Domenico Ghirlandaio, the teacher of Michelangelo

Calling of the first Apostles (Sistine Chapel, 1481-82)

Calling of the first Apostles (Sistine Chapel, 1481-82)


Dear Readers,
June jottings with an Italian Connection:
Domenico Ghirlandaio (c. 1449-1494) was a Florentine painter of the early Renaissance, whose birth name was Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi. His father was a silk merchant and goldsmith - which likely gave rise to the name Ghirlandaio, a gold garland. 
Ghirlandaio’s work displays the realism and perspective that developed in the early Renaissance. He was one of Michelangelo’s teachers.
Ghirlandaio’s paintings, both tempera on wood and fresco, are found in churches in Florence and Rome, and can be seen in the Sistine Chapel. They also can be seen in millions of homes throughout the world, as art prints of his work have been purchased by tourists visiting Italy for centuries. My favorite purveyor of repro art is Fratelli Alinari, founded in 1854, which is located in Firenze at Lungarno Corsini 24/R.
In Domenico Ghirlandaio’s portrait, the face of the gentle old man is distinguished by a large nose covered with warts, at which the child stares with frank curiosity. The contrast between the two characters, the intimacy of the scene, and the charm of the little boy makes this one of the most popular pictures in the Louvre.
In 1480, he was commissioned to paint frescoes in the church of Ognissanti (All Saints) in Florence, and in the Palazzo Vecchio. In 1481, he went to Rome, where he painted “Christ Calling The First Apostles” in the Sistine Chapel.

 Portrait of an Old Man and his Grandson” by Domenico Ghirlandaio

In the Church of S. Maria Novella, Florence, one of his best frescoes, “Birth of the Virgin”, can be seen. Closer to home, in the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., are two Domenico Ghirlandaio paintings - a portrait of Lucrezia Tornabuoni, the mother of Lorenzo The Magnificent (1475) and a Madonna and Child (1470).
Domenico Ghirlandaio, whose family name was Bigordi, studied painting and mosaic under Alessio Baldovinetti. When Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a 13-year-old, he served a year of his apprenticeship to the painters Domenico Ghirlandaio and his brother David in Florence.
Domenico Ghirlandaio had a keen sense of observation and painted many contemporary personalities within religious scenes. For example, he introduced the Medici, Sassetti, Corsi, Politian and many others contemporaries as participants in the life of St. Francis.
When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel ceiling (the decoration of the Sistine ceiling was executed between 1508 and 1512), he also included contemporaries in religious scenes, usually in unflattering portrayals. I guess he got the idea from 
his former teachers, the Ghirlandaio Brothers...
New York is where Italian political prisoners sitting in Austrian prisons were once banished or exiled. Italy did not exist as a nation in the early 1800’s, except as a geographic designation. Italian exiles who came to New York came directly from Austrian prisons and were political prisoners.
 In 1835, the new Austrian Emperor Ferdinand II offered an amnesty to Italian prisoners interred in the dungeon at Spielberg, on the condition that they get out and stay out, ie. accept perpetual banishment. Most of these prisoners were youthful revolutionaries called “Carbonari” who had been in their early twenties at the time of their arrest. Felice Foresti, who later would become a professor of Italian Literature at Columbia University and serve as representative for the Roman Republic in America, had been in Austrian dungeons for 18 years.
Felice Foresti was a young lawyer born in Ferrara.
 In a book called “My Prisons” author Silvio Pellico wrote an account of the suffering endured by Italian patriots at Spielberg and other Austrian dungeons. In August 1836, having accepted the offer of amnesty, about twenty such men were put aboard an imperial Austrian brig in the Adriatic and brought to New York under guard.
     In New York, still technically prisoners, they were received by the Austrian Consul who liberated them to American authorities. The American press hailed theme ad these “Martyrs of Spielberg” and as the New York Times pointed out in a piece welcoming them to America, they were not immigrants but exiles; and “We sincerely trust that these worthy victims of despotism may be able to find a hospitable sympathy in our country until a change for the better in the politics of  the European Cabinets may afford them an honorable occasion to return to their homeland”.

Arriving in 1836, most of them found it difficult adapting themselves to an environment that was wholly new, they had to learn a new language and adapt to new customs and there was no “Little Italy” area to help make the transition easier. Most of the men lived quiet, rather melancholic lives as political exiles. Some earned a precarious living teaching Italian at home, however, two Sicilians Pietro Bachi and Luigi Monti, became Harvard professors. Later Luigi Monti served as American Consul to Palermo (after 1861).
Louis Tinelli, a Lombard, who had earned a law degree in Milan and who had established a silk spinning plant near Lake Como prior to his arrest by Austrian Police, had with the help of American friends, established Mulberry Groves and a silk spinning plant in New Jersey, winning a gold medal from the Institute of American Industry in 1840. He was appointed a United States Consul to Portugal in 1841 and during the Civil War, he helped form an Italian regiment in New York, then saw action himself as a Colonel in the Union Army. His two sons were also Union soldiers. Before Louis Tinelli died in 1873, he asked to be buried in Brooklyn. By 1850 eluding the Austrians, many political prisoners fled to New York. New York was a different kind of town when Giuseppe Garibaldi (fleeing the Austrians) had sailed aboard the English packet ship Waterloo and reached New York on July 29, 1850.
     In a mid-century census taken that year only 3,045 Italian residents had been counted in the entire United States.

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