Tuesday, December 3, 2013


Giovanni Tornabuoni in the late 1400s was one of the most wealthy and influential men in Florence. He was the treasurer for Pope Sixtus IV (pope 1471-1484), an extremely lucrative job for him and the family.

Giovanni Tornabuoni: detail from the Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90, fresco.
He was married to Francesca, the daughter of Luca Pitti. His two sisters were married to rulers of the city at two separate times: Lucrezia Tornabuoni  was married to Piero the Gouty de Medici, the unofficial ruler of the Florentine republic (they were parents to Lorenzo the Magnicent) and Dianora, his other sister, was married to Pier Soderini, the Gonfaloniere of the restored republic (1498-1512) of Florence after the Medici family were exiled.

Visitation, Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90, fresco.
Dianora (Giovanni Tornabuoni's sister) is the lady dressed in black on the far right. Giovanna degli Albizzi (Giovanni Tornabuoni's daughter-in-law) is dressed in the luxurious Yellow dress third from the right.
Birth of Saint John the Baptist, Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella Church, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1487-90, fresco.
Lucrezia Tornabuoni is the lady looking out to the spectator fourth from the right holding a hankerchief.
The Tornabuoni family lived on the eponymous street not too far from the Santa Maria Novella church. Their huge family palace today is managed by the Four Seasons group and has a restaurant and shops on the ground floor. The family, originally called Tornaquinci, changed their name to Tornabuoni so that they could participate in the government. The family preferred to renounce their noble status and name rather than remain on the outside of one of the most innovative and largest populated cities in Europe at the time. The palazzo, now often referred to as Tornabuoni-Corsi, was built by Giovanni Tornabuoni on designs by Michelozzo. It was then sold to the Ridolfi family in the middle of the 1500s and then to Alessandro de Medici, Archbishop of Florence in late 1500s.

Palazzo Tornabuoni in via Tornabuoni,
Giovanni Tornabuoni decided to pay for a renovation of the frescoes in the very large central chapel inside the Dominican church of Santa Maria Novella. This chapel had been under the patronage of the Ricci family since the 1300s. Andrea and Bernardo Orcagna, in the middle of the fourteenth century, had decorated the chapel with scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary on one wall and scenes from the life of John the Baptist on the other. However, these frescoes had suffered water damage after lightning had damaged the roof in 1358 and, coupled with a general neglect on behalf of the Ricci family who hadn’t made any attempt to upkeep the decoration, Giovanni Tornabuoni decided to offer to pay for an all round restoration of the whole space. 

View of the Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella Church, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90, fresco.
In the late 1480s,  Giovanni Tornabuoni commissioned Domenic Ghirlandaio’s workshop to carry out the new work. He promised the Ricci family that the new work would respect the existing subject matter (it worked out well as one of the walls was dedicated to the patron saint of Florence also his namesake). He also, initially, said that the Ricci family would keep their coat of arms in pride of place in the chapel for all to see, something that he did not honour.
Domenico Ghirlandio had one of the largest painting and fresco workshops in the city at the time. It was a family workshop comprised of his two brothers, Davide and Benedetto, and his brother in law, Sebastiano de Mainardi from San Gimignano, who had married his sister Alessandra. The Ghhirlandaio family’s real surname was Bighordi, but they had decided instead to adopt the appellation, Ghirlandaio, which means garland maker. Their father, a goldsmith, had made a name for himself in earlier decades making garlands for woman’s hair. Bighordi, however, is written into the wainscoting of the room in the scene Birth of the  Virgin Mary.

