For twenty years Palla Strozzi was the wealthiest man in Florence. Born into the prosperous Strozzi family, he was heir to the family business, banking. Along with the Medici family’s bank, his was among the most powerful corporations in Italy. The primary reason I know his name today, however, has little to do with the family business. I know him as the man who commissioned one of my favorite paintings in the Uffizi Gallery Museum, The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano.
I saw this painting this past November when I was visiting Florence. It is in a small gallery of the Uffizi along with other paintings of the same style, the International Gothic Style. This style was popular near the end of the Middle Ages, right before the Italian Renaissance changed the art of Florence (and the world) forever. The style was international in the sense that it was popular throughout Western Europe. Pieces in this style show the opulence of courtly life; the paintings may be illustrating scenes from the Bible, but the people in them look like knights and ladies wearing cosmopolitan, luxurious clothing. I imagine that the medieval people who first saw these images felt the way we might feel when looking at an image of wealthy Manhattanites dressed in cashmere and silk from Bergdorf Goodman. Regardless of what those people might be doing, the real story is that told by their clothing: a story of wealth and prestige.
Perhaps someone unfamiliar with the International Gothic Style wouldn’t know all this. Even so, no one looking at these paintings could escape the sense that the paintings are about luxury. The sheer amount of gold in the paintings is ostentatious, and the colors are rich and glowing – the result of being made from the most expensive pigments available during this period, including ultramarine pigment imported from Afghanistan. Some of the figures even have precious jewels embedded in the surfaces of their clothing and crowns. And the detail! Each little bit of texture in the clothes and the skin is painted with great precision. If it wouldn’t set off the museum alarms, one could sit for hours with a magnifying glass pressed close to the images, just drinking in the glory of each sumptuously painted detail.
Needless to say, no one could have commissioned a piece like The Adoration of the Magi without first rising to the upper echelons of society, and that brings us back to Palla Strozzi. Strozzi paid Gentile da Fabriano the equivalent of six years’ wages to make this painting. At the time, it was the most anyone in Florence had ever paid for a painting. No one spends money like that without a reason, so why did he do it? Why spend such an enormous amount of money on a painting?
In order to answer this, we have to take a closer look at the subject of the painting itself: the magi delivering their gifts to Christ. Only twelve verses of the Bible (Matthew 2:1-12) are dedicated to telling the story of the magi, but for those wishing to climb the social ladder in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, commissioning an artist to paint a picture of the story of the magi was very popular. It’s not hard to imagine why – the magi were wealthy men, and they brought lavish gifts to the Lord to show their love for him. The prosperity and piety of the magi validated the right of the aristocracy to possess wealth in a way that an image of, say, the poor shepherds visiting Christ simply did not. During the same period that Gentile da Fabriano created The Adoration of the Magi, the Limbourg Brothers created a book of hours for the Duke of Berry up in the North that included two large images of the magi. Two paintings of such a small part of the Biblical narrative might seem like a disproportionate amount of attention, but these pictures were exactly what someone like the wealthy Duke of Berry wanted to see. Similarly, when Palla Strozzi commissioned the creation of The Adoration of the Magi for his family’s chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita, he wanted an image of wealthy men giving lavish gifts to God. The painting was a showy display of wealth given to the church, and, by extension, to God – just like the gifts given by the magi.
If we need further proof that Palla Strozzi was comparing himself to the magi, we can find it in the location of his portrait within the painting. The painter Gentile da Fabriano included Strozzi’s visage right behind the magi. Not everyone agrees about which figure is Palla Strozzi. Some say he is the man in the red turban directly behind the magi; others say he is the man holding the falcon. (The name Strozzi is related to the Tuscan word for falconer.) Either way, he is in close proximity to the magi, clearly a part of their retinue.
The pleasure I feel in looking at The Adoration of the Magi is not unlike the pleasure I feel in looking at other luxury goods from Italy. Like shoes from Salvatore Ferragamo or a dress from Valentino, this painting is masterfully crafted from the finest possible materials by an artist with an eye for elegance and refinement. In that way, the painting achieves exactly what it is meant to achieve – it takes the viewer’s thoughts to a fairy tale place of royal opulence. What makes the painting different from those other products is that it is also an image from the Bible. When I look at the painting, I get to have my cake and eat it too. I get to be the person whose eyes wander over luxuries and also the person who loves God.
And in that way the painting is exactly like the way many of us celebrate Christmas. We look forward to singing Silent Night in the candlelight and also to the gifts under the tree. We give charitably during the Christmas season out of generosity to the poor and also because we know those tax-deductible gifts need to be sent out before the end of the year. Our motives are human, and so they are mixed. We are, or at least I am, a little bit like the wealthiest man in Florence.
Note: I found this essay by Robert Baldwin very helpful when I was reading about this painting. If you want to know more, it's worth reading.