Painters Of Florence – Benozzo Gozzoli

WHILE the Carmelite friar was bearing Masaccio’s message in a more popular form to the world, a follower of Fra Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, was continuing his saintly master’s work on a lower spiritual level, in a more homely and ordinary style. This amiable and industrious artist, who painted a larger number of frescoes than any of his contemporaries, had neither Angelico’s inspiration nor Fra Lippo’s genuine artistic gifts. He studied Masaccio and the Naturalists carefully, and tried to imitate their clever foreshortenings, but he remained far behind Paolo Uccello and his followers in knowledge of the human form. His perspective is often faulty, and his drawing careless and slovenly; but as a story-teller and illustrator he has few rivals, and the frescoes which he painted with such marvellous rapidity are of rare interest, as pages of contemporary history which bring the life of the court and the life of the schools, the Medici and the humanists, the labourers in the vineyards and gardens of Tuscany, all in turn before our eyes.

Benozzo, surnamed Gozzoli the thick throated was the son of a small Florentine tradesman literally a waistcoat-maker, named Lese di Sandro. He was born in 1420, and like many of his contemporaries, learnt the trade of both painter and goldsmith in his boyhood. From 1444 to 1447, he worked with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the second of his Baptistery gates, and acquired from him that taste for landscape and architecture, and love of pleasant details and accessories, which marked his future work. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ well-known remark, that buildings and landscape occupied so large a place in Ghiberti’s bas-reliefs that his figures were only secondary objects, might be applied with equal truth to many of Benozzo’s frescoes. In 1447, Fra Angelico, under whom Benozzo may have studied as a boy, took the young artist with him to Rome, and employed him both in the Vatican Chapel and at Orvieto. Here Benozzo’s hand can be clearly traced in the pyramidal groups of Saints and Prophets on the roof of San Brizio’s Chapel, and when Fra Angelico returned to Florence, his assistant offered to complete the work which he had left unfinished. But the Directors of the Cathedral Works declined his proposal, and the decoration of the chapel walls was only carried out fifty years later by Luca Signorelli. The frescoes of the Cesarini Chapel in Ara Coeli, which Benozzo next undertook, have all perished, excepting one figure, which is exactly imitated from Angelico, and represents St. Anthony of Padua with a flame in one hand and a book in the other.

In 1450, Benozzo was invited to Montefalco, one of the hill-set cities of Umbria, on the heights above the valley of the Clitumnus, and painted the altar-piece of the Assumption, now in the Lateran, as well as several frescoes in the Church of S. Fortunato and twelve scenes from the life of St. Francis in the choir of the Franciscan church. The old stories which Giotto had painted 150 years before, in the neighbouring town of Assisi, are here repeated by Angelico’s pupil in his master’s style, with the addition of groups of men and women in contemporary costumes, and many homely incidents of his own invention. The portraits of Dante, Giotto, and Petrarch are introduced among the medallions of Franciscan saints under the windows, each with an appropriate Latin inscription, which reminds us of the humanist tendencies of the age. Dante is described as “a theologian, ignorant of no learning,” Petrarch as ” the laureate, monarch of all virtues,” while Giotto is called ” the foundation and light of painting.” A side-chapel in the same church contains a graphic representation of St. Jerome pulling out the thorn from the lion’s foot, in the presence of a band of terrified friars, by Benozzo’s hand, while in 1453, he executed another series of frescoes on the life of S. Rosa of Lima in a Franciscan convent at Viterbo, which were still in existence in the seventeenth century. On his way back to Florence, Benozzo visited Perugia and painted the Madonna and Saints, which is now in the town gallery, and bears the date of 1456. Both this altar-piece and the Montefalco frescoes were destined to have a marked influence on the development of the Umbrian School. The poetic naturalism and love of ornament, together with that tender devotional feeling which Benozzo inherited from his master, appealed in an especial manner to the dwellers in these Umbrian valleys, and a Foligno artist, named Pier Antonio, who had worked with the Florentine master at Montefalco, handed on these traditions to Bonfigli and his companions at Perugia.

