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Antonello da Messina

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Born at Messina, about 1430; died 1497. After studying for some time in Sicily he crossed over to Naples, where, we are told, he became the pupil of an unknown artist, Antonio Colantonio. It was here, according to Vasari, that Messina, on seeing a painting of John Van Eyck, belonging to Alphonsus of Aragon, determined to devote himself to the study of the Flemish Masters. It would seem too that he set out for Bruges with this purpose; others, however, maintain that he need not have left Italy to ground himself in the new technic as several Flemish artists of renown had already, through the patronage of the princes René of Anjou and Alphonsus of Aragon, won for their pictures no slight reputation. The question will remain a debated point until the discovery of some authentic document shall decide definitively whether the Sicilian painter did or did not sail for Flanders. It is certain, however, that he mastered perfectly the methods followed by the disciples of Van Eyck in oil-painting methods that had eclipsed all the efforts made by the Italian school. On his return to Messina, Antonello evinced remarkable skill in handling oils in a triptych, unfortunately destroyed in the recent earthquake, representing the Blessed Virgin with St. Gregory and St. Benedict on either side and two angels holding a crown over Our Lady's head. Later, Messina went to Venice, where in 1473 he executed an altar screen, no longer extant, for the church of San Cassiano. By making known the secret of the Van Eycks, Antonello quickly won success; for the introduction of the new technic, singularly adapted to bring out brilliant colour effects and at the same time ensure their permanency, suited admirably the tastes of the Venetians "already so richly endowed with a feeling for the charm of colour", and "was destined to make Venice the most renowned school in Italy for the study of colouring" (Le Cicerone, II, 610). The new style was eagerly followed by Bartholomew and Louis Vivarini, John and Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio and Cima. Assailed by homesickness, Antonello returned to Messina to leave it no more until his death (cf. Lionello Venturi, loc. cit. infra).

Messina rivals the Flemings in transparency of colouring, though occasionally he may justly be censured for the use of "a dark brown in his flesh-tints" (Müntz, II, 778). If he imitates their careful execution of details, he surpasses them by the distinction and nobility of his figures, a trait in which one recognizes the Italian. He excels only as a portrait painter, and especially in his portraiture of men. Of his work in this department he has left us some masterpieces that evince in a striking degree truth to nature and strength of conception and execution: in the Academy of Venice, a half-length portrait of a man; in the Museum of Berlin, a head of a young man; in the house of the Marquis Trivulci at Milan, the head of a man in the prime of life; in the Civic Museum of Milan, an excellent bust-painting of a poet with flowing hair crowned by a wreath; above all the painting entitled "Condottiere" preserved in the Louvre. Not so successful in religious paintings, at Venice, he reproduced without conviction and almost slavishly Madonnas of the type of G. Bellini. In the National Gallery there is a half-length portrait of the year 1465 representing Christ with His hand raised in blessing. In conclusion let us call special attention to the large studies, entitled "St. Sebastian", "St. Jerome in his Study", "The Crucifixion". "St. Sebastian", in the Museum of Dresden, represents a beautiful young man, almost life-size, naked, of striking figure, and standing out against a background of a landscape brilliantly illuminated. In accordance with the Venetian or Paduan taste the painter has added a certain number of secondary motives, the better to set off the leading theme. This study in the nude is doubly shocking, since it is out of place in a devotional picture, and is nothing but a pretext for displaying his knowledge of anatomy. "St. Jerome", also preserved in the National Gallery, is a carefully executed picture, pleasing to the eye; the studio is vaulted, the window, set high up in the wall and lighting up the studio, has all the charm of a chapel window. On the side may be seen the outlines of a pleasant cloister ; another opening discloses a vista of a distant landscape. The learned Doctor, seated in a wooden armchair on a platform slightly elevated, is absorbed in the reading of a book lying open on a desk before him; in the foreground, a beautiful peacock and a little bird. In "The Crucifixion" of the Museum of Antwerp, we are struck by certain realistic touches which Antonello learned from the Flemish school. Skulls are scattered along the ground; the two thieves, fastened not to crosses but to trees, are writhing in pain. The Italian is discernible in the nobility with which Messina invests the figures of Christ, the Blessed Virgin, and St. John. Antonello has been praised for "a feeling, sometimes quite correct, for large strongly lighted landscapes", and the "Crucifixion" witnesses to the truth of this criticism, for the landscape which forms the setting of this pathetic scene on Calvary, in spite of the multiplicity of details, preserves a harmonious unity.

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