Ghirlandaio and the workshop work on the chapel for 3 years. They finished it in 1490. This date is included in the inscription on the arch in the bottom register of Apparition of the angel to Zaccheriah. The inscription says: An (anno) MCCCCLXXXX quo pulcherrima civitas opibus victoriis artibus aedifichiisque nobili(s) copia salubritate pace perfruebatur - during the year 1490 the most beautiful city for wealth, victories and commerce, famous for its monuments, enjoyed abundance, health and peace. 
The third middle wall, houses a magnificent stained glass window depicting six saints, three to each side, and in the middle of the window are three scenes featuring the Virgin Mary: from the top, the Madonna giving her girdle to Saint Thomas, the Assumption, Madonna and the miracle of the snow. The chapel is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin, thus explaining the subject choice for the middle of the window.

Stained glass window, central wall of the Tornabuoni chapel, 1491, Santa Maria Novella Church, Domenico Ghirlandaio. 
The ceiling is divided into four parts and shows the four Evangelists with their respective symbols (Mathew – Angel, Mark - lion, Luke – bull, John – eagle).

Ceiling decoration of the four Evangelists, Tornabuoni chapel, Domenico Ghirlandaio, fresco. 
Michelangelo joined Ghirlandaio’s workshop when he was thirteen years old in 1488. He learnt painting and fresco in this workshop for two years. He learnt the fresco technique working on the Tornabuoni chapel. Afterwards, at fifteen years old, he would start to learn sculpture in the Medici sponsored sculpture garden under the direct patronage of Lorenzo the Magnificent (Giovanni Tornabuoni’s nephew).

This chapel is higher and wider than all others in the church. It is spectacular and it was a perfect display of the status of the patron. He commissioned the carved wooden choirstalls from Baccio d’Agnolo.

In the lower registers, closest to the viewer, there are many spectators witnessing the religious scene. They have distinctly individualised features, most of them are portraits of Giovanni’s family, the heads of the leading families in the Oligarchy which controlled the Republic of Florence and the leading philosophers of the day. The Apparition of the angel to Zaccheriah depicts the leading people in society at that time. Howver, it this world depicted by Ghirlandaio was coming to an end. In 1494, four years after the fresco was finished, the Medici family were exiled and Girolamo Savonarola began to rule, a Dominican friar who replaced the Oligarchy with a theocracy. After the four years with Savonarola, the republic would be restored, however, it was a rocky and uncertain time both internally and externally with the other city states and foreign kingdoms (France and Spain).

Apparition of the angel to Zaccheriah, Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella, 1485-90, fresco.
The four men in the lower right: Marsilio Ficino, Cristofero Landino, Agnolo Poliziano, Demetrio Greco. The men behind are all from the leading families in Florence, Giovanni Tornabuoni is in the crowd.
Giovanni’s daughter, Ludovica Tornabuoni, is featured in the Birth of the Virgin (the woman in the photo below depicted in yellow) and Giovanni’s daughter-in-law, married to his only son, Giovanni degli Albizi, is depicted in the Visitation (image depicted above). Giovanna had already died when the fresco was finished, she died at fifteen years old in childbirth.

Birth of the Virgin, Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Domenico Ghirlandaio, fresco.
Ludovica Tornabuoni (Giovanni Tornabuoni's daughter) is the lady pregnant dressed in the elaborately designed dress, fifth from the left.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


With the reorganisation of the Uffizi gallery, the exit is no longer mid-way down the third corridor, but at the end of it. This brings the Laocoon sculptural group, a 1500s copy of the famous ancient sculpture, once more as a protagonist in the gallery. Located at the end of the third corridor, previously overlooked by most, visitors to the gallery are now forced to walk right up to it in order to leave the building.

The Laocoon Group, marble copy by Baccio Bandinelli after the Hellenistic original
This copy was commissioned to Baccio Bandinelli by Cardinal Giulio de Medici in the early 1500s. It was originally intended to the be sent as a gift to the French king Francis I, however this was never followed through. The sculpture stayed in Florence where it was displayed for centuries in the garden of the Medici home on via Larga (modern day via Cavour).

