‘A Painter Not Human’

Antonello da Messina

an exhibition at the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia di Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo, December 14, 2018–February 10, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa
Rome: Mondomostre, 127 pp., €19.00 (paper)

Antonello da Messina

an exhibition at the Palazzo Reale, Milan, February 21–June 2, 2019
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Caterina Cardona and Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa. Milan: Skira, 299 pp., €40.00
Annunciate Madonna by Antonello da Messina
Galleria Regionale della Sicilia di Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
Antonello da Messina: Annunciate Madonna, 17 3/4 x 13 1/2 inches, 1475–1476

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…

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