This unique room inside the giant structure of Michelozzo’s Palazzo Medici Riccardi was built for Cosimo de’Medici (later to become known as “the Elder”) in 1445, as a private chapel in his new palazzo, but in fact he never saw it finished. The walls of the Chapel were decorated by Benozzo Gozzoli, depicting the story of the Cavalcade of the Magi, and was completed between 1459 and 1461. Various members of the Medici family, their collaborators, allies and political supporters as well as other important people of the Council of Florence were all given key roles in the various scenes.
Set in the Florentine countryside, the fresco cycle shows the Magi making their way to Bethlehem to visit Jesus. It is full of symbolic content; from the hunting scenes, the wild exotic animals and the many significant objects, colours and decorations – Gozzoli was praised for combining history, art and public celebration in such a lavishly elegant style.
Here are some of the characters of the frescoed story to look out for, the procession begins on your left just as you enter – on the west wall:
In the corner you can see the elderly king with his long beard, riding a mottled mule; it has been suggested that this could either be Joseph the Patriarch of Constantinople, who died in Florence, or Sigismund of Luxembourg who was a Holy Roman Emperor. Following him on the back wall is the middle aged Magus/Wise Man with his beautifully embroidered green costume and lavish head wear – this man is said to bear strong resemblance to the Eastern Emperor John VIII Palaeologus.
Finally on the east wall we have the Magi Caspar, in his silvery white tunic. It is generally believed to be an idealised version of Lorenzo de’Medici, despite the fact that his younger self also appears in the main Medici family group.
Leading the procession immediately behind Lorenzo is Cosimo the Elder, riding a mule wearing a red beret and looking slightly towards us. On his left on the white horse is Piero the Gouty (Cosimo’s eldest son) wearing a dark brocade with lavish golden embroidery. The man on foot leading Piero has been named as either Cosimo’s son Giovanni, or his illegitimate son Carlo (born to a Circassian slave). It has also been suggested that Carlo is the figure between Cosimo and Piero, wearing a white head-band, but this has also been named as Giovanni, you can make your own assumption!
On Cosimo the Elder’s right, on the white horse we are able to see Galeazzo Maria Sforza who was an important ally of Cosimo de’ medici, gained the Duchy of Milan, and was famous tyrant and a popular condottiero, known for his cruel and lustful ways. On the brown horse next to him we see Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, otherwise known as the Wolf of Rimini, who was also a condottiero and a well known nobleman, famed for his daring military decisions.
Two rows above, look for the man wearing a red beret with the words Opus Benotti. This is a self portrait of the artist himself, which also appears again on the west wall wearing a blue and white beret. Just below him, Lorenzo with his distinguished features can be recognised, and a little to the right look for the young looking man with a downward gaze – this was a typical manor of Giulaiano, but is also suggested he is the young boy on Lorenzo’s left, looking directly at us. Just above the self portrait of Gozzoli, look for the aged man, who is believed to be Pope Pius II.
The fascinating little gem of the Magi Chapel is one of the most delightful settings of Florence’s Renaissance, which really shouldn’t be missed.