Raphael, portrait of Pope Leo X with cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi, 1518-1519, Uffizi Gallery
The eponymous protagonist of the sculptural group is an Apollon priest of Troy who is depicted, along with his two sons, being strangled by sea snakes. This ill fated death was sent by Neptune and Athena who wished to stop Laocoon from persuading his fellow Trojans to refuse the gift of the wooden horse from the Greeks. Laocoon had understood that this was a clever ruse on behalf of the Trojans' enemy, the Greeks, to enter the city and that there were no good intentions about it. The gods wanted the Greeks to win and so they were making sure that nothing prevented the outcome that they desired.

The original sculpture, from which the group in the Uffizi gallery is a direct copy, is thought to be from the 1st century BC from Rhodes. Pliny the Elder (AD23-AD79), the Roman historian, named three sculptors responsible for the group, Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus. Its fame spread far and wide upon its creation and much was written about it, with great praise. Centuries later in the renaissance period, this original sculptural group was unearthed on 14 January in 1506, in the area close to Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Pope Julius II immediately claimed it as papal property and the sculptural group was placed in the Belvedere courtyard in the Vatican palace, where it remains today.

The sculpture became one of the most influential works of the century.  Artists from far and wide came to draw it and etchings were sent to courts all over the continent. The deep pathos, drama and intense emotion of the figures, particularly expressed by Laocoon himself, opened up new avenues of expression in the renaissance world.

Head of Laocoon, detail of Laocoon Group
The rational renaissance, full of self control and restraint, is forgotten when looking at this most highly charged work. It is an exemplary work of the Hellenistic period, which succeeded Classicism.
In the Belvedere courtyard of the Vatican museums, home to the original Laocoon, there is also the Apollo Belvedere sculpture, one of the other most beautiful sculptures in the collection, and which embodies the qualities of the classical period. In this sculpture, all emotion is contained and internalised and nothing but calm confidence resonates from the god who has just shot an arrow from is bow (now lacking). The placements of the two great sculptures in the Belvedere courtyard means that you don’t have to move to be able to see them both very well, each of them individually occupying a deep recess in the courtyard but close to one another. Each work perfectly embodies the characteristics of the two most important and strongly different styles from antiquity -  Classicism and Hellenism.

Apollo Belvedere, Roman copy after a Greek bronze
The Laocoon copy by Bandinelli in the Uffizi was commissioned in 1520 by the future second Medici pope, Cardinal Giulio de Medici. The patronage is evident because of the cardinal’s symbol on the original pedestal underneath. Paolo Giovio, an intellectual from Como living in Florence was responsible for the cardinal’s impresa (personal motto and symbol), a transparent crystal ball through which a ray of sunlight shines and hits a tree setting it alight. The motto is 'candor illesus' (purity unharmed).
The sculptural group was commissioned in Rome by the Cardinal for his cousin, Pope Leo X, who wished to gift it to King Francis I of France. After Pope Leo X’s death in 1521, Bandinelli and Cardinal Giulio living in Rome, returned to Florence leaving the marble in Rome. Upon Giulio’s election to Pope in 1525, they both returned to Rome and Bandinelli resumed work on the Laocoon group. Giulio, now Pope Clement VII, no longer had plans to send the work to France, but instead sent it to the Palazzo Medici for the garden. It replaced the bronze Judith and Holofernes group by Donatello which had once been in the garden of the Medici palace but was then taken to the town hall (where it is today) when the family was exiled in 1494.

Donatello, Judith slaying Holofernes, bronze, late 1450s, Palazzo della Signoria
When the Laocoon arrived in the Medici palace garden, there was already another work by the Bandinelli located in the courtyard, the Orpheus statue, which had been there since 1519. It too replaced a work by Donatello, the famous bronze David commissioned by Cosimo the Elder. Once located in the centre of the courtyard, it too had been taken to the town hall after the family’s exile. Interestingly, Bandinelli’s Orpheus deliberately draws inspiration from the above mentioned ancient Apollo Belvedere statue which, discovered in the late 1400s, had been in the Vatican courtyard since 1511. Bandinelli would have had ample opportunity to draw and study it.

