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Gentile's gold.

The year 2006, as with wines, was also a banner vintage in Italy for the visual arts. Florence alone was host to four small but significant exhibitions. Proceeding southward, the fortunate traveler would have found, in the refurbished stables of Rome's Quirinal Palace, a comprehensive and exciting gathering of Antonello da Messina's paintings, together with those of some of his contemporaries. Still further south in Naples, the portraiture of Titian was displayed in all its grandeur in the magnificent setting of Capodimonte. But then, Florence-Rome-Naples is the granddaddy of all Italian itineraries. Were our fortunate traveler to have had the curiosity and stamina for a detour east, to Fabriano, he would have been even more richly rewarded.

No matter how one approaches this enchanting small town in the hills of the Marches, the landscape flows by, verdant, bucolic, and unspoiled. And were it not for the rapid progress of two autostrade bearing down from two directions, the old roads are still all that a sporting driver could wish for.

Fabriano, like so many towns in central Italy, emerged from the Middle Ages independent, industrious, and belligerent, and, like so many of its neighbors large and small, was ruled by a succession of petty tyrants who, with uneven results, attempted to establish dynastic rule. Eventually, the entire region comprising the Marches and Umbria became part of the Papal States, relegating Fabriano to the role of a comfortable provincial backwater. Although today the town is a bustling hive, producing everything from kitchen furnishings to high-tech alloy castings, its trademark is the quality hand-laid "Fabriano" paper that has been made there for centuries. Another local glory is the painter who was born within its wails about 1370. Gentile was his given name but, even by his contemporaries, he was known as Gentile da Fabriano.

Gentile's stature as an artist not only earned him his "da Fabriano" surname, but also more than justified the highly important and painstakingly prepared exhibition which his native town devoted to him earlier this year. It was the first compendium of his work ever assembled, and it drew to the task an impressive roster of scholars, notable among them Keith Christiansen, the associate curator of European paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was Christiansen who, in 1982, prepared the definitive catalogue of Gentile's paintings, accompanying it with a perceptive analysis of the artist's role in the story of early Renaissance Italian art.

The story is, inevitably, incomplete. One would wish that Gentile da Fabriano's early training were better delineated by reliable documents and identifiable works. Who, for instance, was his first mentor and where did his training occur? What part did the Chiavelli, signori of Fabriano, play in the rapid progress of the artist's career and notoriety? Finally, what were the circumstances of Gentile's incessant lifelong travels throughout northern and central Italy? Inevitably, in the absence of a written record, the visual evidence must suffice, but in Gentile's case, this is complicated by the fact that, although he was steadily and successfully employed as an affresco painter, virtually all his work on walls has disappeared. Moreover, only about thirty of his panels survive--of his drawings, a mere handful.

The two panels that contemporary criticism places at the very beginning of Gentile's career, circa 1395, speak clearly of the artist's presence in Lombardy and of his association with the Visconti court (Virgin and Child with Saints, Piacoteca Malaspina, and Virgin and Child with Saints and a Donor, Berlin, Gemaldegalerie), the latter, lamentably, absent in Fabriano. It was at this time that Milan was entering, under Visconti rule, a period of unparalleled economic prosperity and military power. Gian Galeazzo Visconti, after having shared sovereignty for fifteen years with his uncle Bernabo, had finally, by the end of the century, succeeded in eliminating him (literally) and having himself anointed Duke of Milan and Lombardy by the Emperor. Repeated attempts by Milan's archenemy, Florence, to limit Visconti hegemony in northern Italy had ended in costly failures. Gian Galeazzo, in true Renaissance fashion, was not modest in savoring his uncontested preeminence. This was reflected by the splendor of his court which, in spirit and manners, closely adhered to the chivalric models of France, Burgundy, and the Empire.

The exhibition opens with a number of drawings, objects, and paintings appropriately illustrating the "gothic" elegance, refinement, and opulence of Milan under Visconti rule. A drawn likeness of Gian Galeazzo may be by Gentile himself; it is miraculously crystalline and almost Ingres-like, attesting not only to the young's artist's proficiency, but also to his early entree into the highest reaches of courtly patronage. Further drawings and several paintings by artists such as Giovannino de' Grassi, Michelino da Besozzo, and an anonymous hand that goes by the name of "Master of the Barbavara Altarpiece" help to define the figurative language that Gentile made his own. It is one of exquisite color, flowing, sinuous line, and delicately balanced composition--all combining to create a precious, otherworldly lyricism very reminiscent of book illumination.

