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10 things to know about Gentile da Fabriano

Gentile da Fabriano’s paintings represent the age-defining developments in early Italian art. This article unpacks the life, style, and works of this early Renaissance master.

Gentile da Fabriano in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, via The National Gallery
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Gentile da Fabriano in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Artists, via The National Gallery

The work of Gentile da Fabriano spans centuries and styles. In the late 14th and early 15th century, he produced paintings that both epitomized the International Gothic Style and signaled its transition into the classicism of the Renaissance. As a result, his artwork represents an important stage in the history of Italian, if not European, art.

10. Little Is Known Of Fabriano’s Early Years

Madonna and Child with Two Saints and a Donor, c1395-1400, via Wikipedia
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Madonna and Child with Two Saints and a Donor, c1395-1400, via Wikipedia

As his moniker informs us, Gentile da Fabriano was born during the 1370s in Fabriano, a town in central Italy. Details about his childhood and youth are virtually non-existent, however, his father, Niccolò di Giovanni Massi, is recorded to have joined a monastery in the same year as his son’s birth, where he died in 1385.

In the 14th century, a typical path forward for boys who showed artistic talents was to become an apprentice to an established craftsman. While there is no evidence of the young Gentile going through such a process, it is suggested that he may have trained in Venice. Indeed, his early works, such as the Madonna and Child, which was likely produced while he was in his twenties, show the influence of the late-Gothic style that was in fashion in the city at the time.

9. He Lived Through A Critical Period In The History Of Art

Madonna, 1415 - 1416 - Gentile da Fabriano
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Madonna, 1415 – 1416 – Gentile da Fabriano

Gentile da Fabriano’s life coincided with an important shift in Italian art. The International Gothic style had spread from France during the later half of the 14th century and was particularly prominent in northern Italy during his early years. The Doge’s Palace, for instance, is a striking example of Venetian Gothic architecture. Features of the style include rich colors, slender elongated figures, and elegant flowing lines. More effort is dedicated to the realistic portrayal of forms and figures, and artists begin to consider perspective and proportion to create more lifelike scenes.

During the 15th century, however, there was a development away from the Gothic towards Classicism, as the Renaissance gave rise to a new enthusiasm for the ideals of the ancient world. These principles, which were gradually being rediscovered, involved the increasing influence of mathematics, empiricism and geometrical perspective. The art of the ancient world was thought to have revolved around the values of harmony, symmetry and simplicity, which bestowed a natural sense of dignity and grandeur. As a result, painters began to use these concepts as the foundation of their work, resulting in some of the great masterpieces of the Renaissance.

 


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8. Almost Every Painting Has A Religious Theme

Madonna with Child and Two Angels Gentile da Fabriano, 1410 - 1415 - Gentile da Fabriano
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Madonna with Child and Two Angels Gentile da Fabriano, 1410 – 1415 – Gentile da Fabriano

As can be expected of paintings from the 14th and 15th centuries, the majority of Gentile da Fabriano’s work is centered around Biblical or Christian ideas. His father, who took monastic vows early in his son’s life, may have had a profound impact on the young Gentile, but it is more likely to have been the overwhelmingly powerful influence of the church that generated this religious zeal. As Italy’s wealthiest institution, the church had the funds to commission artwork from the most famous and talented artists. It also had the power, resources, and reputation required to safeguard them for centuries after, meaning that most of the extant paintings from this period were the property of the church.

Particularly prominent in Italy at this time was the cult of the Virgin Mary, a veneration that still persists today in the Catholic church. The importance of the Virgin Mary in Italian faith and culture meant that representations of her were ubiquitous both inside and outside of churches, and Gentile da Fabriano’s oeuvre consists of numerous depictions of the Madonna and child.

7. But Fabriano Is Also Recorded To Have Created Secular Artwork

Philosophy and Grammar, date unknown, via Wikiart
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Philosophy and Grammar, date unknown, via Wikiart

A defining aspect of the Renaissance was the growth of Humanism, a philosophy that emphasized the freedom and importance of individual human beings, and the significance of their contribution to progression. Accompanying the rise in Humanism were scholastic developments and intellectual expansion in the fields of philosophy, science and art. Several of Gentile da Fabriano’s pieces reflect these advances, namely his allegories showing Music, Astronomy and Philosophy, and Grammar. These symbolic paintings depict these subjects being taught, attesting also to the importance of formal education during this period.

 


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6. One Secular Painting Was Commissioned By Venice’s Most Prestigious Patron

Image result for doge's palace The magnificent interior of the Doge’s palace at the heart of Venice, via Viator
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The magnificent interior of the Doge’s palace at the heart of Venice, via Viator

Although it has long since been destroyed, one of Gentile da Fabriano’s most renowned paintings was a large fresco that adorned the walls of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. Home to the city’s ruler, the Palace was lavishly decorated with work by Italy’s greatest artists; da Fabriano’s work would later be joined by the paintings of Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto. His fresco depicted an epic naval battle between Venice and the Holy Roman Empire, set many centuries earlier during their years of conflict. Despite working on the painting for over a year, da Fabriano left it incomplete and it was later finished by Pisanello.

