Renaissance Fancies and Studies Part 2
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Or did not the idea of a dualism become confused into a vacillating, contradictory notion of a Power at once good and evil, something inscrutable, unthinkable, but inspiring less confidence than terror?
[Footnote 4: Here are a few dates, as given by Murray's Handbooks.
Fiesole Cathedral begun 1028; S. Miniato a Monte, 1013; Pisa Cathedral consecrated 1118; baptistery (lower storey), 1153. Lucca facade (interior later), 1204; S. Frediano of Lucca begun by Perharit 671, altered in twelfth century; S. Michele facade, 1188. Pistoia: S.
Giovanni Evangelista by Gruamons, 1166; S. Andrea, also by Gruamons; S.
Bartolomeo by Rudolphinus, 1167. Pulpit of S. Ambrogio of Milan, 1201; church traditionally begun about 868, probably much more modern.]
Whatever the secret of those sculptured monsters, this much is historically certain, that a dualistic, profoundly pessimist belief had honeycombed Christianity throughout Provence and Northern and Central Italy. But for this knowledge it would be impossible to explain the triumphant reception given to St. Francis and his sublime, illogical optimism, his train of converted wolves, sympathising birds, and saints and angels mixing familiarly with mortal men. The Franciscan revival has the strength and success of a reaction. And in sweeping away the pessimistic terrors of mankind, it swept away, by what is at least a strange coincidence, the nightmare sculpture of the old Lombard stonemasons.
What the things were which made room for the carved virgins and saints, the lute-playing angels and nibbling squirrels and twittering birds of Gothic sculpture, I wish to put before the reader in one significant example. The Cathedral of Ferrara is a building which, although finished in the thirteenth century, had been begun and consecrated so early as 1135, and the porch thereof, as is frequently the case, appears to have been erected earlier than other portions. Of this porch two pillars are supported by life-sized figures, one bearded, one beardless, both dressed in the girdled smock of the early Middle Ages. The enormous weight of the porch is resting, not conventionally (as in the antique caryatid) on the head, but on the spine; and the head is protruded forwards in a fearful effort to save itself, the face most frightfully convulsed: another moment and the spine must be broken and the head droop freely down. Before the portals, but not supporting anything, are six animals of red marble--a griffin, two lions, two lionesses, or what seem such, and a second griffin. The central lions are well preserved, highly realistic, but also decorative; one of them is crus.h.i.+ng a large ram, another an ox, both creatures splendidly rendered. I imagine these central lions to be more recent (having perhaps replaced others) than their neighbours, which are obliterated to the extent of being lions or lionesses only by guesswork. These nameless feline creatures hold what appear to be portions of sheep, one of them having at its flank a curious excrescence like the stinging scorpion of the Mithra groups. The griffins, on the other hand, although every detail is rubbed out, are splendid in power and expression--great lion-bodied creatures, with gigantic eagle's beak, manifestly birds rather than beasts, with the muscular neck and probably the movement of a hawk. Like hawks, they have not swooped on to their prey, but let themselves drop on to it, arriving not on their belly like lions, but on their wings like birds. The prey is about a fourth of the griffin's size. One of the griffins has swooped down upon a wain, whose two wheels just protrude on either side of him; the heads of two oxen are under his paws, and the head, open mouthed, with terrified streaming hair, of the driver; beasts and men have come down flat on their knees. The other griffin has captured a horse and his rider; the horse has s.h.i.+ed and fallen sideways beneath the griffin's loins, with head protruding on one side and hoofs on the other, the empty stirrup is still swinging. The rider, in mail-s.h.i.+rt and Crusader's helmet, has been thrown forward, and lies between the griffin's claws, his useless triangular s.h.i.+eld clasped tight against his breast. Perhaps merely because the att.i.tude of the two griffins had to be symmetrical, and the horse and rider filled up the s.p.a.ce under their belly less closely than the cart, oxen, and driver, there arises the suggestive fact that the poor man and his bullocks are crushed more mercilessly than the rich man and his horse. But be this as it may, poor and rich, serf and knight, the griffin of destiny encompa.s.ses and pounces upon each; and the talons of evil pin down and the beak of misery rends with impartial cruel certainty.
