Gentile da FabrianoHis name was Gentile di Niccolò di Massio. His native Fabriano is in the Marches, about halfway between Perugia and Ancona. His date of birth is unknown, but he is likely to have reached an age of financial independence by 1390, when his father, a cloth merchant, took monastic vows. He is traditionally supposed to have been the pupil of Fabriano’s most famous painter Allegretto Nuzi, but (as Nuzi died in 1373/4) this seems most unlikely. Gentile is not securely documented until 1408, when he was probably already an established master of some repute, and his early career is obscure. An ‘early period’ in Lombardy has been postulated on the strength of a few attributed works (including a small devotional panel from a convent in Pavia and a drawing in the Louvre of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Duke of Milan) and circumstantial evidence (such as the praise awarded to Gentile by the Milanese humanist Uberti Decembrio). It has been conjectured that Gentile arrived in Milan in 1395 in the entourage of Chiavello Chiavelli, ruler of Fabriano, and left in 1402, after Duke Gian Galeazzo suddenly died.
In 1408, Gentile (‘Maistro Zentil’) is recorded in Venice. He was commissioned by a Lucchese merchant, Francesco Amadi, to paint an altarpiece (now lost) for the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli. In 1409 and 1411 the Great Council voted him funds to renew a fresco cycle in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Doge’s Palace. He was paid the considerable salary of a ducat a day and granted the extraordinary privilege of wearing open, ‘ducal’ sleeves. The frescoes, showing the naval conflict between Pope Alexander III and Frederick Barbarossa and its resolution by the Doge of Venice, were completed by Gentile’s Veronese associate or follower Pisanello. They were probably the most celebrated works of art in Venice at the time. Restored as early as 1422 and renewed by the Bellini and Alvise Vivarini later in the fifteenth century, they were finally destroyed by fire in 1577. In 1411-12, Gentile purportedly led a team of painters that frescoed several rooms of the Palazzo Trinci in Foligno, midway between Fabriano and Perugia. From 1414 until 1419 he was in Brescia painting a chapel for Pandolfo III Malatesta, the new ruler. These frescoes were destroyed in the seventeenth century (a few fragments were discovered in the 1980s).
In March-April 1420, Gentile seems briefly to have visited his native Fabriano. He seems to have moved to Florence later in 1420, and he enrolled in the painters' guild in 1422. It was in Florence that he painted his two most famous surviving works. The Adoration of the Magi, commissioned by Palla Strozzi for his family chapel in the sacristy of the church of Santa Trinita, is signed and dated 1423. Now in the Uffizi, almost intact and still in its original frame, it is perhaps the greatest masterpiece of the International Gothic style. Two years later, in May 1425, Gentile completed a large polyptych for another influential Florentine family, the Quaratesi, whose chapel was in San Niccolò sopr’Arno. The polyptych is now dispersed, with the central panel in London and the remainder divided between the Uffizi, the Vatican and Washington.
In June-August 1425, Gentile was briefly in Siena, where he painted the so-called Madonna dei Banchetti (effaced in 1760) on the façade of the palazzo of the Notaries’ Guild in the Piazza del Campo. By 25 August 1425, he had arrived in Orvieto, where he painted a fresco (still partly extant) of the Madonna for the Cathedral. He died in Rome in autumn 1427 while working on a major fresco cycle (destroyed in 1647) in San Giovanni in Laterano. He was buried in the monastery of Santa Maria Nova in the Roman Forum.
Gentile’s is a refined, charming, elegant and courtly art. The brightly patterned surfaces and rhythmical line, lavish use of gold and floral decoration, and the attention to detail in the depiction of costumes, landscapes and animals is typical of the International Gothic style, which originated in the French and Burgundian courts and flourished throughout Europe during the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Though often portrayed as a conservative master, Gentile was able to combine traditional techniques with innovations in realistic representation. The predella scenes of the Adoration of the Magi are remarkable for their treatment of light and shadow, while the Quaratesi Altarpiece shows a monumentality of composition, solidity of form and broadness of handling that can only be explained by the influence of the young Masaccio, who was working in Florence at precisely the same time.
Florentine artists, including Fra Angelico and Paolo Uccello, were influenced in turn by Gentile. In Venice, Gentile’s artistic heirs were his pupil Jacopo Bellini and the painter and mosaicist Michele Giambono. In Siena, his brief visit appears to have left a strong impression on Sassetta and Giovanni di Paolo.
