Florence – 15th century ‘Procession of the Magi’

Florence in the 15th century was a city of commerce, finance and manufacturing. Trade and business created great wealth. The Strozzi and Medici families were two of the wealthiest and most important money lenders in the city. Their trade was lucrative. Nowadays we tend to refer to them as bankers. Both families moved from business and commerce into politics. There was tremendous rivalry between the two camps and absolutely no love was lost between the two families.

A PERFECT EXAMPLE OF THIS RIVALRY – When Piero Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to paint a series of frescoes to decorate the private chapel of the Medici family in Florence, it is highly likely that he wanted to have some artwork adorning his palace that was superior to and better than the art in the Strozzi chapel nearby. Medieval one-up-man-ship at its best. So he hired Benozzo Gozzoli to create a vast, glorious, colourful fresco of the ‘Procession of the Magi’ representing the journey of the ‘wise men’ to the birthplace of Jesus. The result was a joyful, spectacular fairy story featuring the Medici and their entourage, travelling in their glittering splendour as the stars of the show.

Florence - Medici Chapel frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli - 1459
Florence – Medici Chapel frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli – 1459

FORTY YEARS EARLIER – The Strozzi family led by Palla Strozzi a man of great artistic taste had commissioned a superb altarpiece for the Strozzi family chapel from the celebrated artist Gentile da Fabriano. The result was the exquisite and detailed ‘Adoration of the Magi’ which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence today. Fabriano’s masterpiece was quite conventional showing the ‘wise men’ delivering gifts to the infant Jesus, with a cast of thousands paying their respects to the newly arrived child.

Adoration of the Magi - Gentile di Fabriano 1420s, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Adoration of the Magi – Gentile da Fabriano 1420s, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Adoration of the Magi - Gentile di Fabriano 1420s, Uffizi Gallery, Florence - detail of procession arriving at castle
Adoration of the Magi – Gentile da Fabriano 1420s, Uffizi Gallery, Florence – detail of procession arriving at castle

GENTILE DA FABRIANO had produced a superb work, filled with colour and detail. A sublime biblical scene showing the birth of Christ and the arrival of the ‘Magi’ or wise men to worship and honour him. The art work shows a huge crowd of richly decorated characters; horsemen, pages, supporters, hangers-on, all making their way to honour and praise the birth of Jesus Christ. At the front and centre of the painting are the ‘Wise Men’ or ‘Magi’ who have arrived to honour the birth of ‘God’s representative‘ on Earth. The painting tells a fundamental Christian story with a twist. In the background of the painting (see detail) there is a procession of knights making their way to a castle – possibly a crusaders castle in the Middle East. There’s a clear message here in the painting glorifying and praising the virtuous Christian aristocrats who marched to the Holy Land in the name of the Pope, to rid God’s sacred territories of the Turks and Saracens.

MEDICI MEGOLAMANIA – Just about forty years after Fabriano’s superb altar piece was finished Piero di Medici commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli to create a series of frescoes for the Medici private chapel. It is likely that Piero had Gentile da Fabriano’s superb ‘Adoration of the Magi’ in mind when the work was started. The exceptional range of colour and complexity in the Gozzoli frescoes is truly amazing. The richness of the costumes, verdant green landscape and the detail of people, animals, trees and foliage is almost photographic in terms of quality and depth. The quality of the art, colours, textures and detail are exquisite. From the landscape of rocky crags to the highly decorated bridles and saddles of the horses, every element of the picture is engaging and captivating.

Florence - Medici Chapel frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli - 1459
Florence – Medici Chapel frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli – 1459 (East Wall)

LORENZO the Magnificent leads the procession on a white horse, he is also said to represent the youngest ‘wise man’ known as Casper. Immediately the Medici family are including themselves in this important religious event! This fresco is about the supremacy of the Medici family, their elegance, style and power. In the background there is a medieval castle that could represent Jerusalem and the Crusades or perhaps it is simply one of the country castles of the Medici family – of which many were scattered in the hills around the city of Florence. Whilst the painting is dedicated to a sacred subject ‘The Procession of the Magi’ a more accurate title might be ‘The Procession of the Medici’. The frescoes are rich in pomp and ceremony, tradition and heritage. This was the perfect opportunity for the Medici family to confirm and preserve their eminent position in the city of Florence through the finest quality artistic works of the day.

HUNTING scenes, exotic animals, fabulous costumes and hosts of angels fill every corner of the fresco as the sumptuous procession makes its way through this idyllic landscape. This is a fascinating cultural and artistic representation of the luxury and taste of 15th century Florence. The other two ‘wise men’ are represented on other walls of the chapel. Curiously there is no arrival of these three gentlemen at the birthplace of Jesus. No need to concern yourself with the traditional Christmas tale when really the fresco is about the unstoppable rise of the Medici in Florence.

I FIND IT fascinating to think that such sublime artwork commissioned by two rival families the Strozzi and Medici could have created such world class and exceptional art. Whilst Fabriano’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ was essentially biblical in content, the Medici version was a positive ‘puff piece’ designed to promote and enhance the glory of the Medici dynasty. However the quality of the art, the richness of the content and the vibrancy of the colours has made it a popular and much appreciated work of art to this very day. Now that’s got to be seriously impressive.

Notes:

The source of my inspiration was Sandra’s eagle-eyed observation – from an article I’d written about Friuli wines!! Here’s the article: A Magical Mini Adventure in search of Friuli Wines………..

Friuli wines - Lasclusa produced on the south-west facing slopes of the Colli Orientali, Friuli, Italy
Friuli wines – Lasclusa produced on the south-west facing slopes of the Colli Orientali, Friuli, Italy – Procession of Magi
Gentile da Fabriano – 1420s – Adoration of the Magi
Gentile da Fabriano – Adoration of the Magi – detail of procession, top of painting – 1420s

Happy Reading!

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