Such is the account of the world and man, of justice and mercy, recorded for us by the stonemasons of Ferrara.
As with the emotional, the lyric element in Renaissance art, so also with the narrative or dramatic; it belongs not to the original, real, or at all events primitive Christianity of the time when the Man Jesus walked on earth in the body, but to that day when He arose once more, no less a Christ, be sure, in the soul of those men of the Middle Ages.
The Evangelists had never felt--why should they, good, fervent Jewish laymen?--the magic of the baby Christ as it was felt by those mediaeval ascetics, suddenly reawakened to human feeling. There is neither tenderness nor reverence in the Gospels for the mother of the Lord; some rather rough words on her motherhood; and that mention in St. John, intended so evidently to bring the Evangelist, or supposed Evangelist, into closer communion with Christ, not to draw attention to Christ's mother. Yet out of those slight, and perhaps almost contemptuous indications, the Middle Ages have made three or four perfect and wonderful types of glorified womanhood: the Mother in adoration, the crowned, enthroned Virgin, the Mater Gloriosa; the broken-hearted Mother, Mater Dolorosa, as found at the foot of the cross or fainting at the deposition therefrom; types more complete and more immortal than that of any Greek divinity; above all, perhaps, the mere young mother holding the child for kindly, reverent folk to look at, for the little St. John to play with, or alone, looking at it, thinking of it in solitude and silence: the whole lovingness of all creatures rising in a clear flame to heaven.
Nay, is not the suffering Christ a fresh creation of the Middle Ages, made really to bear the sorrows of a world more sorrowful than that of Judea? That strange Christ of the Resurrection, as painted occasionally by Angelico, by Pier della Francesca, particularly in a wonderful small panel by Botticelli; the Christ not yet triumphant at Easter, but risen waist-high in the sepulchre, sometimes languidly seated on its rim, stark, bloodless, with scarce seeing eyes, and the motionless agony of one recovering from a swoon, enduring the worst of all his martyrdom, the return to life in that chill, bleak landscape, where the spa.r.s.e trees bend in the dawn wind; returning from death to a new, an endless series of sufferings, even as that legend made him answer the wayfaring Peter, _returning to be crucified once more--iterum crucifigi_.
All this is the lyric side, on which, in art as in poetry, there are as many variations as there are individual temperaments, and the variety in Renaissance art is therefore endless. Let us consider the narrative or dramatic side, on which, as I have elsewhere tried to show, all that could be done was done, only repet.i.tion ensuing, very early in the history of Italian art, by the Pisans, Giotto and Giotto's followers.
These have their counterpart, their precursors, in the writers and reciters of devotional romances.
Among the most remarkable of these is the "Life of the Magdalen,"
printed in certain editions of Frate Domenico Cavalca's well known charming translations of St. Jerome's "Lives of the Saints." Who the author may be seems quite doubtful, though the familiar and popular style might suggest some small burgher turned Franciscan late in life.
As the spiritual love lyrics of Jacopone stand to the _Canzonieri_ of Dante and of Dante's circle of poets, so does this devout novel stand to Boccaccio's more serious tales, and even to his "_Fiammetta_;" only, I think that the relation of the two novelists is the reverse of that of the poets; for, with an infinitely ruder style, the biographer of the Magdalen, whoever he was, has also an infinitely finer psychological sense than Boccaccio. Indeed, this little novel ought to be reprinted, like "Aucasin et Nicolette," as one of the absolutely satisfactory works, so few but so exquisite, of the Middle Ages.
It is the story of the relations of Jesus with the family of Lazarus, whose sister Mary is here identified with the Magdalen; and it is, save for the account of the Pa.s.sion, which forms the nucleus, a perfect tissue of inventions. Indeed, the author explains very simply that he is narrating not how he knows of a certainty that things did happen, but how it pleases him to think that they might have happened. For the man puts his whole heart in the story, and alters, amplifies, explains away till his heart is satisfied. The Magdalen, for instance, was not all the sort of woman that foolish people think. If she took to scandalous courses, it was only from despair at being forsaken by her bridegroom, who left her on the wedding-day to follow Christ to the desert, and who was no other than the Evangelist John. Moreover, let no vile imputations be put upon it; in those days, when everybody was so good and modest, it took very little indeed (in fact, nothing which our wicked times would notice at all) to get a woman into disrepute.
Judged by our low fourteenth-century standard, this sinning Magdalen would have been only a little over-cheerful, a little free, barely what in the fourteenth century is called (the mere notion would have horrified the house of Lazarus) _a trifle fast_; our unknown Franciscan--for I take him to be a Franciscan--insists very much on her having sung and whistled on the staircase, a thing no modest lady of Bethany would then have done; but which, my dear brethren, is after all....
This sinful Magdalen, repenting of her sins, such as they are, is living with her sister Mary and her brother Lazarus; the whole little family bound to Jesus by the miracle which had brought Lazarus back to life.
Jesus and his mother are their guests during Pa.s.sion week; and the awful tragedy of the world and of heaven pa.s.ses, in the anonymous narrative, across the narrow stage of that little burgher's house. As in the art of the fifteenth century, the chief emotional interest of the Pa.s.sion is thrown not on the Apostles, scarcely on Jesus, but upon the two female figures, facing each other as in some fresco of Perugino, the Magdalen and the Mother of Christ. Facing one another, but how different! This Magdalen has the terrific gesture of despair of one of those colossal women of Signorelli's, flung down, as a town by earthquake, at the foot of the cross. She was pardoned "because she had loved much"--_quia multo amavit_. The unknown friar knew what _that_ meant as well as his contemporary Dante, when Love showed him the vision of Beatrice's death.
Never was there such heart-breaking as that of his heroine: she becomes almost the chief personage of the Pa.s.sion; for she knows not merely all the martyrdom of the Beloved, feels all the agonies of His flesh and His spirit, but knows--how well!--that she has lost Him. Opposite this terrible convulsive Magdalen, sobbing, tearing her hair and rolling on the ground, is the other heart-broken woman, the mother; but how different!
She remains maternal through her grief, with motherly thoughtfulness for others; for to the real mother (how different in this to the lover!) there will always remain in the world some one to think of. She bridles her sorrow; when John at last hesitatingly suggests that they must not stay all night on Calvary, she turns quietly homeward; and, once at home, tries to make the mourners eat, tries to eat with them, makes them take rest that dreadful night. For such a mother there shall not be mere bitterness in death; and here follows a most beautiful and touching invention: the glorified Christ, returning from Limbo, takes the happy, delivered souls to visit his mother.
"And Messer Giesu having tarried awhile with them in that place, said: 'Now let us go and make my mother happy, who with most gentle tears is calling upon me.' And they went forthwith, and came to the room where our Lady was praying, and with gentle tears asking G.o.d to give her back her son, saying it was to-day the third day. And as she stayed thus, Messer Giesu drew near to her on one side, and said: 'Peace and cheerfulness be with thee, Holy Mother.' And straightway she recognised the voice of her blessed son, and opened her eyes and beheld him thus glorious, and threw herself down wholly on the ground and wors.h.i.+pped him. And the Lord Jesus knelt himself down like her; and then they rose to their feet and embraced one another most sweetly, and gave each other peace, and then went and sat together," while all the holy people from Limbo looked on in admiration, and knelt down one by one, first the Baptist, and Adam and Eve, and all the others, saluting the mother of Christ, while the angels sang the end of all sorrows.
There would be much to say on this subject. One might point out, for instance, not only that Dante has made the lady he loved in his youth into the heroine--a heroine smiling in fas.h.i.+on more womanlike than theological--of his vision of h.e.l.l and heaven; but what would have been even less possible at any previous moment of the world's history, he has interwoven his theogony so closely with strands of most human emotion and pa.s.sion (think of that most poignant of love dramas in the very thick of h.e.l.l!), that, instead of a representation, a chart, so to speak, of long-forgotten philosophical systems, his poem has become a picture, pattern within pattern, of the life of all things: flowers blowing, trees waving, men and women moving and speaking in densest crowds among the flaming rocks of h.e.l.l, the steps of purgatory, the planispheres of heaven's stars making the groundwork of that wondrous tapestry. But it is better to read Dante than to read about Dante, so I let him be.
