This post first appeared in Italian on the Studentessa Matta Blog on September 28th, 2012. You can read the article in its original Italian clicking this link
I have always liked the painter Domenico Ghirlandaio, an artist of the Renaissance that worked in Florence. He was born in 1449 and died in 1494; he was only forty-five. The last time I was in Florence I admired the cycle of frescos of the life of the Virgin that Ghirlandaio created for the Tornabuoni Chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella.
Ghirlandaio’s compositions are at the same time large but decorous. There is a precision and an eye towards contouring his figures that could be due to the fact that Ghirlandaio began his career as an apprentice to a jeweler. Ghirlandaio went on to become a talented painter and was also one of Michelangelo’s first teachers. Surely Michelangelo would have observed and learned from Ghirlandaio’s techniques of his masterful rendering of weight and three-dimensional form.
The other day I was admiring the “Portrait of an Old Man and a Youth” by Ghirlandaio. The word “ritratto” in Italian means portrait and the word “autoritratto” means “self-portrait.” In this painting, we don’t know the identity of the old man or the young boy but it is a beautiful example of Renaissance portrait painting. The artist seeks to involve and draw in the spectator, creating an emotional attachment to his subjects. There is a stylistic and psychological change as to how people were portrayed as compared to the precedent eras of the early Renaissance and Medieval periods.
Indeed the viewer has a sense that something is happening in the portrait. In fact, focusing on the profile of the man and the way he gazes at the boy, the viewer is inspired to create a dialogue between the two. Ghirlandaio has not idealized the man’s profile in any way. Instead, he depicts the old man with all his defects, his aged face with wrinkles and lines, and his knobby nose. When I look at his nose the word “bitorzoluto” (which means knobby) comes to mind.
We can imagine from his well-worn appearance the man has great wisdom that comes from his advanced age. He is someone who has experienced the good and that bad, the disappointments and the joys that life has to offer. In contrast, the boy with his fair skin and golden curls, perhaps his grandson, is beautiful. He appears to be quite innocent. The boy touches the man’s chest affectionately and looks him directly in the eye as if to say, “I trust you. You are at the end of the path and I am just beginning. Give me direction. Point me in the right way.”
To reinforce this idea, in the background behind the two figures we see a window looking out into the world beyond. The landscape is hazy, but you can see a twisting road that winds into the mountains. Who knows where the road will go and where it will end?
It could be an allegory; our life is a journey and we learn along the way, never knowing where the road will take us or what we will encounter. But surely one day our beauty, youth, and innocence, like that of the boy will end. Eventually, our bodies become old and well used like the elderly man. But in exchange, we have a deeper understanding of the world. If we are lucky, we can leave a legacy of love and impart our knowledge, at least a small part, to a new generation.
Like my character Sophia, I believe that art can talk to you if you are willing to listen. Read “Dreaming Sophia” to learn more about Italian art and what Sophia hears and sees when she visits the paintings in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.