PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). THE TUSCAN PAINTERS. Benozzo Gozzoli

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.

St. Anthony of Padua, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca. 1450 (Church of Santa Maria d’ Aracoeli, Rome). The third chapel on the left side of the nave of Santa Maria d’Aracoeli is dedicated to St. Anthony of Padua and was frescoed by Gozzoli, but only a fragment survived, which is now framed as the altarpiece. The fresco in this chapel was completed by Benozzo in the 15th century. He represented St. Anthony holding a flaming heart and a book, the last alluding to his skill at explaining the Scriptures, the heart referring to the Walk to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke (24:32) where the hearts of the disciples burned within them as Christ explained the Scriptures related to himself. The inscription at the top identifies the saint as SANCTUS ANTONIUS ULIXBONENSIS (“St. Anthony of Lisbon”), as he was born in Lisbon but died in Padua.

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.

San Domenico Annunciation, tempera on wood panel, by Benozzo Gozzoli, ca. 1449, 120 x 140 cm (Pinacoteca Comunale, Narni, Umbria, Italy). This panel was commissioned for a Dominican church through Fra Angelico’s intervention.
Madonna and Child between St. Francis and St. Bernardine of Siena, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1450 (Church of San Fortunato, Montefalco, Umbria, Italy). For the monastery church of San Fortunato, Benozzo painted a cycle of frescoes from which only some remain. This fresco occupying a lunette is located above the entrance portal. In this Sacra Conversazione, the Virgin is flanked by St. Francis on her right and St. Bernardine of Siena on her left. Behind the Madonna, two worshipping angels float in the background. The Christ Child also appears floating in her hands. The founder of the Franciscan order, and the Franciscan monk who was canonized in 1450, are both dressed in a simple habit with a rope belt.

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.

Madonna della Cintola (Madonna of the Girdle), tempera on wood panel, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1450-1452, 133 x 165 cm (Pinacoteca Vaticana, Vatican City). This altarpiece was executed for the high altar of the church of San Fortunato in Montefalco. In the main panel, angels surround Mary forming a semi-circle. The original gold background was gradually replaced by depictions of landscapes and architectural elements. The subject of Mary lowering her girdle is mentioned in the New Testament Apocrypha: Thomas (one of the 12 Apostles) doubted Mary’s Assumption, so the Virgin appeared to him and, as proof, gave him her girdle. This theme was particularly popular in Tuscan art during the 15th century, as since 1365 the Madonna’s girdle had been venerated as a relic in the cathedral of Prato. The pillars at the side of the altar contain depictions of Sts. Francis, Fortunatus and Anthony of Padua (left), and Sts. Louis of Toulouse, Severus of Montefalco and Bernardine of Siena (right). The predella includes six scenes with episodes from the life of Mary (from left to right): the Birth of Mary, her Marriage, the Annunciation, the Birth of Christ, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Death of Mary.
Madonna and Child Surrounded by Saints, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1452 (Cappella di San Gerolamo, Church of San Francesco, Montefalco, Italy). In this fresco for the Chapel of St. Jerome, Gozzoli painted a polyptych with the Madonna and Child surrounded by Saints. Above the polyptych, a Crucifixion is surrounded by four angels who are catching the blood dripping from Christ’s wounds. On either side of crucified Christ, St. Dominic and St. Francis are kneeling on the left side, and St. Romuald and St. Sylvester on the right.
View of the main apsidal chapel frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1450-1452 (Church of San Francesco, Montefalco, Italy). The fresco cycle of St. Francis in Montefalco contains a total of 19 episodes from the life of the saint. The series can be “read” beginning at the bottom left with the birth of St Francis and ending at the top right with his Ascension, thus Benozzo narrates the saint’s life as a journey from the earthly to the divine realms. The sequence of frescoes ends in the vault with St. Francis in glory with five saints from the Franciscan order. Finally, 23 roundels decorate the narrow strip of wall between the frescoes and the choir stalls, they include 20 Franciscan monks and 3 portraits of famous Florentines: Dante, Giotto and Petrarch (below the window).
The Preaching to the Birds and Blessing Montefalco, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1452, 270 x 220 cm (from the fresco cycle with Scenes from the Life of St. Francis, Scene 7, south wall, apsidal chapel, Church of San Francesco, Montefalco). Both scenes took place in Umbria. Gozzoli made a precise topographical description of the place. In the middle distance a view of the Umbrian town of Bevagna is seen (to the left, behind the preaching to the birds scene). The mighty Monte Subasio, with a little church half way up, and a view of the town of Assisi (to the right), form the background. Also in the background (on the left at the foot of the mountain), lies Assisi with its fortress and monastery church of San Francesco. Benozzo also depicted the cities according to reality: Assisi lies to the north west of Montefalco. In both scenes. the preaching Francis is pointing upwards to indicate that he is speaking about God. The 13 different kinds of birds are represented true to reality, they include a hoopoe, a swan, a thrush, a magpie, a pheasant and a dove. The two scenes are separated by the two figures standing in profile, almost at the center. On the wall of Assisi (to the right) the coat of arms of Montefalco was depicted. In the scene of the “Blessing Montefalco”, four men reverently kneel in front of St. Francis. The first from the left wears a Franciscan habit and a cap with the inscription M. MARCUS. He holds a bishop’s miter in his hands. Fra Jacopo, who commissioned the work, is the second kneeling Franciscan. The other people are presumably members of the Calvi family, which in the 15th century were frequent donors for the church of San Francesco in Montefalco.

