Antonello's lost 'St Augustine': a painting in its landscape: concluding her investigation of an altarpiece panel depicting St Augustine, Joanne Wright argues that its accurate depiction of a landscape near Messina both strengthens the painting's attribution to Antonello and may also allow it to be identified with a lost altarpiece.
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Can this panel be linked to a recorded altarpiece by Antonello? In 1724 the historian Francesco Susinno observed: 'in the church of Santa Maria del Gesfi Inferiore of the Observants (Franciscans) there is an altarpiece in six panels: in the three lower we see in the centre the Madonna seated with the Child on her knee, on the right St Francis and another bishop saint, on the left another bishop saint and St Anthony of Padua, all four figures standing, their height four palm'. (2) He goes on to describe the upper panels as smaller, depicting, in the centre, the 'mezo figura' of a 'Cristo appassionato' with various symbols of the Passion, and on either side two virgin saints, also seen in half-length.
Susinno confidently linked this altarpiece to the name of Antonello. He cited not only the artist's connection with the Franciscans as a benefactor, and the fact that he recorded in his will his desire to be buried in Sta Maria del Gesu, (3) but also the work's affinity of style and manner ('Affinita di stile e di maniera) with the altarpiece St Nicholas of Bari with Scenes from his Life. This now-lost work was firmly ascribed to Antonello and was then still in the church of S Nicola dei Gentiluomini, Messina. It was destroyed in the 1908 earthquake, but its composition is known through G.B. Cavalcaselle's drawing of 1860, (4) which shows it to be the model for a version now in the cathedral at Milazzo traditionally attributed to Antonio Giuffre but more recently reassigned to Giovanni Antonio Marchese. (5) Unfortunately neither this panel nor Cavalcaselle's drawing can shed any light on the 'stile' or 'maniera' of the original.
Susinno's reference to the height of the standing saints, however, prompts one to surmise whether it might be possible to link the St Augustine panel to the work Susinno saw in Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore. For 'quattro palmi' is equal to one metre, give or take a couple of millimetres, and that is the precise height of the figure of St Augustine from the tip of the mitre to the lowest point of the drapery at his feet--about four spans of a medium-sized hand. (6) He certainly fits the description of a bishop saint; but what of the fact that Susinno describes the altarpiece as having only one panel to either side of the Virgin and Child, each containing two intercessory saints? If the landscape background ran continuously behind the framing, it may be that Susinno read as one the two panels on either side of the Virgin and Child. Alternatively, since the right-hand edge of the panel on which StAugusline is painted is significantly smoother than the left, it is possible that St Augustine was the left-hand figure of a pair of saints on a single panel who were separated at some point when the panel was cut. This could have been to disguise the identity and provenance of the work and may possibly be related to the disappearance of the altarpiece from the church.
Moreover, I believe that it is possible to identify the landscape revealed by the cleaning as a very specific portrait of a place, and that such an identification makes the association between this panel and the lost altarpiece for the Franciscans considerably more persuasive. (7) But in order to explore this hypothesis it is first necessary to examine something of both the history and geography of the Franciscan monastic foundations in Messina.
From 1463, when the church of the new convent of Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore was consecrated, there were two monasteries in the city bearing the name of Mary, Mother of Jesus. The older one, which the Franciscans had bought from an order of Cistercian sisters and moved into in 1418, (8) lay outside the city walls in the hillside district of Ritiro, (9) which was, as it happens, the village in which Antonello lived and worked. By the mid-15th century the growing community of friars had become too large to be comfortable in this early-13th-century foundation. It was also felt to be too remote from the city, making it inconvenient both for the collection of alms and for the older and frailer brothers, who needed regular medical attention. (10) So the Franciscans acquired a site for a convent and new church, designated Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore, inside the city walls and conveniently close to an infirmary.
This also brought the friars closer to the citizens of Messina and allowed them to participate more easily in their ministry. (11)
The older monastery was distinguished from the newer foundation by reference to its higher topographical location: Sta Maria del Gesu Superiore. The other main topographical feature of this monastery upon which all the early commentators remark is that it was situated on the Torrente di San Michele (also known as the Torrente della Grazia), which, when in flood, flowed down the Valletta della Giostra. Early maps of the city locate it precisely at the point where the Torrente divides around a substantial piece of land to create a large delta, across which the monastery looked out towards the Strait of Messina (Fig. 3). Its original site can still be located today, adjacent to the Torrente, but on the opposite bank from the rebuilt modern church of Sta Maria del Gesu. Even allowing for topographical movement as a result of the earthquakes in 1783 and 1908 and the cataclysmic flood of 1863 in which the monastery was finally destroyed, (12) the road layout today still roughly echoes the course of the old Torrente. Its main artery is now the Viale Giostra. The flow of water has been directed underground, but, from an offshore position on the Strait, one can see the exit of the subterranean drainage system into the sea (Fig. 4).
