In Europe, oil painting appeared first in the north around 1180, and didn’t appear in Italy until the middle of the fifteenth century. In the workshops of the van Eycks and their contemporaries it had flourished in ways simply not possible with other media such as egg tempera and fresco. But in Italy, with the southern Renaissance well under way, drying oils were still not used as a primary painting medium.
By 1500, Italian painters had not just caught up with developments in the north, but were – in some respects at least – in the lead in technical development. The artist largely responsible for that wasn’t Leonardo da Vinci, for all his accomplishments, but a Sicilian known as Antonello da Messina. In this and the next two articles in this series, I’m going to look at how Antonello became the first Italian Master in oils, and established the medium at the centre of Italian art.
Although Giogio Vasari’s 1568 account of the history of art, The Lives of the Artists, was less than reliable on the origins of oil painting and the role of the van Eycks, it should surely be more trustworthy when it comes to more recent events in Italy, and the history of oil painting there. According to Vasari, impressed by a painting by Jan van Eyck which had been brought to Italy, Antonello travelled to Bruges and there learned to paint in oils from van Eyck himself.
After van Eyck’s death, Antonello is supposed to have returned to Italy, and painted for many years in Venice, where his oil paintings were greatly successful. Among the great works in oils by Antonello which Vasari singles out for praise was one for the church of San Cassiano, in Venice. Vasari thus attributes to Antonello the role of bringing painting in oils from van Eyck’s workshop to Italy.
Subsequent research into the lives of Jan van Eyck and Antonello da Messina (more properly known as Antonello d’Antonio) have raised some fundamental problems with this alluringly simple story. First, van Eyck and Antonello’s lives overlapped very little, insufficient for them to have met: Jan van Eyck is well attested to have died on 9 July 1441, and Antonello was almost certainly born between 1429 and 1431 making him no more than twelve at the time.
Antonello most probably trained in Naples between about 1450 and 1455, returning to Sicily by 1457, although soon afterwards he left and didn’t return until 1460. He was probably away from Messina again between 1465 and 1471, only to go to Venice in late 1474. Antonello did paint the San Cassiano altarpiece (which I will show in a subsequent article) in 1476, but later that year was back in Messina. He died suddenly in 1479.
So, if Antonello didn’t learn to paint in oils in van Eyck’s workshop, where did he? The answer is a bit more complex, in that Antonello was probably a pupil of Niccolò Colantonio (c 1420-1460) in Naples, and was in contact again with northern European techniques when he was in Venice in the 1470s. Colantonio seems to have learned oil painting from Flemish artists who were brought to the court of Alfonso V of Aragon, who was King of Naples from 1442-1458, and an enthusiast for northern European paintings.
Colantonio painted in oils himself, and had clearly come under Flemish influence. As early as 1445, he painted Saint Jerome in His Study, an unusual hybrid of styles with a distinctively northern motif, using oils as his primary medium. By the time of his death in 1460, Colantonio doesn’t appear to have painted anything revelatory or revolutionary, but accomplished much in his teaching.
Piecing together Antonello’s accomplishment is even harder. His workshop in Messina, Sicily, produced copies and variations of originals which he created (common practice in Italy at that time). With three recognisable painters (Antonio and Pietro de Saliba, and Salvo d’Antonio) plus Antonello himself, it is extremely difficult to know which version of any given painting believed to have come from the workshop was actually the master’s.
There are also considerable difficulties in dating Antonello’s paintings. Most of those that I will show here are normally dated within the last five years of his life, when he was working in Venice, possibly Milan, and Messina. Those of his surviving works which are dated to his early career are painted in tempera grassa, egg tempera to which drying oil has been added. As an intermediate between pure egg tempera and pure oil paint, it was the stepping stone for his technique. Sadly, those early paintings are now much worse for their age.
Madonna with Child, popularly known as the Salting Madonna, (c 1470-77), may have been one of Antonello’s earlier oil paintings, which probably started with his transition from tempera grassa in the late 1860s. It history seems murky until it ended up in the collection of George Salting, who first exhibited it in 1904. It wasn’t attributed to Antonello until 1930, but has since become generally accepted as his work, even if the date remains contentious.
It is most remarkable for its rich material effects, in the glistening precious stones of the crown (detail below), the diaphanous veil, and luxuriant fabrics of the Virgin’s clothes. These are similar to the optical fascination among the painters of the Northern Renaissance, but expressed in a highly individualistic composition with those symmetric angels in miniature.
Antonello didn’t abruptly cease painting in other media. In 1473, he and his workshop completed a polyptych for the San Gregorio church adjacent to the Benedictine convent in Messina. This Enthroned Madonna is its central panel, out of a total of five which survived breaking up some sixty years later. In the early twentieth century, it was the victim of an earthquake, and was left in heavy rain for many days, but repeatedly underwent conservation work which still continues.
The angels crowning the Virgin are reminiscent of the Salting Madonna, although here the figures are presented in a gilded surround indicative of conservativism of the commission. The infant Christ is holding an apple, signifying original sin, in his right hand and cherries, marking the blood of the Passion to come, in the left. Antonello’s signature is painted in the cartellino (small label) at the lower edge, which is characteristic of many of his works.
Christ Crucified, probably from 1473, is also painted in tempera, probably with some oil paint. This work was unknown until it surfaced in a private collection in 1848 and was bought by the National Gallery in London. Although it has been cut down in size over the years, what remains of it is in excellent condition.
The mourning figures at the foot of the cross are the Virgin Mary on the left, and Saint John the Evangelist on the right. Behind them, and the visual reference to the place of skulls, is a superb landscape with castellated buildings and the sea beyond.
In addition to a succession of religious works, Antonello painted many portraits, of which his Portrait of a Man is both sophisticated and in fine condition. Some have wished that this might have been a self-portrait, but the subject appears much younger than the artist would have been.
Antonello’s Saint Jerome in his Study is perhaps his first real masterpiece. Heavily influenced by the northern European paintings which he must have seen, this was painted in oils to their same high standard. Rather than using linseed oil as its binder, analysis has shown that it used walnut oil. This flies in the face of what is usually written about drying oil usage in Italy at this time: walnut oil is said to have been preferred for lighter pigments, because it discolours less on drying than linseed oil. In this painting, that reason for using walnut oil doesn’t appear to be convincing.
This painting has an unusually long provenance too, being first recorded in 1529, before making its way to Rome. When it went to Britain later, it was originally attributed to Dürer before it was bought by the National Gallery in 1894 and finally recognised as one of Antonello’s.
It has so much detail that it can be read in terms of architecture and perspective of a Humanist study, its fascinating collection of symbolic objects, and for its fine landscape views (detail below). Antonello’s cartellino is placed in the middle of the painting, on the wooden panelling of the saint’s desk.
Between 1475 and his death just four years later, Antonello was at his most productive. All the remaining paintings which I will show in the next two articles are thought to date from this period, when he was first in Venice and then back in his home town of Messina.
Caterina Cardona, Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa (eds.) (2019) Antonello da Messina, Skira. ISBN 978 88 572 3098 2.
Thomas Skorupa (2015) Antonello da Messina and his Workshop, The Master’s Legacy, Logos Verlag. ISBN 978 3 8325 3929 0.