Baccio Bandinelli, Orpheus, 1519, marble, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi
Just as, in the Vatican, the Laocoon and Apollo are still today in close proximity, the copy of the Laocoon and the Orpheus (inspired by the Apollo), both by Bandinelli from the same patron, were in the same location, the Medici palace,

Donatello, David, 1440s, bronze, Bargello National Sculpture Gallery
Unlike Orpheus however, after the sale of the palazzo to the Riccardi family in 1659, the Laocoon was transferred to the Casino di San Marco and then entered the Uffizi with the legacy of Cardinal Carlo de Medici.

Saturday, October 19, 2013


The Refectory room of the cloistered Benedictine nuns of Sant'Apollonia, Florence.
The scene of the Last Supper with Christ and his disciples before the crucifixion is the most commonly found decoration in the refectories (eating rooms) in convents and monasteries from the 1400s onwards. The symbolic meaning is that the members of the religious order eat with Christ, and they are perpetually reminded of Christ’s sacrifice, represented symbolically through the bread and wine, staple features at every meal. Most of the time meals were held in silence with somebody reading from the bible, which is why a pulpit is sometimes still present in these rooms.

The first representation of the last supper decoration in a refectory occurred in the middle of the 1300s in the Franciscan convent in Florence, Santa Croce, frescoed by Taddeo Gaddi. It is not depicted however, as the main wall decoration but underneath the large central tree of life.

The Last Supper and Tree of Life, Taddeo Gaddi, refectory in Santa Croce church,  1360s, Florence.
The first representation where the Last Supper is the central and most important scene on the wall of a refectory, superseding that of the crucifixion, is in the female monastery dedicated to Sant’Apollonia in Florence, on the other side of the city. This was frescoed by the early Renaissance great master, Andrea del Castagno in 1447. Interestingly, it was not mentioned in the chapter dedicated to the painter in the first art history book written by Giorgio Vasari in 1550, because being a cloistered female monastery, Vasari and others had no access to it and did not know of its existence. The convent was suppressed in 1808 and only then was the fresco bought to the attention of academics. Access was limited, however, until 1891 when the refectory and some surrounding rooms were acquired to open a museum celebrating the masterpiece.

The artist, Andrea del Castagno, was Tuscan and his name tells us from where he hailed.  Castagno is a small mountainous village in the province of Florence (his name literally translates as Andrea from Castagno). In a lovely turnabout of importance, however, this town is now called after him, Castagno d’Andrea (Andrea’s Castagno) reflecting his importance in painting in the early renaissance period. Andrea embraces the new style of strong realism in pictorial depiction, regarding both the representation of space, three dimensionality, and the desire to convey emotion and expression in the figures. He is thought of as being a Donatello in painting, with his strong contours and prioritising the portrayal of the human psyche, even at the expense of elegance and detail.

Last Supper, Andrea del Castagno, fresco, convent of Sant'Apollonia, 1447, Florence. 
Andrea’s Last Supper composition is the most typical way to represent the scene, with Judas on the side of the spectator, until Leonardo’s work in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, when he is placed on the side with all the other Apostles and Christ.

Detail of central section of the Last Supper, Andrea del Castagno, refectory of Sant'Apollonia convent,  1447,  Florence.
The precise moment that is being represented is when Christ announces that one of the people present will betray him. John, seated on one side of Christ, is so grieved to hear this statement that he bends over and and puts his head on the table. When asked who it will be, Christ says it is the person to whom he gives the bread dipped in the dish and then he gives it to Judas (the gospel of John). Peter is most often seated on the other side of Christ and sometimes is looking directly to Judas.

Refectory wall with the Last Supper and accompanying scenes above of the resurrection, crucifixion and ascension, Andre del Castagno. 
As shown in the above photo, the Last supper scene in the convent of Sant’Apollonia is accompanied by three smaller scenes above; the resurrection, the crucifixion and the Ascension to heaven.

