Book Reviews: Artur Rosenauer / The Art Bulletin

Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan

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Rosenauer reviews "Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan" by Jean K. Cadogan.

JEAN K. CADOGAN Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 384 pp.; 90 color ills., 56 b/w. $70.00

The monumental fresco decorations of the Sassetti Chapel, the Tornabuoni Chapel, and the Sala dei Gigli in the Palazzo Vecchio number among the most important commissions of their type of the last decades of the quattrocento in Florence. Even if their creator, Domenico Ghirlandaio, was never reckoned one of the very greatest, he was highly regarded for his ability to carry out extensive fresco commissions and for his craftmanship. His reputation survived undiminished from Vasari to Burckhardt. For Giorgio Vasari, Ghirlandaio was an artist "who, from his talent and from the greatness and the vast number of his works, may be called one of the most important and most excellent masters of the age. . . ."; and Jacob Burckhardt praised him in a comparison with Filippino Lippi: "he surpasses [him] . . . both in the lines of the composition and in the technical execution of the fresco." He received the highest praise from Archibald Joseph Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in 1864, who said his "life forms, like that of Giotto, one of the great landmarks in the history of Florentine art."1

Yet only thirty years later the page had turned. In 1897 Bernard Bernard Berenson wrote in his Florentine Painters: "Both [Ghirlandaio and Benozzo Gozzoli] were, as artists, little more than mediocrities with almost no genuine feeling for what makes painting a great art."2 Precisely what had been prized in Ghirlandaio, his portraits and his capacity for mimesis in the details, was now held against him. One cannot consider Ghirlandaio one of the heroes of 20th-century art historical writing. The very qualities for which Ghirlandaio had so long been celebrated proved foreign to the 20th century. And yet Ghirlandaio`s significance should not have escaped an art history oriented to developmental history. A fresco such as Annunciation to Zacharias in the Tornabuoni Chapel is an important milestone on the way from Lorenzo Ghiberti (Solomon and the Queen of Sheba on the Gate of Paradise) to Raphael`s School of Athens.

Whereas stich artists as Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli, Paolo Uccello, and Fra Angelico were all at one point or another in the second half of the 20th century treated to monographs-some of them to more than one-until now there has been no substantial Ghirlandaio monograph. An exception was the book by Jan Lauts of 1943, addressed to a broad public, which had a short, balanced introduction that betrayed the hand of an experienced art historian. The presentation of Lauts`s book was modest and the work catalogue compressed into nine pages. Of course, there have been a number of important articles. One thinks of the contributions of Aby Warburg, which, however, deal more with Francesco Sassetti and his family than with Ghirlandaio, and more with the religious backgrounds of the commission than with the work itself. One must also note the book by Eve Borsook and Johannes Offerhaus on the Sassetti Chapel.

This situation changed in the last years of the century. In 1994, on the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the artist`s birth, a symposium was held in Florence; its acts were published two years later. In 1997 the Ghirlandaio monograph of Ronald Kecks was published, and then finally in 2000 the much more ambitious work of Jean Cadogan, an author who had already signaled herself as a Ghirlandaio specialist through a series of articles. This opulently presented book comprises an introductory text, a catalogue, and an appendix of documents, thus following the classic model of the monograph familiar to us from the Phaidon volumes of the 1940s and 1950s (for example, Kenneth Clark on Piero della Francesca or Rudolf Wittkower on Gian Lorenzo Bernini). The difference is that here the introductory essay has grown into an extensive text, and the compact cataloguelike entries into a proper catalogue raisonne. The layout differs in that the introduction and the catalogue are no longer separated by an independent section of plates, but rather the illustrations-mostly in color, of course-are distributed among the text and the catalogue. The disadvantage is that ensembles are pulled apart-one finds the individual frescoes of the Sassetti Chapel in several different places-but this is offset by greater flexibility fot the purpose of making comparisons.

