The wall paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli: ‘The Procession of the Magi’
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The Procession of the Magi

Author, circle:
Benozzo Gozzoli (circa 1421-1497)

Commissioner, collector:
Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici (1389-1464), Piero il Gottoso de’ Medici (1416-1469)

Epoch, date:
after May 1459 - before 1464 (probably, autumn-winter 1459-1460)

Florence, Via Cavour no. 1: Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Chapel of the Magi, east, south and west walls of the main room.

Technical details:
See record: The wall paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli

See record: The wall paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli

Description, subject:
The subject: the Magi
The magnificent and solemn Procession of the Magi [LINK SCHEDA PERSONAGGI]portrayed by Gozzoli in the chapel of Palazzo Medici, sets off from Jerusalem - the white fortified city which can be seen aloft on the east wall, on the right-hand side as you enter - and stretches out along the three walls in a clockwise direction towards Bethlehem, that is towards the scarsella.
The Magi are portrayed in line with the traditional iconography of the three kings, each with a gift to offer the Child (gold, frankincense and myrrh): Gaspar is the youngest of the kings, Balthasar is a dark-skinned man of mature years, while the eldest, Melchior, leads the procession.
In the fresco, the solid perspective layout of the composition is blended with a richness of detail and the flavour of a narration at once worldly and fabulous. To produce this effect of sumptuous magnificence, the artist used rare and costly materials, such as lapis lazuli for the azure backgrounds, shiny lacquers, and gold glittering in the flickering light of the candles.
The faces of the personages - portraits of the Medici, and also of their allies, associates and illustrious guests - the florid and varied landscape, the plants and flowers, the animals, some of them exotic, the costumes, the jewellery, the harness, invite the observer to dwell on the infinite details, and to admire the preciousness of this lively and minutely detailed description. The celebration of the Medici and their faction is also expressed through the numerous citations of the ‘balls’ of the coat of arms and the symbols taken from the devices or emblems that can be identified on the garments, the harness and the accessories of the figures, and are also probably alluded to in the presence of certain animals (such as the falcon on the east wall and the peacock in the scarsella) and in the choice of colours such as red, white and green. Moreover, these symbols derived from Medici heraldic imagery, are to be found throughout the decoration of the chapel (see records: Medici coat of arms; Medici devices).

The companies of the Magi
Each of the three Magi, with his respective retinue, occupies one wall of the main room. The companies follow the arrangement adopted in Florence on the occasion of the games and chivalric spectacles that were regularly organised throughout the fifteenth century. In effect the entire cortege is divided into three distinct companies or “brigades”, each characterised by a colour that dominates the garments and the trappings: white for Gaspar, green for Balthasar and red for Melchior.
According to the chivalric code, each company numbers twelve men, being composed of:
  • the “messere”, or lord on horseback (in this case the magus or king) who dictates the colours of the clothing, the ornaments of the headgear and the emblems
  • three pages on horseback forming the vanguard, who have the task of announcing the arrival of their lord;
  • two knights bearing respectively the sword, symbol of royalty (the spatharius), and the gift of the “messere”;
  • six pages on foot, with light weapons (bows, crossbows and lances), arranged in pairs escorting the “messere” himself.

