An art historian journeys into the Renaissance


Maria Deprano meets me in Florence just outside of Santa Maria Novella, a church consecrated in the early Renaissance. While the green and white marble façade is spectacular, we’re here to look into the mysteries of the basilica’s interior frescoes.

A 2013 fellow with Harvard University’s Villa I Tatti, DePrano has traded her post in Pullman for a year in Italy to research and write a book featuring a family of fifteenth-century Florence who appear in one particular set of the church’s frescoes. The Tornabuoni were art patrons who commissioned and were featured in artworks from some of the most significant Renaissance artists, particularly Domenico Ghirlandaio and Sandro Botticelli.

“The family is really ancient stock in Florence,” she explains. Records trace them back to the 1220s.

Maria DePrano
Art historian Maria DePrano in the Tornabuoni Chapel
(Staff photo)

Giovanni Tornabuoni, the paterfamilias, lived in Rome for decades working for the Medici bank. He was also part of a Florentine delegation to Pope Innocent IV. Tornabuoni bought the rights to decorate the main chapel at Santa Maria Novella. He commissioned Domenico Ghirlandaio, lauded for his portraiture, to create frescoes with the themes of the births and lives of the Madonna and of John the Baptist. The design was to tell their stories in a series of panels and include representations of himself and his family and friends.

Michelangelo was at the time a young apprentice in Ghirlandaio’s workshop, and may have been involved in the chapel work. Another art historian notes that the apprentices or assistants helped in the chapel project by transferring the designs, grinding colors, and performing other mechanical tasks.

As we stand inside the church facing the main chapel, the left wall tells the story of the Virgin Mary and the right wall of John the Baptist. DePrano moves into the space and looks up smiling, pointing out some familiar faces. “There’s Ludovica,” she says gesturing to the Nativity of Mary scene. Giovanni’s daughter is in full Florentine dress and not yet married, DePrano noting that it’s signified by her hair being down.

“And there’s Lorenzo,” she says pointing to the neighboring panel where Giovanni’s adult son stands with a friend in a biblical scene, but in a setting that features buildings with the look of fifteenth-century Florence. On the central wall the praying forms of Giovanni and his wife Francesca Pitti flank the stained glass windows.

Other identifiable members of the family as well as a self-portrait of the artist and images of other well-known members of the city inhabit the scenes. While the stories are biblical, the frescoes also depict clothing, furnishings, and architecture of the day. DePrano turns to the right wall and points to Giovanna degli Albizzi, a young woman from another powerful Florentine family who was married to Lorenzo when they both were 18. She bore a boy in 1487, but died a year later during pregnancy. She stands in profile, her elegant dress a rich rust and gold brocade. Going even deeper into her examination, DePrano points to the young woman just behind her as Ginevra Gianfigliazzi, Lorenzo’s second wife.

Where most who gaze at Giovanna simply see a beautiful Florentine woman, an example of virtue and beauty, DePrano sees more, even noting one of the insignias of the family tucked into the folds of her sumptuous dress. The painting was completed after Giovanna’s death, she says, and the artist seems to have made note of that in the work. “Look how drawn and tired she looks.”

What’s so special about Giovanna is that there are at least five known representations of her, says DePrano. They include bronze medals or coins that feature her likeness on one side and the three graces on the other. The medals may have been made to commemorate her marriage to Lorenzo. It is rare, she explains, to link an extant medal to an actual woman whose name we knew. Many women in pieces from this era are impossible to identify.

We slip out of the cool church and head down a narrow street into an even older part of the city.

The Tornabuoni were wealthy, but not like the ultra-rich and ultra-powerful Medicis, she explains. Still the families were intertwined. Giovanni’s sister Lucrezia married Piero de’ Medici and was mother to Lorenzo the Magnificent, grandmother to Pope Leo X. Both Giovanni and his son appear at the Vatican in Calling of Peter and Andrew, a Sistine Chapel fresco painted by Ghirlandaio in 1481–1482.

“But here I am able to look at the family compared to the rest of Florence,” she says. With the art and the written records, just a handful of households from that time have materials as extensive. DePrano plans to use this year to complete her book on art and family, which will both flesh out the story of the Tornabuoni and enhance the view of families, particularly the women, in Florentine society.

While deep into describing the city from the time the chapel was painted, DePrano suddenly stops and points up. “That,” she says, “is where the Tornabuoni lived.” A massive three-story building dating to the fifteenth century looms. Lower level rusticated stone walls and arched doorways give way to stucco and tall windows crowned with pediments. DePrano points out the family crest on the side of the building. The street-level storefronts bear names like Dior and Bulgari.

We cross the street and move through a set of tall wooden doors into a courtyard. To our right are glass doors behind which a wide staircase leads up. “This is as far as we can go,” says DePrano, admitting to a longing to peek into what were once the Tornabuoni family’s private quarters and are now exclusive luxury apartments. Just a few years ago, the building was modernized with a $150 million restoration. “I guess it’s fitting,” she says. “It has come back to what it was when the Tornabuoni lived here.”

This year DePrano is spending most of her days just outside the city in her offices at Harvard’s Villa I Tatti. Her one-year fellowship is to further her own research and expand the overall understanding of the Italian Renaissance. Her project is a continuation of work she started as a graduate student on a Fulbright year in Florence, uncovering and studying details about this particular family so connected to both the history of the period and the artwork.

DePrano travels back and forth between written documents and the art. Digging through letters, she has found some that have yet to be transcribed from the old Florentine script. But she is excited about what they will reveal.

Beyond the paintings and personal letters, the family’s tragedies have left a trail of materials. Their story is sometimes cruel, but for an art historian very useful, says DePrano. In 1497 Lorenzo was arrested for taking part in a conspiracy to return the Medici to Florence. They had been deemed too powerful and were driven from the city in 1494. For their involvement in the plot, Lorenzo and four others were beheaded.

His death orphaned the Tornabuoni children and prompted a formal accounting of the family’s household. The list, written in a beautiful Florentine hand, details each room of the palazzo. “We know what instruments they had and what art and furniture were where,” says DePrano. This gives us so much detail, she says. “We know what some of the rooms were used for… It gives us a fuller picture of what their lives in this space would have been like.”

Bronze medal from Renaissance Italy
Bronze medal of Giovanna degli Albizzi, wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni, c. 1486, attributed to Niccolò Fiorentino. Courtesy National Gallery of Art