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Antonello da Messina
by Antonella Gallo


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The Annunciation, National Gallery, PalermoOil painting is taken for granted these days, but that wasn't the case in the fifteenth century, when it was a new medium. In the Middle Ages, most painting was done with tempera (egg emulsion), fresco or other techniques. Then somebody began to experiment by mixing ground mineral pigments with linseed oil, turpentine and varnishes - natural substances rarely used by medieval artists. An artist born in Messina around 1430 was one of the first Italians to embrace the new technique. Antonello "da Messina" (not all common people of that period had surnames) probably apprenticed in Naples, where he met Jan van Eyck, the Flemish master who had developed a way of painting with oil and egg tempera using a "mixed technique."

Essentially, Antonello began his intricate paintings by drawing in white egg tempera on a dark red or brown surface on wood, then glazing (tinting) this white "underpainting" with transparent layers of oil color. Each successive layer of tempera and oil rendered the image more luminous. The results were stunning. Optically, light would travel through the layers to the underpainting and ground, bouncing back toward the viewer, creating an unusual effect. While a few of today's illustrators glaze with oil (without a tempera underpainting) to achieve more control and realistic blending of tone, few painters attempt such a painstaking technique using more than one medium. Requiring great patience, the mixed oil-tempera technique allowed the development of effects typical of both watercolor and oil painting.

In 1475, Antonello took his skill to Venice, where the city employed him as a resident master. He returned to Messina in 1476 and there completed his Annunciation (shown here), now housed in Palermo's Abatellis National Gallery. It was his last painting but by no means his only surviving work. Antonello's use of foreshortening, giving a sense of perspective and depth to the Virgin's hands in The Annunciation was unusual for its time; the work of Andrea Mantegna comes to mind. It seems almost prosaic today, but this simple visual "trick" represented an important step in the evolution of realist painting, distinguishing literal modern painting from representational medieval art.

Other paintings from this period are a Crucifixion (1475, Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp) and the San Cassiano Altarpiece (1475-1476, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). The latter is noted for its exceptional use of perspective, its glowing colors, and an attention to detail that rivals the Flemish School.

His style and technique influenced those of Bellini and other Venetian artists. Though best known for his religious subjects, he was a superb portraitist. Among his better known works are Portrait of a Young Man (1474, Dahlem Museum, Berlin), Ecce Homo (1474, Metropolitan Museum, New York), and Il Condottiere (1475, Louvre, Paris).

Antonello died at Messina in 1479, at around fifty years of age. His subjects were inspired, his technique even moreso. Five centuries later, the Austrian painter Ernst Fuchs, founder of the "Vienna School of Fantastic Realism," revived what had been a lost technique. Thanks to this modern master's influence, the mixed technique is now employed by a handful of visionary painters around the world.

About the Author: Artist Antonella Gallo teaches art in Rome.

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© 2001 Antonella Gallo