Antonello da Messina
Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 384 pp., E35.00 (paper)
Antonello da Messina e la pittura del ‘400 in Sicilia
Venice: Alfieri, 44 pp., 40 plates(1953; out of print)
Antonello da Messina
Rome: De Luca, 285 pp.(1981; out of print)
Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, 56 pp., $14.95 (paper)
The Sicilian city of Messina overlooks a strait so narrow and treacherous that Homer’s Odyssey described it as a lair of monsters: seven-headed, man-eating Scylla (the embodiment, the playwright Euripides was first to suggest, of Etruscan pirates) and the tidal vortex of Charybdis. The city’s history has been a vortex in its own right. Settled by Greeks in the sixth century BC, it was destroyed by the Carthaginians in 396 BC, resettled by the Greeks, and conquered by, among others, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, the Swabians, the French, the Aragonese, the Spanish, and the Austrians before finally submitting to the group of northern Italians who created the modern Italian state.
More dangerous monsters lie underground. As the earth’s crust grinds its tectonic plates, Sicily pulls slowly away from the Italian mainland at the rate of about one centimeter a year, and Messina rides the fault line. Terrible earthquakes leveled the city in 1793 and 1908; only the landscape survives, with its gentle hills and its remarkable natural harbor, protected by a sickle-shaped spur of land (the first Greek settlers called the city Zanklê, their word for “sickle”).
Six hundred years ago, this harbor, like the lagoon of Venice, was one of the Mediterranean’s great gateways, where a Sicilian city with large numbers of native Greeks and Jews traded with Turks, North Africans, Spaniards, Flemings, Byzantine Greeks, Venetians, Genoese, Neapolitans, and Ragusans from Dalmatia, many of whom had formed their own neighborhoods down by the water’s edge. To some of these visitors, fifteenth-century Messina must have looked like an earthly paradise, a walled city above its graceful harbor, set amid groves of almond and citrus trees, its taverns stocked with wine grown on Mount Etna’s volcanic soil and food that retained its Arabic flavors. But there was trouble, too: struggling crops, economic recession, and an absentee king from Aragon, the ironically named Alfonso the Magnanimous, who taxed Messina from his stronghold in Naples, selling bureaucratic offices to avail himself of still more cash.
At a time when central Italy had become a network of independent republics with a thriving, literate merchant class, Messina retained all the trappings of feudalism: the city’s aristocrats, many of them all but illiterate, mired their investments in land and their economic thinking in the Middle Ages. Messina’s guilds were late in forming, and as a result much of the city’s commerce relied on outsiders, like the shipowner named Michele de Antonio who settled in Messina sometime after 1406. Michele’s son Giovanni became a stone carver, mazone in the local parlance, but not at the highest level of skill; for their finest stonework, the people of Messina, like everyone else in Italy (including the Pope and Alfonso the Magnanimous), looked for carvers and masons born on the slopes of the Alps or the Apennines, who drank in stone dust with their mothers’ milk. Giovanni the stonecarver, in turn, had a son in about 1430, named …