Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi I

1.    The chapel and the palazzo

1.1. Background and history

Cappella dei Magi

Dr. Rebecca Howard Smarthistory

The palace of the Medici on Via Larga (now called Via Camillo Cavour) a stone’s throw away from the ‘Medici Church’, San Lorenzo, was built between 1445 and 1460 by Michelozzo. (Click here for the architecture of the palace).

Benozzo Gozzoli 'Self-portrait' Cappella dei Magi

Benozzo Gozzoli ‘Self-portrait’

In July 1459, Benozzo Gozzoli began painting in the chapel. Three months earlier, in April, there was a high-profile visit to the Medici Palace by Pope Pius II with Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, the supreme commander of the papal army, and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the son of the Duke of Milan. They came to Florence to garner support for a new crusade. Such a special and important occasion was naturally celebrated extensively. The palace was adorned with precious carpets, and jousts and hunts with exotic animals were held. Benozzo painted Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Sigismondo on horseback, and the hunt with exotic animals chasing deer and hares on the walls of the chapel.

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (left) and Galeazzo Maria Sforza (right)          Zoom out

Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta (left) Galeazzo Maria Sforza Cappella dei Magi
Gozzoli' Young King' Cappella dei Magi

The young King

According to some interpretations, the kings would be representations of the emperor, the patriarch, and Lorenzo de Medici (the young king). However, this is not the case, as Lorenzo was not yet ten years old, and the old and middle-aged kings bear no resemblance to the faces of the emperor and patriarch that Benozzo gave his kings. A comparison with Pisanello’s coin of Emperor Palaiologos (National Gallery of Art) from 1438 makes this clear. Also, the patriarch does not resemble his depiction on the tomb monument in Santa Maria Novella. Gozzoli’s kings are not character studies but are (see Web Gallery of Art).

Twenty years earlier, in 1439, the Byzantine Emperor, John VIII Palaiologos, the Patriarch of Constantinople, Joseph II, and Pope Eugene IV convened to resolve the theological disputes between the Eastern Orthodox and Christian Church. Cosimo ensured that this crucial meeting was relocated from Ferrara to Florence.

Chapel of the Medici view of the choir      Zoom in

Chapel of the Medici view choir   

Fra Filippo Lippi ‘The Adoration in the Forrest’ 1459

The Medici’s had a special bond with Maria. They supported and played a significant role in the Compagni de’Magi, an association that gathered in the San Marco monastery, the same monastery that Cosimo had financed and where he occasionally retreated to his double cell. In one of these cells, Gozzoli, who collaborated with Fra Angelico, painted an ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (for more information click here). On the day of Epiphany, there was a richly adorned procession on horseback and on foot in Florence every year, with three kings, a large crib, donkey, and ox, which proceeded along the Via Larga to the nearest church, San Marco. At the end of this procession, the faithful knelt and sang before the main altar of Fra Angelico, with a Enthroned Mary with Child. Cosimo himself, naturally as a king, also participated in such a procession. He wore a fur coat and a crown.

Fra Filippo Lippi 'The Adoration in the Forrest detail: Mary

It’s quite exceptional that the Medici were granted permission by the pope to set up a chapel in their Palazzo where a priest could celebrate mass. In 1422, Pope Martin V granted the Medici permission for this, likely owing to the fact that the Medici were the bankers of the papal court.

The frescoes in the chapel have been well-preserved. Due to the double walls of the chapel, moisture had no chance to damage the wall paintings. However, some changes have occurred over the centuries. Originally, there were only two round windows: one at the entrance and the other on the opposite wall above the altar. These windows allowed only indirect light (click here for the floor plan). So little light entered the chapel that candlelight had to be used. When the Medicis were expelled from Florence in 1494, Fra Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece disappeared from the chapel. A few years later, a copy was made, which still stands on the altar today. The original altarpiece is now housed in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

West and South wall       Three walls

Cappella dei Magi west and South wall
West wall moved forward Cappella dei Magi

West wall moved forward in situ

A portion of the floor with an inscription likely disappeared during that time. In the seventeenth century, two windows were installed beside the door of the old entrance. One of these windows was later bricked up again. The most significant change came in 1689. When the Riccardi’s purchased the Medici Palazzo, they decided later to construct a new monumental staircase (see floor plan at points A and E). This had considerable implications for the chapel. A new entrance was created in the southwest corner, resulting in the removal of a portion of the south wall (see floor plan). Part of the west wall was moved forward to accommodate the new door. As a result of this intervention, the donkey of the old king has been split in two: each part is located on a different wall surface on the west side.

Finally, in the nineteenth century, a large window was installed in the rear wall of the choir to allow more light in, causing two of the four evangelists to disappear. In 1929, this window was closed again. Click here for an image of the three walls.

Acidini Luchinat, C. (edited), ‘The Chapel of the Magi Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes in the palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence’, Thames and Hudson Ltd, London and Thames and Hudson, Inc., 500 fifth Avenue New York 1994
Cole Ahl, D., Benozzo Gozzoli, New Haven and London 1996 pp. 81-119 and pp. 292-300; Holmes, M., ‘Fra Filippo Lippi The Carmelite Painter’, Yale University Press, New Haven&London 1999 pp. 176-182
Optiz, M., ‘Benezzo Gozzoli 1420-1497’, Könemann, Köln 1998 pp. 44-59
Roettgen, S., ‘Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Chapel of the Magi Benozzo Gozzoli’, in: Roettgen, S., ‘Italian Frescoes The Flowering of the Renaissance’ pp. 326 -357
Gozzoli Procession of the Magi’ Fresco Cycle in the Palazzo Medici, 1459: A new Interpretation in WJGR Vol. 12 (1) 2005
After writing the piece about the chapel, another issue of Kunstschrift (Dutch) has been released, largely dedicated to Benozzo Gozzoli. Highly worthwhile, featuring articles by Arjan De Koomen, ‘The art of a young, ostentatious, and parading era’ 26-35, by Andrea Muller-Schirmer, ‘Sampler of a highly expensive product,’ 36-43, and an overview of literature 47, Kunstschrift 54th volume, no. 4, August/September 2010

Continuation Florence day 6: Gozzoli and the Cappella dei Magi II