Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)
Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488)

When you walk around an art gallery I wonder how long you spend in front of each painting.  I suppose it depends on the type of painting and whether it is part of a crowded special exhibition when you are jostled from one painting to the next by a crowded sea of viewers.  I suppose it also depends on your time management as if you are coming to the end of your allotted time you tend to jump from one picture to the next in a desperate attempt to not miss a single one, although in a way your hurried state probably means that the last few painting remain just a blur in your mind.   So why do I ask this question about time management and carefully appreciating the paintings before us?   The answer is that during a recent visit to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid I had left the room, which housed the fifteenth century art collection till last and I was constantly aware that my time at the museum was running out.   I found myself flitting from one painting to another and I have to admit by doing so I failed to take in the beauty of the works in that section of the gallery.   That was until I came across two stunning works which I could hardly drag myself away from.  They were just such beautiful paintings.  Yes, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder but for me they were truly exquisite.   I stood before them, totally mesmerised by their intrinsic charm and so I am dedicating my next two blogs to those two 15th century works. 

The Wdding Medalion
The Wdding Medalion

Today I want to offer you a beautifully crafted portrait by the 15th century Italian artist Domenico Ghirlandaio entitled Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni which he completed in 1490 and which is now part of the permanent collection at Madrid’s Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum.   Giovanna was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni who came from the wealthy Florentine banking family and whose father, Giovanni was Domenico Ghirlandaio’s patron.  We know this is the image of Giovanna as at the time of her marriage to Lorenzo a series of bronze portrait medals with her image were made to commemorate the event and the likeness of the figure on the medal and in the painting is undeniable.   Lorenzo and Giovanna married in June 1486 but sadly she died giving birth to her second son in 1488, at just twenty years of age.  As the portrait was completed after she died, it is thought that it could be looked upon as a kind of remembrance painting.   The painting hung in her husband’s private rooms in the Tornabuoni Palace.

We see Giovanna before us, half-length, in a somewhat rigid profile.  In her hands she clasps a handkerchief.  Giovanna is dressed in the most sumptuous way.  She wears a giornea which is an open-sided over-gown, which is brocaded.  The design on the brocade features the letter “L” and a diamond.   The “L” is her husband, Lorenzo’s initial and the diamond was the Tornabuoni family emblem.  There is no doubt that she is one of Florence’s élite by the way she wears her hair in the very latest Florentine fashion.  The jewels she wears around her neck comprise of two rings and pendant which were given to her by Lorenzo’s family as a wedding gift.  If you look closely at the pendant she wears you will also notice a matching brooch designed in the shape of a dragon which lies on a shelf behind her.   The jewel with its dragon, two pearls and a ruby formed a set with the pendant hanging from a silk cord around her neck.   Behind her, on the shelf, is a prayer book which is thought to be the libriccino da donna (little ladies’ book).  Above the book hangs a string of coral beads which have been identified as a rosary.   Ghirlandaio’s inclusion of this prayer book and the rosary in the painting was testament to Giovanna’s religious beliefs and her piety. 

What did Ghirlandaio think of his sitter?  Will we ever know?  Actually the answer lies within the painting itself because just behind Giovanna’s neck we can see attached to the shelf a cartellino.   A cartellino (Italian for small piece of paper) was a piece of parchment or paper painted illusionistically, often as though attached to a wall or parapet in a painting.  On the cartellino added by Ghirlandaio in this painting are the words:





which translates to:


“…Would that you, Art, could portray her character and spirit ;  for then there would be no fairer painting in the world..”.

At the bottom there is the date:


By these words there is no doubt Ghirlandaio is excusing himself to Giovanna for his belief that he has not been able to show her real inner beauty.  These are fine words from our artist but in fact they were not quite his own as they are a slight variation on the words of an epigram (a short and concise poem) of the Latin poet Marcus Galerius Martial, whose works were all the rage with the Florentine aristocracy of the day.

My featured artist today was born Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi.  The name was derived in part from his father’s surname Curadi and the surname of his grandfather Bigordi.  He was born in Florence in 1449, the eldest child of Tommaso Bigordi and Antonia di ser Paolo Paoli.  His father was a goldsmith and was well-known for creating metallic garland-like necklaces which were worn by the ladies of Florence, and it was for that reason that Domenico was given the nickname Il Ghirlandaio (garland-maker).   Domenico worked in his father’s jewellery shop and it was during his time there that he started sketching portraits of customers and passers-by.   According to the famous biographer of artists, Giorgio Vasari, Domenico’s father decided to afford his son some formal artistic training and had him apprenticed to the Florentine painters, Alesso Baldovinetti and later Andrea del Verrocchio.

Domenico will always be remembered for his exquisite detailed narrative frescos in which he would incorporate portraits of the local aristocracy resplendent in their finery.  Many of his frescos appeared in local Florentine churches.  In 1482, he also completed a Vatican commission for Pope Sixtus IV – a fresco in the Sistine Chapel entitled Calling of the First Apostles.  The frescos he will probably be best remembered for were two major fresco cycles, which he completed with the help of his brothers, Davide and Benedetto along with his brother-in-law, Bastiano Mainardi, who was one of Domenico’s pupils.


The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Girlandaio
The Resurrection of the Boy by St. Francis by Ghirlandaio

The first of these frescos was for the Sassetti Chapel in the church of St Trinita in Florence.  It had been commissioned by Francesco Sassetti, a rich and powerful banker who worked for the Medici family.  This cycle of frescos was in six parts and depicted the life and times of St. Francis of Assisi, who was Sassetti’s patron saint. Seen within the frescos were a number of portraits of members of the Sassetti family along with some of the leading figures from the Medici family.  To look at the two families within the frescos one would be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Sassettis and the Medicis were very close, which of course was precisely the allusion Francesco Sassetti had wished to convey.  Alas for him, the close bond between the two families was all in his mind!

Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio
Visitation by Domenico Ghirlandaio

The second fresco cycle, Ghirlandaio’s last, and many art historians believe was his greatest, was commissioned to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church in Florence by another banker, Giovanni Tornabuoni, who was related by marriage to the Medicis.   There was a connection between the two fresco cycles as Sassetti had the rights to decorate the Capella Maggiore of the Santa Maria Novella Church and he had wanted to have the frescos in the church depict the life of St Francis.   However the church was in trust to the Dominican order and they refused to allow such a design, so it was then that Sassetti decided to have the St Francis frescos painted instead in the Sassetti Chapel of the St Trinita Church in Florence and he sold the rite to decorating the Capella Maggiore to Giovanni Tornabuoni

 Ghirlandaio had not even completed the Sassetti fresco cycle when he was given this second large scale commission and he had to bring in most of the workers from his large Florentine studio to help him in this four-year project which was finally completed in 1490.  

The reason for talking about this fresco cycle is that I want you look closely at Ghirlandaio’s fresco, the part entitled Visitation.  Look at the third woman from the right.  Do you recognise her?   It is a full length portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni who was the wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni whose father, Giovanni was the commissioner of the fresco work and who was also my subject of today’s featured work.

The painting had a number of owners but in 1907 the American millionaire financier and philanthropist and founder of the J.P. Morgan bank,  J. Pierpont Morgan bought it in 1907.  It is believed that he adored the painting as it reminded him of his first wife, Amelia Sturgis, who like Giovanna had died very young.  She died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-six, just four months after she and J.P. had married.   It entered the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection from the Morgan Library, New York, in 1935.

Whereas J.P. Morgan had his painting on view in his home to remind him of his wife I have a print of it on my breakfast room wall to remind me of Giovanna’s beauty as I serve guests with their breakfasts.