by Jeremy Dummett

(Extract from Sicily, Island of Beauty and Conflict)

Antonello da Messina, who lived from around 1430 to 1479, was one of the finest artists of fifteenth century Italy. He trained in Naples where he assimilated the techniques of foreign artists, especially the Flemish. Through this training, his innate talent and his contacts with mainland Italy, he rose from a provincial background to be an artist of stature in Renaissance Europe.

Antonello had deep roots in his city of Messina. It was where his family came from and he never left it for long. He used the view of the harbour as background to scenes in several of his paintings, including in two crucifixions. He linked his name to the city forever, by adding to the base of some of his work, the inscription Antonellus Messaneus me pinxit (painted by Antonello of Messina).

For most of the fifteenth century Sicily was under the control of the kingdom of Aragon, which had defeated the French in the War of the Sicilian Vespers. In 1412, the Aragonese tightened their grip on the island, introducing a system of government run by viceroys, who were based in the island’s capital, Palermo. In 1442, Aragon extended its territories to include southern Italy, choosing Naples as its regional capital.

Messina, in Antonello’s day, was Sicily’s second city with around 25,000 inhabitants. Lying close to the north-eastern tip of the island, it was built in a semi-circle facing the sea, surrounded by defensive walls. Directly in front lay the strait, a narrow strip of water only three kilometres across at its narrowest, which divided Sicily from mainland Italy. Visible on the far side of the strait lay the town of Reggio. Messina was important for its location and for its well-protected, deep water harbour, a busy centre for ship building and fishing, as well as for maritime trade with the Mediterranean and northern Europe. As a local merchant class had not emerged, exports such as silk, textiles, wine and olive oil, were handled by foreign merchants. The city hosted a cosmopolitan mix of people which included Catalans, French, English, Flemish, Genoese, Pisans, Venetians, Jews and Greeks.

Early life and training

Antonello was born around 1430 into a well-established family in Messina. His full name was Antonio de Antonio, born to Giovanni and Garita, probably Margherita, de Antonio. Giovanni was a master craftsman, who worked in marble, and who had his own workshop. Michele, Antonello’s grandfather, was a merchant seaman with his own ship. It was a family of substance which owned property in the city.

Messina had little to offer a young painter. Trade was depressed in the aftermath of the war with the French and there was little money available to sponsor the arts. Palermo was the artistic centre of the island, where the viceroys lived, and where the restoration of the island began. It was another generation before Messina became a thriving place for artists. As a port city, however, Messina’s overseas connections offered a way out. An apprenticeship was obtained for Antonello in Naples, at the workshop of Niccolò Antonio, known as Colantonio, a leading artist in the city. This training period lasted from about 1445 to 1455.

Naples was twice the size of Messina and the seat of King Alfonso of Aragon. Like Messina, it was a busy trading port that attracted a substantial foreign community. It was also a lively centre of the arts, encouraged first by King René of Anjou and then by his successor, Alfonso. Under René, connections were established with Provence, which were extended to Spain and Flanders by Alfonso. Naples became a melting pot of artistic styles with artists from different regions of Europe working in the city. Sculptors, who later moved to Sicily, arrived from northern Italy to work on the king’s triumphal arch. Among the painters, the Flemish influence was particularly strong, with work recorded in the city by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Colantonio was strongly influenced by the foreign artists, especially the Flemish. This was the diverse, international environment, filled with artistic exchanges, in which Antonello learnt his craft. His experience in Naples probably led him to experiment with oil paints and to become one of the early Italian artists to work in oil.

The workshop in Messina

In 1455 Antonello returned to Messina, where he set up his workshop. He married Giovanna Cuminella, a widow with a daughter named Caterinella. By Giovanna, Antonello had a son, Jacopo, known as Jacobello, and two daughters, Fimia and Orsolina. His first commission, dated 5 March 1457, was for a standard for a religious confraternity in Reggio. Standards were a form of banner used in religious processions which were popular in Sicily. Antonello’s workshop produced a variety of them, few of which survived.

During the 1460s and ‘70s, Antonello established the foremost artistic workshop in eastern Sicily. It became a family enterprise employing his brother, Giordano, his son, Jacobello, and two of his nephews, Antonio and Pietro de Saliba. Commissions came in from the church in Messina and from cities such as Catania, Noto and Caltagirone, as well as from Reggio Calabria across the strait. They were mostly small commissions, an exception being an altarpiece for the church of the Annunziata in Palazzolo Acreide.

Antonello was an independent artist who assimilated different influences – Flemish attention to detail, central Italian sense of perspective and Venetian love of colour – to great effect. Probably through merchants travelling between Messina and the Italian ports, Antonello’s work attracted the attention of patrons in central and northern Italy, where the artistic developments of the Renaissance were taking place. As these connections developed, commissions arrived from mainland Italy. There is speculation, but little evidence, about Antonello’s own travels in Italy. It is likely that he was on the mainland in the late 1450s, when he may have gone to Rome, and again in the 1460s, but the details of his journeys are unknown. The affinity between Antonello’s work and that of Piero della Francesca, who worked in Rome in this period, makes such visits probable. While there is no evidence that he ever visited the Netherlands, Antonello’s presence in Venice in 1475-76 is well documented.

