The Chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence was lavishly frescoed by Renaissance painter Benozzo Gozzoli between 1459 and 1461. Its fresco cycle “Procession of the Magi” is famous for its decorative details and because it portrays some members of the Medici family.

The fresco covers three walls from top to bottom, showing smartly dressed people, towering trees, plenty of horses and other animals. As you stand in the middle of the small chapel, the painting seems to draw you in to its colourful universe.

In the small apse Gozzoli frescoed some angels in adoration, following the simple style of his first master, Beato Angelico. The painting above the altar is a copy of Filippo Lippi’s “Adoration of the Christ Child”. The golden wood ceiling and the intricate inlaid marble floor complete the perfectly Renaissance spectacle.

magi chapel florence
Magi Chapel, the Journey of Balthasar (1459-1461)

The Magi Chapel – Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence

“Procession of the Magi” fresco

With a fantastical, Tuscan inspired landscape as backdrop, the three Magi (Wise men) are riding towards Bethlehem. They’re on their way to pay homage to the newly born Jesus. All around them the procession of pilgrims wind up and down the rocky hills, while beasts roam the countryside and big birds fly above them.

While the subject is biblical, the atmosphere is more appropriate for a festive parade, with many impressive looking characters showing off their elegant attire. But where did the painter take his inspiration for these outfits that steal the viewer’s attention?

It’s interesting to know that a few years earlier, in 1439, Florence had been the setting of an important Council, called by Pope Eugene IV in his attempt to reconcile the doctrinal differences between the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches. And Cosimo de’ Medici had a very important role in organising – and financing – this crucial meeting in his town.

The Patriarch of Costantinople and many high ranking religious figures arrived in Florence from the Middle East. attracting curiosity and the admiration of commoners and artists. It would have been an extraordinary sight, featuring exotic costumes and ostentatious displays of wealth. Florence’s Cathedral was decorated specially for the occasion.

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Benozzo Gozzoli and his style

Art critics agree on the fact that Gozzoli portrayed some of the members of the Council in this fresco, and rendered the solemn feel and the splendour that this grand event brought to Florence.

As for his style, there are clear influences of the International Gothic, a style that was popular across Europe at the time. Its characteristics are a decorative stylisation combined with a rich use of colours and gold decoration. The National Gallery gives this definition: “Often pictures which are categorised in this manner are spatially illogical, but include beautifully observed naturalistic details.”

Benozzo Gozzoli surely took inspiration from the “Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile da Fabriano, today hosted in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Here we see the typical intricate details, the elaborated fabrics and the use of gold to give light to the figures.

The Medici family and the fresco

But who paid for this fresco? Piero the Gouty, son of Cosimo the Elder. While his father had the Palazzo Medici Riccardi built by Michelozzo, Piero – who had lavish taste – spent lots of money in decorating his home. He personally supervised the work in the chapel, and was keen to be immortalised among the important characters in the fresco.

During the Renaissance, it wasn’t unusual to see members of powerful families and patrons depicted in religious scenes, and Florence had plenty of examples, one of the best known being Ghirlandaio.

It’s very likely that the rider on the east wall is Lorenzo the Magnificent, the first son of Piero, who was a teenager at the time. His portrait, with him dressed in grand attire on a white horse, is more idealised than realistic.

Other characters close to the Medici circle find their place in the fresco: politicians (like Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, ally of the Medici), the humanist poet and scholar Poliziano, philosopher Marsilio Ficino. Benozzo Gozzoli shows his face in the middle as well.

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