Francesco Sassetti's tomb with Giuliano da Sangallo's reliefs in Cappella Sassetti, Santa Trinità, Florence
The custom of outfitting chapels inside a church and having Masses said for the family's dead first appeared in Tuscany at the end of the thirteenth century. The task assigned to Ghirlandaio, as one learns from a preparatory drawing preserved in the print collection in Rome, still shows a traditional Franciscan subject. It was clearly altered during its execution in the Santa Trinita chapel, in a composition organized around the tombs of Francesco Sassetti and his wife, a descendant of a family of Etruscan lineage, Nera Corsi, whom Francesco had married in 1459. Deviating from the cycle of Saint Francis as one finds it represented at Santa Croce - in Giotto's Bardi Chapel or in the marble reliefs for the pulpit in the nave, sculpted in the 1470s by Benedetto da Maiano - Ghirlandaio transposed episodes of the saint's life into a contemporary context and represented sites of the donor's activities in the background: the fabbriche of Assisi have been replaced by contemporary views of Geneva and Florence. The tombs of Francesco and his wife were inserted in semicircular niches, called arcosòli, or recesses, on the level of the frescoes and situated on the sides of the chapel at exactly the same height as the empty sarcophagus in the center of the painted Nativity on the panel above the altar. The deceased are depicted in full-length portrait, quite reduced - they measure about 3.9 feet - between the real tombs and the image of the empty tomb, making the scenography of the chapel suggest the assumption of the deceased bodies in the representation.
On the right-hand wall of the chapel, beneath the niche housing Sarsetti's tomb, a relief sculpted by Giuliano da Sangallo, inspired by a sarcophagus representing the death of Meleager, shows a corpse partially enveloped in a shroud and stretched out on a catafalque with torso half raised. To the left, a seated woman weeps, while two others, with hair in disarray, throw arms heavenward: together they express the two sides of grief, one melancholic, the other convulsive. The bas-relief, like a commentary, brings out the double continuity between Sassetti's tomb and the full-length portrait of him: it demonstrates the passage from physical death to survival in an image (the corpse rises, accompanied in its resurrection by the ecstatic transformation of the weeping woman into a maenad), giving Ghirlandaio's frescoes over these funeral reliefs and the tombs of Sassetti and his wife what Panofsky would call in 1964 the quality of an "exorcism" (Philippe-Alain Michaud. Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, p.109-110).
The Confirmation of the Rule of the Order of Saint Francis
If one now considers The Confirmation of the Rule of the Order of Saint Francis in the chapel's lunette, which opens onto another Florentine setting (the Piazaa della Signoria), one understands that the empty tomb painted on the lower panel and the resurrected child on the middle fresco develop a common theme: they prepare and justify Sassetti's intrusion into the historico-legenday space of the upper fresco as a middle realm between the sarcophagus containing the patron's real body and his effigy. The tomb at the right of the chapel, which contains - or is thought to contain - Sassetti's real body, becomes the empty tomb of the Nativity, and the empty tomb in turn prefigures the resurrection of the child and Francesco's reappearance, above, in the real setting of the Florentine city.
Francesco's entrance into the image echoes, in transfigured form, his body's entrance into the chapel. He takes his place in the painting with his entourage - his Umwelt - intruding into the sacred narration as wel as into the city's history, creating the conditions for his fictive appearence: "Neither loggia nor choir stalls, not even the balustrade behind the bench of Cardinals, can shield the pope and Saint Francis from the intrusion of the donor's family and their friends." The patron appears to bear witness, through his gesture of devotion, to a religious concept of existence, yet his effigy is first and foremost profane: he participates in the commemoration of the saint in order to give a lasting testimony of his person and his power. In making the comissio, Sassetti sought not to incorporate himself into the narration but to use to his advantage the field of representation in both its dimensions: the historico-referencial (the city of Florence) and the sacred (the legend of Saint Francis), Warburg removes Sassetti's mask of piety when he writes: "The portraits on the wall of his chapel reflect his own, indomitable will to live [Daseinswillen], which the painter's hand obeys by manifesting to the eye the miracle of an ephemeral human face, captured and held fast for its own sake."
The donor's image parasitizes the hagiographic sequence evoked by the saint's presence, reducing it to a secondary action and rendering it nothing more than the guarantee of the votive efficacy and legitimacy of the image. Sassetti, in having himself represented in the legend of Saint Francis and commissioning two tombs in a pagan style from Giuliano da Sangallo, responds to a very ancient survival rite running through the figurative apparatus of Christian belief.
(Philippe-Alain Michaud. Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion, p.111-114).
Portrait of the Donor Francesco Sassetti