The portraits

Antonello is famous for his portraits for which he adopted the model made popular by the Flemish painters, Jan van Eyck, and his student, Petrus Christus. This involved presenting the head and shoulders of the subject, either frontally or at a slight angle, dressed in ordinary clothes, against a dark background. A skilful use of light drew the viewer’s attention to the subject’s face. In the hands of Antonello, a portrait was reduced to its essentials, employing the utmost clarity and simplicity, so that its sole focus was upon the character of the subject.

As artists looked to the ancient world for guidance, they discovered texts that referred to a connection between man’s soul and his bodily features. Various theories emerged, one of which was noted by Dante, to the effect that the soul is apparent in two places, the eyes and in the smile. Antonello, who was gifted with psychological insight, developed a way of conveying character and emotion in this way. He excelled at this technique and was an early exponent of the use of the smile in portraits.

An example can be seen at the Mandralisca Museum in Cefalù, which holds Antonello’s Ritratto d’uomo (Portrait of a Man) from around 1470. It is a small painting, oil on wood, featuring a mature looking man, with sharp eyes, wearing an enigmatic smile. This portrait, which has long intrigued viewers, was found in the mid-nineteenth century by Baron Mandralisca, whose private house became the museum. The Sicilian writer, Vincenzo Consolo, was so fascinated with the portrait that he wrote a historical novel around it, featuring Baron Mandralisca, called The Smile of the Unknown Mariner. In fact, the sitter who was never identified, was more likely to have been a merchant than a mariner, due to the cost of the portrait.

Antonello adapted his style of portraiture to create devotional images for private patrons. These included powerful images of Christ in small panel paintings. In one, Salvator mundi, he is presented as the Saviour of the World, his hand raised in blessing. In others, Christ appears as the suffering figure known as Ecce Homo (Behold the Man), being the words spoken by Pontius Pilate as he presented Christ to the hostile crowd, and Cristo alla colonna (Christ at the Column).

Antonello also painted various versions of the annunciation. In the Palazzo Abatellis, which houses Palermo’s regional art gallery, is the Vergine Annunciata (Virgin Annunciate). This panel painting from 1476-7, presents the Virgin Mary on her own. Her appearance is that of a young Mediterranean girl, wearing a blue mantle over her head, with the shadow of a smile on her face. She does not look at us directly and has one hand raised in a gesture of acknowledgement. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York considered this portrait to be among the most compelling and mysterious of all paintings produced in the fifteenth century. The quality of imagination at work is an exalted one and, once seen, this small picture leaves a lasting impression.

Antonello in Venice

Antonello’s career reached its peak during his visit to Venice in 1475-76. Here he produced ground-breaking work, in large compositions and small religious subjects as well as in portraits, proving himself to be at the forefront of artistic development. To his naturalism with human figures and his ability to portray character, was added a new monumental quality in large compositions. While he was working in Venice, his fame spread. A humanist scholar, Matteo Colazio, wrote from the city in 1475 claiming that Antonello, for his use of perspective, was one of the very few painters alive who could be compared to the artists of the ancient world.

In Venice, he carried out major commissions for the church. His San Sebastiano, the only surviving panel of a triptych (three-panel painting) for the church of San Giuliano, is dominated by the handsome body of the saint, a powerfully emotive figure set against the precision of a carefully structured Venetian city scene. Antonello’s most influential painting was the San Cassiano altarpiece, commissioned for the church of the same name. Adopting a novel style of composition, Antonello placed the Madonna and Child upon a central throne, attended by saints, surrounded by an elaborate architectural structure. From the fragments that remain, can be seen the realism with which the human figures were represented. Both this altarpiece, and the San Sebastiano, are truly Renaissance in spirit and influenced, among others, Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione.

As he was at work on the altarpiece, a letter arrived from Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Duke of Milan, instructing his ambassador to persuade Antonello to become his court painter. Antonello’s patron, Pietro Bon, replied that he could only be released once he had completed it, which he considered to be one of the outstanding works of art, in or outside Italy. Antonello declined the Duke’s offer.

Antonello painted other masterpieces during his stay in Venice. These included two crucifixions with a background of an Italianate landscape, portraits ranging from a mercenary soldier to an old man, and the distinctive San Girolamo nello studio (Saint Jerome in his Study). This small painting, with its intense attention to detail, shows Jerome at his desk surrounded by creatures and objects filled with religious symbolism.

In September 1476 Antonello was back in Messina in his busy workshop. For another two years, the high-quality output continued. Belonging to this period are more portraits, the Vergine Annunziata and a Pietà, generally considered to be his last work. Antonello then fell ill and put his family affairs in order. In his will, he recognised his parents, who were both still alive, took care of his wife and left the bulk of his estate including the workshop, to his son Jacobello. He died sometime between February and May 1479 at the age of 49.

To view some of Antonello’s works, click on the link below:

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