Jacobello del Fiore

Jacobello del Fiore (Venice, circa 1370 – 1439), was an Italian painter of the 15th century active mainly in Venice. He belonged to the Venetian painting school and was active between Venice, the Marche and Abruzzo between the end of the Fourteenth and the beginning of the fifteenth century.

He was the son and pupil of the painter Francesco del Fiore. Jacobello del Fiore approached a much less creative and less inspired decorativism, as the paternal influences took on those of Lorenzo and Paolo Veneziano, and the ‘hard’ and ‘severe’ Gothic was ‘softened’ thanks to the derivations Of Gentile da Fabriano.

Jacobello is likely to have been born in 1375, since by the time of his marriage in 1394, he was still under the tutelage of his father, Francesco del Fiore. Francesco was a painter himself: in 1376 he is documented in a contract as the chief officer of the confraternity Scuola dei Pittori. Additionally, Francesco headed a workshop that included Jacobello and his two brothers, Nicola, who died in 1404, and Pietro.

While Jacobello’s earliest surviving and confirmed work is dated in 1407, he is thought to be the painter behind a Crucifixion piece in the Matthiesen Collection and the Virgin and Child of Piazzo Giovaneli, both painted in the late 14th century. Art historian Andrea de Marchi was the first to suggest that a single author was responsible for these ‘neo-giottoesque’ paintings inspired by mainland painters Altichiero and Jacopo Avanzi and coined the author’s unknown name as “Master of the Giovaneli Madonna”. In the Matthiesen Crucifixion, Christ hangs on his cross in the center of the scene, dividing the followers of Christ on the left with the soldiers on the right. These details reveal that the painting’s author must have been familiar with the Late Gothic movement of the mainland and had Venetian training as well, due to the depiction of Longinus who lances Christ and the centurion who orders Christ’s legs to be broken, two figures that also appear in Altichiero’s Crucifixion in the Oratorio di San Giorgio, and also the city wall that closes the scene, a technique used by Paolo Veneziano.

Similarly, art historian Carlo Volpe noted that a series of small Passion panels painted in the 1390s––Agony in the Garden (Vatican Picture Gallery), Lamentation (Vatican Picture Gallery), Way to Calvary (British Royal Collection), and Arrest of Christ (private collection)––share a Paduan influence and stylistic similarity with that of the Matthiesen Crucifixion.” De Marchi also attributes The Madonna of Humility in a provincial museum in Lecce to the “Master of the Giovaneli Madonna,” thus connecting this work with the Matthiesen Crucifixion and the Passion panels as well.

In 1401, Jacobello sent a polyptych, which has since been lost, to the church of San Cassiano in Pesaro, and was seen there by 18th century art historian Luigi Lanzi. The Madonna of Humility in Lecce, as art historian Illeana Chiappini di Sorio claims in her 1968 article, may well have belonged to this very polyptych in San Cassiano. Thus, the Madonna of Humility in Lecce, as hypothesized by art historian Daniele Benati, connects all of the above works by the “Master of the Giovaneli Madonna” to none other than Jacobello del Fiore.

The year 1401 marks a transition in Jacobello’s career from a more archaic, gothic style, utilized in the last decade of the Trecento and captured in the Matthiesen Crucifixion, to a more modern style concerned with line, as seen in the Giovaneli Madonna and Crucifixion with Mourners and Saints in a French private collection. The latter, as De Marchi emphasizes, still derives from Altichiero and Jacopo Avanzi but moves beyond the sterner style of the Matthiesen Crucifixion by employing a looser Gothic flexibility. Both these works were probably painted between 1401 and 1407, the date of Jacobello’s first surviving, verified painting.

In 1407 Jacobello painted a triptych of the Virgin of Mercy with Saints James and Anthony Abbot now residing in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Pesaro but originally for the church of Santa Maria in Montegranaro. This triptych, according to Benati, reveals Jacobello’s interest in the latest artistic trends: its technique and style are up to date, and the pinched nose of the Virgin points toward the influence of Lombard’s Michelino da Besozzo. Similar influences found in Jacobello’s triptych of the Adoration of the Magi in Stockholm, Nationalmuseum, place it chronologically near the Virgin of Mercy triptych.

In 1408 Jacobello is believed to have completed another Crucifixion scene with the aid of wood carver Antonio di Bonvesin for a parish church in Casteldimezzo in Pesaro. The following year he is believed to have painted a tavola for Pesaro, first seen by Lanzi and later hypothetically identified by art critic Keith Christiansen as belonging to the Polyptych of the Blessed Michelina. These two paintings demonstrate his growing professional reputation achieved before his father’s death in 1409-1411.

As proof of his prominence, in 1412 the Venetian signory employed Jacobello with an annual salary of one hundred ducats, however this stipend was later reduced to 50 ducats because of Venice’s war with Dalmatia.

Between 1409 and 1415, Jacobello is believed to have been commissioned to decorate the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Hall of the Great Council) in the Doge’s Palace, putting him in direct contact with advanced mainland painters such as Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, and Michelino da Besozzo. The influence of Fabriano and Michelino can be seen in Jacobello’s previously mentioned 1409 Polyptych of the Blessed Michelina and in the later Virgin of Mercy between Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Accademia of Venice, likely painted in the mid 1410s. Michelino’s influence can be seen in the heavy-limbed infant and areas of raised pastiglia decoration in the Virgin of Mercy and additionally in the 1415 Lion of St Mark (in situ), specifically in the animal’s abstract tail and decorative wings.

Fabriano’s influence can be seen in Jacobello’s use of luxurious drapery and decorative sophistication; however, instead of adopting Fabriano’s empirical attention to detail of nature and surface structure, Jacobello, as noted by Benati, upheld a stylized, abstract use of line and devotion to metallic appearances, giving his work a heraldic appearance. This conscious decision, as Benati further argues, marks a shift in Jacobello’s style that loyally turns back to his early influences of the local Trecento tradition of Lorenzo Veneziano.

Painted for the Magistrato del Proprio in the Doge’s Palace in 1421 (now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice), The Triptych of Justice established a distinct style that dictated Venetian painting for more than a decade. The center figure represents both justice and Venice, with a scale in one hand and a sword of punishment in the other. The scroll behind her head reads, “I will carry out the admonition of the angels and the holy word: gentle with the pious, harsh with the evil, and haughty with the proud.” On the left panel St. Michael battles a dragon and holds a scroll that asks Venice/Justice to “commend the purged souls to the scales of benignity.” On the right panel Angel Gabriel declares himself as messenger to Mary and asks Venice to guide men through the darkness. As a both civil and criminal court, this commission celebrates both functions of the Magistrato del Proprio. Giambono’s St Michael and Michele di Matteo’s altarpiece of the Virgin with Saints both pay homage to this triptych, testaments to its influence.

Commissioned for the Adriatic coastal town of Fermo, this altarpiece (Civic Museum, Fermo) is considered his masterpiece. The first record of the work dates to 1763 when it was recorded in the inventory of Saint Lucy’s Church in Fermo. The paintings, restored in 1950, highlight the refulgent beauty of the Gothic style that does not attempt to be naturalistic. Instead, Jacobello returns to the narrative style of Paolo Veneziano and his Venetian roots as opposed to moving in the same direction as Gentile and Pisanello.

The eight scenes of the altarpiece depict St. Lucy visiting St. Agatha’s tomb, distributing her possessions to the poor, refusing to sacrifice to idols, resisting the pull of oxen to a brothel, burning at the stake, getting stabbed in the throat, receiving Holy Communion before death, and finally, her burial. Jacobello places the first three scenes amid Gothic-style architecture and the latter five scenes in open spaces with of rocks and grass, which in their detail recall the French tapestries woven in the mille-fleurs style. Additionally, Jacobello also captures the extravagance of 15th century garb in the fifth scene depicting her failed burning at the stake.

In 1433 Jacobello erected a tomb in dedication to his father Francesco in San Giovanni e Paolo (now lost). Jacobello clothed the effigy of his father in a full-length robe to emphasize his social prestige. Benati notes that this stone memorial not only highlights the elevation of artists in that day from simple artisans to revered members of society but also celebrates the vocation of painting, a profession that by 1433 had given Jacobello much wealth and celebrity.

During the 1430s he is believed to have mentored a young Carlo Crivelli, who was to be later known for his small colorful temperas of landscapes, fruit, flowers, and other accessories. Jacobello’s adopted son, Ercole del Fiore, appears in a 1461 record stating his vocation as a painter. Jacobello died in 1439 in his sixties.

For a long time Jacobello del Fiore was not given his appropriate due as one of the leading Venetian artists of his era. Keith Christiansen writes in his book on Gentile da Fabriano, “Jacobello del Fiore suffers from a greater critical misunderstanding than any other early Venetian artist. R. Longhi judged him a lesser personality than Niccolò di Pietro or Zanino because his works seemed deeply linked to Venetian painting rather than that of the mainland. In fact, Jacobello was the greatest local artist of his generation.” Art historians such as Daniele Benati have clarified Jacobello’s role as the link between emerging Late Gothic style of the Lombardy artists and the local Trecento tradition of Venetian painters, restoring his important role in Venetian art and the changing styles of the time.

Benati concludes, “It was Jacobello who had to face the challenge of renewing local figurative culture from within, by degrees, and who ultimately succeeded in connecting the thread that tied it to its fourteenth-century principles. In the light of his youthful adherence to the Paduan neo-Giottoesque style, we can better understand how keenly, starting in 1407, he sought to adapt the novelty of the Lombard late Gothic style to local sensibilities.”