The Medici, Magi and “Opus Benozzo”

The fatal charm of Italy is never more felt than during the Christmas holidays. Like a Renaissance painting the holiday season in Italy unfolds with symbolism and dazzling scenes that remind us of the story of the birth of Christ . Some hidden away throughout the year are again visually unwrapped to be pondered anew.

One in particular can be found tucked away in a corner of  Florence’s Palazzo Medici (Medici Palace). La Cappella dei Magi (the Chapel of the Magi) with frescoes painted by Benozzo Gozzoli depict the journey of the Three Magi to present their gifts to the Infant Jesus. The walls of the small chapel create a lavish landscape filled with a cycle of paintings that celebrate the journey of the Magi in the context of the wealth and opulent splendor of the Medici family in 15th century Italy.  Members of the family and an entourage of Medici supporters are cast as prominent figures in a magnificent procession as the Wise Men travel through an embellished Tuscan landscape in search of the Infant Jesus.  With thoroughbred horses,  gilded costumes,  exotic animals and the ever-present golden balls of the Medici coat of arms the paintings leave little doubt as to the special identification the Medici have with the Magi.

A Medici Entourage.

A Medici Entourage. On the white horse rides Piero de’ Medici, with his father Cosimo on a donkey. Political allies and prominent philosophers of the time follow behind.

 

Cosimo  with his sons Piero, Giovanni and Carlo, the young princes Lorenzo and

The Three Sisters of Lorenzo de'Medici.

The Three Sisters of Lorenzo de’Medici.

Giuliano, daughters, tutors and political allies take their place among the faces in the crowds in a procession that follows the Magi on their journey. With “where’s Waldo-like” attention, the viewer is drawn into the details of an exotic landscape filled with the beautiful people of Renaissance Florence.

magi

The Three Kings. The youngest , Caspar, was painted to resemble Lorenzo Medici.

Not to be out done, staring straight ahead, Benozzo paints his way into the picture with a self portrait as the man in the foreground with the red hat embroidered with golden letters around the rim that reads “Opus Benotii“, the work of Benozzo.

Benozzo Gozzoli

Benozzo Gozzoli

 

Every detail of the painting advertises the wealth and ambition of the Medici in an aristocratic 15th century fantasy of a  Christmas journey with a meaning far beyond.

A Neapolitan Nativity

Christmas Eve I saw the Neapolitan Creche at the Art Institute of Chicago. On display until January 11th it is a mesmerizing artistic cacophony of the secular and spiritual scene surrounding the birth of Christ from the perspective of contemporary Neapolitan life in the mid 18th century.Creche neo 2

A Nativity injected into Neapolitan street life made with such detailed perfection that you are visually and emotionally drawn into a vast panorama (the creche is enclosed in a 15.5 feet by 14 feet by 4.5 feet case) of people and animals going about their ordinary lives with one extraordinary difference. For at center stage is the Christ child with a spectacular halo of metallic golden rays, surrounded by hovering angels in billowy clouds, looked after by Mary and Joseph, attended by shepherds and visited by the Magi. They along with all the other figures (200 human and 62 animals) are exquisitely dressed, perfectly modeled and set in scenes of such intricate detail that you expect them to come to life at any moment. Creche neo

The multi-cultural cast of characters (many in regional costumes), modeled construction of the buildings, landscape, market and tavern scenes, jewelry, musical instruments, miniature fruits and clothing were made by prominent painters, sculptures, goldsmiths and artisans of the time with great attention to detail and the flamboyancy of the baroque. In centuries old workshops and artist studios in Naples, master and apprentice artisans still sculpt these intricate figurines and scenes of Il Presepio, an art and tradition of Christmas in Italy.