Benozzo di Lese di Sandro, who is currently best known as Benozzo Gozzoli (ca. 1421-1497), was a young and talented artist when in 1449 he was summoned to Montefalco to paint frescoes there. Gozzoli was in his late twenties and had gained some experience as a goldsmith by assisting Lorenzo Ghiberti in creating the last set of doors for the Baptistery of Florence. As a painter he had assisted Fra Angelico, among other things in painting the vault of a chapel in the cathedral of Orvieto. In Montefalco he would work on his first commission as an independent artist.
Benozzo Gozzoli first painted a couple of frescoes for the church of San Fortunato just outside Montefalco. The church had recently passed into the hands of Franciscan friars. The frescoes, completed in 1450, apparently pleased the Franciscan guardian Fra Jacopo Mactioli da Montefalco so much that he decided to hire the painter for a much bigger assignment: Benozzo was commissioned to decorate the apse of the fourteenth century church of San Francesco in Montefalco with a fresco cycle about the life of Saint Franciscus of Assisi (ca. 1181/82-1226), founder of the Franciscan Order. The painter started immediately and completed his work in 1452. The result is a marvellous fresco cycle, which according to my travel guide is the most important Franciscan cycle after that in Assisi. There is little doubt that Gozzoli knew the cycle in Assisi – attributed to either Giotto or the anonymous Master of the Legend of Saint Franciscus – and must have been inspired by it. As a consequence, there are many similarities between the two cycles, but there are also examples of young Benozzo enthusiastically going his own way.
A closer look at the Franciscan cycle
For his cycle, the painter deliberately chose only to paint scenes from the life and death of the saint. That means that posthumous apparitions and miracles – which are present in Assisi – have been omitted. The cycle comprises twelve large frescoes, many of which have been subdivided into separate scenes. The frescoes must be ‘read’ from left to right and from bottom to top, but the stories have not been painted in a strictly chronological order. An example is the meeting between Franciscus and Dominicus de Guzmán, the Spanish founder of the Order of the Dominicans. This meeting is supposed to have taken place in 1215, but the event appears before the dream of Pope Innocentius III, which the Vicar of Christ is said to have had in 1209. Below each fresco is a Latin text that explains what the frescoes are all about. Originally a stained glass window was part of the cycle, but unfortunately it has not been preserved. Rather curiously, the Latin text that accompanied the window is still there (see the penultimate image in this post).
The first fresco depicts three stories. In the centre the birth of Franciscus of Assisi is announced to his mother. The messenger is a pilgrim, easily identifiable by his staff and travelling satchel. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that he is no ordinary pilgrim: according to the caption the man is XRO IN FORMA PEREGRINI, Christ in the guise of a pilgrim. In the next scene, on the left, Franciscus is born in a stable. This story is absent in the basilica in Assisi. The purpose of its inclusion here is to immediately make the point that Franciscus must be seen as an alter Christus or second Christ. The presence of a donkey and an ox only serve to reinforce that image. On the right we see the third story, the homage of a simple man, who spreads his cloak over a puddle of water so that Franciscus does not get his shoes dirty. The future saint is depicted as a handsome young man with flowing blond hair and expensive looking clothes.
On to the second fresco, where on the left Franciscus can be seen giving away these fancy clothes to a poor soldier. In the centre Christ appears to the future saint in a dream and points towards the large building on the right with its many escutcheons and banners. The building closely resembles the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and with its abundance of crosses represents the Church Militant and Triumphant. What does Christ want from the sleeping young man? Perhaps he wants him to go on a crusade, as suggested by British art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon in an episode of the Italy Unpacked series? It is a plausible interpretation, as Jerusalem was in the hands of the Muslim infidel again since 1187. But no, Christ has other plans for Franciscus, and unfortunately these plans are no longer visible because the next scene was part of the stained glass window which has been lost. However, the text has been preserved and so we know that the scene showed how Franciscus was addressed by the crucifix in the small church of San Damiano, about a kilometre outside the walls of Assisi. The crucified Christ told the future saint that his house was being destroyed that Franciscus had to rebuild it.
The third fresco depicts the consequences of this miraculous event: Franciscus decides to renounce his worldly goods and devote himself entirely to God. His father, a rich textile merchant named Pietro di Bernardone, clearly disagrees with his son’s choice. Note the angry look on the man’s face. Pietro has his son’s clothes draped over his left arm and is holding a belt in his right hand to give Franciscus a good whipping. In the far left corner we see two children that are about to throw rocks at Franciscus: a marvellous little detail. But no stones are thrown, as the bishop – anonymous, but probably Guido of Assisi – decides to protect the naked young man by wrapping his cope around him. In the background we see a city with buildings that have loggias and Gothic windows. This must be Assisi, but – quite unlike those in Arezzo depicted in the sixth fresco (see below) – the buildings do not seem to correspond with actual buildings in the town. They appear to have originated in the painter’s own fantasy.
The fourth fresco consists of two parts. Up in the sky Christ is ready to hurl javelins at the earth to punish mankind for its sins. However, the Virgin Mary prevents this from happening. She points towards earth, where in Rome a meeting takes place between the future saints and church reformers Franciscus and Dominicus. The meeting most likely never took place, but it is traditionally dated to 1215. This means the event must be set during the Fourth Lateran Council. The cordial meeting of the two men, each seconded by a member of his order, takes place in front of a church that probably represents Saint Peter’s Basilica. The most important clue is the Egyptian obelisk to the left of the church. It was part of the Circus of Caligula and Nero and was only moved to the square in front of Saint Peter’s in 1586. In other words, Benozzo Gozzoli painted the situation as it was in his own days.
The fifth fresco depicts the dream of Pope Innocentius III (1198-1216). The cathedral of San Giovanni in Laterano is about to collapse, but the building is propped up by Franciscus. Obviously the dream symbolises the rotten state of the Church as an institution and the pope is now fully aware that he must take action and that Franciscus can help him. The second part of the fresco shows how a pope approves the Franciscan Order, but this pope is not Innocentius, but his successor Honorius III (1216-1227). It is a historical fact that the former approved the provisional (and probably oral) rule of the Franciscans in 1209 and the latter the definitive rule in 1223. The Latin caption clearly labels the pope on the right as Honorius. As the cycle jumps ahead to 1223 here, this is another example of it not being entirely chronological.
The sixth fresco, which depicts the expulsion of several devils from Arezzo, is truly splendid. Franciscus is kneeling and praying, his Franciscan companion is standing and giving his blessing, and the devils are fleeing as if the Devil himself were on their heels. We know the scene is set in Arezzo (Arretium in Latin) because the name of the city is mentioned in the caption and the city walls have the text CIVITAS ARETII. Experts have concluded that the painted city looks a lot like the real Arezzo of the fifteenth century. The buildings have not sprung from Benozzo Gozzoli’s fantasy, but match quite well with contemporary landmarks of the city. Apparently we see, among other things, the Duomo, the church of Santa Maria della Pieve and the church of San Francesco. Of course the latter did not exist in Franciscus’ own time. Another interesting detail is the fact that the Duomo is depicted within the city walls. In Franciscus’ time the building was on the Colle del Pionta outside Arezzo, and that is how Giotto – or the Master of the Legend of Saint Franciscus – has painted the situation in Assisi.
The left part of the seventh fresco depicts the famous sermon to the birds, which is supposed to have taken place at Bevagna. On the right Franciscus blesses the town of Montefalco. Rich in detail, this must be one of the most beautiful frescoes in the cycle. Three towns have been painted in great detail. The town in the top right corner is Montefalco, clearly recognisable by the coat of arms featuring a mountain and a falcon (Monte-Falco). Bevagna can be seen between Franciscus’ arm and the tree, and in the background, on the left, lies Assisi against the slopes of Monte Subasio. Again, this must be Assisi as it looked in Benozzo’s time, not in the days of Franciscus: not only do we recognise the Rocca Maggiore (which the citizens of Assisi destroyed when Franciscus was young), but also the Basilica di San Francesco, which was obviously built after Franciscus had died. More than a dozen birds are listening to Franciscus’ sermon. According to the Web Gallery of Art they include a hoopoe, a swan, a thrush, a magpie, a pheasant and a dove. Four kneeling men are part of the scene regarding Montefalco. The grey-haired Franciscan friar is Fra Jacopo Mactioli da Montefalco, the man who commissioned the Franciscan cycle.
