Tragic Heroine: Giovanna, the Princess Diana of her generation

Giovanna di Tornabuoni was the Princess Diana of her generation. And like Diana, she was a tragic heroine, whose life was cruelly cut short. Diana was still a teenager when she took those slow, fateful steps in Westminster Abbey, to be joined in marriage to Charles, Prince of Wales.  But at the same age, Giovanna had not only united the two most important dynasties of her generation, but had produced a male heir.  Not bad going for a 19-year-old. But all the money and nobility in the world failed to prevent Giovanna’s early death.  She died, most probably of a complication related to pregnancy, and unlike Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, who recently suffered from a pregnancy related illness, Giovanna had none of the medical facilities available to young women in the modern era.

Giovanna’s brief life was over by 1488, but she is immortalised in two portrait paintings, one of which appears in a fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel (Cappella Tornabuoni) in the church of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy. It was created by the Renaissance master, Domenico Ghirlandaio, who employed many young up and coming artists in his workshop, one of whom you may have heard of: Michelangelo Buonarotti, better known as Michelangelo.

Ghirlandaio was perhaps the most skilled portrait artist of the fifteenth century, and it is a mystery to me why such a fine portrait as the one he did of Giovanna, which hangs in the Thyssen-ImageBornemisza gallery in Madrid, Spain, seems relatively little known by the general public, when the portrait created by Ghirlandaio’s contemporary, Leonardo, is the best known painting in the world.  The portrait of La Giocanda, (Mona Lisa) is an inferior portrait, yet is fawned over, gawped at and continues to attract tourists by the thousands to the Louvre in Paris.

At any time of the year you’d be lucky to catch as much of a glimpse of the Mona Lisa: there are always people crowding around the portrait, eager to experience first-hand what all the fuss is about.  Yes, there is the hype about the enigmatic smile and the mystery of who the sitter was.  But for me at least, the Mona Lisa fails to live up to the hype and if you want to see the most beautiful woman of her generation, then the idealised beauty as exemplified in Giovanna’s portrait wins hands down.

There’s a sadness to the portrait which makes it all the more poignant as by 1488, when Ghirlandaio painted it, Giovanna was already dead.  The artist had to create her portrait posthumously from a death mask, which wasn’t uncommon in those days when life was all too brief.  There is a fragility to Giovanna’s beauty, her face shown in profile, illuminated by otherworldly light.  She has blonde hair and a tiny nose and is portrayed with such poise and grace that she is surely the idealised vision of fragile beauty.  Perhaps it was because on the day in December, when I had Giovanna practically all to myself, that I too was feeling like death warmed up, from a bout of the ‘flu, that I found it hard to tear myself away from the tale of this particular tragic heroine.

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