Italian Language Blog

The Three Kings Arrive in Florence Posted by on Jan 6, 2016 in Uncategorized

In the early 1990’s I worked at the archaeological museum in Florence. I used to commute there every day from Lucca by train and then walk from La Stazione Santa Maria Novella to the museum. If I had time, I’d stop for a few minutes at Palazzo Medici Riccardi and visit La Cappella Dei Magi, where there are some lovely frescoes called la Cavalcata dei Magi (the Cavalcade of the Magi) by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the journey of the three wise men to Bethlehem.

Eastern Wall, the procession of the Magi. Click on the image for a more detailed view.

Eastern Wall, the Cavalcade of the Magi. Click on the image for a more detailed view.

As I contemplated the frescoes I used to find myself wandering into the painted world and getting lost in the incredible amount of detail: the beautiful costumes of the Three Kings and their rich cortège, the fairy landscape with its luxuriant vegetation and wild animals. The experience of looking at these beautiful frescoes that cover three walls of the chapel is rather like taking a magical journey back to the early Florentine Renaissance.

La Cavalcata dei Magi was painted between 1459 and 1464, and if you know what to look for you’ll discover that Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes were highly influenced by two contemporary events.

In April 1459 Pope Pius II stopped in Firenze for a few days in order to meet up with several Italian princes, who would then accompany him on his journey to Mantova. Amongst these princes were Galeazzo Maria Sforza, the young son of the duke of Milano, and Sigismondo Malatesta, lord of Rimini. In their honour Cosimo il Vecchio de’ Medici organised banquets, dances, jousts, tournaments, and a hunting contest with exotic animals in Piazza della Signoria.

The most impressive of these festive events is reported to have been a parade of twelve knights on horseback accompanied by a splendid cortège of musicians and pages. Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes were started just a couple of months after these events, and it is believed that they are directly based upon what he saw.


Southern Wall, detail from the Cavalcade of the Magi.

The other event which influenced Gozzoli was a live re-enactment of the Cavalcade of the Magi. This took place once every three years on the 6th of January, the day of the Epiphany. It was a magnificent show performed in contemporary renaissance costumes and depicting the journey of the Three Kings as their followed the star towards Bethlehem. The Cavalcade of the Magi, which was set in the streets and squares of Firenze, was an exuberant display of wealth and power by the richest families of the city, whose palaces acted as a backdrop to the show.

The cortège set out from three different locations, representing the three encampments of the Kings, and merged together for a grand finale in front of  Santa Maria in Fiore Cathedral, where a Natività had been constructed. Here, the Magi presented their gifts to Gesù Bambino. The last of these spectacular shows took place in 1494.

Skip forward 500 years to 1997 when, to celebrate the 700th anniversary of the construction of il Duomo (the Cathedral), the city of Firenze decided to revive the old tradition of the Cavalcata dei Magi. Every year on the 6th of January, the historical parade plays out through the streets of Florence, setting off from Palazzo Pitti and culminating in front of the Cathedral, just as it did 500 years ago. Interestingly, the costumes used by the players are inspired by those found in Benozzo Gozzoli’s frescoes!

I wish I could be there to see it, it must be a beautiful show. Maybe next year …….

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  1. Julie:

    I love the Capella dei Magi too! It is exquisite.

    Felice buon anno a voi!


  2. Yvonne:

    Devo fare una visita il tempo prossimo sono a Firenze! Grazie del consiglio!
    Buon anno a voi.

    • Serena:

      @Yvonne Sì, la devi assolutamente visitare la prossima volta che sei a Firenze!

  3. Toril Sandvoll:

    Very interesting! I’d love to see the parade too!

    • Serena:

      @Toril Sandvoll I’ve got one criticism about the parade: I saw the photos from last year’s parade and unfortunately the three kings are far from being as handsome and as majestic as those painted by Benozzo Gozzoli!

  4. gaggioli stein hélène:

    Puis -je avoir latraduction en italien SVP ???

  5. Lesley:

    What a great story – thank you for sharing it with us.

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