Biography of Italian International Gothic Painter.

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Portrait of Ginevra d'Este (1434)
Louvre, Paris. A masterpiece of
Early Renaissance art.

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of art, see: Definition of Art.

Pisanello (1394-1455)

A pupil of Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), Antonio Pisanello became one of the most sought-after Early Renaissance artists of his day, working for the courts in Mantua, Ferrara, and Milan, as well as in Naples for King Alphonse of Aragon. He made his reputation mainly as a painter of frescoes and panels. Born in Pisa and nicknamed "the little Pisan", he was brought up in Verona, where he came into contact with the delicate art of Stefano da Verona which almost certainly gave him his feeling for rhythmic fluidity of line. Two works attributed to Pisanello, the Madonna with the Quail (Verona, Castel Vecchio) and the four panels representing Scenes from the Life of St Benedict (3 in the Uffizi; 1 in Milan, Poldi-Pezzoli Museum), show the influence of these two Old Masters - Stefano in the former, Gentile in the latter. In two of the scenes, the Miracle of the Broken Platter and St Benedict Exorcizing a Monk (both Uffizi, Florence) the arrested gestures, the delicacy of the architectural backgrounds and the range of clear, jewel-like colours, create an atmosphere of rare poetry. Another beautiful example of his Early Renaissance painting is the Portrait of Lionello d'Este (1441, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo).

For the pigments used by Pisanello,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

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For a guide, see: Religious Art.
See also: Christian Altarpiece Art.

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History, styles and development.

Recognition and Collaboration

Pisanello's name first occurs in connection with the frescoes in the great council chamber of the Doge's Palace in Venice (1415-22), on which Gentile had already begun work. These important frescoes (now destroyed) bore witness to Pisanello's growing reputation. He worked with Gentile da Fabriano again, this time in Florence in 1422-3, on the famous Adoration of the Magi (Uffizi).

On his return to Verona in 1426 he completed the fresco painting of the Annunciation above the memorial monument to Nicolo Brenzono in the Church of S. Fermo Maggiore. In this rich setting of International Gothic, Gentile's influence is apparent in the elegantly fragile and slightly weary Madonna, but the firm line and the refinement of the angel's flight are typical of Pisanello. His final collaboration with Gentile was on the frescoes (now destroyed) for St John Lateran in Rome, and he continued working on these, following the death of Gentile in 1427, until 1432.


Travels in Italy

After this date Pisanello's numerous journeys and commissions from the courts of northern Italy are well documented. In 1432 he made a drawing of the Emperor Sigismund of Bohemia (Louvre) who was travelling in Italy at the time, and this could have been the preliminary sketch for the portrait now in Vienna (Kunsthistorisches Museum), which has been attributed to the artist. Pisanello did little work in the Veneto, and spent only brief periods in Verona, but he did paint a fresco there for the Church of S. Anastasia: his famous St George and the Princess (1433-8). This fresco is filled with minute detail. The two figures illustrating the 'courtly' fashion are shown, rapt and impassive, as though transfixed in the act of saying farewell, like characters in a book of chivalrous tales. The feeling of inevitability and disquiet which hover over the scene are accentuated by the fabulous deserted city, crowned with turrets, which dominates the background, and by mysterious figures who seem to play no part in the central drama: soldiers, hunting dogs, and corpses suspended from gibbets.

The Vision of St Eustace (London, N.G.), connceived more as a hunt in a princely park than as a miraculous visitation, dates from roughly the same period. With small regard for spatial depth Pisanello has assembled, as on a page in a sketchbook, a whole collection of wild animals and hunting hounds. Deep in the leafy shade of the woods, an elegant knight stands motionless, his profile towards us, a perfect example of the sophisticated world of the late Middle Ages.

Medals and Portraits

In 1438, while Pisanello was in Ferrara for the ecclesiastical council, he executed the portrait of the Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus. Moved by the importance of his sitter, he decided to revive a technique popular in the ancient world and accordingly struck a portrait medal of him, the first in his long and distinguished career as a medallist. Although inspired by classical models, the medals are Gothic in spirit, with their fantastic imagery decorating the reverse. Pisanello treated his metal in such a way as to achieve pictorial effects superior even to those in his paintings. And it was not mere chance that made him choose to sign his medals 'Opus Pisani pictoris'.

