Let’s jump right in. I’ve always loved this painting by Domenico Ghirlandaio (pronounced Gear-lan-DYE-oh). It hits me emotionally: the tender gaze between grandfather and grandson. So much so that I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it before.
I’d like to come up with a better word, but what I keep thinking of is “sweet.” It really is a sweet painting. An ideal image of grandfather-grandson love. Clearly, the two of them trust each other completely. You can just tell.
The most striking thing about this painting, though, visually, has got to be the grandfather’s lumpy nose. It’s the result of a disease called rhinophyma and certainly adds realism to the painting. When I first saw this painting, before it was repaired and cleaned in 1996, it looked like this:
Although the scratches are clearly on the painting and not on the man, somehow they made it all the more charming. Imperfection upon imperfection, adding originality and uniqueness.
The second thing that strikes me, as I try to look at it less emotionally, is that the depictions of grandfather and grandson are completely different. The grandfather appears to be an actual person, with his lumpy nose, a wart (or something similar) on his forehead, wrinkles, and large ears. (I learned recently that our ears never stop growing, so the older we get, the bigger our ears are in proportion to our heads. Which explains a lot.) The boy, on the other hand, looks to me like a stereotypical child in a Renaissance painting. He’s beautiful, with perfect curls, a little pink to his cheek, his cap perched exactly on his head. He could be in many Renaissance paintings. Like with this angel:
Or he could fit right into this one, although the whole feel of the painting is different:
They’re admittedly not exactly the same thing. But I think you get the idea.
In the end, none of this really matters, though. The man and the boy look at each other lovingly. The boy doesn’t care about the man’s lumpy nose, nor does the man care that the boy looks like a stereotypical Renaissance child. Ghirlandaio had a large workshop (where he trained Michelangelo, among others) and was an excellent businessman in addition to being a successful and respected painter. I’d say that all of that comes through in this painting. It’s solid and responsible, appealing and kind. And although I’ve always very much wanted this old man to be Ghirlandaio himself, we know it’s not. Of course we don’t really know if Ghirlandaio was as kind as this old man appears to be, but we might know what he looked like. Check out the two details below. Fascinating, isn’t it?