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 “Magi Chapel” viewed from the southwest corner, frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). This picture shows the new entrance to the chapel that was created in the 17th century: the compartment containing the oldest king (right) scene was cut in two, the fresco on the narrow panel above the door is a 17th century landscape not by Gozzoli. The chapel, located in the first floor of the Medici palace, was built by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo between 1446 and 1449 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It’s an almost square room and, one step higher, there’s a nearly square chancel. For the decoration of the chapel, Cosimo de’ Medici chose Benozzo Gozzoli. The pictorial program of the chapel is structured in two parts: the Procession of the Magi occupying the walls of the main room and the Adoration of the Child in the chancel, with the Angels worshipping on the side walls. Benozzo begun frescoing the chapel during the spring-summer of 1459 and completed the work rapidly over the space of a few months, with the help of at least one assistant (probably Giovanni di Mugello), under the supervision of Piero di Cosimo de’ Medici or his friend and confidant Roberto Martelli.
View of the chancel in the Magi Chapel, frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). The chancel is separated from the main room of the chapel by two Corinthian pillars, thus they act as an architectural device that separates the earthly procession from the heavenly sphere of the angels represented in the chancel. In the altar there was a painting by Filippo Lippi representing the Adoration of the Child, the original was replaced with a copy in 1494, and is now kept in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. The Magi Chapel has double walls, as it was one of the secret escape routes that were also be used as a hiding place and place of refuge by the Medici. These double walls explain the good state of preservation of the frescoes, that were thus protected from damage by damp. The chapel was originally relatively dark, light could only enter through the two small oculi (see pictures above) and admitted only a little amount of light. The room then was illuminated by torch and candlelight, making the shining gold and silver layers of the frescoes produce a powerful effect.
It was probably Piero de’ Medici who suggested Gozzoli to use Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi (see picture below) as a model for the frescoes. The Procession of the Magi extends across the east, south and west walls of the main room of the chapel above the encircling benches. These three walls were painted in about 150 working days, and each represents one of the Three Kings (the Young, the Middle and the Oldest kings as they are known today). In general, the fresco represents the magnificent procession of the Three Kings approaching Bethlehem, accompanied by their respective entourages as they enjoy the scene of a noble hunting party with falcons and felines along the way. In the picture above is a segment of the Procession leading from the east wall with the youngest king (left), continuing to the south wall with the middle king (right). Benozzo depicted an unusual interpretation of the Procession as it doesn’t arrive at the manger as it was customary. In fact, the “adoration” of the Christ Child was reserved for the contemporary observers and prayers present in the room. The Procession of the Magi moves towards Filippo Lippi’s painting of the Adoration of the Child located at the altar (see picture above). Though the fresco is dedicated to a sacred subject, it’s rich in traces of pomp and secular elegance: the sumptuous and varied costumes make this pictorial series one of the most fascinating testimonies of art and costume of all time.