*Madonna, Saints and Donor. Wood, 131 x 113.
The Madonna is shown in a flowery meadow. Two tall lilies, symbolising her purity, grow in front of her golden throne. St Nicholas of Bari (identified by the three gold balls tucked into a fold of his cloak by his right hand) stands on the left. He introduces a diminutive merchant donor, kneeling in prayer. St Catherine of Alexandria (with martyr’s palm and gilded book) is on the right. In the oak tree on the left, small red seraphs play musical instruments (harp, psaltery, fiddles, tambourine, lute and organ). In the tree (possibly a laurel) on the right, seraphs play horns and bagpipes; one in the centre holds a miniature St Catherine's wheel. The original frame, which was inscribed with Gentile’s name, was lost during the Second World War. Critics are agreed that the picture is an early work; but, given the uncertainty about Gentile’s date of birth, datings have ranged from ‘about 1390-95’ to ‘about 1406-8’. It is said to have come from a church at Fabriano (either San Niccolò or Santa Caterina in Castelvecchio); by 1666 it was in the Leppardi collection at Osimo, and it was later at Matelica and Rome. Given to the Berlin Museum by King Frederick Wilhelm III in 1837.
Bologna. Pinacoteca Nazionale.
Two Apostles. Wood, each 23 x 8.
The saint in the green robe may be Bartholomew or Barnabas; that in red with a book may be Matthew. These two very small and very damaged vertical panels were discovered in the museum’s storeroom in 2004. They appear to be from the same series as two saints in the Berenson Collection at Settignano. The panels must originally have been set into the pilasters at the sides of an altarpiece – probably that painted by Gentile for the Sandei family chapel founded in 1406/8(?) in the Venetian church of Santa Sofia. They probably came from the eclectic collection of Urbano Savorgnan, bequeathed to the Instituto della Scienze at Bologna in 1776.
Brescia. Broletto (now the Prefettura).
Fresco fragments from the Malatesta Chapel.
Pandolfo III Malatesta, ruler of Brescia from 1404 to 1421, commissioned Gentile da Fabriano to decorate the Broletto’s chapel, which was dedicated to St George. Payments started in January 1414 and continued until 1419. The cycle was all but destroyed in the seventeenth century. A few surviving fragments were discovered in 1985. They comprise two small lunettes with city views and a fragment from a Resurrection showing soldiers sleeping.
Madonna and Child. Wood, 58 x 48.
The Child appears to be trying to wriggle out of the Virgin’s grasp, as though attracted by something below. (He may originally have been holding a goldfinch or acknowledging a donor.) The Virgin's halo is engraved with the Angelic Salutation ('Hail Mary, Full of Grace, the Lord is with Thee'). Damaged: cut down at the bottom and possibly also at the sides, and abraded (heavy repaint was removed in a restoration of 1980-81 and three large paint losses at the bottom have been filled with stippling). The panel may have come from the convent of Sant’Orsola at Ferrara, where there was once a nineteenth-century copy. Given to the Pinacoteca in 1975 by the lawyer Mario Baldi – grandson of the nineteenth-century collector Enea Vendeghini.
**Adoration of the Magi. Wood, 300 x 282.
In the left arch the Magi gaze at the star; in the centre arch they ride with their retinue towards the castellated town of Jerusalem; and in the right arch they approach the gate of Bethlehem. In the foreground, the Magi have dismounted to present their gifts; grooms restrain their horses; and a page removes the spurs from the last Magus as he waits his turn. Among the crowd of followers on the right are huntsmen with falcons, dogs and hunting leopards. The Virgin's and Joseph's haloes have pseudo-Arabic inscriptions, perhaps copied from Mamluk (Egyptian) brassware. The picture was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a banker and perhaps the richest man in Florence (owning more than fifty farms and more than thirty houses), for the sacristy of the church of Santa Trinita, which he had built as a private chapel for his family. Gentile was paid 150 gold florins for the picture. His name and the date, May 1423, are inscribed on the base. The face of the turbaned man behind the last Magus was engraved by Vasari as Gentile’s portrait. However, the young man has more recently been identified as Lorenzo Strozzi; Palla, his father, stands behind him holding a falcon, the family emblem. In the three Gothic gables of the splendid original frame are tiny roundels with Christ Blessing and the Angels and Virgin of the Annunciation. Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Moses, David, Ezekiel and Daniel) recline in the spandrels. The framing buttresses contain panels with painted flowers – crocuses, morning glories and chicory. Of the predella scenes, the Nativity (a night scene) and the Flight into Egypt (in a panoramic landscape with hilltop castles and a walled town) are original, while the Presentation in the Temple is a copy painted in 1903 by Prof. Gaspare Diomede della Bruna, the original having been detached and taken to Paris in 1812. The altarpiece was taken from the church to the Accademia in 1786 and transferred to the Uffizi in 1919. The pure, brilliant colours – luminous blues and reds and pearly greys – and the exquisite detail of the garments can be better appreciated since dirt, discoloured varnish and old retouchings were removed in a 2003-4 restoration.
