Antonello da Messina: Key influence on Venetian art

With his mastery of oil paints outside of Northern Europe, Antonello da Messina might be the missing link between the Italian and Netherlandish schools of the 15th century – the first pan-European painter. With oil paints, a medium that was just starting to be used in the Sicilian artist’s lifetime, Antonello’s pictures glow with their own light. His glassy oil surfaces and practice of building form with colour rather than line and shade greatly influenced the Venetian painting technique, known as colorito.

Visually, Antonello’s paintings owe something to the Netherlandish artists, above all Jan van Eyck, who demonstrated the potential of oil painting in the early 15th century. It’s now agreed that Antonello assimilated – probably from Van Eyck – the secrets of oils but it’s unclear how this happened. Did he encounter Van Eyck, possibly during an undocumented trip north of the Alps, or did he only come into contact with his work in Naples where Antonello spent time and where Netherlandish painting was popular?

In his Lives of the Artists, the Renaissance art chronicler Giorgio Vasari tells a great story to explain this. After seeing a work by Van Eyck in Naples, he claims, the Sicilian journeyed across the Alps to northern Europe to find this rare master. Van Eyck – or Johann of Bruges as Vasari refers to him – who the writer says was an alchemist as well as painter, gave Antonello the secret and he took it to Venice – where it was soon, along with Van Eyck’s Netherlandish pictorial techniques, stolen by all the other artists.

Even as this fabulous story reveals Vasari’s Florentine bias in that Venetians were quite incapable of inventing an original painting technique, it also contains an underlying truth – that Antonello da Messina was a missing link between northern and southern Renaissance painting. It remains one of the intriguing mysteries of Italian art that the person who best understood the work of his northern contemporaries was born, trained and apparently worked for most of his career in Sicily, the periphery of Europe.

Vasari’s story must have taken place before 1475 when Antonello arrived in Venice. His work attracted so much attention that he was supported by the Venetian state and local painters adopted his oil technique and style. In St Sebastian, his most mature work which now hangs at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Antonello achieved a synthesis of clearly defined space, monumental sculpture-like form and luminous colour, which influenced the evolution of Venetian painting down to Giorgione’s day.