On the other hand, and lest some one take Puritanic umbrage at my remarks on early Italian art, and deprecate the notion that religious painters could be so very human, I shall say a few parting words about the religious painter, the saint _par excellence_, I mean the Blessed Angelico. Heaven forbid I should attempt to turn him into a brother Lippo, of the Landor or Browning pattern! He was very far indeed, let alone from profanity, even from such flesh and blood feeling as that of Jacopone and scores of other blessed ones. He was, emotionally, rather bloodless; and whatsoever energy he had probably went in tussels with the technical problems of the day, of which he knew much more, for all his cloistered look, than I suspected when I wrote of him before.
Angelico, to return to the question, was not a St. Francis, a Fra Jacopone. But even Angelico had his pa.s.sionately human side, though it was only the humanness of a nice child. In a life of hard study, and perhaps hard penance, that childish blessed one nourished childish desires--desires for green gra.s.s and flowers, for gay clothes, for prettily-dressed pink and lilac playfellows, for the kissing and hugging in which he had no share, for the games of the children outside the convent gate. How human, how ineffably full of a good child's longing, is not his vision of Paradise! The gaily-dressed angels are leading the little cowled monks--little baby black and white things, with pink faces like sugar lambs and Easter rabbits--into deep, deep gra.s.s quite full of flowers, the sort of gra.s.s every child on this wicked earth has been cruelly forbidden to wade in! They fall into those angels' arms, hugging them with the fervour of children in the act of _loving_ a cat or a dog.
They join hands with those angels, outside the radiant pink and blue toy-box towers of the celestial Jerusalem, and go singing "Round the Mulberry Bush" much more like the babies in Kate Greenaway's books than like the Fathers of the Church in Dante. The joys of Paradise, for this dear man of G.o.d, are not confined to sitting _ad dexteram domini_....
[Footnote 5: Mme. Darmesteter's charming essays "The End of the Middle Ages," contain some amusing instances of such repressed love of finery on the part of saints. Compare Fioretti xx., "And these garments of such fair cloth, which we wear (in Heaven) are given us by G.o.d in exchange for our rough frocks."]
_Di questo nostro dolce Fratellino_; that line of Jacopone da Todi, hymning to the child Christ, sums up, in the main, the vivifying spirit of early Italian art; nay, is it not this mingled emotion of tenderness, of reverence, and deepest brotherhood which made St. Francis claim sun and birds, even the naughty wolf, for brethren? This feeling becomes embodied, above all, in the very various army of charming angels; and more particularly, perhaps, because Venice had no other means of expression than painting, in the singing and playing angels of the old Venetians. These angels, whether they be the girlish, long-haired creatures, robed in orange and green, of Carpaccio; or the naked babies, with dimpled little legs and arms, and filetted silky curls of Gian Bellini, seem to concentrate into music all the many things which that strong pious Venice, tongue-tied by dialect, had no other way of saying; and we feel to this day that it sounds in our hearts and attunes them to wors.h.i.+p or love or gentle contemplation. The sound of those lutes and pipes, of those childish voices, heard and felt by the other holy persons in those pictures--Roman knight Sebastian, Cardinal Jerome, wandering palmer Roch, and all the various lovely princesses with towers and palm boughs in their hands--moreover brings them together, unites them in one solemn blissfulness round the enthroned Madonna. These are not people come together by accident to part again accidentally; they are eternal, part of a vision disclosed to the pious spectator, a crowning of the Ma.s.s with its wax-lights and songs.
