Last term I taught a course on Central Italian art and, as usual we had our quota of obscure artists. Antonazzio Romano definitely falls into that category. I’m willing to bet that his name may be an unfamiliar one, even to some renaissance art historians. Though, as you’ll see, he did achieve fame thanks to the US Postal Service!
It’s believed that he was a pupil of Bennozzo Gozzoli’s, but he spent most of his career in his hometown of Rome, hence the name- his real name was Antonio Aquilio. His influences are all over the map: Umbrian (Perugino and Melozzo di Forli); Florentine (Domenico Ghirlandaio, and Fra Angelico). Add to that early Byzantine art because he became famous as a producer of Madonnas, modelled on sacred precedents.
In 1464, the year he was commissioned to decorate the funerary chapel of Cardinal Bessarion in the church of Santi Apostoli, completed in 1467. In the centre of the decoration was an icon of the Virgin, now in the Chapel of St Anthony, a copy of the Byzantine icon in the Santa Maria in Cosmedin, the church of the Greeks in Rome. Here it is Antoniazzio’s version through the darkness of the chapel.
Antoniazzio’s Madonnas not only have a Byzantine flavour, but owe much to the piety and gentleness of the Umbrian school, particularly Perugino. Take this Madonna and Child, from an unknown date in a private collection; it owes much to Perugino, especially the modelling of the features which blends the Umbrian soft method of drawing with harsh lines of Byzantine formality. It’s neither one nor the other; consequently, it doesn't quite work, though it’s not unattractive.
What does work is Antoniazzio’s crowning masterpiece, the first work by him that I ever set eyes on. His Annunciation of 1485 painted for the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome is strikingly different from other annunciations of the quattrocento. One is struck first by the disparity in size: the angels and Virgin tower over the downsized donor, Cardinal Juan de Torquemada, who presents three equally miniaturized girls to the massive Virgin. They hand their dowries to the Madonna, gifts provided by the Guild of the Annunciation set up by the Spanish cardinal himself. By the way this isn’t the Dominican Great Inquisitor- it’s his uncle, though I think he was more religiously tolerant than his infamous nephew. Juan was also painted by Fra Angelico, in a Crucifixion done in the 1440s and now in what used to be the Fogg Museum at Harvard. I’m wondering if the gold backdrop owes something to Angelico’s altarpieces..It’s present in Antoniazzio’s other Madonnas, like the one above.
In the Annunciation the girls are charming; finely drawn, although the use of shade to create a relief effect is perhaps a bit overdone. That laboured style of drawing extends to the extraordinary lectern which has the look of an object in a neo-classical painting. I’m used to all kinds of strange furniture in renaissance annunciations, but this venerable stand surmounted by what looks like a slice of chocolate tolberone is unforgettable. It is this “all antica” style that strikes one when looking at this work. It’s as if Antoniazzio was striving to capture something of the roman antique tradition, certainly where the furniture and severe, marble-like backdrop were concerned. By contrast the supernatural figures suggest the quattrocento; the angel has flowing drapery which reminds one of Botticelli or Ghirlandaio; the divine in the clouds echoes Annunciations like Piero della Francesca's, but without the logical proportions. The dove is treated differently to most quattrocento annunciations too; the artist made the right decision to downplay the earthward trajectory and have it sitting unobtrusively on a cloud. All in all, I have to say that this is one of the most intriguing annunciations I’ve ever seen- and I like it whatever its faults.
In the years between 1475 and 1480 Antoniazzo's production of altarpieces and panels with images of the Virgin increased because Pope Sixtus IV was interested in the cult of the Virgin. But I wonder what Antoniazzio would have thought if he’d known of an honour to be bestowed on him in the twentieth century. Part of his Madonna and Child with Donor from the Houston Museum of Fine Arts was chosen as the art masterpiece United States Postal Service’s Christmas stamp for 1991! I’m no expert on renaissance art on stamps, but I’m guessing that not many minor artists achieve such honours. I’m tempted to call this the Madonna of the Stamp!