LINK TO BIB Detail. St. Jerome in his study. ca 1476. National Gallery, London.

ANTONELLO DA MESSINA (ca. 1430-1479)

Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists




WHEN I CONSIDER within my own mind the various qualities of the benefits and advantages that have been conferred on the art of painting by many masters who have followed the second manner, I cannot do otherwise than call them, by reason of their efforts, truly industrious and excellent, because they sought above all to bring painting to a better condition, without thinking of discomfort, expense, or any particular interest of their own. They continued, then, to employ no other method of coloring save that of distemper for panels and for canvases, which method had been introduced by Cimabue in the year 1250, when he was working with those Greeks, and had been afterwards followed by Giotto and by the others of whom we have spoken up to the present; and they were still adhering to the same manner of working, although the craftsmen recognized clearly that pictures in distemper were wanting in a certain softness and liveliness, which, if they could be obtained, would be likely to give more grace to their designs, loveliness to their coloring, and greater facility in blending the colors together; for they had ever been wont to hatch their works merely with the point of the brush. But although many had made investigations and sought for something of the sort, yet no one had found any good method, either by the use of liquid varnish or by the mixture of other kinds of colors with the distemper.

Among many who made trial of these and other similar expedients, but all in vain, were Alesso Baldovinetti, Pesello, and many others, not one of whom succeeded in giving to his works the beauty and excellence that he had imagined. And even if they had found what they were seeking, they still lacked the method of making their figures on panel adhere as well as those painted on walls, and also that of making them so that they could be washed without destroying the colors, and would endure any shock in handling. These matters a great number of craftsmen had discussed many times in common, but without result.

This same desire was felt by many lofty minds that were devoted to painting beyond the bounds of Italy--namely, by all the painters of France, Spain, Germany, and other countries. Now, while matters stood thus, it came to pass that, while working in Flanders, Johann of Bruges [Jan van Eyck], a painter much esteemed in those parts by reason of the great mastery that he had acquired in his profession, set himself to make trial of various sorts of colors, and, as one who took delight in alchemy, to prepare many kinds of oil for making varnishes and other things dear to men of inventive brain, as he was. Now, on one occasion, having tken very great pains with the painting of a panel, and having brought it to completion with much diligence, he gave it the varnish and put it to dry in the sun, as was the custom. But, either because the heat was too violent, or perchance because the wood was badly joined together or not seasoned well enough, the said panel opened out at the joinings in a ruinous fashion. Whereupon Johann, seeing the harm that the heat of the sun had done to it, determined to bring it about that the sun should never again do such great damage to his works.

And so, being disgusted no less with his varnish than with working in distemper, he began to look for a method of making a varnish that should dry in the shade, without putting his pictures in the sun. Wherefore, after he had made many experiments with substances both pure and mixed together, he found at length that linseed oil and oil of nuts dried more readily than all the others that he had tried. These, then, boiled together with other mixtures of his, gave him that varnish that he--nay, all the painters of the world--had long desired. Afterwards, having made experiments with many other substances, he saw that mixing the olors with those oils gave them a very solid consistency, not only securing the work, when dried, from all danger from water, but also making the color so brilliant as to give it lustre by itself without varnish; and what appeared most marvellous to him was this,that it could be blended infinitely better than distemper. Rejoicing greatly over such a discovery, as was only reasonable, Johann made a beginning with many works and filled all those parts with them, with incredible pleasure for others and very great profit for himself; and, assisted by experience from day to day, he kept on ever making greater and better works.

The fame of this invention soon spread not only through Flanders, but to Italy and many other parts of the world, and great desire was aroused in other artists to know how he brought his works to such perfection. And seeing his pictures, and not knowing how they were done, finally they were obliged to give him great praise, while at the same time they envied him with a virtuous envy, especially because for a time he would not let any one see him work, or teach any one his secret. But when he was grown old he at last favoured Roger of Bruges, his pupil, with the knowledge, who passed it on to his disciple Ausse [Hans Memling?] and to the others whom we have mentioned in speaking of coloring in oil with regard to painting. But although the merchants bought the paintings and sent them to princes and other great personages to their great profit, the thing was not known beyond Flanders; and although these pictures had a very pungent odor given to them by the mixture of colors and oils, particularly when they were new, so that it would seem the secret might have been discovered; but for many years it was not.

It came about then that some Florentines who traded between Flanders and Naples sent a picture by Johann containing many figures painted in oil to King Alfonso I of Naples, and the picture pleasing him from the beauty of the figures and the new method of colouring, all the painters in the kingdom came together to see it, and it was highly praised by all. Now there was a one Antonello da Messina, a man of an acute mind and well skilled in his art, who had studied drawing [disegno] in Rome for many years and afterwards retired to Palermo, where he had worked for many years, and finally came back to Messina his native place, where he had confirmed by his works the good opinion that his countrymen had of his excellent ability in painting. This man, then, going once on some business of his own from Sicily to Naples, heard that the said King Alfonso had received from Flanders the aforesaid panel by the hand of Johann of Bruges, painted in oil in such a manner that it could be washed, would endure any shock, and was in every way perfect. Thereupon, having contrived to obtain a view of it, he was so strongly impressed by the liveliness of the colors and by the beauty and harmony of that painting, that he put on one side all other business an every thought and went off to Flanders.