Then there is the gold. Several objects--shimmering, jewel-encrusted reliquaries, chalices, and crosses--command attention by their mere presence. Gold, of course, has always denoted wealth and power, and, seen in such profusion and so intricately worked, it still inspires awe in our jaded postmodern eye. In late medieval ecclesiastical and court ritual. However, gold was much more than an indicator of value, beautiful to behold. It was present as a prime ingredient of the religious and artistic experience. Gold, in its unalloyed perfection, served as a metaphor for spiritual purity, for eternity and, ultimately, for holiness--artributes that in many ways applied to the Church as well as to the Court.

No other European artist used gold so skillfully and intelligently as Gentile da Fabriano. Gold is everywhere: in the elaborately tooled backgrounds and haloes, in the highlights of draperies and in the very texture of their weave; in the brightness cast by heavenly apparitions and in every accoutrement and caparison worn by man or beast. Many of these golden details are also given sculptural relief so as to augment their visibility and verisimilitude. Gold leaf actually underlies many areas that were then covered with transparent glazes; these surfaces were subsequently scored to produce effects that are magically luminous. In a word, Gentile's art is all about gold.

Returning, with this in mind, to that early work now in Berlin, the Virgin and Child with Saints and a Donor, one cannot fail to be struck by the gilt throne and background, occupying, in a painting of this considerable size, what must be well over a third of the surface. Then, virtually everywhere else, the eye picks up the minute and complex gold embroidery, beading, and highlighting. On one level, all this is perfectly consistent with the late Gothic mannerisms and techniques from which Gentile emerged. What announces itself here as radically different and innovative, is the equilibrium of the composition and the substance of the figures. The sinuous and graceful shapes no longer solely describe an elegant play of line, contour, and color. Each form is modeled with an evident understanding of its weight and mass, and each is arranged in a clear relationship to its setting. The figure of the donor is an admirably executed portrait--no longer merely a pro forma stand-in, but a recognizable, living person. Gentile is careful to give even the saintly figures their human individuality and expression.

Gentile's early and widespread recognition is easily understandable when one realizes that several paintings of this caliber are generally dated before the close of the fourteenth century. By 1410, he was in Venice at work on the Serene Republic's most prestigious commission: fresco decoration of the main chamber of the Doge's Palace, unfortunately now lost. It was probably for a Venetian patron that Gentile carried out the first of his three major surviving altarpieces, the so-called Valle Romita polyptich (Milan, Brera). Conceived within a relatively conservative framework comprising a central composition--The Coronation of the Virgin--flanked by separate standing figures of saints, with a Crucifixion and smaller figures of saints above, this impressive pile is much more than a sum of its parts. The relationship of attitudes and poses is so skillfully orchestrated that the viewer is hardly troubled by the fact that the altarpiece is actually a composite of ten separate and discrete images. Each element blends seamlessly into a single, and sublime, heavenly vision. If considered at close quarters, however, one discovers with wonder how Gentile's brush is tireless in its careful exploration of the substance and texture of real things such as fabrics, flowers, and flesh; each item is examined, weighed, and then revealed in its corporeal--utterly truthful--specificity.

Within the space of another ten years or so, Gentile had progressed from Venice, to Brescia, back to Fabriano and then to Florence where he arrived in 1420. The presence there of Pope Martin V may well have had something to do with the artist, by now greatly renowned, having been attracted to the same city at this moment. The endless schism of the Church had been finally recomposed, and the Pope could now proceed to Rome. The fact that Florentine diplomacy and Medici money had played such an important role in these events allowed the city and its ruling oligarchs to enjoy immense new prestige on the world stage.

Foremost among Florence's commercial and banking elite was Palla Strozzi. He had not only amassed a huge fortune, but, like his slightly younger contemporary, Cosimo de' Medici, was universally respected for his wisdom and prudence. Also like Cosimo, Palla Strozzi did not stint on building projects which would add luster to the family escutcheon and at the same time would promise rewards in the hereafter. Such was the decoration of the Strozzi Chapel in the prestigious and very central conventual church of Santa Trinita.