But the Venetian playing and singing angels are there for something more important still. Those excellent old painters understood quite well that in the midst of all this official, doge-like ceremony, it was hard, very hard lines for the poor little Christ Child, having to stand or lie for ever, for ever among those grown-up saints, on the knees of that majestic throning Madonna; since the oligarchy, until very late, allowed no little playfellow to approach the Christ Child, bringing lambs and birds and such-like, and leading Him off to pick flowers as in the pictures of those democratic Tuscans and Umbrians. None of that silly familiarity, said stately Venetian piety. But the painters were kinder. They incarnated their sympathy in the baby music-making angels, and bade them be friendly to the Christ Child. They are so; and nowhere does it strike one so much as in that fine picture, formerly called Bellini, but more probably Alvise Vivarini, at the Redentore, where the Virgin, in her lacquer-scarlet mantle, has ceased to be human altogether, and become a lovely female Buddha in contemplation, absolutely indifferent to the poor little sleeping Christ. The little angels have been sorry. Coming to make their official music, they have brought each his share of heaven's dessert: a little offering of two peaches, three figs, and three cherries on one stalk (so precious therefore!), placed neatly, spread out to look much, not without consciousness of the greatness of the sacrifice. They have not, those two little angels, forgotten, I am sure, the gift they have brought, during that rather weary music-making before the inattentive Madonna. They keep on thinking how Christ will awake to find all those precious things, and they steel their little hearts to the sacrifice.
The little bird who has come (invited for like reason) and perched on the curtain bar, understands it all, respects their feelings, and refrains from pecking.
Such is the heart of the saints, and out of it comes the painted triumph of _El Magno Jesulino_.
THE IMAGINATIVE ART OF THE RENAISSANCE
In a Florentine street through which I pa.s.s most days, is a house standing a little back (the place is called the Square of Purgatory), the sight of which lends to that sordid street of stained palace backs, stables, and dingy little shops, a certain charm and significance, in virtue solely of three roses carved on a s.h.i.+eld over a door. The house is a humble one of the sixteenth century, and its three roses have just sufficient resemblance to roses, with their pincus.h.i.+on heads and straight little leaves, for us to know them as such. Yet that rude piece of heraldic carving, that mere indication that some one connected with the house once thought of roses, is sufficient, as I say, to give a certain pleasurableness to the otherwise quite unpleasurable street.
This is by no means an isolated instance. In various places, as emblems of various guilds or confraternities, one meets similarly carved, on lintel or escutcheon, sheaves of lilies, or what is pleasanter still, that favourite device of the Renaissance (become well known as the monogram of the painter Benvenuto Garofalo), a jar with five clove-pinks.
And on each occasion of meeting them, that carved lily and those graven clove-pinks, like the three roses in the Square of Purgatory, have shed a charm over the street, given me a pleasure more subtle than that derived from any bed of real lilies, or pot of real clove-pinks, or bush of real roses; colouring and scenting the street with this imaginary colour and perfume. What train of thought has been set up? It would be hard to say.
Something too vague to be perceived except as a whole impression of pleasure; a half-seen vision, doubtless, of the real flowers, of the places where they grow; perhaps even a faint reminiscence, a dust of broken and pounded fragments, of stories and songs into which roses enter, or lilies, or clove-pinks.
Hereby hangs a whole question of aesthetics. Those three stone roses are the type of one sort of imaginative art; of one sort of art which, beyond or independent of the charm of visible beauty, possesses a charm that acts directly upon the imagination. Such charm, or at least such interest, may be defined as the literary element in art; and I should give it that name, did it not suggest a dependence upon the written word which I by no means intend to imply. It is the element which, unlike actual representation, is possessed by literature as well as by art; indeed, it is the essence of the former, as actual representation is of the latter. But it belongs to art, in the cases when it belongs to it at all, not because the artist is in any way influenced by the writer, but merely because the forms represented by the artist are most often the forms of really existing things, and fraught, therefore, with a.s.sociations to all such as know them; and because, also, the artist who presents these forms is a human being, and as such not only sees and draws, but feels and thinks; because, in short, literature being merely the expression of habits of thought and emotion, all such art as deals with the images of real objects tends more or less, in so far as it is a human being, to conform to its type.
This is one kind of artistic imagination, this which I have rudely symbolised in the symbol of the three carved roses--the imagination which delights the mind by holding before it some charming or uncommon object, and conjuring up therewith a whole train of feeling and fancy; the school, we might call it, of intellectual decoration, of arabesques formed not of lines and colours, but of a.s.sociations and suggestions.
