In October 1608, the fractious painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio made a daring escape from a Maltese prison and set sail for the Sicilian port of Messina. Perhaps he chose Messina because he could count on a network of friends and protectors there, but perhaps, as the Italian art historian Mia Cinotti has suggested, he went for an entirely different reason: to see the works of a long-dead artist named Antonello, who in his radically different way shared Caravaggio’s obsessions with light and with the fathomless depths of the human soul. There can be no doubt that Caravaggio saw Antonello’s paintings in Messina. We can see their influence on two of his own paintings now in Messina’s Regional Museum: a Raising of Lazarus (commissioned by a man named Lazzari) and a poignant Adoration of the Shepherds that echoes both Antonello’s resplendent blues and the older artist’s exceptional gift for conveying the intimate bond between mother and child.
Caravaggio was hardly the only painter to fall under the spell of Antonello da Messina. When Antonello left Sicily for Venice in 1475, the Venetian artist Giovanni Bellini is said to have dressed up as a nobleman and sat for a portrait, just so he could spy on the newcomer’s dazzling technique. Thirty years before Leonardo da Vinci developed his famous sfumato modeling and immortalized Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo with an enigmatic smile, Antonello had already mapped the highlights and shadows of the human face as abstract patterns in themselves and as clues to the puzzle of character.
His best-known portrait is that of a smirking Sicilian whose image was vandalized long ago by deep scratches through the man’s eternally mocking eyes and smug mouth (see illustration below), but other portraits by Antonello convey mirth by the subtlest of touches: a half-closed eye, a quizzically cocked eyebrow, a sober cap defeated by a sidelong glance and a feather of obstreperous hair. The highest tribute of all to Antonello’s artistry, however, comes from his son, who trained in his father’s workshop and carried out their unfinished commissions after Antonello’s death. One of these paintings, a Madonna and Child, is signed “Jacobello, the son of a painter not human” (filius non humani pictoris). Jacobello was more than competent in his own right, but as he recognized, Antonello belonged to another category altogether: immortal, heroic, divine.
Most of those who have seen the recent exhibitions of Antonello’s works in Palermo and Milan will agree with his son’s assessment. Antonello painted only a handful of subjects (as far as we know), and always people: Madonnas, saints, businessmen, and the suffering Christ, crucified between the two thieves, alone and crowned with thorns, or dead. It is a strangely limited mix (no portraits of contemporary women, for example). He presents these persons, sacred and profane, in a way that is utterly individual, unlike what any other artist was doing in his time or ours. In some ways his meticulous detailing, influenced by Flemish masters like Jan van Eyck, draws heavily on medieval precedents, but the paintings themselves are as fresh today as when he painted them, modern revelations rather than relics of a bygone culture, despite the fact that they are images of men in archaic clothing and Christian holy figures, cracked, rubbed, worm-eaten, sometimes hopelessly ruined.
Antonello’s real subjects are universals rather than particulars: love, despair, sorrow, amusement, and, above all, light. No one, not even Leonardo or Piero della Francesca, has ever paid such penetrating attention to the way light works. He knew nothing of photons or electromagnetic waves, but he understood, and recorded with uncanny penetration, the differences among beams, rays, reflections, glow, luminosity, and radiance. At the same time, he was a master of psychological detail and of nature, taking care to paint the reflections of infinitesimal ducks on a distant pond, or to set Saint Jerome at ease in his study by surrounding him with a scholar’s ideal company: a placidly loping lion and a sleeping tiger cat.
There are several reasons why Antonello is not as well known today as artists like Leonardo, Michelangelo, or Caravaggio, though he is undoubtedly their equal. First of all, a frustratingly small sample of his work still exists, for his beautiful city, founded by Greeks in Homer’s time (circa 730 BCE), sits on one of the Mediterranean’s major fault lines and has paid the price for that precarious location many times over. Since Caravaggio’s visit in 1608, Messina has been leveled by two catastrophic earthquakes, one in 1783 and another in 1908, when thirty seconds of seismic shaking toppled more than nine tenths of the city’s buildings. Ten minutes later, a forty-foot tsunami crashed down on the devastated port, while a pelting rain continued off and on for miserable weeks, complicating rescue efforts and destroying many of the books, documents, and works of art that had survived the quake, the wave, and the aftershocks (almost three hundred of them).
