Immortal Rhinophyma

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Supposed self-portrait, from Adoration of the Magi, 1488

Domenico Ghirlandaio. Supposed self-portrait, from Adoration of the Magi, 1488

Domenico Ghirlandaio (real name – Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi) was born in 1449. He is one of the most outstanding artists of the Florentine Quattrocento, the common designation of the Italian art of the XV century, correlated with the period of the early Italian Renaissance.

Ghirlandaio’s frescoes, depicting biblical scenes, were remarkably realistic. Townsfolk and nobles alike gladly posed for the artist, his frescoes and stunning portraits.

Usually, the subjects of classic portraits are rulers and heroes, nobles and commoners, cities and harbors, cliffs and turbulent seas. Medical condition, disease, occupying a central place on the canvas is extremely rare in the history of art. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s Old Man and his Grandson is the most famous work of this kind where a lot of attention is paid to rhinophyma, a disfiguring disease of the nose.

Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi

Domenico di Tommaso Curradi di Doffo Bigordi. Old Man and his Grandson. 1490.

Rhinophyma: Pronounced (ryno-fee-ma), a bulbous enlarged red nose and puffy cheeks (like those of the old comedian W.C. Fields). There may also be thick bumps on the lower half of the nose and the nearby cheek areas. Rhinophyma occurs mainly in men as a complication of rosacea.

This painting stands out among the works of other masters of the Quattrocento: it violates a code of unwritten laws of the fine arts of the time.

Firstly, the painting it is remarkably naturalistic: anatomically correct proportions, carefully drawn landscape behind the window, and a host of emotions on both the old and the young face.

Secondly, the painting is unique among the portraits of the Quattrocento because it depicts a rather ugly looking old man. His features, however, radiate love and tenderness. At the time, the predominate art concept dictated unity of “inner” and “outer” world of a man — virtue could only be found in beautiful people.

The old man and the child… The grandfather is gently hugging his grandson, looking at him with admiration and sadness at the same time, while the boy stares questioningly into the eyes of his grandfather, his caressing hand on him.

The whereabouts of the portrait for the 400 years following its completion is unknown. Its modern history begins in 1880: Bode Museum in Berlin refused to buy it, citing its poor condition — the wooden board was dotted with deep scratches. The Louvre, however, has been less fastidious. Successful restoration has been undertaken only in 1996.

It is possible that the artist knew “the old man” personally. A posthumous drawing “Head of an old man” is housed in the National Museum of Sweden in Stockholm.

Domenico Ghirlandaio


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