Family of Venetian painters who played a dominant role in the art of their city for three-quarters of a century. Jacopo (b Venice, c.1400; d Venice, 1470/1) was the father of Gentile and Giovanni and father-in-law of Mantegna. He was a pupil of Gentile da Fabriano, with whom he probably worked in Florence in the early 1420s (although the documentation is equivocal). From the 1430s he carried out a number of prestigious commissions in north Italy, including a fresco of the Crucifixion in Verona Cathedral (1436) and (after defeating Pisanello in competition) a portrait of Leonello d'Este in Ferrara. However, all these works have perished, and his surviving pictures are mainly fairly simple and traditional representations of the Madonna and Child, of which only one is dated (1448, Brera, Milan). Attractive though they are, they do little to suggest why he achieved such high esteem in his day, and a better indication of his quality and originality as an artist can be gained from his drawings. Two large, bound volumes of these survive (BM, London, and Louvre, Paris); together they contain almost 300 drawings, mainly finished compositions, some of them very elaborate. They show that he was keenly alert to new ideas, and many of them are remarkable for bold perspective effects, conveying an exhilarating sense of space. The volumes were inherited by Jacopo's sons, who used them as quarries for ideas.
Gentile (b Venice, c.1430/5; bur. Venice, 23 Feb. 1507) is generally thought to have been the elder son, although the evidence for this (and for his birthdate) is inconclusive. He presumably trained with his father, and is known to have collaborated with him around 1460. By 1465 he was working independently, and for the next 40 years he was one of the leading painters in Venice. As with his father, however, most of the major works on which his reputation was based have perished. They included a good deal of decorative work in the Doges' Palace, Venice, and erotic scenes painted for the harem of Sultan Mehmet II, when Gentile worked at his court in Constantinople in 1479–81; his portrait of Mehmet, however, survives (albeit much restored) in the National Gallery, London. The most famous of his extant works are probably the Procession of the Relic of the True Cross (1496) and the Miracle at Ponte di Lorenzo (1500), two huge canvases (Accademia, Venice) crowded with anecdotal detail of contemporary Venetian life. They were painted for the Scuola di S. Giovanni Evangelista. Gentile's last work, St Mark Preaching in Alexandria (1504–7, Brera, Milan), is another immense work in similar vein, painted for the Scuola di S. Marco; it was unfinished at his death and was completed by his brother Giovanni.
Giovanni (b Venice, c.1430/5; d Venice, ?29 Nov. 1516) was far and away the most important member of the family—one of the greatest and most influential artists of the Renaissance. During his long and prolific career he transformed Venice from a city that was provincial in terms of its painting into a centre rivalling Florence and Rome in significance. He not only brought Venetian painting a prominence it had never known before, but also gave it a distinctive character, expressing himself through colour, light, and atmosphere in a way that contrasted with the traditional Florentine preoccupation with line, and he was a direct inspiration to the numerous Venetian painters of the following generation who trained in his studio. His importance in Venetian art is indeed so great that Kenneth Clark considered that ‘No other school of painting is to the same extent the creation of one man.’ In spite of his fame, his career is in general poorly documented. He seems to have lived a life of uneventful devotion to his art, rarely if ever leaving the Veneto, and there are only scraps of biographical information about him. Few of his paintings bear a date or can be convincingly dated on external evidence. Therefore his development can usually be followed only in broad outline rather than precise detail, as—over a period of more than half a century—he moved from a sharp, linear manner with roots in the Middle Ages to a style of mellow breadth and classical dignity.