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Benozzo Gozzoli, The Magi Chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi of Florence

Travel guide for Tuscany
       
   

Benozzo Gozzoli | Procession of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (1459-60)


   
   

Benozzo Gozzoli (c. 1421 – 1497) was an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence. Gozzoli was trained by both Lorenzo Ghiberti and Fra Angelico and from them he evolved a narrative style of great charm. He is best known for a series of murals in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi depicting festive, vibrant processions with wonderful attention to detail and a pronounced International Gothic influence. The Chapel of the Magi, built and decorated in the fifteenth century, features a harmonious decoration of enchanting beauty. The frescoes of Benozzo Gozzoli, more famous even than the artist himself, constitute one of the most eminent illustrations of Medici 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 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.[1]

Cosimo de' Medici chose Benozzo Gozzoli to decorate the chapel, and this commission brought the artist back to Florence. 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 names of the kings are Caspar, Melchior, Balthazar, however, we do not use them because they are frequently confused in various sources.) This is a result of the allocation of the abbreviation of their names, CMB. 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. The copy is attributed to the pseudo-Pier Francesco Fiorentino. However, the altar painting does not just depict the Adoration, it also shows the Holy Trinity God the Father, the Holy Spirit and Christ are united on the painting and represent the conception of the Holy Trinity held by the Western Church: the Holy Spirit emanates from the Father and Son. This contrasts with the view held by the Orthodox Church, in which the Holy Spirit emanates from God the Father alone. The picture reflects the debate on general principles that took place between the Orthodox and Western Churches at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439.

Agnello mistico

In the apse the ranks of angels, with marvelously ornate clothes and wings, are depicted in the act of flying, singing, worshipping on their knees, and weaving festoons of flowers; the verses inscribed in their haloes tell us that the hymn they are intoning is the Gloria.

Having begun the work in the spring-summer of 1459, Benozzo completed the work rapidly over the space of a few months, with the help of at least one assistant (probably Giovanni di Mugello), under the supervision of Piero di Cosimo de' Medici or his friend and confidant Roberto Martelli. It was probably Piero de' Medici who suggested that the artist should use Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi as a model for the frescoes. The extraordinary complexity and subtlety of the technique of execution, in which true fresco alternated with dry fresco, permitted the painter to work with meticulous care, almost as if he was engraving, like the goldsmith he had been in Ghiberti's workshop, not just the precious materials of jewelry, fabrics, and harnesses, but even the trees laden with fruit, the meadows spangled with flowers, the variegated plumage of the birds, and the multicolored wings of the angels. Finally, leaves of pure gold were applied generously to shine in the dark, in the dim light of the candles.

 

 




In the vestibule in front of the chapel (now a part of the environment of the Prefecture), above the original entrance, Gozzoli painted the Mystic Lamb and the seven candlesticks of the Apocalypse.

 

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail), 1459-60, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Firenze


Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Magi (detail), 1459-60, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Firenze
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail), 1459-60, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Firenze

   
   

Procession of the Youngest King (east wall)



   
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Youngest King (detail), 1459-60, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Firenze


Over a rich landscape probably influenced by Flemish artists (perhaps through tapestries), Gozzoli portrayed the members of the Medici family riding in the foreground of the fresco on the wall at the right of the altar. A young Lorenzo il Magnifico leads the procession on a white horse, followed by his father Piero the Gouty and the family founder, Cosimo. Then come Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta and Galeazzo Maria Sforza, respectively lord of Rimini and Milan: they did not take part in the Council, but were guests of the Medici in Florence in the time the frescoes were painted. After them is a procession of illustrious Florentines, such as the humanists Marsilio Ficino and the Pulci brothers, the members of the Art Guilds and Benozzo himself. The painter can be recognized for he is looking towards the observer and for the scroll on his red hat, reading Opus Benotii.  

With a landscape background filling the rest of of the pictorial space, this fresco was designed like contemporary tapestries, a new type of courtly art destined for wealthy patrons.
The fortress, in the style of medieval castles, which appears at the highest point of the picture and is the point from which the king's pilgrimage has set out, is similar to the Medicis' country seat in Cafaggiolo. It is interpreted as Jerusalem, where the procession of the magi started. This was where King Herod had instructed the wise men to search for the child.

