GHIRLANDAIO and the young MICHELANGELO
Domenico Bigordi, (1449-1494), always known as GHIRLANDAIO (garland maker) to Renaissance art historians, is most famous for his frescoes in Florence in the churches of Santa Maria Novella and Santa Trinita
and those in Rome on the wall of the Sistine Chapel of 1483.
Ghirlandaio is the quintessential Renaissance painter for his infinite landscapes, his symmetrical arrangement of figures, his bodies bearing weight, his color balance, his large-scale narratives in
realistic one-point perspective, his use of contemporary portraits, and his sense of harmony and
calm in human-scale surroundings. His workshop is a large one in Florence and he is the teacher
of many painters, including one more famous than he.
Michelangelo, that famous pupil, goes on to paint the Sistine Ceiling and Last Judgment in fresco, a technique learned from Ghirlandaio. In fact, a juxtaposition of some of Ghirlandaio's finished Florentine works with Michelangelo's finished works in Rome reveal some interesting parallels that suggest that the pupil learned a lot from the master of the workshop.
Three figures among the many in Ghirlandaio's frescoes in Florence may possibly be by the
young Michelangelo. These are the three male figures, youths, painted into the back part of the scene of the Visitation in Santa Maria Novella between 1487-90:
a play within a play, the church in which the frescoes are painted painted on the wall of the frescoes.
In the whole scene of the Visitation these three youths stand out. The master preferred to paint people from a frontal or side view. We can imagine that he set his star pupil the challenge of painting three boys from the back in foreshortening in part to test his abilities, in part to stimulate him with a different angle of perspective. It's also worth pointing out that Michelangelo might have been 10 years old when he joined Ghirlandaio's workshop, at the beginning of the fresco cycle, 1485. Since the Visitation is at the bottom of the wall, he probably worked on that between 1487 and 1490, when he was 12-15 years old. We cannot prove that these figures are by Michelangelo, but the skillful foreshortening, the sense of bodily weight under the drapery, the light casting shadows on the wall in front of the boys all suggest a painter of extraordinary talent and perception, not to mention precocity. The colors remind us of similar figures seen from the back on the Sistine ceiling:
Putto/caryatid figures to the side of the Ancestors on the Sistine Chapel side walls.
In these three examples from the Sistine, figures are seen from the back and bent. Even more examples of paired youths, especially those seen from the back, are painted into the Sistine Ceiling and Altar Wall but these few tell us that Michelangelo painting in 1508-1512 is relying on the memory of figures he learned to compose under Ghirlandaio's instruction between 1487-90.
His interest in painting figures that look like bas-reliefs or figures carved out of marble
also came from the painting he must have done with Ghirlandaio in Santa Maria Novella:
The bas-reliefs on the triumphal arch on the bridge in the fresco we looked at earlier, where battle scenes and sea-creatures (half-man and half-serpent) are painted to look like ancient sculpture,
as well as the bas-reliefs of the children or putti in the frieze above the heads of the main characters in the story of the Virgin Birth are both preparatory paintings for later simulated marble carvings in
the Sistine ceiling, such as the putti/caryatid figures in the Sibyl scenes:
Small white children in playful poses meant to look like marble carvings next to painted colored figures, here the Cumaean and Delphic Sibyls, who appear real humans in real architecture. He takes these ideas developed in Ghirlandaio's studio between 1485-90 and expands them many times over in the ceiling in Rome.
The most wonderful example of the anxiety of influence, though, can be found in Michelangelo's spandrel (corner) paintings for the Sistine.
While an apprentice for Ghirlandaio at work in Santa Maria Novella, Michelangelo may have been responsible for the extreme foreshortening for the wall in the Visitation scene:
both Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo in the walkway that leads up the hill to Forte Belvedere in
But the wall used as scene divider and as place determiner can be found later in one of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel spandrels.
The four spandrels in that Chapel are each stories about the triumph of Judaism over evil in ancient history:
David and Goliath - David, an Israelite, triumphs over a Philistine giant, Goliath
Judith and Holofernes - Judith, an inhabitant of an Israeli village under siege by Holofernes,
manages to get Holofernes, the Assyrian general, drunk, then cuts off his head to triumph
over the Assyrians in the siege.
