Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Domenico Ghirlandaio

Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, 1489–90, Mixed media on panel, 77 x 49 cm, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 158 (1935.6), © Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid / Bridgeman Images

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More Precious than Jewels

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Ursula Weekes

Proverbs 31:10–31 is an acrostic, each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Like the painting we see here, the ‘perfection’ of this highly crafted poetic form suits its purpose: the construction of a certain ideal.

In 1486, the beautiful Giovanna degli Albizzi, aged 18, married Lorenzo Tornabuoni, the son of a wealthy Florentine merchant banker. A year later, on 11 October 1487, Giovanna gave birth to a son and heir, fulfilling the ‘expected duty’ of a noble wife in Renaissance Florence, both to husband and the ruling elite of the City Republic. Within another year, however, the young Giovanna had died from complications associated with a second pregnancy. She was buried in Santa Maria Novella in October 1488.

Lorenzo was distraught and commissioned many memorials to his wife, including this portrait by Ghirlandaio, the ‘go-to’ portraitist of rich Florentine families at the time. A slip of paper attached to the wall bears an epigram by the ancient Roman poet Martial, ‘Art, if only you were able to portray character and soul, no painting on earth would be more beautiful’. Ghirlandaio accepts the neo-Platonic challenge of the epigram by making a painting that seeks to portray inner beauty through (and in addition to) outward beauty.

Giovanna’s identity as Lorenzo’s wife is prominently displayed in the embroidery of her silk brocade robe, which has ‘L’ motifs, together with other emblems of the Tornabuoni family. The profile format associates her with classical portraiture and accentuates her domed forehead, high hairline, and elongated neck. Giovanna’s moral virtue is conveyed by her upright pose and the prayer book on the shelf behind her, where we also see her virtue as a mother reflected in a string of coral beads, often used as a protective talisman for infants, and a dragon pendant that refers to St Margaret, patron saint of childbirth. This pendant, as well as the necklace worn by Giovanna, both feature large rubies that display the wealth of the Tornabuoni family, and recall the opening line of the acrostic poem in Proverbs 31:10, ‘A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels’.

 

References

Brown, David Alan (ed.). 2001. Virtue and Beauty: Leonardo’s Ginevra De’ Benci and Renaissance Portraits of Women (Princeton: Princeton University Press)

Simons, Patricia. 1992. ‘Women in Frames. The Gaze, the Eye, the Profile in Renaissance Portraiture’, in The Expanding Discourse: Feminism and Art History, ed. by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (New York: Westview), pp. 38–57

Weppelmann, Stefan. 2011. ‘Some Thoughts on Likeness in Italian Early Renaissance Portraits’, in The Renaissance Portrait: From Donatello to Bellini, ed. by Keith Christiansen and Stefan Weppelmann (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art), pp. 67–69