UNDERRATED / The chancel is a fine thing: The case for Benozzo Gozzoli

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The Independent Culture
Two Browning poems speak in the voices of Florentine painters. 'Andrea del Sarto ' is a portrait of the artist as disappointed genius. 'Fra Lippo Lippi' depicts a painter who plays at his work as he works at his play. Between them, you have two versions of artistic temperament. Had Browning written a third poem that married these two polarities in the form of a merry journeyman dauber, the title must have been 'Benozzo Gozzoli'.

It was the fate of Gozzoli (c 1422-1497) to be a contemporary of the immortals. His talents were overshadowed then and are overlooked now.

He had a good start in life, working for Fra Angelico and Ghiberti, but aside from one great commission from Piero di Medici ('the Gouty'), the panoramic Journey of the Magi, which adorns the tiny chapel of the Palazzo Medici- Riccardi in Florence, his beautiful works are to be found tucked away in Umbrian hill towns, innocently crumbling in wayside Tuscan chapels, or locked in the basement of the Brera in Milan (honestly: I asked once and they'd never heard of him). Like his self-portrait in the Medici chapel, in which you can only tell him apart from all the other Florentines in red hats because his bears the words 'Opus Benotii', he was one of the throng. Then, as now, it didn't pay to paint charmingly.

I first bumped into Benozzo by mistake, on a day trip to San Gimignano (which, for those who've not been, looks like a Flintstone Manhattan). I wandered into this church and there he was, in the chancel. With a buoyant feel for colourful pageant and an irrepressible zest for all detail - period, plant and animal - he told the story of the life of Saint Augustine, whose church it was. You had to pay to illuminate the paintings, and I kept running out of coins.

The sources of his fascination is as a genre painter, the first of the Renaissance. If you want to find out how Tuscans dressed themselves and their horses, gave birth and buried their dead, what landscapes and cities looked like in the Quattrocento, your best bet is to scour the countryside for his Martyrdom of St Sebastian, his lives of the saints, his Tabernacle of the Visitation.

In a tiny hamlet called Legoli, a tabernacle adorned with Gozzoli's jovial, rounded, pretty, expressive faces is all but fading away before your eyes. No one seems to want to save it, but that's par for the course.

In the last 30 years of his life, Gozzoli painted a vast fresco cycle of Old Testament scenes in Pisa's Camposanto. On 27 June 1944, Allied firebombs destroyed all but the odd fragment. Art historians had advised the military what not to target. Gozzoli must have been expendable.