These four panels were commissioned in the 1460s by the Alessandri family in Florence in order to update a Gothic-style altarpiece painted 150 years earlier in the church of San Pier Maggiore. In them, the fifth-century bishop of Florence resuscitates a dead child on the square in front of San Pier Maggiore; Saint Paul falls from his horse at the apparition of Christ; Totila, king of the Goths, asks the blessing of Saint Benedict; and the magician Simon Magus crashes to the ground at the feet of Emperor Nero when Saint Peter commands the demons who suspended him in midair to let him go. From his work with Fra Angelico and the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti, Gozzoli evolved a style of great charm and narrative engagement.
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Fig. 1. Altarpiece reconstruction
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Title:Saint Peter and Simon Magus
Artist:Benozzo Gozzoli (Benozzo di Lese di Sandro) (Italian, Florence ca. 1420–1497 Pistoia)
Medium:Tempera on wood
Dimensions:15 3/4 x 18 in. (40 x 45.7 cm)
Credit Line:Rogers Fund, 1915
Benozzo Gozzoli was a principal assistant of Fra Angelico, contributing to the frescoes in San Marco, Florence, the Chapel of Nicholas V in Rome, and the vault frescoes of the chapel of San Brizio in the cathedral of Orvieto. In 1444 he signed a contract to work for three years with Lorenzo Ghiberti on the third set of bronze doors—the Gates of Paradise—for the Baptistry of Florence. His work was probably in the nature of chasing, but Ghiberti’s richly detailed narrative style left an enduring mark on Gozzoli’s work, readily visible in The Met’s four panels.
Offner (1956) first established that these panels formed a predella seen by Vasari (1568) in the Alessandri family chapel of the church of San Pier Maggiore, Florence: "Ed in San Pier Maggiore, nella cappella degli Alessandri, fece quattro storiette di figure piccolo di San Piero, di San Paolo, di San Zanobi quando resuscita il figliuolo della vedova; e di san Benedetto" (And in San Pier Maggiore, in the chapel of the Alessandri, he painted four small stories with little figures of Saint Peter, Saint Paul, Saint Zenobius when he resuscitated the son of the widow, and of Saint Benedict). Vasari erroneously attributed the scenes to Pesello (i.e., Francesco Pesellino, whose biography is among the most confused in the Vite) and did not mention the authorship of the main panels, which, in fact, were painted by Lippo Benivieni (active ca. 1296–1320; Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). As with the Museum’s altarpiece by Taddeo Gaddi (10.97), this is a case of modernizing a fourteenth-century altarpiece by the addition of a new frame or predella. Although Vasari does not mention a fifth scene and although Ahl (1996) has, on the basis of erroneous measurements, argued that there was none, the width of each of the surviving scenes matches that of the individual saints and there must, therefore, also have been a predella scene beneath the panel of the Virgin, which measures 75.3 x 56.2 cm. When in 1784 the church of San Pier Maggiore was demolished, the panels were returned to the Alessandri family, from whom The Met’s panels were acquired in 1915.
The main panels were arranged in the following order: Saint Zenobius, Saint Peter (titular saint of the church), the Madonna and Child, Saint Paul, and Saint Benedict (the founder of the order that officiated in the church). In the first scene of the predella, Zenobius, the fourth-century bishop of Florence, resuscitates a dead child on the square in front of San Pier Maggiore. According to the saint’s legend, a Frankish pilgrim left her sick son in the saint’s care. The boy died while Zenobius was officiating at a procession at San Pier Maggiore. Returning from Rome, the mother found her son dead. Taking up his body, she met the saint in Borgo degli Albizzi. He knelt in prayer, raising the boy back to life. The scene was depicted by, among others, Ghiberti (on a shrine for the relics of Saint Zenobius for the cathedral) and Domenico Veneziano (in a predella panel now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). Like Ghiberti, Gozzoli shows the boy both dead and resurrected and he divides the spectators into two groups receding into space. But to an even greater extent, he eliminates the dramatic element. The façade of the church in the background is typically Florentine and can be compared to, for example, that of San Felice. In the second scene, as recounted in the Golden Legend, the apostles Peter and Paul expose the false magic of the sorcerer Simon Magus at Emperor Nero’s court. Simon had had a tower built and declared he would ascend to heaven. Peter ordered Paul to pray, whereupon the demons supporting Simon let him plummet to the ground. In the third scene is shown Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, as told in the Acts of the Apostles 9:3–5. The active poses of the fleeing figures find analogies both in the scene of David and Goliath on Ghiberti’s bronze doors and in the predella of Fra Angelico’s San Marco Altarpiece. In the fourth scene, as recounted in Gregory the Great’s Dialogues (book 2, chapters 14–15), Totila, king of the Goths, kneels before Saint Benedict. He had tested the saint by dressing up a guard as himself and sending him "in all regal pomp." Benedict, however, recognized the ruse. "Then Totila himself in person went unto the man of God; and seeing him sitting afar off, he durst not come near, but fell down to the ground: whom the holy man (speaking to him twice or thrice) desired to rise up and at length came unto him, and with his own hands lifted him up from the earth, where he lay prostrate: and then, entering into talk, he reprehended him for his wicked deeds."
The subjects of two of the scenes—the miracle of Saint Zenobius and the fall of Simon Magus—were treated a second time by Gozzoli in a predella for an altarpiece (main panel in the National Gallery, London) commissioned in 1461 by the Confraternity of the Purification of the Virgin and Saint Zenobius, whose oratory was at the convent of San Marco. Inasmuch as the commission for the Alessandri predella is not documented, a comparison between the scenes—one on the collection of H.M. the Queen, Hampton Court, and the other in the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin—would seem the best way to establish its approximate date (see Christiansen 1983 for the most extensive analysis). Ahl (1996) has argued that The Met's compositions must precede those for the Purification of the Virgin altarpiece and has dated them to ca. 1441–44—which is to say, shortly after Gozzoli’s work under Fra Angelico in San Marco and before his earliest documented independent works. This would be astonishingly early, and most scholars have, more persuasively, argued the opposite: that The Met's scenes follow rather than precede those associated with the Purification altarpiece and reveal a more mature artist (see, for example, Christiansen 1983 and Boskovits 2002). The architecture is at once more varied and shows a greater understanding of Renaissance style, the figures are both bulkier and more individualized, the drapery is more fastidiously described, and the compositions shown are more richly articulated with a view to dramatic impact. As Boskovits has observed, the Alessandri predella scenes "reveal the effort to adapt to the new cultural climate of Florence" upon his return to the city (between 1449 and 1459 Gozzoli was principally active in Umbria). The matter is important for establishing the probable patron of The Met's predella. Ahl suggests Alessandro Alessandri (1391–1460), who also commissioned an altarpiece by Filippo Lippi in The Met (35.31.1a–c), in which Alessandro is shown with two of his five sons, presumably Jacopo (1422–1494) and Antonio (1423–after 1480), either of whom, as well as Alessandro's brother, might also have commissioned the predella from Gozzoli. Alessandro was a Medici supporter and held the important political office of Gonfaloniere in 1448.
Keith Christiansen 2012
Inscription: Inscribed (on shield): SPQ[R]
Alessandri chapel ("Cappellone"), San Pier Maggiore, Florence (until 1784; returned to the Alessandri family); Alessandri family, Palazzo Alessandri, Borgo degli Albizzi, Florence (from 1784); conte Cosimo degli Alessandri, Palazzo Alessandri (until 1915); [Luigi Grassi, Florence, 1915; sold to The Met]
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Florentine Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum," June 15–August 15, 1971, no catalogue.
Giorgio Vasari. Le vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori. Ed. Gaetano Milanesi. 1906 ed. Florence, 1568, vol. 3, p. 37, records four panels with small figures of Saints Peter, Paul, Zenobius, and Benedict in the Alessandri chapel in the church of San Pier Maggiore, Florence, and attributes them to Pesello.
Francesco Bocchi. Le bellezze della città di Firenze. Florence, 1677, p. 357, records a painting by Pesello in the Alessandri chapel of San Pier Maggiore.
Giuseppe Richa. Notizie istoriche delle chiese fiorentine. Vol. 1, Del quartiere di Santa Croce. Florence, 1754, pp. 142–43, as in the Alessandri chapel of San Pier Maggiore; attributes them to Pesello.
Vincenzo Follini and Modesto Rastrelli. Firenze antica e moderna illustrata. Vol. 5, reprint, 1975. Florence, 1794, p. 92, mentions a painting by Pesello formerly in the Alessandri chapel of San Pier Maggiore.
J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy from the Second to the Fourteenth Century. Vol. 2, London, 1864, p. 365, find them more akin to the work of Benozzo Gozzoli than to that of the Peselli; note that they are in the Casa Alessandri, Borgo degli Albizzi.
Ivan Lermolieff [Giovanni Morelli]. Kunstkritische Studien über italienische Malerei. Vol. 1, Die Galerien Borghese und Doria Panfili in Rom. Leipzig, 1890, pp. 335–36 [Italian ed., Milan, 1897, p. 258; English ed., London, 1900, p. 256], mentions three of the panels (MMA 15.106.1–3) and attributes them to Pesellino.