Meanwhile Benozzo returned to Florence, where the Medici welcomed him with open arms. Andrea del Castagno and Peschino had died lately, Fra Angelico was no more, and Fra Filippo had gone to Prato in disgrace. The moment was a fortunate one and Benozzo soon found himself entrusted with the important task of decorating the Chapel of the Medici Palace. The subject chosen by his patrons was the Adoration of the Magi, that favourite theme of Florentine painters, which Gentile da Fabriano had already surrounded with romantic charm, and which Benozzo now set forth in one great fresco on the walls of this little oratory. All the festive pomp and splendour of court-pageants which the Medici had brought into the simple life of old Florence, all the beauty of the May time and the glamour of faery romance are gathered up in this triumphal procession of the Three Kings, journeying over hill and vale on their way to the manger of Bethlehem. They ride out, richly attired in brocades and shining armour, mounted on chargers adorned with sumptuous trap-pings and resplendent with gold and jewels, while fair-haired pages hold their horses’ bridles or lead their greyhounds in leash. Following in their steps are a brilliant train of courtiers, with horses, dogs and leopards, winding their way over the rocky Apennines and down the green slopes, where tall bell-towers and white villas and chapels peep out among the olive and cypress groves, and narrow paths lead down into fruitful valleys watered by clear streams.

The special event which Cosimo de’ Medici wished to commemorate was the General Council, which had been removed from Ferrara to Florence in 1439, and the visit of the Greek Emperor, who had been magnificently entertained by him within these palace walls. Accordingly, in the first two kings we have portraits of Joseph, the venerable Patriarch of Constantinople, and of John Palaeologus, a fine-looking, dark-bearded prince, wearing a coronet on his turban, and a flowered robe of gorgeous green and gold. In the youthful king on the white horse, with the blue cap and jewelled crown jauntily set on his curling locks, and the green laurel boughs about his bright young face, we recognise the boy Lorenzo, Piero de’ Medici’s eldest son, and the hope of all his noble house. Close beside him ride a princely escort, among whom are his grandfather, the aged Cosimo, on a white horse led by a youthful page, with his two sons, Piero and the handsome Giovanni, whose death, four years later, was the bitterest grief of his father’s declining years. Marsilio Ficino and the painter himself mingle in the familiar throng of scholars and humanists. But the pageant does not end here. From the pomp and glory of earthly splendour we turn to the cradle of Bethlehem, and are given a glimpse of the unseen. This Benozzo has painted for us on the east wall of the Chapel, round the altar where Fra Filippo’s Madonna adoring the Child-Christ hung of old. The background has changed, and instead of the olive-clad slopes and scarred heights of the Apennine we have the “divine forest” of Dante’s Paradiso, where bright-winged seraphs tend the flowers of this new Eden, and waves of heavenly melody rise and fall on the luminous air. Here cypress and pines grow tall and straight, roses and pomegranates hang in clusters from the boughs, and blue-breasted peacocks trail their starry plumage over smooth green lawns, while choirs of angels chant the Gloria in Excelsis, or kneel in silent adoration round the manger throne.

Such was the vision which Angelico’s scholar painted in the hot summer months when the Medici were enjoying rest and villeggiatura in their favourite country houses. Three letters which Benozzo addressed to Piero, who was entertaining illustrious guests at Careggi, show how entirely his heart was in his work and how anxious he was to perfect every detail of his frescoes. In the first, written on the loth of July, he acknowledges a letter from Piero, who had, it appears, taken objection to certain small cherubs in the corner of the fresco, and explains that they cannot interfere with the rest of the picture, since only the tips of their wings are allowed to be seen. But since Piero desires it, he will paint two white clouds in the sky and cause the offending seraphs to disappear. He would come to Careggi himself and see Piero on the subject, if it were not for the great heat, which will, he fears, spoil the azure which he has begun to lay on. But he hopes Piero will come to see the work before this part of the scaffolding is removed. In the meantime two florins will suffice for his present needs. ” I am working with all my might,” he adds, ” and if I fail, it will be from lack of knowledge, not from want of zeal. God knows I have no other thought in my heart but how best to perfect my work and satisfy your wishes.”

On the 11th of September, Benozzo writes another letter to Piero, whom he calls his dearest friend Amico mio singularissimo reminding him that he had not sent him the forty florins for which the painter had asked, in order that he might be able to buy corn and provisions, while they were still cheap. “I had,” he adds, “a great thought, which was not to ask you for any money until you had seen the work, but necessity compels me to make this request, so forgive me, for, God knows, I only seek to please you. And I must remind you once more, to send to Venice for some azure, because this wall will be finished this week, and I shall need the blue colour for the brocades and other parts of the figures.”

On the 25th, he writes a third letter, telling Piero of a Genoese merchant who has 1500 pieces of fine gold for sale, some of which he will require for his work, and begging for ten more florins to pay for the azure, which he has bought at two florins the ounce, from the Prior of the Gesuati, whose ultramarine was famous throughout Italy.

