Today is “International Midwives’ Day”, so in honour of that honourable profession I have chosen Domenico Ghirlandaio’s beautiful Renaissance fresco of The Nativity of the Virgin. The painter shows the Virgin Mary’s mother, St Anne, reclining in bed as a delegation of elegantly dressed ladies arrive to congratulate her on the successful delivery of her baby. The infant Madonna sucks her thumb and gurgles peacefully in the arms of one tenderly smiling midwife, while another kneels close by. As the visitors wait to greet the tired but happy mother, an attendant as graceful as an ancient Greek nymph wafts in and pours water into a finely worked bronze vessel. Mary, mother of God, is about to have her first bath.
The gospels make no reference to Mary before the Annunciation, and there is only a short and terse account of her birth in the apocrypha, so for the many rich details of the interior, and the sumptuous clothes worn by its inhabitants, Ghirlandaio drew on a mixture of his own imagination and the reality of upper-class life in Florence, circa 1490. St Anne’s bedchamber is done up in fashionable Florentine Renaissance style, with its classical frieze of playful putti (appropriate theme for a scene of birth), arranged over panels of intricately inlaid wood. These panels of intarsia, as they were known, are themselves decorated with curlicues of grotesque ornament based on antique wall-paintings that had only recently been excavated in Rome. Ghirlandaio seems to have been proud of these knowledgeably antiquarian touches, inscribing his own name as well as his family name into little rectangular boxes set within the intarsia. Just above, a Latin inscription in gold letters underlines the religious significance of the scene: “Your birth, O Virgin Mother, announced joy to the whole world.”
In his Voyage in Italy, the nineteenth century French author Hippolyte Taine commented on the conspicuous worldliness of Ghirlandaio’s depiction of The Nativity of the Virgin, noting the “somewhat bourgeois” character of the figures who people it. This was not the first time that suspicions had been aroused by the artist’s decision to set a sacred story in a fine interior stuffed with luxury goods. The hellfire Dominican preacher Savonarola, whose sermons in the 1490s provoked an upsurge of ascetic piety across the city of Florence, made a point of attacking artists who painted Mary in inappropriate finery and rich surroundings. Ghirlandaio’s frescoes on the life of the Virgin, which had been unveiled just a few years before, must have seemed all the more culpable in Savonarola’s eyes because they occupied one of the most prominent chapels in the principal Dominican church of Florence, Santa Maria Novella.
But Savonarola was an extremist, and I suspect that both the artist and his wealthy patron would have been outraged by the suggestion that these works were either decadent or impious. On 1 September 1486 Ghirlandaio and his brother signed a contract with the banker Giovanni Tornabuoni, who agreed to pay them and the rest of their workshop for painting two series of six frescoes, on the life of the Virgin and the life of St John, for the so-called Capella Maggiore of Santa Maria Novella, where the existing paintings had been ruined by a leaky roof. Tornabuoni, who was one of the richest bankers in the city, and uncle to Lorenzo the Magnificent, had gone to considerable trouble to secure patronage rights for the chapel, alienating at least two other notable Florentine families who had hoped, themselves, to be allowed to contribute to the cost of its redecoration. The Dominicans gave the Tornabuoni family the right to pay for everything because they judged – correctly, as it turned out – that they would spare no expense and produce a monument fit to glorify the friars’ beloved church.
The contract between patron and painters is remarkably detailed, specifying every scene to be depicted, giving Tornabuoni the right to make changes while work is in progress, and even stipulating the types of paint – in particular the extremely expensive ultramarine so prominent in the painting reproduced here – that are to be used. Reference is made to Tornabuoni himself in the contract, as a “magnificent noble… merchant and citizen of Florence” – all of which might suggest that, as Savonarola would have argued, a certain degree of hubris was involved, and that these evidently magnificent paintings were indeed rather too concerned with flaunting the wealth and power of the Tornabuoni dynasty. The accusation looks all the sharper given that the pretty young lady shown in profile at the front of the cortege visiting St Anne is, in fact, a portrait of Tornabuoni’s own daughter.
But there are other ways of looking at it. For Giovanni Tornabuoni, spending a vast amount of his own money on the decoration of a chapel might well have seemed a form of atonement. He was a banker and therefore, according to Christian teaching, a sinful usurer; so the fact that he had spent 1100 gold florins to the glory of God might help to save his soul on the day of reckoning. If he and his fellow wealthy Florentine merchants lived so well, the least they could do for the Virgin was to furnish her with a chamber – at least in art – as splendid as any of their own. By making her so magnificently at home in Florence, her blessings might be called down upon the city.
The inclusion of Tornabuoni’s daughter in the scene is likewise probably more pious than it might at first glance seem. Tornabuoni’s wife, Giovanna, had died in childbirth, and I suspect that he wanted the image of his daughter included for superstitious reasons. He knew from bitter experience just how dangerous life could be for a young woman hoping to get pregnant and start a family. Putting his daughter in the picture was his way of warding off ill fortune, placing her under the protection of the Virgin and St Anne, and thereby increasing her chances of a long and fertile life. With luck and God’s help, she would bear her children well, attended by midwives as tender and solicitous as those painted by Ghirlandaio. The image of prosperity is also a kind of prayer.