GENTILE DA FABRIANO
(b. ca. 1370, Fabriano Marche, d. 1427, Roma)
Adoration of the Magi (detail)1423
Tempera on wood
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Gentile da Fabriano's painting is not a geometrically constructed composition. It should be read as if it were the text of a tale, beginning at the top left corner, where the three Magi, meeting at the seaside, notice the star they have to follow. If we follow their course among sloping hills and cultivated fields we can see how they march into Jerusalem under the frame of the central arch, while in the lunette on the right we can see them departing. In the middle distance the direction of their journey changes, proceeding towards us and suddenly the mass of people appears from a deep ravine flanked up by a precipitous rock and a fence. Now we can discern the faces too, and observe the smallest details of garments, arms and harness. Then the crowd, which can pride itself on hunters, noble chargers and exotic animals too, stops at the right-hand corner of the foreground, having reached its destination. Only here does the youngest King's page remove his master's spurs; having sunk to one knee the second King is on the point of handing over his gift, whereas the oldest, who has already presented his, is kneeling and kissing the Infant Jesus' foot. The elegant handmaids of the Virgin are taking delight in the lovely sight.
In a masterly way Gentile da Fabriano launches, moves and stops this huge crowd of people. On the shores of the endless sea, underneath the left upper lunette, the figures of the three Magi on the summit of a mountain are surrounded by an atmosphere of cosmic stillness, while the march itself is exceedingly animated. Lively conversations are in progress, the horses are ambling and the limitless wonders of nature attract the travellers' attention. The scene of the Magi paying homage (also in the left-hand side) is calm again, emanating profound devotion and meditation. The somewhat dilapidated gate and the cave separate the principal characters from the episodes narrating what had happened earlier and it gives them some quiet in the otherwise overcrowded composition.
The plentiful realism of details which Gentile da Fabriano produced achieved such convincing effects that it approached the Renaissance ideal of representing reality. He was not only able to depict objects accurately, but also every tiny change of facial expressions and the direction of glances establishing links between people. Nor did he forget the spectator, since the donor of the altarpiece, Palla Strozzi, standing behind the youngest King, is looking at us.