The biblical story of the three Magi animated civic pageants around Europe, but it became especially popular in the wealthy northern Italian city-states in this period, and perhaps above all in Florence. What made the Epiphany story so potent for this mercantile city was that it could act as a solvent, a celebration that might momentarily dissolve the troubling dichotomy between earthly and spiritual riches. It was a feast at which Florentine citizens could both have their cake and eat it.
On one hand, the civic procession of the three kings from the Orient, bearing their exotic gifts, legitimised the wealth of Florence’s trading empire, allowing high-status citizens to present themselves in sumptuous display, an honourable nobility in a regal cavalcade. At the same time, this procession had one destination – a stable in Bethlehem (aka San Marco), where a poor virgin had just given birth to the Christ. Here, like the wise Magi, Florentines symbolically gifted their riches to God, went down on their knees in order to transform their pride and material wealth into humility and spiritual credit, without which there was no chance of salvation.
Cosimo, poised between hubris and humility, made the Magi story a master narrative for the staggeringly wealthy Medici family. It was little short of a personal obsession, famously played out on the walls of the Medici Palace chapel and again in his cell in San Marco. This is why he brings you to Lorenzo Ghiberti’s often overlooked first set of bronze doors for the Baptistry. These doors had faced the Cathedral until they were moved in 1452 – seven years before we meet Cosimo – to make way for what quickly became Ghiberti’s more celebrated “Gates of Paradise”.
Cosimo also implies that the Medici had made the civic procession of the Magi their own, and to a significant extent this was true. The Epiphany celebrations, dating back to the fourteenth century, remained a communal affair, but Cosimo and his friends essentially took over the confraternity of elite citizens that staged the event, the Company of the Magi. This prestigious brotherhood, which met at San Marco and boasted as many as 700 members, was later described as a “republic of the Magi”. It’s a phrase that neatly conveys its quasi-governmental pretensions and – in the way Cosimo uses it – how the Medici saw its extravagant public processions as a force to unify the polity under their wise and sacred leadership.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
David Rosenthal, ‘Merchants to magi’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/cosimo/1-merchants-to-magi/
Rab Hatfield, ‘The Compagnia de’ Magi’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, 33 (1970), 107-61
Richard Trexler, The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in the History of a Christian Story (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997)
Richard Trexler, Public Life in Renaissance Florence (New York: Academic Press, 1980)