“I had meant to come and see you last Sunday, but the bad weather frightened me. Now I am at work on the other wall, and hope to finish the fresco in another week. And it seems to me a thousand years until your Magnificence shall be here to see for yourself if you are satisfied with the work ! May Christ keep you in his favour !— Your BENOZZO, Painter in Florence.”

The pains which Benozzo bestowed upon his task were not thrown away, and we find no trace of the haste and carelessness of drawing which too often marred his work. The subject was admirably suited to his powers, and none of his later frescoes are as entirely successful as these in the Medici Chapel.

His position as the best fresco-painter of the day was now established, and new commissions poured in upon him from all sides. In 1461, he painted the Madonna and Saints, with angels crowned with roses, and goldfinches on the alabaster steps of the throne, which is now in the National Gallery. This fine altar-piece was executed for the Confraternity of S. Marco, which had its Oratory close to the Dominican convent, and Benozzo was expressly desired to imitate Fra Angelico’s Virgin, in the neighbouring church, as exactly as possible, and to allow no assistant to help him, but to promise to do the whole work himself, as well, or, if possible, better than any other which he had yet accomplished. About this time he married a girl named Mona Lena, who was twenty years younger than himself and bore him a family of seven children. In the same year he bought a house in the Via del Cocomero, as well as lands outside the walls, and was in prosperous circumstances during the rest of his life, being, as Vasari remarks, both indefatigable in his industry and irreproachable in his conduct.

In 1463, he went to the mountain city of San Gimignano, and there, in Dante’s “town of the beautiful towers,” he painted another great cycle of frescoes on the life of St. Augustine. This time his patron was Domenico Strambi, a learned Augustinian friar, who had lectured in philosophy at Oxford and Paris, and went by the name of Doctor Parisinus. The seventeen subjects with which the painter adorned the choir of the Augustinian church were, no doubt, chosen by the learned doctor, whose portrait appears in another large fresco of St. Sebastian protecting the people of San Gimignano from the plague ; but the charming fancy and lively humour of the different stories are all Benozzo’s own. His love of children finds full play in the early scenes of Augustine’s school life, where the boys are seated at lessons in the portico, and the stern schoolmaster points approvingly at the diligent child with one hand, while the other is lifted to strike an unruly scholar. The unlucky victim appears hoisted on the back of a bigger boy, looking round, half curious and half frightened, to see what will happen to him, and another rosy-cheeked child peeps up from his lesson-book to gaze at his comrade in disgrace. No less interesting is the fresco which represents Augustine teaching rhetoric in Rome. The scene is laid in a stately Renaissance hall, with villas and gardens in the background, and on the marble pavement a little dog with shaven back is sitting up on its haunches, while the scholars stand or sit around with varying expressions of attention or indifference on their faces, and one youth is engaged in turning back the richly trimmed sleeve of his fur mantle. Benozzo’s taste for architecture is displayed in the Gothic towers and palaces of Tagaste, and in the scene of Augustine’s departure from Rome, where he manages not only to introduce the chief monuments of the imperial city the Coliseum, Pantheon, Column of Trajan and Pyramid of Cestus but also the towers and battlements, the loggias and campaniles of the modern city into a single picture. Troops of cavaliers and pages in rich brocades, leading gaily caparisoned horses, escort the Saint on his journey, and fair Milanese ladies, in contemporary costumes, sit under Augustine’s pulpit, listening to his sermons, or watch by the death-bed of Monica. Here and there we find little bits of life reproduced with rare felicity young mothers with children clinging fondly to their arms, girls carrying baskets, and boys at play in the streets, or else a knot of friars bending down and pressing their heads close together, eager to catch the new teacher’s words. The last and finest of the whole series is the Death of the Saint. Here, like most Quattrocento masters, he takes Giotto’s Death of St. Francis, in Santa Croce, for his model, and represents Augustine in mitre and pontifical robes, lying on a rich mortuary couch, surrounded by a large company of monks and ecclesiastics, who perform the last rites and give vent to their grief in the most passionate manner. The variety of expression on the faces of the mourners is very striking, while the grouping of the figures and the graceful lines of the convent buildings in the background make an admirable picture. Unfortunately, Benozzo too often traded on his reputation, and the numerous altar-pieces which he painted for neighbouring churches and convents, during the three years that he spent at San Gimignano, are executed with a haste and carelessness that are quite unworthy of him. No doubt, he was largely assisted by inferior artists, and the resemblance which many of his figures bear, both in type and stature, to those of Fra Lippo, is explained by the fact that one of the Carmelite’s former assistants, Giusto di Andrea, worked under him at San Gimignano. It was to intercede for Giusto’s brother, who had been caught in the act of stealing the monks’ bed-clothes at Certaldo, that Benozzo wrote a letter to young Lorenzo de’ Medici, whom he addresses as ” Most dear to me in Christ,” lamenting the scandal which his apprentice had caused, and explaining that up till this time he had always borne an excellent character. ” But perhaps,” he adds, “God has allowed this to happen for some good end.” In the meantime he thanks Lorenzo who had already, it appears, intervened in the matter for his good offices with the Vicar of Certaldo, and ends with renewed protestations of devotion to himself and his house, praying that Christ may be with him in eternity.

