13.11.11

Gozzoli – The Journey of the Magi (1459)

It is a generally accepted artistic convention that artists and sponsors are permitted to stare out of their own paintings and challenge their audience so Benozzo Gozzoli, the painter of the exquisite fresco that adorns the Medici Chapel in Florence, boldly peruses those who judge his painting of the Journey of the Magi – as bright as ever 552 years after he first began to paint it as a commission for Piero di Medici in the Palazzo Medici Riccardo.

Other members of the famous family pilgrimage around this little chapel – which in truth has a larger entourage than generally found in a more average Nativity painting  – with some like Lorenzo il  Magnifico, being depicted twice!

Lorenzo, magnificent maybe – but always spectacularly ugly – is seen idealised below as the handsome golden haired young boy on the white horse, whilst a more realistic picture of a broken nosed youngster is lurking amongst the group with the red hats on the left.

Other members of the family in this panel alone include Cosimo il Vecchio – Pater Patriae – or Daddy Cosimo as one of my clients very helpfully renamed him on his symbolically humble Mule, and his son Piero – il Gottoso (the Gouty ) – on a more splendid white horse. This part of the painting alone tells us a lot about these three men and the fortunes of the Medici – Cosimo and his father, Giovanni di Bicci de Medici, actually built up the bank that  made all the money that kept the family more or less in power for the next 300 years – Cosimo was brilliant – a Humanist and an intellectual and a terrific maker of money – but he was quietly and unobtrusively in charge of the City and never showy, Piero was an efficient banker but too sick to make many changes as the unofficial ruler of the City – Lorenzo was the first of the family to be flamboyant and to spend more than he earned – and that was the pattern of family spending right through to 1743!  Wow! I wish I had had a “Daddy” who made money like that!

Many people have tried to identify all the characters portrayed in this complex group but I am sticking to the family Medici – and the lad in blue on the prancing horse with the leopard is usually identified as Lorenzo’s ill -fated brother Guiliano – later to be brutally hacked to death in the Duomo when the Pazzi family tried to get rid of the Medici rulers “once and for all” in 1478.

Another suggestion is that the leopard symbolises  the fearsome Castruccio Castracani degli Antelminelli – lord of Lucca – in the 14th century Florence’s most powerful enemy – pleasantly painted albeit with a wary look on his face – but to me it seems unlikely that one of the key characters in the painting – King Melchoir – would be of an enemy as opposed to one of the family?

 Benozzo Gozzoli - Giuliano de' Medici (1453-78) as Melchior, detail from the Journey of the Magi cycle in the chapel

Botticelli – Adoration of the Magi (1475)

Another well known painting to feature the Medici en famile is Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi – officially hung in Uffizi (although it seems to be regularly on tour) – the work was commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker loosely connected to the House of Medici, who – as donor – is pictured looking out of the picture wearing a blue cloak and white gloves.

Notice that all the family are painted large in front of the Holy Family – an outrageous cheek in that period in time when patrons were usually portrayed well to the side and outside the main action of the painting – and Daddy Cosimo seems to have the temerity to tickle the feet of the Christ Child – this must have set tongues wagging almost as much as Berlosconi’s antics when it was first displayed!

Also featured according to Georgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists are Piero de Medici – who takes centre stage in red in this painting, and his sons :- Giuliano – the kneeling figure in the white robe,  Giovanni – the one in blue “gratefully adoring the child” and Lorenzo – again much idealised – in a black gown with a red stripe down the shoulder.

Continuing the convention that the artist and the patrons are allowed to look out of the painting Botticelli shows himself as a fellow worshipper and – as he was in truth at  this stage of his career 1476-78- almost a member of the family – but oh dear his coat looks a little yellowish to me!!

Botticelli in fact did lose the support of the Medici family when he broke from them and became a follower of Fra Savonarola in 1490-1.

Like most of the people of Florence, Botticelli came under the sway of Savonarola and actually  became a Piagnone – sneeringly referred to by Florentine’s who dared as the “Snivellers”  – This The Mystical Nativity shown above was painted in 1500-1501 shows signs of his change from the mystical Humanist ideal to the decorative but deeply devout.

Domenico Ghirlandaio-The Adoration of the Shepherds                 (1485-88)

The final two nativity paintings that I love in Florence are both oils done by Domenico Ghirlandaio. The Adoration of the Shepherds in the Sassetti Chapel in the church of Santa Trinita also shows them trekking across country towards the Holy Family passing both Jerusalem and Rome clearly identifiable in the background.

Ghirlandaio was a master of detail and often included little domestic images of life in Renaissance Florence – but he was also – as a man of his time – fully aware of the symbolism of such details and this painting speaks to it’s audience not only through it’s beauty and exquisite portraiture but also – inevitably – through it’s symbolism.

Adoration of the Shepherds 1482-85 - Domenico Ghirlandaio - www.domenico-ghirlandaio.org

In Hebrew scripture there is a  prophecy by Fulvio , which predicted that a god would arise from the tomb that held his mortal remains – this text is clearly written on the ancient sarcophagus which has become the crib for the Christ child – a promise of his resurrection.

The Goldfinch or Thornbird in the foreground is a symbol of the crown of thorns of the passion and resurrection of Christ.

On a more earthly note the stones in the foreground are shown as the emblem of the donors of the Chapel, which the congregation would recognise as the Sassetti family.

In this same Chapel we have more portraits of the Medici family and their followers – also painted by Ghirlandiao as part of a fresco cycle on the life of St Francis – Lorenzo is shown facing his children and their tutor Angelo Poliziano  emerging from a stairwell.  The detail below shows Poliziano and Lorenzo’s eldest son Piero – soon to be known as the unfortunate!

Ghirlandaio – Adoration of the Magi – Ospedale degli Innocenti

This painting was done specifically for this charitable unit where newborn babies whose mothers were unable to take care of them were left in the care of the church – often never seeing their natural mothers again.  These “Innocents” were at least guaranteed a healthy upbringing and often a “vocation” – or at least a fitting occupation – notice how Ghirlandaio has lovingly included two tiny innocents at the knees of the adoring Magi.

And to finish where we came in – below is another self portrait of bold artist of the Renaissance challenging us in the 21st Century not to recognise his genius as an artist and his rights to recognition as a human being.

Self portrait of the artist Domenico Ghirlandiao as a young man – a genius not to be gainsaid!

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