GHIRLANDAIO'S GIOVANNA DEGLI ALBIZZI
Alberti says in part in his treatise on painting, Della Pittura (1436) that "painting has a divine force that not only makes absent men present but makes dead people almost alive after many centuries."
(Tiene in sé la pittura forza divina non solo quanto si dice dell'amicizia, quale fa gli uomini assenti essere presenti, ma più i morti dopo molti secoli essere quasi vivi, tale che con molta ammirazione dell'artefice e con molta voluttà si riconoscono.)Book 2
Fifteenth-century painters worked before the invention of photography in the 19th century.
Their insistence on mirroring nature, however, is a way of answering the human need for recording people's features, especially to remember them after they are dead, a need which is answered in the modern era through photography. In 1489-90 Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) paints a panel portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi (now in Madrid in the Thyssen-Bournemisza Museum). The portrait displays Ghirlandaio's mirroring of nature and his desire to adhere to Alberti's call for keeping the dead alive through art.
Giovanna degli Albizzi was a young Florentine woman of a prominent patrician
family in Florence who was married in 1486 to a young man of another prominent Florentine
family, Lorenzo Tornabuoni. Lorenzo was the son of Giovanni Tornabuoni,
Ghirlandaio is then commissioned to paint her portrait, probably by the family. Presumably it would have hung in the family home (Palazzo Tornabuoni - here a photo of one of the rooms in that palace today)
Ghirlandaio's portrait, however, is not the only memorial made of her features. The family
commissions a medallion of her face with three naked Graces on the back (now in the Fitzwilliam
Museum in Cambridge, England):
On the obverse of the coin is her profile image with the Latin inscription bearing her name beginning at middle right: Ioanna Albiza Uxor Lavrentii de Tornabonis (Giovanna degli Albizzi, Wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni.) Her hairdo is similar to the painted portrait with short curls falling over the ears and the long straight hairs at the back of her head wound up in a tight bun. Her nose appears larger in the medal than in the painting and the bulging around the eyes is eliminated in the painting. The reverse of the coin has the qualities that she was associated with written around the edges: Castitas (Chastity), Pulchritudo (Beauty), and Amor (Love,) as well as an image of the three Graces of ancient myth who embody those virtues. (Chastity after marriage in 15th-century terms meant fidelity to the husband.)
Ghirlandaio's reliance on the coin image in fashioning his portrait of Giovanna is limited to the profile outline. He does not include the three Graces or their words and he idealizes the face of the young woman. But he does include other objects in his painting that are clues to the personality of the sitter. And he does make reference to the immortality he expects Giovanna to enjoy from his own art. Let us examine closely the photograph-like image he produces for his viewers.
As in many of his larger paintings, the viewer sees a symmetry to the arrangement of objects in the pictorial space. He imagines Giovanna as an extension of her coin image, her profile in silhouette against a dark background of a plain grey wall with inset shelves.
On one side, the left, are objects of material value, jewels, pearls, gold brooch and pendant, and on that side she wears two rings, one on her pinkie finger of the left hand and one on the ring finger of the right hand. Since rings are given as gifts in the 15th-century male exchange of contracts which was the 15th-century marriage, it is appropriate for her to be wearing two here, and since the rings are often passed down from other family members, the fact that one is too small for her is appropriate, too. (They didn't always fit.)
On the right side are objects of spiritual value, the rosary beads for prayer, coral to protect her in the afterlife (coral in the 15th-century was thought to ward off the devil),
the opened Book of Hours to sustain her in more prayer, and the CARTELLINO, with the words from Martial's epigram 32 in Book 10, words about her spiritual character and soul and the date 1488, of her death:
LATIN: ARS UTINAM MORES ENGLISH: Art, if you could only
ANIMUMQUE EFFINGERE Portray the manners and soul,
POSSES PULCHRIOR IN TER There would be no more
RIS NULLA TABELLA FORET Beautiful panel on earth.
The inscription is taken from the ancient Roman writer Martial, but one letter has been
altered from the original on purpose. The Latin Posses in Ghirlandaio's 'cartellino' was
originally Posset in Martial's poem. That one letter change from t to s changes the Latin from a musing about art to a direct address to Art. Martial writes: "If only art could portray the manners and soul, No more beautiful panel on earth would exist." The artist in the 15th-century includes the
cartellino with the Latin words in order to talk to Art directly. "Art, if you could only portray
the interior life, this painting would be even more beautiful." The inscription is turned into a
compliment for the spiritual life of this young woman.
The Latin words Pulchrior, effingere, bella in tabella appearing to the right side of the
profile of the girl, all contribute to the viewer's impression of this portrait as a beautiful representation of the sitter. Of course the artist knows that his contemporary viewers will
connect this painting with the life-size portrait of Giovanna inserted into the Visitation scene
in the fresco cycle he painted for the Tornabuoni family in Santa Maria Novella, where she appears
next to her husband's aunt:
But Ghirlandaio is aiming at an audience for his painting that goes well beyond the immediate family,
well beyond his contemporaries. His Latin inscription reminds us of other centuries, both past and future, when art has competed and will compete with reality to make beauty.
It has already been pointed out by scholars that Giovanna wears the insignia of the Tornabuoni,
the figure of a diamond, seen sideways in the cloth embroidery of her outer gamurra garment, as well as an L embroidered on her shoulder in a loop to remind us of her loyalty to her husband Lorenzo:
In the panel painting she is contained as if in a coffin with the objects that the family wants to
accompany her in death. Thus, her precious jewels are set on the shelf and she wears one; her
beautiful yellow brocaded camurra is given pierced windows in her left sleeve (much like the pierced window through which we see her) for her muslin undergarment peeking through. All is restrained
and hushed, her lips parted slightly where we imagine no sound because of the stillness of her gaze. She looks out towards another window, from which light is coming; the light casts a shadow on the jewellery and on her gown, as well as on the book on the shelf. The shadows fall to the right since the light comes from the left. She holds onto a white handkerchief as a reminder of the way that she died; the white cloths used in the preparation of childbirth are alluded to in it.
She faces the light, which in the 15th-century is always symbolic of Christ; she is facing her maker with her material and spiritual objects of value to be placed with her profile figure in the weighing of her soul in the afterlife. Her body stands in a grey pietra serena cupboard, presumably in the Tornabuoni palace, but she is being painted as though dead, stiff and unyielding, with her youthful beauty and belongings set before the light of the afterlife.
The artist in this case is so aware of the fragility of life and of its temporality, that he dares
to include himself in the work, something noone has pointed out before:
Worked into the intricacy of the pendant Giovanna is wearing we can make out two letters: O and B.
The O is formed in the ring of slate blue stone at the top of the pendant, the B is formed in the gold
decoration holding the ruby in the middle above the pearl balls that are Medici symbols:
O B - Secretly he has inserted OPUS BIGHORDI (the work of Bigordi - Bigordi was Domenico's
family name) into this work as he had done in the fresco in the church of Santa Maria Novella:
And just as he had inserted his own self-portrait into two scenes of the frescoes in the same cycle:
He knows how tenuous is his own part in the documenting of history. In the self-portrait
image he points to himself as author of the work. In the Giovanna portrait he draws a
line, the beautiful thin line of the pendant on her neck from his own initial to the inscription bearing
as its first word: ARS
He has tried to follow Alberti's prescription for the painting of people to keep them alive even
after death. In the beautiful conception of his Giovanna degli Albizzi, he has resurrected and reminded us also of the artistic skill of Ghirlandaio himself.