The Magi, the Medici and Roberto Martelli
The epiphany is a common theme in Renaissance painting. It shows the three Magi on their way to visit the Christ child in Bethlehem. This moment indicates the acknowledging of Christ as the incarnation of God, and it's a display of humility and love. In the 'dark ages' before the Renaissance, the arts were a demonstration of how faith should be executed: in pain and sorrow, and in search of redemption. Scenes with tortured martyrs, the crucified Christ and Pieta's were omnipresent in churches, chapels and monasteries, as an example of true faith.
But with the humanist movement and scientific discoveries, men became more self-conscious. And the way religion should be experienced changed too. The creation of God, the personal experience and the positive aspects of Christianity, like unconditional love, became the main themes in religion, but also in the arts. The scene of the journey of the three Magi, seen as the common man, was an excellent execution of these themes. Therefore, it was no surprise the Medici family, proud supporters of the humanist movement, felt connected to the epiphany and commissioned several art pieces depicting this theme. One of the most intriguing displays of the journey of the Magi are the frescoes in the Medici - Riccardi chapel in Florence, executed by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459. The frescoes contain beautiful details and rich colors, but they also contain a iconographic problem, a problem art historians can't seem to wrap their head around for almost a century now.
The chapel is relatively small and consists of a sanctuary (where the altarpiece is situated) and a space with wooden benches. The Medici's used this chapel for private sermons, but important guests were also received in this area. The frescoes by Gozzoli are focused on the altarpiece by Filippo Lippi. Lippi made this piece, a Maria in adoration, in 1459. Gozzoli added angels, also in deep adoration, to the sanctuary's walls. The wall behind the altar piece is sober, so when in prayer, no one gets derived by endless details and images of splendour, but keeps focus on the altar piece.
The space in front of the sanctuary is a less sacred place. It is characterized by the earthly world, with decorations of common man. Gozzoli painted on the walls closest to the sanctuary the shepherds who, if we follow the Bible, were the first people to notice the birth of Jesus Christ. Then, on the other three walls, reading from west to east, are frescoes of the three Magi in procession, about to visit the new-born. On the west wall we see the Old King, leading the procession, on the south wall the Middle King, and on the east wall closes the Young King the parade. As previously stated the Magi were seen as the moment that common man, but also pagan believers, acknowledged the existence of Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God.
But the people of the Renaissance would have noticed something odd in these scenes. There are several members of the Medici family portrayed in a procession that most likely took place around the beginning of the calendar and in the Middle Eastern world, and not, as shown in the frescoes, in Tuscany around the late 1450's. Such anachronisms were not uncommon. The commissioner of the art piece often wanted to be included in a biblical scene, to act as a witness of the religious fact and to secure themselves of a place in heaven. But it was also a sign for contemporaries, that the commissioner had enough money to make a detailed portrait of themselves.
The Medici family obviously had a lot of money, Piero de' Medici, the commissioner of these particular frescoes made sure Gozzoli included Piero, his father Cosimo, some nephews and other, less important family members, even some people of the household are included.
But there are some problems identifying the son of Piero, Lorenzo de' Medici, his broadly known successor.
Till 1960 most art historians believed that Lorenzo was portrayed as the Young King. It may sound like a blunt move, to identify oneself with a biblical actor. But there is more to it. The other Kings weren't anonymous either, the Old King was a representation of the patriarch of the Greek church of Constantinople, Bessarion and the Middle King was a representation of John VIII Paleologus, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. These identifications were based on a coin, that was created after the drawings of the artist Pisanello, who saw the emperor and the patriarch at a council in Florence 20 years before. This council was a meeting, to undo the Western schism, at a time when the black plague prevailed, Europe dealt with massive poverty and the threat of the Ottoman Empire. The Western and the Greek church had a disagreement about the recognition of the Holy Trinity, and at the Council of Florence (1439) this disagreement was solved and the Greek church accepted the phenomenon of the Holy Trinity. The Council of Florence was financed by Cosimo de' Medici, due to the fact that the Pope had not enough money to house the Byzantine guests. Cosimo got business contacts in return.
However, once the Byzantines got back home, there were few who wanted to accept this decision. And in 1453, the Byzantine Empire was taken over by the Ottoman Empire.
E.H. Gombrich was the first art historian in 1960 who found it odd that Piero de' Medici wanted to refer to such a unsuccessful event in the scenes of the Magi. He therefore dismissed the idea that the Magi were referring to this council and he found it very unlikely that Lorenzo de Medici was portrayed as the Young King. Lorenzo was only 10 years old and the portrait must have been very idealized if this was the case.
Gombrich's theory became very popular during the 20th century.
Roger J. Crum encountered some sources in 1996, that brings a whole new light on the case. He states that the portraits of the emperor and patriarch are most definitely referring to the Council of Florence in 1439. He found out that there were letters from Gozzoli to Piero, about the progress of the paintings. But there were also letters from one 'Roberto Martelli' to Piero about the progress. Roberto Martelli was a member of the family Martelli, who were befriended with the Medici family. The Martelli's were also bankers, just like the Medici's. And also Roberto Martelli attended the Council of Florence. Crum thinks that the personal account of Martelli was a important addition to the portrayal of the emperor and the patriarch.
And why? Crum states that Piero was in a difficult political situation and needed to repair his status as statesman. To refer to a Council in which the Medici's had a important facilitating role, plus the fact they had a business network reaching to the Byzantine Empire was such a powerful statement, says Crum, that it is odd to believe that the Renaissance people would have forgotten what the link was between the events and the paintings. And even in a religious way does the chapel refer to the Council, the altar piece by Lippi contains a depiction of the Holy Trinity. And Roberto Martelli functions, for us today, as the missing link between the Council and the frescoes.
The identification of the Young King stays a problem, if it is a portrait of Lorenzo, it would not make a logical connection. The identification of the other Kings as the Greek emperor and patriarch are, based on the coin of Pisanello, quite certain. The accounts of Roberto Martelli possibly added to the portrayal. Their function will be a questionable. If Piero wanted to refer to the Council of Florence, then why did he not add the figure of the Pope? Because in the end, a council is a papal affair. And could it not be that Gozzoli wanted to paint 'the Magi from the East' as recognizable exotic people? The artistic ambition of Gozzoli definitely deserves more research.
The Medici Chapel in the Palazzo Medici - Riccardi
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