Narratives and networks: images of identity in Renaissance Florence

In 1486, the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio began decorating a chapel in Santa Maria Novella for Giovanni Tornabuoni, a manager from the Medici Bank. The contract for the chapel describes Tornabuoni’s reasons for the commission, “as an act of piety and love of God, to the exaltation of his house and family and the enhancement of the said church and chapel.” Religion, family and display: these motives also apply to an earlier commission undertaken by Ghirlandaio. From 1482 to 1485, he decorated the Sassetti chapel in Santa Trinita for Francesco Sassetti, another manager from the bank.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of the Donor Giovanni Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of the Donor Francesco Sassetti, Santa Trinita
Left to right: portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella (1486-1490); portrait of Francesco Sassetti, Santa Trinita (1482-1485)

Ghirlandaio used portraiture and narrative to illustrate the collective and individual identities of his patrons. On a collective level, his representations of family and political networks can be considered as a form of memory making. Individually, Tornabuoni and Sassetti asserted artistic control in the selection of which aspects of their identities Ghirlandaio would represent on their behalf.

Mercantile elites in Renaissance Florence used cultural consumption to legitimise their social standing. The demand of patrons drove the production of customised objects such as family palaces, medals and paintings. Tornabuoni and Sassetti exercised financial agency; they paid Ghirlandaio to show particular facets of their identities, especially connections made in their familial and political networks.

Two paintings from the east side of the Tornabuoni Chapel indicate the role of marriage in extending social networks. Both depict scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. St John was Florence’s patron saint. In the Birth of St John the Baptist, Lucrezia Tornabuoni (wearing blue shoes on the right) visits the recently born John. She was Lorenzo de’ Medici’s mother and Giovanni’s sister. This image can be viewed as a memorial – Lucrezia had died before the picture was painted. Also, the inclusion of Lucrezia consolidates the loyal relationship between the Tornabuoni and Medici families. The Medici faction initially gained power to govern Florence in 1434; it had an uninterrupted tenure until 1494. When Ghirlandaio worked for Tornabuoni and Sassetti in the 1480s, Lorenzo de’ Medici led the faction.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of St John the Baptist, Santa Maria Novella
Birth of St John the Baptist (1486-1490)

The Visitation is diagonally below the Birth. It links the stories of St John with those of the Virgin Mary on the west wall of the chapel. Giovanna Albizzi-Tornabuoni (wearing an elaborate gown on the right) and her companions have been represented in a scene where Anne and Elizabeth, the mothers of Mary and John, meet. Giovanna was Giovanni’s daughter-in-law. The Albizzi were an old elite family — their faction governed Florence prior to the Medici. The Visitation prominently displays a relative who married into the Tornabuoni family, as a contrast to Lucrezia Tornabuoni, who married into the Medici family. The secular and sacred centrality of Florence has been demonstrated by the Birth and the Visitation. Political and marital alliances could be made in the city. In addition, Florentines could pray to St John, the city’s patron saint, and ask him to approach God on their behalf.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation, Santa Maria Novella
Visitation (1486-1490)

In the Sassetti Chapel, the Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis shows networks created by marriage and political ties. It has been conspicuously placed in the lunette of the central wall in the chapel, surrounded by other scenes from the life of St Francis, an altarpiece of the Adoration of the Shepherds and portraits of Francesco and his wife Nora. Originally set in the Rome in the thirteenth-century, the event has been transplanted to Florence — visual cues include the Priors’ Palace and the Priors’ Loggia in the background. St Francis presents the rules of his order to Pope Honorius III. The story has been overshadowed by the portraits of eminent Florentines in the foreground: on the left, three of Sassetti’s sons; in the middle, Lorenzo de’ Medici’s sons ascend the stairs with their tutors; and on the right, Lorenzo de’ Medici and Antonio Pucci stand alongside Francesco and his son Federico. Pucci supported the Medici and was Francesco’s brother-in-law.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, The Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis, Santa Trinita
Confirmation of the Rule of St Francis (1482-1485)

Florence functions as a significant setting in the Confirmation, showing the establishment and maintenance of secular and sacred networks. Florentines meet face to face in the background and the figures assembled in the foreground reinforce support for the Medici faction. On an individual and sacred level, St Francis spiritually cared for Francesco, a Florentine, as his personal patron saint.

Domenico Ghirlandaio visually represented the social and individual identities of his patrons Giovanni Tornabuoni and Francesco Sassetti, using stories and portraits to illustrate the coexistence and overlap of secular and sacred networks in Florence. He displayed connections made through politics and marriage, and the protection of patron saints. Ghirlandaio created imagined spaces for Tornabuoni and Sassetti, in which figures from their past and present could interact. Images, when considered collectively and separately, perform a record keeping purpose in the visual creation of memories, identities and narratives.

Bibliographic note:
Social and cultural contexts have been analysed by Michael Baxandall (Painting and experience in fifteenth century Italy) and Peter Burke (The Italian Renaissance: culture and society in Italy). Studies of Renaissance cultural patronage include Cosimo de’ Medici and the Florentine Renaissance (Dale Kent), Lorenzo de’ Medici and the art of magnificence (F.W. Kent) and Patronage, Art and Society in Renaissance Italy (eds. Kent, Simons and Eade).


One comment on “Narratives and networks: images of identity in Renaissance Florence

  1. nicolajblack says:

    Hi Jennifer,

    I’ve done a little bit of the European art gallery/museum trail – I wish I had read this post before I went because it has really explained a lot to me that I wouldn’t have noticed (or had the tools to understand) about Renaissance Florence art pieces. I’m usually drawn to more contemporary art and Impressionism, and I often overlook the Renaissance period altogether. I really feel like you’ve explained so much – and you’ve made it really accessible. It’s all there for anyone to see, but you’ve really captured and explained a lot of information about how the artists have illustrated social identities within the period – and your connection about the artist even possibly ‘memory making’ is also really fascinating – it’s kind of like looking at a really well constructed family picture.

    Really enjoyed this post, thank you.

    Nicola Black

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