The book begins with an introduction, "Ghirlandaio and the Historians," offering a welcome overview of the fortuna critica, beginning with the earliest sources. In her first chapter, "`Nostro Charo Fratello`: Life and Family," Cadogan deals with Ghirlandaio`s social status and his family in greater detail than ever before, on the basis of her own archival researches. We already knew something about Ghirlandaio`s circumstances, but Cadogan has put flesh on the gaunt skeleton of facts. Ghirlandaio and his family were socially upwardly mobile, in a way typical of a prosperous artisan family in 15th-century Florence. Even the adoption of a family name, Bigordi-in the 15th century only about 20 percent of the Florentines could claim one-speaks for this clan`s self-consciousness and social recognition. Domenico was a member of the Compagnia di S. Paolo, to which, among others, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Filippino Lippi, and Sebastiano Mainardi also belonged. The reader is thoroughly informed about the nature of the family and about confraternities in 15th-century Florence. In contrast to Vasari, who presented Ghirlandaio as an impractical man, indifferent to material success, Cadogan sketches the portrait of an enterprising, financially and socially successful craftsman, signaled by the subtitle of her book, "Artist and Artisan."

In the second chapter, on Ghirlandaio`s training and early work, Cadogan relies on the documentary sources. Vasari`s reference to his training as a goldsmith is confirmed by an entry of May 13, 1470, regarding admission into the Confraternity of St. Paul: "sta al l`orafo." Ghirlandaio appeared in documents as a painter for the first time in 1472 in an account book of the Compagnia di S. Luca, which admits the conclusion that at that point he had already been active in the craft for some time.

The extensive third chapter, "`Noble, Worthy, Exquisite, and Decorative Paintings`: The Narratives," focuses on the Tornabuoni Chapel, where Cadogan pursues questions about the decorative system, the composition, and the narrative structure. Here she is concerned with placing each aspect in its respective historical context: "I seek to place Ghirlandaio`s narrative style in the context of Quattrocento storytelling and to characterize his particular narrative voice" (p. 74). Analogously, the decorative system is placed in its corresponding art historical context through references to and comparisons with other examples from the quattrocento and trecento. In order to characterize the narrative technique, the scene of The Expulsion of Joachim is compared with Gozzoli`s fresco The Arrival of Saint Augustine in Milan in S. Agostino, San Gimignano. Whereas Gozzoli is still closely bound to the story, Ghirlandaio develops the narrative content through a more consistent correlation of figure and architecture.

Cadogan investigates in detail the portraits in the frescoes. Beyond the Tornabuoni Chapel there is above all the Sassetti Chapel, to which Aby Warburg devoted exemplary studies, in particular, regarding the portraits of the patrons. Was Warburg right when, pursuing Fra Biliotti`s remark that Francesco Sassetti "decorated the chapel pro voto," he saw the portraits functioning as votive figures? I can fully accept Warburg`s interpretation that the portrayals were "appropriate vehicles of the donor`s personal gratitude . . . to his avvocato particolare." Yet one must not ignore that palpable pride with which Francesco Sassetti had his family represented, indeed, in the company of members of the Medici family.

In chapter 4, " `Sempre al disegno attendendo`: Drawings and Working Method," the author is able to refer back to her own prior studies. The frescoes of the 1470s point to the use of perforated cartoons for individual figures, but only for individual figures, for there are no indications of any cartoons or preparatory drawings in which setting-whether landscape or architecture-and figures are unified into an overall composition. Cadogan thus sees in the sinopias of the 1470s (Vespucci Chapel) the function of a modello on the wall, also serving to unite the individually prepared figures into a composition and at the same time sketch out the setting. The cartoons for S. Maria Novella, which of course can only be extrapolated from the frescoes themselves, must have been more comprehensive than those of the 1470s, in that they respected the relationship between figures and setting. But even there, in the upper parts free from figures, Ghirlandaio was content with markings in the intonaco.

