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Antonello en de Nederlanden

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image of Oud Holland - Journal for Art of the Low Countries

The work of Antonello da Messina was the subject of a conference held at Messina from November 29 to December 2, 1981, as well as a number of related exhibitions. One of the main themes, and the only one to be discussed here, was his relation to Flemish painting. This was the main problem already for Vasari, who made the artist travel to Flanders in order to learn the 'secret' technique of oil painting from Jan van Eyck. This story - which should be taken as a biographical invention aimed at explaining Antonello's style as Vasari saw it - has long been recognized as being chronologically impossible. Yet it is surprisingly persistent in art historical writing; this is true of the idea that the artist owed the pictorial qualities of his work to a Flemish 'secret' and, particularly, that he must have travelled widely to undergo various influences. If Jan van Eyck cannot be held responsible for initiating Antonello into the Flemish technique, one looks for connections with Petrus Christus (even if the latter's style would hardly seem to offer an explanation for what Eyck ian features there are in Antonello's work) or assumes trips the artist would have made to Flanders at some later time (notwithstanding the complete absence of traces of Roger van der Weyden's influence, which was predominant in Flemish painting during the 1450s and '60s). Further journeys are designed to explain other supposed influences : that of Piero della Francesca (generally accepted since Longhi introduced the idea in 1914) and Fra Angelico would point to a stay in Rome in the 1460s, and a purported borrowing from a Mantegnesque Ecce homo type to a trip to Venice and Padua around 1465/70. The correctness of such an interpretation in terms of influences' would seem to be highly debatable and the same can be said of the hypothetical travels deduced from them. Antonello's apprenticeship with Colantonio in the Naples of Alfonso I around 1450 appears to offer an alternative explanation for some stylistic and iconographical features of undeniably Eyckian origin. The accumulating information given by Bartolommeo Fazio in the 1450s and by Pietro Summonte in 1524 on Colantonio's preoccupation with Flemish painting and the presence in Naples of at least two original works by Jan van Eyck lends sufficient support to this idea. The degree of Flemish influence in Antonello's work remains, however, to be established with far greater precision than has been done till now. This is especially true of his technique: need one assume the use of any 'secret' Flemish recipe? Examination of the grounds on which Antonello painted points to the use of the Italian gesso and no clear answer has yet been given to the question of which medium he used. For the time being one can only recognize the effect achieved in the paint surface, which - as is confirmed by X-rays - in some cases approaches that in Flemish painting, though some pictures (the S. Gregorio polyptych of 1473 at Messina, the Annunciation of 1474 at Syracuse) appear to be executed largely in tempera. Flemish elements in Antonello's iconography should be handled with great care; his devotional panels may often be derived from old prototypes of Mediterranean origin, just as their Flemish counterparts. Among the works of decidedly Flemish taste, the 1474 Annunciation provides the most telling example and it may well be derived from Van Eyck's lost Lomellini triptych, which Fazio described in great detail. Unfortunately, our picture of Antonello's early work, which could show or deny the artist's early acquaintance with Van Eyck's work, is far from clear and the numerous attributions accepted at present are unconvincing to the unbelieving outsider. The only plausible candidate, the unsigned Crucifixion in Bucharest, is a document that, in the present state of our knowledge, poses more questions than it helps answering. The hypothesis that it was the study of Van Eyck's works under Colantonio's guidance that enabled Antonello to absorb the essentials of Van Eyck's conception of light and form as a decisive component of his own style, must remain therefore largely speculative.


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