by ANTONELLO DA MESSINA (Venetian School)
ITALIAN painting in its early developments was confined to two mediums:
the fresco, or the application of ground colors mixed with water to a surface
of wet plaster which, on drying, incorporated the paint with the lime of the
wall; and the tempera method, or the application of pigments, emulsified by
the yolk of eggs, to panels coated with gesso.
Technical processes mean little
to laymen and often puzzle the specialists-Ruskin, for instance, was under
the impression that Botticelli’s Venus, a tempera picture, was executed in
oil-but to artists they are of the greatest importance.
In 1456, the Flemish artist, Petrus Christus, in the service of the Duke of
Milan, had, as a colleague, a young Sicilian named Antonello da Messina,
whom he acquainted with the method of oil painting as perfected by the Van
Eyck brothers in Flanders.
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This chance association altered the direction of
Italian art. Antonello, a remarkable executant, carried the Flemish method
to Venice where it was adopted by Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and other mas
ters. The new technique increased rapidly in popularity and was soon used
advisedly by Leonardo da Vinci and artists of various schools.
It was not
the modern technique, but it was a radical departure from Italian tem
pera; and it made possible color effects and a fluency of modeling which
reacted upon the artist’s emotional attitude towards his work.
Antonello’s connection with matters of procedure has detracted from his
great accomplishments as an artist. He was a draftsman of repute and a
portrait painter of high rank, shrewd in characterization, coldly truthful,
and in advance of his time in his mastery of firm modeling and in relieving
his heads from a dark background. Impersonal in portraiture, he was, in his
religious pictures, meditative and reverent.
Two of his Crucifixions, one in
London, the other in Antwerp, were composed on the same plan, and both
contained the two stricken figures of the Virgin and St. John. The Antwerp
version is the more impressive: this painting, with its motionless, realistic
figures constructed with Flemish science, its spacious Italian landscape, and
its two mourners, is surcharged with a finely tempered emotional quality, a
feeling of subdued tragedy which, despite the detailed objective treatment
of the hanging bodies, is exempt from horrors.