Having arrived in Bruges, he became very intimate with the said Johann, making him presents of many drawings in the Italian manner and other things, insomuch that the latter, moved by this and by the respect shown by Antonello, and being now old, was content that he should see his method of coloring in oil; wherefore Antonello did not depart from that place until he had gained a thorough knowledge of that way of coloring, which he desired so greatly to know. And no long time after, Johann having died, Antonello returned from Flanders in order to revisit his native country and to communicate to all Italy a secret so useful, beautiful, and advantageous. Then, having stayed a few months in Messina, he went to Venice, where, being a man much given to pleasure and very licentious, he resolved to take up his abode and finish his life, having found there a mode of living exactly suited to his taste. And so, putting himself to work, he made there many pictures in oil according to the rules that he had learned in Flanders; these are scattered throughout the houses of noblemen in that city, where they were held in great esteem by reason of the novelty of the work. He made many others, also, which were sent to various places. Finally, having acquired fame and great repute there, he was commissioned to paint a panel that was destined for San Cassiano, a parish church in that city. This panel was wrought by Antonio with all his knowledge and with no sparing of time; and when he finished, by reason of the novelty of the coloring and the beauty of the figures, which he had made with good design, it was much commended and held in very great price. And afterwards, when men heard of the new secret that he had brought from Flanders to that city, he was ever loved and cherised by the magnificent noblemen of Venice throughout the whole course of his life.

Among the other painters of name who were then in Venice, the chief was a Master Domenico. He received Antonello when he came to Venice with as much attention and courtesy as if he were a very dear friend. For this reason Antonello, who would not be beaten in courtesy, by Master Domenico, after a few months taught him the secret of coloring in oil. NOthing could have been dearer to Domenico than this extraordinary courtesy and friendliness; and well might he hold it dear, since it caused him, as he had foreseen, to be greatly honored ever afterwards in his native city. Grossly decieved, in truth, are those who think that, while they grudge to others even those things that cost them nothing, they should be served by all for the sake of their sweet smile, as the saying goes. The courtesies of Maestro Domenico Viniziano wrested from the hands of Antonello that which he had won for himself with so much fatigue and labor, and which he would probably have refused to hand over to any other even for a large sum of money. But since, with regard to Maestro Domenico, we will mention in due time all that he wrought in Florence, and who were the men with whom he generously shared the secret that he had received as a courteous gift from another, let us pass on to Antonello.

After the panel for San Cassiano, he made many pictures and portraits for various Venetian noblemen. Messer Bernardo Vecchietti, the Florentine, has a painting by his hand of St. Francis and St. Dominic, both in the one picture, and very beautiful. Then, after receiving a commission from the Signoria to paint certain scenes in their Palace (which they had refused to give to Francesco di Monsignore of Verona, although he had been greatly favored by the Duke of Mantua), he fell sick of a pleurisy and died at the age of forty-nine, without having set a hand to the work. he was greatly honored in his obsequies by the craftsmen, by reason of the gift bestowed by him on art in the form of the new manner of coloring, as the following epitaph testifies:

D.O. M.
ANTONIUS PICTOR, PRAEXIPUUM MESSANAE SUAE ET SICILIAE TOTIUS
ORNAMENTUM, HAC HUMO CONTEGITUR. NON SOLUM SUIS PICTURS, IN
QUIBUS SINGULARE ARTIFICIUM ET VENUSTAS FUIT, SED ET QUOD
COLORIBUS OLEO MISCENDIS SPLENDOREM ET PERPETUITATEM
PRIMUS ITALICAE CONTULIT, SUMMO SEMPER ARTIFICIUM
STUDIO CELEBRATUS.

The death of Antonello was a great grief to his many friends, and particularly to the sculptor Andrea Riccio, who wrought the nude marble statues of Adam and Eve, held to be very beautiful, which are seen in the courtyard of the Palace of the Signoria in Venice. Such was the end of Antonello, to whom our craftsmen should certainly feel no less indebted for having brought the method of coloring in oil into Italy than they should to Johann of Bruges for having discovered it in Flanders. Both of them benefited and enriched the art; for it is by means of this invention that craftsmen have since become so excellent, that they have been able to make their figures all but alive. Their services should be all the more valued, inasmuch as there is no writer to be found who attributes this manner of coloring to the ancients; and if it could be known for certain that it did not exist among them, this age would surpass all the excellence of the ancients by virtue of this perfection. Since, however, even as nothing is said that has not been said before, so perchance nothing is done that has not been done before, I will let this pass without saying more; and praising consummately those who, in addition to draughtsmanship, are ever adding something to art, I will proceed to write of others.



Return to Vasari's Lives of the Artists

Return to Quattrocento Painting


This Web site is Owned and Maintained by Adrienne DeAngelis