Pictured above is the west wall with the oldest king (left). Melchior, the oldest Magus, rides leading the procession. The facial features of Melchior have been traditionally matched to those of Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, who died in Florence during the Council of 1439; but they are also claimed to be those of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor. Melchior rides a white donkey instead of a horse, a sign of a peacemaker. He is preceded by a page in blue with a leopard on his horse: he is Castruccio Castracani, Duca di Lucca shown with a leopard as it was the emblem of the house of Lucca.  Gozzoli filled the rest of the pictorial space with rich Tuscan landscapes, thus designing this fresco like a contemporary tapestry, a new type of courtly art destined only for wealthy patrons. The right of the picture depicts the frescoes corresponding to the Adoration of the Child located in the chancel: angels joyously adoring the Christ Child and flanked by images of the shepherds with the bull (left) and the donkey (right). The singing and praying choirs of angels occupy a paradisiacal landscape.
Scene with the “Procession of the Youngest King”, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (east wall, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). Far in the background the retinue of the youngest king is moving down from the mountains. At the highest point is a medieval-style fortress, possibly Jerusalem, the point from which the king’s pilgrimage has set out. This fortress was depicted similar to the Medicis’ country estate in Cafaggiolo, also designed by Michelozzo. The young king (Caspar) looks towards the old king on the opposite (west) wall and leads the end of the procession on a white horse. It was believed his image was painted as an idealized portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici. However, at the time the work was created, he was just ten years old. Behind the young king and riding a white horse is Piero de’ Medici, who commissioned the frescoes, and riding next to him (on a humble donkey) is the devout family founder Cosimo de’ Medici. Giuliano de’ Medici is shown riding a white horse, preceded by an African with a bow. Then come Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza (respectively lords of Rimini and Milan). After them is a procession of illustrious Florentines, humanists, the members of the Art Guilds and a self portrait of Benozzo, he is looking out at the viewer and can be recognized for the golden letters on his red hat, reading Opus Benotii. Little Lorenzo il Magnifico is the boy directly below him; Lorenzo’s younger brother Giuliano is next to him.
Detail of the scene with the “Procession of the Middle King”, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (south wall, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). The middle king (Balthasar), accompanied by his pages and squires, is gazing upwards while riding through a hilly Tuscan landscape. The king’s face was possibly modeled after Emperor John VII Paleologus. For this portrait Benozzo based his work on a medallion designed by Pisanello in 1438. However, he painted him with younger looks and replace his traditional Byzantine tiara with a crown resting on a peacock-plumed velvet cap. The extraordinary complexity and subtlety of the technique used by Benozzo for the execution of the Journey of the Magi, where true fresco alternated with dry fresco*, allowed him to work with meticulous care and attention to detail, almost as if he was engraving, like the goldsmith he was during his apprenticeship in Ghiberti‘s workshop. This attention to detail is obvious, not only in the depiction of precious materials of jewelry, fabrics, and harnesses, but even in the fruit trees, the meadows spangled with flowers, the variegated plumage of the birds, and the multicolored wings of the angels. To add a more spectacular and wealthy appearance, Benozzo generously applied leaves of pure gold to shine in the dark, in the dim light of the candles.
By having themselves depicted in the procession of the Three Kings, the Medicis were demonstrating both their political and their financial power. They had themselves depicted at the end of the procession, as part of the youngest king’s retinue (see picture above), and not as part of the retinue of the oldest king, who is nearest their goal to adore Christ Child. The picture above shows some of the portraits present in the fresco. From top to bottom, and from left to right: Cosimo de’ Medici (riding a donkey) and next to him Piero de’ Medici (riding a white horse), the youngest king (Caspar) riding a white horse is believed to be an idealized image of Lorenzo de’ Medici, self portrait of the artist Benozzo Gozzoli wearing a red cap with inscription, Castruccio Castracani (duke of Lucca) a page in blue with a leopard (the emblem of the house of Lucca) on his horse, portraits of little Lorenzo il Magnifico (with the bright red cap) and his younger brother Giuliano next to him.
Scene with Angels Worshipping (detail), fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (left side of the chancel, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). The angels pay homage to the Christ Child represented on the altar panel painting, while the Three Kings are still travelling and the shepherds in the fields (flanking the angels) are yet to experience the annunciation of the birth. Benozzo represented the angels with richly ornate clothes and wings, in the act of flying, singing, worshipping on their knees, and weaving festoons of flowers; the verses inscribed in their haloes correspond to the words of the hymn of the Gloria praising the new-born child.
Details of birds, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (from the Angels Worshipping scene on the left side of the chancel, Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). Benozzo portrayed with astonishing attention to detail a wealth of birds, plants and mammals populating the landscapes of the fresco.
The Lamb of the Apocalypse, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1459-1460 (Magi Chapel, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence). This fresco is located in the vestibule outside the Chapel of the Magi above the original entryway. It depicts the Lamb of the Apocalypse (the Mystic Lamb) on an altar. Standing on the altar are seven candlesticks, and suspended from it are seven seals (the seven seals from the revelation of St. John the Evangelist that God will open to initiate the sentencing of mankind).

