Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1421 – 1497), whose birth name was Benozzo di Lese, was born in the village of Sant’Ilario a Colombano (now Scandicci) in Tuscany, but his family later moved to Florence around 1427. During the beginnings of his career, Benozzo was a pupil of Fra Angelico and as such assisted his master in the execution of some of the frescoes of the Convent of San Marco in Florence (The Adoration of the Magi, the Women at the Tomb, one of the Resurrections located in cell 8). As well as other Early Renaissance painters, Benozzo initially trained as a goldsmith; between 1444 and 1447, he was one of the assistants in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti and collaborated on the execution of the Gates of Paradise for the Baptistery. As an assistant to Fra Angelico, Benozzo met him in Rome in 1447 to work in a commission by Pope Eugene IV to paint the frescoes of the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament at St. Peter’s Basilica, which was later demolished by Pope Paul III. Later, he accompanied Angelico to Umbria, where they frescoed the vault of the Capella di San Brizio in the Duomo of Orvieto. By 1448, Benozzo was with Fra Angelico back in the Vatican to work on the frescoes for the Niccoline Chapel until June 1448, for which he painted significant portions of the frescoes. While in Rome, Benozzo also painted a fresco of St. Anthony of Padua in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli. From both of his masters, Fra Angelico and Lorenzo Ghiberti, Benozzo learned to depict the finest details, the skillful use of a bright color palette and the ability to illustrate a story vividly.
As an independent painter, Gozzoli mainly worked in the production of frescoes, executing a few altarpieces destined for churches. The frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli are divided into three main groups: the first included the frescoes he painted in Montefalco (Umbria) for the Franciscan convent, where he focused on themes from the life of Saint Francis; the second group of frescoes is located in San Gimignano (Tuscany), where he painted in a chapel of the collegiate church the story of Saint Augustine; and the third and most important group, is located in Pisa, on the eastern walls of the Camposanto Monumentale. This last is one of his best-known fresco series, and also the longest, though it was largely destroyed and damaged by a roof fire caused by a bomb in 1945. The scenes depicted on these series of frescoes for the Camposanto focused solely on themes from the Old Testament, particularly, on stories from the first books of the Bible; the last frescoes Gozzoli painted for the Camposanto represented Goliath’s struggle with the Philistines and the visit of the Queen of Sheba.
After leaving the training with Fra Angelico, Gozzoli moved to Umbria in 1449. By 1449-1450 he painted an Annunciation(the “San Domenico Annunciation”) for the hill town of Narni, which he signed. For the monastery of San Fortunato, near Montefalco (Umbria), he painted a Madonna and Child between St. Francis and St. Bernardine of Siena, and three other works, one of these (the altarpiece of the Madonna of the Girdle), now housed at the Vatican Museums. In this same year (1450), Gozzoli received his first major commission as an independent artist from the monastery of St. Francesco in Montefalco. This commission included frescoes for the choir chapel depicting Episodes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi and various other works, including portrait heads of Dante, Petrarch and Giotto, all showing a strong influence of his master Fra Angelico and some Giottesque style. Gozzoli completed these works in 1452. For the same church, he painted a fresco with the Virgin and Saints, a Crucifixion and other subjects, to decorate the chapel of Saint Jerome.
In 1456, Gozzoli returned to his native city (Florence), and between 1459 and 1461, he worked on one of his most celebrated works, the frescoes for the Magi Chapel of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi on the Via Lata in Florence. This fresco series ended up immortalizing him as one of the most famous painters of all time. The Medici-Riccardi palace, as we mentioned before in a previous essay, was built by Michelozzo under a commission by Cosimo de’Medici, to be used as the official residence of the family. The Magi chapel is a small room, without light, but so vividly “illuminated” by the paintings on its walls, that even today it is one of the most precious jewels of the city of Florence. Gozzoli’s frescoes of the Medici Chapel still glow today with gold and fresh shades of green and red. The subject-matter is very simple: a procession of rich gentlemen, representing the Magi on their way to adore the Child and the Virgin, who were in a panel painting at the altar, where now there’s a copy of the original by Filippo Lippi which is kept in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. But this theme of the Journey of the Magi is nothing more than a pretext to present a retinue of Florentine nobles and tycoons, since Gozzoli depicted some of the members of the entourage with the portraits of important members of the Medici family: old Cosimo, his son Piero and his grandson Lorenzo, who as an idealized image of him as a teenager, wears a large profusely jeweled crown riding a horse harnessed with the family’s coat of arms. Behind them there’s a multitude of guests and friends of the Medici, in the foreground are the most illustrious: the emperor John VIII Palaiologos and the patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople, who had come to Florence to attend the Council of Florence in 1439 in order to discuss the union of the Greek and Roman churches. Other portraits refer to relatives of the Medici house or citizens close to the Medici, including the painter himself, with his name written around the rim of his cap. In this fresco, more than a pious vision related to the evangelical passage of the Magi, we witness the most sumptuous procession in the Florence of the quattrocento. Gozzoli chose as a background fantastic rocks with tall straight pines, like those of the Tuscan forests of Vallombrosa and Casentino, although he included some orange trees growing alongside, to make sure that we haven’t left the temperate climate of central Italy. Fra Angelico would certainly have praised the beautiful color and the luxurious details of the Journey of the Magi of the palace of Cosimo de Medici, but surely he would have disliked the pagan and secular air of the caravan: Angelico had painted the Magi prostrate at the feet of Child Jesus, completely focused on His veneration. To mistake the Magi for portraits of real people who glorified themselves would have seemed a desecration for Fra Angelico.
