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.
Sometimes a description seems to match a painting exactly, and sometimes the similarity requires a stretch of the imagination. Because the Venetian diarist Marcantonio Michiel mentions that the Venetian painter Jacometto had executed portraits of the Venetian nobleman Alvise Contarini and “a nun of San Secondo,” both a show earlier this year in New York and the present exhibition associate Michiel’s note with two tiny paintings from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: one of a dapper Venetian gentleman—plausible enough—and one of a lady wearing a white veil and a prim expression. Prim she may be, but her dress, with its fashionable slashed sleeves, exposes one shoulder and a goodly hint of cleavage, and her tightly wound veil reveals long, fine blond hair done up in a chignon, hardly a monastic trim. If this is a nun of San Secondo, she comes straight out of Boccaccio.
On the other hand, painters could also take exhilarating liberties with holy subjects. Antonello’s small, exquisite painting Saint Jerome in His Study looks more like a fifteenth-century humanist scholar than an unwashed (“Bathed in Christ, why bathe again?”) Christian charmer, and eventual hermit, from the last years of the Roman Empire. Jerome’s wooden desk and bookshelves are set within an airy Gothic hall, shading the saint from the sun that blazes outdoors—the setting can only be Sicily. In the background, his pet lion pads silently across a floor of majolica tile, head cocked attentively. The painting is remarkable for its meticulous detail, but still more for its mood: in place of the usual anguished penitent beating his breast, this Jerome has found his peaceable kingdom in the still heat of a Sicilian summer.
An early Crucifixion, usually on display in Bucharest, places Golgotha just north of a perfectly recognizable Messina. We can see the sharp hills of Calabria across the straits, the sickle-shaped harbor, the lighthouse, ships moving in and out of port. Neither the distant bustle of the city nor the agony of the Passion can dispel the painting’s preternatural calm; everything occurs under the steady glow of Antonello’s light, a light that comes as close to capturing divinity as any work of human hands.
It is this same light that seems to carry the Angel Gabriel’s message to his Virgin Annunciate from Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo, a young woman in a sky-blue headcloth who has looked up from her reading to see—us; Antonello has put his viewers in the angel’s place. Now she averts her eyes as she ponders what she has heard with an expression as enigmatic as Mona Lisa’s smile. Perhaps the most remarkable passage of this remarkable painting is the Virgin’s upraised, foreshortened right hand, almost translucent. The Virgin may not have been the only woman that Antonello ever painted, but he painted her over and over throughout his career, in styles that evolved as rapidly as his skill. His early Salting Madonna, now in the National Gallery, London, borrows the fanciful Netherlandish image of tiny angels hovering with a crown over the Virgin’s head, but Mary herself resembles Sophia Loren, clad in velvet and brocades. Nothing could be further from the plain-featured girl from Palazzo Abatellis, clothed in solid colors, nothing except the intense clarity of the play between light and shadow on the planes of their faces, and the elusiveness of their expressions. The Salting Madonna holds a Christ Child who looks more like a dressed-up doll—as many Sicilian images of the baby Jesus were and are—with a smile that is at once loving and rueful. No girl has ever had so ancient a gaze as these thoughtful Madonnas.
The absence of information about Antonello, the virtual erasure of most traces of his native city from the face of the earth, and the sheer oddity of his style mean that scholarly discussion of his work usually involves piecing together what other paintings he must have seen, and where. Only Andrea Mantegna and Piero della Francesca treat the play of light on bodies with anything like the stately calm of Antonello; what did Mantegna’s Rome and Mantua have in common with Piero’s Umbria and Tuscany, or Antonello’s Sicily and Venice?
It is clear from recent research that Antonello achieves the photographic clarity of northern Renaissance painting by entirely different techniques; and we can see the differences for ourselves by comparing some of the examples presented by the exhibition itself. Jan van Eyck’s splendid little portrait of a man in an elaborate blue headdress uses the same miniaturistic detail and the same striking sky blue as Antonello’s Virgin Annunciate, and achieves the same uncanny sense that these paintings harbor a real presence. At the same time, however, Antonello’s faces seem ancient as well as immediate, whereas Van Eyck’s wealthy burgher belongs entirely to his own age. An early Antonello portrait of a young man has the same hatchet profile and thin-lipped hint of a smile as an archaic Greek head, and Antonello would surely have seen both the work of ancient Greek sculptors and the faces of their living Sicilian descendants. In Messina he would also have seen strong colors and stylized poses of Byzantine mosaics and the tiny perfection of Byzantine icons. In fifteenth-century Sicily, pointed Gothic arches, as in Saint Jerome’s study, coexisted with the semicircular arches of the Florentine Renaissance—also visible in the same painting, as well as the low elliptical curves that distinguish the Renaissance arches of Naples and points south. Saint Jerome’s study has one of these, too, framing the whole painting within an unmistakably southern Italian geometry.
Antonello’s ability to combine such disparate ages and cultures in his imagery is integral to his Sicilian background and Neapolitan training, an eclecticism that, like his remarkable level of technical skill, defies the usual categories that have ordered the world of Renaissance art since the Tuscan patriot Giorgio Vasari wrote his Lives of the Most Eminent Sculptors, Painters, and Architects in the sixteenth century. (His life of Antonello da Messina, dealing as it does with a Sicilian, is a hash of errors.) The gold-leaf backgrounds of Antonello’s altarpiece for San Gregorio, a work punched with elaborate designs, are hopelessly archaic by contemporary Florentine standards, but the imposing physical presence of the saints who spring forward from the flat gold shows as full a mastery of perspective as in any other contemporary picture of a Florentine saint.
