The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella

family, religion and religious spectacle in Renaissance Florence

Do you know what is the most frequent question my guests ask during our tours in Florence? Everybody want to know more about my PhD. What was my research about? What did I study? The truth is that I dedicated four years of my PhD studies to the analysis of the decorations in two chapels. The first one, is the main chapel in the cathedral in Prato, frescoed between 1452 and 1465 by Filippo Lippi. The other is the Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella in Florence, decorated between 1485 and 1490 by Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop. I truly love to talk about my research during my tours. So let us imagine, that we are together in Santa Maria Novella right now and that I reveal the Tornabuoni frescoes for you.

The Tornabuoni chapel, Santa Maria Novella
The Tornabuoni Chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

The Tornabuoni Chapel

The Tornabuoni Chapel is the main chapel in one of the most important Florentine churches, the Dominican Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. During the 1480s Giovanni Tornabuoni, uncle of Lorenzo de’ Medici, called il Magnifico, who at that time ruled the city, gathered in his hands the full patronage of this important chapel and commissioned Domenico Ghirlandaio for the fresco decoration of the walls, the stained-glass windows and a new altarpiece for the main altar. Giovanni wanted to turn this place into a funerary chapel of his family, an unusual choice, as normally only the side chapels were intended for private patronage. It seems that his close connections with the Medici family made it possible for him to transform a main chapel of a major basilica into a family chapel. Since the very beginning, the decoration of the chapel was supposed to display and confirm the prestige of Tornabuoni family and their participation to the illustrious rule of Lorenzo il Magnifico.

Portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

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Between 1485 and 1490 Domenico Ghirlandaio and his workshop decorated the side walls of the chapel with the Life of the Virgin and the Life of Saint John the Baptist. The scenes should be read from bottom to top. On the left wall you see:

  • the Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple
  • the Birth of the Virgin
  • the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple
  • the Marriage of the Virgin
  • the Birth of Christ and the Adoration of the Magi
  • the Massacre of the Innocents
  • the Death and Assumption of the Virgin 

On the right wall instead, the Life of Saint John the Baptist is narrated with the following scenes:

  • the Annunciation to Zechariah
  • the Visitation
  • the Birth of the Baptist
  • the Naming of St. John
  • the Preaching of the Baptist
  • the Baptism of Christ
  • the Feast of Herod

The frescoes on the central wall, instead, represent the portraits of Giovanni Tornabuoni and his wife Francesca Pitti, the Annunciation, Saint John in the Desert, the Killing of Saint Peter Martyr and Saint Dominic Testing Books in the Fire.

Portrait of Francesca Pitti
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Francesca Pitti, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

Religious frescoes and holy performances in Florence

Ghirlandaio’s frescoes immediately excite curiosity even in a non-expert spectator. The scenes, especially the lower ones, are painted in a way that suggests three-dimensionality of the represented space. It almost seems that we can walk into these frescoes and shake the hands of the protagonists. Surprisingly, people represented on the walls are not only the heroes of the Biblical stories. Next to the saints who participate to the holy events, there are also some fifteenth-century men and women. These contemporary bystanders observe the holy events and look at us, dragging us into the painting.

This particular characteristic of the decoration became a central point of my PhD research. I tried to understand why these frescoes were so immersive and why contemporary Florentines were represented there next to the protagonists of the Biblical stories. What I found out is that during the fifteenth-century religious storytelling in Florence was very often using immersive techniques and marvel as efficient tools, which strongly influenced spectators’ emotions and reinforced the moralizing impact of the devotional practices. These strategies were particularly frequent in the religious spectacles performed in Florence during the religious feasts such as Annunciation, Assumption, Pentecost or Saint John the Baptist festivity celebrated on 24 June.

Religious spectacles were a very important element in the devotional life of the Florentine people. Already in the late fourteenth century in Florence they organized magnificent performances staged in the churches with actors playing the roles of the Biblical protagonists who re-enacted the holy stories for the pious believers.

The main spectacles were the Ascension organized in the Carmine church on the day of the Ascension feast, celebrating the moment when Jesus, after the Resurrection raised to the heavens; the Annunciation spectacle organized in San Felice in Piazza and the Pentecost spectacle organized in Santo Spirito.

The staging of these three spectacles was quite similar. The thick wall dividing the main nave from the choir, the so-called rood screen, was used as a stage. In a wooden box under the roof they built a “heaven”, with God the Father sitting inside, surrounded by the shining circles of celestial spheres. Thanks to a hoisting machinery actors could be brought up from the stage to the heavens. Imagine the astonishment of the viewers, who saw Christ raising to the heavens and meeting with his father.  

