Slow-drying oil paint was an essential foundation for the increasingly realist painting of the Renaissance. Although many Renaissance masterpieces used traditional egg tempera, its rapid drying required techniques which made subtle modelling of surface textures and facial shadows extremely difficult. This is reflected in Piero della Francesca’s Baptism of Christ (below), for example, and in Botticelli’s huge paintings including Primavera.
By a quirk of fate, oil paints were in use for over two centuries before the Renaissance in northern Europe, but somehow didn’t catch on in Italy until the late fifteenth century. By 1500, Italian painters hadn’t just caught up with developments in the north, but were – in some respects at least – in the lead in technical development. The key artist in the introduction of oil painting to the Southern Renaissance was Antonello da Messina (actually Antonello d’Antonio), who was born between 1429 and 1431.
Antonello 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, where he painted the San Cassiano altarpiece in 1476. Later that year he was back in Messina, where he died suddenly in 1479.
While he was in Naples, Antonello was probably a pupil of Niccolò Colantonio (c 1420-1460), 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, 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, he doesn’t appear to have painted anything revelatory or revolutionary, but accomplished much in his teaching.
Antonello’s workshop in Messina, Sicily, worked by painting copies and variations of the originals which he created, a common practice in Italy at that time. With three recognisable painters (Antonio and Pietro de Saliba, and Salvo d’Antonio) plus Antonello himself, it’s 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. With one exception, those that I show here are normally dated within the last five years of his life, when he was working in Venice, possibly Milan, and Messina.
Although a highly accomplished painting which would stand in good company of many of the better paintings of the southern Renaissance, Antonello’s modelling of the saint’s face in his Saint Sebastian is relatively simple, and the hair quite plain.
His Christ Blessing (Salvator Mundi) shows greater sophistication in the modelling of the face and rendering of the hair. It also has a cryptic reference to the date in the scroll at the foot, which some have claimed date it to 1465, but it might in fact be ten years later. Paint analysis shows that the dominant drying oil used in this work was walnut oil, rather than linseed.
We have reliable documentary evidence that his San Cassiano Altarpiece (Madonna with Saints Nicholas of Bari, Anastasia (?), Ursula, Dominic and Helen) was completed when he was in Venice, in 1476. Although the fragments are incomplete, it shows strong influence from the northern Renaissance.
In addition to its elaborate details of fabrics and clothing, Antonello has embarked on some of the Flemish exercises in depicting optical test pieces, such as a glass of water, and the fine glass rods just to the right of the female saint’s face. This is strongly reminiscent of Jan van Eyck’s optical exercises, such as in his Arnolfini Portrait (1434).
Antonello’s Saint Jerome in his Study is another late work which is heavily influenced by the northern European paintings which he must have seen, and was painted to their same high standard. However, rather than using linseed oil as its binder, analysis has shown that it too 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 convincing.
His Portrait of a Man is another sophisticated painting which demonstrates his mastery of the new medium, and was probably one of his later works.
For me, the finest and most moving of his works in oils must be Christ at the Column, showing Christ crowned with thorns, his face cast up to heaven in his suffering.
Antonello shows his skill in manipulating oil paint, right down to the two small tears on Christ’s cheek, and the congealed droplet of blood just below the hairline.
There is no evidence that Antonello, or any of the other earlybird painters in oil in Italy, varied much from the materials and methods which had been brought from northern Europe, other than in their preference for walnut over linseed oil. Surprisingly, with Venice the trade centre that it was, they appear to have used predominantly pine rather than more exotic resins too. As you can see from the detail views, Antonello’s paint layers are very smooth in finish, don’t show any brushstrokes or impasto, and generally have a minimum of fine cracks.
By this time, others were switching to oils too, and honing their skills with the new medium. Piero della Francesca probably started using oils with tempera by about 1454, and his Saint Michael (1454-1473), from the high altarpiece of Sant’ Agostino in Sansepolero, was probably painted largely using walnut oil as a binder. These were not entirely successful, it seems, with the appearance of some wrinkling and drying defects in the paint surfaces. Some of Cosimo Tura’s paintings from the late 1450s also appear to mix oils with tempera layers.
Within a decade of Antonello’s death, also in Venice, the Bellinis were taking oil painting even further.
Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna with a Pear (1488) shows how far Italian art had come in less than forty years.
His San Giobbe Altarpiece (c 1487) couples the southern revolution of perspective projection – with its reference to Masaccio’s Holy Trinity (c 1427) in Florence – with the northern revolution in oil painting. Everything was in place for the height of the Renaissance.
By the turn of the century, it was Leonardo da Vinci who was pushing the boundaries of techniques and overtaking the northern masters. His second version of The Virgin with the Infant Saint John the Baptist adoring the Christ Child accompanied by an Angel, or The Virgin of the Rocks, shows his mastery of the medium.
As far as technique and media are concerned, the fifteenth century was a time of great change in Italian painting. At the start of the century, the dominant media were egg tempera for easel paintings, and fresco. Subtle modelling which was so important to achieving realism only became possible with the introduction and use of oil paints, and their adoption first in Venice in the late 1470s. Over the next thirty or more years, they enabled many of the finest paintings of the High Renaissance. This lagged the adoption of perspective projection by almost a century, and many of the Renaissance masterpieces were completed without the benefit of any drying oils.
Oil paints were an enabler and accelerant which arrived late on the scene, and later in Florence than in Venice.
Dunkerton J et al. (1991) Giotto to Dürer, Early Renaissance Painting in the National Gallery, National Gallery & Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 05082 0.
Skorupa T (2015) Antonello da Messina and His Workshop, The Master’s Legacy, Logos. ISBN 978 3 8325 3929 0.