Antonello da Messina (ca. 1430-1479) was one of the first Italian painters to master the oil-paint technique. His further significance stems from his relationship to Flemish painting and his influence on Venetian painters of the late 15th century.
Giorgio Vasari, the 16th-century biographer, said that Antonello da Messina learned oil painting from Jan van Eyck, whom he had visited in Flanders. This is improbable as Jan van Eyck died when Antonello was 11 years old. Nevertheless, critics have continued to postulate a visit to Flanders to explain the Flemish qualities in Antonello's art as well as his mastery of oil painting. A different viewpoint, which has evolved recently, sees his apprenticeship to the painter Colantonio in Naples and his contact with Petrus Christus, a Flemish follower of Jan van Eyck, as the crucial factors in Antonello's early development.
Antonello was born in Messina, Sicily. Nothing is known of his early years. He was apprenticed to Colantonio probably about 1450. The court in Naples at that time was cosmopolitan, with French, Provençal, Spanish, Burgundian, and Flemish elements present. The youthful Antonello would have had opportunities to study Flemish painting there. By 1456 he was established as an independent master in Messina. In the same year his name appeared on the payroll of Duke Galeazzo Maria Sforza in Milan along with the name of Christus. Whatever Antonello had learned of Flemish art while in Naples would have been reinforced by the presence in Milan of Christus. In 1460 Antonello traveled abroad, though where is not known. From 1460 to 1465 he was in Messina. His whereabouts between 1465 and 1473 is unknown, though he was probably in Messina part of the time. In 1473-1474 he was again in Messina. In 1475-1476 he was in Venice, where, according to Vasari, he had gone to enjoy the licentious pleasures of the city. By September 1476 he was in Messina again. He dictated his will on Feb. 14, 1479, and died in Messina sometime before Feb. 25, the date of a document that speaks of him as dead.
Antonello's early works reflect a knowledge of Flemish painting. Among them the small Crucifixion in Sibiu, Romania, the Three Angels and the small panel Penitent St. Jerome, both in Reggio Calabria, and the Portrait of a Man in Cefalù are noteworthy. The Portrait of a Man is characteristic of Antonello's portrait art. The subject is posed at an angle rather than parallel to the picture plane, as was common among Italian profile portraits. This three-quarter view, characteristic of Flemish portraits, was Antonello's most conspicuous borrowing from the North.
Two panels of the Virgin Annunciate in Munich and Palermo are among Antonello's most ingratiating works. The closeup, bust-length pose gives the panels an appealing sense of intimacy. The picture in Palermo is especially fine with its strong geometric pattern and sense of crystalline space.
The altarpiece of St. Gregory in Messina is signed and dated 1473. In it Antonello shows an awareness of the art of Piero della Francesca in the emphatic fullness of the figures, their positions in space, and their rather dour and impassive expressions. There is, however, a certain softness resulting from Antonello's use of light which is his own.
The dismembered altarpiece for the church of S. Cassiano in Venice was Antonello's most influential painting in that city. The central panel, much cut down, is now in Vienna. The altarpiece is a sacra conversazione (a type of Madonna and Child painting) set beneath a soaring dome, which forecasts similar compositions by Giovanni Bellini and other Venetian masters of the 16th century. It has the same luminosity and sense of atmosphere so common in Venetian painting.
Two sound monographs on Antonello in English are Giorgio Vigni, All the Paintings of Antonello da Messina (1952); trans. 1963), and Stefano Bottari, Antonello da Messina (1955). For general background see Cecil Gould, An Introduction to Italian Renaissance Painting (1957), and Frederick Hartt, History of Italian Renaissance Art (1970). □