Gateway to the Classics: Knights of Art by Amy Steedman
Knights of Art by  Amy Steedman

Domenico Ghirlandaio

G HIRLANDAIO! what a difficult name that sounds to our English ears. But it has a very simple meaning, and when you understand it the difficulty will vanish.

It all happened in this way. Domenico's father was a goldsmith, one of the cleverest goldsmiths in Florence, and he was specially famous for making garlands or wreaths of gold and silver. It was the fashion then for the young maidens of Florence to wear these garlands, or "ghirlande" as they were called, on their heads, and because this goldsmith made them better than any one else they gave him the name of Ghirlandaio, which means "maker of garlands," and that became the family name.

When the time came for the boy Domenico to learn a trade, he was sent, of course, to his father's workshop. He learned so quickly, and worked with such strong, clever fingers, that his father was delighted.

"The boy will make the finest goldsmith of his day," he said proudly, as he watched him twisting the delicate golden wire and working out his designs in beaten silver.

So he was set to make the garlands, and for a while he was contented and happy. It was such exquisite work to twine into shape the graceful golden leaves, with here and there a silver lily or a jewelled rose, and to dream of the fair head on which the garland would rest.

But the making of garlands did not satisfy Domenico for long, and like Botticelli he soon began to dream of becoming a painter.

You must remember that in those days goldsmiths and painters had much in common, and often worked together. The goldsmith made his picture with gold and silver and jewels, while the painter drew his with colours, but they were both artists.

So as the young Ghirlandaio watched these men draw their great designs and listened to their talk, he began to feel that the goldsmith's work was cramped and narrow, and he longed for a larger, grander work. Day by day the garlands were more and more neglected, and every spare moment was spent drawing the faces of those who came to the shop, or even those of the passers-by.

But although, ere long, Ghirlandaio left his father's shop and learned to make pictures with colours, instead of with gold, silver, and jewels, still the training he had received in his goldsmith's work showed to the end in all his pictures. He painted the smallest things with extreme care, and was never tired of spreading them over with delicate ornaments and decorations. It is a great deal the outward show with Ghirlandaio, and not so much the inward soul, that we find in his pictures, though he had a wonderful gift of painting portraits.

These portraits painted by the young Ghirlandaio seemed very wonderful to the admiring Florentines. From all his pictures looked out faces which they knew and recognised immediately. There, in a group of saints, or in a crowd of figures around the Infant Christ, they saw the well-known faces of Florentine nobles, the great ladies from the palaces, ay, and even the men of the market-place, and the poor peasant women who sold eggs and vegetables in the streets. Once he painted an old bishop with a pair of spectacles resting on his nose. It was the first time that spectacles had ever been put into a picture.


by Ghirlandaio

Then off he must go to Rome, like every one else, to add his share to the famous frescoes of the Vatican. But it was in Florence that most of his work was done.

In the church of Santa Maria Novella there was a great chapel which belonged to the Ricci family. It had once been covered by beautiful frescoes, but now it was spoilt by damp and the rain that came through the leaking roof. The noble family, to whom the chapel belonged, were poor and could not afford to have the chapel repainted, but neither would they allow any one else to decorate it, lest it should pass out of their hands.

Now another noble family, called the Tournabuoni, when they heard of the fame of the new painter, greatly desired to have a chapel painted by him in order to do honour to their name and family.

Accordingly they went to the Ricci family and offered to have the whole chapel painted and to pay the artist themselves. Moreover, they said that the arms or crest of the Ricci family should be painted in the most honourable part of the chapel, that all might see that the chapel still belonged to them.

To this the Ricci family gladly agreed, and Ghirlandaio was set to work to cover the walls with his frescoes.

"I will give thee twelve hundred gold pieces when it is done," said Giovanni Tournabuoni, "and if I like it well, then shalt thou have two hundred more."

Here was good pay indeed. Ghirlandaio set to work with all speed, and day by day the frescoes grew. For four years he worked hard, from morning until night, until at last the walls were covered.

One of the subjects which he chose for these frescoes was the story of the Life of the Virgin, so often painted by Florentine artists. This story I will tell you now, that your eyes may take greater pleasure in the pictures when you see them.

The Bible story of the Virgin Mary begins when the Angel Gabriel came to tell her of the birth of the Baby Jesus, but there are many stories or legends about her before that time, and this is one which the Italians specially loved to paint.

Among the blue hills of Galilee, in the little town of Nazareth, there lived a man and his wife whose names were Joachim and Anna. Though they were rich and had many flocks of sheep which fed in the rich pastures around, still there was one thing which God had not given them and which they longed for more than all beside. They had no child. They had hoped that God would send one, but now they were both growing old, and hope began to fade.

Joachim was a very good man, and gave a third of all that he had as an offering to the temple; but one sad day when he took his gift, the high priest at the altar refused to take it.