The sequence of pictures begins with the youngest king. On the horizon his retinue is moving down from the mountains. At the highest point is a small medieval fortress, possibly Jerusalem, where the Three Kings first went. However, the architecture of the complex is reminiscent of the Medici villa in Cafaggiolo, which Cosimo de' Medici commissioned Michelozzo to build in 1451 in the style of a medieval castle.
The young king, who is looking towards the old king on the opposite wall, was thought to be a portrait of Lorenzo de' Medici. However, it is not probable since at the time the work was created, he was just ten years old. Rather, in these features Gozzoli is repeating a portrait formula which he also uses in other places, especially the angels' heads. Furthermore it would be unusual to portray a member of the Medici family in such a prominent position. Benozzo was aware that such portraits belonged at the edge, not in the centre of the composition. The portraits of the Medicis can, therefore, be found at the front of the young king's retinue. At the head of the group, behind king, rides Piero de' Medici (1416-1469), who commissioned the frescoes.

 


Benozzo has also immortalized himself in the densely crowded retinue in close proximity to the "familiari". We know this from the inscription of his name on the red cap. In recent research the two youths in front of Benozzo have been identified as Lorenzo and Giuliano Medici. By having themselves depicted in the procession of the Three Kings, the Medicis were demonstrating both their political and their financial power. They had themselves depicted at the end of the procession, as part of the youngest king's retinue, and not as part of the retinue of the oldest king, who is nearest their goal.

 

Benozzo Gozzoli, a self-portrait which appears in his fresco of the Procession of the Magi
Benozzo Gozzoli, a self-portrait which appears in his fresco of the Procession of the Magi

 

Members of the Medici family are portrayed in the youngest king's retinue. For example, the man riding on a brown mule has been identified as Cosimo de' Medici (1389-1464). Benozzo Gozzoli placed his own self-portrait among the Medicis. His red cap bears the inscription BENOTII. He is standing behind two youths, who, it is now believed, portray Lorenzo and Giuliano de' Medici.

 
So magnificent a procession with so many figures, which in addition was in a family chapel and not in a public church, was ideally suited for incorporating portraits of famous contemporaries. However, the identification of the youngest king as Lorenzo de' Medici, which can be first proven to have appeared in a travel guide in the late 19th century, is purely a figment of the imagination. Despite the seven spheres of the Medici coat of arms in the oval golden medals on his horse's bridle, such an identification is impossible due to the age of the depicted man - at the time the work was painted, Lorenzo was not yet ten years old.

 
East Wall, alleged portrait of Lorenzo il Magnifico.

The youngest of the Magi was thought to be a likeness of Lorenzo the Magnificent. He is at the head of a cortege which includes Cosimo de' Medici, Piero the Lame and his brother Giuliano. Lorenzo's face is characterized by shining eyes, a strong, square jaw and fine mouth. However, it is not probable since at the time the work was created, he was just ten years old.

Most of the figures in the Procession of the Magi were painted from live models and given the likeness of Benozzo Gozzoli's contemporaries. The painter tried to represent as many likeness as possible, often without concern for the actual space taken up by the body. Only a few figures enjoy sufficient space. The artist's self-portrait is indicated by an inscription BENOTII on his hat.[2]

 

Procession of the Middle King (south wall)



   
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Middle King (south wall), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence


On the following wall, the bearded character on a white horse is the Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. The three girls next to him have been identified as the three daughters of Piero de' Medici, Nannina, Bianca and Maria.

The middle king, accompanied by his pages and squires, is gazing upwards while riding through a hilly Tuscan landscape. He may be gazing at the Star of Bethlehem, which was possibly located in the left part of the destroyed entrance wall. The king is considered to be a portrait of Emperor John VII Paleologus. The identification is based on the assumption that the depictions reflect contemporary events. In this case it is thought to be a reference to the Council of Ferrara-Florence, in which the Emperor took part in 1439.

