Ghirlandaio vs. Signorelli: fighting on the floor

Terry Pratchett, whose dislike of cyclists may not be as famous as his books, but just as comical, once said that his dream vacation was immunity from prosecution, a trip to Amsterdam, and a baseball bat. I have to admit I briefly entertained a similar idea while driving in Florence, with scooterists performing impossible maneuvers in front of my car, like insects intent on driving a lake bather mad by swarming all over his body.

Even as I was walking the streets of the Renaissance city, I couldn’t stop thinking of the need to drive back to Tuscany coast: these scooters did look like giant locusts waiting for the rush-hour Apocalypse. Waiting for me to get into my car.


I had to remind myself that no scooters should break the resolve of an art lover on a mission.

My mission was to take my friends on a tour of Brancacci chapel (Masaccio’s frescoes) and Medici Ricardi Palace (Benozzo Gozzoli’s Magi). It was Wednesday, the 16th of July. I didn’t know that Medici Palace was closed on Wednesdays, and Brancacci chapel was closed on particularly the 16th of July for reasons explained in Italian, and hence unknown to me. That’s bad luck for you: once in a year you come to Florence and the two places you want to visit are miraculously inaccessible. Wednesday, the 16th is the new Friday, the 13th.

At least Santa Maria Novella was open and I could take a few pics that I needed for this post.

Previously (scan this article if you missed it, for better understanding of the difference between the two Renaissance masters), I talked of the way Ghirlandaio and Signorelli were treating colour and conflict in their work. To sum up, Ghirlandaio was a decorative artist committed to pleasing the observer, and Signorelli was a painter who wanted to make his audiences experience an emotional turmoil via a conflict that he created through clashes of “opposite”, or complimentary, and cold vs. warm colours.

Signorelli was more than just a colour experimenter. To understand his revolutionary idea of colour, we’ll get down to the floor, and the first floor we’d get down to would be that of his more successful rival, Domenico Ghirlandaio.


Ghirlandaio, Fragment
Ghirlandaio, Fragments from frescoes

These are a few examples of Ghirlandaio’s floors from the fortunately open Santa Maria Novella, a Dominican church just across from the railway station. It is famous for Masaccio’s Trinity, Filippino Lippi’s frescoes, and the central Tornabuoni chapel done by Ghirlandaio at the time when 13 y.o. Michelangelo was his apprentice, and could have a hand in at least something. It is now a part of a monastery that could raise a lot of money by offering backside massage to tourists who twisted their necks looking up the walls and ceilings.

The floors are very colourful and decorative, especially the in-laid steps and tiles. Colours are often chosen to rhyme with the clothes of characters:

IMG_0842 - копия

It is like the exact match between the bag & shoes colour in fashion that is often seen as too stylish to be a reflection of the authentic taste.  Victoria Beckham can tell you all about it.

Signorelli made colourful floors too, but in a very different way. The only problem is that there are no free images of Signorelli’s paintings that I could use to illustrate it properly. Photography inside Volterra’s Pinacoteca is strictly forbidden, and those images that are available online show wrong colours. So, you’d have to take my word for it:

Luca Signorelli, Annunciazione, 1491
Luca Signorelli, Annunciazione, 1491

This full image shows all the wrong colours, but fortunately I could find a better image of an important fragment of this panel:



Signorelli’s main colour conflict was happening on the floor: all the colours that he used in his painting, the whole palette is there. All the colours that he juxtaposes to create Biblical conflicts inside his painting flow down to the earthly floor, where they get mixed into whirlwind patterns, the patterns mortal humans are experiencing in their daily life.

Some 400 hundred years later, van Gogh was doing the same, in the eye of his portraits:





It would be grand to hear from you now!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: