Who else could it be?

In the chapel of the Palazzo de’ Medici in Florence, the walls are covered with the Procession of the Magi. The three kings are followed by a host of the Medici family, their friends and associates. At the head of this procession are four riders said to be Piero de’ Medici (riding white horse on the right), Cosimo, his father, Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Sigismondo Malatesta.

A Gift for the Magus features not only the decoration of this chapel, done by Benozzo Gozzoli, but also the events it commemorates, which are two. One is the Grand Council of Florence, 1439, where the Greek and Latin churches sought to reunite; the other was the more recent visit of Sforza and Malatesta, who came to Florence in 1459 to meet Cosimo and the other important visitor, Pope Pius II.

I have never been happy with the attribution of that second figure as Cosimo. It just doesn’t look like him. I could live with that doubt very well until I had to write about it. It’s very hard to make a stab at a new reading in a novel: it’s setting yourself up to be put down. At the same time I didn’t feel able to say, ‘it’s Cosimo.’ It clearly isn’t.

The contemporary portraits of him show us a consistent picture of a thin, strong face full of character. Gozzoli wasn’t a great painter, but that he could do a likeness well enough is shown in the other three riders – let alone all those coming on behind. Why get Cosimo wrong when he was probably in the chapel every day checking on progress?

It seemed to me much more plausible that it should be Pope Pius II. The three important visitors of 1459 then become a kind of ‘anti-Magi’ – three unwise men. But that sounds like something a novelist would come up with! I searched the sources I had to hand and the best I could find was Cristina Acidini Luchinat, once curator of the chapel, being non-commital about the identification. So, she had her doubts, too.

In the final week of the novel I went into a neurotic frenzy, checking all my notes that nothing had been left out, finding references to papers I hadn’t consulted, rushing off to the library to consult them, full of fear that they would necessitate changes. They didn’t. All they did, mostly, was to affirm: I was on track – everything was fine. I noticed in Rab Hatfield’s paper on the chapel that he shared – probably caused – Luchinat’s doubt in the identification of Cosimo but, as he said, ‘who else could it be?’

The Pope? I wondered.

At home I turned to checking primary sources. After all, it had been years since I had read Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, or Vespasiano’s Memoirs. I turned to the latter as my last burst of neurotic activity. It was a day off deadline. If I found anything now it would just be too bad. This book has been with me since the start when I found a copy in the Charing Cross Road in the 70s. It cost £8.50 I noticed – a lot of money back then. Vespasiano was a bookseller who I used as a character in A Tabernacle for the Sun, a grumpy old man always longing for the good old days, when men such as Cosimo de’ Medici commissioned whole libraries of books to be copied. He kept himself cheerful by writing these short biographies of all the illustrious men he had known, which included a few of the characters in A Gift for the Magus.

So I read up on Antonino who is in the novel as a good guy and proto-saint, although some doubt is cast on this. I read through to the end and then went back. Something  had caught my attention and was sticking  like a burr. I went back to the passage about how Antonino was unostentatious; how even when he became archbishop (reluctantly, of course) he only wore fine clothes for important events and he always rode a mule lent to him by Santa Maria Nuova, with its trappings of gold bosses.

Gold bosses. I’d seen those gold bosses on a mule, surely. In my book on the chapel  I found them on the mule being ridden by the Mystery Man. Is it Antonino, then, the Archbishop of Florence?

Who else could it be?

I went back to my novel, changed a line and sent it off to the typesetter.

The picture of Antonino by Giovanni della Robbia looks much more lifelike than Gozzoli's; it also looks as saintly as you would expect Antonino to look (if you believe the myth); but it was made a generation later. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY)

It is more a portrait of the myth than the man. Is there any resemblance? What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Who else could it be?

  1. Given your comparison sculpted portraits, I think your mystery man looks a heck of a lot more like Antonino: he has a rounder face with a slightly receeding chin … and Cosimo has a long face with a beaky nose and a strong chin.

  2. What do you think of Unger’s theory that Lorenzo is actually the young boy to the upper left of the man on the white horse (being led by the slave)? It seems fairly convincing to me.

    • Yes, this is one of the few identifications that no one disputes – that dished nose is so Lorenzo! And the boy to his right is Giuliano. The one on the white horse is Galeazzo Maria Sforza.

      • It’s incredibly frustrating that the common interpretation, though, is that Caspar is meant to be Lorenzo – it’s labeled this way in several books and even a CD I have. Even an art instructor back in my bachelor’s program thought so! As soon as he said it, without even thinking, I automatically said, “That is NOT Lorenzo.” I was quite embarrassed, but he ended up being very gracious about it and actually inquiring further during class break.

        To be fair, he was a photography instructor, not Renaissance art history.

        PS – I am just about to finish Tabernacle for the Sun for the first time, and its sequel has just arrived in the mail. You have gained a huge fan – this book has become very precious to my heart.

  3. Karen, thank you so much for your kind comments. My latest, A Gift for the Magus, went to press yesterday. Today I was checking the proofs and reading Hilary Mantel’s latest, which is not good timing. Her first pages make mine seem so inadequate! But as clever as she is, I suspect no one has said those lovely words to her, so you have brought me back from a fit of the glums. After all, it’s so much better to communicate to hearts than it is to impress (and intimidate) people.

    The Caspar-Lorenzo thing is so widespread that it’s unlikely ever to be eradicated. In my latest, which is a prequel to the trilogy, those walls are just about to be painted. Cosimo is visited by Galeazzo Maria Sforza and Sigismondo Malatesta at a time when the pope is in town. Lorenzo is ten, and he leads an armeggiera, – a kind of tourney parade – through the streets by torchlight at night. This was one of many celebrations in that week and is recorded. So… it could be that he was dressed like the figure of Caspar, or, rather, Gozzoli dressed Caspar in Lorenzo’s costume. Almost without doubt we can suppose that Gozzoli watched the parade. The golden hair and doll-like features are just pattern-book – a generalisation rather than a particular portrait. If this is correct, then the ‘identification’ of Caspar with Lorenzo would have started at the very beginning, in a metaphorical kind of way.

    • You’re very welcome! I’ve finished Tabernacle and am on to Pallas and the Centaur. Reading the dialogues between Angelo and Lorenzo and Tommaso always electrifies me, though reading the three of them talk with each other about books does nothing but further enable my long history of bibliophilia. I’m happy to have given you comfort. I can only dream of the day where something of mine might go to press.

      Interesting theory! I hadn’t thought of that. Is there anything by Gozzoli himself on his own work? I would really love to look further into this and see if I can find any clues. I’ll be traveling through Florence at the end of this summer, and the Gozzoli chapel is on the top of my list.

      When I read your message saying that your latest work has just hit presses, and read its title, I immediately jumped and hoped it was something to do with the Medici. My hopes are fulfilled! I look forward to seeing your perception of Lorenzo as a child – of the Medici-related historical fiction I’ve managed to come across, you write him the best.

  4. I am uncertain it is Cosimo on the mule. However, I don’t believe Pius II would be wearing such a hat. It is not consistent with the papacy at that time. Pius II is more likly to the left of the artist in the third row of the retinue.

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