5. Fabriano Travelled Across Italy To Undertake New Projects

The Archbasilica of St John Lateran in Rome, via Wikipedia
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The Archbasilica of St John Lateran in Rome, via Wikipedia

From 1414 to 1430, Gentile da Fabriano was almost constantly on the move across Italy, traveling from city to city to beautify its churches and buildings with his artwork. His paintings are to be found in Perugia, Brescia, Florence, Siena, Orvieto and Rome, where he was summoned by the Pope himself. Martin V recruited da Fabriano to decorate the nave of the magnificent Archbasilica of St John in Lateran with his famous frescoes. With his work visible in public buildings across Italy, the name of Gentile da Fabriano spread and he became a renowned artist.

4. His Greatest Masterpiece Was The ‘Adoration Of The Magi’

Adoration of the Magi, 1423, via Wikiart
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Adoration of the Magi, 1423, via Wikiart

The greatest masterpiece produced by Gentile da Fabriano during his period of travel was the Adoration of the Magi, which remains today in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The painting was commissioned by the city’s richest man and patron of the arts, Palla Strozzi, in 1420 and it was completed three years later. The work forms a triptych with several smaller scenes above and below, the main images showing the story of the three Magi arriving in Bethlehem and visiting the newborn Christ.

With funding from Florence’s wealthiest inhabitant, da Fabriano produced a work of exquisite luxury with no expense spared. The ornate golden frame sends an immediate signal about the value of this work, but a closer look at the paintings reveal that they are ornamented with real gold and jewels. The figures are lavishly dressed in rich (albeit highly anachronistic) clothes, and the leopards, lions, and monkeys in the background add a sense of exoticism. Stylistically, the work is considered a masterpiece of Gothic art, but also represents the beginning of the end for the genre, as da Fabriano starts to incorporate elements and techniques from the Florentine and Sienese schools that would take over during the Renaissance.

 


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3. One Of The Smallest Panels Is Considered A Great Masterpiece

Rest during the Flight into Egypt, 1423, via Web Gallery of Art
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Rest during the Flight into Egypt, 1423, via Web Gallery of Art

Even one of the smallest scenes from the Adoration of the Magi has been widely recognized as a masterpiece of its own. The three rectangular paintings along the lower edge of the triptych show images of Christ’s childhood, including the Nativity, the Flight into Egypt and the Presentation at the Temple. At only 30cm high, each one serves as a display of Gentile da Fabriano’s intricate attention to detail.

The central panel, which shows the Virgin Mary and young Jesus resting during their journey to Egypt, is particularly well-regarded and widely-recognized. This is because it is an early example of a painting showing a vast, stretching landscape. The main figures are set against a background of rolling hills and extending fields, with walled cities situated on either side. The rising or setting sun casts light over the leftmost portion of the painting, and the artist has carefully utilized shadow, perspective, and dimensions to create a realistic sense of depth.

2. Fabriano’s Talents Won Him Great Wealth And Renown

Polyptych of Valle Romita, c 1400, via Wikiart
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Polyptych of Valle Romita, c 1400, via Wikiart

With his work displayed across Italy and commissions from some of the richest and powerful figures of the day, Gentile da Fabriano became both famous and wealthy. Palla Strozzi had paid the painter 300 florins for the Adoration of the Magi, which was roughly six times the annual salary of a skilled worker, and documents from his death show that he left behind a substantial legacy.

He mixed with the artistic elite and established his own workshop which trained a number of promising young artists, some of whom would go on to become important painters. Most prominent among these was Jacopo Bellini, who is thought to have worked under da Fabriano during his youth. As well as fathering Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, Jacopo himself is considered one of the founders of Renaissance painting, another sign of da Fabriano’s influence on the development of 15th-century art.

1. Paintings By Fabriano Remain Hugely Valuable

The Nativity, from the Adoration of the Magi, 1423, via Wikiart 
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The Nativity, from the Adoration of the Magi, 1423, via Wikiart

Legendary Renaissance biographer, Giorgio Vasari, lavishes praise on the artwork of Gentile da Fabriano in his Lives of the Artists, thereby confirming his place in the upper echelons of the artistic canon. His paintings serve as a valuable signpost in the history of Renaissance art, marking the beginning of the transition away from the International Gothic style towards the classical values that came to define the era.

Most of da Fabriano’s work is in the keeping of churches and museums across Italy, but some pieces do make it to market, where they inevitably attract huge interest. In 2009, Sotheby’s sold a set of six newly rediscovered paintings by the artist, each one showing a different apostle. Each one sold for a staggering sum, the St John painting reaching $458,500, St Matthew $542,500 and St Jude Thaddeus $485,500. The immense value of these paintings reflects the importance and skill of their maker.

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