Antonelllo da Messina is recognised as Sicily’s great Renaissance master artist. In the world of Giotto, Alberti, Masaccio, da Vinci and Tiziano, he is the one Sicilian identified as ground-breaking. Why, when he is intrinsically linked to Sicily, is he such a European painter in the all-encompassing meaning of the word? The Renaissance, in a general sense, can be seen as a flow of ideas from the classical past to innovative new currents as Europe was emerging from the rather unfairly named Dark Ages. Cultural currents were powerful enough to span borders, penetrate many languages and influence movements in many locations, even amongst the lonely fog-bound fens of the British Isles and the bleak woods of Northern Germany. However, there is something specific about Antonello’s sublime art that draws the continent together, moulding the best of Northern European, Italian and other Mediterranean traditions.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art guide to their da Messina exhibition, Keith Christiansen called him ‘the first truly European painter’. By which, he and many others mean that he was able to study and absorb the best of Flemish and Provençal art as well as the painting he encountered in mainland Italy. As his name suggests, Antonello was from Messina, the city on the straits and a prime location for trade and exchange. It was the prosperity generated by trade that enabled merchants and wealthy nobles to invest in art, which was frequently brought in on the tides that transported less ethereal goods. Catalan Gothic was a natural incomer, given the ties with Spain, as were the ideas filtering through from Tuscany. And along with the cloth and textiles of Flanders came the paintings from the Netherlandish School. Antonello would have seen such art from an early age as his family had connections with the merchant classes – his father was a mason and his grandfather a shipowner. However, it must have become increasingly clear to the family that he couldn’t learn the skills required as a top artist by remaining in Messina.
Antonello moved to Naples and began to study at a workshop run by Niccolò Colantonio who, himself, took early inspiration from the Flemish masters. Naples with its links to Spain and France also had an influx of Spanish art and a selection of Provençal canvases. Dates are sketchy with regard to the start and duration of his apprenticeship, but he had returned to Messina by the 1450s and archival material details local work dating from 1457. It seems he had started to produce banners and images of a devotional nature for religious confraternies. Although back in Sicily, he had concrete links with Calabria and travelled across the straits on more than one occasion – taking his family on one particular extended trip to the mainland.
Much of his early work is lost including a Saint Nicholas created for the church of San Nicola dei Gentiluomini in Messina, although, if you go to Milazzo Cathedral you can see a copy made by one of his followers. London’s National Gallery holds the ‘Salting Madonna’ , so called because it once belonged to the collector George Salting. It depicts the Madonna adorned in Venetian style garments holding the infant Jesus who has a pomegranate in his hands, which acts as a symbol for the Passion of Christ. Such is the symbolism in the painting that it was previously attributed to Flemish and Spanish artists, another testament to Antonello’s pan-European influences.
The historical record once again becomes rather patchy, but Antonello can definitely be placed in Venice in 1475. Scholars have speculated that this trip enabled him to become acquainted with the works of Mantegna and Bellini whilst reinvigorating his love of art from the Low Countries. Vasari, the painter and writer of Lives of the Artists, postulated a trip to the Netherlands, but it remains a voyage nobody has been able to verify. Whatever the truth behind such a journey, his work at the time, notably ‘St Jerome in his Study’, reflects Northern influences. St Jerome is surrounded by beautifully delineated Flemish style animals and objects despite the Mediterranean landscape through the Catalan Gothic arches and windows.
His portraits also reflect distinctly Flemish choices with figures portrayed from
below the shoulder line upwards who look directly at the viewer from a slight angle. Wealthy merchants were happy to invest their cash in the vanity of a portrait, which was most welcome for artists of Antonello’s stature. He appears to have had a good deal of success in Venice as a portraitist. Works depicting men whose identity has long been lost are now spread around Europe, with canvases labelled as ‘Portrait of a Man’ to be found in Madrid, Turin, Pavia, London, Berlin and Rome. The London picture, that some think a self-portrait, shows an upwardly mobile young man dressed in a leather jerkin and red Fez-style hat typical of the Renaissance. The background is characteristically dark, something borrowed from the likes of Petrus Christus, a significant inspiration for Antonello.
One of his greatest unidentified portraits is the ‘Portrait of an Unknown Man’, fortunately to be found in Sicily, specifically Cefalù. It is housed in the Museo Mandralisca, just off the cathedral square, and is so liked because of the man’s enigmatic La Giocondaesque smile. A faint echo of a grin plays on the man’s lips which is reflected in the twinkle of his eyes. Who was he? Some have even suggested he was a pirate from Lipari in the Aeolians, although the quality of his tunic would seem to belie that, despite the nautical shirt he sports. In this instance, the predominance of the male gaze seems to have relegated Antonello’s enigmatic mariner to the status of quality work rather than world-spanning enigma.
One of the other great pieces housed in Sicily can be found in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, which accommodates the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia. As mere mortals, we have never found the Palazzo open on the numerous attempts we have made to enter the gallery, consequently we have never seen the ‘Virgin Annunciate’ in person. We are reliably informed it is a wonder to behold. Mary is painted with a flowing blue triangular head covering first used by Antonello in a painting now in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek. The light strikes her face illuminating her visage from one side. Her hand is making a gentle silencing motion. Mary doesn’t meet the viewer’s eye, but the image still has a magnetic presence.
The ‘Virgin Annunciate’ was done towards the end of his life. He died in 1479 and a will dates from the February of that year. Jacobello, his son, was able to complete some of the works he left unfinished. Gioacchino Barbera points out that he signed his works as ‘filius non humani pictoris’ (son of the immortal painter). Sadly, Jacobello died too soon to fulfil his talent and Antonello’s other followers largely descended into mediocrity.
Andrew and Suzanne are authors of Ghosts of the Belle Époque, a history of Palermo’s Hotel delle Palme and Sicily: A Literary Guide for Travellers. The Times Literary Supplement had this to say about their literary guide: ‘Sicily is full of such delicious anecdotes: it is not only a literary signpost for travellers in an ancient island, but a cultural guide for anyone who finds themselves in the infuriating thrall of its contradictory and compelling extremes… Sicily is bound to become battered and dog-eared, blotched with caponata and wine stains’.
In addition, they are the authors of His Master’s Reflection, a travel biography in the footsteps of Lord Byron’s doctor and Andalucia: A Literary Guide for Travellers. Andrew is the translator of Borges in Sicily by Alejandro Luque, a travelogue in search of the photographic locations used by Ferdinando Scianna when he took images of the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges, during his island tour.