I check in with the clever blog My Daguerrotype Boyfriend (“where early photography meets extreme hotness”) on a regular basis, but I must admit that nineteenth-century men just don’t do it for me; I prefer to go back several centuries, to the Renaissance. This summer I’m teaching a course on the connections between art, science, and technology in Renaissance Europe, which has given me the opportunity to become reacquainted with my long-time Renaissance crush: Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose formal name was Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi (1449-1494). Ghirlandaio, meaning “garland-maker”, was a nickname, and a reference to the garland-like jewelry made by his goldsmith father, with whom he trained. Since he is my crush, I’m simply going to call him Domenico from now on.
I have a crush on Domenico for a number of reasons. I think he’s a great painter, and he must have been an effective teacher as well, as he ran one of the most important workshops in Florence and counted Michelangelo among his students. Above all, though, I admire him because he’s such Renaissance man: putting himself in the picture (literally, and several times) and striving to represent humanity above everything else, even beauty. And on top of all this, he was very handsome, at least the way he depicted himself!
Such a Renaissance statement: putting yourself in the picture, staring posterity in the eye: here is Domenico in his 1488 painting Adoration of the Magi, cropped and in its entirety.
Collection of the Spedale degli Innocenti, Florence.
And here his a few years earlier, in Adoration of the Shepherds (1483-85; the Sassetti Chapel in the basilica of Santa Trinita, Florence), right in the thick of things, looking more thoughtful, less clean-shaven, and absolutely overwhelmed by the sight of the baby Jesus.
We also see Domenico on one of the St. Francis frescoes that surround the Shepherds altarpiece above in the Sassetti Chapel: The Resurrection of the Boy. He is on the extreme right, in the company of men who would no doubt be instantly recognizable to contemporaries.
In The Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, a fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Domenico has apparently placed himself in the company of his own relatives. This would be his last self-portrait, as he died four years later from a “pestilential fever”. That year, 1494, was a terrible one for Florence, as the invading French King Charles VIII’s army entered the city, effectively ending its role as the center of Renaissance patronage.
But Domenico lives on, obviously. Despite my crush, my very favorite Ghirlandaio painting does not feature the artist at all, but rather an old man. The man depicted in An Old Man and his Grandson (circa 1490; The Louvre) is far from beautiful; viewed objectively, and apart from his setting, he could even be called repulsive. But Domenico has made him beautiful as he gazes with obvious wonder and adoration at his young grandson, a perfect Renaissance specimen. No better expression of Renaissance humanism can be found, in my opinion, which was confirmed by the choice of this painting for the cover of the catalog of the recent exhibition of Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Renaissance Portrait: from Donatello to Bellini).