«He was disciple of Angelico Friar John, rightly loved by him, and by those who knew him and considered him a man of great talent and a very skilled painter in representing animals, perspectives, landscapes and ornaments» . (Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori, et scultori italiani da Cimabue, insino a’ tempi nostri)
Few are the biographical data about the Florentine Benozzo di Lese di Sandro, better known as Benozzo Gozzoli. Close collaborator of Beato Angelico, indeed his partner, he loved to reproduce his master bloodless expressive dolls, without exceeding him, without going beyond the border. Anyway, in his first works he was able to reach an admirable balance between the firmness of forms in full light and disarming white light.
A Huge Signed Painting
These characters are perfectly recognizable in the Umbrian works made by the painter. Not only in the cycle of the stories of the life of Saint Francis, frescoed in the homonymous church of Montefalco, but also in the Annunciation of the Virgin, an altarpiece found in Narni and still preserved in the Picture Galley of the town.
The work is a great tempera on a table, 117 cm wide and 142 high; its attribution is certain, as it is signed by the painter himself who, along the lower edge of the brocade curtain behind the Virgin, engraved in capital letters «OPV[S] BENOTI[I] DE FLORENTI[A]». This is not the only inscription but another one is on the mantel of the Virgin: «AV[E] REGINA».
The characters of the altarpiece, the Archangel Gabriel and Mary, are in a portico, of which there are two pillars. The Virgin, with her hands crossed on her chest, is kneeling on a small stool, tracing the model of the Angelico in the third cell of the convent of San Marco in Florence. In the upper part, the rays of light are still partially visible, probably originally completed by the figure, now lost, of the Eternal or the Dove of the Holy Spirit that lit up the scene from above. The refinement of the work is reflected in the care and elegance of the details, such as in the highlights of the fingernails of the characters, the realism of the double keys and the refined inlay decoration of the wooden box behind Maria.
Damages and Restorations
The work is very damaged and has undergone several restoration interventions (1901, 1933, 1947, 1952, 1988, 2002). The author’s signature was already visible before the 1988 intervention, although this is the date that has always been accepted for the discovery of the inscription, actually, already in 1959, Castellani could see it. In any case, perhaps between the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, due to the bad state of conservation, it was no longer easily readable, so much so that the Guardabassi attributed the table to Pierantonio Mezzastris, while Eroli considered it more generically of «Umbrian School».
To attribute it to Benozzo Gozzoli was Pératé in 1907 which dated it to 1450-1452. The attribution to Gozzoli was also accepted by Gnoli, who subsequently placed the painting around 1449, considering it «the most ancient work of the Florentine master». Even today the painting is dated around 1449, at an early stage of the Florentine master’s stay in Umbria which extended over a period of five years. In 1449 the painter is documented in Orvieto, a city not too far from Narni, which at the time represented an important center of the Papal State, not too far from Rome.
As for the location, Guardabassi, at the end of the nineteenth century, places it in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, today San Domenico, and writes: «II Chapel. The entrance was architected at the end of the fifteenth century, the beauty of the lines correspond to ornamental sculptures. Indoor. Left Wall: Tempered table – the Annunciation; work of the Mezzasti». From Eroli, on the other hand, we know that in 1898 the work was no longer there: «The second chapel was stripped of its ornaments, as well as the paintings that embellished it (…) I do not forget a small table, which I saw here set on the right wall of the altar, having in itself the Annunciation, which I have no doubt in attributing to the Umbrian school; but the worms have done damage, and will soon perish, if the Town Hall, which today has custody, does not cure it and heals it».
A Client's Matter
If the attribution of the work is certain, the commission is uncertain. The proximity of Narni to Orvieto has revealed the probable link with a work depicting the Annunciation, which had been requested to Benozzo by a «domina Gianna Gregorii» and which had remained incomplete due to the insolvency of the client. Benozzo then tried to give the painting to the members of the Opera of the Cathedral of Orvieto, offering them to complete the work begun at his expense. The members accepted the offer declaring themselves willing to bear the cost of the colors, provided that the emblem of Donna Gianna was replaced with that of the Fabbrica del Duomo. Of this painting, however, neither the fate nor the execution technique is known, but it is not excluded that the work was the one arrived in an unknown way to Narni.
Another hypothesis is that Benozzo had got in touch with the Dominican friars of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Narni through Angelico’s intermediation. Actually, various iconographic elements, combined with the original location within the Dominican church, lead to a more narnese commissioning.
Some apparently decorative details, actually, have a strongly symbolic function; if we accept the Narnese commissioning, they can provide important clues not only on the client itself, but also on the destination of the work. The decorative motif of the carpet at the feet of Mary is of particular importance, it consists of a bevy of black dogs, placed all around the Madonna, almost deployed in her defense. It is probable that an allusion to the Friar Preachers should be seen according to a word play based on their Latin name. The Dominicanes, followers of Domenico, considered themselves Lord’s Dogs, in Latin Domini canes, as defenders of Catholic orthodoxy, in particular for their function as inquisitors of heresies. Another element that reinforces this thesis is given by the color of the dogs, black with a white outline. These are the same colors of the dress worn by the friars of the Order of Preachers. Moreover, as already mentioned, Benozzo got in touch with the Dominicans thanks to his long fellowship with Beato Angelico and with this monastic order he remained always bound by doing many works for it in different cities. Another element in favor of the Narnese client is the floral decoration on the pillars of the arcade that divides the Archangel Gabriel from the Annunziata. The leaves are clearly ivy leaves, depicted in both the stylized heart and naturalistic shapes. The heart-shaped version of these is distinctive of the House of the Eroli and are present in the coat of arms of the noble family of Narni that in this historical period enriched the city churches with many works of art. Therefore, what looked like just a decoration probably represents a precise reference to the client and is placed significantly at the center of the work. It is very probable that the client was the cardinal Berardo Eroli who, given his close relations with some of the greatest exponents of the political and religious world of the time (Niccolò V, the Medici in Florence, Sant’Antonino Pierozzi, for example, might have come into contact with the Florentine artist and entrusted him with his work.
 M. Guardabassi, Indice-guida dei monumenti pagani e cristiani riguardanti l’istoria e l’arte esistenti nella provincia dell’Umbria, p. 134, Perugia, G. Boncompagni,1872⇑
City Museum is located in via Aurelio Saffi, 1 – Narni (TR)
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G. Vasari, Le vite de’ più eccellenti architetti, pittori et scultori italiani, da Cimabue a’ tempi nostri, Firenze, per i tipi di Lorenzo Torrentino, 1550
E. Lunghi, Benozzo Gozzoli a Montefalco, Assisi, Editrice Minerva, 2010
A. Novelli, L. Vignoli, L’arte a Narni tra Medioevo e Illuminismo, Perugia, Era Nuova, 2004
B. Toscano, G. Capitelli, Benozzo Gozzoli allievo a Roma, maestro in Umbria, Silvana Editoriale, 2002
U. Gnoli, L’arte umbra alla Mostra di Perugia, p.32, Bergamo, Istituto italiano d’arti grafiche, 1908
M. Guardabassi, Indice-guida dei monumenti pagani e cristiani riguardanti l’istoria e l’arte esistenti nella provincia dell’Umbria, Perugia, G. Boncompagni,1872
G. Eroli, Descrizione delle chiese di Narni e suoi dintorni: le più importanti rispetto all’antichità e alle belle arti, Narni, Tipografia Petrignani, 1898
Diane Cole Ahl, Benozzo Gozzoli , Cinisello Balsamo, Silvana Editoriale, 1997