When Domenico Ghirlandaio took me to a bright chamber with golden and azure ceiling, the first thing that caught my attention was a solid, wooden table with quite modern meals on it. Something I really have not expected to see in the late 15th century. Through a large window I could see striking views on the architecture of Florence that was a fine example of flourishing city life in the times of Renaissance.
Domenico Ghirlandaio”Portrait of a Man,” “Portrait of a Woman”ca. 1490 The Huntington Library, Art Collections, Botanical Gardens.
It was so good to see that the dark medieval “wooden” period was all over – and the “marble times” have started to delight the citizens of Italy with the bright colors and beautiful shapes. On the big, metal plates that stood in the middle of the table they were several different dishes that looked like a chicken, pasta with tomatoes sauce and potatoes salads. There were also grapes served on wooden plates as well as wine and water, both to drink and wash. –‘A real feast’ – I said to myself – taking my place next to Domenico. I was even more surprised seeing a fork, an instrument that seemed to be another genius discovery of modern Renaissance. When the servants came I thanked kindly for the wine and drunk only water – knowing that Giovannia Tornabuoni while posing to the portrait has been pregnant. When myself and the painter started to eat, suddenly two young greyhounds came closer to the table like they were waiting for their well-deserved portion of food. Domenico, after noticing the presence of the animals – started to throw the left overs on the floor like this was the most obvious and natural thing under the sun.
‘-Nihil Novum’ – I said to myself, trying not to show my disguise with this quite disturbing “Renaissance manners”. Delighted with the good taste of the food I started to discuss with the painter the interesting aspects of his work and his impressions on working with Michaelo Angelo, that has been the artist most talented student. When I did not know what to say next, I thought it may be a good idea to talk about the poetry. From the literature classes I have still remembered two names – Ludovico Ariosto and Luigi Pulci. Of course, during my conversation with the artist I had to keep the term “Rainassance” to myself since that historical term was used in books later, that is in 19th century.
Domenico Ghirlandaio, ‘Portraits De Mateo Franco and Luigi Pulci’
It turned that coming up with topic such a poetry was not a bad idea at all, since Ghirlandaio was very enthusiastic and devoted poetry lover. To impress the painter I recited from memory a few verses from a burlesque poem “Morgante Maggiore” by Pulci that I’ve learned by heart while I was still at the high-school:
“Love seldom pardons them who slight his sway;
But who loves is soon beloved again;
And hearts sincere, that humble offers pay
Find in Love’s justice the reward of pain”
Girlandhios eyes were sparkling – and I knew that listening to these few verses was nothing but music to his ears. He also seemed to find it very astonishing that a lady like me possessed knowledge of something that normally shall stay out of reach of Renaissance women. And he was totally right – all I should think of was how to please my husband and give birth to a son.
When we were and eating in the silence, I saw that the artist had put down his fork. It wasn’t because he finished eating, but because he wanted to ask something – which later happened to be a result of our earlier discussion on poetry:
-‘What do you think dear Giovanna’ – he asked while pouring himself another glass of wine with water – ‘If you were to choose a short poem or a quote that I shall write on your portrait, what would that be?’ I have few ideas but I still can’t make up my mind’ – he added.
-‘Oh Lord’ – I said to myself – knowing very well that the well-known portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni hanging in the Museum Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid actually did contain a Latin quote by a Roman poet Martial. However I could not recall any part of the Latin sentence. All I knew was that the words integrated by Domenico into the painting were somehow connected to Art.
-What would you say about that one – said Domenico with a certain focus on the face, emphasizing every word like it was something personal, his artistic statement:
‘Ars utinam mores animum que effingere posses, Pulchrior in terris nulla tabella foret.’
– ‘Bravissimo Domenico!’- I clapped my hands, not knowing how to express my relief – ‘These words are simply excellent’.
‘Art, if only you were able to portray character and soul, no painting on earth would be more beautiful’
I knew very well that the artists has just mentioned the exact quote that made the history of art and appeared on the right side of the painting, behind Giovannas back, on the “cartellino”.
When we finished eating – I knew we must go back to the atelier and my role was to stand still so the master could continue his works on the portrait. Modelling for him wasn’t any easy task at all since I knew that I should act like my face was made of stone. That was namely one of the most important requirements of an exemplary Renaissance painting. Perfectly beautiful a mannequin, presenting no soul, no desires, no instincts.
D.Ghirlandaio, ‘Portrait Of A Woman’,’Potrait Of A Lady’,’Portrait Of A Young Woman’
The question was – how to get rid of emotions – if there is so much going on in your head. How to hide fear and uncertainty when you are only 20 years old, caring a child of Lorenzo Tornabuoni. What I was supposed to do with the knowledge that the delivery of baby in the fifteen century means nothing but a gamble with death.
Luckily my worries did not stop me from acting like a perfect model, motionless as a marble sculpture.In my head I was reflecting on the words that I’ve read on the medal that it was there in my hand since I appeared in Florence and painters atelier.
‘CASTITAS – PVULCHRITVDO – AMOR’ that meant ‘PURITY – BEAUTY – LOVE’.
Deep inside I knew that this secret code, message from the past I’ll understand later, in the future, during my conversations with other artist that I hoped will explain to me what does it take to portray character and soul.