*Four Panels of Saints. Wood, each 194 x 57.
The saints are Mary Magdalene (with her usual jar of ointment), Nicholas of Bari (holding three gold balls in his right hand and with minutely painted scenes from the Passion on his cope), John the Baptist, and George (with silvering and gilding on his armour, gauntlets and sword and on the border of his violet cloak). The figures stand on a continuous elaborately tiled pavement. In the medallions of the gables: St Francis and St Dominic between the Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation. The four panels are from a polyptych commissioned by the Quaratesi family for the main altar of the church of San Niccolò sopr’Arno and completed in 1425. They remained in the church until 1879, when, detached and neglected, they were donated to the Uffizi by the Marquis Niccolò Quaratesi, a descendent of Gentile’s patron. The rest of the altarpiece had probably been removed by the late 1790s; the central panel of the Madonna and Child is in the British Royal Collection (on loan to the National Gallery), and the predella panels are divided between the Vatican Gallery and Washington.
Florence. San Niccolò sopr’Arno. Sacristy
Polyptych. Wood, 97 x 222.
Five panels, with pointed ogee tops, framed as a dossal. The centre panel represents the Virgin and Christ interceding with God the Father. Above the blue dome of heaven, the Virgin and Christ kneel with their hands raised in supplication, while God the Father, surrounded by seraphim, appears in full majesty. The panel to the left depicts the Raising of Lazarus. The naked Lazarus rises from his tomb in response to Christ's blessing. Mary Magdalene, his sister, kneels with her hands raised in gratitude or awe. A spectator on the right covers his nose because of the smell. On the far left is the full-length figure of St Louis of Toulouse. The saint wears a bishop's cope decorated with Angevin fleurs-de-lis over his brown Franciscan habit. The right-hand panel depicts St Julian with St Comas and St Damian. St Julian, an aristocratic youth, holds the sword with which he inadvertently killed his parents. Cosmas and Damian are dressed as contemporary doctors. On the far right is the full-length figure of St Bernard of Clairvaux. The saint, dressed in the white habit of the Cistercian Order he founded, stands in the wilderness. The small devil on a chain represents his defeat of the Cathar heresy.
There are no early references to the polyptych. Its original location is unknown, and it is uncertain whether it is complete or originally formed part of a larger structure. The five panels were discovered in about 1862 in the sacristy of the church and ascribed by Crowe and Cavalcaselle to Gentile. They were damaged by fire in 1897 and subsequently badly restored. ‘Almost totally illegible’, they were hidden away for many years in the storerooms of the Pitti Palace. Restoration started in 1995 and was completed by 2006, when the polyptych was displayed at the Medici Palace and then included in the exhibition Gentile da Fabriano and the Other Renaissance at Fabriano. It has since been returned to the sacristy of the church.
Florence (Settignano). Villa I Tatti.
Head of Madonna. Wood, 25 x 19.
A small fragment cut from the middle of a painting of the Virgin and Child. The Virgin’s head, gracefully tilted in near profile, is similar to that in the Madonna of Humility at Pisa. The damaged head of the Child is visible in the bottom left corner. Purchased in Rome by Berenson early in the twentieth century.
St Peter; St Paul (or James). Two panels, 24 x 9.