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Annunciation to Zechariah
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Annunciation to Zechariah, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

To reinforce the effect of marvel and surprise, during the Pentecost spectacle, for example, the fireworks were used, enriching the visual effect of the show.

Later, to render the stories even more meaningful for the believers, contemporary characters and little contemporary plots were introduced to the biblical narratives. Peasants from Chianti and Florentine merchants would appear on stage next to the Biblical heroes. Their function was to prove the actuality and relevance of the past, distant Biblical stories for a fifteenth-century Florentines.

I am convinced that these performative practices strongly influenced religious painting and that the both media shared common patterns of storytelling. In Ghirlandaio’s frescoes the element of marvel was guaranteed by an efficient use of perspective device and convincing representation of the third dimension, which drag the spectator into the painting. The presence of contemporary figures and the backgrounds representing Florence, moved the action of the Biblical past to Ghirlandaio’s times and made the story relevant and meaningful.

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Portrait of a family

In the Tornabuoni frescoes, however, these common storytelling techniques were used with a clear political, religious and social purpose. The contemporary protagonists assisting to the Biblical events are not random people. In the chapel we can meet with the members of the Tornabuoni family themselves.

The commissioner, Giovanni Tornabuoni, and his wife, Francesca Pitti, kneel down and pray under the beautiful loggias on the central wall. On the right wall, in the scene of the Annunciation to Zechariah you can see the other male members of the family.

In the bottom left corner you can see four illustrious members of the Medicean circle, the poet Poliziano, who was a tutor of Lorenzo il Magnifico’s children and probably the author of the iconographic program for Botticelli’s Spring; Cristoforo Landino, a famous historian, Marsilio Ficino, the neo-platonic philosopher and Gentile Becchi, Lorenzo’s tutor, orator and scholar. Their presence in the frescoes confirm strong relationship between Giovanni Tornabuoni and the Medici family and proves Tornabuoni’s adherence to the intellectual and cultural revolution promoted by Lorenzo il Magnifico and his circle.

Portrait of Poliziano, Ficino, Becchi and Landino
Detail of Annunciation to Zechariah with the portraits of Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, Angelo Poliziano and Gentile Becchi.

In the following scene, the Visitation, we see female members of the family. The three women standing close to the right edge of the fresco are: Giovanna degli Albizzi, first wife of Giovanni’s son Lorenzo. She died during the childbirth in 1488. Behind her you see Ginevra Gianfigliazzi, Lorenzo’s second wife and Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Giovanni’s sister, wife of Piero de’ Medici and mother of Lorenzo il Magnifico.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

On the other wall, in the scene of the Birth of the Virgin, you can meet Giovanni’s daughter, Ludovica. She is the girl a beautiful orange dress standing close to the maids who prepare the bath for the new-born.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of the Virgin
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of the Virgin, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

In the previous scene, the Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, we see Lorenzo Tornabuoni, Giovanni’s son, who stands in the foreground, on the left, wearing a red coat over a green jacket. He looks at us boldly and turns towards the chapel with his elbow on the hip. On the other side of the fresco, on the right, we see another group of men. There, we can recognize Domenico Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide, the authors of the entire decoration.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Expulsion of Joachim from the Temple, 1485-1490, Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence.

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Why the portraits?

Why would the commissioner want to include the portraits of his family members into the Biblical stories? First of all, these portraits confirmed the prestige of the family and proved, that the Tornabuoni belonged to the ruling elite. Moreover, the meaning and the function of these frescoes was devotional. Being a patron of chapel in Early Renaissance Italy, was an exceptional privilege. According to the beliefs of the fifteenth-century Christians, it guaranteed access to Divine grace and mercy.

The patronage of a chapel meant that all the spiritual benefits resulting from every single holy mass said at the altar of this chapel fell on the members of the family, both, these who passed away and these who were still alive.

By immortalizing their features on the walls of the chapel, the Tornabuoni aspired to approach the holiness and to obtain mercy and grace for the members of their family. We may say that still today, during the masses in Santa Maria Novella we all pray for the Tornabuoni, Domenico Ghirlandaio and his brother Davide.

The decoration of the Tornabuoni chapel addresses also more complex political and philosophical questions. It presents an ideal image of Florence, city of splendour and abundance. The frescoes convey also few elements of Marsilio Ficino’s philosophy and the idea of an agreement between different philosophical and religious currents. There is enough material for at least one more article about the chapel. I will continue this topic in the future and I will certainly write also something about Lippi’s frescoes in Prato.

If you want to hear more about this unique decoration and discover other masterpieces housed in Santa Maria Novella, book a private tour of the Basilica with me!