Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
November 4, 2002
Jean K. Cadogan Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan Yale University Press, 2001. 384 pp.; 90 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (0300087209)

The subtitle of this beautifully produced and authoritative book—”Artist and Artisan”—betrays an uneasiness typical of the times in which we live, when the concept of the artist per se has to be qualified or defended. An artist has to be something more, value added, both artist and artisan, as in fact almost all artists were in the late quattrocento. But what does this really mean? Is Jean Cadogan simply trying to suggest that Domenico Ghirlandaio worked not only with his mind (artist), but also with his hands (artisan), that he was both less and more than a pure artist—a craftsman or tradesman or guildsman? The fact that the author has to use both terms points to a trend in art history that takes into account what in other fields, say anthropology or American studies, would be called the material culture of the period, the circumstances under which works of art were produced, rather than just the study of their “residue” or the works themselves.

In fact, the Preface states, along with its requisite acknowledgments to friends and family, that the book looks at the artist “from the point of view of the artisan context” (ix), which is defined as guild traditions, workshop organization, and social position. Cadogan sees Ghirlandaio as a pivotal figure in the transition from artist-craftsman to genius that culminated in the Vasarian view of Michelangelo. This view situates the book firmly within an area of study that aims to unite formal critical evaluation and observation with documentary and contextual information to present a total picture. Cadogan claims that she will offer “a radically new view of Ghirlandaio’s life and work” (ix). In order to do this she says that she will consider works from technical and stylistic perspectives, reconstruct working method using evidence of drawings and conservation reports, marshal new documents, and present new biographical data. This mission links Cadogan’s book to an emerging picture of workshop organization that has been formulated over the past decade by scholars such as Carmen Bambach, Margaret Haines, Michelle O’Malley, Anna Padoa Rizzo, Anabel Thomas, Lisa Venturini, and others, who in turn have built on Everett Fahy’s study of Ghirlandaio’s followers, which was published more than a quarter century ago (Some Followers of Domenico Ghirlandaio [New York: Garland, 1976]).

For all of these claims, the book is essentially a traditional monograph, consisting of an expository section followed by a checklist of works, a catalogue raisonné, a documentary appendix, and a bibliography. As such, there are moments of redundancy when information is shared between the expository and catalogue sections, but this can be forgiven. After all, Cadogan did not invent the form, and it may appear more cumbersome since the advent of hypertext, which has in many ways restructured the presentation of information in narrative formats. But as a traditional print monograph, this book is highly readable, extremely useful, and occasionally inspired. It is also in good company. Ghirlandaio seems to be enjoying a minirevival. Yet although Ronald G. Kecks has published three books on Ghirlandaio since 1995 (none in English), the most recent of which came out too late to be considered in Cadogan’s monograph, her volume stands out for its sophisticated layering of types of evidence and critical depth.

The book’s argument unfolds in five topical chapters, roughly chronological, which are followed by the catalogue and then the documents. In an introductory section that precedes the chapters, Cadogan traces the changing fortunes of Ghirlandaio, from his dismissal by Giorgio Vasari to his rehabilitation by Joseph A. Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in the mid-nineteenth century to his destruction once again at the hands of Bernard Berenson and the formalists, who lumped him together with Benozzo Gozzoli, deemed just another genre painter, a competent illustrator of the rich material aspects of daily life in fifteenth-century Florence but lacking in deep spiritual values. It was in fact Ghirlandaio’s enumeration of detail that led Aby Warburg to see the artist’s narratives as critical to understanding the complex relationship between pagan and Christian values in fifteenth-century Florence, a keystone of his contextual interpretation. Cadogan situates her own work somewhere between these two models of historical understanding, the formal and contextual, citing as her most important model Artur Rosenauer’s article of 1969 on Ghirlandaio’s early works (“Zum Stil der frühen Werke Domenico Ghirlandaios,” Wiener Jahrbuch für Kunstgeschichte 22 (1969): 59–85).

The biographical Chapter 1 is full of information intended to correct the traditional view of Ghirlandaio inherited from Vasari as unconcerned with business, an impractical artist with his head in the clouds. Cadogan stresses the pervasive kinship networks that characterized “prosperous artisan families” (21), making good use of social historians’ archival soundings over the past twenty-five years. These tools are employed for analysis of several documents, published for the first time by Cadogan, involving the legal emancipation of Domenico and his brothers from their father in 1484. The documents not only reveal a great deal about Ghirlandaio and his relationship to his family, but also add to the growing body of information concerning the economic and social implications of dowries. At the time of emancipation, Domenico was the only brother who had married (and very well), suggesting his social mobility. Another major source for Cadogan are the records of a lay confraternity, the Compagnia di San Paolo, to which Ghirlandaio and his male kin belonged, along with many prominent Florentines, including Lorenzo de Medici. It is Cadogan’s contention that the networking possibilities inherent in membership in this confraternity “bore fruit for Ghirlandaio in his dealings with patrons and in the character of his art” (19). However, she hastens to add, as if defending the brothers from charges of hypocrisy, that “their faithful participation in the rite of the Compagnia…must also be read as a sincere expression of religious feeling” (20).

