THE CHAPEL OF THE MAGI:
BENOZZO GOZZOLI'S FRESCOES
IN THE PALAZZO MEDICI-RICCARDI, FLORENCE
Edited by Christina Acidini Luchinart
Thames and Hudson
387 pp. $100
Conspicuous splendor was what Piero de' Medici wanted, and that is what Benozzo Gozzoli gave him. Piero was the head of the leading family in Florence. Gozzoli was already famous, principally as a painter of walls. He had assisted Fra Angelico when he was painting the frescoes at the Dominican priory of San Marco in Florence. Earlier still, Gozzoli had been one of the skilled craftsmen-artists called in to help with the making of Lorenzo Ghiberti's Baptistry doors in the same city. And he had trained as a goldsmith, a factor of which his new patron was doubtless aware.
Gozzoli began work in the early summer of 1459 on his new commission: to decorate the walls of the chapel in the Medici Palace. He worked fast. The subject was determined by the patron rather than the artist. It was to depict, in grand procession through a landscape, the three Magi or ``wise men'' coming from the East to Bethlehem to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
Although all three walls of the small chapel were to be covered with the new frescoes (each wall giving prominence to one of the wise men), the purpose does not seem to have been to inspire pious contemplation of a sacred event so much as to impress the onlooker with a sense of brilliance and color, opulence and display.
Gozzoli's finesse as a craftsman is embellished by his extraordinary skill in depicting, with exactitude and delight, jewelry and metalwork: elaborate crowns, belts, and spurs; rich costumes and brocades; and impressive heraldic devices.
On the other hand, richness of color and pattern did not necessarily signify, at that time, wealth and status alone. There might also have been a double meaning tied up with the idea that if you did not have, you could not give. The wise men brought expensive gifts for the newborn. Perhaps the Medici family (whose faces are portrayed, as is the artist's, in the first of the three murals) also wanted to indicate that their riches were at the service of God. They presumably wanted to be identified with the Magi, both with their importance and the generosity of their devotion.
Illuminated manuscripts, stained-glass windows, and tapestries, all full of color and incident - no less than mural paintings - were considered suitable ways of expressing devoutness. If they also happened to emphasize the status of their donor or patron, so much the better.
Although painted in the period later to be called the ``early Renaissance,'' Gozzoli's masterpiece in many ways belongs to the medieval world of chivalry and the theatrical ritual that expressed it. His work had less connection with the new humanistic learning with its growing admiration for the ancient sculptural remains of Greece and Rome, although some of the figures and horses in his Magi frescoes certainly were influenced by such antique examples.
The rocky landscapes, sporting extraordinary trees, are like exotic and fanciful stage settings. The procession of the Magi and their extensive retinues wind enchantingly through these landscapes from distance to foreground and away into the distance again.
But at one point the landscape becomes green and cultivated, just as if the Biblical event had suddenly been transported into Tuscany, the region of Italy in which Florence resides. And certainly, what might look like anachronisms to us were a deliberate way of making the present and the past parallel with each other. The array of characters on these splendid walls are costumed in 15th-century dress - although it is the exceptional dress of courtly pageant.
A book is just about to be published that ought to lift Gozzoli once and for all out of the faint praise to which he is too often condemned (if he is mentioned at all). He is frequently accorded brief recognition as a good decorator - though a minor artist. This book, ``The Chapel of the Magi: Benozzo Gozzoli's Frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence,'' is principally photographs: a procession of details, actual size, from the frescoes, recently cleaned to great effect. These photographs are so incisive in their scrutiny of brushstroke and surface, nuance of color and texture, that you almost have the impression you are touching the walls themselves.
No book, of course, can adequately convey the experience of being inside what one of the authors of the various scholarly texts in this fat volume calls ``a dazzling treasure chest.''
But in the absence of a visit, this close-up presentation of Gozzoli's work reveals his sensitivity of touch and line, his mastery of character, and his relish for the many small beauties of countryside, animal, and man that are too often disregarded because of the overall fantasy and decorativeness of these marvellous wall paintings.