A SICILIAN IN FLORENCE: ANTONELLO AT THE UFFIZI
Uffizi are not just Florentine painters: the vast collections that have reached us through different channels, in particular thanks to the Medici and the Lorraine families, include many “foreign” artists, and we are lucky to be able to admire them in this museum. For example: thanks to Vittoria della Rovere, who became wife of the Medici Grand Duke Ferdinando II in the 17th century, bringing a rich inheritance of artworks from Urbino to Florence, we have the Venus of Urbino by Titian, and The Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca; thanks to Ferdinando III of Lorraine, who fell in love in Siena with the Annunciation by Simone Martini, we can now admire this masterpiece in the first rooms dedicated to the 14th century; thanks to the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, who visited churches to find paintings to buy for his collection, we have many artworks in the Pitti Palace; or the paintings by Caravaggio, arrived here as a gift from the artist’s mentor, Cardinal Del Monte, to Ferdinando I Medici.
Here I would like to talk in particular about a purchase arranged by the Italian State, and about an artist, that, coming from the south, was able to introduce pictorial innovations coming from the north, specifically from Bruges in the Flanders, and masterfully combine them with those more typical of the Italian tradition. I am talking about Antonello da Messina, great interpreter of the Italian Renaissance, that lived between 1430 and 1479 ca: only few details about his life have reached us, starting with his uncertain date of birth. The painting, displayed in room no. 20 along with artists like Mantegna and Bellini, is, in fact, a triptych, that a couple of years ago was at the center of a “reunification” process arranged, among others, by the Italian art critic Vittorio Sgarbi: the triptych parts actually belonging to the Uffizi (and therefore to Mibact, the Italian “Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities and Tourism”) are two, while the third one belongs to Lombardy Region. Thanks to an agreement signed by both parties, the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus and Angels by the Lombard painter Vincenzo Foppa has flown to Castello Sforzesco in Milan; in exchange, the missing Saint Benedict by Antonello has come here (right side). And it will stay here for 15 years. The other two parts, the Virgin Mary with Child and Angels, and the Saint John the Evangelist, were the result of a purchase made by the Italian State in the 90s, to fulfill a wish: that expressed by Ugo Bardini, son and heir of the Tuscan antique dealer Stefano Bardini (1836-1922), who died in 1965, appointing the Italian State as his sole heir.
But.. who was Antonio da Messina? Clearly, he was from Messina! Moreover: although he is believed to have traveled a lot, though some journeys probably never really occurred (Vasari, the art historian, places him in Bruges, in search for “Giovanni da Bruggia” – that is the painter Jan Van Eyck), while other are more certain (Naples, Rome, Venice), he was born and died in the same place: his city on the “Stretto” (Strait of Messina).
As a young man, he had trained in Naples in the workshop of the most famous artist of southern Italy, Colantonio. It was here, at the Aragon court, that he probably came into contact with Flemish art. As mentioned, we are not sure about a travel of Antonello to Bruges, but the fact is, that as a great admirer of the Flemish painter Jan Van Eyck, he was the one to introduce the Flemish art innovations in Italy; for example: the three-quarter-view portraits, the attention to details, and, above all, the use of oil painting. This was a great innovation in the 15th century: compared to tempera painting, that had been used until then, oil painting allowed more brilliance and smoothness in colors and details.
In Antonello’s work, however, all this communes with the typical and pure Italian style, as monumentality and the study of space. About Antonello we know that at some point he must have come in contact with Piero della Francesca’s work, if not with the artist himself: we can see this through the introduction of new elements in his paintings, where the Flemish attention to details is now melted with the geometry of shapes, typical of Piero. We also know that Antonello spent some time in Venice, in contact with the Bellini artist’s family, and he was greatly influenced by them, while at the same time his innovations were so revolutionary and an example to the painters of the Laguna, that they somehow paved the way to what will become the great Venetian tonal painting of the future masters Giorgione and Titian.
As mentioned, there is unfortunately very little information about him, and the catalogue of his works has been put together little by little, thanks to scholars like Marcantonio Michiel, who, in the 16th century, collected and gathered information about life and works of those artists that had mostly worked for private commissions, like, for example, Giorgione. And what emerges is that many artworks by this extraordinary artist.. are not in Messina! And not even in Italy! Several of his most famous paintings are in foreign museums, as the San Cassiano Altarpiece in Vienna; the Pietà in Madrid; or the Saint Jerome in His Study in London. His most famous painting, however, is here in Italy, exactly in Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo: the Virgin Annunciate. It is an extraordinary painting, and a revolutionary iconography, all born in his last years of life, where the melting process between the different influences (Flemish, from Piero della Francesca, and Venetian) and his personal style, was now complete. The Virgin Mary is no longer depicted on one side of the scene, interacting with the Announcing Angel located on the other side: here she is interacting with us. As if the Angel was..us!
The Uffizi triptych, now reunited for 15 years, could be actually part of an even larger altarpiece. We can see Antonello’s hand in many elements: the Flemish influence is visible in the attention to details, in the two angels bearing a crown, or even in the folds of the drapery; the more typical Italian influence is visible, instead, in the specific use of light, in making the figures’ aspect more geometrical and sculptural, and in placing them more “in contact” with us. Saint John the Evangelist, according to a particular iconography, is depicted with a chalice of wine, from which a snake is coming out, and a book: the story says the wine was poisoned, and Saint John, before drinking it, made the sign of the cross, and the poison escaped from the chalice in the shape of a snake. Saint Benedict is represented with the pastoral staff and the book with the Rule of Saint Benedict. The preciousness of his garment, as well as that of the rings worn over the gloves, is rendered in a thorough and shiny way. The Virgin Mary at the center is sitting on a throne and she is being crowned by two little angels. She wears a precious garment, and behind her, a piece of cloth has been draped on the throne. Baby Jesus tenderly hugs her around her neck.
The three scenes are unified in a common space: the small archway behind the figures, as well as their shadows, continue in all three sections of the triptych. Divided, but together. This thanks also to this initiative that finally reunited them. Who knows what would Antonello, like many other artists, say, seeing his artworks come back to life as they were originally conceived! It is totally worth seeing an example of this extraordinary artist’s work! A man that, starting from Messina, was able to influence an entire country!