The ten years when Pisanello was living in Ferrara were an eventful time, much of it spent in travels between the courts of Mantua, Verona, Milan and Venice. It was also the period when he produced his most important works, such as St Jerome (London, N.G.) (probably by Pisanello, although normally attributed to Bono da Ferrara) and the magnificent portrait described as an Este Princess (Louvre), who could be either Margherita Gonzaga or Ginevra d'Este. The profile of this minutely detailed masterpiece of portrait art, as firmly delineated as on a medallion, stands out against a background strewn with butterflies and wild flowers, so that it almost takes on the significance of a heraldic symbol.

In 1441 Pisanello completed a portrait of Lionello d'Este (Bergamo, Accadernia Carrara) in competition with Jacopo Bellini and, several years later, a last panel, The Virgin and Child with Saints George and Anthony Abbot (London, N.G.). In this painting, the only one of his panel paintings that Pisanello ever signed, two symbols of the dying Middle Ages confront each other against a background of forest, irrationally reduced to the size of a copse: the elegant and knightly saint and the unkempt, bearded monk.

New Frescoes Found

Some recently discovered fresco paintings in the Ducal Palace at Mantua are believed to have been executed by Pisanello around 1447 during his stay at the court of the Gonzagas. Although the series is incomplete - there are considerable gaps in the pictures - this is one of the greatest discoveries to be made for many years in quattrocento art. Taken from the Arthurian legends, the cycle is one of the most sumptuous illustrations of International Gothic. Across three sides of the room a vast scramble of horsemen is shown entangled in picturesque confusion. Knights-errant stand beneath the walls of a fortified castle while their ladies watch the battle. Some of the undamaged parts of the frescoes, such as a lady looking on at the fighting, and a group of dead or wounded armoured knights, can bear comparison with any of Pisanello's other major works.

In 1449 Pisanello was in Naples at the court of Alfonso of Aragon and it was here that he began his great series of drawings, silverwork and medals, including that of Inigo de Avalos. After 1450 there are no more records of his activity and it is presumed that he died some time between 1450 and 1455.


Throughout his career Pisanello remained a master of drawing, producing sketches for compositions, careful studies from nature (portraits, animals, costume), and also finished drawings in which he showed himself to be one of the great draughtsmen of his time. The Vallardi Codex, one of the finest illuminated manuscripts of the International Gothic era, which was acquired by the Louvre in 1856 from the merchant Giuseppe Vallardi, contains an important collection of his sketches and drawings, which display the remarkable range of his inspiration. Other collections are in Milan, Vienna and the British Museum.


Pisanello was among the most sought-after painters of his day, a cause of dispute to the most powerful courts in Italy, and an object of respect to poets and scholars for his skill in interpreting nature and for the detailed concern he brought to reality. Because of this refinement and his particular brand of realism he has been seen as an important forerunner of Renaissance art. In fact, however, Pisanello, the artist of a world of refinement, adhered almost without thinking to the enchanting style of Gothic art. In particular, his work embodies the fundamental contradiction of the International Gothic style: the juxtaposition of a meticulous surface realism with that urge towards the fantastic, outside and beyond reality, that characterizes the waning of the Middle Ages.

Note: Other important painters associated with the Late Gothic style, were: Jean Pucelle (c.1290-1334), Ugolino di Nerio (active 1317-27), Simone Martini (1285-1344) Lorenzo Monaco (1370-1425), Gentile da Fabriano (1370-1427), Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455), Robert Campin/Master of Flemalle (1378-1444); Melchior Broederlam (c.1350-1411), Masolino (1383-1440), Jacquemart de Hesdin (c.1355-1414), Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) (c.1395-1450), the Limbourg Brothers (d.1416), Stefan Lochner (1400-51) and Jean Fouquet (1425-80).

Paintings by Pisanello can be seen in several of the best art museums in the world.

• For profiles of other Pisa artists, see: History of Art.
• For more about the International Gothic, see: Homepage.

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