This refectory is open Tuesday-Saturday 8.15am-1.50pm, free admission, via 27 Aprile 1.

Friday, August 23, 2013


The medieval Palazzo Vecchio is a gem of a museum. There are so many interesting nooks and crannies and it spans the great Florentine period, from the republic in the medieval period to the dukedom from the 16th century onwards.

La Sala delle Carte Geographiche (the room of the geographic maps) is truly a gem! It was created by Cosimo I, the second duke of Florence in the second half of the 1500s. Moving into the government building in 1540, he converted it into his ducal palace, and created the map room to represent the known world at the time, both terrestrial and celestrial. 

Map of Persia by Stefano Bonsignori
Some of the most talented cartographers and aritisans on the Italian peninsula worked on decorating the space. And some of the most precious objects in the Medicean collection were kept in huge walnut wood cupboards that he commissioned from Dionigi di Matteo Nigetti - objects such as tapestries, scientific instruments (often called mathematical jewels due to their exquisite goldsmithery), bronze stuettes and silver. These objects were all listed in ledgers kept by the duke’s guardaroba staff (another name of the room, which means, literally, cloakroom) and tracked when taken out of the room. 

Map of the British Isles by Ignazio Danti

For the cupboard doors, Cosimo commissioned a series of maps (oil paintings), which showed the whole world as known at the time. There are 53 maps in total. They are displayed in two registers within the wooden cupboards. The first thirty maps were meticulously devised by Cosimo’s court cosmographer, mathematician and cartographer, the Domincan friar from Perugia, Ignazio Danti, who had been recommended by his brother Vincenzo Danti, already working for Cosimo as a sculptor. Ignazio worked for twelve years under Cosimo and was part of his small inner circle. However, after the duke’s death, his son, Francesco I, replaced Danti with the Monte Olivetan monk, Stefano Bonsignori, who created a further twenty three maps. The maps are widely praised both for their artistry and for their impressive topographical precision and geographical details, with additional information about the winds and typical features of the territory.

Astrolabe by Ignazio Danti which contains a single plate for the latitude of Florence. Galileo used this for his astronomical calculations
The room would have been truly spectacular had all the planned projects been carried through. Above the cupboards, there were to have been a series of marble busts of ancient emperors and on the wall behind, a series of paintings, now in the Uffizi gallery corridor, of illustrious people from antiquity to the late 15th century (called the Giovian series). 

Below the maps there were to have been paintings of flora and fauna to match the geographical area depicted above. The wooden ceiling, divided into twelve wooden coffers, was to have been decorated with the forty-eight constellations.

It was originally planned that two huge globes, celestial and terrestrial, be stored in the ceiling above and connected to a mechanical device. When two of the coffered areas slid open, the globes would be lowered into the room upon demand. Unfortunately, only the terrestrial globe was ever made and it now stands in the middle of the room, finished in 1567 by Matteo Neroni. It was the largest globe ever made at the time.

A truly magnificent armillary sphere showing the planets and fixed stars, made by Antonio Santucci delle Pomarance (1588-93), was also in the room . This is now deservedly displayed in its own room in the Galileo museum (Science museum) and is a wonderful combination of technical knowledge and artistic ability. Finally, the famous astronomical clock of the planets, from 1484 by Lorenzo della Volpaia, was also here next to the armillery sphere, but this, tragically, is now lost.

Armillary sphere of Antonio Santucci representing the 'universal machine' of the world according to concepts developed by Aristotle and perfected by Ptolemy. The terrestrial globe is placed at the centre.
This room is unfortunately often overlooked, being at the end of the museum.  However, it is yet another insight into the extraordinary dedication to knowledge and finery that the Medici family were renowned for on the European continent.