It is not surprising that the northern Italian city where Antonello’s art most appealed was the most Greek of them, Venice, and there, from 1474 to 1476, Antonello tried his fortunes, exerting an indelible influence on the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini. Neither painter is represented at the Scuderie by their most monumental works: Antonello’s San Cassiano altarpiece was long ago broken up and has stayed in Venice to preserve what is left of it. Bellini’s magnificent Pesaro altarpiece, with its echoes of Antonello, is still in Pesaro. The two Bellini Crucifixions displayed alongside Antonello’s Crucifixion from Antwerp, impressive as they are, simply cannot compete, in mood, color, pose, originality.
Once again the landscape of Golgotha is an arid Sicilian coastline rather than a Venetian lagoon; a miniature owl stares out at us amid the dry bones that litter the execution ground. The statuesque mourning figures of Saint John and the Virgin could almost be painted by Piero della Francesca; the right-hand thief twists in a triumph of foreshortening that would make Leonardo envious. The broken legs of the left-hand thief and the two thieves’ writhing postures are horrific touches that should break the painting’s mood of hushed silence, but they cannot, so stoically calm are the grief of the dying Christ and his stricken mother. Fifteenth-century viewers could only have responded as the figure of Saint John does at the foot of the Cross; seen from the back, a viewer like us, he prays, his posture alert, noble rather than abject, the witness to an ineffable holy event.
Unlike this strangely placid Crucifixion, Antonello’s images of the suffering Christ at the Column and Ecce Homo place full weight on the Passion’s human tragedy. The face that recurs in these images is not a handsome face; it is plain and blunt-featured, with a downturned mouth we are more used to seeing on a crying child. The tears of this frowning, infinitely miserable man are, however, the adult tears of utter world-weariness. For once, Antonello, that master of light, has extinguished every light in this sufferer’s eyes; they look out at us hollow and desperate. By putting so childlike a frown on these faces, Antonello has stripped Jesus to the most vulnerable, basic level of his humanity, crowned with thorns, weeping and bleeding, and the sight of this child’s frown compels us to respond with an almost primal pity.
The most Venetian of all Antonello’s paintings shows another suffering figure, but his Saint Sebastian, the young Roman legionary who was shot so full of arrows “that he looked like a porcupine,” is a model of ancient Roman stoicism. Antonello has reduced the number of arrows to four, and concentrated his attention instead on the saint’s marmoreal physique. Clad only in his drawers, Sebastian is bound to a tree in the middle of a Venetian campo, in a cityscape whose chimney pots, canals, and beautiful people can only come from one place under the sun—and it is a more northerly, oblique sun, whose long shadows throw the work into a vertiginous perspective. Sebastian’s arrows and the toppled column next to him pop out of their wooden panel into space; in the middle ground a young man in headlong foreshortening grabs a nap as the saint suffers agony a dozen paces away from him. Bored beauties look down on the scene from their hanging garden.
The painting, now in Dresden, is newly restored, by a German team that has decided to repaint its damaged areas rather than leave them exposed. (The ruined Annunciationfrom Palazzolo Acreide makes the opposite choice, leaving glaring patches of bare wood where the paint has gone.) The result is slightly unnerving, from the Bellini-inspired teal-blue sky with its cumulus clouds to the flatness of Sebastian’s face, which must be missing some crucial layers of paint. Only the saint’s legs are still convincingly Antonello’s, sculpted by shadow and startlingly three-dimensional. While in Venice, he must have seen Andrea Mantegna’s fantastic frescoes in the Augustinian church of nearby Padua; now largely destroyed by Allied bombs, they still leave hints of the wondrous succession of perspective planes and the monumental figures that Antonello has absorbed here into his own softer-edged style. Saint Sebastian is both a ruin and a tour de force—and yet Antonello may work best when he is working on a more intimate scale. His portraits from life, all men, all but one on a blank dark background and all taken slightly from the sitter’s left, are marvels of brushwork, in which abstract geometry combines with microscopic detail: one taut curve of white paint is enough to sculpt a neck, and yet tiny strokes create eyebrows hair by hair. Often those eyebrows are raised in amusement, over lively eyes and the barest hint of a smile. We have no idea what Antonello’s patter was like as he painted, but it must have been entertaining.
In many ways the exhibition’s catalog defers to its predecessor from 1981. In its format the 1981 catalog is typical for the time, a little quarto paperback set in two columns of dense type, with black-and-white photographs, a few color plates—and a text that presents the best all-around view of Antonello, his city, and his work yet to be produced. The 2006 catalog offers no equivalent to some of the earlier publication’s most engrossing and important sections: Salvatore Tramontana’s essay on the working world of fifteenth-century Messina and Antonello’s place in it, Rosanna De Gennaro and Luigi Hyerace’s annotated catalog of the works by Antonello that have been destroyed over the centuries, a tale of woe that reveals volumes all by itself as it catalogs Messina’s plagues of earthquake (1793 as well as 1908), fire (1849), war (1944), and neglect.
Instead, the essays of 2006, as often happens these days, favor the specific concerns of curators: attribution, restoration, the largely hypothetical relationships that Antonello might have had with Flemish, Provençal, and Spanish painters. Catalogs have now become the professional journals of curators; it is hard sometimes to remember how recently they were written with the visitor more firmly in mind. The curators of 1981, for example, worked together in much more conscious collaboration with social historians, critics, art historians, and scholars like the rector of Messina’s distinguished university to create a portrait of Antonello the working stiff, the son of an immigrant grandfather, a sublime painter in a city whose various evils of recession, deforestation, and corrupt government seem to have left its citizens strangely indifferent to his rarefied skill. The illustrations for the catalog of 2006 are of much higher quality, to be sure, but the Antonello who emerges from the yellowing book with its black-and-white photographs is the one who still pulses with the colors of life.
July 13, 2006