I think we have bad habits now, in museums and galleries, or those vast visiting collections that are puffed off at the Royal Academy or the British Museum. It’s partly the crowds of course, and the pressure to keep moving, but it’s also the sheer numbers of paintings or objects. A literary critic once suggested that you shouldn’t try to read more than four poems a week. I suspect you could apply the same rule to paintings. No more than four in a visit – or is that still too many.
Which all goes to say that I found the the Uffizi marvellously tiring, or tiringly marvellous. I grew especially weary of the endless repetition of religious paintings – all those Madonnas, clutching their – often slightly disturbing – babies.
Which made it all the more exciting when we came across this painting by Antonella da Messina – a Madonna for sure, but somehow less removed or antique, more real; more, I thought, like one of us. Her son too, clambered about in a cheerfully unsymbolic way as babies do, and hugged his mum.
I discovered that da Messina was painting in the 1470s – when all around him were bursting into the gorgeous excesses of the heroic renaissance – and wondered why he wasn’t better known. If you google him, his paintings all have that unfussy but very human directness. They are real people with back stories, bad thoughts and an appraising eye.
Look at these three:
And this thoughtful Virgin Mary:
I even like his crucifixion. Well, Jesus is a little staid, but his thieves are wonderfully acrobatic.
You can read about Antonella here.
It’s fascinating that much of the story of the renaissance is about south influencing north – but with da Messina it looks as though it was the other way round.