The grouping of the figures, costumes and head types used in the painting of the Medici Chapel are closely derived from the panel painting from 1423 by Gentile da Fabriano which is now in the Uffizi in Florence. A close examination reveals that models exist in Gentile's famous work for both the apparently very portrait-like features and for the headdresses and crowns. For example, this is true of both the youngest and middle kings. The panel painting was commissioned by the political rivals of the Medicis; the Palla Strozzi family, and it prompted an attempt to take them on in the field of art. The result was the wall paintings in the Medici Chapel, which display a fairytale splendour: garments set with pearls, brocade materials, satin and silk, dresses with gold thread, gem-studded belts and lavishly decorated bridles.

Behind the mounted Wise Men in ceremonial dress come the young pages and attendants on foot, dressed in costumes of fitting elegance.

 
The middle king is represented with the features of Emperor John VII Paleologus. For this representation Benozzo based his work on a medallion designed by Pisanello in 1438. However, he made the face younger and replace the traditional and unwieldy Byzantine tiara with a crown resting on a peacock-plumed velvet cap.[3]  


Procession of the Old King (west wall)


Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Old King (west wall), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence


The oldest king is closest to the Christ Child on the altarpiece and is followed by the largest procession of pilgrims. His vanguard is made to appear visually longer due to the about-turn that the procession makes. He is wisely and calmly gazing towards the young king on the opposite wall. His long gray full beard shows him to be from the Middle East, for the Florentines of the 15th century, where a smoothly shaved face was the predominant fashion, considered this to be the decisive characteristic of the Orient.

The figure of the old king has been considered to be a portrait of the patriarch of Constantinople. The identification is based on the context in which the paintings were produced: the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439. The council, which had at first met in Ferrara, was moved to Florence as Ferrara was not able to provide further financial support or security. It was possible to move the council due to financing provided by the Medicis, in particular Cosimo. Since 1438 he had been the 'Gonfaloniere della Giustizia' (Standard-bearer of Justice), the head of the eight priors who together formed the constitutional body. Because of this position, Cosimo was able to prepare for the council and the reception of the dignitaries. One of the results was a decisive financial success, a year of high profits for the Medici bank. In this context, therefore, painting the chapel was also meant to serve as a reminder of the brilliant part Cosimo had played in the affair. The council had not successfully carried out its aims, in the long term the council was to be unsuccessful, however, this had not yet been evident during the 1440s and 1450s. At that time the discussion was continued in Rome and not until 1484, more than 50 years after the frescoes were completed, did the Greek Orthodox Church finally reject the agreement reached in Florence.


 


Benozzo Gozzoli, a second self-portrait which appears in his fresco Procession of the Old King (west wall)
Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Old King (west wall), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Old King (detail, west wall), 1459-60, fresco, Chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence

 

The young herald riding before the old king corresponds formally with the figure of the young king on the opposite wall. On the right side of the image a group of supporters or agents of the Medici can be seen, such as Bernardo Giugni, Francesco Sassetti, Agnolo Tani, and perhaps Dietisalvi Neroni and Luca Pitti, who were to become enemies in 1466.

   
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 picture shows the backfill wall with the cut out section of the procession of the old king.    
 
 
   
   

[1] Built in the mid fifteenth century by Michelozzo on commission from the Medici, the Palazzo Medici became the prototype of Renaissance civil architecture. The robust and austere pile of the mansion, originally designed as a sort of cube, was for at least a century the most direct and efficacious symbol of the political and cultural primacy of the Medici in Florence.
The Palazzo Medici, also called the Palazzo Medici Riccardi for the later family that acquired and expanded it, is a Renaissance palace located in Florence, Italy.
The palace was designed by Michelozzo di Bartolomeo for Cosimo de' Medici, of the Medici family, and was built between 1445 and 1460. It was well known for its stone masonry that includes rustication and ashlar. The tripartite elevation was used here as a revelation of the Renaissance spirit of rationality, order, and classicism of human scale. This tripartite division is emphasized horizontal stringcourses that divide the building into stories of decreasing height. This makes the building seem lighter as the eye moves up to the extremely heavy cornice that caps and clearly defines the building's outline.
Michelozzo di Bartolomeo was influenced in his building of this palace by both Roman principles and Brunelleschian principles. During the Renaissance revival of classical culture, Roman elements were often replicated in architecture, both built and imagined in paintings. In the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, the rusticated masonry and the cornice had precedents in Roman art.
Similarly, the great Renaissance architect Brunelleschi used Roman techniques and influenced Michelozzo. The open colonnaded court that is the center of the Palazzo plan has roots in the cloisters that developed from Roman peristyles. The once open corner loggia and shop fronts were walled in during the 16th century. In their place, many believe Michelangelo placed ground-floor "kneeling windows" (finestre inginocchiati) supported on innovative scrolling consoles and framed in pedimented aedicules that recall the the similarly treated main doorway.

