A short time ago, I wrote on the marriage of Italian Renaissance visual eloquence and Northern Renaissance, jewel-like precision painting in the work of Pieter Lastman, Rembrandt's primary painting influence. It's interesting that it took the Italian Renaissance art of Raphael and Caravaggio nearly a hundred years to migrate north in the early 1600s and be felt there during the Baroque era while painting from the North found it's way as far south as Naples as early as 1450. The works of Jan van Eyck and others from the Flemish school were highly prized by the Neapolitan Anjou Kings simply because they were oil paintings, at a time when such art was virtually unknown in the Italy. And it was in Naples about this time when a bright, eager artist, who may have been as young as fifteen, began to study them. It's unknown whether he actually had a tutor in this very new medium or whether he picked it up on his own, but by 1465 when he painted Virgin Annunciate, he certainly had mastered the craft. His name was Antonello.
Antonello was born in 1430 in Messina, Sicily, a small seaport on the Northeast coast of the Island. He came to be known as Antonello da Messina as his remarkable mastery became known with what was not just a new medium but a whole new way of painting. At the time, fresco and egg tempera painting were the dominant means of rendering portraits and religious scenes (the two major subject matter areas) in Italy. Fresco required a wall full of wet plaster and egg tempera, the patience of a saint. Oil painting required neither. It was portable, either on wood or canvas, and despite a rather long drying time as compared to the other two, demanded far less skill. In fact, its extended drying time was an asset to the artist. It allowed almost infinite blending, radiant colour, permitted the same glazing effects as egg tempera, and was far more forgiving of errors than either of the others. Antonello demonstrated to an incredible degree its versatility and the tremendous visual range that could be achieved by the competent artist in using it.
But it wasn't until about 1475, when Antonello travelled to Venice, that he had any real impact on Italian art. Though the Renaissance was well underway, it wouldn't reach its peak for another twenty to thirty years. To the Venetians, Antonello and his oil paints were "the best thing since sliced bread" so to speak. His altarpiece for the Church of St. Cassiano in Venice (only the central section survives) amazed artists and non-artists alike with its radiance and the plasticity of its figures. He was an instant hit, in demand for portraits as well as religious works. The City even paid him a sizeable stipend to try and keep him there. Local artists such as Mantegna and the Bellinis rushed to him, eager to learn his new and easier way of painting better and brighter. Later Venetian artists such as Titian and Giorgione owed much of their success to Antonello's influence. Apparently forsaking his stipend, from Venice, Antonello and his work spread to Milan where he influenced the young Leonardo, who was just starting to paint at the time. It's a strange irony that this one man, and his discovery of oil painting from the North, was one of the primary elements in fuelling that amazing genius of Italian painting in the South which we have since come to know as the High Renaissance.