"God has shown that He will have nought of thee," said the priest, "since thou hast no child to come after thee."

Filled with shame and grief Joachim would not go home to his wife, but instead he wandered out into the far-off fields where his shepherds were feeding the flocks, and there he stayed forty days. With bowed head and sad eyes when he was alone, he knelt and prayed that God would tell him what he had done to deserve this disgrace.

And as he prayed God sent an angel to comfort him.

The angel placed his hand upon the bowed head of the poor old man, and told him to be of good cheer and to return home at once to his wife.

"For God will even now send thee a child," said the angel.

So with a thankful heart which never doubted the angel's word, Joachim turned his face homewards.

Meanwhile, at home, Anna had been sorrowing alone. That same day she had gone into the garden, and, as she wandered among the flowers, she wept bitterly and prayed that God would send her comfort. Then there appeared to her also an angel, who told her that God had heard her prayer and would send her the child she longed for.

"Go now," the angel added, "and meet thy husband Joachim, who is even now returning to thee, and thou shall find him at the entrance to the Golden Gate."

So the husband and wife did as the angel bade them, and met together at the Golden Gate. And the Angel of Promise hovered above them, and laid a hand in blessing upon both their heads.

There was no need for speech. As Joachim and Anna looked into each other's eyes and read there the solemn joy of the angel's message, their hearts were filled with peace and comfort.

And before long the angel's promise was fulfilled, and a little daughter was born to Anna and Joachim. In their joy and thankfulness they said she should not be as other children, but should serve in the temple as little Samuel had done. The name they gave the child was Mary, not knowing even then that she was to be the mother of our Lord.

The little maid was but three years old when her parents took her to present her in the temple. She was such a little child that they almost feared she might be frightened to go up the steps to the great temple and meet the high priest alone. So they asked if she might go in company with the other children who were also on their way to the temple. But when the little band arrived at the temple steps, Mary stepped forward and began to climb up, step by step, alone, while the other children and her parents watched wondering from below. Straight up to the temple gates she climbed, and stood with little head bent low to receive the blessing of the great high priest.

So the child was left there to be taught to serve God and to learn how to embroider the purple and fine linen for the priests' vestments. Never before had such exquisite embroidery been done as that which Mary's fingers so delicately stitched, for her work was aided by angel hands. Sleeping or waking, the blessed angels never left her.

When it was time that the maiden should be married, so many suitors came to seek her that it was difficult to know which to choose. To decide the matter they were all told to bring their staves or wands and leave them in the temple all night, that God might show by a sign who was the most worthy to be the guardian of the pure young maid.

Now among the suitors was a poor carpenter of Nazareth called Joseph, who was much older and much poorer than any of the other suitors. They thought it was foolish of him to bring his staff, nevertheless it was placed in the temple with the others.

But when the morning came and the priest went into the temple, behold, Joseph's staff had budded into leaves and flowers, and from among the blossoms there flew out a dove as white as snow.

So it was known that Joseph was to take charge of the young maid, and all the rest of the suitors seized their staves and broke them across their knees in rage and disappointment.

Then the story goes on to the birth of our Saviour as it is told to you in the Bible.

It was this story which Ghirlandaio painted on the walls of the chapel, as well as the history of John the Baptist. Then, as Giovanni directed, he painted the arms of the Tournabuoni on various shields all over the chapel, and only in the tabernacle of the sacrament on the high altar he painted a tiny coat of arms of the Ricci family.

The chapel was finished at last and every one flocked to see it, but first of all came the Ricci, the owners of the chapel.

They looked high and low, but nowhere could they see the arms of their family. Instead, on all sides, they saw the arms of the Tournabuoni. In a great rage they hurried to the Council and demanded that Giovanni Tournabuoni should be punished. But when the facts were explained, and it was shown that the Ricci arms had indeed been placed in the most honourable part, they were obliged to be content, though they vowed vengeance against the Tournabuoni. Neither did Ghirlandaio get his extra two hundred gold pieces, for although Giovanni was delighted with the frescoes he never paid the price he had promised.

To the end of his days Ghirlandaio loved nothing so much as to work from morning till night. Nothing was too small or mean for him to do. He would even paint the hoops for women's baskets rather than send any work away from his shop.

"Oh," he cried, one day, "how I wish I could paint all the walls around Florence with my stories."

But there was no time to do all that. He was only forty-four years old when Death came and bade him lay down his brushes and pencil, for his work was done.

Beneath his own frescoes they laid him to rest in the church of Santa Maria Novella. And although we sometimes miss the soul in his pictures and weary of the gay outward decoration of goldsmith's work, yet there is something there which makes us love the grand show of fair ladies and strong men in the carefully finished work of this Florentine "Maker of Garlands."

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