Antonello da Messina’s ‘Virgin Annunciate’
Antonello da Messina’s ‘Virgin Annunciate’ (c1476) © Mart

The tendency to describe old masters, from Giotto to Rembrandt, as the “first of the moderns” is so ubiquitous as to be almost meaningless. Almost. If any artist deserves the appellation it is Antonello da Messina. Born in Sicily in the early 15th century, the painter’s psychological acuity renders his subjects as complex as any 20th-century study.

Bravo then to Mart, the modern and contemporary art museum in Rovereto, in the northern Italian region of Trento, for choosing to devote an exhibition to the Sicilian. (They make his presence more relevant by mounting a show of contemporary paintings, The Other Portrait, in nearby galleries.)

With just 40 works, and only 17 by Antonello, the gathering distils the artist to a nucleus that spans his career. Though monumental altarpieces are present, its core is the clutch of portraits, both secular and sacred, that highlight his gift for capturing his subjects’ human essence.

Meanwhile, a constellation of paintings by his forerunners and peers shines a welcome light on the painterly ferment in southern Italy, too often overlooked in favour of Tuscany and Venice.

Born in Messina between 1425 and 1430 to a stonecutter father, Antonello was well-placed to soak up all his world had to offer. A thriving seaport, Messina not only had strong links with Catalonia and Naples but also welcomed galleys from Constantinople and Venice.

Much of the painter’s life is shrouded in mystery. We know he was one of the earliest Italian painters to adopt oil; his gift for layering its lustrous glazes is responsible for much of his sophistication.

Clearly his art emerged from a nexus of influences, in particular the ecstatic realism of Flemish masters such as Jan van Eyck and the geometric perspective and Platonic forms of Tuscan colossus Piero della Fran­cesca. Yet art historians are still quarrelling as to when and where he first encountered these inspirations.

Certainly by the mid-1440s, he was in Naples apprenticed to the city’s leading master, Colantonio. Thanks to the rule of the French king René d’Anjou and his successor, King Alfonso V of Aragón, a cultivated humanist, the city had become a magnet for art from Spain, Provence and the Netherlands.

A lavish assembly illuminates this moment. On loan from the Brukenthal Museum in Romania, the titan is “Portrait of a Man with a Blue Chaperon” (c1430-33) by Flemish master Jan van Eyck, whose works Antonello would have seen at Alfonso’s court.

Usually, Van Eyck’s rapport with Antonello is viewed through the prism of the former’s influence as an early oil painter yet this show makes little allusion to the mutually shared medium.

Instead, we can simply marvel at the bristling vitality of this solemn gentleman, his head wrapped in a scarf of piercing lapis. From the three-quarter profile that bestows an air of cool yet human detachment, to the light that bounces off his collar and the shadows that articulate his fingers, he could be the father of the wary, pensive youth in Antonello’s “Portrait of a Young Man” (1474).

It’s also a joy to witness the pairing of two “Crucifixions”. One is attributed here to Colantonio, although its permanent host, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, gives it to an anonymous Spaniard. The other, by Antonello, is also on loan from Bucharest and illustrates how the young Sicilian updated his predecessors’ styles.

The earlier painting touches us with its archaic aura: the thieves’ bodies arch awkwardly against their tree trunks, the landscape is made droll by its stumpy towers and spiky mountains. But Antonello propels the identical scene into the avant-garde. His tortured torsos curve like violin bows; his sense of perspective unleashes an exultant blue sea to the horizon; the mourning women lurch and keen in garments blessed with sculptural volume. Such draperies, a leitmotif in Spanish and Flemish painting, were an occasion for the young painter to flaunt his fascination with spatial depth.

Most spectacular is the headdress that frames the extraordinary face of “Sant’Eulalia”, on loan from a private Venetian collection. The attribution of this painting is insecure, although here it is given to Antonello. So crisp they could be carved from marble, the pleats accentuate the blue-tinged pallor of a woman whose dispassionate stillness and hooded, off-centre gaze contrasts with the colourful explosion of her jewel-encrusted crown, lapis robe and claret-red, gold-studded Bible.

By 1457, Antonello was back in Messina presiding over a busy workshop. Although the archival evidence is scarce, the evolution in his work makes many critics believe that at this date he travelled to mainland Italy and saw the work of Piero della Francesca. (The Mart curators hazard a guess that he saw Piero’s work in Naples, although there is no proof that either the Tuscan or his art ever arrived so far south.)

Though there are hints of a new maturity in his grand altarpieces, their golden grounds and patterned fabrics anchor them in the gothic. Instead, it is in his smaller devotional panels and secular portraits that Antonello takes flight. With her flawless, oval face, and babe plunging his fingers into her bodice, his lovely “Benson Madonna” (1465-1470), on loan from Washington, is the daughter of Piero’s neo-Platonic Virgins. Eyes cast down and away, she is not devoid of emotion but beyond it, moulded from the same abstract space as the empty blue sky and the bold leaf-green mound of pillow that lies on the balcony before her.

‘Madonna with Child’
‘Madonna with Child’ (c1470-75) © Mart

By late 1475, Antonello is in Venice. There, he would have discovered the work of Giovanni Bellini, another painter probably inspired both by Piero and by Flemish art. Did Bellini, who adopted oil around this time, steal the Sicilian's expertise with the medium? Scholars are still speculating.

What is certain is that both artists blossomed from the rivalry. Between them, they pioneered the genre of the sacred conversation – where saints are placed in a unified space – and pushed the expressiveness of their suffering Christs to agonised limits.

A year later, Antonello, having rejected an offer from the Duke of Milan to become his court painter, returned to Messina. No one is sure whether or not he had already painted his greatest masterpiece, the “Virgin Annunciate” (c1476), on loan from Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.

On show here, it portrays the Madonna alone at her lectern, her head cloaked in a lapis veil whose colour possesses a matt, puritan grandeur rather than its familiar opulent gloss. There is no angel. No dove. Instead, we, the spectators, are her messenger. Her hand is raised, palm angled towards the table beneath. (Antonello has painstakingly painted in the shadows beneath her fingers.) They do not beckon; they block. Her eyes neither meet the Angel’s gaze nor does she glance down in submission. Instead, she looks to one side as if determined to evade all expectations.

And yet no Virgin before or since has occupied her space with such assurance. Behind her, there is a vault of blackness. In front, a lectern whose keyhole-shaped recesses bore into darkness. The edge of the lifted page accentuates the distance articulated by those stretched fingers.

If ever there were a case for Sant’Eulalia being the Sicilian’s work, this latter painting makes it. Gone are the fancy details and the lapidary colour. Instead, Antonello has condensed his realist sensibility into a precise evocation of abstract space, light, shade and tone. He has kept Eulalia’s touch-me-not expression but boosted his Madonna’s power through unimpeachable geometry. Frail and unstable in her shallow gothic space, Sant’Eulalia shrank away from our gaze. But this Madonna is a commanding, three-dimensional presence who chooses not to see us.

Did he recognise his Virgin’s ambiguity? That is just one of the many mysteries that surround one of the Renaissance’s most exceptional yet elusive talents.

‘Antonello da Messina’, Mart, Rovereto, to January 12.

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