GOZZOLI, Benozzo
(b. ca. 1420, Firenze, d. 1497, Pistoia)

View of the Chapel

Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence

As early as 1442 Pope Martin V had given the Medicis permission to build a private chapel with a portable family altar. The chapel, in the first floor of the Medicis' private residence, was built by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396-1472) between 1446 and 1449 and dedicated to the Holy Trinity. It comprises an almost square main room and, one step higher, an equally nearly square chancel. The two are separated from each other by two Corinthian pillars.

Cosimo de' Medici chose Benozzo Gozzoli to decorate the chapel. The pictorial program of the chapel is also structured in two parts: the Procession of the Magi in the main room and the Adoration of the Child in the chancel with the Angels worshipping on the side walls. The ceiling is decorated by a diamond-pointed ring in a halo with a loop that bears the motto of Piero de' Medici, semper, and within it inside a glory the monogram of Christ, JHS, as used for St Bernardino of Siena.

The Procession of the Magi extends across the east, south and west walls of the main room above the encircling benches. These three walls were painted in about 150 working days, and each represents one of the Three Kings. The east wall leads off with the youngest king, the story continues on the south wall with the middle king, and ends on the west wall with the oldest king. An unusual feature of this depiction is that the procession does not arrive at the manger. The adoration of the Christ Child was reserved for the contemporary observers present in the room, and their prayers were said within the important framework of the procession of the magi taking place on either side.

The Procession of the Magi moves towards Filippo Lippi's altar painting of the Adoration of the Child. (The original, which was replaced with a copy in 1494, is now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.)

Until the expulsion of the Medicis in 1494, the chapel was used to house the so-called Reliquiario del Libretto. It contains relics of the Passion and is now in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence. Worth mentioning are the double walls, the chapel's secret escape routes which could also be used as a hiding place and place of refuge. The double walls explain the good state of preservation of the frescoes, which were thus protected from damp. Originally it was relatively dark in the chapel, for the two small oculi only admitted a little light. In the torch and candlelight that illuminated the room, the shining gold and metal layers on the paintings must have had a powerful effect.

In 1659, the Riccardi family bought the Palazzo Medici and undertook some structural changes. This included, in 1689, the building of an exterior flight of stairs leading up to the first floor. For this purpose the entrance to the chapel had to be moved. During the process, two sections of wall were cut out of the south western corner, in the procession of the oldest king. After the stairs were finished, the cut out elements were mounted on a corner of the wall projecting into the room. During the course of this, the oldest king's horse was cut up and mounted on two different segments of the wall. The empty section of wall above the new door now contains a landscape in the style of Benozzo. In addition, two windows were built on either side of the door, of which only the one on the left still exists. A large window that was integrated into the apse wall in the 19th century was bricked up again in 1929.