Because many fewer drawings have survived from the 1470s, especially composition drawings, Cadogan assumes that drawings did not yet play such a large role. Here I feel we must be cautious. Can we really exclude, when dealing with such a practically disposed and well-organized artist, the use of modelli drawn on paper?

From the 1480s on the drawings connected with executed works are so well preserved that it is possible, despite the certainly considerable losses, to follow the work process step by step. Extensive fresco cycles such as those in the Sassetti Chapel and the Tornabuoni Chapel required thorough preparation. Ghirlandaio seems to have begun by laying down the composition in its broad outlines. Only then did he proceed to the details, to figures and heads prepared in individual studies. Cadogan observes carefully and draws precise conclusions-occasionally too precise. So, for example, she wants to see the Visitation drawing in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence (cat. no. 84), in which the landscape setting is very freely sketched, as a further stage in the work process than the drawing for the Birth of the Virgin in the British Museum, London (cat. no. 96)-in analog to the verso of the sheet with the Apparition of Saint Francis at Arles in the Istituto Nazionale per la Grafica, Rome (cat. no. 107), which I many years ago recognized as the sketchlike new version of the more carefully executed recto. Even if a final decision is hardly possible, I would still like to plead, in the case of the Visitation drawing, for seeing it as an early phase in the process. I am skeptical of Cadogan`s explanation that the differences between the drawing of the Confirmation of the Rule by Pope Honorius III in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (cat. no. 76), and the presentation drawing of the Annunciation to Zacharias in the Albertina, Vienna (cat. no. 112), follow from the different functions (the author sees the Berlin drawing as a study of chiaroscuro effects). Finally, one may also presume that a presentation drawing from the beginning of the 1480s will in fact look different from one dating from the second half of this decade.

The study for The Betrothal in the Gabinetto dei Disegni, Uffizi, Florence (cat. no. 85), and the Naming of Saint John the Baptist in the British Museum (cat. no. 97), both involving disposition of figures and not a detailed working out of the drapery, would have been better dealt with in connection with composition studies rather than the category of figure studies. The three drawings of a Coronation of the Virgin (cat. nos. 74, 92, 108), which vary somewhat with respect to the choice of saints, are convincingly described as ricordi, or mnemonic devices for workshop use.

For Cadogan, Ghirlandaio`s ability to make legible dramatizations of religious scenes was hard-won. But is this really the case? I would prefer to see him as an artist with an innate talent for scenography. It is true that he grew along with the tasks, but he seems always to have had the results firmly in mind.

In chapter 5, questions of workshop organization are discussed. Whereas until the 1960s the identification of individual collaborators stood in the foreground, the center of gravity of the scholarship has in the meantime shifted sharply away from attribution questions and over to workshop organization and workshop structure. Here the reader is grateful for the short sections dealing with the biographical bases and the secure works of such collaborators as Davide Ghirlandaio and Bartolomeo de Giovanni. Davide especially, who had worked together with Domenico already in the 1470s and who is given his own section in the catalogue, is deserving of special attention.

Beyond the works themselves, it is the documents-above all, payment receipts-that provide the best access to the workshop structure. In two well-documented case studies, the Adoration of Magi in the Museo dello Spedale degli Innocenti (cat. no. 14) and the decoration of the triumphal arch and apse of the Duomo of Pisa (cat. no. 66, one of Ghirlandaio`s last and, unfortunately, lost works), Cadogan offers interesting insights into the work process. The favorable document situation in Pisa permits retrospective conclusions regarding the much less-well-documented Florentine fresco cycles. We learn, for instance, that the Opera del Duomo was responsible for the organization of the project: the preparation of materials and the erection of the scaffolding.

In the conclusion, Cadogan takes the opportunity to explore Ghirlandaio`s portrait painting. Here it is surprising to see that an artist so marked by routine and so consistent in his development shows such an astonishing variety: from the ambitious profile portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni to Francesco Sassetti with his son and the portrait of the grandfather with his grandson. This versatility apparently has to do with Ghirlandaio`s ability to meet the special wishes of his patrons.