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As regards its architecture, no accurate representations of the old monastery are known. But, given the date of its original foundation, around 1200, it must have been in large part a medieval structure, which we know was modified, but not rebuilt, when the Franciscans took it over in 1418. (13) On the evidence of surviving medieval religious foundations built outside the protection of the city walls, it would have been at least partially fortified. For example, Sta Mafia della Valle (the Badiazza), once home to a community of Benedictine Sisters, still stands, in ruin, further up the valley behind Ritiro, sporting fortified walls with battlements, turrets and lancet windows (Fig. 5). Even the three circular windows of its main facade reduce sharply between exterior and interior walls, as protection from assault.
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Turning back to the St Augustine panel, one of the major features revealed by its most recent cleaning is the vital and very characterful landscape set against a summer evening sky (Fig. 2). The saint stands on a foreground path that leads down by an undulating route through mid-ground trees and bushes to a passage of lively white-crested water that separates the saint from the main background. To the righthand side of the panel and beyond the water, which seems to flow around the foreground area in such a way as almost to embrace it, rises a building that appears to have both fortifications and a campanile (Fig. 6). The land then begins to rise more sharply, and to either side of the saint, a hilly terrain recedes to meet the beautifully-lit horizon. The profile of the horizon suggests that a deep and wide valley lies directly behind St Augustine.
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This is very much the general shape of the landscape delineated, albeit in a rather compressed way, in Braun and Hogenberg's map (Fig. 3, and still recognisable today looking back from the Strait of Messina at the area of mainland enclosing Ritiro and the site of Sta Mafia de Gesu Superiore (Fig. 4). The water that flows around the mid-ground area describes the way in which the bed of the Torrente divided around the delta, and the fortified religious architecture approximates to what we might plausibly suppose the old monastery to have looked like.
This raises the intriguing likelihood that the panel contains a 'portrait' of the delta (on which St Augustine stands), the monastery of Sta Mafia di Gesu, Superiore at the foot of the Valletta della Giostra, and the Peloritani hills rising behind. The artist's viewpoint affords the best vista up the valley to the hills rising beyond. Antonello was an artist for whom sense of place was important, and he not infrequently included portraits of places in his native land within his works. The Bucharest Crucifixion (Fig. 8) presents a view of the unmistakable harhour arm in Messina's bay, the basilica of S Salvatore and the Rocca Guelfonia; the Correr Pieta (Fig. 7) includes a depiction of the church of S Francesco; and the Prado Pieta, a likeness of the old duomo. We can only speculate why he felt drawn to do this, but given the culturally conservative ambience of 15th-century Sicily, patronal desire perhaps seems less likely than a personal need to set his religious vision within the world he inhabited. A depiction of the landscape of his immediate locality as a resident of Ritiro, including the Franciscan monastery of which he was, according to both civic and clerical tradition, a lay brother, would have been a natural subject for him.
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The church attached to the new convent at Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore was consecrated in 1463 and this presumably marked the completion of the building project. Although we do not know when the land was purchased, a complex on this scale, with a convent and a church grand enough to be described as a 'tempio', would certainly have been ongoing for several years. (14) It would, however, be somewhat unusual practice for an altarpiece to be commissioned for a church yet to be built. But why should not the work that Susinno saw in Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore have originally been made for Sta Maria del Gesu Superiore and later moved from the old monastery to the new one? This would have made it more accessible for meditation and admiration, whilst visually linking the Superiore and Inferiore foundations both physically and spiritually.
In January 1460 Antonello's father hired a brigantine to bring his son and family back from the mainland. (15) How long they had been away is unknown, although the use of a specially hired vessel and the fact that his family was with him imply that he may have been 'abroad' for some time. (16) We may surmise that Antonello, returning to Messina after a period of absence, would have been happy to take up and get on with the first major commission received on his return, finishing it well within the year.
