by Roderick Conway Morris

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How Antonello gave Italian art a new immediacy

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 9 June 2006
Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, Sicily
Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina, 1474-75



Messina was from ancient times one of the most important ports in the Mediterranean, and a staging post for the Venetian galley fleets that regularly sailed between the Serenissima and the ports of Flanders and England. This route was a vital conduit not just for merchandise but also for artistic and cultural exchange.

Antonello was born in Messina in about 1431. He was to become the finest Sicilian artist of the 15th century. But it was demand for his work in Venice that put him on the world stage. His talents were noted by members of the Venetian colony in Messina and by merchants in transit, and soon there was talk about him in the lagoon city. He finally went there himself to set up a studio. This period of his life, from 1475 to 1476, was one of the most intensive and productive of any artist in the history of painting. And a large proportion of the pictures that have come down to us date from the time of this comparatively brief sojourn.

A remarkable exhibition, 'Antonello da Messina,' at the Scuderie del Quirinale, brings together an impressive 37 of the artist's 45 known works, a feat unlikely to be repeated for a long time to come. The show and catalogue also tackle with the aid of recent research and analysis some of the perennial questions regarding his sparsely documented life and art: where, when and how he learned to paint in oils, a technique he has erroneously been credited with introducing into Italy, being among the most intriguing. The catalogue documents his complete works, including those deemed too fragile to travel. The show continues until June 25.

The central issues of Antonello's use of oil and his distinctive style are intimately related. The 16th-century Florentine historian Vasari had the Sicilian actually going to Bruges to study under Jan van Eyck. This now seems unlikely. But Antonello almost certainly spent time in the studio of Colantonio, the leading Neapolitan court painter, who was well versed in Flemish compositional style and techniques.

Collectors in Italy were avidly seeking Flemish paintings. In Naples, there were already works by Jan van Eyck, Petrus Christus and Rogier van der Weyden, some of which Colantonio expertly copied. By the time Antonello was in Naples, he would have been able to see a good number of first-class Flemish works, as well as some from Provence, which also appeared to have influenced him.

However, as Dominique Thiebaut persuasively argues in the catalogue, Colantonio and the young Messinian seem to have been strongly affected by another lesser-known Franco-Flemish painter, Barthélemy d'Eyck, very possibly related to Jan, who may well have been in Naples in person, but whose pictures were definitely visible there.

Thus, it now seems evident that to learn to paint in the manner he did, Antonello would not have needed to travel to Flanders, or Provence for that matter, or even to have studied in Italy under an itinerant Flemish or Provençal master. But how close he came to northern schools is witnessed by the fact that in his early years he employed the typically Flemish empirical method of perspective, adopting the Italian mathematical system only later. In fact, it was ultimately Antonello's ability to synthesize the lessons of northern and southern schools, allied with a markedly original personal vision, that made his work so inimitable.

While Flemish painters were then recognized as the supreme masters in oil painting, the technique was not wholly unknown in Italy. Linseed and nut oils were to some extent already in use for mixing colors before Antonello was born, alongside more traditional egg-based tempera binders. But oils were slow to supersede tempera. By demonstrating what could be done with oils, Antonello in no small part encouraged their greater use by Italian artists.

A key arena in which Antonello displayed both his virtuosity and the advantages of oils was portraiture. He pioneered in Italy the Flemish three- quarter view of the sitter (until then the profile portrait was the norm). This allowed for greater psychological depth, while his mastery of oils and glazes enabled him to depict underlying bone structures, skin tones and minutely observed facial expressions which gave his studies a new subtlety and verisimilitude.

Antonello's celebrated 'Virgin Annunciate' showed how his brilliance as a portraitist could lend flesh and blood to a moment of spiritual drama and profound religious significance. Having painted at least one large, more traditional Annunciation scene, he produced small devotional versions in which the Angel Gabriel was no longer depicted focusing attention solely on the Virgin herself. This manner of representing the mystical moment when Gabriel greets Mary could be found in Byzantine icons (with which Antonello would have been familiar). But his ability to conjure up the living Virgin, so that we see her as the Angel would have seen her, lent these images an extraordinary new immediacy.

Given the laborious and multilayered quality of his work, Antonello's output when he did finally make it to Venice was phenomenal. Over an eight-month period during his visit, he completed at least 15 pieces, which included two major altar pieces, one or more Crucifixion scenes, a Pietà, several portraits and a 'Virgin Annunciate,' possibly the one now in Palermo.

In their contribution to the catalogue, Gianluca Poldi and Giovanni Villa's examination of the scientific data on Antonello's materials and working practices raises an intriguing thesis. Having begun his career by painting in tempera, Antonello switched almost exclusively to oils, creating pictures thatresembled the glossy, glazed, translucent effects of the Flemish masters.

Later, and notably during his residence in Venice, we find him adding considerable quantities of chalky 'dryers,' or siccatives, to his oil mix. This gave rise to a more matte finish, akin in some respects to tempera. However, it helped each layer of paint to dry sooner, so that another layer could be added more rapidly. If this is correct, the particular qualities of texture and finish of the artist's later pictures may well have been as much the result of the need to meet deadlines, as a conscious artistic choice.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023