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.

Adoration of the Magi, tempera on wood, by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, 300 x 282 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Palla di Noferi Strozzi (from the rich banking family of the Strozzi, political rivals of the Medici) commissioned this altarpiece for his family’s chapel in the church of Santa Trinità in Florence. The lavish use of gold and the pomp of the Magi procession, including also exotic animals as leopards and monkeys, reflects the wealth and culture of the donor. Though the main panel shows clear influences of both the International Gothic and the Sienese school, the predella scenes (Nativity, Rest during the Flight into Egypt and Presentation to the Temple, this last a copy the original kept at the Louvre in Paris) show the attention to perspective and naturalism typical of Renaissance art. This altarpiece is considered the finest work of da Fabriano and has been described as “the culminating work of International Gothic painting in Italy”. The panel portrays the journey of the three Magi in several scenes, starting from the upper left corner (the voyage and the entrance into Bethlehem) and continue clockwise, to the main scene with the Virgin Mary and the newborn Jesus in the manger. All the figures wear splendid Renaissance costumes, brocades richly decorated with real gold and precious stones inserted in the panel. The frame is also in itself a work of art, characterized by three cusps with tondoes portraying Christ Blessing (center) and the Annunciation (with the Archangel Gabriel on the left and the Madonna on the right), and the sides decorated with flowers. The grouping of the figures, costumes and headdresses used in the Journey of the Magi fresco of the Medici’s Magi Chapel (see pictures above) are closely derived from this panel painting.

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.

The Virgin and Child Enthroned among Angels and Saints, tempera on wood, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1461-1462, 161.9 x 170.2 cm (National Gallery, London). The enthroned Madonna and Child are accompanied by the kneeling St. Jerome to her right, and by St. Francis to her left. Saint John the Baptist and Saint Zenobius stand near St. Jerome, while St. Peter and St. Dominic do it so by St. Francis. This altarpiece was commissioned for the confraternity of the Compagnia di Santa Maria della Purificazione e di San Zanobi in Florence. The five predella panels are kept at the Royal Collection (London), Brera Collection (Milan), Gemäldegalerie (Berlin), Kress Collection (Washington) and J.G. Johnson collection (Philadelphia).

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.

