THE BLUE OF DREAMS
Antonello da Messina and Ultramarine
“A noble color, beautiful, the most perfect of all colors”
Cennino Cennini, Il Libro dell’Arte, c.1400
|La Vergine Annunciata|
Antonella da Messina
There is Blue - with such evocative adjectival subspecies as navy, cerulean, baby, or powder. Then there is an unclassifiable Blue, a Blue that defies categorization and yet is decidedly Blue.
It is the breathtaking, ineffable Blue of the Palermo Madonna of Antonello da Messina.
The Blue of Antonello was Ultramarine, the exquisite and rare Blue of ground Lapis Lazuli. Until the 1700s, the only source of Lapis was the remote Sar-e-Sang valley in the Badakhshan mountains in northeast Afghanistan, where it has been mined for six thousand years.
Cennino Cennini, the author of the early 15th century text, Il Libro dell’Arte_ ( _The Book of Art_), describes the magic involved in taking Lapis Lazuli. grinding it down to a fine powder, and with some alchemical legerdemain, transmuting it into ultramarine.
Ultramarine (lit. “beyond the sea” which perfectly describes the stone’s origin from Afghanistan through Persia and then across the Mediterranean into the Adriatic to Venezia), is a zeolite pigment, chemically more stable than other blue pigments, most of which are azurite derivatives which oxidize quickly to greenish-black.
Antonello da Messina (c.1430 -1479) was one of those little known transformative geniuses. The legendary art historian John Pope-Hennessy described Antonello as "the first Italian painter for whom the individual portrait was an art form in its own right.”
Antonello was born in Messina, the eastern tip of Sicilia, trained in Napoli, visited and worked a while in Venezia, but spent most of his time on that beautiful island at the toe of Italia. He was one of the few southern Italian painters who influenced the style of northern italian artists.
Antonello’s portraits are striking: full frontal views of the subject, with dramatically dark backgrounds ( a chiaroscuro technique a century and a half before Caravaggio) and identifying markings such as books or tabletops. Antonello’s portraits channel the early Nederlandisch masterpieces of Memling and van Eyck but there is no evidence that he ever left Italy.
This captivating image of the Virgin Mary - her youth, her eyes, the remarkable foreshortening (lo scorcio) of her raised right hand, as she is interrupted in her reading by the Angel of the Annunciation, never fails to astonish the viewer.
Why Blue for the Virgin Mary? In Roman times, the color Blue was associated with “Barbari” (“those with beards” “- a proxy for “barbarians”) and so they didn’t use it (even though the ancient Egyptians loved the stuff). Renaissance painters chose blue for Mary’s robes because it was a color not previously associated with anything else (red for passion, e.g.) and represented humility.
La Vergine Annunciata
Antonella da Messina