East wall
Gaspar, the young king, blond and beardless, bearing the gift of myrrh, the balm that was used to spread on the bodies of the dead and hence alluding to the worldly nature of Jesus Christ. Dressed in white like the members of his company, the young kind leads the cortege of the Medici family and its relatives, allies and illustrious guests.
Garments, fabrics, jewellery, accessories [qui come per le altre voci e le altre pareti: foto di dettagli, oppure evidenziare dettagli sul generale nebuloso]
  • Crown of the young king: gold band clasped in a blue mazzocchio (padded head ring) studded with gold and adorned with gold “brocchette”, that is pointed brooches set with precious stones with rows of pearls at the edges; emerging from the band, pointing upwards are triangular points, again adorned with precious stones (rubies and emeralds alternated) surrounded by pearls, smaller precious stones and pearls and with large pearls at the tip of each point, fastened with a pin.
  • Costume of the king: giornea in brocade, adorned with rows of “brocchette”.
  • Belt of the young king: a strip of fabric adorned with “brochette”
  • laurel (the bush behind the head of Gaspar has been set in relation with the first-born of Piero il Gottoso, called Lorenzo, Laurentius a lauro)
  • orange
  • holly
  • palm
  • horse
  • mule (the charger of Cosimo il Vecchio, normally destined to the elderly or high-ranking prelates)
  • dog
  • deer
  • goldfinch
  • quail
  • jackdaw
  • tit
  • dove
Heraldry and family devices
  • Medici coat of arms, in: harness of the horses of the king Gaspar, Cosimo and Piero
  • three feathers, in: harness of Piero’s horse
  • diamond-tipped ring, in: harness of Piero’s horse and the livery of the page on foot
  • motto semper, in: harness of Piero’s horse and the livery of the page on foot
  • peacock’s feathers, in: harness of the horses of Piero and Cosimo

South wall
The south wall features the conclusion of the company of the King Gaspar, with the vanguard represented by the three youths on horseback dressed in white, erroneously identified in the past as the three daughters of Piero de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Bianca, Nannina and Maria.
It is followed by the company of Balthasar, the dark-skinned king of mature years. Dressed in green like his retinue, Balthasar occupies the central segment of the cortege of the three kings. In this part the painting has suffered significant losses: on the left through the opening of the window and on the right on account of the transfer of a portion of the west wall. This devastating operation entailed the demolition of the part of the wall showing the pages bearing the gift and Balthasar’s sword.
Balthasar’s gift is gold, the symbol of royalty
Garments, fabrics, jewellery, accessories
  • Crown of the king: the base is a band of gold adorned with rows of pearls at the edges and precious stones in settings (possibly emeralds and rubies) alternated large and small; rising from the band are triangular points with balas rubies girdled by a row of pearls and another series of smaller precious stones; a large pearl is fixed to the tip of each point; the crown is set upon a blue cap, emerging from which are triplets of green, white and red feathers, curled upwards.
  • Costume of the king: giornea in gold brocade trimmed with fur.
  • bushes of white and red roses
  • cypresses
  • horses
  • pheasant
  • kite, attacking the pheasant
Heraldry and family devices
  • Triplets of red, white and green feathers: on the mazzocchio (padded head rings) of the three pages on horseback at the extreme right; in Balthasar’s crown

South-west corner
The two sections of wall at the south-west corner were shifted to the inside of the chapel following the construction of the staircase and the respective landing in 1688-1689 (see the general record on the Chapel of the Magi). The moving of the wall entailed significant losses of Gozzoli’s paintings: in fact, only the lower left part of the portion of the west wall has survived (comprising, inter alia, the hindquarters of Melchior’s mule). The remainder, namely the upper part of this band and the portion with Balthasar’s pages on the south wall, has been lost. At the time of the reconstruction, Jacopo Chiavistelli was ordered to integrate the gaps that could not be retrieved, and the artist did so by painting a generic landscape, devoid of animals and men, inspired by the fifteenth-century painted landscape.
In the surviving part of Gozzoli’s painting, the three pages on horseback in Balthasar’s vanguard and the four lightly-armed pages on foot from the cortege of Melchior, have been attributed to Giovanni d’Antonio della Cecca di Mugello, the nephew of Beato Angelico and Gozzoli’s loyal companion and assistant (Acidini 1993; see record The wall paintings of Benozzo Gozzoli).
Garments, fabrics, jewellery, accessories
  • Costume of the pages on foot: red damask giornea or overgown, matching the gown of the king Melchior
  • Bows of the pages on foot: these are “soriani” or Syrian bows, of middle-eastern provenance; in view of their light, strong structure they were greatly appreciated in hunting, later being replaced by the crossbow.
  • mule (hindquarters of the animal ridden by Melchior)
  • jackdaw