The Palazzo Medici Riccardi was one of the numerous palazzi built during the period of Florentine prosperity. The building reflects the accumulated wealth of the Medici family, yet it is somewhat reserved. The fifteen-year-old Galeazzo Maria Sforza was entertained in Florence in 17 April 1459, and left a letter describing, perhaps in the accomplished terms of a secretary, the all-but-complete palazzo, where his whole entourage was nobly accommodated:
...a house that is— as much in the handsomeness of the ceilings, the height of the walls, smooth finish of the entrances and windows, number of chambers and salons, elegances of the studies, worth of the books, neatness and gracefulness of the gardens, as it is in the tapestry decorations, cassoni of inestimable workmanship and value, noble sculptures, designs of infinite kinds, as well of priceless silver— the best I may ever have seen..."
Niccolò de' Carissimi, one of Galeazzo Maria's counsellors, furnished further details of the rooms and garden:
"decorated on every side with gold and fine marbles, with carvings and sculptures in relief, with pictures and inlays done in perspective by the most accomplished and perfect of masters even in the very benches and floors of the house; tapestries and household ornaments of gold and silk;silverware and bookcases that are endless... then a garden donein the finest of polished marbles, with diverse plants, which seems a thing not natural but painted."
Cosimo received the young Sforza in the chapel "not less ornate and handsome than the rest of the house." The palazzo still includes, as its only quattrocento interior that is largely intact, the notable Magi Chapel, frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli, who completed it in 1461 with a wealth of anecdotal detail of character types so convincing they were traditionally held to be portraits of members of the Medici family, along with the emperors John VIII Palaiologos and the Emperor Sigismund of Luxemburg, parading through Tuscany in the guise of the Three Wise Men.
The Medici were thrown out of Florence because the Florentines prided themselves on their republic and saw the Medici family as a threat to that power. When the Medici family returned to Florence, they kept a low profile and executed their power behind the scenes. This "low profile" is reflected in the plain exterior of this building, and is said to be the reason why Cosimo de' Medici rejected Brunelleschi's earlier proposal.
[2] From the start, the new "Renaissance" style in Italian painting had artists and patrons who favored scenes crowded with descriptive detail. Since this was already an important part of late medieval naturalism as seen in Lorenzetti and in Gentile da Fabriano's Adoration of the Magi , one might speak of an unbroken taste for descriptive detail from the late Gothic right through the fifteenth century. Early fifteenth-century practitioners included Fra Filippo Lippi, Ucchello, and, at times, Fra Angelico.
Between 1450 and 1500, the level of descriptive detail increased significantly in Italian art. Yet each artist worked to "control" description and organize it expressively within a personal style. The Florentine painter, Benozzo Gozzoli (d. 1497) took well-described, three-dimensional spaces to a new level of visual familiarity while maintaining a patrician sense of ornate decoration and pageantry with roots in late Gothic courtly aesthetics. The best example is his religious frescoes in the private chapel of the Medici Palace from 1459-1470. Challenged by Flemish oil painting, he developed new degrees of description and particularity of light while subordinating "observation" to a severe yet expressive geometrical-perspectival order, a Masacciesque monumentality of form, and a poetic handling of light and color.
The impact of fifteenth-century Flemish art on Italian painting increased significantly in 1476 with the installation of Hugo van der Goes's Nativity. This Dutch painting was commissioned by the head of the Medici bank in Bruges, Tomasso Portinari, and installed in his private chapel in Florence. With its infinite detail, humble types, and atmospheric spaces, Hugo's Portinari Altarpiece helped accelerate the trend toward description in later fifteenth-century Italian painting. As noted above, Ghirlandaio was deeply impressed by this Dutch art. The more detailed Italian painting became, the more artistic control was needed to organize this wealth of detail and make it speak.
Robert Baldwin, GHIRLANDAIO, SASSETTI CHAPEL, SANTA TRINITA, Florence, 1482-86, pp. 8-9.
[3] John VIII Palaiologos or Palaeologus was Byzantine Emperor from 1425 to 1448. John VII Palaiologos was the eldest son of Manuel II Palaiologos and Helena Dragas, the daughter of the Serbian prince Constantine Dragas. He was associated as co-emperor with his father before 1416 and became sole emperor in 1425.
In June 1422, John VIII Palaiologos supervised the defense of Constantinople during a siege by Murad II, but had to accept the loss of Thessalonica which his brother Andronikos had given to Venice in 1423. To secure protection against the Ottomans, he visited Pope Eugene IV and consented to the union of the Greek and Roman churches. The Union was ratified at the Council of Florence in 1439 which John attended with 700 followers including Patriarch Joseph II of Constantinople and George Gemistos Plethon, a Neoplatonist philosopher influential among the academics of Italy. The Union failed due to opposition in Constantinople, but through his prudent conduct towards the Ottoman Empire he succeeded in holding possession of the city.

