The Tornabuoni Chapel is the largest chapel in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the church’s titular saint.
Its patrons, the Ricci family, allowed the Tornaquinci family to fund the frescoing of the chapel by Orcagna in the mid-14th century. However, due to the Riccis’ financial woes Orcagna’s work was already in a precarious state by the second half of the 15th century, since the family was unable to provide for their restoration and maintenance. Then in 1357 the walls of the chapel were seriously damaged by a fire probably caused by lightning.
The great cycle of frescoes still visible today were instead the work of Domenico Bigordi di Tommaso Ghirlandaio who was called upon by Giovanni Tornabuoni to fresco the chapel in 1485 having bought the patronage of the chapel from the Ricci family on condition that their coat of arms would remain.
On the walls of the chapel Ghirlandaio painted the life stories of the Virgin, and apocryphal Gospels (left), and that of St. John the Baptist, patron saint of Florence (right), while the sails of the vault were reserved for the Four Evangelists.
The artist set about the huge undertaking using a well-organized group of young helpers. Among them were younger brother David and his other brother Benedetto as well as Sebastiano Mainardi, who became Ghirlandaio’s brother-in-law, Granacci, Bugiardini, and, albeit briefly, amongst others Michelangelo himself.
One may in fact note that the side lunettes, which receive less light, are those that most clearly show the collaboration between the workshop and the supporting artists, while the large lunette below stands out in comparison due to its high quality.
However, the cooperation of the assistants gradually becomes more uniform looking down from top to bottom, improving all the more by the master's presence. Among the acknowledged helpers, though limited to a very minor role, is the hand of one of the most explosive personalities of the Renaissance. Although then just a fourteen year-old boy, Michelangelo Buonarroti, as Vasari tells us, was chased away by Ghirlandaio after a brief spell for correcting some of his drawings thus arousing, again according to Vasari, the envy of the master.
The world that Ghirlandaio enjoys watching is the everyday, i.e. daily life unfolding around him usually described in a tone worthy of the elegant and aristocratic family of the buyer while simultaneously mirroring the typical world of upper-class Florentines. That goes too for the trends of the times in clothing, decoration, everyday gestures and the places depicted... Following contemporary tastes the artist depicted the most prominent and most popular people in Florence since well-to-do Florentines loved recognizing local celebrities in the lead characters or even secondary figures of narrative scenes, and still more rejoiced to see actual effigies.
This is especially the case of the principal characters of the patron family, the Tornabuoni, who are portrayed with particular care as if to highlight their exalted position. So much so, that Giovanni Tornabuoni and his wife, Francesca Luca Pitti, were reserved two panels in tailor-made boxes in the central wall.
Yet the portraits also included many other well-known figures of that time, such as Domenico Ghirlandaio's brother David, Baldovinetti (Ghirlandaio's and brother-in-law Mainardi’s master), besides then famous writers and philosophers such as Marsilio Ficino, Cristoforo Landino, and Poliziano Angiolo.
A major role in the cycle is played, of course, by the city of Florence, as the saying of the time goes "the beautiful city that enjoyed wealth, success, art, noble buildings, peace and health."
As for the rest of the chapel, the painting of the Coronation of the Virgin placed above the altar in 1324 and attributed to Ugolino da Siena Bernardo Daddi, is now in the Galleria dell'Accademia.
The current marble altar was designed by Enrico Romoli, who directed the 1860 restoration. The sculptures are the work of Egisto Rossi, while the crucifix on the altar was attributed to Gianbologna and was donated by the Academy of Fine Arts when it constructed the altar.
The large canopy is rich in malachite and lapis lazuli inlay. The Risen Christ between two angels in the tympanum of the door was painted on gilt bronze by Giuseppe Fattori.
Under the altar is an urn with the body of Blessed Giovanni da Salerno, founder of the Monastery († c. 1243).
The white marble antependium, or altar frontal, boasts four carved allegorical figures: Charity, Fortitude, Prudence, Religion. The panels show: St. Dominic preaching and Blessed Giovanni da Salerno receiving the church and the convent of Santa Maria Novella from Cardinal Ugolino.
The wooden choir was built by Giovanni Gargiolli da Settignano based on drawings by Vasari, using inlaid chair backs, designed beforehand for this chapel by Baccio d'Agnolo and executed by Bartolomeo Baglioni (late 15th century).
The great lectern in the center, called the "Badalone" is from the end of the 16th century.