Above: Chapel of the Magi. Photo: Heather Daveno
The Chapel of the Magi was commissioned by Cosimo di Giovanni de’Medici (known as Cosimo the Elder) around 1445, to be built in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the first of many Medici palaces in Florence. Cosimo, as history will record, would build his family’s fame and fortune into the one of the most powerful in Renaissance Italy. He became a patron of the arts, commissioning works from Donatello and Fra Angelico, and architects to design his family’s palazzos that dot the city.
The architect for this project was Michelozzo di Bartolomeo, who spent the next several years designing and building what would become one of the most modern and grand buildings in Florence. Its chapel was designed for private use by Cosimo and his family, and was dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It consists of a main room, and an altar recess, which originally housed an altarpiece, painted by Filippo Lippi, though that piece is now in a museum in Germany.
Benezzo di Lise, called Gozzoli, was commissioned to paint “The Journey of the Magi” in the main room, which he did between 1459-61. He was originally trained as a goldsmith and worked for three years with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the gilded doors of the Baptistry in Florence (“The Gates of Paradise”), which I had seen on my previous trip here, and which I highly recommend.
The “Journey of the Magi” wraps around almost the entire chapel, which I was not expecting. It portrays a processional celebrating the Christian Epiphany, with the Magi and their retinue represented as the members of the Medici family and other political and cultural nobles of the time. In addition to the portraiture, the fresco bears other references to the Medici family, including the colors and elements of their heraldic device (red and blue, red bezants and groupings of three white feathers.) The villas in the background suggest the Medici country estates. There are also scenes of various hunting parties, with symbology attached to some of the animals, and which makes a very lush and somewhat exotic landscape.
It is thought that this work commemorates three separate events – the Council of Basel in 1439 which was called to unite the Latin and Greek Churches and to deal with the Turkish threat (which would ultimately lead to the fall of Constantinople in 1453); the celebration of the Epiphany in 1459, that Cosimo was patron and benefactor to, and in which a very young Lorenzo Medici played one of the roles during the reenactment festivities; and the celebration held in Florence later that year to honor Pope Pius II.
This fresco is among my favorite Renaissance works for its color, subject matter and intricate detail. It visually stunning for the minute detail Gozzoli went to in depicting the clothing, jewelry and horse trappings of the time. I never thought I would see it outside of an art book. And yet, here I stood, just inches from it. Nothing could have prepared me for the visceral impact of seeing it in person. The scale of it brought me to tears almost immediately. I was so engrossed in the painting that I don’t think I even looked up to see the gilded ceiling, though the mosaic floor crafted from white marble and purplish porphyry did briefly catch my attention.
Beyond the chapel, there’s an interactive display that shows a smaller version of the fresco on an IMAX screen. When you stand on the sensor and physically point to areas on the screen, it zooms in and provides descriptions for that section of the painting. I was there for about 45 minutes, just pointing and reading. Afterwards, I could identify each of the faces in this work. Sadly, the notes I took during this session were in my original journal, which I lost on my flight to Istanbul later that week.
My tour continued through the rest of the palazzo, through bedrooms and dining rooms with simple furnishings, and hallways with frescoed ceilings. The exterior of this palazzo was filled with sculptures by various artists, set among richly decorated archways and niches in the courtyard.
You can find my additional photos at: https://davenotravels.blog/2019/03/28/crossroads-tour-chapel-of-the-magi/
For additional information and photos of the Chapel of the Magi:
For additional information about the Palazzo Riccardi:
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Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.