Antonello da Messina is, in a sense, the first truly European painter, and his remarkably varied achievements raise issues crucial to our understanding of European art. No other Italian artist of the fifteenth century responded in such a direct fashion not only to the leading masters of Bruges and Brussels—Jan van Eyck (died 1441) and Petrus Christus (died 1475/76) in particular—but also to giants of French Provençal painting such as the Master of the Aix Annunciation and Enguerrand Quarton. Did Antonello personally encounter any of these artists, possibly in the course of undocumented trips north of the Alps, or did he only come into contact with their work during the time he spent in Naples, where Netherlandish painting was highly valued and where, between 1438 and 1442, René of Anjou briefly ruled as king of Naples and of Sicily? Whatever the case, Antonello’s achievement as a painter of portraits and landscapes is inconceivable without these great masters, and it is one of the intriguing mysteries of Italian art that the person who best understood the work of his northern contemporaries—both Netherlandish and Franco-Flemish—was born, trained, and apparently worked for most of his career in Sicily, that is, on the periphery of Europe. Obviously, much more than wine, olive oil, textiles, and other commodities was passing through the port of Messina, which in the mid-fifteenth century was experiencing an economic recession dominated by foreigners.
To artists working in a seaport, long-distance travel did not present the same difficulties that it did to the landlocked, and the question facing anyone trying to “explain” the trajectory of Antonello’s career is how much and where his travels may have taken him (Naples and Venice are the only destinations we are certain of). His artistic progression is truly breathtaking and transports us from the backwater of Hispano-Netherlandish devotional paintings, with their hard, linear effect, awkward draftsmanship, and heavily tooled, flat gold backgrounds, to some of the most cosmopolitan and exquisite examples of naturalistic description in European art, predicated on a complete mastery of the technique of oil painting (the aspect of Antonello’s art to which Vasari attached such overriding importance, wrongly making him responsible for its introduction into Italy). His mature paintings convey as no one else’s the brilliant light of Sicily, either depicted en plein air or filtered through the windows of those somber but elegant Sicilian palaces, constructed of the local warm brown stone that every visitor to the island remembers.
His miraculous painting of Saint Jerome in His Study (National Gallery, London) seemed to contemporaries in Venice to equal the subtle, descriptive effects of those marvels of Netherlandish art: painting as a microcosm. Indeed, the sixteenth-century Venetian connoisseur Marcantonio Michiel could not believe it was painted by an Italian, and suggested either Van Eyck or Memling as a more probable attribution. The truth is that Antonello’s picture possesses a harmony and geometric clarity of structure that even Jan van Eyck could not match, and the figure is scaled to the building he inhabits. It is a work first and foremost about space and light and only secondarily about the scholar-saint sitting in his well-carpentered library enclosure. The light illuminating the foreground enters the picture from the viewer’s space, while the recesses of the palace are lit from the windows along the back wall. Although the square windows of the ground floor offer enchanting views onto the Sicilian landscape, the Gothic biforate windows of the upper story look out onto a crystalline azure sky dotted with swallows. Typically, the palace facade with an open arch not only frames the interior view but also provides the occasion for a ravishing genre scene of a partridge and a peacock and a brass bowl with water.
No less memorable is Antonello’s Crucifixion (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), in which the affective figure group in the foreground is set against a landscape punctuated by city walls, a castle, and gently sloping hills leading the eye to a distant sunlit bay that yields nothing to the poetry of Seurat‘s views of Gravelines painted more than four centuries later. Indeed, so perfectly pitched is the sense of tone, light, and geometry that one would like to think that the nineteenth-century Frenchman knew this painting, which entered the museum in 1840.
That Antonello was a key figure in the history of Venetian painting has long been acknowledged, although his impact extended far beyond the much repeated assertion—false, as it turns out—that it was he who introduced Giovanni Bellini to the practice of oil painting. Antonello is documented in the city in 1475–76, but his visits may have been more frequent than the sparse documentation suggests. How, given the scarcity of the evidence, do we trace the obviously enriching effects of the give-and-take between Antonello and Bellini? That Bellini’s notion of portraiture was transformed by the example of the Sicilian seems probable, but was Antonello, indeed, the creator of those grand, spacious altarpieces in which the Virgin and her attendants are shown enthroned in a fictive architectural chapel designed to illusionistically extend the read space of the church, as often claimed?
Whatever the case—and, unfortunately, of Antonello’s landmark contribution to this genre, the San Cassiano Altarpiece of 1475–76 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), only fragments survive—we may ponder whether any earlier artist observed and recorded the luxuriant self-absorption of Venetian life with greater acuity and wonder. Who else would have thought of adding as a backdrop to the noble, still, nude form of Saint Sebastian a view of elegant Venetian palaces bordering a canal or lagoon, populated by richly dressed figures disturbingly unconcerned with the fate of the arrow-pierced youth? A soldier has set his halberd aside and is shown sprawled, feet first, asleep on the marble-paved piazza, his steeply foreshortened pose—like the setting, clearly inspired by the work of Andrea Mantegna in nearby Padua—reminding us that Antonello was acutely aware of the prestige that attached to those indications of the mastery of perspective that, as Raphael’s father declared, “fooled the eye and are the glory of art.” And where, we might ask, did he derive that quality of aloof detachment and sublime geometric abstraction that have called to mind for countless viewers the work of Piero della Francesca? Did the two artists meet? Did Antonello have the occasion to study Piero’s work? Or are we merely dealing with kindred sensibilities fueled by access to similar theoretical, literary, and artistic sources?
In attempts to reconstruct the narrative of Antonello’s life, we remember that the artist’s career is no less remarkable for the lapses in documentation than it is for the quality of the paintings he produced. As a supremely gifted and original portraitist, Antonello was the first to suggest, by those unforgettable smiles that seem on the verge of breaking across and softening the often coarse faces of his male sitters (few more memorable than the Portrait of a Man), what fifteenth-century humanist critics referred to as “the movements of the mind”—the interior life behind the painted mask of so many Renaissance portraits. His achievement may be seen as a first step toward the famous, incipient smile of the Mona Lisa. Antonello was also the creator of deeply emotive images of Christ as the Man of Sorrows. In these extraordinary pictures, the viewer is placed in the closest possible proximity to a palpable, physical likeness of suffering, transforming the very terms of private devotional experience. To set off these images, he invariably painted a fictive parapet with an illusionistically rendered piece of creased paper attached by sealing wax. Usually the cartellino, as it is most often termed, contains his signature—a detail Antonello seems to have taken over from Italian, possibly Paduan, rather than Netherlandish practice and used both to give further emphasis to the concept of painting as mimesis and to assert himself as the author of these moving works.
Antonello’s art sets up a powerful dynamic with the viewer, who is encouraged by illusionistic devices such as the parapet and cartellino to experience painting as an extension of reality. His figures of Christ and the Virgin extend their hands into our world, separated only by the fiction of a painted ledge. The mental divisions between past and present, the realms of the sacred and secular, are blurred, and we are put in apparent direct contact with the objects of our devotion. In like fashion, the sitters of his portraits engage our attention with their gaze and seem by their expressions to respond to our presence. In these ways, Antonello gave his works a compelling psychological dimension that was crucial to the history of European painting.