In the second chapter, entitled “Goldsmiths and Painters: Training and Early Works,” Cadogan recedes from the social world she so enthusiastically evokes in the first chapter to revisit the thorny questions of Ghirlandaio’s early works, falling back on a rather traditional form of stylistic criticism, in which the goal is to situate a group of works along a chronological axis. It is here that the gap between the expository text and the catalogue sections is least helpful, since the author is compelled to fragment into distinct parts what is really an integral discussion. Much of this chapter is devoted to rethinking the chronology of the artist’s works before the monumental fresco cycles of the 1480s, from Sant’Andrea a Brozzi to the Santa Fina chapel in San Gimignano. Cadogan returns several times to the question of where Ghirlandaio received his training as a painter, suggesting that he studied in the workshops of the Pollaiuolo brothers Antonio and Piero, Andrea del Verrocchio, and Alesso Baldovinetti. Haines’s suggestion in her monograph La Sacrestia delle Messe del Duomo di Firenze (Florence: Cassa di Risparmio, 1983) that Ghirlandaio may have designed two figures to be executed in intarsia by Giuliano da Maiano for the Sacristy of the Masses in Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence leads Cadogan to speculate that involvement with this important project contributed to his “feel for clear spatial organization and balanced figure arrangement” (33).

Cadogan tackles Ghirlandaio’s most significant fresco cycles in the following chapter, which is dedicated to examining the conventions of narrative that Ghirlandaio uses in his work in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, and in the Sassetti chapel in Santa Trinita and the Tornabuoni chapel in Santa Maria Novella, both in Florence. As in previous chapters, the author develops her discussion through a series of didactic compare-and-contrast vignettes that set up the history of painting as a dialogue between painters and traditions. In attempting to explain why Giovanni Tornabuoni turns to Ghirlandaio for a major commission, she speculates that the patron was aware of a variety of approaches to narrative and was particularly keen on the strategies employed by Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio learned from Gozzoli’s fresco cycle in San Gimignano while he was working in the Santa Fina chapel, Cadogan suggests, but simplified the business of the Sant’Agostino cycle through the representation of monumental architecture that frames the scenes. Among the influences she cites for Ghirlandaio’s architecture are Giuliano da Maiano and Giuliano da Sangallo, who designed frames for some of his altarpieces. And lurking not too far behind the scenes are of course the two Florentine giants Giotto and Masaccio, inevitably serving as models and inspiration. In some ways, Cadogan presents an entire history of painting in fifteenth-century Florence viewed from the perspective of Ghirlandaio, the proud product of a long and venerable tradition.

The final two chapters (4 and 5) deal with drawings, working method, and the many questions that remain about Ghirlandaio’s workshop, reflecting Cadogan’s interest and expertise as demonstrated in a series of articles dating to the 1980s listed in the Bibliography, which discuss the evidence of graphic works. It is her contention that with Ghirlandaio, drawing is beginning to emerge as a vehicle for the artist’s thoughts. Indeed, the concept of disegno that is at the heart of Vasari’s theory of the arts comes directly out of Florentine workshop practice of the later fifteenth century. In several cases, Cadogan revises her own earlier opinions to reflect new evidence, demonstrating an active engagement with the process of thinking through the many problems posed by the surviving drawings. Though she presents an analytic classification of types of drawings and their function, she concludes that the discussion of technique must remain no more than an outline due to losses and the lack of systematic technical analysis of panel paintings. However, it is Ghirlandaio’s innovations in drawing types and procedures that Cadogan believes make the case for his importance as master storyteller and craftsman.

The concluding chapter on the workshop presents a conflict that bedevils much of traditional art history at present and which brings us back to the initial point about the insecurity the title belies: artist and artisan. While the author admits that the purpose of the workshop was to create an environment where the hands of apprentices and assistants would be indistinguishable from those of the master, one senses the desire to parse out large-scale works into their constituent artistic personalities. Although current archival and technical research ineluctably carries one down a path that points to the collaborative nature of Renaissance art, a great deal of ink is still being spilled in the quest to resolve issues connected to the concept of individual authorship.

The catalogue is divided into three main sections: works by Domenico, works by his brother Davide, and Davide as a draughtsman. Although she does discuss Davide in the text, his presence in the catalogue as an independent artist is striking. Davide’s will is among the newly discovered documents in the appendix, lending further support for her construction of his artistic personality. The catalogue entries are thorough and provide a shorthand bibliography for each image, detailed condition reports, and excellent summaries of previous scholarship on the works. There is also a documentary appendix that presents a wealth of material gathered from a variety of sources. Many of the documents have been published previously, at least partially, but Cadogan has provided an extremely valuable resource in gathering them together.

Domenico Ghirlandaio deserves a place on every Renaissance art historian’s bookshelf, if only for the exceptional photographs it contains. Happily, there is much more to appreciate than beautiful reproductions, but it is indeed a great pleasure, in this age of ever-shrinking budgets and miserly picture allowances, to find Ghirlandaio’s major fresco cycles, altarpieces, and many drawings so lavishly illustrated.