At the Clark Art Institute, Ridolfo Ghirlandaio Makes Sobriety Fancy

THE DAILY PIC: A "minor" Italian master mixes opposites and bridges centuries.


THE DAILY PIC (#1375): The permanent collections at our great museums get way too little attention these days, and permanent collections in smaller places get none at all. So for the rest of this week, I’ll be looking at some wonderful, neglected paintings I spotted on a recent visit to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass.

Like many American museums that began as private collections, the Clark is especially full of wonderful old portraits. (They were cheaper to buy and convenient to hang and store.) The ones at the Clark can almost be used to tell the entire history of the genre.

This first example is by an underappreciated 16th-century Italian called Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, son of the great 15th-century master Domenico.

Roots in his old man’s workshop give him a bit of conservative ballast, but at his best Ridolfo has also got some of the elegant lines of Mannerism. I think this portrait has a bit of both: Its close description of the sitter comes from dad’s love of Flemish art; the clean, cursive contours of the hat and hair and shoulders point toward mannerists like Pontormo and Bronzino.

The sitter seems to be the writer and thinker Girolamo Benivieni. (This painting is clearly of the same man shown in a portrait identified as Benivieni in the National Gallery in London.) Benivieni started out as a wordly humanist but then fell under the spell of the book-burning ascetic Savonarola. Is it going too far to say that the mix of sobriety and spirit, in Ridolfo’s style, captures that tension in Benivieni’s life and manner? Notice those fancy little rings, held up against the somber black of the sage’s robes.

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