This letter is dated 4th July, 1467, when Benozzo was still busily engaged on his works at San Gimignano. By the end of the year, however, he had left for Pisa, where a new and gigantic task was awaiting him. This was the decoration of the north wall of the Campo Santo, which had been left unfinished ever since Puccio da Orvieto had painted his three subjects of the Creation, the Death of Abel, and the Flood, eighty years before. On the 9th of January, 1468, he signed a contract with the magistrates of Pisa, by which he agreed to cover the remainder of the north wall with frescoes, at the price of sixty-six florins for each subject, “a task,” says Vasari, ” immense enough to discourage a whole legion of masters.” But Benozzo was not the man to shrink from any work, however arduous, and the twenty-four large frescoes which he painted during the next sixteen years, on the wall of the Campo Santo, show that, whatever the limitations of his art might be, his invention was as fertile, his fancy as fresh and bright as ever. The first and best of the series, a work to which Benozzo devoted more time and pains than usual, and which he only finished by the end of the year 1468, is called the Drunkenness of Noah. But although Ham is seen in the corner jeering at the sleeping patriarch and the famous figure of the Vergognosa di Pisa, looking back through the fingers of her hand, stands in the background, this subject is only an episode in the picture, which is really a charming representation of a Tuscan vintage. We see the peasants trampling on the fruit in the wine-press, the youths and maidens picking the purple grapes, which hang in luxuriant profusion from the pergola above, and carrying them in baskets on their heads, while Noah and his wife, as proprietors of the vineyard, taste the new-made wine, and two frightened children, who have been attacked by a barking dog, take shelter behind the folds of the patriarch’s robe. The same pastoral scenes, the same free and joyous country life, enliven the later subjects. Youths and maidens dance hand in hand at Rachel’s wedding-feast, shepherds stand at the doors of their tents counting their flocks, young mothers nurse their babes in the shade of cypress and palm, or lead their little ones, as they go to draw water from the well. Elsewhere we meet with troops of hunters bearing falcons on their wrist, and gay cavaliers with greyhounds and horses, riding down the mountainside, or see fair-faced Florentine maidens walking dry-shod over the Red Sea.

A Roman triumphal arch fills up the background of the scene, where Esau sells his birthright for a mess of pottage, and in the other subjects Renaissance palaces and antique temples, Gothic churches and classical monuments, pyramids and cupolas, appear crowded together. The Tower of Babel rears its lofty pile to heaven between the palaces and terraced gardens of a populous city and the rural stillness of a green valley, watered by running streams ; and Cosimo de’ Medici, the great builder, looks on, surrounded by his sons and grandsons, and his favourite Platonists Marsilio Ficino, Poliziano and Platina.

The Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon, another subject, in which a goodly array of Florentine scholars and courtiers are introduced, has been deplorably ruined, and the whole series has suffered terribly from damp and neglect. The execution shows a decided falling-off from Benozzo’s earlier works, which is, no doubt, due to the haste with which many of the frescoes were painted, and to his employment of inferior assistants. The drawing of the forms is defective, the figures are stiff and wooden, and lacking in freedom and animation, and there is a certain monotony of form and expression throughout the series which becomes wearisome. Benozzo, we feel, is not an original thinker, and more than once he goes back to his old master, Ghiberti, and imitates the compositions of the bas-reliefs on the Baptistery gates. Most of all, we feel his deficiency in scenes like the Destruction of Sodom, where, in spite of all his efforts, he fails to impart the energy of despair, or even the haste of a panic-stricken crowd, to the fugitives on whose heads the avenging fire is in the act of falling. He is far more successful in a subject such as the Adoration of the Magi, which he introduces among these Old Testament subjects, over the chapel door, and in which he appears himself, mounted on a brown horse. Here again, he could fall back on Ghiberti and Angelico’s models, while many of his own figures in the Medici Chapel and the church of San Gimignano are repeated.