Monday, April 1, 2013


Artists in the renaissance didn’t have their own guild as what they did wasn’t a profession; it was considered a menial trade and was not an organised body in society. However, it was necessary that they belonged to some type of economic organisation in order to pay dues, taxes etc. The goldsmiths belonged to the silk guild - arte della seta (the connection being that the silk merchants used gold thread) and the painters belonged to the apothecaries and spice merchants guild - arte dei medici e speziali (the painter’s pigments and apothecary’s ingredients were sometimes the same) but the stoneworkers and carpenters did have a guild - arte di Maestri di Pietra e Legname. Because of this lack of any sort of real representation on the whole, the artists (artisans) created, in 1339, the Compagnia di san Luca, a confraternity dedicated to Saint Luke, as a sort of anti-guild, their own club or society where they could converse, pray and the talk shop. Their patron saint was Luke, chosen because he was a colleague. Saint Luke the Evangelist was supposedly a painter.

The Compagnia di san Luca was given new life when in 1562 a sculptor, Giovannangelo Montorsoli, obtained a space in the cloisters of the much loved Santissima Annunziata monastery, to make a chapel for the artists and reignite the confraternity.

The current position of the altar since the early 1800s with a fresco of Saint Luke painting the Madonna by Giorgio Vasari

Montorsoli was a servite friar in the Santissima Annunziata church, this order founded by seven wealthy Florentines in the thirteenth century who called themselves the servants of Mary. Montorsoli had been hired by Michelangelo to help on the Medici tomb commission in the new sacristy in San Lorenzo church (he had worked on saint Cosmas). He renovated the chapel for the artists inside the church, paying for the work himself. The chapel was inaugurated in 1562, on the day dedicated to the Holy Trinity, in the presence of forty-eight artists, amongst whom were Benvenuto Cellini, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Giorgio Vasari, Francesco da San Gallo and Michele Ghirlandaio.  On the day of inauguration they ceremonially brought the remains of Jacopo Pontormo to the chapel (he had previously been in the cloister of the Madonna close by) and laid him to rest in the crypt below.

The marble floor tomb cover leading to the crypt where the artists rest in peace.

 Pontormo, who had lived close by and had worked on the atrium of the church Santissima Annunziata on the chiostrino dei voti during the second decade of the fifteenth century, was greatly revered by the artists in Florence. Pontormo is not the only one who is here, Cellini, Franciabigio and Montorsoli also. Legend has it that they are placed seated as if in conversation with one other.

The current altar has a fresco by Giorgio Vasari above, of Saint Luke painting the Virgin Mary (who looks as though she is giving him a few pointers on how she would like to be represented!) depicted in the photo above. This however, wasn’t the original placement of the altar. Initially, the entrance of the chapel was from the left wall upon entering and the Bronzino/Allori fresco of theTrinity (now on the right wall from the altar upon entering) was above the altar. 

Fresco of the Holy Trinity by Bronzino/Allori on the right hand side wall upon entering, the position of the original altar and this was the original altarpiece.

This initial entrance however was walled up and the current one from the chiostro dei morti was opened, when the chapel was given for use to the Bishop of Nancy during the Napoleonic period in the early 1800s. There is now a fresco by Pontormo Madonna with saints, on the walled up original entrance. This fresco came from the now destroyed church of Saint Ruffillo.

The fourth fresco (opposite the current altar) is by Santi di Tito of either Constantine oversees the construction of the first Christian basilicas (or, also thought to be The building of the temple of Solomon).

The Accademia del disegno was created two years after chapel’s inauguration, in 1564. This was the first Accademia of the arts formed in modern times. The creation of the academy meant that artisans had now become artists and no longer was the apprenticeship/workshop the only way to learn the ‘trade’, now students were trained formally like when learning the liberal arts.

The chapel of the painters is not available to the public.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Today in Florence, March 6, there will be a procession from the town hall to the Santa Croce Church in honour of the birth of Michelangelo Buonarroti who was born on this date in 1475. They will place a wreath on his tomb which is located on the inside of the Santa Croce church. This was his parish church as his family had their family home close by in via Bentaccordi.

