- Museum number
The Birth of the Virgin, with other figures in an interior with staircase at l
Pen and brown ink
- Production date
- 1486-1490 (circa)
Height: 212 millimetres
Width: 285 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- A rapid compositional study for the 'Birth of the Virgin' frescoed on the left wall of the Tornabuoni chapel in the choir of Santa Maria Novella, Florence (illustrated in colour in R.G. Kecks, 'Domenico Ghirlandaio', Florence, 1998, pp. 154-5). The decorations, devoted mainly to the stories of the Virgin and John the Baptist, were commissioned from Domenico and his brother Davide Ghirlandaio by Giovanni Tornabuoni on 1 September 1485. According to the contract, work was to begin in May the following year and was to be finished in four years. The painters did not quite meet the deadline, as the chapel was reopened on 22 December 1490. The fresco most probably was one of the last to be executed as the patron's daughter Ludovica Tornabuoni, the girl leading a group of women to the Virgin's bedside, is shown as a girl of about fourteen and she is known to have been born in 1476.
This dynamic and highly spontaneous drawing evidently dates from the very beginning of Ghirlandaio's work on the composition. The artist initially drew the architecture and then in a schematic fashion added the figures. Ghirlandaio went on to refine his ideas and the finished work differs in a number of respects from the design shown here. He moved the viewpoint to the left so that the interval between the two pillars no longer shows, and a result the two figures filling that space in the drawing disappear. On the other hand the number of spectators are increased from three to five. The fluid movement of the girl leading the group of visitors is lacking in the fresco, where she is shown standing stiffly in profile. The group of women tending the baby in the foreground are posed differently, and the two figures on the far side of the bed are omitted. Two drawings for the same fresco survive: a pen study for the woman pouring water into the basin is in the Uffizi, Florence (289 E; illustrated Ames-Lewis, 1981, fig. 56b, p. 261) and a double-sided drawing at Chatsworth with a black chalk cartoon for the head of the visitor furthest to the left, and on the other side in the same medium a study of the woman third from the left (885; idem, figs. 156 and 160, pp. 155 and 158).
Lit: B. Berenson, 'The Drawings of the Florentine Painters', Chicago, 1938, II, no. 878; A.E. Popham and P. Pouncey, 'Italian drawings in the BM, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries', London, 1950, I, no. 69 (with previous literature), II, pl. LXVIII; L. Grassi, 'I disegni italiani del Trecento e Quattrocento: scuole fiorentina, senese, marchigiana, umbra', Venice, n.d [1960?], no. 69; F. Ames-Lewis, 'Drawing in Early Renaissance Italy', New Haven and London, 1981, p. 152, fig. 150; F. Ames-Lewis and J. Wright, in exhib. cat., Nottingham, University Art Gallery and London, Victoria and Albert, 'Drawing in the Italian Renaissance Workshop', 1983, no. 56; W. Prinz and M. Seidel (eds), 'Domenico Ghirlandaio 1449-1494, Atti del Convegno Internazionale', Florence, 1994, fig. 14a; H. Chapman, in exhib. cat., BM, 'Michelangelo Drawings: closer to the master', London, 2005, pp. 52,54; C. Van Cleave, 'Master Drawings of the Italian Renaissance', London, 2007, p. 72, illustrated p. 74; N. Pons, in exhib. cat., Reggio Emilia, Palazzo Magnani, 'Piero della Francesca: Il disegno tra arte e scienza', 2015, pp. 333-4, no. III.24, illustrated p. 174.
Popham & Pouncey 1950
Already correctly identified in the catalogue of the Manchester Exhibition of 1857 as a composition sketch for the fresco in the lowest tier of the 1. wall of the choir of S. Maria Novella, Florence (Van Marle, fig. 42). This great scheme of decoration, devoted mainly to the stories of the Madonna and of the Baptist, was commissioned from Domenico and Davide Ghirlandaio by Giovanni Tornabuoni on 1 Sept. 1485 and the artists were required to start work in the following May. The choir was reopened on 22 Dec. 1490. The fresco for which this sketch was made is the only one to bear a signature ("BIGHORDI GRILLANDAI") and is generally agreed to be one of the best in quality of the entire series. E. Ridolfi, 'Archivio storico italiano', series 5, vi (1890), pp. 425 ff., drew attention to the resemblance between the head of the foremost spectator and the portrait of Giovanni Tornabuoni's daughter, Lodovica, at the age of nine, on a contemporary medal (Hill, 'Corpus', 1069). This identification has been widely accepted. Ridolfi says that in a document of 1480 Giovanni gives Lodovica's age as four. The figure in the fresco cannot be far short of fourteen and if it is indeed Lodovica who is here portrayed, some degree of support is given to Küpper's contention (Thieme-Becker, xiii, p. 557) that this fresco must have been one of the last to be executed and should therefore be dated c. 1490.
In the fresco the artist has modified the scheme noted down in the drawing. He has moved his viewpoint some way to the 1. so that the interval between the two pillars no longer shows and the two figures indicated there have thus disappeared. On the other hand, the number of foreground spectators has increased from three to five. The girl leading them no longer dances like a Salome but stands stiffly in exact profile, while the nude figure on the r. of the drawing, now clothed in a fluttering dress (a study for this figure, draped, is in the Uffizi), puts her 1. instead of her r. foot forward as she pours water from the jug into the basin. A feigned bas-relief of putti replaces the relief which seems to represent a battle scene in the sketch.
In addition to the Uffizi drawing mentioned above (BB 869) the following drawings by Domenico have been connected by Berenson with the same fresco: BB 866 recto and verso and BB 893. 866 verso is not, as Berenson says, a study for the "youngest, shortest, most wooden Florentine dame" (i.e. the figure identified as Lodovica), but for the third figure from the r. of the group of spectators.
Literature: BB 878, fig. 302 and pl. LXVI of first edition; Exhibition of Art Treasures, Manchester, 1857, Suppl. Catalogue, no. 7; F. Wickhoff, op. cit., p. 211; G. S. Davies, op. cit., p. 142 and pL. XLVI; Crowe and Cavalcaselle, iv, p. 326; H. S. Ede, Florentine Drawings of the Quattrocento, 1926, pl. 34; Van Marle, op. cit., p. 105.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1978, BM, Gainsborough and Reynolds in the BM, cat no 202
1983 Feb-Mar, Nottingham UAG, 'Italian Drawings', no. 56
1983 Mar-May, London, V&A, 'Italian Drawings', no. 56
1990 April-Aug, BM, Treasures of P&D (no cat.)
1994/5 Oct-Jan, London, National Gallery, 'The Young Michelangelo', no. 14
2015 Mar-Jun, Reggio Emilia, Palazzo Magnani, 'Piero della Francesca'
2018-2019 18 Oct-3 Feb, Munich, Alte Pinakothek, 'Florence and its Painters: From Giotto to Leonardo'
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Thane mark not visible on recto.
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number