Michele Giambono: A stubbornly Gothic master

Michele Giambono, 15th-century Venetian painter and mosaicist, was a true champion of Gothic retro: while everyone else moved on to the Renaissance, he kept churning out panels and mosaics in graceful International Gothic. His was a technically intense style of supreme decorative beauty as seen in the works of International Gothic master Gentile da Fabriano but it also came with a Venetian nuance of soft and rounded figures influenced by fellow Venetian Jacobello del Fiore.

Born in Venice as Michele Taddeo di Giovanni Bono into a family of painters, Giambono became an accomplished artist of the International Gothic whose decorative richness and courtly manner were prevalent in Europe during the late 14th century and the early 15th century. Originally known for his mosaic designs located in St Mark’s Basilica, he is now appreciated – as one of Venice’s official painters – for his tasteful panel compositions in frames decorated in gold and polychromy.

Stylistically, Giambono was the last – and rather stubborn – interpreter of the late Gothic style in Venice. Unlike Bartolomeo Vivarini, a later painter, who is considered a derivative artist combining different influences but never really developing his own style, Giambono developed a florid and idiosyncratic pictorial language, sometimes indulging in complex linear abstractions. His ability to create a convincing illusion of space in complex late Gothic architectural settings is undeniable.

Giambono’s mosaic decoration of the Mascoli Chapel at St Mark’s Basilica confirms his success in Venice but also marks the time when his style began to appear obsolete. As in his panels, the figures in his mosaics are set against Gothic architecture, with an attempt to introduce three-dimensionality to a technique that had been limited to two-dimensional Byzantine designs. Despite this achievement, more progressive masters from Jacopo Bellini‘s workshop would complete these mosaics.

Giambono’s conservative tastes aside, he was capable of expressions of feeling and acute observation of human behaviour. This is evident in his multiple versions of The Virgin and Child, my favourite of which now hangs in the Museo Civico in Bassano del Grappa. Unlike the angular figures of Paolo Veneziano, his scenes are animated with naturalism. Like Lorenzo Veneziano, he apparently painted from real life and there’s a genuine maternal link between his Virgin and the Child to prove it.