The story of the Brazen Serpent, where the good Israelis are saved by God from a plague of real serpents by looking directly at a bronze serpent idol:
And the last of this series, Michelangelo's spandrel depicting the Punishment of Haman, a story from the Book of Esther in the Old Testament, where Esther triumphs over a Persian counselor to Esther's King. The counselor, named Haman, wanted all Jews dead and Esther is Jewish. She tells her husband, the King Ahasuerus (Xerxes, 5th cent. B.C.) of Haman's plot and Haman is then crucified on a cross he had built for Mordecai, a friend and relative of Esther's.
the order to have Haman crucified on the cross he had built for Mordecai; the King points to the
doorway of his palace while Esther looks on next to Mordecai:
The end of the story is told in the middle of the composition. Haman is stripped of his orange gown(you can see it hanging behind his body on the cross) and then he is crucified outside the palace of the king while Esther sits on a step to watch the punishment carried out. What is remarkable in this composition of the story is the foreshortened wall, used here to emphasize the extreme punishment of Haman, whose hand and arm extend sharply into the spectator's space as his limbs are nailed to the cross. The extreme angle of the wall finds an echo and parallel in the foreshortened upper body of Haman. Michelangelo's foreshortened wall here goes beyond the innovation seen in the Ghirlandaio
wall; he opens a doorway in it and sets a figure between the two spaces on either side.
The sharply foreshortened wall in this spandrel is Michelangelo's reimagining the division he may
Why is Michelangelo thinking about the Visitation when painting Haman's story? The Visitation is a meeting of Christianity and Judaism in many respects because Elizabeth's husband, Zaccharias, is a Jewish temple worker and Elizabeth becomes the mother of John the Baptist who baptizes Christ. Mary and Elizabeth are both pregnant in the scene of the Visitation; John the Baptist as a foetus, jumps in the womb when the two mothers meet because he understands that Christ is in Mary's womb at the moment. Mary later is the mother of Christ, the founder of Christianity. In this scene the central part of the narrative is also in the center of the composition.
Mary is the young woman in the blue cloak; Elizabeth is older and wears a yellow robe. Elizabeth grasps Mary's arm to greet her, and they both have haloes to distinguish them as holy.
The wall separating the two women from the bustle of the city in the Visitation fresco is turned later by Michelangelo into a wall that separates a Jew-hater, Haman, from the progress of Judaism in the bravery of Esther. Christianity would not have been possible, the pregnancies of Mary and Elizabeth would not have happened, had the Jews not triumphed over adversaries before Christ was born. The spandrels in the Sistine speak of the advance of the Christian message through the triumph first of Jewish history. For fifteenth-century believers the New Testament was inextricably tied to the Old Testament.
Michelangelo, in painting his wall into the Haman story, is remembering the wall in the earlier fresco
that depicted a chronologically later story. The painted meeting of Elizabeth and Mary is a trigger for the meeting of minds of the two artists, Ghirlandaio and Michelangelo, in the later Sistine projection of a fictive wall of separation.
Just as Christianity owes its life inevitably to Judaism, so does Michelangelo owe some of his artistic life to his former master, Domenico Ghirlandaio. The painting of an ancient story evokes
for the artist events from his own past, his youth as an apprentice in Santa Maria Novella in Florence.When he is painting the spandrels in the Sistine he is also on a scaffolding above the frescoes painted on the wall of the Sistine by the former mentor, Ghirlandaio.
The wall dividing punisher and punished in the Haman spandrel provides a bridge to another wall
in the artist's memory. Perhaps the young assistant Michelangelo invented the strikingly innovative wall of the Visitation as well as the three youths seen from the back. Could the figure of a young man walking up near the wall be seen as the young Michelangelo set on his career path toward the two major figures of Mary and Elizabeth painted by his teacher?
He does get his own chance to paint Mary and Elizabeth when he places them on the Last
Judgment wall of the Sistine (1434-41;) by that time Christ and John the Baptist have grown up, just as the artist himself has. And Elizabeth and Mary are separated by another foreshortened cross,
this time the one held by Saint Andrew in heaven: