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Course: Europe 1300 - 1800 > Unit 3

Lesson 3: Painting in central Italy

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi

Gentile da Fabriano, Adoration of the Magi, 1423, tempera on panel, 283 x 300 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
Speakers: Dr. Steven Zucker & Dr. Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Wudaifu
    Can anyone else find animals that I missed in addition to the cow, horses, dog, donkey, bird, monkey, and many people?
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf green style avatar for user juufa72
    Is that Arabic on the sash of the sword bearer, who is behind the youngest magi? At . If yes, what is it say?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Joanna Mac Farland
      The writing on the sash is actually a fantastical form of script invented by the artist that was intended to mimic the shapes and forms of the Hebrew alphabet. Art historians call this type of writing "pseudo-kufic", and it is often shown on the clothing of Christ or Mary during the early Renaissance as a reminder of the Holy Family's Judaic origins (look at the lettering around the haloes of Mary and Joseph!). In the sash of the attendant, it is intended to lend an exotic air to the retinue of the kings "from unknown lands".
      (9 votes)
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Миленa
    Why is Joseph an old man in this painting? Is this common?
    (1 vote)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Eli Bamberger
    Why is there so much religious art, and so little non-religious art during this time period?
    (2 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user chuckwooldridge
    In the book the Phantom Tollbooth, there's a man who lives in a house. It has two (or maybe more) doors. If you go to one door, it says "Tallest midget in the world." If you go to the other door, it says "Shortest giant in the world." Same guy.
    I feel that way about this painting. If it's Gothic, it's the most Renaissance Gothic painting you can imagine. Many of the figures, including the horse in the foreground, are in contraposto. Each has an individual identity. You can see the musculature on the dog. The story is set in an outdoor space with distinct dimensions (like the cow or ox in the inside) that give the painting depth. Baby Jesus is not some generic otherworldly figure -- in spite of the halo, you get the sense that Fabriano may have spent time with an actual baby. To my eye, there is even a kind of vanishing point in the upper left -- the star. Why insist on it being Gothic when it has so many elements of the Renaissance?
    (3 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user cheery.reaper15
      From previous videos and essays, the academics have pointed out that artistic categories are something of a construct. In this case, as you've clearly observed, there is a transition/melding of styles as the artist attempted a new way of portraying the narrative. I expect art historians, just like other academics, disagree on which category in which to place this artwork.
      (1 vote)
  • winston baby style avatar for user Liotun Dahazrahazyeh
    why was he payed 6 times more thna/then normal.
    (2 votes)
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    • leaf grey style avatar for user dancedancebuddy
      He was paid six times as much as the annual wage of a skilled laborer partly as a way for the commissioner, one of the wealthiest people in Florence, to show off his wealth and opulence, as well because of the extreme detail he put into the painting. The use of gold that actually looked like it was jewelry made an allusion to the commissioner's role as banker within the community, and the immense amount of detail he took into consideration with the story being told in four different parts but looking like it was one solid procession with no separate parts is also very profound.
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

