Antonello da Messina seems to have left few paintings, but these are splendid. Three are in his birthplace, Messina, one each in Palermo and Ortygia, Syracuse. In the last there was also an installation partly in homage to him entitled “Lei” or a reflection on women. It was enough to make us wish we had seen the “Annunziata” in Palermo, which was the inspiration of “Lei”.
Antonello’s models for the Virgin were clearly peasant women, painted with devotion to themselves and their status as much as to the figure they represented. “Lei” is similar in taking the head of the “Annunziata” and reproducing it in pop-art style many times and in many sizes, one group to represent privileged women, one to show the impoverished and a third. the “outcasts”, placed in a darkened chapel and only visible by torchlight. It was a meditation on the fragile status of all women in a world dominated by men.
Mauro Drudi, who created “Lei”, responded to Antonello’s model as the fifteenth century artist must also have done. One Annunciation is noted in my review of Ortygia. Mention here is to complement the images in Messina.
The museum is more than just a showcase of one artist, of course. It has two paintings by Caravaggio, some splendid antiquities and medieval sculptures as well as relics from churches and the Muslim era in Sicily. A recent development in what was previously a nondescript part of the northern port city, it seems likely to help in raising the status of the area. We were certainly delighted to have stayed there, in the very comfortable and hospitable Paradiso Relais B&B.
Approaching the museum you find columns and other ancient structures, also a pond with papyrus. The entrance hall is welcoming and the displays are on a ramp around the walls so there is regular progression from gallery to gallery without intervening walls. It can lead the unwary into confusion, however, as we initially missed the Caravaggio, but the attendants are very helpful – one even accompanied us to where they were.
Splendid as these are, they do not overbalance the monumental sculptures of Neptune and Scylla – the Straits of Messina the sea monster’s traditional home – removed from the city centre fountain for preservation, nor the charred fragments of painted wood from a church. There are also medieval architectural items, including inscriptions in Arabic script. The collection is very much the result of rescue work after the earthquake of 1908.