Ghirlandaio : Portrait of a beloved woman

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, 1489/90, mixed technique on wood, 77×49 cm, Madrid, musée Thyssen-Bornemisza

Domenico Bigordi, known as Ghirlandaio, was born in 1449 in Florence, where he stayed and worked all his life. He started in the workshop of his father, who was a goldsmith, and quickly developed a great skill for painting and especially the art of portraiture. Throughout his career, he executed numerous frescoes which often provided him with the opportunity to portray the good society of Florence. In 1486, Giovanni Tornabuoni commissioned him to paint a cycle of frescoes for his family chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella. Giovanni was an important man, treasurer of the Pope and director in Rome of the branch of the Medici bank, a family to which he was very close since he was the uncle of Lorenzo de Medici. In the same year, on 15 June 1486, his son Lorenzo married Giovanna degli Albizzi. She was 18 years old and also came from the Florentine upper middle class. On the occasion of their marriage, the Tornabuoni family commissioned a wedding medal from the sculptor Niccolo Fiorentino and had Boticelli create two frescoes to decorate the loggia of their villa, one dedicated to Lorenzo and the other to Giovanna.

Niccolo Fiorentino, Giovanna Albizzi Tornabuoni, 1486, Paris, musée du Petit Palais
Sandro Botticelli, Vénus and the Three Graces offering gifts to Giovanna Tornabuoni, Paris, musée du Louvre

A year later, Giovanna had her first child and the following year she died in childbirth of her second child on October 7, 1488, at the age of 19. Much loved by her in-laws, her father-in-law Giovanni will ask that she be buried in the family chapel of Santa Maria Novella, which Ghirlandaio is currently decorating. The painter had the opportunity to depict her in the episode of the Visitation, where she appears with two more women to the right of the fresco.

Ghirlandaio, The Visitation, Fresco of the chapel Tornabuoni, Florence, Santa Maria Novella church

Deeply affected by the death of his wife, Lorenzo Tornabuoni commissioned a portrait of Giovanna from Ghirlandaio shortly afterwards to decorate his private apartments. Ghirlandaio, who had to execute a posthumous portrait, used the three existing models to create his painting.

Giovanna is shown in profile, facing left. She stands out clearly in front of a niche containing a few objects. Placing her in an interior (and not in front of a landscape or plain background) reinforces the intimate character of the portrait. She wears a sophisticated hairstyle and a sumptuous costume. They are directly inspired by the fresco of Santa Maria Novella. Indeed, Giovanna wears the same clothes and hairstyle and holds the same handkerchief in her hand

This costume is composed of a « giorneo » (bodice) on which is represented the letter « L » for Lorenzo and the diamond in point, symbol of the Tornabuoni family. She is wearing one of the jewels offered for her wedding, which was also seen in Botticelli’s fresco. Her pendant is placed in the niche behind her.

Behind her, on the left is the jewel and on the right a coral necklace, a prayer book and a cartel with an inscription. At the time, coral played the role of a talisman and was worn to ward off evil spirits. Here, it underlines the purity of the young woman’s soul, preserved from all evil. On the cartel, it is written: « Ars utinam mores animunque effigere posses pulchrior in terris nulla tabella foret » (« Art, if you were able to paint the spirit and morals, there would be no more beautiful painting on earth »). It is a variant of an epigram by the Latin poet Martial, then very fashionable in the cultivated Florentine society. It highlights the intellectual and moral qualities of the model.

Ghirlandaio gives a very stylized aspect to his painting with a very pure profile and the use of many straight lines that are softened only by a few curves (pearls, chest line, light modelling the face) and a complex hairstyle that brings grace to the painting.

The painter succeeds, despite the absence of a model and the stiffness caused by the profile position, in conveying in his portrait all the beauty and grace of Giovanna, tinged with a hint of melancholy with his gaze turned to the outside of the painting. At the same time, Ghirlandaio is not satisfied with a physical reproduction of his model. Certainly, Giovanna Tornabuoni is beautiful and rich (her clothes and jewellery bear witness to this) but, by placing other objects behind the portrait, he sows as many clues to highlight the spiritual, intellectual and moral life of the young woman.

The need to own one’s own portrait was born in Italy and Flanders in the 14th century. Gradually the commissions no longer come only from princes, but also from the bourgeoisie. The humanist thought that is being established and that celebrates the greatness of Man, favours this interest in individuality. If in Flanders, portraits are made three-quarters of the way for a more realistic rendering (as with Van der Weyden), the Italians prefer to use the figure in profile, following the tradition of the ancient art of medals (as with Pisanello or Piero Della Francesca).

Rogier Van der Weyden, Portrait of a young woman with a white headdress, Circa 1440, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie
Pisanello, Portrait of a Young princess, 1435/40, Paris, musée du Louvre
Piero Della Francesca, Portrait of Battista Sforza, Circa 1473, Florence, musée des Offices

Towards the middle of the 15th century, Flemish influences gradually changed the vision of Italian artists, who increasingly abandoned portraiture in profile. Ghirlandaio, himself influenced by Nordic painting, painted three-quarter or frontal pictures, like Botticelli at the same time. Later, it was the portrait in profile that became anecdotal, as almost all Leonardo’s portraits show.

Ghirlandaio, Portrait of an old man and a Young boy, Circa 1490, Paris, musée du Louvre
Botticelli, Portrait of a man with a medal, Circa 1475, Florence, musée des Offices

Léonard de Vinci, « La Belle Ferronnière », 1495/99, Paris, musée du Louvre

It should be noted that, to my knowledge, profile portraits, from the time of our portrait, are often images of deceased persons (as in Botticelli or Piero di Cosimo). The use of the profile perhaps served to underline the commemorative side of the portrait.

Botticelli, Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, 1476/80, Berlin, Gemäldegalerie

Piero di Cosimo, Portrait of Simonetta Vespucci, Circa 1480, Chantilly, musée Condé

With this portrait, Ghirlandaio offers an ideal image of a young woman showing her physical beauty as well as her inner life. He makes her a perfect example of a type of portrait that is meant to preserve the memory of a loved one. What better gift for a grieving husband ?

And you, what do yoou think about it ?

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