Gentile da Fabriano: Venice’s International Gothic inspiration

Astonishing at the turn of the 15th century, Gentile da Fabriano’s delicate naturalism of figures and rythmic folds of the drapery which create illusions of movement are the culmination of the International Gothic style. No Venetian painter could claim to be untouched by these novelties and Jacopo Bellini who probably trained with Gentile in Florence certainly wouldn’t. The decorative beauty of Gentile’s work made him a hugely influential itinerant painter just as Antonello da Messina would be later.

Originally from the Italian Marches, Gentile promulgated the International Gothic style in Venice, Florence, Rome and throughout northern and central Italy. He enjoyed an exceptionally high reputation during his lifetime based on the completion of several important commissions, many of which have disappeared or survive only in fragments. One example is his legendary Battle of the Venetians against Barbarossa, a fresco in the Doge’s Palace in Venice which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1577.

Gentile’s technique involves delicate brushwork and the use of vibrant colours and intricately patterned surfaces. The overall richness of his paintings owes much to his immense skill in the tooling of gold leaf, which, in its complexity, often resembles the work of contemporary goldsmiths. His paintings are known for their lyrical atmosphere, delicate figures with smooth, rosy complexions and heavy-lidded eyes, and a remarkable attention to detail in rendering landscapes, animals, plants, armour and costume.

Gentile’s finest work and my favourite of his is The Adoration of the Magi, an early 15th-century altarpiece, which is now housed in the Uffizi in Florence. Its subject is one of Christianity’s central acts of gift-giving by a group of magi and, in this spirit, the painting exudes sheer opulence. The holy family is contrasted by the breezy irreverence of Bruegel the Elder’s painting: the approaching crowd includes people wearing fashionable courtly costumes as well as all kinds of strokeable animals.

Gentile’s The Adoration of the Magi is the definition of elegance and sophistication which bridge the gap between Gothic painting and the new idiom which emerged in Florence during the early 15th century. Gentile incorporates the elements of the early Florentine Renaissance, such as the animation of figures and the creative use of light, with the ultimate decorative features of the International Gothic style. It’s to his credit that these elements filter down to contemporary Venetian masters as well.