Michelangelo died in Rome at the age of 89 on 18 February in 1564. He was first buried in the SS. Apostoli church after a very modest and small funeral organised by the compagnia di Giovanni decollato (the confraternity of the decapitated John) to which he had been a member for about fifty years. Many of the Florentine artists resident in Rome were members. His nephew, Leonardo, his heir, came to Rome some days after his death and stayed some weeks in order to organise his deceased uncle’s estate and belongings. He organised for Michelangelo’s body to be transported back to his hometown, Florence. The body was smuggled it out of the city of Rome hidden in a bale of merchandise. It arrived in Florence on March 10 and held in the campagnia dell’assunta and was then brought to Santa Croce church on March 12. Thirty two artists from the newly founded Accademia del Disegno along with Vincenzo Borghini (the judicial overseer of the Accademia) carried Michelangelo’s body to the church accompanied by torches. The body was placed in the sacristry of the church and the procession had attracted a huge crowd. Leonardo Buonarroti then began the organisaton of a tomb for the great artist. He had planned on the tomb being designed and planned by Michelangelo’s friend, Daniele da Volterra, who had been one of the few people who had been with Michelangelo when he died, and some of the Roman artists in his circle, however Vasari forced him to use Florentine artists from the newly founded Accademia del Disegno. The tomb was finished some years later.

Five months after Michelangelo’s body had been brought to Florence, there was a huge funeral staged for him in San Lorenzo. Never before had there been a funeral for an artist such as this, the next funeral that would be as big would be that of the Grand duke Cosimo I. The whole of the San Lorenzo church was decorated with huge paintings depicting episodes from the artist’s life with a fifty three foot long catafalque under the transept crossing. Michelangelo, who disliked pomp and ceremony, was given a funeral of a princely scale.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Tucked off to one side in the San Miniato al monte church of the Benedictine monastery which overlooks Florence, there is an exquisite renaissance funerary chapel which was added into the fabric of the Romanesque church in the 1400s (it was finished in 1473).

View of the chapel from the left side aisle of San Miniato al Monte church, Florence

Cardinal James of Lusitania was 25 years when he died in Florence in 1459.  He was the Portuguese ambassador to the Florentine republic. He had extremely blue blood as attested by the thirty coats of arms in the entablature running around the whole chapel. James of Lusitania (the name of the ancient Roman province which corresponds roughly to modern day Portugal and some areas of Spain) was the archbishop of Lisbon and the nephew to the King of Portugal. His uncle, the king, commissioned the funerary chapel for his nephew. Some of the most important artists of Florence participated in its decoration. The architecture and sculpture was first entrusted to Antonio Manetti, an associate of Brunelleschi, however, the commission was very quickly passed to the Rossellino brothers workshop, Antonio and Bernardo. The frescoed decoration was by Alessio Baldovinetti (the teacher of Ghirlandaio), the altarpiece painting by the workshop of the Pollaiolo brothers, Antonio and Piero, and finally the ceiling of stunning glazed terracotta by Luca della Robbia. These artisans are some of the most frequently cited from the fifteenth century Florentine renaissance period and they all had successful workshops. Their style was very modern, a la page, for the time. These artisans were part of the renaissance group who translated the humanist renaissance revival of the centrality of man into an artistic vocabulary. This was achieved through an attentive study of the world around them which lead to both the introduction of an acute realism into figurative representation, as well as the novel insertion of the natural world into the art. Both of these aspects had not previously, in the medieval world, been a priority as life on earth and the here and now had been overshadowed by the spiritual world.

 Consequently, as art reflects life, the images reflected the spiritual realm which had to be depicted differently to the earthly existence. When art began to resemble the world around us, it reflected the shift in consideration given to man’s actions independent of their relationship to the spiritual. Finally, these artisans were also using as a guide the classical world in a way that the medieval artisan had far from considered. All of these new factors can be clearly seen in the tomb sculpture of the cardinal.