The eighth fresco tells the story of the death of the Knight of Celano. Unfortunately this fresco is quite damaged, unlike the ninth fresco, which is all about the crib (presepe) at Greccio. It was in this Umbrian town that, in December of 1223, Franciscus was said to have set up a real-life crib, using a donkey and an ox and asking a local couple that had just had a baby to play Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Benozzo Gozzoli has depicted the story in the most masterful way. The scene is set in a church and the donkey and ox are the same as in the very first fresco. The hoof of the ox appears to just touch Franciscus’ cloak, and the image of Franciscus holding the baby is truly touching. The aim of these ‘living’ Christmas cribs was to discourage Christians from travelling to Bethlehem, which was in the hands of their Muslim enemies, during the Christmas season. The crib allowed them to bring Bethlehem into their own town or village.
The tenth fresco shows how Franciscus is subjected to a trial by fire by the Sultan of Egypt. The sultan also wants the beautiful dancing woman to seduce him. But the fire does not hurt the future saint at all and Franciscus, who in his youth was known as a womaniser, is not interested in the lady dancer at all. These events are all said to have taken place during the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221). They are almost certainly fictitious, but were a popular theme in art. Benozzo Gozzoli may have known the trial of fire from his native Florence, where Giotto immortalised the ordeal in the Bardi chapel in the church of Santa Croce. The chronology of the cycle is again not entirely correct: the trial of fire predated the crib at Greccio, but was painted later.
The eleventh fresco shows how Franciscus receives the stigmata in 1224 in La Verna and the twelfth fresco is about his death in 1226, a scene which Benozzo may also have known from the Bardi chapel in Florence. Here in Montefalco, we see the future saint lying in state in front of a church. A man dressed in scarlet robes is feeling at his wounds while another man kisses his hand. Above the church Franciscus is taken up to heaven. He has truly become an alter Christus.
Although I have so far written extensively about the Franciscan cycle, I have not yet discussed it in its entirety. On the vault Benozzo Gozzoli painted Franciscus again, now seated on a throne and surrounded by various saints. Below the large frescoes about the life and death of Franciscus the artist furthermore painted some twenty small tondi or medallions with the portraits of Franciscan celebrities. More Franciscans have been depicted on the soffit of the arch. The men in the three tondi below the window are not Franciscans, but famous artists from Tuscany. They are, from left to right, the poets Petrarca (1304-1374) and Dante (ca. 1265-1321), and the painter Giotto (ca. 1266-1337), already mentioned above. Benozzo signed his work on the wall on the right: Benotius Florentinus.
Benozzo Gozzoli needed two years to complete his fresco cycle. In the Italy Unpacked episode mentioned above, Andrew Graham-Dixon presupposes that normally a work of this size only required about a year. By continuing his work on the frescoes in Montefalco, the painter may have missed commissions elsewhere. This is suggested by a note dated to the end of June 1452 that has been preserved. Benozzo wrote it to a scion of the famous Brancacci family from Florence (the text can be found here). Gozzoli was very eager to finish his work in Montefalco and must have been nearing completion when he signed the note. The document has been put on display near the apse. It is a uniquely personal piece of history, and a clear indication of how much energy certain painters were willing to spend on their projects.
With his frescoes in Montefalco, Benozzo Gozzoli established his reputation as an independent painter. In the 45 years after completing the Franciscan cycle he would go on and paint many more splendid works. His most famous paintings include the frescoes in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. There he painted no fewer than three self-portraits, the kind of vanity that he left out completely in Montefalco. But then again, in 1450-1452 young Benozzo was still fairly unknown, while in 1459, when he got the commission in Florence, he was already considered a famous painter. And famous painters were allowed to be somewhat vain.
The Web Gallery of Art offers an abundance of information about Benozzo Gozzoli’s cycle in Montefalco. Additional information came from my Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Umbria and from the Key to Umbria website.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint, p. 186-187. According to Spoto, Franciscus did not invent the Christmas crib; it already existed.