Only one of Antonello’s great projects in Messina managed to withstand this series of disasters (not to mention the Allied bombing in World War II): the altarpiece for the church of San Gregorio, crushed under its ruins in 1908 and rain-soaked for weeks afterward. In total, a little over thirty of this great artist’s works survive, a disproportionate number of them painted during his year in Venice. Considering that between August 1475 and August 1476, Antonello completed at least ten works (one of them the imposing San Cassiano altarpiece in Venice), we could be missing more than 90 percent of his legacy.
Second, that paramount maker of early modern artistic reputations, Giorgio Vasari, never traveled to Sicily; he went no farther south than Naples (two hundred miles, or two days’ sailing, north of Messina). Vasari knew some of Antonello’s Venetian works, but by the time he made his own trips to Venice, in 1541–1542 and 1566, the minute brushwork and clarion colors of Antonello and Bellini were distinctly old-fashioned. Instead, Titian reigned as king of Venetian painting, with his huge canvases and paint applied in daring dabs and slashes. Furthermore, because Antonello spent only a year in Venice, in 1475–1476, the barest scraps of information about him survived in local memory several decades later.
As a result, Vasari’s biography of the Sicilian is almost entirely made up, an attempt to account for Antonello’s distinctive artistry by a Tuscan who basically regarded Sicily as off the map. Like many of Vasari’s fictitious anecdotes, it is suitably dramatic: after seeing a painting by Jan van Eyck in Naples, Antonello reportedly
put aside every other thought of business and went to Flanders, and in Bruges, became well acquainted with [the artist], making him a present of drawings in the Italian style and other things, until…he agreed to let Antonello see how he painted with oils.
Not long afterward, Vasari continues, Jan died, and “Antonello returned from Flanders, eager to see his homeland again and let Italy in on such a useful, beautiful, and convenient secret.”
It sounds like a plausible explanation for the way Italian painters shifted their preference between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries from working in egg tempera to working in oil, but it is patently untrue. Jan van Eyck died in 1441, when Antonello was probably about eleven years old, and Italians had already known about oil painting since at least the fourteenth century. On the other hand, a gradual change in taste is much less fun to read about than the adventures of a randy Sicilian descending on the fleshpots of Venice, which is Vasari’s version of Antonello’s life story. After his return to Italy, he
stayed a few months in Messina, and then went to Venice, where, because he was a person greatly given to the pleasures and everything else to do with sex, he resolved to live there forever, and spend the rest of his days where he had found a way to live that was exactly according to his tastes.
Vasari’s regional biases have persisted through the course of modern Italian history, and they continue to color contemporary views of Italian art. Messina is still assumed to be a bit of a backwater, and yet for Caravaggio, as for Shakespeare, the setting for Much Ado About Nothing bore a name to conjure with, no less than Venice and Verona. Despite the repeated ruination of the city (which has been rebuilt since the devastation of 1908 in a lovely early-twentieth-century “Liberty”—i.e., art nouveau—style), its Regional Museum preserves evidence of a vibrant and distinctive local culture in Antonello’s day, when the Mediterranean was a thoroughfare as much as a barrier, and Messina was a privileged spot on every nautical chart.
Nevertheless we know very little today about the life of Antonello di Giovanni di Antonio. At the turn of the twentieth century, two Sicilian scholars (collaborators at first and then bitter rivals), Gioacchino Di Marzo and Gaetano La Corte Callier, transcribed and published a series of documents involving Antonello preserved in the State Archive in Messina. All but two of these papers were lost in 1908 when the earthquake, tsunami, and rain destroyed the archive building and most of its contents, and dashed virtually all hope of finding anything more about him among the bureaucratic papers of his native city.
Antonello drew up his testament in 1479, when he was forty-nine years old; two months later he was dead. Fifteenth-century estimates of age are not always accurate, but on this evidence 1430 remains the best guess for his date of birth. Other records show that his father hired a ship to bring the painter and his family back to Messina after he executed a commission on the Italian mainland in 1460, that he gave away a daughter in marriage, and that he shared his era’s penchant for lawsuits. Gaps of several years in the paper trail suggest that Antonello may have worked somewhere aside from Messina in those years (as he undoubtedly did before his return to the city in 1460), but he almost certainly never took the grand tour of northern Europe that Vasari’s biography ascribes to him.