At the time of the panel's conservation it was noted that an over-painted area running horizontally through the lower central zone, obliterating the architecture, water and adjacent area of the saint's vestments, covered little or no damage. This again raises the possibility of a deliberate attempt to obscure the panel's association with a recognisable place, perhaps related to looting after the 1783 earthquake. Infra-red inspection revealed very detailed underdrawing for the architecture but not for the landscape, further seeming to endorse the view that it is the likeness of a specific building. (17)
The other extant work to have been associated with the polyptych at Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore is a panel of the Virgin and Child in the Arezzo family collection at Ragusa Ibla (Fig. 10). (18) Di Marzo believed an engraving in Samperi's Iconologia of a Madonna and Child from Sta Mafia del Gesu Inferiore (Fig. 9) to be a free copy of this work, thereby associating it with Antonello's recorded polyptych there. (19) However, it is impossible that the Arezzo Madonna, which is bland and pedestrian, can have anything to do with Antonello himself. (20) And the qualitatively feeble engraving, which is significantly different from the painting in a number of details, (21) probably records a work from the studio of the Saliba brothers, whose pale imitations of their uncle's work were their stock-in-trade.
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The iconography of the polyptych described by Susinno allows us to consider its particular appropriateness for a Messinese Franciscan community. The Virgin and Child of the central panel were flanked, to the right, by St Francis and a bishop saint, and to the left by another bishop saint and St Anthony of Padua. (22) I would argue that the bishop saint terminating the right wing was probably St Ambrose and that in the corresponding position on the left wing was the St Augustine under discussion. These two Latin Doctors of the Church, the former a major influence on the latter's conversion and baptism in AD 386, were revered by Franciscans and, it seems, this was particularly true in Messina. The joint Hymn of St Ambrose and St Augusline is recorded as having opened the service of thanksgiving at Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore to mark the 700th anniversary of the birth of St Francis in 1881. (23) Messinese Franciscans clearly recognised the relevance of both saints to their founder, and on such an auspicious occasion one might suppose that long-held traditions would be observed.
St Anthony was a canon regular of St Augustine before becoming a Franciscan in 1220, and it is therefore entirely fitting that the two saints should appear together in the context of a Franciscan polyptych. (24) And popular legend held that he had, in fact, been governor of the first Franciscan monastery in Messina. (25) That an architectural portrait of Sta Maria del Gesu should be placed between the Messinese Order's beatified former governor and his first inspiration, St Augustine, is both appropriate and meaningful. The half-length virgin saints flanking the Piet/t on the upper register of the altarpiece might well have been similarly associated either with St Francis, or with Messina or Sicily, or both. One would almost inevitably have been St Chiara, companion of St Francis. As female saints associated with Sicily, other candidates for inclusion might have been St Rosalia (patron of Palermo), St Agata (patron of Catania) and St Lucia (died at Siracusa).
What might then be concluded? Firstly, that the church of Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore, consecrated in 1463, had, in 1724, a polyptych, attributed to Antonello, who had been a benefactor and lay brother in the Order and who had been buried in the church in 1479. Secondly, that this panel of St Augustine, although not today incorporating another saint as Susinno noted, has incomplete borders to left and right. Furthermore, it meets the description of one of the attendant saints in that polyptych, has a theological reason for being there and is on the right scale. Strengthening this hypothesis is the fact that the landscape setting appears to reproduce closely the 'nose' of the delta formed by the Torrente di San Michele as it divided at the bottom of the Valletta della Giostra. The building on the far side of the water, seen behind the saint's left shoulder, is set in precisely the right position for Sta Maria del Gesu Superiore in relation to the surrounding landscape features. It also has the hallmarks of a fortified Norman monastery and, although we do not know precisely what the old monastery looked like, this would fit well with what is known of its history.
That history also shows the 'inferior' Sta Maria to be a city-based extension of the extra-moenial 'superior' Sta Maria, and Antonello to have been closely connected with both. Although it cannot be conclusively proven, it is probable that the panel of St Augustine came from the polyptych in Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore and that he is one of the bishop saints described by Susinno in 1724. But whether or not this is accepted, the re-appearance of St Augustine returns a beautiful work in comparatively free condition to Antonello's early oeuvre, and opens up new possibilities for further important debate about the artist's youthful activities in his native Messina.
