After the conquest of Pisa by the Florentines in 1406, the city, once cradle of medieval arts, saw many of its artists on the wane, replaced by the artists coming from Florence, the new master of the area.
Benozzo Gozzoli was born in Lese but he moved to Florence when he was still a child, and he spent the early part of his career as a pupil and assistant of Fra Angelico, better known as the Beato Angelico (the Blessed Angelic) for the elegance of his painting.
Benozzo travelled and worked with his Maestro till year 1449, when he moved to Umbria. Many of these earlier works show many affinities with Angelico’s style, and these affinities, crossed with a a more distincly Giottesque influence, will be present in the monastery of St. Francis in Montefalco, where Benozzo painted episodes from the life of Saint Francis and together with them some portaits of Dante, Petrarch and Giotto.
Benozzo then came back to Florence and in his native city he painted his most important work: the Magi Chapel of the Palazzo Medici Ricciadi, where, in the fresco Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem he incorporated the portraits of the Medici family.
In 1469 Benozzo went to Pisa, where he was expected to paint a vast series of frescoes in the Camposanto, and in fact Gozzoli painted twentyfour subjects from the Old Testament, starting from the Invention of Wine by Noah to the Visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon: the agreement between the artist and his clients expected the painting of three subjects per year, to be paid ten ducats each, but the actual rate of painting was only three pictures in two year: perhaps the great crowd of figures in his extended cycle of mural paintings was accepted to counterbalance the slowness of the execution.
In the Adoration of the Magi, painted on top of the arch that introduces to the Ammannati’s Chapel in the Camposanto, Benozzo painted a portrait of himself.
Benozzo lived in Pisa for many years, working not just in the Camposanto but also for some church of the city: his Glory of St. Thomas Aquinas was painted for the Cathedral of the city to adorn the Bishop’s chair, but later the painting was taken by Napoleon to Paris, where since year 1812 it’s preserved in the Louvre.
In year 1479 the plague broke out in Pisa, so Benozzo leaved the city with his family to reach Legoli, a small village near to Peccioli. Here the artist was designated to paint a tabernacle with stories of the life of Jesus. Nowadays the tabernacle is know as the Chapel of Saint Catherine, that surrounds the oratory painted by Benozzo Gozzoli since year 1822, when it was built by Alessio del Fanteria.
Benozzo painted an Annunciation in the extrados of the arch of the main façade, while in the ceiling there are the Evangelists and the Church Fathers, with a Blessing Jesus in the midpoint that introduces to the main theme of the back wall, a Sacra Conversazione (“Sacred Conversation”) with three angels; in the right wall there’s a Christ carrying the Cross with a city in his background; the other two walls show a Martyrium of Saint Sebastian and a Crucifixion with the Virgin and Saints. On the pillars are depicted Saint Michael Archangel and the Incredulity of Saint Thomas.