Monday, January 15, 2007

The Resurrection of the Boy

GHIRLANDAIO, Domenico (b. 1449, Florence, d. 1494, Florence)
Resurrection of the Boy 1482-85
Santa Trinità, Florence

Detail: Resurrection of the Boy

Detail: Resurrection of the Boy

Detail: Resurrection of the Boy

Detail: Resurrection of the Boy

The Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinita

It is said that there is no greater sorrow than when a parent loses a child.

By the same token, there can be no greater joy than when a parent who, thinking he or she has lost a child, finds that the child is safe and well.

That is the theme of the fresco directly above the altarpiece in the Sassetti Chapel in the Church of Santa Trinità, Florence: Resurrection of the Boy.


Francesco Sassetti (1421-1490) had gained his wealth as a partner in the French branches of the Medici bank in Avignon and Lyon. He also spent over ten years representing the Medici bank in Genova and occasionally in Geneva. He was an advisor to Piero de'Medici and Lorenzo the Magnificent. In his History of the Florentine Republic, Machiavelli states that this connection to the Medicis was the source of the great wealth and power of the Sassetti family in Florence.

Sassetti had a country villa to the north of Florence, at Montughi. He acquired the property in 1460 and totally reconstructed it. Centuries later, the villa became the property of Harold Acton, who re-named it La Petra.

By the end of the 1470s, as a result of litigation against the Dominicans, Sassetti acquired the rights of patronage to a small side chapel, the second to the right of the choir in the Florentine church of Santa Trinità.

But Sassetti was not always successful later on in his role as the chairman of the bank, and in 1484 was replaced by Giovanni Tornabuoni.

Francesco Sassetti's dealings as a patron of the arts were not characterized by commercial acumen or sound business sense. It is almost as if he wanted to record his pointed rejection of the commercial mentality. As his reputation as a banker faded, people made fun of him by saying that he would rather study Cicero than his account books.

Ghirlandaio (b. 1449, Firenze, d. 1494, Firenze) was commissioned to paint the chapel, which he decorated with frescoes between 1482 and 1485. The six main frescoes represent scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, Sassetti's namesake and patron saint.

Ghirlandaio also executed the altarpiece of the chapel. This altarpiece The Adoration of the Shepherds is the key work in the chapel both in subject and in artistic merit. The altarpiece from the Sassetti chapel, the Adoration of the Shepherds, is now in the Florentine Accademia. For security reasons, the Adoration in the chapel is a copy.

In the Sassetti Chapel the artist combined secular, religious, and classical themes to produce a unique masterpiece.

Giotto`s fresco cycle The Life of St Francis in the Bardi Chapel provides the model for the depiction of St Francis. Masaccio`s Tribute Money in the Carmine Chapel is the model for the narrative structure.

Resurrection of the Boy

In 1478, Teodoro, the son of Francesco Sassetti and his wife, Nera Corsi Sassetti, died. He was their eldest and at that time, their only son. His very name "Teodoro" indicates the love they had for him.

A few months later Nera Corsi Sassetti gave birth to a second son. As they felt him to be a gift from God, he was also christened "Teodoro".

They decided as an act of thanksgiving to change the plans for the altar wall in the mortuary chapel. Ghirlandaio had to abandon his design for a scene showing the appearance of Saint Francis in Arles, for which preliminary drawings still exist, and paint the Resurrection of the Boy. This was how the Sassetti intended to express their gratitude for their new-born son Teodoro II.

The scene represents a scene from the Legend of Saint Francis. The events apparently took place in Rome.

While playing, a boy falls out of the windows of the Palazzo. A red ball is seen having fallen to the street below him. Some passers-by see the falling child, rush up in help, but it is too late. The child is dead. This is the narrative in the top left of the fresco.

The other narrative in the fresco shows the boy who met with the fatal accident is already lying on a bier surrounded by mourners. Then, however, two Franciscans succeed in interceding with Saint Francis on their behalf, and the child is brought back to life.

The fresco shows the donor`s family and friends. It is a scene showing the family`s private history.

Ghirlandaio has moved the scene of the action from Rome to Florence: to just outside the Church of Santa Trinità.

As well as the Church of Santa Trinità, one can see the old Ponte Trinità. The present one was built about a hundred years after the painting of the picture.

One can also see the Palazzo Spini.

As regards the people in the fresco, Ghirlandaio appears with his brother-in-law Bastiano Mainardi at the far right of the field. The artist himself is standing by the pillar on the right and looking "at the camera".

Among the men standing on the right are portraits of Maso degli Albizzi, M. Agnolo Acciaiuoli, M. PalIa Strozzi, notable citizens and prominent in the history of Florence.

On the left are the daughters of Francesco Sassetti together with their husbands and/or fiances.

On the extreme far left is the figure of a coloured servant in the household, possibly of African extraction. This would appear to be one of the earliest depictions of a coloured person in the Florentine Renaissance.

The two central figures, the boy and his mother, are immediately situated above the figures of Mary and the infant Jesus in the altar piece of The Nativity below.The themes of birth, re-birth, resurrection, joy arising out of sorrow are omnipresent in the funerary chapel.

In 1490, less than five years after the completion of the funeral chapel, Francesco Sassetti died and was laid to rest in the Chapel.