Acquired by Berenson, from an unknown source, by 1907 (when they are listed as works of Stefano da Verona in his North Italian Painters). It seems that the two panels were sold by the Bologna Pinacoteca in the first half of the nineteenth century; two other (very damaged) panels from the same series are still there. An inscription on the back of the St Paul (or James) claims that the panels came from an altarpiece mentioned by Francesco Sansovino in the Venetian church of Santa Sofia. The altarpiece was an elaborate polyptych, painted for a chapel founded by a Lucchese businessman, Francesco di Enrico Sandei, in 1406/8(?). It included depictions of Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit, and a Head of St Paul, formerly in the Loeser collection at Florence and now in an American private collection, is thought to be a fragment of one of the panels. The small vertical panels of saints would have decorated the pilasters at the sides.
Foligno. Palazzo Trinci.
The extensive series of frescoes on the second floor of the palazzo mainly date from the time of Ugolino III Trinci (ruler of Foligno from 1386 to 1415). Until quite recently, they had never been seriously connected with Gentile da Fabriano. Then, in 2001, records came to light of two receipts acknowledging payments from Ugolino to Gentile for paintings in the Sala degli Imperati, Camera delle Rose and the Loggia. The two receipts, dated August 1411 and January 1412, were for payments of 225 and 93 fiorini to Gentile and a team that included ‘Jacopo da Venezia’ (probably Jacopo Bellini) and artists from Bologna, Foligno and Padua. The records of the receipts were found among handwritten notes made in 1770-80 by a local scholar, Lodovico Coltellini. The significance of the discovery for the attribution of the fresco cycles is unclear. Even assuming Coltellini’s notes to be absolutely reliable, Gentile could have delegated or subcontracted most or all the work to the other artists named. A case has been made for Gentile’s authorship of frescoes in the Hall of Liberal Arts and Planets (formerly called the Camera delle Rose). The paintings there, depicting allegorical female figures representing the liberal arts and symbols of the planets, are charming, but it is debatable whether they are sufficiently close in style to Gentile’s known works to justify an attribution to him (or to his ‘workshop’). Keith Christiansen (in his introductory essay to the catalogue of the 2006 exhibition Gentile da Fabriano and the Other Renaissance) doubts if Gentile’s involvement in the cycle of frescoes amounted to more than compositional drawings. All the frescoes in the palazzo were thoroughly restored in 1990-99.
London. National Gallery (on loan from the Royal Collection).
*Madonna and Child. Wood, 141 x 81.
The Child holds a daisy, symbol of his innocence. The sumptuous brocades, painted in red and green glazes over silver and gold, have darkened with age. The gable, with the foreshortened figure of God the Father and angels with scrolls, is original but in a modern frame. As first recognised in 1905 (by Herbert Horne), the picture was the centre panel of the polyptych painted for the high altar of the church of San Niccolò sopr’Arno, near the Porta San Miniato in Florence. Provision for the altarpiece was made by Bernardo di Castello Quaratesi in his will of 16 February 1422. An inscription on the frame (now lost) stated that it was completed in May 1425. It was seen in situ by Vasari, who described it as Gentile’s best work. The altarpiece must have been at least partially dismantled by the late eighteenth century. The centre panel of the Madonna and Child was probably acquired in Italy in the 1790s by the young English amateur painter and collector William Young Ottley. It was purchased by Prince Albert from Warner Ottley (William's younger brother) in 1846 for just £200. Four lateral panels are in the Uffizi; four predella panels are in the Vatican Gallery; and another predella panel is in Washington.
Los Angeles. J. Paul Getty Museum.
*Coronation of the Virgin. Wood, 85 x 62.
Christ simultaneously crowns the Virgin with his left hand and blesses her with his right hand. The dove of the Holy Spirit hovers overhead. The angels, three on each side, hold scrolls with musical notation and extracts from the fifth book of Revelation. The front of a processional standard, which was probably painted for the church of San Francesco at Fabriano in 1420. The back, representing St Francis receiving the Stigmata, is in the Fondazione Magnani-Rocca at Mamiano (near Parma). The Coronation, already separated from its companion, was bought by the Reverend John Sanford in Florence in 1836 for £20 from the engraver Giovanni Battista Nocchi. Later in the collection of Henri Heugel in Paris, it was acquired by Getty in 1977. There is a copy, made by Antonio da Fabriano in 1452, at Vienna (Akademia der Bildenden Künste).
*Nativity. Wood, 66 x 38.