West wall
On the west wall the elderly king Melchior leads the cortege of the three Magi, at the head of his retinue dressed in red. The Magi are preceded by a procession of contemporary personages, many of them with clearly defined features, among whom we can identify the portraits of bankers, associates and political supporters of the Medici.
Melchior and his train bear the gift of frankincense, symbol of prayer and sacredness, and hence alluding to the divinity of Jesus Christ.
Garments, fabrics, jewellery
  • Crown of the king: similar to those described above, set upon a red cap with a visor made of fur at the front and a low flap over the nape of the neck.
  • Costume of the king: red gown made of precious fabrics of an archaic and Byzantine style.
  • bushes of white and red roses
  • cypresses
  • orange
  • mule, ridden by Melchior
  • horses
  • dogs
  • cheetahs trained for hunting in line with the Turkish practice, of which two are on leashes (with precious collars and large-link golden chains) in the foreground
  • deer
  • ox
  • hare
  • asses with packs, in the procession in the distance
  • mules with packs, in the procession in the distance
  • dromedaries with packs, some being ridden by African slaves, in the procession in the distance
  • crane or heron, reduced to half by the shearing of the walls, at the upper extreme right; it is being attacked by a bird of prey, of which we can see only the head (rediscovered during the recent restoration)
  • mallard, in the river in the foreground
  • white duck, in the river in the foreground
  • falcon disembowelling a hare, in the foreground (a naturalistic interpretation of the falcon holding the diamond ring between its talons, of which Piero il Gottoso (?) was particularly fond
  • domestic monkey, at the extreme right in the foreground
Heraldry and family devices
  • Three feathers, on the head of the man in the right-hand cortege

The portraits
The traditional identification of the three Magi with real people does not appear to bear up, considering that their generic physiognomy can be traced to abstract types in line with traditional canons.
There is instead a crowd of contemporary figures following the cortege of the three Magi on the east wall, and another preceding it on the wall opposite. The procession comprises numerous portraits, extremely vital although at times difficult to recognise. They bring the gospel story right into Medici Florence in the middle of the fifteenth century, rendering it contemporary.
Proposals of identification in Acidini 1993 (where not indicated otherwise):
East wall, in the retinue of the king Gaspar:
  1. Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici
  2. Piero il Gottoso de’ Medici[link scheda / foto]
  3. Carlo di Cosimo de’ Medici
  4. Galeazzo Maria Sforza
  5. Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta
  6. Cosimino di Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici (?), at the age of six, already frail and sickly, who died shortly afterwards in November 1459
  7. Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici known as il Magnifico
  8. Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici (in: Caglioti 2000, I, p. 62 note 20, II, fig. 44)
  9. Gentile Becchi, tutor of Lorenzo and Giuliano (in: Caglioti 2000, I, p. 62, II, fig. 44)
  10. Giuliano di Piero de’ Medici
  11. Giovanni di Francesco Tornabuoni (?), brother-in-law of Piero and Giovanni de’ Medici since he was the brother of Lucrezia and the uncle of Lorenzo and Giuliano, as well as being an agent in the Rome branch of the Medici bank at the time.
  12. Giovanni di Cosimo de’ Medici(?)
  13. Benozzo Gozzoli
  14. Pope Pius II Piccolomini ( Märtl 2000 )
West wall, in the retinue preceding the king Melchior:
  1. Benozzo Gozzoli (?), second self-portrait
  2. Neri di Gino Capponi (?) (1388-1457): an illustrious diplomat, author of important works of history, supporter of the political ascent of Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici, albeit without assuming a subordinate position.
Images for comparison, see:
Bernardo Rossellino (workshop), Sepulchre of Neri di Gino Capponi; Florence, Santo Spirito
  1. Bernardo Giugni (?) (+1466), friend of Cosimo, prominent figure in the Florentine Republic, several times ambassador
Images for comparison:
Mino da Fiesole, Funeral monument of Bernardo Giugni; Florence, Badia Fiorentina
  1. Francesco Sassetti (?) (1420-1490), in 1447 director of the branches of the Medici bank in Geneva and Lyons, from 1458 vice director-general in Florence; his is the hand raised with the fingers spread, which according to the contemporary mode of counting indicated the number 5000
Images for comparison:
Antonio Rossellino / Verrocchio (attr.), Bust of Francesco Sassetti; Florence, Bargello National Museum
[ ]
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Portrait of Francesco Sassetti; Florence, Santa Trinita
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Scenes from the Life of Saint Francis, detail; Florence, Santa Trinita
  1. Agnolo Tani (?), from 1450 to 1465 director of the branch of the Medici bank in Bruges
Images for comparison:
Hans Memling, Triptych of the Last Judgement, left panel Heaven; Gdansk, Muzeum []
  1. Dietisalvi Neroni (?) (1401-1482), at the time a supporter of Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici, but only a few years later reputed to be a bitter enemy of the Medici (1463), he also took part in the plot against Piero (1466)
Images for comparison:
Mino da Fiesole, Bust of Dietisalvi Neroni, 1464; Paris, Musée du Louvre
[ ]
  1. Roberto di Niccolò Martelli (?) (1408-post 1469), director of the Medici bank in Rome from 1439 to 1464
  2. Benozzo Gozzoli (?), third self-portrait
Luca Pitti (?) (1398-1472), in 1458 gonfalonier with the support of Cosimo, but then in 1466 betrayed the Medici and took part in the conspiracy against Piero il Gottoso,
or Antonio Averlino known as Filarete (?) (c.1400 -c. 1469 ca.), Florentine sculptor and architect active for the Sforza, who described the chapel and other rooms in Palazzo Medici in his treatise on Architecture (see Anthology).
Images for comparison Luca Pitti:
Portrait of Luca Pitti (mid sixteenth century); Kursk, Dejneka Art Museum
[ ]
Images for comparison Filarete:
Portrait of Filarete, engraving in the Lives of Giorgio Vasari, ed. Firenze 1568

