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.