Florence was hardly experiencing a shortage of artistic talent in 1420, and Palla Strozzi was therefore blessed with an embarrassment of riches. Not surprisingly, he was characteristically munificent and perceptive in his choice of painter for the great altarpiece that would adorn his chapel; Gentile was, by then, one of the most famous artists in Italy, and undoubtedly the most expensive. Strozzi must not have been disappointed with the result. The Adoration of the Magi, with its grand dimensions, elaborate framing, and lavish execution is an unsurpassed masterpiece, and not only within the context of Gentile's work; it stands as one of the pinnacles of early Italian Renaissance art. Removed from Santa Trinita in 1810 (when one of its precious predella panels was spirited off to Paris) and, since 1919, a treasure of the Uffizi, the Adoration altarpiece could not be expected to undertake the journey to Fabriano. Even in its absence, however, Gentile's microcosm of teeming potentates, courtiers, camp followers, peasants, stallions, dogs, and sundry exotic animals cast its magic spell on the exhibition. The temporary return to Italy of the Paris predella (Presentation in the Temple, Paris, Louvre) was, at least, a small but very welcome consolation.

The theme of the Adoration enjoyed great favor among Florentine artists of the Quattrocento; later interpretations by Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Ghirlandajo, and Benozzo Gozzoli are all justly famous. The subject, treated as a royal progress--a magnificent parade--must have had a special appeal in a city that still considered itself an austere republic where sumptuary laws were rigorously enforced, and any ostentation of personal luxury and wealth much frowned upon. If Florentines might have derived voyeuristic pleasure from admiring an event quite so foreign to them, then they must have felt abundantly rewarded by Gentile's cinematic "cast of thousands." The leading and supporting actors, the countless extras and staffage, not excluding the occasional monkey and leopard, are all resplendent in jewels, brocades, feathers, and turbans. When observed from afar in its panoramic entirety, The Adoration of the Magi can be enjoyed as a wonderland fairytale, but, as always with Gentile, reality resides in the details: the astutely observed foreshortenings, the convincingly modeled drapery, the lovely tiny flower rendered with the precision of a botanist.

The one presence in Fabriano that, to some extent, mitigates the absence of the Uffizi altarpieces is the St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata. Almost totally inaccessible in an Italian private collection until 1978, it is now part of the Magnani Foundation, near Parma--slightly out of the way, but decidedly worth the detour (a great Goya masterpiece is an extra dividend). Gentile painted the St. Francis, and its verso now in the Getty, on a visit back to Umbria and the Marches in the mid-1420s. He then continued on to Rome to fulfill a major papal commission at the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Only fragments of this fresco survive, however, and what there was remained incomplete at the artist's death in 1427.

The St. Francis is, therefore, the one capital work that still speaks clearly of Gentile in his later years. It does so also because of the painting's absolutely uncanny preservation-possessing a surface that is truly unblemished and miraculously un-cleaned. In this context, "un-cleaned" does not mean "dirty"; it means that the surface has been spared attempts at rendering it brighter and more sparkling--generally by the application of strong, caustic solvents. This is rare and, when encountered, it immeasurably increases an understanding of the artist's intent. Here, Gentile was obviously aware of the challenges he faced: placing two figures at varying distances in a mountainous setting, and portraying them at the moment of impact with the divine presence of the Holy Spirit. Giotto's sacred precedent, of course, was inescapable, and Gentile, far from reinventing the iconography, merely heightens the drama with a mystically charged light. Its rays invest, in subtle gradation, every detail ... again, the details becoming protagonists. Each of these visual annotations, rather than fragmenting the form, adds to it. As a result, the elements of the composition--the rocky cliffs and the humble oratory of La Verna, the simply draped figures, their heads and hands--assume a surprising sculptural integrity and mass. Contemporary criticism has finally recognized this aspect of Gentile's art as having a great deal in common with Masaccio, that perennial hero of the "real" Renaissance. Could this have been the thinking behind the curious title of the exhibition: "Gentile da Fabriano and the Other Renaissance"?
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Author:Grassi, Marco
Publication:New Criterion
Geographic Code:4EUIT
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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