Costanza Jocelyn Ffoulkes. "Le esposizioni d'arte italiana a Londra." Archivio storico dell'arte 7 (1894), p. 158, accepts the attribution to Gozzoli.
J[ean]. P[aul]. Richter. "Die Ausstellung italienischer Renaissancewerke in der New Gallery in London." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 17 (1894), p. 240, rejects Morelli's [see Ref. 1890] attribution to Pesellino and calls them early works by Gozzoli.
Bernhard Berenson. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. New York, 1896, p. 103, lists them as early works by Gozzoli.
Hans Mackowsky. "Die Verkündigung und die Verlobung der Heiligen Katharina von Francesco Pesellino." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s., 10 (1898–99), p. 83, identifies them with the pictures mentioned by Vasari [see Ref. 1568] and Richa [see Ref. 1754] but calls them copies after lost originals by Pesellino.
Werner Weisbach. Francesco Pesellino und die Romantik der Renaissance. Berlin, 1901, pp. 48–54, ill., identifies the scene depicted as the Death of Ananias; accepts the attribution to Gozzoli and dates them about 1456.
Bernard Berenson. "A Miniature Altar-Piece by Pesellino at Empoli." Revue archéologique 40 (January–June 1902), pp. 194–95, rejects Mackowsky's [see Ref. 1898–99] suggestion that they are copies after lost originals by Pesellino, maintaining that they are early works by Gozzoli.
Corrado Ricci. "Benozzo Gozzoli: la pala della compagnia della Purificazione." Rivista d'arte 2 (1904), pp. 3, 5, attributes them to Gozzoli.
Herbert P. Horne in "Notes on Pictures in the Royal Collections, Article VIII—The Story of Simon Magus, Part of a Predella Painting by Benozzo Gozzoli." Burlington Magazine 7 (1905), pp. 378, 381, attributes them to Gozzoli.
Bernhard Berenson. The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance. 3rd ed. New York, 1909, p. 114.
G. Gronau inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Ulrich Thieme and Felix Becker. Vol. 3, Leipzig, 1909, p. 344, attributes them to Gozzoli.
Edward Hutton, ed. A New History of Painting in Italy from the II to the XVI Century.. By [Joseph Archer] Crowe and [Giovanni Battista] Cavalcaselle. Vol. 2, The Sienese School of the XIV Century; The Florentine School of the XV Century. London, 1909, p. 486 n. 3, mentions them among works by Gozzoli.
Langton Douglas, ed. A History of Painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century.. By Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. Vol. 4, Florentine Masters of the Fifteenth Century. London, 1911, p. 194 n. 2, accepts Weisbach's (1901) identification of the scene as the Death of Ananias; attributes them to Gozzoli but notes the influence of Pesellino.
Adolfo Venturi. Storia dell'arte italiana. Vol. 7, part 1, La pittura del quattrocento. Milan, 1911, p. 430 n. 1.
Joseph Archer Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle. A History of Painting in Italy: Umbria, Florence and Siena from the Second to the Sixteenth Century. Ed. Langton Douglas. Vol. 4, Florentine Masters of the Fifteenth Century. London, 1911, p. 194.
B[ryson]. B[urroughs]. "An Altarpiece by Benozzo Gozzoli." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 10 (January 1915), pp. 224–28, ill., believes they originally formed a small alterpiece or retable, stating that their size precludes the possibility that they were predella panels; dates them about 1461, based on their similarity to panels from Gozzoli's dismembered altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Marco, Florence (divided between the National Gallery, London; Hampton Court, London; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; National Gallery of Art, Kress Collection, Washington; and Philadelphia Museum of Art, Johnson Collection); discusses the iconography.
Wilhelm von Bode. Letter to John G. Johnson. 1915, considers it a copy of Gozzoli's predella panel of the same subject at Hampton Court, London [see Ref. Burroughs 1915].
Elena Contaldi. Benozzo Gozzoli: la vita—le opere. Milan, 1928, pp. 30, 32, thinks they are very probably by Gozzoli.
Raimond van Marle. The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. Vol. 11, The Hague, 1929, pp. 172–74, attributes them to Gozzoli and dates them 1459–63.
G[offredo]. J. Hoogewerff. Benozzo Gozzoli. Paris, 1930, p. 92, as predella panels by Gozzoli.
Bernhard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance. Oxford, 1932, p. 264.
Lionello Venturi. Italian Paintings in America. Vol. 2, Fifteenth Century Renaissance. New York, 1933, unpaginated, pl. 218, considers them "partly replicas, executed by the master himself" of predella scenes from the altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Marco, Florence; dates them a little after 1461 and observes the influence of Fra Angelico, Ghiberti, and Uccello.
