Century Magazine/Volume 39/Issue 1/Old Italian Masters. Benozzo Gozzoli

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enozzo di Lese, surnamed Gozzoli after his death, was a favorite pupil of Fra Angelico. Vasari’s somewhat amusing commentary on him is that he was "of great invention, very fertile in animals, in perspective, in landscapes, and in ornament. He produced so much during his life that it is plain he cared for no other occupation; and although compared to others who surpassed him in drawing he was not very excellent, yet the amount of work he did placed him ahead of all his contemporaries, because, in the multitude of his works, some turned out well."

At the age of twenty-four he became apprenticed to Ghiberti, to work for three years on the bronze gates of S. Giovanni in Florence, and either during these years, or before 1444, he painted an altar-piece for the Company of S. Marco, and another panel for the church of S. Frediano, both of which have perished. At about this time he visited Rome, where he decorated the chapel of the Cesarini with the history of St. Antonio of Padua, which has also disappeared.

From Rome, Benozzo went to Orvieto with Fra Angelico, his master, to paint the chapel of the Madonna of S. Brizio in the Duomo. In July of 1449 he was again in Orvieto, but alone. Of his work there nothing remains. In 1450 and 1452 he was painting at Montefalco in Umbria, in 1456 in Perugia, and in 1459 he was again at Florence, decorating the chapel of the Riccardi palace with a representation of a journey of the Magi, which occupied three walls of the chapel, the fourth being taken by an Adoration, which is now removed to make place for a window. We know the date of this painting from three letters addressed to Piero Cosimo de' Medici, at his villa of Careggi, in which the artist gives an account of the progress of the fresco.

This work is one of the most remarkable of its epoch, not only for its own qualities, but for the fortunate circumstances which have protected it. It occupies the two sides and entrance end of a small chapel which seems to have been partitioned off from a hall of the palace. Most probably there was originally no window and the chapel had its lighting from lamps, the window being modern; and the ceiling must have been put on after the fresco was done, as there would otherwise have been no light to do it in. Even with the present window it is difficult to see all of it. It represents the procession of the Magi to the stable of Bethlehem, the Adoration being given in the altar-piece, which occupied the place of the present window and is removed. The procession has moved from the right of the altar and ends with the crowd of all conditions of people which bring up the rear. The retinue includes probably all the Florentine personages of the day, in contemporary costume, on foot and on horseback; knights in rich, embroidered coats, valets and squires with hounds and hawks, a hunting leopard figuring among the accessories, camels, etc.,—an immense and gorgeous array, winding through a rich and well-invented landscape, up mountain paths, and around in a continual line to the other side of the altar, where they were supposed to offer their gifts. This order was broken by some barbarian of the Riccardi dynasty, who cut through the fresco to put in a passage-way and a door, destroying a portion of the procession and moving another, though the original door remains as Benozzo arranged for it.

The progress shown in this picture in the naturalistic movement, in the direction pointed out by Fra Filippo, is most remarkable. The landscape is still purely subjective and devoid of the qualities of outdoor work; but there appears a most noteworthy distinction of specific character in the trees, the evergreen and deciduous pines and cypresses especially being recalled with landscape feeling, and the foreground plants being done in the sentiment of a lover of nature. Though recorded as the pupil of Fra Angelico,—and so far as the processes of his art may be concerned he may have been so, as Fra Angelico was an admirable master of the fresco and tempera processes,—in the spirit of his work, his intellectual and artistic tendencies, Benozzo is the son and heir of Fra Filippo, and his successor in the line which Masaccio had pointed out and the Frate had walked in. There is not only the recognition of the individual type in all his personages, but there is the distinct and undeniable indication of the use of the model through drawings made for all the figures in his compositions. There is no advance towards realism, but a complete abandonment of the visionary and ecstatic type so marked in Fra Angelico. We come down to plain flesh and blood, and every personage in this long procession has posed for the drawing made for it. It is the most extraordinary agglomeration of pose-plastique in all the range of the Renaissance; and in the densest part of the crowd, and no matter what his action, every actor turns his face more or less so as to be seen and recognized by those who know him. There is no mistaking that for every one of these heads and all the principal figures careful drawings must have been made from life. Every figure says, "I am being drawn by Benozzo for his great picture of the Magi." It is such a collection of unquestionable portraits as I do not know elsewhere in the world.