Identifications rejected in Acidini 1993:
  • Gaspar: Lorenzo il Magnifico (Bussagli 1999 and other previous)
  • Balthasar: John VIII Palaeologus, Emperor of the East who came to Florence to attend the Council in 1439
  • Melchior: Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, who again came to Florence 1439 for the Council and was buried in Santa Maria Novella; Sigismund of Luxembourg, Holy Roman Emperor who summoned the Council of Constance in 1414 to settle the Great Schism (Bussagli 1999)
  • Three pages on horseback in Gaspar’s vanguard (south wall) with feathers on the padded mazzocchio rings: three daughters of Piero de’ Medici and Lucrezia Tornabuoni, Bianca, Nannina, Maria.

Events and places connected with the Procession of the Magi
  • 1423: date on the altarpiece by Gentile da Fabriano portraying the Adoration of the Magi, placed on the altar of the Strozzi Chapel in Santa Trinita (now in the Uffizi; see Itineraries /Journeying with the Magi through the paintings of the Florentine Renaissance)
  • The Compagnia dei Magi, with headquarters in the convent of San Marco, which had the task of organising the feast of the Epiphany (Chastel 1964; Hatfield 1970; Cardini 1991; Padoa Rizzo 1992)
  • 1439: Council between the Eastern and Western Churches, transferred to Florence where the unification - albeit ephemeral - between the two churches was stipulated.
  • 1459, April: arrival in Florence of Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Sigismondo Malatesta to join, along with other princes and high prelates, the cortege of Pope Pius II Piccolomini headed for Mantua to attend a council summoned to organise a new Crusade.

Symbols relating to the Magi
The triad of the Magi alludes to various combinations of symbolic meanings (listed here in an order paralleling that of the Magi in the painting):
  • the ages of man: youth, maturity, old age;
  • the seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn (winter is excluded);
  • the parts of the day: dawn, midday, dusk (night is excluded);
  • the parts of the world: Europe, Africa and Asia (the continents known at the time);
  • the parts of cosmic time: future, present, past;
  • the colours: white, green and red;
  • the theological virtues: Faith, Hope, Charity (also represented by the colours above);
  • members of the Medici family: Lorenzo, Piero, Cosimo.
The three gifts borne by the Magi - gold, frankincense and myrrh - are customarily held to allude to Jesus Christ as King, God and Man.
See also the records: People /The Magi; Itineraries / Journeying with the Magi through the paintings of the Florentine Renaissance.

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