The Virgin is depicted as the Madonna of Humility, seated on the ground. Joseph slumbers on the left, an ox and ass are in a stable on the right, and the shepherds are on a hilltop in the left distance. The inscriptions in gold Gothic letters along the hem of the Virgin's mantle give the opening words of several Marian hymns: Salve Regina, Ave Maris Stella, Ave Maria and Mater Digna Dei. From 1895 to 1966 the panel belonged to the Sorgo family of Dubrovnik. It was acquired by the Getty Museum in 1977. Christiansen (1982) ascribed both the design and the execution to an assistant. But Andrea De Marchi (1992) and other recent writers have considered the panel an autograph work. It is debated whether it was painted towards the end of Gentile's Brescian period (around 1419) or following his arrival in Florence in 1420. A Florentine origin is supported by evidence that the gold leaf conforms to Florentine guild specifications (see the article by Douglas Maclennan and Laura LLewellyn in the December 2019 Burlington Magazine).
Mamiano (near Parma). Fondazione Magnani-Rocca.
*St Francis receiving the Stigmata. Wood, 87 x 64.
The winged seraph, taking the form of the crucified Christ, appears in a golden sky to inflict the five wounds (stigmata) on the saint's hands, side and feet. Brother Leo shields his eyes from the radiance. The little church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, built by St Francis on the slopes of La Verna, is shown on the right. The panel was originally one side of a processional standard mounted on a pole. The other side, representing the Coronation of the Virgin, is now in the Getty Museum at Los Angeles. The standard is said to have been painted for the church of San Francesco at Fabriano, and probably dates from 1420 when Gentile is documented as having visited his home town in March-April. In 1834 the two sides, already sawn apart, were in the Episcopal Seminary in Fabriano. By 1858 the St Francis had passed into the possession of the Fornari family in the town, who kept it until 1923. It was acquired by Luigi Magnani in 1978.
*Valle Romita Polyptych.
The polyptych is from the small Franciscan monastery of Santa Maria di Valdisasso at Valle Romita, near Fabriano. It was probably commissioned for the high altar by Chiavello Chiavelli, the lord of Fabriano, who bought the church and hermitage from the Benedictine nuns in December 1405, rebuilt them, and provided for his own burial in the choir in his will of June 1412. The centre panel (178 x 79) represents the Coronation of the Virgin, with eight music-making angels kneeling on the dome of heaven. It is signed, centre bottom, in gold letters between the sun and moon in the starry sky. It entered the Brera when the monastery was suppressed in 1810, together with four side panels (117 x 40) showing St Jerome (holding a model of the church), St Francis (touching the stigma on the side), St Dominic (with lily and book) and Mary Magdalene (whose jar of ointment is not painted but engraved on the gold ground). The flowery meadow beneath the saints' feet is described in naturalistic detail.
Four smaller panels (60 x 40), showing the Death of St Peter Martyr, St John the Baptist in the Desert, St Francis receiving the Stigmata, and St Thomas Aquinas in His Study, were purchased in 1901. These were once believed to have formed the predella. They are now framed above the side panels as a second tier, but – as three of the scenes do not relate to saints in the side panels – it is conceivable that they came from a different altarpiece.
The polyptych was once considered one of Gentile’s earliest works and dated around 1400 or even earlier. But the history of the Valle Romita monastery and recent critical opinion favour a dating around 1405-12. It was possibly painted in Venice. The present imitation Gothic frame was made only in the mid-1920s.
Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John. Wood, 60 x 41.
This panel came to light only in 1991, when it was auctioned in London with an attribution to the studio of Ugolino di Nerio. Reattributed to Gentile da Fabriano, it was acquired by the Brera as the pinnacle of the Valla Romita Polyptych. However, the decoration on the haloes is very different from those in the polyptych, and it has since been suggested that it could be from another altarpiece (and be somewhat later in date).
New Haven. Yale University Art Gallery.
Madonna. Wood, 91 x 63.
The Virgin supports the Child who stands on tiptoe on a balustrade. Red and white roses (symbolising her purity) and pomegranates (symbolising the Resurrection and eternal life) entwine around the open stonework at the sides of the throne. On the window casement, lower left, are remains of a signature. The head and robe of the Virgin have been damaged by early overcleaning, and the panel has been cut down (particularly at the bottom). It may date from Gentile’s Florentine Period (early or mid-1420s). Acquired before 1860 by James J. Jarves, a wealthy American collector living in Florence, who sold his vast collection to Yale University in 1871.
New York. Metropolitan Museum.
