To be successful as a professional, an artist must please those with the wealth to afford his services. This fact is as true today as it was five hundred years ago. The Renaissance painter, Raphaello Sanzio once likened this, quite favourably, to being a harlot. Today, as in Raphael's time, talent and hard work are important, but knowing the right people, and knowing how to curry their favour, is just as important if the artist likes to eat, even more so if he cares to live well. Though not from Florence, Raphael studied there for a time as a teenager and one of his best friends was another artist a little younger than he, named Ridolfo. Like Raphael, Ridolfo was quite good at painting portraits, which wasn't surprising considering who his father was. Ridolfo's father ran one of the most successful art workshops in all Florence. His name was Ghirlandaio (pronounced GER-land-EYE-o). Actually that wasn't his real name at all but something of a corporate identity his family and workshop had taken on to advertise the fact that, as goldsmiths, they'd invented and made popular gold garlands for women and girls of high fashion to wear in their hair. Ghirlande is Italian for garland, Ghirlandaio simply meant "maker of garlands." His real name was Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi.
Domenico liked to design things made of gold, but even as an apprentice, cared little for making them. He preferred to paint. His early work bears the influence of the Italians, Masaccio and Fra Filippo Lippi, along with the Northern influence of Hugo van der Goes. It was a unique mixture. Along with his two younger brothers and later his son, the Ghirlandaio shop competed with that of the other major artist of the Florentine School at the time, Sandro Botticelli, for the important private and church commissions of the day--portraits, altarpieces, gold and silver chalices used to serve mass, and most importantly, the massive frescos needed to decorate all the new churches being built and remodelled under the economic prosperity of the ruling Medici and their wealthy banking partners. Ghirlandaio knew how to please these wealthy families. He was a portrait painter, but more than that, he often used them and their offspring as models, painting their likenesses into important religious works. Add to this the use of their luxurious palazzos as settings and the modern dress of the day, one might think John the Baptist or the Virgin Mary were born and raised in Florence.
That's exactly the impression one comes away with in viewing Ghirlandaio's Birth of the Virgin, a fresco for Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The fresco, painted around 1480, framed between two highly decorated, square pilasters (with a third, identical one painted in between; becoming part of the scene itself), depicts the interior of the Tornabuoni home (wealthy friends of the Medici). A staircase is displayed on the left, while St. Anne, the mother of Mary, reclines somewhat stiffly on an elevated bed. Five female members of the Tornabuoni family stand by bearing congratulatory wishes, observing the new-born baby (Mary) about to receive a bath. Ghirlandaio was as much a master of the rather complex one-point perspective as he was the standing figures, their portrait faces, and their fashionable attire. A wide, tromp l'oeil, sculptured frieze of putti near the ceiling of the room is especially eye-catching. But perhaps the most beautiful and exciting rendering in the whole painting is that of a lowly maid on the far right, pouring water into a bath basin. Like the illusionary sculpture of the frieze it does not appear to have been painted by Ghirlandaio or any of his brothers. The flowing, dynamic movement of the young girl's dress and the fluid grace of her face and pose suggest it was done by a talented young apprentice studying fresco in the Ghirlandaio workshop at the time. His name was Michelangelo Buonarroti.