When Pope Sixtus IV gathered the fantastic four of Sandro Botticelli, Perugino, Cosimo Rosselli, and Domenico Ghirlandaio to paint new frescoes for the Sistine Chapel, Ghirlandaio’s reputation among that foursome was second only to that of Botticelli. Ghirlandaio’s The Calling of the Apostles (above) remains among the many wall frescoes overshadowed by Michelangelo’s achievements, but close inspection shows an artist worthy of a second look. The landscape that reaches back into the distance behind the flurry of figures at the front testifies to Ghirlandaio’s gift for realism in depicting devotional scenes. Sadly, the Resurrection fresco he also painted in the Sistine Chapel was destroyed, later to be replaced by Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment. Michelangelo briefly served as an apprentice under Ghirlandaio, who died January 11, 1494, so you have to wonder what he may have felt painting the same scene on the same wall worked upon by his master four decades before.
In the convent of San Marco in Florence, Ghirlandaio painted one of his most enduring versions of The Last Supper (above, from 1486). Ghirlandaio creates a sumptuous dinner, filling the plates with bread, cherries, and more, and weighting down the table with cups and decanters. Following the common layout of the scene, he places Judas on the side of the table opposite Jesus, in contrast to the Da Vinci arrangement modern eyes have come to expect. The rich merchants of Florence would have easily seen a bit of their own life of luxury in the table depicted here. The warmth and humor of Ghirlandaio comes through in the cat in the right foreground, poised to pounce upon any fallen scraps.
My favorite painting by Ghirlandaio, however, is his An Old Man and His Grandson (above, from 1490). I remember seeing this in the Louvre amidst the other great Renaissance paintings. It stood out to me because of the stunning combination of realism in depicting the grandfather’s afflicted nose and humanism in showing the love and pride he took in his grandson. Such a figure could easily have become a Brueghel-esque grotesquerie, yet Ghirlandaio resists that impulse and paints the interior life of the old man beneath the disfigurement. I recall reading years ago Bernard Berenson and Giorgio Vasari on the Italian Renaissance and feeling overwhelmed by the plethora of names—long, long names. Ghirlandaio, however, always stuck in my mind as one to remember.