ANTONELLO (c.1430-79) was the son of a stonemason in Messina and grandson of a master mariner on a brigantine. Sicily’s wealth arose from being at the watery crossroads that marked the heart of trading routes across the Mediterranean.
By 1457, he was running his own atelier after training in Naples, where he most probably learned the new technique of oil painting with which Jan Van Eyck (1395-1441) had revolutionised art north of the Alps. At the Neapolitan court, he would have admired the latest Netherlandish paintings, gleaming details captured in a myriad of colours.
Little documentary evidence is to be found to establish when or whether he worked in Rome or with Petrus Christus in Milan, but he was certainly in Venice between 1475 and the following year. There, his portrait style had a profound effect on the Bellini and Vivarini painting families in the Lagoon City, and he also influenced the development of altarpieces.
What we know about Antonello is largely due to the indefatigable researches of G. B. Cavalcaselle (1819-97), who, with an English journalist, J. B. Crowe, set out to study Italian Renaissance art methodically. This exhibition is as much about the artist, bringing together 19 of his sublime works, as it is about how his works were identified and recorded.
Foto Giulio ArchinàAntonello da Messina, Annunciata (The Virgin Annunciate) (1475-76), Galleria Regionale della Sicilia di Palazzo Abatellis, Palermo
The first painting will be familiar to London audiences: St Jerome in his Study (c.1475) has been loaned by the National Gallery. When Cavacaselle first identified it in the collection of Sir Thomas Baring, it was acclaimed as a work by Dürer. The landscape beyond the colonnades of the studiolo and the clutter of books, pots, inkwells, and jugs on the bookshelves show minutely observed details.
Antonello painted the Crucifixion at least three times; the last version is dated 1475 (Antwerp), and another simpler composition, in London, seems to date two years earlier. We get to see a much earlier work, from Sibiu in Romania, in which Antonello sets the hill of Calvary above the straits of Messina with (unlikely) the Aeolian islands beyond.
Clearly visible down below is the Greek monastery of San Salvatore, where the Greek philosopher and grammarian Constantine Lascaris taught from 1466. He had previously been in the Sforza court in Milan and in Naples. The monastery was bulldozed by the later emperor Charles V, but the Basilian community survived, at least until the 19th century, and its valuable library is now the core of the University’s.
The Portrait of a Ship’s Captain (c.1470) came from Lipari and has been in the collection of Baron Mandralisca since 1859 (Cefalù). The beguiling smile has long inspired novelists, as we are drawn to meet him. Again and again, Antonello catches his sitters with a wry or ironic gaze; the man from Philadelphia and Michele Vianello both have a knowing smile.
The ruinous panel of the Annunciation from Syracuse is not in this show, but the Virgin Annunciate (Palermo) is surely one of the most profoundly spiritual readings of Luke 1.38.
This exhibition originated as the culmination of last year’s celebrations marking Palermo as City of Culture 2018. It was masterminded by Professor Sebastiano Tusa, best known as Italy’s leading underwater archaeologist, who went on to be Assessore, the head honcho, for Sicily’s cultural patrimony.
Tusa had identified the site of the last the sea battle of the Second Punic War. The battle of Egadi was fought 10 March 241 BC, and some of the iron battering rams (rostra) from both Roman and Carthaginian ships featured in his Oxford exhibition “Storms, War and Shipwrecks” (Arts, 16 September 2016).
Sadly, Professor Tusa was among the 157 who died in the air disaster at Addis Ababa on 10 March this year, three weeks after this exhibition, in its expanded form, had transferred to Milan. He was 66. This review, if not the exhibition, is dedicated to his memory as a scholar and friend.
Antonello himself may never have made it to Milan, despite the Sforza invitation of March 1476, but seeing more than half his extant known works in the former royal palace does justice to this extraordinarily penetrating and observant artist. A welcome opportunity has been taken to produce a book that serves as a full catalogue of all his paintings.
In telling details and in those ironic smiles, one really senses the place of prayer and of economic resilience in the world that Antonello uncovers.
“Antonello da Messina” is at the Palazzo Reale, Piazza del Duomo, Milan, until 2 June. Phone 00 39 02 92897755.