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Benozzo Gozzoli. In the heart and memory of the inhabitants of Castelfiorentino

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The charm of the little town of Castelfiorentino lies principally in its location, built on a hill on the ancient via Francigena route from Rome to Canterbury, by the Elsa river. Its strategic position and ties with the nearby dioceses of Florence and Volterra made this a prosperous area in continuous economic growth.

When Benozzo Gozzoli arrived in Castelfiorentino, he was already an established painter running a busy workshop. He was born in Florence in about 1420, during a key period of Italian art history. Between 1430 and 1440, in fact, the most famous and innovative painters of the period were working in Florence: Filippo Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Domenico Veneziano, Piero della Francesca and, most importantly, Beato Angelico, with whom Benozzo worked, during his formative years, on the decoration of the San Marco convent in Florence, the vaults of the San Brizio in Duomo chapel in Orvieto and the decoration of the Pope Nicholas V chapel in the Vatican Palace.

The first large project that Benozzo undertook on his own were the frescoes of the Stories of Saint Francis, which he carried out in 1452 in Montefalco, Umbria, followed by the frescoes in the private chapel of the Medici Palace in Florence in 1459.
After the recognition he received for this work, Benozzo moved to the town of San Gimignano, near Siena, where he completed a highly-acclaimed cycle of frescoes of the Stories of Saint Augustine for the church.

Although it was almost completely destroyed in the bombings of 1944, this artist's largest work remains the great mural cycle he completed between 1468 and 1484 for the Camposanto cemetery in Pisa, where he continued to work until 1494. By this time, Benozzo had already achieved considerable fame in smaller towns as well, particularly in the Val d'Elsa area of Tuscany. One of his commissions there was the decoration of the great tabernacle situated along the road between the towns of Castelfiorentino and Castelnuovo, assigned to him by Messer Grazia, Prior of Castelnuovo, in 1484.

For this work, Benozzo used the fresco technique, an extremely long-lasting method that involves painting on a wall, given this name because the paint is applied directly to plaster that was still wet, or "fresh", as the Italian term fresco suggests.

Walls used as a base were normally made from a single material, generally stone or brick, to prevent damage to the paintings from any movement in the wall due to settlement.
This first layer of plaster, known as the arriccio, was quite rough, made from a mixture of water, slaked lime and large-grained river sand and applied to a thickness of one centimetre.
After leaving the arriccio to dry, the painter would begin to draw out his composition using a red earth pigment called sinopia, the name consequently given to this type of drawing.
Once the sinopia outline had been applied, the real painting would begin. Having decided which part of the drawing to paint, the artist would cover the area with another layer of plaster, which had to be perfectly smooth, called the intonachino.
The fresco would be painted onto this intonachino, a transparent veil of plaster, made from one part slaked lime and two parts finely-ground sand. This plaster had to remain wet throughout the entire painting process, and was therefore only applied to an area of the arriccio that the artist could paint in one day.
Using a brush, the painter would copy the lines of sinopia, which could be seen from beneath, onto the intonachino freehand. In this way, the ground pigments mixed with water were incorporated into the plaster while it dried.
The artist therefore only had a few hours in which to complete the area to which he had applied the wet plaster, and each of these areas came to be known as a giornata, or "day's work".

The Tabernacle commissioned by Messer Grazia was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. However, owing to the constant devotion of the local parishioners, who brought their children suffering from whooping cough there, it came to be known as the Madonna of the Cough, in italian Madonna della Tosse.
The dominant theme is the Dormition of the Virgin. Frescoed on the central wall is an altarpiece. Five angels pull back the cloth to reveal the enthroned Virgin and Child surrounded by Saints Peter, Catherine of Alexandria, Margaret and Paul. In an assymetrical position in front of the main scene, there is a small icon with an effigy of the Holy Face, which, thanks to the illusionistic effect, appears casually placed on the fresco of the altar-step.

The scene of the Funeral of the Virgin occupies the right-hand wall. Participating in this holy event is Messer Grazia, the work's commissioner, kneeling in the foreground. He is depicted with great realism and the same size as the holy figures, in contradiction of the medieval convention in which the effigies of real people always assumed lesser importance in than holy figures.

The fresco on the left-hand wall depicts the Assumption of the Virgin to heaven according to Jacopo da Varagine's interpretation in his Legenda Aurea, a collection of the legendary lives of the saints written in Latin at the end of the 13th century. It shows the Virgin Mary throwing the belt at Saint Thomas, the apostle who doubted the Resurrection of Christ.
The fresco on the vault, in a clypeus, depicts the God the Father Jesus Blessing. On the sails, four apostles appear with their usual iconographic attributes: Mark with the lion, Luke with the ox, Matthew with the angel and John with the eagle.

In 1853, the tabernacle was encased in a neo-gothic chapel, transforming it into an oratory, in order to preserve it.
At that time, a commemorative plaque was affixed alongside a fragment of a much older inscription indicating the name of Benozzo and the date the fresco was finished, 24th December 1484. Despite this, art critics maintain that Benozzo's son, Francesco, also had a hand in the work.
The contribution of Benozzo's sons, Alesso and Francesco, is was explicitly cited, on the other hand, in the contract drawn up for a lost inscription on the Tabernacle of the Visitation, another work commissioned by Messer Grazia for the Clarisses Convent in Castelfiorentino. These frescoes are dated to 1491, 1490 in Florentine style, as attested by a record from 1632 kept in the Bishops Curia in Volterra. This document shows a now lost inscription that once ran along the perimeter of the tabernacle, reading: "This tabernacle was commissioned by the venerable priest Messer Grazia Francesco, Prior of Castelnuovo in Val d'Elsa. The painter was Messer Benozzo of Florence and his sons Francesco and Alfonso. In 1490 this day 12th of February".

