the aspiring artist was intimately acquainted with some of Florence’s most prestigious painters. It may have been as an apprentice that Ghirlandaio first struck up connections with his life-long friends, Botticelli and Perugino.
7. Ghirlandaio’s Talent Won Him Some Prestigious Commissions
Under Baldovinetti, a talented fresco painter himself, Ghirlandaio learnt the art of these intricate murals. As a result, one of his earliest independent projects was the decoration of a church in San Gimignano, a historical hilltop town just outside of Florence. He worked on the church’s interior from 1477 to 1478, and after completing the frescos, was asked to produce a number of other such paintings in Florence.
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Perhaps the most impressive of these was his life-sized depiction of The Last Supper, for the refectory of the Church of Ognissanti, where pieces by Botticelli also hung. Ghirlandaio went on to work on the Palazzo Vecchio, one of the city’s most prestigious buildings, where his frescos still adorn the walls of the impressive Sala del Giglio.
6. He Travelled Across Italy To Work On New Projects
After these illustrious projects, Ghirlandaio’s name began to circulate throughout Italy, and in 1481 he was summoned to Rome by the Pope. Sixtus IV was assembling a team of Tuscan artists to embellish walls of the Sistine Chapel with paintings of Biblical scenes and previous Popes. Ghirlandaio was responsible for a number of the frescos, including the Calling of the Apostles, for which he enlisted the assistance of his brother-in-law, Sebastiano Mainardi.
5. Sometimes His Famous Patrons Even Appear In His Paintings
Back in his native city in the early 1480s, Ghirlandaio completed a series of frescoes under the patronage of a wealthy banker, Francesco Sassetti. Among the figures in these paintings appear Sassetti’s family, friends, and employer, Lorenzo de’ Medici.
Similarly, in a subsequent commission to renovate the choir paintings in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Ghirlandaio portrays members of the Tournabuoni and Tournaquinci families who funded the project. Among these was an altarpiece painted in memory of Giovanni Tournabuoni’s wife, matched in poignancy only by another painting which also shows a dead Tournabuoni wife, this time Lorenzo’s. The portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni is famous for its many layers of symbolism and its striking profile form, typical of such Renaissance paintings.
4. Ghirlandaio Was Inspired By Foreign Artwork
One of Ghirlandaio’s most important works, the Adoration of the Shepherds, was undoubtedly inspired by a similar painting by Hugo van der Goes. Van der Goes was one of the most prominent painters of the Northern Renaissance, and his own Adoration of the Shepherds had appeared in Florence two years before Ghirlandaio’s own. The latter took inspiration from the former’s realistic figures, painted in a style that had not yet developed in Florence. Such a homage helps to illuminate the cultural network that was beginning to appear across the European continent at this time.
3. Ghirlandaio Ran A Huge Workshop
To handle an ever-increasing number of commissions, Ghirlandaio expanded his studio into a large workshop, employing a number of artists, junior painters, and apprentices, among whom were several members of his family, including his own son. Extant sketches and drawings from the workshop indicate that these apprentices learned their art mainly by copying the work of their masters.
Once they had perfected the basic techniques, they may have been entrusted with a more serious duty: decorating the borders of an actual painting. Art critics and historians have noticed that certain patterns, figures, and motifs recur again and again in the peripheries of Ghirlandaio’s artworks, indicating that his assistants may have been working with a collection of ‘stock images’ which they were allowed to include in their border paintings.
2. And Trained Some Very Important Painters
Undoubtedly the most important of Ghirlandaio’s apprentices was Michelangelo. At only 13 years of age, the young Michelangelo was enlisted to train at the workshop for three years but appears to have served only one of these.
Later sources report rifts between student and master, and claim that Michelangelo went on to disavow any artistic debt to Ghirlandaio, instead claiming to be entirely self-taught. It is undeniable, however, that Ghirlandaio’s style and technique appear prominently in the early work of Michelangelo, specifically the cross-hatch shading used extensively by the former. The student also appears to have inherited his teacher’s skill for fresco painting during his brief education, and it may have been in Ghirlandaio’s workshop that Michelangelo’s passion for ancient sculpture was first ignited.
1. Ghirlandaio Left An Impressive Legacy
After dying of a fever at the age of only 46, Ghirlandaio was buried in the church of Santa Maria Novella, which he had helped to beautify only a decade earlier. Along with three children and significant personal wealth, Ghirlandaio left behind a great artistic legacy.
His workshop would continue to uphold his reputation for many years, and his artwork remains hugely valuable today. In 2012, his Madonna with Child sold at Christie’s for 114,200€, and a later piece from his workshop sold at Sotheby’s in 2008 for the staggering sum of £937,250.