(lively piano music) Voiceover: One of the wealthiest people in early Renaissance Florence commissioned Gentile da Fabriano to paint a magnificent altar piece for his family's private chapel in an important church, Santa Trinita. Voiceover: The subject is the Adoration of the Magi. The Magi are by legend the three kings who follow a star that leads them to Christ who has just been born, to whom they present gifts and acknowledge Christ as King of Kings by removing their own crowns, and placing them before Christ. This was commissioned by a man who was incredibly wealthy. Essentially the king of Florence but Florence had no kings. Florence was a republic. Voiceover: The city of Florence was an independent, a political entity that was controlled by the wealthy merchants of the city and their guilds. Voiceover: The people of Florence were independent and proud members of a republic but then you had this enormous accumulation of wealth especially in the early 15th century. Voiceover: This painting is a perfect way of showing off that wealth. The artist came from Northern Italy, settled in Florence in large part because there was money to be made there. There were patrons to be had there. Voiceover: He was very handsomely paid for this altar piece. We read one estimate that he was paid six times the annual wage of a skilled laborer for this one altar piece. Voiceover: His particular style is one of opulence. It's a bejeweled surface. There's gold. It's a perfect way for one of the leading families in Florence to show its importance. Voiceover: The Strozzi family made their money primarily through banking. Through handling gold. Although Palla Strozzi, the patron for this particular painting ignored the banking business and was much more interested in the arts and humanist learning. Voiceover: As we stand here in the Uffizi Museum in Florence it's interesting to watch people look at this painting. Those people are picking out the many anecdotes that you can recognize very much the way people would have when the painting was first made. This is a real crowd-pleaser. Voiceover: There's fun things to see. Voiceover: We can make out the story of the Magi very clearly. It's really quite an inventive structure because you have a continuous landscape, but what we're seeing within it are whole series of moments in time. Voiceover: It's a continuous narrative. Voiceover: In the upper left corner we can see the three kings very distant just under the star of Bethlehem over the sea. We understand this from the story to be in the East. Voiceover: Which explains their attire. Then in the central arch we see the three kings entering Jerusalem where King Herod asked the three Magi to report back where they find this king that King Herod has heard will threaten his reign. Voiceover: He would like to kill the child Voiceover: Yes. Voiceover: but of course doesn't let on. Then in the right most upper corner we see the three Magi entering the city of Bethlehem. Then presumably, the scene that is laid out before us is taking place there. Voiceover: We get the sense of a crowd watching the three Magi approach Christ and Mary. Voiceover: The Christ child is playful. Look at those feet and we see the three Magi in the process of bowing down before Christ. You can see that there are two attendants just behind Mary that are examining the first gift, and Joseph is standing just to Mary's left. Voiceover: The spurs are being removed from the youngest Magi's ankles. He just gotten off his horse and he's about to approach Jesus. Voiceover: In fact, we see lots of pages. There is a sense of the courtliness of the scene. The spurs that you are talking about are really marvelous. They're actually built up to be three-dimensional and this is done with plaster that is then gilded, but what it makes it look like is that it's a solid piece of gold that this is jewelry attached to the image itself. Voiceover: You can see why that kind of treatment of the gold might appeal to as wealthy a patron as Palla Strozzi. Voiceover: The style of this painting is generally referred to as International Gothic. This is the last moment of the Gothic before the renaissance rule developed. Voiceover: That's because we don't see some of the things that we associate with the early renaissance year. Unlike with Masaccio whose painting just a few years after this we don't see the near perspective. In fact, we see a building up by the figures pressed into the foreground. Voiceover: The artist is avoiding the overlapping and obscuring of figures. Voiceover: At the same time we see foreshortening which helps to create an illusion of space with the horse on the right for example or the horse behind who's facing us. Voiceover: Of course, diminishing scale. The figures get smaller as we're meant to read them going further back in space. The artist may have been influenced by somebody like Ambrogio Lorenzetti who had created an extensive landscape in the city of Siena. Voiceover: The figures are still somewhat elongated especially if you look at the Virgin Mary. Although the artist is using modeling to describe her knees and her thighs. If she were to stand up I think we would see her as being tall and thin. Voiceover: I think the emphasis here is on her elegance, her beauty as opposed to her anatomical accuracy. Voiceover: Which would be a very Gothic thing and not a very renaissance thing. Voiceover: The main panel is set between smaller scenes. Above we have Christ blessing and then we have an enunciation on either side. Below we have three predella scenes. Voiceover: In the predella panels we see three scenes from Christ's childhood. On the left the Nativity, in the center the Flight into Egypt, and on the right the Presentation in the Temple. Voiceover: Let's take a close look at the Nativity. Voiceover: This has been called one of the first night scenes in art history. Lighting that comes from the moon and the stars, and the angels and the Christ child himself. Voiceover: There's so many lovely details. Look for instance at the crown of peacocks worn by the figure on the right or the way in which the flowers in the frame push outward. Voiceover: To me this painting is very much an accumulation of details. There's a lot to look at but it still resides in the late Medieval Gothic tradition. Voiceover: And is a reminder of the tremendous wealth that would make the Florentine Renaissance possible. (lively piano music)