Madonna Enthroned with Angels. Wood, 92 x 56.
Partly ruined; half of the Virgin’s face has disappeared and the gold ground is almost entirely lost. The best-preserved parts are the flowery meadow in the foreground and the two small angels with harps sitting at the sides of the throne. At the bottom of the picture, five other small angels sing from a scroll inscribed (in abbreviated Latin) with words from an Easter antiphon (‘Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia, because he whom thou was found worthy to bear, alleluia, has risen, as he said’). The panel may have been flanked originally by figures of standing saints. It appears to be a comparatively early work, quite close in style to the Madonna in Perugia. It came from a Florentine dealer (Georges Brauer), but might have been painted in Venice. It was bought by Theodore M. Davis, the New York lawyer and archaeologist, for $1,600 in 1900 and bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum in 1915.
New York. Frick Collection.
*Madonna with SS. Lawrence and Julian. Wood, 91 x 47.
A bird flutters from the end of the string held by the Child. St Lawrence, wearing an ornately brocaded deacon's dalmatic, kneels on the left; his gridiron is visible behind his back. St Julian the Hospitaller, on the right, is represented as a young nobleman. The inscription on the Virgin's halo is in a pseudo-Arabic script. On the original (though repainted) frame are the remains of Gentile’s signature and the names of the two kneeling saints. The picture was acquired by the Duc de Broglie, probably in Florence, in 1846, and stayed in his family’s possession until 1966, when it was acquired by the Frick. It is close in style to the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, and was probably painted in Florence in the early or mid-1420s. The emblem of thistles on the frame, which is also found on the Adoration, suggests that the Strozzi family may have been the patron.
Orvieto. Cathedral (north aisle).
*Madonna and Child. Fresco.
Apart from fragments in Brescia and the Vatican, this is Gentile’s only surviving fresco. Documents published in 1989 have established its exact date: it was painted between 25 August 1425, when Gentile arrived in Orvieto, and 16 October 1425, when the Opera del Duomo and the city council decided to pay the artist eighteen gold florins for the work. In 1568, when the interior of the cathedral was being decorated in stucco, about a quarter of the fresco was destroyed on the left, and a figure of St Catherine was added in oil by Giovanni Battista Ragazzini da Ravenna on the right. (It may have escaped total destruction at this time because of its popularity as a votive image.) The St Catherine was removed in 1985 when the fresco was cleaned, and the hovering transparent angel was discovered underneath it.
*Presentation in the Temple. Wood, 26 x 61.
In the centre, Christ’s parents offer two doves at the hexagonal Gothic temple; the High Priest Simeon holds the Child, with the Prophetess Anna behind a pillar. In the piazza outside, two elegant young women stand watching on the left, while a cripple and an elderly woman beg for alms on the right. The right-hand panel of the predella beneath the Adoration of the Magi, painted in 1423 for the Strozzi chapel in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence. The rest of the altarpiece is in the Uffizi. The Presentation was detached from the predella and taken to Paris in 1812. It has been substituted by a copy (executed in Paris by Della Bruna). Exceptionally well preserved and free of restoration.
Pavia. Pinacoteca Malaspina.
Madonna and Child with St Francis and St Clare. Wood, 57 x 42.
No throne is visible and the Virgin appears to be hovering in space. Clouds and rays of light are engraved in the gold beneath her feet. Figures of the Angel and Virgin of the Annunciation are engraved in the upper corners. The names of St Francis (holding a cross) and St Clare (with arms crossed in prayer) are inscribed above their heads. This small panel – presumably intended for private devotion rather than as an altarpiece – came from the convent of Santa Chiara la Reale (now dell’Annunziata) at Pavia. The presence of two Franciscan saints suggests that it was made for the convent, which was founded in 1380 by Bianca di Savoia (the mother of Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti), who left the sisters an endowment of 40,000 gold florins and was buried in the church. The convent was closed in 1782 and the panel came to the museum in 1892. The attribution has sometimes been doubted; Christiansen (1982) ascribed the panel to Gentile’s workshop, but De Marchi (1992) regards it as a very early work of Gentile himself, dating from the 1390s. The panel, which is quite well preserved, was cleaned in 2006.
Perugia. Galleria Nazionale.
*Madonna. Wood, 97 x 59.
