‘Antonello da Messina’
“Caravaggio was hardly the only painter to fall under the spell of Antonello da Messina,” writes Ingrid Rowland. “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, 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.”
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Piazza del Duomo, 12,