Gentile di Niccolò di Giovanni di Massio was born circa 1370 in or near Fabriano, in the Marche. The most sought-after and famous artist in Italy during the first quarter of the 15th century, he carried out important commissions in several major Italian art centres and was recognized as one of the foremost artists of his day. Sadly, most of the work on which his great contemporary reputation was based has been destroyed, which may be why he is not more widely known today.
Along with Ghiberti, Gentile da Fabriano was Italy's outstanding representative of the International Gothic style. He also contributed to the advanced art that foreshadowed the birth of the Renaissance. Gentile's paintings feature deep, vibrant colors, richly patterned surfaces, and people with soft, full faces, heavy-lidded eyes, and dreamy expressions. His lyrical atmosphere, elegant refinement, and attention to detail in rendering landscapes, animals, and costume typify the International Gothic style, originally developed in French and Burgundian courts and used especially in illuminated manuscripts.
Gentile's most famous surviving works were made during a short but influential stay in Florence in the 1420s, where he probably encountered the austere realism of his younger contemporary Masaccio. His altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi (1423), now in the Uffizi, is regarded as one of the masterpieces of International Gothic style. Its delicate linearity and vibrant colours enhance the effect of rich exoticism. It is remarkable not only for its exquisite decorative beauty but also for the naturalistic treatment of light in the predella, where there is a night scene with three different light sources. The painting's graceful figures are clothed in velvets and rich brocades, and the Magi are attended by Oriental retainers, who look after such exotic animals as lions and camels.
Unlike Masaccio, who launched his art straight into the Renaissance, Gentile straddled the threshold between Gothic and Renaissance. How he loved to tell a story! The Quaratesi Polyptych is a perfect example of this. Its many panels depict the salient moments in the life of St. Nicholas, bringing faraway legends to life for the illiterate masses who had no other way to learn the stories.
The decorativeness of Gentile's elegant, courtly style continued to influence Florentine artists throughout the century and rivaled the austere realism introduced by Masaccio. Gentile's other contributions to Renaissance art were: abandoning abstract backgrounds for real skies, introducing a light source into the picture, depicting cast shadows, and making the earliest known drawings after the antique.
Gentile da Fabriano had widespread influence, notably on Fra Angelico, who was his greatest heir. Michelangelo said that his works resembled his name, meaning "noble," or "refined." They are full of a quiet and serene joyfulness, brightened by a naïve and innocent delight in splendor and gold ornaments, but never overdecorated.
Gentile da Fabriano died in 1427 while working on frescoes (since destroyed) in the Basilica of St. John in Lateran. He is commonly said to have been buried in the church now called S. Francesca Romana in Florence, but his tomb vanished; there is evidence, however, that he may be buried in the church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, in Rome.