Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Old Man and Child
  • Creator: Ghirlandaio, Domenico, painter
  • Description:

    This portrait was painted by Domenico Ghirlandaio ca. 1490 in Florence, Italy. The painting depicts an old man and a child, historically assumed to be his grandson, though no known documentation supports this claim. The old man is dressed in a fur-lined robe, while the child is clothed in an elegant doublet and cap. The manner of dress indicates that the two come from wealth. The old man is depicted with a wart on his forehead, and the center of the painting is dominated by the old man’s nose, which is afflicted with rhinophyma (a benign but cosmetically unattractive subtype of untreated acne in old age. The old man and child share a tender, familial intimacy, and the old man’s left arm holds the boy in an embrace. The boy’s hand rests on the man’s chest, and he gazes attentively up at the old man’s face. The identities of the two subjects remain unknown.

    The painting is remarkable in part because of the way it addresses the old man’s facial disfigurement. The painting is rendered under the lens of realism, revealing the true appearance of the subjects rather than an idealized image of a flawless Christian devotee. While disfigurement was once thought to be a sign of moral corruption, new ideals of the Italian Renaissance helped bring about an appreciation for individuality and the natural purity of human existence. As a result, the painting focuses on the man’s tender expression and devotion to the child rather than punish him for his physical deformity. Some historians argue that the painting constitutes an early form of the psychological portrait, a term which was not coined until the 20th century.

    Domenico Ghirlandaio was one of the most successful and prestigious painters in Florence. In the 1480s he combined sacred history with family commemoration in chapel frescoes for the Sassetti and Tornabuoni families. In The Visitation in Santa Maria Novella, Mary and Elizabeth embrace while women from the Tornabuoni family stand in attendance. They are dressed in contemporary clothing and serve as witnesses rather than participants in the sacred scenes. The beautiful young woman in the golden brocade dress is Giovanna degli Albizzi, married to the Tornabuoni heir at seventeen and already dead when she was commemorated here. The formal perfection of these family members contrasts with the warmth and individuality of the Old Man and Child. The concern the man feels for the little boy testifies to his goodness, while their mutual regard illustrates the bonds between generations.

  • Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Abnormalities Body Children Family Florence Portraits
  • Geographic Area: Italy
  • Century: 15
  • Date: circa 1490
  • Related Work: Photo of Old Man and Child painting with scratches visible, Paris, Musée du Louvre.
    Domenico Ghirlandaio, Francesco Sassetti (1421–1490) and His Son Teodoro, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
    Domenico Ghirlandaio, Visitation, Florence, Santa Maria Novella.
    Close up of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni, Visitation, Florence, Santa Maria Novella.
  • Current Location: Paris, Musée du Louvre, inv. R.F. 266
  • Original Location: Possibly Florence
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital images; Paintings
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Wood panel; Tempera
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 62.7/46.3/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Baker, Naomi. Plain Ugly: The Unattractive Body in Early Modern Culture. Manchester University Press, 2010;
    Cadogan, Jean K. Domenico Ghirlandaio: Artist and Artisan. Yale University Press, 2000;
    DePrano, Maria. "'Per la anima della donna': Pregnancy and Death in Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Visitation for the Tornabuoni Chapel, Cestello," Viator 42, 2 (2011): 321-351;
    Musacchio, Jacqueline Marie. Art, Marriage and Family in the Florentine Renaissance Palace Yale University Press, 2008;
    Quermann, Andreas. Domenico di Tommaso di Currado Bigordi Ghirlandaio, 1449-1494. Könemann, 1998.