Bernhard Berenson. Pitture italiane del rinascimento. Milan, 1936, p. 227.
Bernard Berenson. The Drawings of the Florentine Painters. amplified ed. Chicago, 1938, vol. 1, p. 87 n. 4.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 31–33, ill., states that they originally formed an altarpiece; calls them free replicas of the predella panels from Gozzoli's altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Marco, commissioned in 1461, and dates them to about that time.
Martin Davies. The Earlier Italian Schools. London, 1951, p. 59 n. 13, attributes them to Gozzoli and notes their compositional connection to the predella panels from the altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Marco.
Walter Paatz and Elisabeth Paatz. Die Kirchen von Florenz. Vol. 4, Frankfurt am Main, 1952, pp. 640, 655 n. 63, idenitfy them as works by Gozzoli from the "Cappellone" (Alessandri chapel) in San Pier Maggiore, dating them about 1461.
Josephine L. Allen and Elizabeth E. Gardner. A Concise Catalogue of the European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1954, p. 44.
Richard Offner. A Critical and Historical Corpus of Florentine Painting. Vol. 6, section 3, The Fourteenth Century. New York, 1956, pp. 44–45 n. 9, attributes them to Gozzoli and identifies them as the predella of the five-part polyptych by "Lippus Benevieni" from the Alessandri altar in the Cappellone in San Pier Maggiore [see Notes], observing the correspondence of subject and size; cites Bicci di Lorenzo's predella under a Daddesque triptych (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) as a similar instance of a predella painted several generations later than the main panels.
Bernard Berenson. Italian Pictures of the Renaissance: Florentine School. London, 1963, vol. 1, p. 95.
Federico Zeri with the assistance of Elizabeth E. Gardner. Italian Paintings: A Catalogue of the Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florentine School. New York, 1971, pp. 118–22, ill., state that they were part of the predella of the polyptych by Lippo di Benivieni identified by Offner [see Ref. 1956], noting that a fifth panel which must have depicted an episode from the life of Christ or the Virgin is lost, and dating them possibly to the first half of the 1450s; compare this panel and 15.106.3 to similar panels at Hampton Court, London, and the Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, which come from the predella of Gozzoli's altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Marco.
Burton B. Fredericksen and Federico Zeri. Census of Pre-Nineteenth-Century Italian Paintings in North American Public Collections. Cambridge, Mass., 1972, pp. 25, 443, 606.
Anna Padoa Rizzo. Benozzo Gozzoli: pittore fiorentino. Florence, 1972, p. 63–64, 129–30, fig. 123, dates them about 1459–63 and states that the church of San Pier Maggiore was suppressed in 1783.
Keith Christiansen. "Early Renaissance Narrative Painting in Italy." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 41 (Fall 1983), pp. 6–9, 30, fig. 4 (color), compares it to the earlier version of the same scene from the predella of the altarpiece for the Compagnia di San Marco, and dates the MMA panels after 1461.
Roberto Bartalini inPittura di luce: Giovanni di Francesco e l'arte fiorentina di metà Quattrocento. Ed. Luciano Bellosi. Exh. cat., Casa Buonarroti, Florence. Milan, 1990, p. 118.
Anna Padoa Rizzo. Benozzo Gozzoli. Florence, 1992, p. 80, no. 40, ill., states that a missing fifth panel must have occupied the central position in the predella.
Keith Christiansen. "Simone Martini's altar-piece for the commune of Siena." Burlington Magazine 136 (March 1994), p. 158, dates the panels to the 1450s or 1460s; states that Lippo di Benivieni's altarpiece stood on the high altar of San Pier Maggiore.
Katharine Baetjer. European Paintings in The Metropolitan Museum of Art by Artists Born Before 1865: A Summary Catalogue. New York, 1995, p. 21, ill.
Diane Cole Ahl. Benozzo Gozzoli. New Haven, 1996, pp. 81, 225–26, 235–37, no. 46, pl. 294, calls the predella an early work, dating between about late 1442 and late January 1444; believes that there is no lost fifth panel and that the four MMA panels constitute the entire predella.
Miklós Boskovits inBenozzo Gozzoli: allievo a Roma, maestro in Umbria. Ed. Bruno Toscano and Giovanna Capitelli. Exh. cat., Chiesa-Museo di San Francesco, Montefalco. Cinisello Balsamo, Milan, 2002, p. 267.
Dillian Gordon. The Italian Paintings Before 1400. London, 2011, p. 90 n. 139.
Sandra Cardarelli. "New Insights into Filippo Lippi's Alessandri Altarpiece." Metropolitan Museum Journal vol. 57 (2022), pp. 121, 130 nn. 16–17, fig. 1 (color), dates the predella panels to the 1460s.
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