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 Antonio, but always called Antonello, or “young Antonio,” and he became, as his own son Jacobello would say, Messina’s non humanus pictor: a “painter not human”—in other words, divine.
We know very little about Antonello’s life, and much of what we do know is based on documents that perished in the earthquake of 1908. It is clear, however, that the young Antonello must have shown so great a skill at painting that no painter in mid-fifteenth-century Messina could adequately teach him. Indeed, the city lacked so much as a guild to regulate artistic apprenticeships of any kind (whereas the training and remuneration of the great artists of Florence and Siena had already been governed for centuries by the pharmacists’ guild). Like much of Messina’s treasure, therefore, Antonello was sent off to Naples, where Alfonso the Magnanimous had gained a reputation as a generous and imaginative patron of art.
Antonello’s master was a Neapolitan painter named Colantonio, whose work—represented in the current show in Rome by two small panels—faithfully reflects the cosmopolitan culture of Alfonso’s kingdom. In addition to the Kingdom of Naples and Sicily, Aragon also dominated the Low Countries, but in art the domination went in the other direction: it was Flemish and Burgundian oil paintings that cast their spell over Spain, Naples, and Sicily. Colantonio’s paintings, therefore, consciously emulate the meticulous technique of northern Europe, but only in part. King Alfonso was equally drawn to the stately classical lines of the art produced by the ancient Romans and their modern Italian emulators. Characteristically, the marble triumphal arch he ordered for his castle overlooking the port of Naples strives to recapture the look and feel of an arch from the Roman Forum, with Alfonso himself cast as a fifteenth-century Roman emperor.
So, too, in their elaborately detailed surroundings, reminiscent of Flemish oils, the painter Colantonio’s human figures, like his Saint Vincent Ferrer in the Rome exhibition, partake of a purely Italian classical gravitas, with Mediterranean faces and burnished Mediterranean complexions to match. Antonello’s painting, like that of his master, also reconciles the insistent realism of northern European art with Italian faces and an Italian sense of bodies in space. What Antonello does with light, however, is a miracle all his own: the glow that lights up faces and hands, shimmers off fabric, gleams in eyes, and gives his paintings their otherworldly calm.
Antonello’s subjects do not vary much. Most of his paintings are small, many of them almost miniatures, and not many of them survive. Much of that existing work is now gathered in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale, the former papal stable that has become a dramatic gallery for temporary exhibitions—reached by ascending the ramp once reserved for the pontifical horses—and the hefty catalog presents all of Antonello’s paintings in excellent color reproductions.
The previous two comprehensive shows devoted to Antonello were both mounted in Messina, in 1953 and 1981, and they focused on the specifically Sicilian qualities of his art. In Rome, however, the emphasis is more Italian and more international. The Scuderie del Quirinale belong to the Palazzo del Quirinale, the official residence of the president of Italy, who until very recently was the much-beloved Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. As president, Ciampi enthusiastically promoted Italian rather than regional patriotism and championed Italy’s entry into the European Union. Under his benign aegis, Antonello da Messina, who studied in Naples and spent two crucial years in Venice, is presented more as an Antonello d’Italia, or even Antonello d’Europa. The show divides neatly in two; half is devoted to Antonello in Sicily and half to Antonello in Venice. In the same spirit, the catalog contains contributions by an international group of European scholars and curators, from Dresden—itself a symbol of European unification—Provence, and Italy.
Usually there will be only one painting by Antonello da Messina in any given museum, and it will stand out in its isolation. Taken together, they lose none of their individual impact. Like the Byzantine icons he must have seen around him, Antonello’s works are meant to live with their viewers, to be prayed at, talked to, loved, and they still are. No matter how many chattering schoolchildren or art lovers of a certain age press around the tiny pictures with audio guides glued to their ears, almost all of them seem to come away quietly and intimately moved. This effect is all the more surprising when so many of the painter’s subjects are tragic or violent: writhing thieves crucified on either side of Christ, Saint Sebastian punctured by arrows, and a series of full-face portraits of Jesus in his crown of thorns, weeping for fear and pain, certainly, but most of all for the bleak inhumanity of the crowd he sees in front of him, clamoring for his crucifixion—we, his viewers.
Almost all that is known about Antonello da Messina comes from a series of contracts for paintings, most of them for gonfaloni, standards carried in procession by religious confraternities. Not one of his banners survives; painted on loose cloth and destined for constant handling, they must have shed their pigment long ago. Many of the stationary paintings have fared little better; those that were neither buried in the earthquakes of 1793 and 1908 nor immolated in the fire of 1849 are often heavily damaged, their surfaces worn away, their protective wooden frames long gone. One of Antonello’s portraits also shows the signs of a savage attack, perhaps by someone who knew the sitter all too well and could not resist scratching out his disdainful eyes and smirking mouth.
Antonello de Antonio returned from Naples to Messina, where he became the city’s most successful painter; he charged substantial fees and enjoyed a reputation that reached every part of eastern Sicily although not, apparently, Palermo and the west. Instead, his reputation spread to northern Italy: to Venice, where he lived for two years, and to Milan, where the city’s warlord Galeazzo Maria Sforza tried to hire him as his official portraitist. Rather than take up Sforza’s offer, however, the painter returned to Messina, to its sunshine, its oranges and almonds, and the sere beauty of its landscape. He died there in 1479, leaving a workshop run by his son Giacomo Jacobello and Jacobello’s cousin, Antonello da Saliba. Messina would not see a painter of such stature again until 1610, when Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio arrived as a fugitive from Malta.
Many of Antonello’s paintings are signed with his name, “Antonellus Messaneus,” and a date, drafted in a meticulous script on tiny painted scraps of folded paper, tacked to parapets beneath portraits, pictures of the suffering Christ, crucifixions, saints, and Madonnas. Most of these signatures, however, come from a short period in his career, the period he spent in Venice. The rest of what we know about his work has depended on matching the information contained in documents with extant paintings, and by making identifications on the basis of style. Style is a subjective quality; three of the paintings on display at the beginning of the show in Rome, all probably images of the Virgin Mary, were accepted as Antonello’s work (and one of them as a painting of Saint Eulalie) at earlier exhibitions in 1953 and 1981. Now the three Madonnas are regarded as so different that they have been identified respectively as the work of a Provençal, a Spanish, and a Sicilian painter. In the presence of so many works that are definitely by Antonello himself, it is hard to imagine that the crumpled drapery, pinched faces, and big, clumsy hands of the Provençal and Spanish Virgins could ever have been associated with him.
Documents are not always reliable guides either: when the church of the Annunziata in Palazzolo Acreide in southeastern Sicily ordered an Annunciation from Antonello as its main altarpiece, the contract specified that he should paint a Virgin, an Angel Gabriel, and a God the Father within a good perspective setting. The painter duly supplied the perspective, Gabriel, and the Virgin, but God the Father is nowhere to be seen. Is the Annunciation from Palazzolo Acreide a different painting than the one mentioned in the contract? No; the patrons simply let their painter make the final judgment about what worked as a composition.