Antonello Da Messina at the Met
Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion
Looking up Antonello da Messina in Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, you learn that he was "a person of good and lively intelligence, of great sagacity, and skilled in his profession," and that, after having studied for many years in Rome, he worked for a considerable time in Palermo, before returning to "his native place, Messina." Most important, when Antonello saw a painting by "Johann of Bruges"--Jan van Eyck--in Naples, "painted in oil in such a manner that it could be washed, endure any shock, and was in every way perfect," he was "so strongly impressed by the liveliness of the colors and by the beauty and harmony of that painting" that he dropped everything and went to Flanders. There, he "became very intimate with the said Johann, making him presents of many drawings in the Italian manner and other things." The said Johann found this supply of Italian art so irresistible that he taught his Sicilian admirer everything he knew about painting with oil, after which Antonello "returned from Flanders in order to revisit his native country and to communicate to all Italy a secret so useful, beautiful, and advantageous." But after a few months in Messina, he went to Venice, "where, being a man much given to pleasure and very licentious, he resolved to take up his abode and finish his life, having found there a mode of living exactly suited to his taste. And so, putting himself to work, he made there many pictures in oil, according to the rules he had learned in Flanders." He also generously taught the process to his friend "Maestro Domenico Viniziano."
It's all very appealing and, given the fact that Antonello was among the first Italian painters to work in oil, even plausible. The trouble is, none of it is true. Early in the twentieth century, a pair of apparently indefatigable Sicilian scholars published a far more accurate, albeit still rather sketchy, account of Antonello's life and career. They established that he was indeed born in Messina, sometime between 1425 and 1430--the exact date remains in doubt--but that far from receiving his initial training in Rome, as Vasari evidently felt was necessary for any artist of such "excellent ability in painting," he served his apprenticeship, sometime between 1445 and 1455, at a workshop in Naples. He had achieved master status by 1457 and ran a successful workshop of his own, but returned to Messina in 1460, remaining there until 1465. Then things become less certain because of a gap in records, but after 1471, the story resumes less equivocally. From that year on, Antonello worked extensively in Messina and the eastern part of Sicily, where he seems to have remained, apart from a trip to Northern Italy in 1475-1476, when he went to Venice and probably Milan. Antonello died in 1479, not, as Vasari would have it, in Venice, but in his hometown. (Modern scholarship is silent about whether he was particularly pleasure-loving or "very licentious.")
The few widely accepted facts about Antonello's life and work have been patiently assembled from such scant documentary evidence as mentions in other people's letters, contracts for commissions, a record of the artist's father hiring a boat to bring his son and his family home to Messina from the mainland, and so on. Much else, including an early trip to Rome, during the Neapolitan years, and another trip to the mainland between 1465 and 1471, has been inferred from the stylistic developments visible in Antonello's surviving works. Yet much, of necessity, remains in the realm of inspired, informed speculation. The earthquakes that have periodically devastated Sicily, the island's turbulent political history, and the ravages of World War II have all played havoc with archives and records, and many of Antonello's works, including some for which contracts have been found, have been lost, while many of the ones that have come down to us have suffered badly.
Yet Antonello's small group of extant paintings are so distinctive and so potent that the painter emerges not only as an unforgettable individual but also as one whose work helps to define our conceptions of the Italian Renaissance. …