The final payment which Benozzo received for the last fresco of the series, the Visit of the Queen of Sheba, bears the date of May 11, 1484. During the sixteen years that he worked at the Campo Santo, he had found time to execute frescoes at Volterra and Castel Fiorentino, as well as altar-pieces for the churches and convents of Pisa and the neighbourhood, the best of which is the Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, now in the Louvre. In this fine picture, which was originally painted for the Cathedral of Pisa, the Angelic Doctor is represented, throned between Plato and Aristotle, with his vanquished rival, Guillaume de St. Amour, the learned professor of the University of Paris, lying at his feet, while the Pope is seen below pronouncing the decree of the Saint’s canonization.

The painter had taken his family with him to Pisa, where he bought a house of his own in the Via S. Maria, and brought his old father, Lese di Sandro, to spend his last days under his roof. But he still owned a house in Florence, and paid occasional visits to his native city. In the income-tax return of 1480, he describes himself as sixty, and his wife as forty, and gives the ages of his seven children as ranging from eighteen to one year. His eldest son, a youth of eighteen, is described as still going to school ; the second boy, of thirteen, is studying mathematics ; while the dowry of his eldest daughter, Bartolommea, a girl of fifteen, who married a Florentine burgher, is fixed at 350 florins, and that of his youngest, the infant Maria, has not yet been determined. The last mention we find of our artist is in January 1497, when he valued Alessio Baldovinetti’s frescoes in the Trinità church, together with Perugino, Filippino Lippi and Cosimo Rosselli. Early in the next year he died, and was buried in the Campo Santo, immediately under his fresco of the history of Joseph, in a tomb which the citizens of Pisa had given him as a reward for his labours twenty years before. Above his grave is a Latin epigram, which expresses the admiration of his contemporaries for the art which had made birds and beasts and fishes, the green woods and the blue vault of heaven, youths and children, fathers and mothers, all live again on these walls, as no other master had ever done before him. Such was the high meed of praise which Benozzo won in his lifetime, and we who judge his merits with more critical eyes may yet own in him a master whose heart beat with quick response for the fair and pleasant things of life, and tender interests of hearth and home, and across whose vision there sometimes dawned gleams of a higher truth and of a more perfect beauty.


Florence.—Palazzo Riccardi : Medici Chapel.: Frescoes — Procession of the Three Kings, Adoring Angels.

Florence.—Uffizi: 1302. Predella of Pietà and Saints.

” Palazzo Alessandri : Predella—St. Zenobius, St. Benedict, Simon Magus, St. Paul.

Castelorentino: Frescoes — Madonna and Child, Saints, Burial of the Virgin.

Certaldo: Frescoes—Descent from the Cross.

San Gimignano.—S. Agostino: Choir: Frescoes Saints and Evangelists, Assumption, Life of Virgin, Life of St. Augustine.

” Chapel: Fresco—St. Sebastian.

” Duomo : Choir : Madonna and Child with Saints. Entrance wall: Fresco—St. Sebastian.

” Pinacoteca : Fresco—Crucifixion.

” Monte Oliveto: Fresco—Crucifixion.

” S. Andrea: Madonna and Child.

Montefalco.—S. Fortunato: Frescoes — Madonna, Saints and Angels, Madonna and Angels.

” S. Francesco : Choir: Frescoes-Life of St. Francis.

Perugia.—Gallery: Sala V.: 34. Madonna and Child with Saints.

Pisa.—Gallery: Sala VI. : 23. Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels ; 24. Madonna and Child with St. Anne.

” Campo Santo: Frescoes from Old Testament. Adoration of Magi, Annunciation.

Volterra.—Duomo: Fresco—Procession of Magi.

Rome.—Ara Cali: Fresco—St. Anthony and Angels.

” Lateran : 60. Madonna and Child with Saints and Angels.

Berlin.—Gallery: 6os. Madonna, Saints and Angels.

London. — National Gallery : 283. Madonna and Child With Saints and Angels.

Paris.—Louvre: 1319. Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas.

” M. Rudolf Kann: S. Zenobius.

Vienna. — Gallery: 251. Predella—Madonna and Child with Saints.