The medieval theme of the Procession of the Magi had in this case an antecedent: Benozzo wasn’t prone to create this interpretation on this theme in such a spontaneous way. Still today, in Florence, we can appreciate that antecedent: a panel painting from 1423 by the Umbrian painter Gentile da Fabriano representing an Adoration of the Magi in which we can also appreciate a numerous procession accompanying the Kings, a procession that is again repeated in the painting’s background, where it is seen from afar approaching the gates of the city. This Adoration by Gentile da Fabriano was in the Church of Santa Trinitá, in Florence (now is in the Uffizi Gallery), and Gozzoli was able to study its composition and decorative value, as well as an example on depicting an agglomeration of horses, escort and servants. Gentile da Fabriano was an artist of almost a single work (this Adoration in particular). This work by Gentile da Fabriano served as inspiration to Benozzo Gozzoli to produce a work of art that is now considered more than just a painting. The Journey of the Magi is, essentially, an historical document: it pictures the ruling class of the greatest period in the history of Florence, when the city was the focal point of resurgent humanism. In addition to Benozzo Gozzoli’s Journey, the Medici chapel held another treasure: the altarpiece with the Virgin and Child, the work of troubled Friar Filippo Lippi (currently housed in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin). It was precisely towards this altarpiece painted on wood, that Benozzo Gozzoli slowly paraded the procession of the three Magi with all its rich entourage.
The frescoes of the Magi Chapel brought Gozzoli a great amount of fame and attracted new important commissions. One of these was an altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Purification in Florence, originally housed in the Convent of San Marco, the Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints(between 1461 and 1462) that is now housed in the National Gallery, in London.
Fearing the plague, in 1463 Benozzo moved to San Gimignano, where he worked in several frescoes. Between these is the large fresco series (composed of 17 panels) representing The Life of St Augustine, and located in the entire apsidal chapel of the church of Sant’Agostino. For this same church Benozzo painted St. Sebastian Protecting the City from the Plague, where he depicted St. Sebastian fully clothed and unhurt by arrows as was the classic iconographic canon to represent this saint. For the Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta (also in San Gimignano) he painted a fresco in 1465 of the Martyrdom of Sebastian, this time following his traditional iconography. Gozzoli stayed in San Gimignano until 1467, a period in which he executed other works for the city and its neighboring towns.
By 1469, Gozzoli was called to Pisa, where he moved to and began working on his most extensive commission: the vast series of mural paintings on the eastern walls of the Camposanto Monumentale. This series of frescoes included 26 themes from the Old Testament, particularly stories from the first books of the Bible, including (among others) the Invention of Wine by Noah and the Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon. From this last series, several scenes from the destroyed “Invention of Wine by Noah” fresco are famous. Next to the patriarch Noah, two beautiful women carry their baskets filled with purple grapes. The grape pickers are climbing ladders to pick the grape racemes from the taller vines, as they still do now in some places in Italy. Without the figure of Noah, with his halo and patriarchal robes, we would think we were transported to a September day on the hacienda of a rich rural landowner in the Tuscan countryside. Benozzo Gozzoli spent 16 years working in this fresco decoration, from 1469 to 1485. These frescoes included a myriad of images and a vast agglomeration of semi-giant patriarchs, see for example the scenes of Invention of Wine by Noah (also known as Noah and his Family), the Curse of Ham, the Building of the Tower of Babel (which contains portraits of Cosimo de’ Medici, the young Lorenzo, the classical scholar and poet Angelo Poliziano and others), the Destruction of Sodom, the Victory of Abraham, the Marriages of Rebecca and of Rachel, the Life of Moses, etc. For the Cappella Ammannati, facing a gate of the Camposanto, he painted an Adoration of the Magi, which includes a self-portrait. During his stay in Pisa, Benozzo worked in several other paintings, including the Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas (now housed in the Louvre).
Benozzo Gozzoli died in Pistoia (Tuscany) in 1497, perhaps of the plague he tried so hard to avoid. In commemoration of his work, he was given a tomb in the Camposanto.
Dry fresco: (Or Fresco-secco in Italian). A wall painting technique where pigments mixed with an organic binder and/or lime are applied onto a dry plaster. The secco technique contrasts with the buon fresco technique, where the painting is executed on a layer of wet plaster. Because the pigments do not become part of the wall, as in buon fresco, dry fresco paintings are less durable.
Pestbilder:(From German meaning “Plague-Pictures”). Works of art directly related to the plague, either by means of their particular iconography or by inscriptions.