In 1459 Benozzo Gozzoli started work on a commission by Cosimo and Piero de’ Medici to fresco the private chapel in the Palazzo Medici in Florence (Figure 1). This text considers the nature of the commission, its subject matter and materials, and discusses its iconography and purpose in celebrating religious devotion at the same time as promoting the status and political influence of the Medici family.
Figure 1: The chapel of the Palazzo Medici
The fresco cycle, completed in about two years and covering all but one wall of the small chapel depicts the procession of the Magi towards the Christ child who is depicted on Fra Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece (now replaced by a copy). Images of angels and shepherds complete the scene. The frescos were executed with great detail and the colours have survived remarkably well.
The sequence commences on the east wall with the youngest king, Caspar and his retinue descending from the mountains. Magus Balthasar gazes upwards, possibly towards where a star of Bethlehem may have been prior to the alterations made when the palazzo was sold to the Riccardi family in 1659. On the west wall Magus Melchior is the closest to the Christ child on the altarpiece and he is accompanied by the largest procession of pilgrims. This all takes place in a minutely detailed landscape which bears resemblance to the countryside around Florence and is populated with all manner of animals and birds.
From the late 1430’s Cosimo de’ Medici was a man with considerable political influence in Florence, a de facto ruler who sought to promote both the city and his family. A rare privilege bestowed upon Cosimo by Martin V, to whom he was Papal banker, allowed the Palazzo Medici to include a chapel for private prayer and to be used as a reception room for important dignitaries.
The choice of subject matter was particularly relevant for Cosimo, who was active in the religious community of Florence and a patron of religious art. He belonged to the Compagnia de’ Magi, a confraternity that congregated at San Marco and organised the annual Festa de’ Magi, a public festival dedicated to the three kings. Cosimo took part in re-enactments of the journey of the Magi and contemporary accounts of the pomp and splendour of these parades are reflected in the frescos. There is much use of gold and metals that would have reflected candlelight (the only light in the original chapel) to great effect. In a surviving letter from the artist to Piero de’ Medici he reminds his patron that he needs to acquire ultramarine from Venice to complete the brocades on one wall, suggesting that the more expensive materials may have been provided by the patron. The same letter also suggests that the artist may have been poorly or irregularly paid for his work, since he had to beg Piero to advance him 50 florins with which to ‘buy corn and many other things’ that he needed.
The Magi are dressed in white, green and red, colours alluding to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and also the armorial colours of the Medici family whose coat of arms features on the bridles and saddles of horses. A number of orange trees are depicted and in many artworks commissioned by the Medici oranges are used as an allusion to the coat of arms.
Leading the retinue behind Magus Caspar (Figure 2) are two servants whose clothing is decorated with the Medician devices of a diamond ring symbolising eternity (also used elsewhere in the ceiling of the chapel), feathers meaning faith or strength and the motto ‘SEMPER’ meaning always or forever. Within the retinue members of the Medici family are depicted, including Cosimo riding a mule whose bridle carries a gilded Medici coat of arms and Piero riding a white horse and showing the diamond ring and feathers. Also depicted is Carlo, an illegitimate son who by his inclusion was perhaps legitimised to suggest the continuance of the Medici line should Piero not survive.
Piero’s sons Lorenzo and Guiliano have also been recognised, as is the artist himself who is seen wearing a red cap, helpfully bearing his name in gold. It was previously thought that the young king was a portrait of Lorenzo but he would have been only ten years old at the time and it would have been very unusual to depict a family member in such a prominent position. This theory has now been discounted.
Figure 2: The procession of the Magus Caspar
The treatment of costume in this scene is similar to that by Gentile de Fabriano in his Strozzi altarpiece of 1423 (Figure 3). Indeed the influence of this work is noticeable with the subject matter being the same and the style similar, although on a grander scale, suggesting that Piero de’ Medici intended to undermine the exiled Strozzi and by this means demonstrate the superiority of the Medicis.
Figure 3: Detail from the Strozzi altarpiece by Gentile de Fabriano
The inclusion of some of the Medici’s main allies, Sigismondo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, in the work would have reinforced their links with the Medici family and given that the chapel was used as a reception room, would have carried a clear message to visiting dignitaries.
Figure 4: Details by Benozzo Gozzoli
The collaboration between the patron Piero de’ Medici and the artist Benozzo Gozzoli produced a fresco cycle that was designed and executed to serve a dual purpose. The spiritual and devotional aspects of the cycle telling the biblical story of the Magi, an appropriate choice for a chapel designed for a member of the Compagnia de’ Magi, was used to depict the Medici as faithful servants of God. At the same time it conveyed a strong message of political authority and the continuity of the dynasty, clearly intended to influence the many important visitors to the Palazzo.
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