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.
|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.|
|Ceiling decoration of the four Evangelists, Tornabuoni chapel, Domenico Ghirlandaio, fresco.|
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).
|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.