Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

   entry Nov 2017

wo Flemish Primitives in Naples

As much as I would like that to be the title of a recently discovered Laurel and Hardy film (that I would go to see in a heartbeat!) this is really about Early Netherlandish Painting, an early driving force behind the so-called Northern Renaissance in art history, but as long as you're here...

Early Netherlandish art is the period that comes after the Gothic style and coincides closely with the early Italian Renaissance. The best-known painter of this style (also known as Flemish Primitivism) was the Fleming, Jan van Eyck (c. 1385 – 1441). The style is “realist” in that it attempts to represent physical appearances precisely; it is complex and often laden with religious icons. ("Realist" here has nothing to do with the other meaning of “realism”
that is, depicting everyday people in everyday situations.) It is often “illusionist” in that it tries to make viewers feel included in the scene. The term “primitive” is a relatively recent coinage by art historians to describe the style, but it does not mean a lack of sophistication; it identifies the artists as originators of a new tradition in painting. The main difference between this northern style and early Italian Renaissance painting is that in the north artists built more on elements of recent Gothic tradition; in Italy the classical tradition still prevailed.

One does not normally think of Naples in connection with Flemish Primitivism, yet there are two artists worthy of mention: Niccolò Colantonio (probably born in or near Naples around 1420 and active between 1440 and 1460) and Antonello da Messina (1430-1479).

Niccolò Colantonio (born Niccolò Antonio). A number of Early Nederlandish paintings had found their way into the court of Naples with the coming of the Aragonese dynasty and the personal collection of Alfonso the Magnamimous (who reigned from 1442 – 1458) and are known to have influenced Colantonio's work, although Colantanio may also have enjoyed the patronage from the last of the earlier Angevin rulers, Rene of Anjou (who reigned from 1435-1442). Thus Colantonio blended the styles of the paintings he found in Naples, which had originally come from Burgundy, Provence, and Flanders. Sources say he was one of the first artists in Italy to learn the techniques of Early Netherlandish painting. His last recorded commission is in 1460 from Queen Isabella, the wife of Ferrante, who had succeeded Alfonso to the throne (then ruling as Ferdinand I from 1458 to 1494).

Colantino's main surviving works are two large altarpieces, the first done in oil for the church of San Lorenzo Maggiore, probably commissioned in around 1445. The main panel (pictured above) is Delivery of the Franciscan Rule showing the saint giving his Rule to the Minor Friars and the Poor Clares. It is held in the Capodimonte museum in Naples as is another of  Colantonio's paintings, one of Saint Jerome in his study, full of detail typical of Early Netherlandish art. It was also part of the altarpiece mentioned above. Sources say that the altarpiece was strongly influenced by a Jan van Eyck depiction of the same subject, then belonging to King Alfonso and located in Naples.

The second altarpiece still hangs in the church of San Pietro Martire in Naples, showing the Life of St Vincent Ferrer in eleven scenes. It includes portraits of Isabella and other members of the royal family. Colantonio is reported to have died young and he is important primarily because of his influence on his pupil Antonello da Messina.

Antonello da Messina was born at Messina around 1429–1431. His name may also be Anglicized as Anthony of Messina. He has dozens of extant works spread throughout Europe and America. He studied in Naples under Colantonio and his works show that influence and commitment to the Early Netherlandish style of painting. Until reliably attributed to him, some of his works were held to be the work of a northern painter of that school. Now he has the unique distinction of being a Sicilian whose work proved influential on painters in northern Italy, especially in Venice. The 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britanica said of him:

Antonello's style is remarkable for its union of Italian simplicity with Flemish concern for detail. He exercised an enormous influence on Italian painting...

The work shown here (right) is entitled Madonna with Child (also The Salting Madonna, after George Salting, the collector who donated it to the National Gallery in London in 1910. It is a stunning presentation of complex cultural references painted in exquisite detail: the doll-like child, the crown, the Venetian-style garments, gossamer veil, etc. It is oil painted on wood and measures 43.2 cm × 34.3 cm (17.0 in × 13.5 in).

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