The Unknown Man

December 5, 2013 / Art & Archaeology
Cefalú, Sicily

The Museo Mandralisca in Cefalú, Sicily was founded by philanthropist Baron Enrico Piraino. In the late 1800s he decided to leave his vast private collection to the townspeople rather than to his heirs. In those days the majority of the population were illiterate so he decided to open up the first high school, Liceo Mandralisca, where locals could gain an excellent education in the classics as well as appreciate his treasures collected over a lifetime. Both the school and the museum were established in his private home.

The high school, although now in a newer building, still continues to churn out classical scholars. The museum remains in Baron Piraino’s private residence.


The most famous work of art in the museum is the Portrait of the Unknown Man – Ritratto dell’Ignoto Marinaio or Ritratto d’Uomo – painted by Antonello da Messina between 1465 and 1476. Dressed in a sailor’s uniform of that period it is also referred to as the Portrait of the Unknown Sailor. Nobody seems to know who it was commissioned by, only that Baron Mandralisca bought it on the island of Lipari where it was being used to decorate a pharmacy cupboard door.

Although fairly small in size, the artist has very cleverly captured the expression of his model. His enigmatic smile engages the onlooker in an almost hypnotic way. It even brings to mind that other famous painting with its famous smile.

Sadly though, as with all private foundations that are partly subsidized by local government, the coffers are running dry. The museum is under serious threat of closure which would be devastating for the town and the 20,000 people who visit it every year. So, next time you are here, take the opportunity to go and visit the Unknown Man before they take him away.

Welcome on board to our newest contributor, Marian Watson-Virga!

Antonello Portrait of a Man

by Marian Watson-Virga

Marian has lived in Sicily for longer than she can remember. British by birth, Sicilian by marriage she loves all things Sicilian, even pani ca’ meusa!   For the past few years she has been collaborating with Carmelina Ricciardello of, developing responsible tourism and discovering Sicily on walking and car tours. Marian’s blog page is here.

10 Responses to “The Unknown Man”

  1. Excellent article!!! Welcome to Italian Notebook Marian. Looking forward to many more of your posts. Keep up the great work…

  2. Lucile Stachowiak

    Good Morning:
    Cefalu was one of the cities I visited while on a trip of Sicily and I’m sorry this museum wasn’t on the stop, would have been most interesting to walk through and gaze back in history on the works of the masters. I am making a promise to myself to return to Italy one day, I love the country and the people.

    Lucile Stachowiak (Pasquarella)

  3. Lex DiSanti

    What a wonderful, whimsical story about a wonderful, whimsical gentleman.

  4. Marie Giacalone

    We are planning a trip to Sicily next Fall- thank you for this interesting information!

  5. Antonello Da Messina is one of my favorite artists. Thanks so much for the opportunity to see one of his works which was unfamiliar to me.

  6. What an expression! I noticed that the whites of the eyes aren’t white, yet at first, they do not seem unusual in any way. I’m guessing the artist wanted to draw attention elsewhere.

  7. I did see this exquisite painting when I visited the museum, and I was touched by the place, its very personal objects.

  8. Buongiorno Marian! Grazie for the article. Not only did I LOVE Cefalu, but I have that very portrait (postcard, of course) on my “collage” wall of favorites! He is smiling at me at this moment! I remember being in Palermo and our waiter looked so much like him (different garb, but same smile and features!).
    Also Sicilian, 50%, by birth!

  9. Anstell Ricossa

    To tell you the truth, I know someone who looks like him too, a Sicilian in San Francisco !


Leave a Reply