At the end of the 15th century, Cicco Simonetta wrote a letter to knight Leonardo Botta, Ambassador of the Duke of Milan, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, to Venice. In his precise and demanding letter, he required, for the Duke’s court, the presence of a certain painter – someone who had learned the secrets of oil painting, skilled at recreating “natural” images according to the style that the young Duke, so energetic and cultured, with a humanist education, appreciated and demanded.
The Duke, in fact, wanted Sicilian artist Antonello da Messina who, at the time, enjoyed citywide fame and glory in Venice. However, unfortunately for the Duke, and in spite of his prestigious titles, his request was not granted. Thus, the painter was never able to experience first-hand the love that the Milanese had for his masterpieces, faithfully portraying patricians and cultured, art-loving merchants. We do not know why Antonello did not accept the invitation to Galeazzo Maria Sforza’s court, but we can assume that his desire to return to his hometown factored in his decision.
Sicily, with its warm light and unique culture, its people’s emotions and looks, its monumental palaces and gorgeous natural landscapes, was essential to his creative process. He had to capture that beauty on canvas, using bright colors and touches of white lead, or on panels made of poplar, oak, pear, and walnut wood; he had to use it as background for his Crucifixions, Pieties and Annunciations. He needed to immerse himself in that intense, yet soft, light, in that unique brightness that paints the world with sharp shadows; something that Antonello had always yearned for and that clearly influenced his desire to return to his homeland.
Through his portraits, Antonello da Messina captured every breath of his subjects, every movement of their mouths, every strong look: when we look at them, we see their story, their character, and almost an entire treatise on human nature. He portrayed a specific kind of virtuous and intense femininity, depicting haughty and voluptuous women that are still fascinating today, many centuries later. Now, Antonello finally arrives to Milan, granting the request he had denied in 1476. The exhibition at Palazzo Reale features nineteen works by the great Maestro, out of 35 in total that survived to the present day, including some of the most significant works in his production, which managed to overcome earthquakes, floods, and unbelievable instances of human neglect. The Annunciation, dating back to 1475, painted during the artist’s maturity, is the masterpiece that captured our attention the most. Incredibly modern, it focuses on the most personal and intimate aspect of the scene and on the psychological outcomes of the event, as we can see in the realistic figure of the Virgin Mary. Thanks to the absence of the announcing angel, the spectator plays the role of witness to this sacred moment. The young woman, perfect yet sensual and contemporary, wrapped in her own mantle, and well-aware of her own role in the history of humanity, freezes time with a simple gesture of her hand, and she gazes into infinity.
The onlookers get a sense of revelation, of an eternity frozen in an instant. The exhibition, open from 21 February to 2 June 2019 at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, was created thanks to a collaboration between Sicily and the City of Milan, with the support of Palazzo Reale and MondoMostre Skira. Curated by Giovanni Carlo Federico Villa, the exhibition is one of the most important cultural events planned for 2019, both in Italy and worldwide. A unique and special opportunity to enter the world of a sublime artist, considered the greatest portraitist of the 15th century, who made an indelible mark on the history of Italian painting.