The life of Antonello da Messina has been the subject of contradictory and often fanciful reconstructions during the course of the centuries. There are many reasons for such a complex critical appraisal, especially a lack of documentation overall combined with the fact that the surviving paintings are all concentrated in a particular period. While hardly anything has come down to us from the first two decades of this painter’s career, who we may suppose was already at work by 1450, his output was considerable in the 1470s, namely the last ten years of his life, which has contributed to the imbalance in the critical evaluation of his oeuvre.
Probably born around 1431, Antonello’s artistic career began in the lively cultural climate of the Aragonese court in Naples, at that time one of the centres of the Mediterranean civilization. The painter Colantino was active in this city at the time, and it was in his workshop that Antonello did his early training, receptive to the many stimuli offered by an environment in which Catalan and Provençal works were to be found, along with Northern- European masterpieces such as the extraordinary Lomellini Triptych by Jan van Eyck.
His debut came with paintings like the Salting Madonna and the enigmatic Portrait of a Man, from Cefalù. These were followed, between 1473 and 1474, by works that were already fully mature, the two most important being the Annunciation from Syracuse, where the lighting effects in the intricate spatial composition are handled with complete mastery, and the Saint Gregory Polyptych, commissioned for the church of the Benedictine Convent of Santa Maria Outside the Walls, with its highly innovative psychological rendering of the figures.
But it was Antonello’s period in Venice, from 1475 to 1476, which marked the definitive turning point in his artistic career and in fifteenth-century Italian art history. The encounter between Antonello’s art and the Venetian figurative environment, represented primarily by Giovanni Bellini, created the conditions necessary for absolute masterpieces, particularly portraits such as the so-called Condottiere in the Louvre or the male portraits held by the National Gallery in London and the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Here, the typically Flemish characteristics such as the three-quarter pose, the parapet separating the subject from the viewer, the trompe l’oeil cartellino and the dark ground, are combined with a psychological rendering made unique and groundbreaking by its profound insight.
Antonello was immediately recognized as a great artist in Venice and received many prestigious commissions, including the one for the San Cassiano Altarpiece, painted in 1476 for the aristocrat Pietro Bon. This work immediately became famous for its wealth of precious details, and was executed in direct relation to contemporary works by Bellini.
During his stay in Venice, which was brief but marked by a series of masterpieces each more stunning than the other, the Sicilian painter developed the Ecce Homo theme in works of remarkable emotional intensity that move the viewer by humanizing Christ’s suffering with agonized realistic details. He also painted such gems as the small panel of Saint Jerome in his Study, with its dazzling spatial composition and unusual setting of a Renaissance study in a church aisle immersed in penumbra, and the small votive panels of Crucifixions from Antwerp and London. A crescendo of formal innovations and an unprecedented degree of viewer involvement peak in the Virgin Annunciate, from Palermo, in which a maiden, enveloped in her mantle, both hieratic and conscious of her role in the history of humanity, makes time stand still with her raised hand, and casts the viewer as the annunciating angel. The Salvator Mundi from London, second only to the Virgin Annunciate for the spatial virtuosity in the representation of the hands, and the so-called Trivulzio Portrait from Turin, a truly fine example of the characterization in Antonellian portraits, in which the sitter captures the viewer with his hypnotic and wickedly challenging gaze, were executed in 1476.
The Sicilian painter’s artistic career culminated in two exceptional works: the Saint Sebastian, from Dresden, commissioned during a plague epidemic, in which the master’s skill in creating perspective reaches its height in the Venetian cityscape, and the Pietà, from the Prado in Madrid, probably executed after his return to Sicily, since buildings that actually existed in Messina can be glimpsed in the background.
On 14 February 1479 Antonello made his will, and died two months later. Thus ended an extraordinary artistic career in which converged with unusual consistency and intensity – like sunrays seen through a converging lens – the different cultural roots that intertwined in the Mediterranean during that period of splendour known as the fifteenth century.
Exhibition of Antonello's main works | www.mostraantonellodamessina.it