View of the apsidal chapel with the fresco cycle of St. Augustine in the church of Sant’Agostino, (San Gimignano, Tuscany) executed by Benozzo Gozzoli and assistants between 1464-1465. As in his frescoes for the church of San Francesco in Montefalco (see pictures above), here Gozzoli narrates the life of St. Augustine in 17 scenes from the lower to the highest parts of the walls: the lowest register depicts the education, teachings and travels of St. Augustine, the middle one represents his path to faith, and the lunettes show the culmination of his journey through life. Finally, the frescoes on the vault symbolize the four Evangelists on concentrically painted clouds. Each “panel” is framed by narrow gold borders and painted pilasters. The distinguishing feature of this fresco cycle is the placing of the protagonists within realistic rural, urban or architectural surroundings.
View of the right-hand wall frescoes on the life of St. Augustine, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464-1465 (apsidal chapel, Church of Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano, Tuscany). From bottom left to top: St. Augustine teaching in Rome (Scene 6), St. Augustine departing for Milan (Scene 7), The Parable of the Holy Trinity and the Visit to the Monks of Mount Pisano (Scene 12), Death of St. Monica (Scene 13), and the Funeral of St. Augustine (Scene 17).
Arrival of St. Augustine in Milan, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464-1465, 220 x 230 cm (Scene 8, north wall, apsidal chapel, Church of Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano). In front of a columned loggia, a reminiscent of the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence, St. Augustine is represented in several small simultaneous scenes. Here Benozzo uses the architecture to emphasize three different scenes, for example: in the first, St. Augustine is standing in front of a column while a servant helps him taking off his riding clothes; meanwhile, in the background, the saint kneels before a Muslim scholar located between two columns; last, in the foreground on the right, St. Augustine is being greeted by St. Ambrose.
The Parable of the Holy Trinity and the Visit to the Monks of Mount Pisano, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464-1465, 220 x 230 cm (Scene 12, south wall, apsidal chapel, Church of Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano). A small boy on the left is attempting to use a spoon to transfer all the waters of the ocean into a little hollow, this episode is described in an apocryphal letter of Cyril of Jerusalem. In the letter Cyril writes that St. Augustine, while thinking about the Trinity, met a small child on the beach who was attempting to ladle out the oceans using a spoon. When St. Augustine explained to him how impossible his plan was, the boy replied by telling him that the mystery of the Holy Trinity was also not something that could be comprehended by the human mind. The scene acts as a parable of the unbridgeable gap between faith and reason. In the middle distance, St. Augustine is sitting surrounded by a circle of monks on a bare path leading to a monastery on the top of the mountain. The Visit to the Monks of Mount Pisano (right) is depicted for the first time in this fresco, emphasizing its uniqueness: here St. Augustine is giving the rule of the order to the hermit monks.
St. Augustine Departing for Milan, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464-1465, 220 x 230 cm (Scene 7, south wall, apsidal chapel, Church of Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano). Gozzoli depicted St. Augustine departing for Milan in the way it is described in the “Confessions”: as a pilgrimage in search of the true faith. It is thought that the figure on the right edge of the picture is a self portrait of the artist. Over the train of pilgrims two angels are holding an inscription which names the client and artist: “As a teaching preacher in Paris and as an important [man], the fame and credit to the country of Gimignano, that Dominicus had this holy tabernacle painted at his own expense by the famous Benozzo. 1465.”
St. Sebastian Intercessor, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464-1465, 527 x 248 cm (southern nave wall of the Church of Sant’Agostino, San Gimignano). Along with the original commission to fresco the choir of Sant’Agostino in San Gimignano (see pictures above), Gozzoli received other commissions for this same church, including two ‘Pestbilder’* (a painted prayer against the plague). This votive fresco showing St. Sebastian Intercessor on the southern nave wall was painted during the outbreak of the plague in 1464, as stated in the inscription on the saint’s pedestal. Gozzoli represented a standing St. Sebastian dressed (contrary to tradition). God the Father and surrounding angels hold arrows, while they appear above the saint’s head. Mary and Christ are kneeling before Him as intercessor: Christ is pointing to the open wound on his side and Mary is baring her breast in order to remind God of their sacrifices for the Christians and to move Him to be lenient. The prayer of St. Sebastian is keeping off God’s arrows which are breaking behind him, thus protecting the people crowded at his feet.
Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1465, 525 x 378 cm (Collegiate Church, San Gimignano). On the inner entrance wall of the collegiate church of Santa Maria Assunta in San Gimignano, Gozzoli painted another fresco of St. Sebastian, this time representing his martyrdom. In this fresco, the saint is depicted in accordance with his iconographical tradition: St. Sebastian is depicted nude, pierced by arrows. Here, the similarity of St. Sebastian body transfixed with arrow wounds and that of a plague victim made the choice of Sebastian as a plague saint. Much of the painting was executed by assistants.

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).

The Vintage and Drunkenness of Noah, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1469-1484 (Camposanto, Pisa). Gozzoli spent the last years of his life in Pisa, where he was commissioned in 1469 with a monumental cycle of frescoes for the Camposanto including 26 scenes from the Old Testament. These frescoes included Vintage and Drunkenness of Noah (pictured above), Building of the Tower of Babel and Adoration of the Magi (both pictured below).
The Building of the Tower of Babel, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1469-1484 (Camposanto, Pisa).
Adoration of the Magi, fresco, by Benozzo Gozzoli (Ammannati chapel, north wall, Camposanto, Pisa). The chapel takes its name from the tomb of Ligo Ammannati, who was professor of medicine at the University of Pisa. In the surviving portions of the fresco, we can see the figure of a Magus very similar to the Young king depicted by Benozzo in his Journey of the Magi fresco in Florence (see pictures above).

Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, tempera on wood panel, by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1471, 230 x 102 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris). The inscription beneath the Christ in Glory at the top of the painting, expresses His agreement with the theological writings of St. Thomas Aquinas: “You have written well about me, Thomas”. The saint is shown enthroned in the center between Aristotle (left) and Plato (right). At his feet lies the Arabic scholar Averroes, whose writings St. Thomas Aquinas refuted. In the lower part of the painting a group of clergymen sit on either side of the pope, who is believed to be Sixtus IV.

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.

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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.

9 thoughts on “PAINTING DURING THE EARLY RENAISSANCE (1400-1495). THE TUSCAN PAINTERS. Benozzo Gozzoli

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