Instead, the young Antonello traveled from Messina to Naples sometime around 1445, to apprentice with a local Neapolitan master named Colantonio. Under the cosmopolitan reign of King René d’Anjou, Colantonio could draw from a wide range of European artistic traditions, including those of Spain, the Low Countries, France, Byzantium, and Italy itself, and he made the most of that broad opportunity. He worked extensively in oil paint like northern painters but placed his figures within Italian-style perspectival spaces, and he passed on this spirit of eclecticism to his talented pupil. Medieval Italian panel painters turned their raw powdered pigments into paint by mixing them with egg, which dried quickly, stuck stubbornly to a surface, and provided excellent, opaque coverage. Pigments suspended in linseed or walnut oil, on the other hand, glistened with an oily sheen, took much longer to dry (and could therefore be reworked), and could be diluted to produce a nearly transparent glaze.
Antonello, rather than adopting the oil techniques of northern Europe, adapted traditional Italian methods to recreate the appearance of Netherlandish art, with its glistening surfaces and microscopic detail, but not its painstaking, time-consuming process: he often painted his figures in tempera, added oil glazes to lend them a Flemish sheen, and put in final highlights—the glint of an eye, a shiny fingernail, or a luminous pearl—as tiny applications of white lead. The rapid drying times of tempera allowed him to work much more quickly than a painter who relied exclusively on oil, and the large number of paintings documented for his year in Venice suggest that he may have maintained an impressive rhythm of productivity throughout his career.
Experiments, of course, do not always succeed, as Leonardo learned when he painted his Last Supper in dry plaster on white lead rather than using standard fresco, and lived to watch it flake away. The cracked condition of so many of Antonello’s surviving paintings may have something to do not just with the natural disasters to which they have been subjected but also with their unusual composition: successive layers of egg and oil paint that have aged—that is, decayed—in different ways, at different rates. In his use of one pigment, however, Antonello was absolutely typical of his era: early in his career, he made his blues from azurite, a copper compound that can turn green with time. As his reputation grew, so did his resources, and he could afford the very best blue: powdered lapis lazuli, shipped from Afghanistan, the true blue that never fades. Its brilliant hue still blazes forth from the mantles of the Madonnas he painted in the latter part of his life.
The show that has traveled from Palermo to Milan is not as comprehensive as the definitive exhibition in Rome in 2006, but in both its venues it has gathered, with slight variations, half the painter’s surviving oeuvre.1 Of all Antonello’s paintings, the most remarkable, perhaps, is his Annunciate Madonna, a young woman who pulls a glorious true blue mantle close around her as she takes in the message the angel Gabriel has just delivered: she is to bear the son of God (see illustration above). Her right hand stretches out as if to pause the angel’s headlong announcement—or time itself—a brilliant exercise in foreshortening and a still more brilliant exercise in light, shade, luminosity, and the minute highlights that led curator Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa to call this “the greatest hand in Renaissance art.”
Many of Antonello’s Madonnas are plain-featured, with relatively short, small noses, in dramatic contrast to their aquiline-featured Byzantine counterparts or the long, haughty pointed profiles of the Dalmatian sculptor Francesco Laurana. But as two women passed by her image in Palermo recently, I heard one say to the other, “Now that’s a real Sicilian face. She’s siciliana, siciliana. I have a niece who looks just like her.” Like the smirking rogue with the curly hair and the elaborate shirt, this Madonna, and her counterparts, for their very ordinariness, manage to create something more marvelous than transcendent beauty: the miraculous illusion of reality. As the Sicilian novelist Leonardo Sciascia wrote of the rogue:
Who does the unknown man resemble? A mafioso from the countryside or one from the best neighborhoods, the member of parliament who sits on the right, or on the left, the peasant or the lawyer? He looks like the writer of these notes (it’s been said), and he certainly looks like Antonello. And just try to pin down the social status and the individual human nature of this personage. Impossible. Is he a noble or a plebeian? A notary or a farmer? A gentleman or a lout? A painter, a poet, an assassin? “He resembles.” There you have it.2
The Palermo catalog, edited by Villa, presents several essays and descriptions of the works on display, including the marvelous description of “an enterprising snail” who ventures out from a dewy meadow onto the open road that three angels have just taken to meet the patriarch Abraham. The Milan catalog includes the contents of the Palermo catalog along with short essays by writers about individual paintings (seemingly following a precedent set by James Bradburne, the director of Milan’s Brera Gallery, who has recently invited writers to compose labels for that museum’s permanent collection); a section devoted to the Venetian-born writer and critic Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle (1819–1897), the first scholar to make an intensive study of Antonello; and a letter revealing that Antonello could have become the court painter of Milan’s lord, Galeazzo Maria Sforza. Antonello made a visit, was suitably wined and dined, but in the end declined the offer. Galeazzo Maria may have had exquisite taste in art, but he was also a capricious tyrant, and Milanese fog is no substitute for the sun of Messina.
