Text by Geoffrey Smith
Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions
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Gentile was born in Fabriano near Perugia. After a number of years working in Venice and the northern Italian city of Brescia, by late 1419 Gentile was working in Florence. His masterpiece, the Adoration of the Magi was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a cultured Banker and a quintessential Florentine patron who spent his fortune on works of art and contributed to the vibrant intellectual life of the city. It was installed in the church of Santa Trinita in 1423.
It is notable that although the architectural frame is constructed as for a triptych, Gentile has abandoned any thought of dividing the composition further, preferring to spread his narrative across the panel.
According to Matthew’s gospel, the Magi followed a bright star which directed them to the location of the Nativity. In the foreground they have arrived at their destination – a golden orb symbolic of the star hangs somewhat disconcertingly above Joseph. They are gorgeously clothed in sumptuous materials befitting their status as important representatives from the East – following convention (dating back to the 10th century) Gentile has cast them as crown-wearing kings. They are placed in the centre foreground with the holy family to their left; a bearded king stoops to receive the blessing of the Christ-child who places a tiny hand on his bald head as the two younger emissaries look on whilst presenting their respective gifts. Their retinue together with their luxuriously caparisoned horses are crammed into the foreground to the right attended by grooms one of whom is kneeling, busy removing a spur from the king with the striking red hose.
In the background, within the lunettes, instead of using a gold ground, which had often been his choice, he has constructed a landscape with three scenes from the travels of the Magi, together with their expensively turned-out entourage, prior to their arrival at the site of the nativity. These tableaux are a narrative device often used during the period. The background travellers are smaller than those at the picture plane giving some idea of distance within the landscape. But in general Gentile is more interested in the pictorial surface than depth. His style emphasised the precise representation of detail over the need to generate a sense of space within the composition – important paintings should be physically luxurious. As well as the use of extensive decorative patterning, Gentile uses many passages of ‘pastiglia’ – building up areas with plaster and gesso before covering them with gold leaf to give the illusion of a three dimensional object. Indeed gold is everywhere, not only for halos and crowns but for elaborate harnesses and sumptuous apparel. One might say that he was one of the foremost Italian exponents of the International Gothic style. However, Gentile is not unconscious of other ideas, he was at the cusp of changes in the visual arts in Italy. He also uses light to create the feeling that his figures have volume, especially in the three small panels forming the predella. In this respect the Adoration of the Magi was a very influential work as well as being a feast for the eye.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
1420 Robert Campin, The Entombment, London, Courtauld Institute Galleries
1424 Fra Angelico, San Domenico Altarpiece, Fiesole, San Domenico