After the early 1480s the network of signed and documented works is dense enough to leave few questions of chronology. Even the attribution questions of the later period are restricted essentially to the problem of Ghirlandaio`s hand versus the workshop contribution. By comparison, the chronology of the early works is much more problematic. The earliest securely documented works are the frescoes of the Biblioteca Graeca and Biblioteca Latina in the Vatican of 1475-76, for whose execution Davide Ghirlandaio was still responsible. Next comes the Last Supper of Passignano (1476), in which Davide again had a large share. As for the Fina Chapel in San Gimignano, until now we have accepted the date 1475 on the basis of the inscription, added only later, to the tomb of the saint. Given that the tomb was placed in the wall only in 1477, and taking into account the dates of the Biblioteca Graeca and Biblioteca Latina and the frescoes in Passignano, Cadogan`s suggested dating of the frescoes to 1477 or 1478 seems completely convincing.

To settle the earlier works we need to proceed from this foundation. Vasari identifies the earliest surviving work by Ghirlandaio as the frescoes of the Vespucci Chapel at Ognissanti in Florence, whose attribution, since their rediscovery in 1898, has never been doubted, apart from the question of the participation of assistants (Davide?) in the Lamentation scene. The date 1472 is generally accepted, the year of the death of Amerigo Vespucci, the patron of the chapel. Referring to the stylistic proximity to the frescoes in S. Andrea in Brozzi, Cadogan tries to correct the dating to 1470 or 1471. Since I see the frescoes in Brozzi as later and cannot see the close relationship, I see no compelling reason to pursue this suggestion.

Around the frescoes of the Vespucci Chapel can be grouped the frescoed side apse of Cercina (north of Florence), the Saint Christopher in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (cat. no. 4), the fresco of an Annunciate Madonna in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (cat. no. 5), and the Madonna and Child in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (cat. no. 22). Characteristic of these works is the shaping of the drapery in stereometric and angular surfaces, very similar to that found in the early paintings of Verrocchio. Whereas the sources (Vasari and the ricordi of Francesco Baldovinetti of 1513) suggest training by Baldovinetti, the works themselves point much more strongly to Verrocchio as the decisive provocation for the young Ghirlandaio. While Cadogan accepts the Verrocchioesque qualities, she appears to trust the sources more than the evidence of the works and continues to postulate connections with Baldovinetti.

For the Washington Madonna, which after its discovery in the 1950s was even ascribed to Verrocchio, Cadogan suggests a date of about 1476/77, thus placing it in the same period as the Madonna in the National Gallery, London, which looks completely different (cat. no. 24). In the case of the Washington Madonna, the Verrocchioesque character sends a clear message: not 1476/77, but rather the early 1470s.

It is hardest for me to follow Cadogan in seeing the frescoes in Brozzi, with the representation of the Baptism of Christ in the lunette and a Madonna with two saints below, as Ghirlandaio`s earliest surviving work. It is true that there are still echoes of Verrocchio`s drapery forms in the garment of the Baptist, but in the other figures-above all, in the sacra conversazione-one can observe a clear tendency to a looser handling of line, which suggests a dating near the frescoes of San Gimignano, that is, after and not before 1475.

As far as the drawings are concerned, Cadogan proposes as the earliest surviving drawing of Ghirlandaio the Head of a Man in the Uffizi (first recognized as a work of Ghirlandaio by Philip Pouncey); she dates it about 1470 and places it stylistically near Verrocchio and Pollaiuolo. Although I accept the attribution, I still consider the sheet to date from after the middle of the 1470s. For all the schematic similarity to the detail in the sinopia for the Lamentation of the Vespucci Chapel, the formation of the head is closer to the heads of the Apostles in the Last Supper at Ognissanti.3

