- Collateral theme:
The feast of the Magi
- Epoch, date:
- 15th century
- Florence, Via Larga, Convent of San Marco
- Description and information:
The Feast of the Magi was one of the numerous performances that were held in the streets and squares of Florence in the Renaissance period, and was undoubtedly one of the most spectacular and greatly admired. It was organised on the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January, to celebrate the journey of the Magi who followed the star as far as Bethlehem to adore the Child Jesus, as narrated in the Gospels (Matthew: 2, 1-11) and the Apocryphal Gospels.
Its origins are uncertain, even though it appears to have already been organised as far back as the end of the fourteenth century, since it proves to have been described for the first time in 1390. Very soon, the organisation and preparation were taken over by a specific confraternity, the Compagnia dei Magi, which came to number among its members various wealthy and influential figures (cf. Related Records).
The event consisted of a spectacular procession along a specified route through the streets of the city, with a number of scheduled stops. In the first two documented performances, in 1390 and in 1428, the procession started off from Piazza San Marco – where the Compagnia dei Magi had its seat – and proceeded along Via Larga as far as Herod's palace in Piazza San Giovanni, finally reaching the crib at the Duomo where the kings offered their gifts; after this the procession returned to where it had come from, or continued on to Piazza della Signoria for the reconstruction of the massacre of the Innocents.
For the families that took part, the procession gave them the opportunity to flaunt precious and elegant fabrics, garments and jewels that indicated their social standing, and often the refinement of goods that they themselves produced, purchased or sold. The feast thus assumed self-celebratory, worldly and ostentatious connotations that perpetuated the customs of courtly ceremonial and the late Gothic taste. Consequently, the procession through the streets came to assume greater importance than the scenic action in the various appointed sites.
After the return from exile of Cosimo il Vecchio in 1434, and the consolidation of his political position, the Medici came to see the feast of the Magi and the related procession as an opportunity for identifying their public image with an occasion which they could render lavish and spectacular in the eyes of the citizens. Moreover, the longest stretch of the route of the cavalcade took in Via Larga, where the Medici resided: consequently their dwellings, and from the mid fifteenth century also the Palazzo built by Cosimo, became the theatrical set through which the procession moved. As a result, the confraternity of the Magi came to be identified with the entire Medici family and its faction. In 1447, when the municipal funding for the feast was increased, Giovanni di Cosimo de' Medici figured among the ten 'festaiuoli' or masters of ceremonies. In the same year the frequency of the feast was established as every five years rather than every three.
In a description of one particular edition of the Feast, commissioned at the end of the 1460s by Piero il Gottoso, the Dominican Fra' Giovanni di Carlo dwelt on the apparatus which had become increasingly more sumptuous and elaborate over the years. The itinerary of the cavalcade had also expanded, and now involved the entire city, which was thus visually involved in the celebrations. The spectacle commenced from the encampments of the three Kings which were set up in three different spots, distant from each other and on the outer edges of the city. Each of the Magi then set off with his own large and variegated retinue, with floats overflowing with precious goods, animals, musicians and youths in livery on foot and on horseback, the latter belonging to the families of the Florentine oligarchy, wearing their fathers' clothes and masks portraying their features. Herod's palace was set up in the garden of San Marco in the square of the same name, with lavish drapery and elegant vegetable decorations: an ephemeral setting of a flavour at once courtly and exotic, in which figures in oriental-style dress elegantly played their parts, preparing to greet the Magi.
The Feast of the Magi evolved over the course of the fifteenth century under the auspices of three generations of the house of Medici: Cosimo il Vecchio, Piero il Gottoso and Lorenzo il Magnifico. It introduced into Florence a courtly style of diplomatic inspiration that was superbly manifested in the procession and in Herod's palace and clearly reflected the princely and hegemonic ambitions of the Medici. As a result of the feast, the stretch of Via Larga comprising Palazzo Medici assumed a monumental appearance, and became a fundamental landmark in the Renaissance urban scene and the civic ceremonials.
In view of this, it is significant that the Compagnia dei Magi was suppressed in 1494, in the wake of the banishment of the Medici from Florence. The last procession was organised by Fra Girolamo Savonarola, the promoter of the insurrection, in a greatly downsized and much more restrained and austere version, in which the parts of the three kings were interpreted by the friar himself and two other Dominicans.
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