The Child holds a pomegranate, which can symbolise eternal life (because of its abundance of seeds), death (because of its blood-red colour) and kingship (because of its resemblance to an orb topped by a crown). The Virgin sits on a curious low throne, decorated with trefoil arches and quatrefoil roundels and entwined with foliage (perhaps a non-flowering rose, symbol of virginity). Below the Virgin and Child, seven angels (only their heads now intact) hold a scroll with musical notation. Six more angels – two crowning the Virgin and four presenting her with lilies – are engraved on the gold background. This damaged painting is from the sacristy of the convent of San Domenico at Perugia, where Vasari mentions a ‘very fine panel’ by Gentile. It is one of his earlier works, probably painted either before his departure for Venice or during his stay there. (The large stained-glass window in the apse of San Domenico was made in 1406, which could also be the approximate date of Gentile’s Madonna.) Given to the Galleria in 1863. It may originally have formed the central part of a polyptych. It has been tentatively suggested that the same polyptych could have included six small pilaster panels of standing saints, which were until recently in a private Swedish collection. (Four of these were sold at Sotheby’s, New York, in 2009.) Restored in 1994.
Pisa. Museo Nazionale.
*Madonna of Humility. Wood, 60 x 45.
The Virgin, seated on a cushion of tooled gold with her arms crossed on her breast, adores the Child lying on a precious gold cloth across her knees. The gold cloth is of Islamic design and has a curious inscription in Kufic characters running round the edge. The background is a floral-patterned curtain, rendered using a red glaze over gold leaf. The little panel is well preserved and still in its original frame. It is painted on the back with imitation polychrome marbles, and was evidently intended as the centre panel of a portable altarpiece (there are traces of hinges at the sides). It probably dates from Gentile’s Florentine period (early to mid-1420s). It has been conjectured that it was painted for Alemanno Adimari (d. 1422), the Florentine Archbishop of Pisa, whose tomb (in Santa Maria Nova in Rome) was frescoed by Gentile. Transferred to the museum in 1893 from the Pia Casa della Misericordia at Pisa, where it was seen by Cavalcaselle in 1866.
Rome. Vatican Pinacoteca.
*Stories of St Nicholas. Four predella panels; three 36 sq.; one 30 x 62.
The predella belonged to the Quaratesi Altarpiece, painted in 1425 for the church of San Niccolò sopr’Arno in Florence. Another predella panel is in Washington; the centre panel is in London; and four side panels are still in Florence. The four Vatican panels probably entered the Library in the 1840s or 1850s, and were transferred to the Pinacoteca in 1909. Although their connection with the Quaratesi Altarpiece was recognised in 1906 (by Sirén), the attribution to Gentile himself was sometimes doubted before 1973 because they were so heavily overpainted. Cleaning revealed the quality of the panels, which had been damaged by scouring in an early attempt at restoration.
Three of the four panels illustrate stories found in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend. The first panel depicts the Birth of St Nicholas. The baby is shown standing upright in his washbasin immediately after his birth, much to the amazement of his mother and the two midwives. The panel of St Nicholas giving Golden Balls to Three Maidens illustrates the best known of the stories. The gift was for marriage dowries to prevent the girls falling into prostitution. A golden ball is being thrown through a window into a room, in which one girl undresses her father (removing his shoes and hose), another removes her head-covering and the third undresses herself. The story is said to be the basis of the use of three gold balls as the pawnbroker's sign. The longer panel, which came from the centre of the predella, depicts St Nicholas saving a Ship at Sea. The saint appears in a vision to the crew, who are throwing their cargo over the side of the storm-tossed vessel. In the bottom left corner, a mermaid swims in the clear blue-green water. The fourth panel depicts St Nicholas reviving Three Boys. This miracle is excluded from the Golden Legend, but is widely found in late medieval wall paintings, stained glass and illuminated manuscripts. A wicked innkeeper robbed and murdered three clerks (theological students) and pickled their remains in brine. St Nicholas, who happened to be staying at the inn, restored them to life by the sign of the cross.
Head of David (?). Fresco fragment, 59 x 47.
This fragment was given to Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) by the clergy of the Congregation of the Theatines, and was thought to represent the head of Charlemagne. It is said to have come from San Giovanni Laterno, where Gentile had a commission to decorate the walls above the arcade of the nave with frescoes of the Life of St John the Baptist, with Prophets in the niches. The frescoes were finished after Gentile’s death by Pisanello in 1431-32. Just twenty years after their completion, they were described as so damaged by damp that they could hardly be seen. They were finally destroyed in 1647 when Borromini remodelled the church.