Tomb of the cardinal of Lusitania, Antonio Rossellino, 1461-66, white marble and porphyry with traces of polychromy and gold

 It follows the renaissance tomb archetype, created by Bernardo Rossellino (the same workshop), of Leonardo Bruni in the Santa Croce church, begun in 1444. 

Tomb of Leonardo Bruni, Bernardo Rossellino, 1444-47, marble, Santa Croce church, Florence

Both tombs are set in an arch frame reminiscent of the triumphal arch from antiquity and although it could be argued that this is to be interpreted as expressing the desire of eternal salvation for the soul, the highly realistic rendering of the man, lying as if in state for people to come and pay homage, on his tomb leads us to believe the desired effect is for a lasting memory on earth of the man that he was, rather than being solely concerned with his soul. The wonderful stone curtains on the sides create the sense of a stage and add an element of warmth to the stone wall. The frescoes in the pendentives above the arch hint at the colour that the overall chapel would have once had when the frescoes were newly finished and the colouring on the marble was still evident. The porphyry background behind the tomb harks to the royal lineage using symbolism from antiquity when only the emperor and his family could use this most precious purple stone from Egypt.

The chapel structure was inspired by Brunelleschi’s architecture, most notably the Old sacristy in San Lorenzo church. It is the first Greek cross format of the renaissance. The altar piece painting, the original is in the Uffizi gallery, by the Pollaiuolo brothers depicts three standing saints, Vincent James and Eustace.
Altar piece painting of saints Vincent, James and Eustace, Antonio and Piero Pollaiuolo, 1468, tempura on wood, Uffizi gallery, Florence

Vincent (dressed in his deacon’s robes) because he is the patron saint of Lisbon and patron of the royal house of Portugal, James (depicted with his usual attribute of a pilgrim’s staff and hat) because he is the cardinal’s namesake and patron saint, and finally, Eustace because it was the cardinal’s titular church in Rome. The floor in the painting resembles the floor of the chapel. The different artistic mediums are all in harmony with one another and fit together like pieces of a puzzle, the painting with the carved marble surroundings and the overall architecture.

The floor is similar to the medieval Romanesque pavements, called cosmatesque, seen most often in religious structures (the same design can be seen in the Sistine chapel done at a similar time to this chapel and then shortly afterwards, in the Raphael rooms of the Vatican palace).

View of the floor in the chapel of the cardinal of Lusitania, cosmatesque style.

The name, cosmatesque, refers to the family workshop of mosaicists called Cosmati, active in Rome in the twelve and thirteenth century, who specialised in this inlay style. It is opus sectile mosaic which uses different size pieces of stone not opus tessile mosaic where the tessarae are of the same size. The stones used are semi precious such as porphyry and green serpentine with Carrera white marble and when not decorating floors (columns, pulpits of walls for example) coloured glass is often used, glazed terracotta or gold leaf glass.

Finally, the ceiling is a marvellous display of the della Robbia workshop production.

Ceilinng of the chapel depicting the four cardinal virtues, Luca della Robbia, 1460s, glazed terrracotta.

Luca della Robbia was the first artisan to take advantage of terracotta and perfect the coloured glazing which made highly pleasing objects for the decoration of domestic domains as well as churches without the cost of marble. The ceiling here is a testament to the skill in moulding and colouring that he produced in his most successful family workshop. The four cardinal virtues are shown in the tondos in the four corners; temperance mixing wine and water, fortitude with her sword and shield bearing the cardinal’s coat of arms, prudence with her mirror and snake and lastly, justice with her scales. In the middle is the dove of the holy spirit surrounded by seven candle stick holders. These could be symbolic of the seven branched candelabrum (menorah), the ancient symbol of Judaism. To Christians, the menorah symbolises divine wisdom and its seven branches stand for the seven planets, the seven virtues, the seven sacraments to name a few of the Christian groupings of seven to which it could be referring. The shades of blue glaze with the white make the scene seem celestial set against the strong geometric pattern of diamond interlay with yellow, green and black.