/// (1) On first inspection, it appears that the panel was hinged on the left-hand side, and there are less obvious (but still visible) corresponding marks on its tight-hand edge. The three sets of marks are positioned 17 cm from top, 53 cm from bottom and 18 cm from bottom respectively However these 'hinge marks' run much further into the panel than one would expect of normal hinging and may therefore, be the result of fixings that, at some later point, attached it as a single panel to a wall. The tight edge is smoother and the marks there are closer to the edge than those on the left, suggesting that this side at least may have been shaved. But since the visible 'beard' along the top edge where the paint met the working frame is not evident on tight, left or lower edges, where the margin of the paint is ragged but not raised, it is probable that these may all have been reduced. When acquired by its present owner the panel was in a very fragile condition and required substantial reinforcement with an apoxy resin. Previous restoration may have dispensed with parts that were totally beyond repair and this might explain the reason for the cut edges.
(2) F. Susinno, Le Vite de'Pittoti Messinese, 1724, M Marfinelli (ed.). Florence, 1960, p. 120 ('in Santa Maria di Giesu, decca lnferiore, de'Padri dell'Osservantza, evvi una cona ripartita in sei vadi: nei tre di sotto vedesi nel mezo una Madonna sedente col Bambino su le ginnochia, nel vano destro S. Francesco ed un altro santo vescovo, nel sinistro un altro santo vescovo e S. Antonio di Padova, tutte e quattro figure in piedi in altezza di quatro palmi.)
(3) Susinno, op. cit., p. 12(11, cites the published contract of Antonello's will in the transactions of the notary Antonio Mangianri, for 1478, opened and published in 1479.
(4) G.B. Cavalcaselle, drawing dated 1860 in the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, Cod. Marc..It., Ix', 2032, fasc.1.
(5) The reattribution of the Milazzo picture to Marchese was made by T. Pugliatti Pittura del Cinquecento in Sidlia. La Sicilia Odentak, Naples, 1993, p. 63.
(6) One Sicilian palmo was c. 25 cm.. The precise measurement varied from city to city (Luciano di Bona, Enciclopedia del/o studente, Milan, 1964, vol. n, pp. 264-65).
(7) As a panel from a polyptych, St Augustine suggests a fascinating combination of old-fashioned format and innovative content, for it would appear that the lower register panels were set against a landscape background that may have been used as a unifying factor. This would present a more radical solution to the unified spatial concept than he employs in either the S Gregorio Polyptych of 1473 or in the earlier altarpiece which possibly originally comprised St Benedict (Civiche Raccolte d'Arte del Castello Sforzesco, Milan), the three half length Doctors of the Church (Galleria Regionale della Sicilia, Palermo) and the Virgin and Child and St John the Evangelist (both Galleria degli Ufftzi, Florence). These last two, although subject to a major conservation when acquired by the gallery (Cristina Acidini and Antonio Paolucci (eds.), Antonello agli Uffizi: Un Acquisto dello Stato per il Riscatto dell'Erendita Bardini, Florence, 2002), still fail to convince completely Was there a distance in date between them and the other panels of the polyptcyh or was there significant workshop intervention? On his review of the recent Antonello exhibition in Rome, APOLLO (June 2006), pp. 87-89, James Beck also questions the 'rightness' of this Madonna and Child) For the purposes of this discussion, however, in both this proposed altarpiece and the S Gregorio Polyptych the Virgin's raised dais is set in a traditionally-gilded interior space with the shadows cast by the figures extending behind the framing between the panels.
(8) It had originally been built around 1200 by a group of Carmelite brothers who, after a trip to Mount Carmel and the holy shrines of Palestine, settled in Sicily (Placido Samperi, Dell'Iconologia della BV Maria di Dio Maria protettrice di Messina divisa in Cinque Livri..ne' Tempy e Cappelle pik famose della Citta di Messina ... del Rev Padre R Samperi Messinese della Compagnia di Gesu. Libro Secondoo, MDCXLIV , 1644, pp. 141-42 describes the history of the
(9) L'Archidiocesi e (Archimandritato di Messna nell' anno 1963, Messina, 1963, no. 35, entry for Ritiro, p. 136.
(10) Samperi, op. cat., p. 148.
