In Stemp’s new book, The Secret Language of the Renaissance: Decoding the Hidden Symbolism of Italian Art
, he deconstructs ’s Procession of the Magi (North Wall)
,1459–62, a fresco that extends across three chapel walls in Florence’s Palazzo Medici. The work depicts a massive procession of horses and humans marching across a winding, craggy path. In the background, a magnificent gray building sits atop a hill, as though gazing down on the busy journey.
Gozzoli painted Medici family members and himself into the work. Cosimo’s red-hatted, white-haired figure “is astride a donkey—something that he is known to have done in real life to emphasize his modesty and humility,” Stemp writes. “It should be remembered, however, that Jesus also rode on a donkey.” The Medici had reputations to uphold and a city-state to control: equating their patriarch with the Catholic world’s ultimate moral authority was a power move. Like most of the Medici commissions, the work suggested family piety while also functioning as a vanity project.
“The vast majority of works in the Renaissance were created to communicate some sort of message,” Stemp said (his book covers symbols of vice and virtue, scholarship, diplomacy, and more). “Sometimes that message was quite specifically about the power of the patrons.”
Diana DePardo-Minsky, Assistant Professor of Art History at Bard College, noted that the gray home in the background of Procession of the Magi is a villa—another significant marker of prosperity during the Renaissance. “Most of the world was still working hard to get by,” she said, “and some people had so much money they could have a house in the countryside for fun.” At country estates, the elite read poetry and displayed artworks that tested (and pointed to) their knowledge of antiquity.