Any telling of the Augustinian history of the Augustinian church in San Gimignano cannot proceed very far without making mention of the artist most famous for his fresco series on the life of Augustine, Benozzo Gozzoli (1420 – 1497 AD).
Gozzoli was an Italian painter, born in Florence in 1424, or perhaps 1420. In the early part of his career assisted Fra Angelico, whom he then also worked in Rome and Orvieto.
He then worked as an assistant artist in Rome, Viterbo, Montefalco and Perugia before receiving a major commission in his own right in his city of birth, Florence, at the age of thirty two years in 1456.
It was a coveted commission to paint the private Medici Chapel brought Gozzoli back to Florence.
Stimulated by the prestige attached to this commission and the abundance of materials at his disposal (including gold), Gozzoli created one of the most fascinating fresco cycles of Florence in the 15th century.
This is certainly the most famous of his works. Some art historians consider it to be his greatest work. Ill fortune then led him to the town of his next most famous work.
By 1463 at the latest, Gozzoli left his native city of Florence because of the danger of plague. He moved to San Gimignano, where he lived for four years, until 1467.
There, in collaboration with several assistants, he undertook the second of his two major works, the decoration of the apsidal chapel of the church of Sant’Agostino.
Over the entire choir of the church, a triple course of scenes from the legends of Saint Augustine, from the time of his entering the school of Tagaste on to his burial, seventeen chief subjects, with some accessories.
Some of these scenes are also found in a limited number in essentially a similar manner in various other Augustinian churches. This has led to the suggestion that the selection of these nineteen particular frescoes was overseen by a learned and reforming Augustinian friar as an example and exhortation to the members of the Augustinian convento, who were the ones who would be viewing these frescoes daily.
Gozzoli was given the commission the Prior (the Augustinian superior) at the time, Domenico Strambi O.S.A. Strambi had in 1449 had been given a grant by the town of San Gimignano to study theology at the Sorbonne in Paris.
The paintings were produced within the contemporary context of the reformation of the monastery of Sant'Agostino.
Gozzoli was a skilled technician rather than a greatly creative artist, who reproduced "pretty pictures" on canvas or on wet plaster that captured a photographic and everyday reality rather than any classical flight of the imagination.
His art does not rival that of his greatest peers either in creativity or dramatic impact.
Instead, the art of Gozzoli is memorable and attractive by being rich in colour, winning, lively and packed with the details of the daily life of his wealthy patrons in Italy of the fifteenth century.
His patrons could happily have walked into the painting or fresco and felt at home there.
The people depicted are happy, graceful and dressed colourfully in the fine clothing of Florentine nobility.
There is no sign on any real pain or tension in their appearance or actions. The countryside is painted as filled with birds and horses, and interior scenes often feature a dog, large or small.
In fresco painting he used the methods of tempera, and his work has decayed accordingly.
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