The paintings are spread over two registers and overlaid by painted architectural elements, and depict episodes from the Life of the Virgin.
It is to be read starting from the inner wall, with a lunette depicting Joachim Expelled from the Temple. Joachim is pictured offering incense to the God but is turned away from the temple by the priest, Ruben, who blames him for his infertility which, according to Jewish tradition, is a sign of God's displeasure.
This is followed, on the right-hand side, by a scene of the Dream of Joachim, in which Joachim, full of shame, leaves the temple and goes to a far away land, leaving his wife, Anne, for five months without any word.
During his exile, an Angel calls on him to return home and announces that, by the grace of God, Anne will conceive a daughter. Joachim falls into a deep sleep and the Angel appears to him once again. Astonished by this second apparition, Joachim decides to return home. In the meantime, Anne, also visited by the Angel, goes out to meet her husband.
The upper register of the back wall shows Anne in front of the Golden Gate embracing Joachim who has returned with the shepherds.

This scene, which depicts a fortified city almost certainly representing heavenly Jerusalem, could be hypothesised as a view of Castelfiorentino from is now the street of Via Gozzoli where the Tabernacle originally stood.
The city walls, with their ancient gates, near the Elsa river do seem to be recognizable, as is the church of Saint Lawrence, distinguishable by its brick construction.
The dome of the church shown here, which could invalidate this hypothesis since the dome of the church of Saint Lawrence was not built until two centuries later, was likely painted to identify the Holy Sepulchre in this double image of Jerusalem/Castelfiorentino.
Other architectonic differences in the rear views just one century later, on the other hand, may be explained by the striking changes that the city underwent in the 16th century, a period in which, for example, most of the tower houses were truncated.

The frescoes on the right-hand side depict the scene of the Nativity of the Virgin, in which Anne and Joachim have been able to conceive Mary.
The reading recommences anti-clockwise along the lower register where frequent flooding of the Elsa river, which once ran not far from the Tabernacle, has unfortunately damaged much of the painting. Starting from the inner wall, on the left-hand intrados, the Presentation of Mary at the Temple was depicted. Only some decorative architectural elements that decorated the upper part of this episode remain visible.
The story of the Virgin's Wedding, which once was depicted on the right-hand side of the intrados, has also sadly disappeared.
The frescoes on the extrados depict the Annunciation of the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin, in surroundings featuring 15th century architecture, and those on the intrados of the upper register show the Evangelists and the Doctors of the Church.
On the right-hand wall, there is an elegant architectural perspective in which the lost scene of the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, as described by 19th century sources, was set.
The cycle continues with the story of the Nativity of Christ, of which only a few fragments remain showing the manger and the angels, and, on the left, almost completely lost, the Adoration of the Three Wise Men.
The iconographic structure concludes with a fresco of an altarpiece, painted in the style of the one in the other Tabernacle, which depicted an enthroned Madonna and Child among Saints Paul, Lawrence, Steven, and Peter standing, and Saints Francis and Saint Claire, kneeling, as attested by several ancient sources.

In 1872, the Tabernacle of the Visitation, of which "time and the insults of man have destroyed best part", as the marble plaque affixed at that time declares, was protected by the construction of a new chapel which completely encased it.
However, this solution did not resolve the problems caused by the frequent flooding. Indeed, the considerable dampness resulted in salt deposits in the plaster which can cause paintings to become "dusty", i.e. lose their pigment, and bubbles to form under the plaster and later burst.
For this reason, removal the frescoes from walls of the Tabernacle between 1965 and 1970 was deemed necessary.

The procedure for detaching the frescoes involves applying a protective covering, made from strips of cotton and animal glue, to the surface of the painting, over which a much heavier cloth, larger than the painted area, is applied. A deep incision is then made in the wall around the edges of the fresco.
A rubber mallet is used to repeatedly strike the fresco to make it detach it from the wall and then, using a sort of awl, the intonachino is pulled off from the bottom up.
The back of the fresco is then thinned to remove excess lime and then reconstructed with a permanent backing made from glued cloth and mortar.
Once the fresco has been prepared in this way, it is attached to a rigid support made from synthetic material.
Finally, the cloth covering used to protect the front of the fresco during detachment is removed using a hot water spray and decoloured ethyl alcohol.
During the removal of the frescoes, sinopia traces were found in the Tabernacle of the Visitation which, in turn, were detached and remounted on synthetic backings. The frescoes themselves were cleaned with ammonium carbonate and distilled water. Areas of raised colour were fixed and damaged areas of painting were restored in a neutral shade.

The frescoes were kept in the Florentine Fine Art Superintendence until 1987 and then transferred to the Library in Castelfiorentino.
While this new exhibition gave the public the opportunity to admire Benozzo's masterpieces, unfortunately it also prevented correct presentation of the work since the space available to exhibit the work was insufficient for the Tabernacle to be remounted at its original height, and the Visitation was therefore displayed in three separate sections.
Today, thanks to the fruitful work of Castelfiorentino Town Council, the Tabernacles are exhibited in a new and more correct arrangement in an environment designed especially for them. For reasons of conservation, the frescoes could not be returned to the location for which Benozzo originally intended them but we hope that, with the help of this documentary, visitors will be able to appreciate their value as works of art and, most importantly, as historical, liturgical and cultural testimonies to our past.