Thursday, 21 December 2017

A 15th Century Florentine-Byzantine Advent Calendar

The Procession of the Magi (or How the East was lost).

A suitably Christmas theme for a late December post. The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli can be found decorating the walls of the Medici Chapel on the first floor of their private residence in Florence. Permission for the chapel was given as early as 1442 by Pope Martin V. Piero de'Medici chose Benozzo Gozzoli to decorate the chapel which he completed over a few months in 1459. At the time the Council of Mantua was taking place not too far away, hosted by Ludovico Gonzaga and Pope Pius. The purpose of this council was to try and form a united Christian front against the growing Turkish threat which six years previously had finally conquered Constantinople. 

The significance of this to the painting Gozzoli was creating lies in the fact that exactly twenty years previously the Council of Florence had begun (having transferred from Ferrara due to plague). That Council, far better attended than Mantua, was a last desperate attempt to end the schism between Latin and Greek Churches and through that Union, rekindle enough Crusader zeal to drive back the advancing Ottoman banners before Constantinople was lost. The Council of Florence was also a remarkable coup for the Medici, who played host to Emperors and ambassadors, Patriarchs, Popes, great philosophers and humanist scholars.  

And so when Gozzoli came to decorate the Medici chapel he took the Council of Florence as his inspiration and wove into his procession of the Magi a great many life-like portraits of the great and the good who attended. For anyone with an interest in 15th century Italian or Byzantine history it is the perfect Where's Waldo.

The painting extends across the east, south and west walls of the main room above the encircling benches. These three walls were painted in about 150 days and each represents one of the three kings (Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar). The east wall leads with the youngest king, the south shows the middle king and the west has the oldest king. 

The Altar painting does not just depict the Adoration, it also showesd the Holy Trinity and perhaps significantly it is very clearly that of the Latin Church's interpretation. It was in part the contrast of this view - that the Holy Spirit emanates from both the Father and Son - which was the crux of the debate between Latin and Greek churchmen at the Council of Florence. The Greek Orthodox view held that the Holy Spirit emanates from God the Father alone. 

The real fun comes when one moves closer to the procession and tries to put names to faces. One can also imagine the unveiling of this to the contemporary Florentine society and the angst and disgruntlement among those who found themselves missing or in a less significant position than they felt they deserved!

The Young King (Caspar) is usually identified as Lorenzo il Magnifico, the son of Piero. He would have been 10 at the time the fresco was painted. Assuming this is indeed him then both he and his brother Giuliano have the honour of appearing (at least) twice (as does the artist Gozzoli). The pair appear together just beneath the Gozzoli's self portrait in the crowd of the young king's train. 

The procession behind the Young King is far larger than for the two other Magi and is made up of a number of identifiable members of contemporary Florentine society, moving left from the Young King's horse we find Piero the Gouty, the painting's commissioner on a splendid white horse and beside him the family patriarch, Cosimo on a humble donkey (which is either an indication of devoutness or a super-rich banker trying too hard).

The page beside Cosimo's horse is clearly sub-Sahara African and might be there as a representative of the Coptic and Ethiopian delegation at Florence sent by Zara Yaqob or may depict a particular member of the Medici staff or simply be a symbol of the exotic expanse of the Medici trading influence.

Behind these two heads of the family and the city come Sigismondo Malatesta, who was not at the council but is one of the most colourful and significant characters of the politics of this era both in Italy and Greece. At the time of the painting he is one year away from excommunication, two from dealing with the Ottoman Sultan and five from leading the Venetian armies against the Turks in Greece.

Beside Malatesta the Duke of Milan Galeazzo Maria Sforza. A sometime ally, sometime rival of Florence. He was a nasty piece of work even by the low standards of the day and was assassinated in Boxing Day 1476 in a similar manner to the failed attempt by the Pazzi against the Medici in 1478.

Behind comes the multitude of the Young King's retinue, full of the great and good of Florentine humanism.

The Pulci brothers, Luigi and Luca flank the young Medici heirs, (Giuliano and Lorenzo in their second appearance).

Above the boys and identifiable by the gold lettered "opus Benotii" on his cap is the artist Gozzoli, beside him - sticking out with his alien beehive hat and beard - is the Byzantine philosopher Plethon who made such an impression at the Council of Florence, particularly on Cosimo de'Medici with his lectures on Plato, at the time largely lost to the west. 

Appropriately he is flanked by Marcelo Ficino, to whom Cosimo gave the task of translating Plato from the Greek manuscripts he had received from Plethon into Latin. 

I suspect that above Plethon's hat is John Argyropoulos, Ficino's tutor and Plethon's friend who was at the council of Florence and remained in Italy to lecture in Padua, Florence and Rome and taught Piero & Lorenzo de'Medici and possibly even Leonardo Da Vinci.

The other figures in the entourage are a mystery to me but the row behind Plethon contains some distinctive headgear which either marks them out as representatives of a profession or as people with their own particular style. 

On the hilltop behind the Young King's head stands a castle which in its form of towers corresponds to the Medici seat at Cafaggiolo but can also be interpreted as Jerusalem, the origin of the Magi's procession or indeed Constantinople, the protection of which was the subject of the Council of Florence.

The Middle King (Balthasar) depicts Emperor John VIII Palaiologos, the penultimate Byzantine Emperor who came cap in hand to Florence to try and rally aid to his beset city. It was a hellish trip for him, marked by sickness and capped by the discovery on his return that both his wife and sister-in-law had died in his absence.

The retinue of the Middle King is suitably thin in comparison to the abundant throng of the young king. The pages around his horse have the classical looks associated at the time with angels. 

To the far left of this painting there are three riders who appear to be ladies and represent the three daughters of Piero Medici, Nannina, Bianca and Maria.

The old King (Melchior) is said to depict the Greek Patriarch Joseph II who died during the Council of Florence from the strain of the journey there. He was buried at Santa Mira Novella in Florence. He was succeeded by Metrophanes who accepted the Union, much to the displeasure of the man on the Constantinople omnibus. On his return home he found the mob were calling him Mitrofonos (Mother-killer) and he was driven into exile back in Italy. 

Like the middle king, Melchior's retinue is rather sparse but ahead of him comes another gaggle of identifiable Florentine riders. Nearest the Patriarch there are again a trio of female-looking riders who may be the daughters of Piero again. Giuliano de Medici is the page with a cheetah perched on the hind of his horse. 

Beside him is the second appearance of Gozzoli, this time in a blue and white hat. The cluster of red hatted dignitaries around him are said to be the key Medici allies of the time: Bernardo Giugni, Francesco Sassetti, Agnolo Tani, Diotisalvi Neroni and Luca Pitti.

There are probably dozens of Florentines I am unable to identify and perhaps even a few of the Venetians and Greeks from the Council of Florence are hidden in the throng. Is George Amiroutzes, who worked as a translator at the Council here or Niccolo Sagundino who was spying for Venice or the other Greek priests: Cardinal Bessarion, Genndios, Isidore of Kiev? What of the Pazzi members of Florentine society who would try and fail to snuff out the Medici some twenty years later? It is a painting that reveals new details with every glance.

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