(11) The new Sta Maria del Gesu lnferiote, completely destroyed in the earthquake of 1908, originally comprised both a convent and a new church ('il suo tempio'), dedicated by the Archbishop of Messina, Jacopo Tedesco in 1463 (Sampcri, op. cit., p. 149). The church was described as architecturally splendid in 1877 (C.D. Gallo and G. Oliva, Gli Annali della Citta di Messina, 1877, vol. 1, p. 180. But although many of its art treasures were also itemised in their description, there is no mention of the polyptych described by Susinno, and one must suppose that by this date it had disappeared. G. Coglitore, Storia monumentale artislica di Messina, messina, 1859, describes 22 altarpieces in the church of Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore. He itemises one which he describes as 'un quadro antico in tavola, rappresentante la B. Vergine con vari santi di questo religione'. But this is so general a description (and without reference to any association with Antonello) that there is no reason to suppose that it is the one recorded by Susinno.
(12) G. di Marzo, DiAntanello e dei suoi Congiunti, Palermo, 1903, pp. 75-76.
(13) Samperi, op. cit., p. 148, and Gallo and Oliva, op. cir., vol. I, pp. 179 80.
(14) Samperi, op. cit., p. 149. 'Fu fabricato questo convento a spesc publiche, e il suo tempio ... dedicato ... nel anno 1463 ... '
(15) The original archival reference is lost but a full transcript is published in A. Marabottini and E Sricchia Santoro (eds.), Antonello da Messina, exh. cat., Museo Regionale della Sicilia, Messina, 1981, no. 5, p. 230.
(16) The last previous record of Antonetlo on the island is in April 1457 (Marabottini and Sricchia Santoro, op. cir., no. 6). (17) An infra-red examination was conducted by Roberto Negri in 2000. However no photographs were taken, so I have had to rely on a verbal account of the findings.
(18) Di Marzo discovered this panel in the house of Andrea Arena in 1862 (G. di Marzo, Delle Belle Arti in Sicilia Palermo, 1862, p. 175.) Almost half a century later, in Di Antonello e dei Suoi Congiunti, Palermo, 1903, p. 51, he recalled that Arena had been unwilling to divulge its provenance. He suspected that Arena had acquired it on the quiet, perhaps even illegally Sold to Barone Corrado Arezzo di Donnafugata, it is still today in the family collection at Ragusa Ibla.
(19) Samperi, op. cit., p. 150, fig. 12.
(20) S. Bottari ('Contribuifi ad Antonello da Messina',Arte Veneta, no. 8, 1951, p. 34.) and G. Vigni (Tutto la Pittura di Antonello da Messina, Milan, 1952, p. 34) give it to Antonio Solario. E Campagna Cicala (Opere d'Arte Restaurate del Messinese, Messina, 1986, pp. 40-42) and G. Barbera (in Marabottini and Sricchia Santoro, op. cit., pp. 223 24) prefer an attribution to Salvo d'Antonio. Sricchia Santoro concurs with this view (Antonello el'Europa, 1986, p. 147 as does Pugliatti (op. cir., p. 52 and fig. 32).
(21) Despite the crude quality, of the Samperi engraving, numerous telling discrepancies seem to discount di Marzo's identification of the Arezzo work with the polyptych which the engraver worked from in Sta Maria del Gesu Inferiore.
(22) The order in which Susinno lists these two intercessors, placing an unidentified bishop saint before St Anthony may indicate that he was reading the panel from left to right.
(23) G. Vadala-Celona, La Maestosa Chieta di Santa Maria di Gesu Inferiore in Messina quale era prima del Terremoto pin Immane che ricordi la Storia (28 Dicembre 1908), Messina, 1912, p. 15.
(24) At 15 St Anthony joined the canons regular of St Augustine at the convent of St Vincent near Lisbon.
(25) St Anthony was said to have been shipwrecked off the Sicilian coast and found himself at Messina in 1221 Gallo and Oliva, op. cit., no. 2, p. 86). The monasteryT with which St Anthony of Padua was associated was the Franciscan's first home in Messina, also outside the city" walls and, like Sta Maria del Gesu Superiore, to the north. It was, again like Sta Maria, absorbed by the growth of the city (V. d"Amico, Dizionario Topografico della Sicilia, 1856, no. 2, p.86).
Joanne Wright formerly taught art history and directed the Djangoly Art Gallery at the University of Nottingham, where she is now Director for Enterprise in the Arts.
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|Title Annotation:||Antonello da Messina|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2007|
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