Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina

Virgin Annunciate by Antonello da Messina (c.1476)

I think I have mentioned before how I choose an artist or a painting for future blogs.  It is usually following an art exhibition or a visit to a gallery or, as is the case today, the artist is mentioned in passing in a previous blog.   When I was putting together the biography of my last featured artist, Vittore Carpaccio, I mentioned that in his early days he was influenced by the Sicilian artist, Antonello da Messina.  I had never heard of this artist before and curiosity got the better of me and I began to research his life and look at some of his paintings.  His portraiture is some of the best I have ever come across so I thought I would share my “find” with you.

It is thought that Antonello di Giovanni degli Antonii, better known as, Antonello da Messina, was born in Messina, Sicily, around 1430 and is now considered as the most famous artist to have come from this island.  He was one of four children and his father was a local stonemason.  His early life is somewhat sketchy and often contradictory.  A little light can be shed on Antonello’s training from a letter, dated 1524,  in which Pietro Summonte, the Italian Renaissance humanist living in Naples, and who took great pains in collecting and preserving his correspondence on artistic matters with the Venetian nobleman, Marcantonio Michiel.  In it is mentioned that Antonello was the pupil of Niccolò Antonio Colantonio, an artist who had received instruction in the methods of Netherlandish painting whilst serving at the court of King René I of Naples.  This fact alone may go some way to explain the influence of Flemish paintings in Colantonio’s and later, Antonello’s work.  However not all art historian agree about the Flemish style, influence and technique of Colantonio’s works and that, in turn, Antonello was influenced by his Master, Colantonio.   The art historian J.Wright in his 1980 book, Antonello da Messina: The Origins of his Style and Technique, believes that the characteristic of Colantonio’s work is almost entirely French rather than Netherlandish.

So where did Antonello pick up this Netherlandish influence?  It appears debateable whether Antonello ever travelled to the Netherlands but it is known that René I’s time as ruler of Naples came to an abrupt end in late 1442 and the new ruler King Alphonse V of Aragon (King Alfonso I of Naples) came to power and his art collection contained works by the Netherlandish painters, Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, which as Colantonio’s assistant, Antonello could well have been familiar with these works whilst working on royal commissions.   Around this time, Antonello completed many religious works, one of which was his painting entitled St Jerome in his Study, and many believe that this work was influenced by Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of St Jerome (1442).  His later Annunciation of Syracuse  in 1474 is thought to have been influenced by the extraordinary Lomellini Triptych by Jan van Eyck.

A gonfalone

In 1457 at the age of twenty-seven whilst in Messina, Antonello married Joan Cumminella and it could well be that his first son, Jacobello, had already been born.  In that same year, it is known that Antonello moved to Reggio Calabria,   on mainland Italy.  It was whilst here that he received a commission to produce a gonfalone for the confraternity of S Michele dei Gerbini in Reggio Calabria.  Gonfalones were a type of heraldic flag or banner, often pointed, swallow-tailed, or with several streamers, and suspended from a crossbar.   In that same year Antonello married.  His wife was Giovanna Cumminella.  Soon after this,  he and his family as well as his brother and sister-in-law moved north and settled in Amantea, a town on the west Calabrian coast.  However three years later in 1460, he returns to Sicily after his father sends a brigantine to transport them all back from Amantea to Messina.  The following year he set up a workshop in Messina and took on his younger brother, Giordano di Giovanni as an apprentice.

In the period from 1465 and 1475, Antonello completed many portraits.  The surviving portraits are all of men.  His portraiture at this time was different in style to the Italian portraiture for he had a great grasp on the structure of a face, not just the bone structure, but the overlying facial muscles and sinews.  With this knowledge he could depict how the movement and portrayal of facial muscles around the eyes and mouth could alter facial expressions.  His portraits were nearly all in three-quarter views and bust length showing head and shoulders but not the arms.  The sitters faced the light which generally fell from left to right illuminating the edge of the right cheek and modelling the nearside (left side) of the face with chiaroscuro, the term for the technique of using light and shade in pictorial representation.  His sitters, like in many Netherlandish portraiture, are dressed unostentatiously in contemporary dress and wear no emblems or jewellery which would detract us from the simplicity of the portrait.  This drabness of clothing, often dark red or black, does not attract our attention and allows us to look directly and steadily into the eyes of the sitter.

Portrait of a Man (known as The Condottiere )

However, it was Antonello’s stay 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 his absolute masterpieces, such as Portrait of a Man known as The Condottiere and the Trivulzio Portrait of a Man.   In Venice, Antonello and his works of art were highly acclaimed and he received many commissions.  It is known that Antonello was still in Venice in the March of 1476 completing the S Cassiano Altarpiece commissioned by the church of San Cassiano in Venice.  From Venice there is speculation that he travelled to Milan to carry out a commission for Gian Sforza, Duke of Milan, but whether he did visit Milan it is known that by the end of 1476 he was back in his Sicilian home in Messina.  In his workshop he now had his son, Jacobello d’Antonio and his nephews Antonio and Pietro de Silba as his assistants.

In February 1479 Antonello made his will, and died shortly afterwards at the young age of forty-nine.  He had pre-deceased both of his parents as he made provision for them in the document.   Antonello was an extraordinary painter, one of the greatest of his time.  In his last years his son collaborated with him with Antonello planning the work and Jacobello executing the painting.  On one, Jacobello paid a fitting tribute to his father and signed the painting:

“…the son of Antonello, a painter of no human kind…”

For my featured painting today I give you Virgin Annunciate which Antonello completed whilst in Venice around 1476 and is now housed in the Galleria Regionale della Sicilia in Palermo.  It is probably his most famous work.  The painting is a hauntingly beautiful image of an adolescent Mary at the time the angel Gabriel came to her to tell her that she would bear God’s son.  Look closely at her beauty as depicted in this bust length portrait by Antonello.  She sits before us dressed in a simple blue mantle.  She clasps her blue mantle closed and holds it modestly in front of her chest.  The background is plain and does not distract us from staring at the young woman.   She sits at a reading desk.  Before her, on the desk, is a book of devotions which she has been reading.  We have disturbed her.  She looks up at us.   The angel Gabriel as is the case in most Annunciation scenes, is not present.  It is simply implied.  Her right hand is raised in a blessing gesture to Gabriel but as he is not in the painting, it is as if she is greeting us, the viewer.  It is just her and us.

The face of young beauty

Would you say this is a religious painting?  That seems a silly question to ask as we know the story of the Annunciation is a religious story but although the subject is religious in nature, Antonello has deliberately selected a young, beautiful and humble Sicilian girl for the model of the Blessed Virgin. So was it in Antonello’s mind to simply paint a portrait of a devout young girl.  I suppose the answer lies in who commissioned the work and what they asked the artist to depict.  Whether it is a simple portrait or a religious painting, I challenge you to find another work depicting such an exquisite looking young.