One of the trickiest problems is the drapery study on canvas in the Musee du Louvre, Paris (cat. no. 104), a spectacular work with a wealth of nuances otherwise unknown in Ghirlandaio. Heinrich Wolfflin was the first to see that the study corresponds to the lower part of the drapery of the Madonna of Ghirlandaio`s S. Giusto altar (cat. no. 80), from about 1480. For a long time ascribed to Leonardo, the work has been claimed again for Ghirlandaio by Everett Fahy and Cadogan. Whatever one thinks of the attribution, the drawing does mark the point of closest contact between Ghirlandaio and Leonardo. If there can be no doubt about Ghirlandaio`s authorship of the other technically comparable work, the study in Berlin for the Saint Matthew (cat. no. 75) in the tondo of the vaulting of the Fina Chapel, here the subtlety of the execution poses difficulties. The logic of the creation process does seem to speak for Ghirlandaio`s authorship. But could it not have come from the Verrocchio workshop (Leonardo? Credi?) and simply have been used by Ghirlandaio for his Madonna?

To return to the introduction, which comprises five chapters, these essays deal with important themes and yet do not amount to a comprehensive picture of Ghirlandaio`s art. As grateful as the reader is for information on Ghirlandaio`s social environment, the work processes, attribution questions, and workshop organization, important aspects of Ghirlandaio`s creative activity are nevertheless missing from the text. We are informed about Ghirlandaio`s development in the 1470s, but then the thread of the story breaks off. We learn nothing about the call to Rome, about the work and the contact with other artists in the Sistine Chapel. Even the Sassetti Chapel is dealt with sparely in the text, as is the monumental fresco in the Sala dei Gigli, even though it is Ghirlandaio`s largest profane work. We learn little about such important aspects of Ghirlandaio`s art as his relation to the antique or to Netherlandish art, or about his patrons or questions of iconography.

Of course, the reader is compensated for this by the thorough catalogue. Yet the catalogue gives information only about individual works and neglects the comprehensive view. A book so ambitious can be expected to remain the standard text for many years to come. From this stance, one can only be glad that even works in which the workshop had a major share are generously treated. The thorough catalogue is a valuable research tool. But the organization according to medium-frescoes, panels, and further techniques such as mosaic, intarsia, and glass painting-although consistent in itself, loses sight of the overall connections. The frescoes of the Tornabuoni Chapel, for example, are dealt with separately from the altar panels and glass paintings.

The decision to include works in which Ghirlandaio`s share in the execution was minimal or nearly nonexistent was correct-for instance, the frescoes of the Biblioteca Latina in the Vatican (cat. no. 6). One is also grateful that the frescoes of S. Martino dei Buonomini (cat. no. 10), which until now have mostly been excluded as apprentice work, are here treated in detail. Cadogan convincingly places them near San Gimignano. Their looser composition and vernacular representational mode may have to do with the patron, a charitable confraternity.

But works that are missing from the catalogue run the risk of being forgotten. From that perspective, it would have been useful to have a section of the catalogue for attributed but no longer accepted paintings, in analogy to the section devoted to the no longer accepted drawings.4

In the case of the drawings, the question of authenticity is given greater emphasis than with the paintings, where one can assume a workshop division of labor. The difficulties in judging call for caution: Cadogan says The Head of a Man in Profile (cat. no. 99, British Museum), for example, "can be accepted with reserve," and of the Half-Length Study of a Young Woman (cat. no. 100, British Museum) that "we have tentatively retained it in his oeuvre." Nevertheless, there is a tendency here to accept even problematic drawings into the oeuvre."5 The difficult case of the Codex Escurialensis, in which Arnold Nesselrath established connections to Filippino Lippi, is dealt with informatively in a detailed catalogue entry (cat. no. 114).

But these objections should not obscure the merits of the book. We are grateful to Jean Cadogan for the Ghirlandaio monograph, for which we have been waiting more than thirty years.