The groups of worshiping angels at the right and left of the altar are exquisite testimonials of the influence of Fra Angelico, and their loveliness is rendered by Mr. Cole’s selection, as the manner of portraiture is by the head from the crowd at the end of the proces sion which Benozzo marked as his own. One sees that it is caught from life, but in the way that a sculptor would have studied it, for pure form and character.

In color the work has neither the gaiety of Fra Angelico nor the elementary harmony of Fra Filippo; nor has it, from the very nature of the subject,—being a long procession trailing around the room,— the majesty of composition that he had learned from Masaccio. It is a work in all its qualities sui generis. The exclusion of light and weather from it has preserved this great work so completely that we probably see it much as it was when finished.

Gozzoli’s frescos in the Campo Santo of Pisa are more deliberately planned and are works of a higher order; but unfortunately, owing to their exposed position and the want of care in times past, they are comparative wrecks, and keep the record, not of their achievement, but of their intention. Here we recognize the influence of Masaccio in the studied and masterly composition, in which the "Noah," the first painted of the series of Bible histories which were his themes,—and which it is said he painted to show his hand,—is one of the most admirable examples in the range of Italian art, a classic for all the subsequent generations of painters.

In all we have of Benozzo’s work there is a cheerful sense of the influences of nature, and a love for children and animals such as we have not before him; and in his painting of children he seems especially happy. In his Campo Santo series he introduces them on every convenient occasion. The individuality of his heads, and even the character of his figures, have that air of unmistakable likeness which belongs to earnest portraiture, and to a degree not indicated in any previous Italian work or in any contemporary prior to Giovanni Bellini, who was eight years the junior of Benozzo.

For the next eight years the artist seems to have been in Florence and its vicinity painting innumerable panels and frescos. For the Company of S. Zenobius he executed a panel; in the church of S. Agostino in San Gimignano a "St. Sebastian delivering the Land from Pestilence," seventeen frescos from the life of St. Agostino, and in the same town a fresco of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. In 1464 he was enrolled among the doctors and apothecaries of Florence. In 1466 he restored some frescos of Lippo Memmi in the town-hall of San Gimignano and painted various panels for churches in and near that town.

In 1468 Benozzo went to Pisa for the great series of frescos there and worked for sixteen years, but probably not continuously; and there is a popular tradition that he took only two years over the whole. There were twenty-four in number, and most of them are well enough preserved to follow the intention of the painter; two or three are defaced almost entirely. Vasari speaks most highly of them, though they were not of the taste of his time, and he mentions an ass in the sacrifice of Abraham which was very cleverly foreshortened. In recognition of his skill the Pisans placed an inscription of flattering purport in the midst of his work and gave him a place in the Campo Santo for his grave. As in the procession of the Magi, he introduced in these frescos many portraits, of which Vasari mentions those of Marsilio Ficino, Argiropoulo the Greek scholar, and the artist’s own figure on horseback. In Pisa, Benozzo also painted many other frescos and panels, which have disappeared for the most part. One panel, which Vasari considered the best the painter had executed, and which was in the Duomo, a St. Thomas Aquinas disputing with many learned men over his works, is now in the Louvre.

Benozzo was sixty-one when he finished his great task in the Campo Santo. Of the last seventeen years of his life we know very little. In 1484 he was at work on a tabernacle at a place not far from Castel Fiorentino, and in 1497 he is recorded as being called on with other artists to give judgment on the works of Baldovinetti in the Gianfigliazzi Chapel, and in the next year he died, "to the great sorrow of the whole city," as Vasari says, and as one can well imagine; and we are told that during his residence there he had built himself a house which he bequeathed to one of his daughters, and that he had lived a godly and industrious life and was long remembered in the city. The following epitaph was engraved on his tomb:

     Hic tumulus est Benotii Florentini quif proxime has pinxit historias
     Hunc sibi Pisanorum donavit humanitas MCCCCXCVIII.

Group of angels, by Benozzo Gozzoli. (From the fresco in the chapel of the Riccardi Palace, Florence.)
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Portrait of Benozzo Gozzoli, by himself. (From the fresco in the chapel of the Riccardi Palace, Florence.)