Annunciation. Wood, 41 x 48.
First recorded in 1800 in the collection of the lawyer Agostino Mariotti, this little devotional panel came to the Vatican in 1820. It was kept in storage for many years and rarely seen. The attribution to Gentile da Fabriano, as a work of his Florentine period, was made in 1940 by Roberto Longhi, who appears to have been one of the first art historians to study the picture. The attribution has been disputed. The panel was omitted from Berenson’s 1968 Lists and Christiansen (1982) described it ‘as a work of low quality, which cannot be reconciled with any of [Gentile’s] autograph paintings’. It has been suggested, more recently, that it was executed by an assistant working in Gentile’s workshop. Another version, identical in composition, was in the collection of Barbara Piasecka Johnson at Princeton.
Tulsa. Philbrook Museum of Art.
Madonna and Child with Two Angels. Wood, 59 x 43.
This small altarpiece may have been painted by Gentile’s Venetian or Brescian workshop from his design. Before its acquisition by Kress, it was in a private collection at Belluno. At Tulsa since 1953.
Velletri (39 km from Rome). Museo Capitolare.
Virgin and Child with Two Angels. Wood, 110 x 65.
Terribly damaged: the paint surface has been completely lost in a large triangular area at the bottom centre, probably as a result of candle burns. Presumably a late work, dating from Gentile’s years in Rome (1426-27). It was originally in the ancient church of SS. Cosma e Damiano in the Roman Forum, and was transferred to the little church of Sant’Apollonia at Velletri in 1633. Taken to the Duomo in 1913, and thence to the museum.
Vienna. Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Stoning of Stephen. Wood, 17 x 27.
St Stephen, a deacon appointed by the Apostles to look after the distribution of alms, was stoned for blasphemy while he saw a vision of Christ at God's right hand (Acts: 7, 54-59). The saint's celestial vision is merely engraved on the gold ground and is barely visible in reproductions. This small, heavily repainted panel is presumably from the predella of an altarpiece. A late work, dated either to Gentile's Florentine period or to his last years in Rome. Given to the museum by Karl and Rosalie Goldschmidt in 1903.
Washington. National Gallery.
*Madonna. Wood, 96 x 57.
The Virgin is magnificently dressed in a mulberry-red robe, over a tunic with sleeves embroidered in gold with a pomegranate pattern. The Child appears to gesture with his right hand at the word mater inscribed on her collar. (He may originally have been offering his mother a flower, cleaned away by a restorer.) With his other hand, he holds a butterfly or moth by a string – an allusion to the Resurrection. The Latin inscription along the gold hem of the Virgin's robe is from Luke 1: 28 ('Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed'). As in the Madonna at Perugia, angels are engraved into the gold background (but are very difficult to see). This well-preserved panel is usually thought to date from Gentile’s Florentine period (about 1420-25). It is first recorded (already with an attribution to Gentile) in the London collection of Sir Alexander Barker. Barker, who inherited a fortune from his father's fashionable bootmaking business on Ludgate Hill, was a distinguished Victorian collector of fifteenth-century Italian art and probably acquired the panel on a visit to Florence. His collection was sold at Christie's in 1874. After passing through collections in Paris (E. J. Sartoris) and New York (Henry Goldman), the panel was one of twenty-four paintings acquired by Samuel H. Kress from Duveen in 1937.
*Cripples at the Tomb of St Nicholas. Wood, 36 sq.
From the predella of the Quaratesi Altarpiece; the other four predella panels are in the Vatican. It shows the interior of the Romanesque basilica of San Nicola at Bari with the tomb of St Nicholas. The saint’s relics were reputed to exude a substance – an oil spray sometimes called 'manna' or else a fragrant 'myrrh' – with miraculous healing powers. Below the mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the apse are five scenes from St Nicholas’s legend – the same scenes that appear in the predella. By around 1800 the Washington panel was in the hands of Tommaso Puccini of Pistoia, Director of the Uffizi. It later passed into the collection of Marchese Alessandro Tucca of Lucca (possibly through the dowry of Puccini’s niece who married into the Tucca family). In 1928 it was on the art market in Rome and was identified as the missing panel from the predella. Bought by Kress in 1937.