The Tornabuoni family during the later years of the Quattrocento was headed by Giovanni Tornabuoni, a merchant, banker and patron of the arts who exploited his close connections to the Medici family to aggrandise himself and his family name. Giovanni is best remembered as head of the Medici bank and for the grandiose decoration of the cappella maggiore of Santa Maria Novella, now known as the Tornabuoni Chapel. Giovanni secured the rights to this chapel from the Dominican order after Francesco Sassetti had been denied patronage due to disagreements with the order over the subject matter of the proposed decoration. The resulting fresco cycle is one of the finest examples of private patronage in Florence, which overtook corporate or guild patronage in emulation of Medici de facto rule.

The space was frescoed by Domenico Ghirlandaio, one of the city’s foremost painters, and his workshop. The left and right walls are divided into six monumental frescoes, respectively depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin and scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The frescoes, exquisitely rendered, reflect the most progressive Florentine-Renaissance features. Ghirlandaio expertly models his figures using earthy colours and incorporating the natural light from the altar window to enhance the chiaroscuro. The figures are set within convincing landscapes and urban scenes rigorously ordered by Albertian notions of naturalism and perspective. Many of the scenes, such as the Visitation, are set within unmistakeably Florentine settings, enhancing the realism and arguing for the privileged standing of Florence and its people.

In the true manner of the Medici, Giovanni places his own portrait along with that of his wife at eye level, on either side of the altar. They kneel in pious reflection, at once advertising their devotion to God but also eternalising their association with this magnificent gift to the church. This practice conveys the notion that, in the period in question, a public art work of this scale would be understood to refer to the patron as much as to the artist. What better way to self-fashion than to emblazon your image in the most prominent of places? This coupled with the inclusion of portraits of prominent members of the Tornabuoni family coupled with members of the Medici circle throughout the biblical narratives secured the high status of the family through direct visual rhetoric.

Excerpts from the contract drawn up between Giovanni and Ghirlandaio give unequalled insight into the control the patron would exert over every aspect of the work: “And in all the said stories and pictures mentioned above, and on the whole of the wall of the said chapel, the ceiling, arch and the columns inside and outside the said chapel, he is to paint and depict figures, buildings, castles, cities, mountains, hills, plains, water, rocks, garments, animals, birds, and beasts, of whatever kind as seems proper to the said Giovanni [Tornabuoni], but according to the stipulation of colours and gold as above; and he shall apply and paint all the arms which the said Giovanni should require on any part according to his own wish and pleasure.”

Reference: Maria DePrano, Art Patronage, Family, and Gender in Renaissance Florence: The Tornabuoni, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Ghirlandaio and Workshop, Tornabuoni Chapel, 1486-90, fresco, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Birth of the Virgin, 1486-90, fresco, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Presentation at the Temple, 1486-90, fresco, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Angel Appearing to Zacharias, 1486-90, fresco, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Visitation, 1486-90, fresco, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Portraits of Giovanni Tornabuoni and his Wife Francesca Pitti-Tornabuoni, 1486-90, fresco, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

(Images: Web Gallery of Art).

Further Reading: Loren Partridge, Art of Renaissance Florence, 1400-1600, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Posted by: Matthew Whyte

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