Sunday, August 28, 2022

The Life of St Augustine, by Benozzo Gozzoli (Part 1)

In 1463, the Florentine painter Benozzo Gozzoli (1421-97) left his native city, then suffering from an outbreak of plague, and settled in the little town of San Gimignano about 30 miles to the south and west. During his stay, which lasted for four years, he was commissioned to decorate the choir of the local Augustinian church with a fresco cycle of the life of St Augustine, whose feast is today. Gozzoli had been a student of Fra Angelico, but unites to the typically Florentine style of his teacher, which tends towards the use of relatively simple backgrounds, the richly decorative style known as the International Gothic. The result is justly considered one of the best narrative cycles in fresco of its era. We begin with some overview photos, and then closer images of each individual panel of the narration. There are also several portraits of Saints on the pillars of the chancel arch, with Christ and the Twelve Apostles, and Ss John the Baptist and Elijah on the arch itself. (All public domain images from the Wikimedia Commons page about this chapel.)

A frontal view of the chapel; Augustinian religious communities tended to be quite small, as we can see from the size of the choir.
The left wall; the stories run around the chapel from left to right, first through the whole bottom band, then the middle, then the top.

The middle and top bands on the back wall.
This photograph gives a more complete view of the back wall, although it does no justice to Benozzo’s brilliant colors. I include it because it shows the whole arrangement more clearly, and includes the panel under the window, of which no other image seems to be available, St Augustine’s voyage from Carthage to Rome.
The right wall.
The vault, with the Four Evangelists (clockwise from the top, Luke, Mark, John and Matthew), and Christ and the Twelve Apostles in medallions on the chancel arch.

First scene: Augustine’s parents, Patricius and St Monica, bring him to his first day of school in his native town of Tagaste in north Africa. The kindness of his teacher is emphasized by the way he pats the boy’s cheek; note that Monica is dressed as a wealthy matron in a beautiful white dress, where below, after she is widowed, she appears more like a nun. On the right side, Augustine studies his letters, while another boy is beaten; the Latin inscription at the bottom notes that he quickly made remarkable progress in his studies. (Tagaste is now a town called Souk Ahras in eastern Algeria, about 55 miles from the Mediterranean coast. It has been a see in partibus since the later 15th century, and is currently held by the nuncio to Portugal.)
Second scene: Augustine studies the liberal arts at the university of Carthage, the capital and largest city of Roman Africa. As so often happens with frescoes that are close to the external wall of a building, the right side is badly damaged by water infiltration.

Third scene: Augustine leaves his mother and goes to Rome. Monica, by now a widow, is typically shown dressed as a nun, rather than as the well-to-do matron she was in the first scene. Next to this is shown the voyage of St Augustine to Rome, of which there seems to be no photograph available.

Fifth scene: Augustine disembarks at Ostia.
Sixth scene: Augustine as a successful teacher of rhetoric in Rome.
Seventh scene: Augustine leaves Rome for Milan, to take up the post of official teacher of rhetoric for that city, an extremely prestigious job. Gozzoli’s International Gothic leanings are especially evident in the elaborate buildings that make up the city of Rome, and the variety of trees in the countryside. The inscription at the top (in two elegiac couplets) states that a member of the Augustinian community, Fr Domenico Strambi, commissioned the work; he is described as a “Doctor Parisinus - a Parisian doctor”, since he had studied at the Sorbonne, the most important theological school of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

“Eloquii sacri doctor Parisinus et ingens
   Gemignaniaci fama decusque soli,
Hoc proprio sumptu Dominicus ille sacellum
   Insignem jussit pingere Benotium. MCCCCLXV
A Parisian doctor of the Sacred Word, and the great fame and glory of the country of Gimignano, the renowned Dominic, at his own expense had the famous Benozzo paint this chapel. 1465.” The man in red standing at the right is believed to be a self-portrait of the artist. Fr Dominico’s boasting may seem a little inappropriate for a friar, but San Gemignano was a very small town long past its heyday by the mid-15th century; a native son with a doctorate from the Sorbonne would certainly have been quite the boast for it.
Eighth scene: Augustine arrives in Milan. In the foreground, a servant helps him to take off his riding clothes (a bit of Benozzo’s showing off his mastery of perspective); in the middle, within the loggia, he kneels before a man dressed as a Muslim of the 15th century (or what a Tuscan of the 15th century would imagine as such), representing a teacher of the Manichean sect with which Augustine had fallen in; at the right, he meets St Ambrose. (Italian artists long struggled with finding material that made good and lasting blue pigments for fresco; in the clothes of Augustine in the center and Ambrose at the right, we see the result of a not-wholly-successful experiment with a material that has partly corrupted over time.)

Ninth scene: various episodes with St Ambrose in Milan. At the left, Augustine has an interview with him; in the middle, Ambrose and St Monica; at the right, Augustine sits among the crowd that has gathered to hear his preaching. (This scene is above the second one shown above, and is also obviously rather badly damaged by water infiltration.)

Tenth scene: the “Tolle, lege” episode recounted in the Confessions (8, 12), the moment of St Augustine’s conversion. The man to the right is his boyhood friend St Alypius, who ended his days as bishop of their native place.

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