Notes 1. Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects, trans. Gaston du C. de Vere, 2 vols. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), vol. 1, 515-16; Jacob Burckhardt, Der Cicerone, 3 vols. (Basel, 1855-60), trans. Mrs. A. H. Clough as The Cicerone: An Art Guide to Painting in Italy (New York: Scribners, 1908), 67; and J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle, A New History of Painting in Italy (1864-66), ed. L. Douglas (London: Murray, 1911), vol. 4, 307. 2. Bernard Berenson, The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance, with an Index of Their Works (New York: G. B. Putnam`s Sons, 1896), republished as The Italian Painters of the Renaissance, vol. 2, The Florentine and Central Italian Schools (London: Phaidon, 1952), 27-28. 3. Further remarks on the catalogue: no. 19, Madonna and Child, tempera on linen, Urbino: the attribution, although it cannot be rejected definitively, is not compelling. No. 21: I would date the altar panel in the Duomo of Lucca not to 1473/74 but to the second half of the 1470s. No. 49, Peter and Paul, intarsias in the north sacristy of the Duomo of Florence: according to Margaret Haines they were among the last executed panels of the intarsia decoration, from about 1468. I do not see the relationship to the frescoes in S. Andrea in Brozzi. They are indeed similar in format to the frescoes in Cercina, but this cannot be a serious argument for the attribution. Nevertheless, they are worth further study. The intarsias from S. Maria in Primerana in Fiesole, today Curia Vescovile (cat. no. 50), betray a knowledge of the works of Ghirlandaio, but we are dealing here with adoptions by a second hand, after 1470. The miniature with the Proof of the True Cross in the Vatican Library, finally (cat. no. 55), dated 1473 and signed in an unusual way, still seems to be problematic. 4. Why, for example, is the frontispiece miniature of the Homer edition of Bernardo and Neri Neri of 1488 in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples, with the portrait of Piero di Lorenzo Medici, not mentioned? On the basis of style it fits well into the secure Ghirlandaio oeuvre for this period (the portraits in the Innocenti altar). One might also wish that the head of a man on a tile, which is still stubbornly catalogued by the Uffizi as Filippino Lippi, had been included. I attributed this tile some years ago to Ghirlandaio (Artur Rosenauer, "Ein unbekanntes Portrat Domenico Ghirlandajos," in Renaissance Studies in Honor of Craig Hugh Smyth [Florence: Giunti Barbera, 1985], vol. 2, 397-406); in date it is not far from the frescoes in San Gimignano, and it documents an early engagement with northern portrait painting. The Ruskin Madonna in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh also should not be excluded From the discussion. 5. I find it difficult to see the Saint Jerome in Penitence in the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest (cat. no. 77), already attributed by Cadogan in 1983 to Ghirlandaio, as an authentic study. It is perhaps a copy after someone else`s model-just as the recto of the drawing in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt (cat. no. 80) is a copy after Filippino Lippi. But with the Darmstadt sheet, the unquestioned study for the Judith on the verso confirms the attribution of the recto to Ghirlandaio. I am skeptical of the attribution to the master himself of the sheet with the heads of two youths and a head of Christ in the Uffizi (cat. no. 82). The head of Christ, which goes back to Netherlandish sources, looks strangely Nazarene. The Head of a Man in the collection of the duke of Devonshire, Chatsworth (cat. no. 78), with its differentiated handling of the surface, seems rather to be a work of the early 16th century. The atmospheric, emotional connection between mother and child in cat. no. 90, Seated Virgin and Child, on canvas, also suggests to me an early-16th-century date. For cat. no. 103, a drapery study for a kneeling Saint Francis in the picture in the Staatliche Museen, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin, destroyed in 1945, I would prefer an attribution to Fra Bartolomeo. Cat. no. 94, Saint Nicholas of Bari with Two Angels in the Musee Wicar, Lille, appears to be a study for a lunette and should have been left in the Ghirlandaio circle.


ARTUR ROSENAUER is professor of art history at the University of of Vienna [Institut fur Kunstgeschichte, Universitat Wien, A-1090 Vienna, Austria]. Translated from the German by Christopher Wood

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