Attempting to highlight one work of art in the vast collection amassed by Italy’s most famous Renaissance patrons, the Medici dynasty, is rather like choosing one golden bean from a bag of thousands. The Medici family brought together such a hoard of masterpieces that one could choose a different highlight for each day of the year, and never run out during the course of an entire lifetime. But certainly one of the most enchanting of the works commissioned by the family is one which says Medici like none other, a masterpiece of colour and figuration which is unapologetic in its glorification of the entire Medici clan. I am, of course, talking about the fresco series painted by one Benozzo Gozzoli and depicting the journey of the Magi in all its magical splendour.
Entirely covering the walls of the private chapel of the Palazzo Medici, close to Florence’s Duomo, the Gozzoli fresco must surely be one of the most magnificent examples of Renaissance decoration ever conceived. Its location deep within the mammoth fortress-like pietra-forte walls of the Medici’s palace makes the chapel conceivably missable by those unaware of its existence (I am lucky enough to enjoy the highly refined recommendations of my dear friend Charlotte, whose suggestions for art historical treasures always hit the spot), but has also been the source of its superb condition, protecting the inherently delicate surface of the fresco from the elements. Only structural changes to the chapel when a new owner, the Riccardi family, took over the palace in the 18th century, caused damage to the fresco when an entire corner was moved inwards to make way for a staircase, spoiling the perfect symmetry conceived for the original cycle. However, what remains today is nonetheless a feast for the eyes, and frankly my photos don’t do it justice.
Gozzoli’s fresco is both a perfectly festive narrative of the Three Kings’ journey to visit the newly born Jesus, but also a wonderfully characterful portrait of the Medici family and their magnificent entourage. There you can find an idealised cherub-like portrait of what was, in reality, a rather ugly Lorenzo the Magnificent. The original father of the Medici tribe, Cosimo the Elder is also in the crowd, together with Pietro the Gouty and Lorenzo’s assassinated brother, Giuliano. Quite asides from the portraits, I adore the colours – unapologetic homage is paid to cadium reds and ultramarine blues, verdant green landscapes and cool grey rocky outcrops. The fresco is filled with little details – deer chased in a hunt, a pond surrounded by ducks and delicate birds, and hillsides rolling across valleys and peppered with trees of every shape and size.
Moving across all four walls of the chapel, Gozzoli artfully steers the viewer along the course of the mountain road, encouraging your eye to follow the route of the Magi and so feel immersed in their same magical journey. The result is the sensation of being not in a tiny chapel, but out in the open air enjoying the Tuscan countryside with these magnificent looking Medieval monarchs, filled with the excitement of the birth of this new Messiah.
How many relics from the 1460s have such a transformative effect and contemporary feel? So often the age and condition of Renaissance works predicates against total engagement of the kind intended by the artist at that time. It’s too easy to be distracted by the signs of age, by the cracks and the mildew. But like the perfectly conceived David, Gozzoli’s work is another example of the immediacy and wonderful accessibility of Renaissance art when unimpeded by the deterioration of the years. It is a true gem of the Medici collection and an undisputed treasure perfectly preserved of the age. I can only thank Charlotte for recommending it, and suggest that all visitors to Florence make it an equal priority of their trip.
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