The two venues for the show are radically different. In Palermo’s Regional Gallery, in the sparely elegant Palazzo Abatellis (built in the late fifteenth century, and therefore roughly contemporary with the painter), the permanent home of his stunning Annunciate Madonna, viewers could automatically place Antonello among works by the other artists active in early modern Sicily, from the Triumph of Death, a monumental 1445 fresco by an unknown artist, to the icily remote marble portraits that were the specialty of Francesco Laurana, a particularly suggestive foil to Antonello’s warm energy. No barriers separated paintings and public in Palermo, while in Milan’s Royal Palace, barriers and alarms kept the paintings at a distance.
The Milan venue also featured the notes and sketches of Cavalcaselle. His passion for Antonello developed in 1859–1860, when he began wandering from city to city in Sicily, on the mainland, and in the rest of Europe, seeking out collectors and pictures to examine and record, his few possessions bound up in a peddler’s pack. A fiery progressive, Cavalcaselle had joined the short-lived Roman Republic of Giuseppe Mazzini in 1849 and took refuge in England when it fell, a sentence of death in absentia hanging over his head. There he perfected his English, and together with the English journalist and diplomat Joseph Archer Crowe, he spent the rest of his life producing a series of pioneering books in English on the history of art. The Early Flemish Painters came out in 1857. Following its success, Cavalcaselle went to Sicily to conduct research for their next project, A History of Painting in Italy. The exile could travel safely because his death sentence only applied in the Papal States, not in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. By the time A History of Painting in Italy was finally published, in 1871, both of these countries had been incorporated into the new Kingdom of Italy, so that Crowe and Cavalcaselle’s title, with daring novelty, referred to a nation-state as well as geographical artistic expression. Cavalcaselle himself was free to move about in Italy, no longer a subversive but a patriot.
The notebooks on display in Milan reveal that Cavalcaselle was a superb draftsman as well as an intent, insightful observer, his sketches capable of capturing every nuance of Antonello’s portraits and sacred works—his smug Sicilian, for example, is almost as cockily obnoxious as Antonello’s original. The records Cavalcaselle kept of works he saw in Sicily are especially precious now for their descriptions of paintings that perished in the 1908 earthquake, but there are also trenchant and often poetic observations about surviving works, with the choicest phrases quoted on the walls of the Milan exhibition. He notes that the hands of Saint Jerome in Antonello’s Saint Jerome in His Study “have suffered,” by which he really meant that the paint itself was distressed, but somehow the phrase also suggests that the hands of the hermit saint, the Jerome who inspired the painting, have themselves lived through many an ordeal.
The painting is a small marvel. Jerome’s reading desk is a wooden structure set within an airy basilica with the same deep shadows, surprising light sources, and graceful lines of the Cathedral of Messina, and the sunlit landscape on view outside the windows (which casts its own reflected light back into the interior) is undoubtedly local. Jerome, like Machiavelli, has dressed in his very best clothing (a cardinal’s scarlet robe) to meet his manuscript, but he has also taken off his shoes before mounting the stairs to his seat; he combines respect with comfort. As a hermit in the desert, Jerome was said to have removed a thorn from a lion’s paw and made a lifelong friend of the fierce beast; as Antonello’s saint concentrates on his book, the lion quietly patrols the premises, while Jerome’s little cat takes a nap next to two potted plants, a tiny peaceable kingdom by the sea.
Cavalcaselle was bothered, however, by the “vulgar” features that Antonello repeatedly used for his paintings of the suffering Christ. Rather than a handsome, regal figure, Antonello, aside from a youthful devotional image of a fine-boned blond with a wisp of beard, presents Jesus as a blunt-faced, almost homely man, his reddened eyes brimming with tears and his mouth downturned in desolate sadness. The most lacerating of these paintings is an Ecce Homo, showing the moment when the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate displays Jesus to the crowd in Jerusalem as the people who hailed him a few days earlier cry for his crucifixion. In his essay for the Milan catalog, Giorgio Montefoschi notes that we have no record anywhere in the Bible of what Jesus looked like, and concludes, “But if his face is the one that Antonello has depicted—the face of suffering and of the lowliest—he is the one we want to love, and do love.”