John VIII Palaiologos named his brother Constantine XI, who had served as regent in Constantinople in 1437–1439, as his successor. Despite the machinations of his younger brother Demetrios Palaiologos his mother Helena was able to secure Constantine XI's succession in 1448.
He was married three times. The first marriage to Anna of Moscow, daughter of Grand Prince Basil I of Moscow (1389–1425) and Sophia of Lithuania, in 1414. She died in August 1417 of plague.
The second marriage, arranged by his father Manuel II and Pope Martin V, was to Sophia of Montferrat in 1421. She was a daughter of Theodore II, Marquess of Montferrat and his second wife Joanna of Bar. Joanna was a daughter of Robert I, Duke of Bar and Marie Valois. Her maternal grandparents were John II of France and Bonne of Bohemia.
His third marriage, arranged by the future cardinal, Bessarion was to Maria of Trebizond in 1427. She was a daughter of Alexios IV of Trebizond and Theodora Kantakouzene. She died in the winter of 1439, also from plague. None of the marriages produced any children.

Representation in art

He was famously depicted by several painters on the occasion of his visit to Italy. Perhaps the most famous of his portraits is the one by Benozzo Gozzoli, on the southern wall of the Magi Chapel, at the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, in Florence. According to some interpretations, John VIII would be also portrayed in Piero della Francesca's Flagellation. A particularly fine portrait of John appears in a manuscript at the Monastery of St. Catherine at Sinai.



Art in Tuscany | The Adoration of the Magi

Gardens in Tuscany | Garden of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Firenze

Medici Riccardi Palace | www.palazzo-medici.it

'Journey of the Magi' in Medici Riccardi Palace | www.museumsinflorence.com

Castelfiorentino | www.museobenozzogozzoli.it

 

 

Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Middle King (south wall, detail with Nannina de' Medici with her sisters Maria and Bianca)


Benozzo Gozzoli, Procession of the Old King (moved section, backfill wall)

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 picture shows the backfill wall with the cut out section of the procession of the old king.


This page is published under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia articles Magi Chapel and Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


 


Holiday accomodation in Tuscany | Podere Santa Pia | Artist and writer's residency


     

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Podere Santa Pia
 
Podere Santa Pia, garden view, April
 
View from terrace with a stunning view over the Maremma and Montecristo
   
   

Abbadia d’Ombrone and Monastero d’Ombrone near Castelnuovo Berardenga.
 
Arcidosso
  Montalcino
         
Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence
Piazza della Santissima Annunziata
in Florence

Florence, Duomo
   
San Gimignano
Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore
San Marco, Firenze