JF Ptak Science Books Post 1115
In the History of Lines subcategory in this blog (following the separate histories of dots, holes and missing things) I’ve discussed things like Darwin’s evolutionary tree, the length of the coastline of Britain via Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry and Richard Feynman’s beautiful diagrams, but I’ve not really discussed “stick figures”. They came up briefly in a short
discussion relating to the history of published antiquarian drawings by children (and how the earliest drawings by kids look by and large the same over many centuries), but that has been about it.
Today though I’ve come across stick figures in a very unlikely place–in a great fresco by one of the finest painters of the human form of quattrocentro Florence. Domenico Ghirlandaio11449-1494 was an enormously popular artist during his day, with many fresco commissions and portraits to his credit; he made good use of eyeball-alone perspective and held a great passion for detail–something that I think got him into a snooty bit of trouble with most of the 20th century’s criticism of his artwork. (Bernard Berenson for one looked down his long and very sniffy nose at Ghirlandaio and announced him a mediocrity.) It cannot be left unsaid that he was also an early and short-lived teacher to Michelangelo.
What concerns me right now though is his fresco in the Sasseti Chapel of the Santa Trinita of Florence, painted about 1485, “The Confirmation of the Rule of St. Francis”2. Part of a series of works on St. Francis, this fresco represents the visit of the saint to Rome, though Ghirlandaio moved the “Rome” part to Florence (as the background is filled with famous Florentine buildings).3
The figures appear to be quite like stick figures from a distance --there they are in the upper-center background above the heads of the seated prelates--but loom less so when given some magnification, when more details come out. Even when looking at the figures this closely, though they still manage to keep a fair amount of the stick-ness, and so contribute a little bit of irony to the beautifully-rendered humans that fill the paintings and frescoes of this great master.
I guess that once viewed up close the "stick figure" part of the figures that are seen from far away become less so, but, well, they still seem like stick figures from a distance.
1. The name he grew up with was Domenico di Tommaso di Currado di Doffo Bigordi until nicknamed, renamed, by his father “Ghirlandaio”, or “garland maker”. Ghirlandaio was apprenticed to his father, probably, who was a goldsmith and whose signature creations were garland-like necklaces
2.“Ghirlandaio's most famous achievement is his fresco cycle of the life of Mary and St. John the Baptist for the choir of Santa Maria Novella. Michelangelo served an apprenticeship with him at this time and probably worked on these frescoes. Other examples of his art are the Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi); another Adoration (Hospital of the Innocents); a mosaic of the Annunciation for the Cathedral; a portrait of Francesco Sassetti and his son (Metropolitan Mus.); a portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni (Morgan Lib., New York City); and the highly realistic portrayal of Grandfather and Grandson (Louvre).”–www.globalgallery.com It is interesting to see how Ghirlandaio managed to include portraits of
Florentine nobility in this work–mostly they are the heads of the
people coming up the stairs in the foreground. “There are portraits of
Lorenzo il Magnifico / Lorenzo de' Medici and Agnolo Poliziano with
Lorenzo’s sons (Giuliano, Piero and Giovanni) and his friends (Matteo
Franco and Luigi Pulci)...”
3. “In the background is Florence, with its most celebrated buildings: the Loggia dei Lanzia, the façade of Palazzo Vecchio with its solemn raised podium that was later replaced by the present-day flight of steps; the gilded Marzocco lion (symbol of Florentine democracy); a back-drop of houses in the far left-hand corner and a bell-tower (possibly that of San Piero Scheraggio) where the Uffizi would later be built. In the background is a bustling of small figures, citizens and curious onlookers, possibly an opening and closing of shutters and, in places, a glimmering of gold in the capitals and arch of the consistory hall...”