Dr Leonardo, I presume…

Left: Leonardo da Vinci. right: Domenico Ghirlandaio.

In my previous post I proposed that the artist Domenico Ghirlandaio was the person who sent the anonymous letter to the Florentine authorities accusing Leonardo da Vinci and three other men of sodomy.

I mentioned five paintings in which this event is alluded to, three by Botticelli, one by Andrea Mantegana and another by Verrocchio with the help of Leonardo himself.

I can now point to another work that makes mention of the incident – a confession of a kind – by Domenico Ghirlandaio. It’s one in a series of frescos he and his workshop produced for the Tournabuoni Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella on the lives of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, patron saints of Florence.

Baptism of Christ, 1485-1489, Domenico Ghirlandaio and workshop,
Tournabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

The particular fresco is the Baptism of Christ, and it is not without coincidence that several of its features are adopted from a similar work painted by Andrea del Verrocchio, assisted by Leonardo.

Leonardo also shows up in the Tournabuoni version. He is placed at the extreme left of the fresco, wearing a green gown and amber hat. His right hand is pointing to the dominant figure standing in front of him waiting to be baptised and whose nakedness symbolises his sin. He is no longer in hiding, although an angel’s wing – a gold leaf – covers his modesty.

He is Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Baptism of Christ, 1476, Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi, Florence

In Verrochio’s version Ghirlandaio is the model for John the Baptist. It is not without reason why the angel painted by Leonardo and representing himself has his eyes fixed on the Baptist figure, “staring hard at him” and not at Christ, with a questioning look that asks “Are you the one…?” One of his own, a painter, a ‘Hebrew’, echoing the fable of the eagle wounded by an arrow vaned with its own feathers, and a reference to Leonardo’s shoulder injury. The shoulder injury is depicted in Leonardo’s angel and Ghirlandaio’s fresco.

In the Verrocchio painting, Leonardo’s angel’s right arm, his wing, is feathered and dark. He carries the cloth that will cover Christ, shaped as a wing but also meant to represent a shroud that will eventually wrap around the body of Christ. The garment turns to gold and forms a sling around Leonardo’s shoulder to support and partially cover his injury wound – a red, wing-shaped arrow to suggest a damaged shoulder blade or “winged scapular”.

Lorenzo de’ Medici, Adoration of the Magi, 1482, Sandro Botticelli, Uffizi, Florence

The damaged right shoulder shows up on Ghirlandaio. Note the dark bruising and the emphasis on the shoulder blade. Leonardo confirms the problem by pointing to Ghirlandaio’s other shoulder. More likely he is presenting a prognosis of the injury, or disorder, to the bearded man alongside. His pointed hat is modelled on the hat worn by Lorenzo de’ Medici in Botticelli’s Uffizi version of the Adoration of the Magi. Magi = Medici = medical doctors.

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