This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Favourite No.2 – Benozzo Gozzoli's Procession of the Magi

[Poster link to the left, link to book below] 

One of the separating points between illustration and fine art is that illustrations are designed to look their best in a printed reproduction, whereas fine art can often only be properly appreciated when standing before the original artwork. This is why printing quality and reproduction size are of axial importance when it comes to designing an adequate book on fine art.

In my first posing on what is my "favourite art book", I revealed I’m a sucker for good close-up images of artworks. When selected carefully and photographed well, a cropped image of a portion of a painting can make you almost feel as if you are standing in the same room as the artwork. My second choice of “favourite” book has cropped images by the crop load.

The “Chapel of the Magi”, edited and mostly written by Cristina Luchinat is a most unusual art book as it only depicts a single artwork. But as artworks go, this is no conventional single rectangular wall hanging. The Procession of the Magi is a fresco painting that wraps around the interior of the family chapel of Medici dynasty, the leading patrons of the renaissance in the Florence. The chapel frescos painted by Benozzo Gozzoli include three main panels (respectively for an East, South and West wall), with one for each of the Magi Kings and their retinue travelling by horse and foot bearing gifts for Christ. On the Northern side of the room is a recess for the alter (the “chancel”) which is hemmed by an altarpiece painting of the Adoration of the Child* and side panels with Angels Worshipping. There are also some minor paintings interspaced between these major features in the room. (* The altarpiece is by a different artist Filippo Lippi and was installed in the chapel before the fresco was begun. The original of the altarpiece is now in Berlin, while a copy sits in its place in Florence.)

This artwork was started in 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli and painted directly onto the paster inner walls of the chapel. The chapel is a room within the centre of the Medici palace. Thanks to double walls around the chapel (that provided concealed escape passages and places of refugee), the dazzling paint on strong polished plaster surfaces has been relatively well preserved from the ravages of over 550 years of damp, heat change and settlement of the outside supporting walls. This book was based on photographs taken after conservation work and cleaning which revealed the full brilliance of the murals and some details that had gone unnoticed for years. The editor of this book helped lead the conservation effort and is a leading art historian in Italy.

This thick book ambitiously reproduces a mass of detail from the huge work, mainly through photographs that are printed at a 1:1 scale (showing figures and scenery identical to their size on the original fresco). Various other books have had photos showcasing this painting’s ornate renaissance costumes, exotic beasts and picturesque landscapes with white turreted castles. But thanks to new close-up photography, this book brings exposes additional tiers of intricate details within the elaborately detailed composition. In particular you can see how blends of colour and changes of tone are all built up through fine cross-hatched brushstrokes. There are few places in this artwork with flat blocks of consistent colour. The whole work ripples and explodes with the energetic flow of intricate brushlines.

The 1:1 plates run to the edges of the pages (no margins), so while the book is not particularly tall, it has images as large as can be found in much bigger books. Some 37 of the crops run across two full pages, without loss of detail in the page join. The other 97 single page close-ups are placed opposite non-distracting matte black pages, like large glossy photos in a wedding album. The details on these glossy plates include faces of Kings and servants, horses' heads, monkeys, peacocks as well as prosaic background scenery. There are of course also panoramic shots on reduced scales that show large sections of the work and how adjoining segments of the procession flow into each other.

This is a generous and belaboured printing job, an example of the kind of quality that sets the publisher Thames and Hudson among the most munificent of their industry.

The book gives a pretty complete description of all the architectural features of the chapel interior, from the decorative ceiling down (the geometric floor patterns get their own chapter!). Much more interesting is the history of threats to the artwork, including plans to demolish the chapel to make way for a monumental staircase within the palace. Unfortunately a couple of sections of the fresco have been lost due to the subsequent additions of internal windows (ouch – there goes Magus Balthazar’s pages carrying his gift to Christ). Other wall changes were made to accommodate a new stair landing overhead. Lippi’s alterpiece was removed during the time when odious priest Girolamo Savonarola briefly ruled Florence (fortunately this work was merely taken into republican ownership and not lost in Savonarola's 1497 “bonfire of the vanities”, as were other paintings and precious objects).

The book explains some of the convoluted iconography packed into the murals (serpents, lambs, eagles etc) and their symbolic meaning. The writers highlight how the painting reflects the contemporary Florentine countryside, buildings and decorative Gothic costumes (such as jousting attire). The book pinpoints among the throng of characters some Medici personalities, other prominent citizens and possibly two self-portraits by Gozzoli. At least thirty three portraits have been identified by historians, some painted posthumously. But this book dismisses some theories that identify certain Magi with particular historical figures, or interpret three pretty horsemen to be Medici daughters.

It was already well known that in ornamenting the fresco, Gozzoli rendered certain details with expensive colours made from compounds of Gold, silver and crushed lapis lazuli gems. Modern artists will be interested to know Gozzoli used both tempera and oils (commonly used interchangeably in that era). This book is in part a record of the conservation work that was done on the painting and one chapter therefore goes into a laborious scientific analysis of the paints, media and fixatives used across the entire artwork. Chemists and conservators may get excited by that section.

One minor draw-back of this book is that it tells us a limited amount about Gozzoli’s career, other than his effort through this major project to please and befriend the Medicis. And there is soooo much more that could be said about the tumultuous politics and fortunes of the Medici dynasty. But such oversights are no matter – this book is intended as a tribute to just one of Gozzoli’s artworks. One of the contracts for his work on the chapel stipulated that Gozzoli must “attempt to outdo all his previous paintings to date.” The wonderful images in this book and the painstaking restoration that preceded this photography show, I believe, that Gozzoli not only surpassed himself but outshone all his competitors.

The Procession of the Magi is my favourite artwork, so this book elicits a biased assessment from me. In picking this book as one of my two “favourites” from my shelves, I am conscious that favouritism and merit do not always marry. But I contend that the editor and publisher have tackled an ambitious challenge and have distinguished themselves by doing great justice to this story of one of the finest art treasures on earth.

I’d be interested in hearing from fellow art book collectors: what is your favourite art book?. Is my notion of a “favourite” a fair one? What makes your favourite art book/s so attractive and cherished?

Related discussion:
Click here for my first blog on the question of "what is your favourite art book?"

Book specs:
Cloth bound hardcover, 388 pages, 11.3 x 10.3 inches, 203 illustrations (184 in colour)

To find a copy on Amazon, click here: The Chapel of the Magi: Benozzo Gozzoli's Frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi Florence

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