And to this school of the three carved roses in the Square of Purgatory belong, among others, Angelico, Benozzo, Botticelli, and all those Venetians who painted piping shepherds, and ruralising magnificent ladies absorbed in day-dreams.
But besides this kind of imagination in art, there is another and totally different. It is the imagination of how an event would have looked; the power of understanding and showing how an action would have taken place, and how that action would have affected the bystanders; a sort of second-sight, occasionally rising to the point of revealing, not merely the material aspect of things and people, but the emotional value of the event in the eyes of the painter. Thus, for instance, Tintoret concentrated a beam of sunlight into the figure of Christ before Pilate, not because he supposed Christ to have stood in that sunlight, but because the white figure, s.h.i.+ning yet ghost-like, seemed to him, perhaps unconsciously, to indicate the position of the betrayed Saviour among the indifference and wickedness of the world. Hence I would divide all imaginative art, particularly that of the old Italian masters, into art which stirs our own a.s.sociations, and suggests to us trains of thought and feeling perhaps unknown to the artist, and art which exhibits a scene or event foreign to ourselves, and placed before us with a deliberate intention. Both are categories of imaginative activity due to inborn peculiarities of character; but one of them, namely, the suggestive, is probably spontaneous, and quite unintentional, hence never asked for by the public, nor sought after by the artist; while the other, self-conscious and intentional, is therefore constantly sought after by the artist, and bargained for by the public. I shall begin with the latter, because it is the recognised commodity: artistic imagination, as bought and sold in the market, whether of good quality or bad.
The painters of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, developing the meagre suggestions of Byzantine decoration, incorporating the richer inventions of the bas-reliefs of the Pisan sculptors and of the medallions surrounding the earliest painted effigies of holy personages, produced a complete set of pictorial themes ill.u.s.trative of Gospel history and of the lives of the princ.i.p.al saints. These ill.u.s.trative themes--definite conceptions of situations and definite arrangements of figures--became forthwith the whole art's stock, universal and traditional; few variations were made from year to year and from master to master, and those variations resolved themselves continually back into the original type. And thus on, through the changes in artistic means and artistic ends, until the Italian schools disappeared finally before the schools of France and Flanders. Let us take a striking example.
The presentation of the Virgin remains unaltered in main sentiment and significance of composition, despite the two centuries and more which separate the Gaddi from t.i.tian and Tintoret, despite the complete change in artistic aims and methods separating still more completely the men of the fourteenth century from the men of the sixteenth. The long flight of steps stretching across the fresco in Santa Croce stretches also across the canvas of the great Venetians; and the little girl climbs up them alike, presenting her profile to the spectator; although at the top of the steps there is in one case a Gothic portal, and in the other a Palladian portico, and at the bottom of the steps in the fresco stand Florentines who might personally have known Dante, and at the bottom of the steps in the pictures the Venetian patrons of Aretino. Yet the presentation of the little maiden to the High Priest is quite equally conceivable in many other ways and from many other points of view. As regards both dramatic conception and pictorial composition, the moment might have been differently chosen; the child might still be with its parents or already with the priest; and the flight of steps might have been replaced by the court of the temple. Any man might have invented his own representation of the occurrence. But the men of the sixteenth century adhered scrupulously or indifferently to the inventions of the men of the fourteenth.
This is merely one instance in a hundred. If we summon up in our mind as many as we can of the various frescoes and pictures representing the chief incidents of Scripture history, we shall find that, while there are endless differences between them with respect to drawing, anatomy, perspective, light and shade, colour and handling, there are but few and slight variations as regards the conception of the situation and the arrangement for the figures. In the Marriage of the Virgin the suitors are dressed, sometimes in the loose robe and cap with lappets of the days of Giotto, and sometimes in the tight hose and laced doublet of the days of Raphael and of Luini; but they break their wands across their knees with the same gesture and expression; and although the temple is sometimes close at hand, and sometimes a little way off, the wedding ceremony invariably takes place outside it, and not inside. The shepherds in the Nativity are sometimes young and sometimes old, but they always come in broad daylight, and the manger by which the Virgin is kneeling is always outside the stable, and always in one corner of the picture.
Again, whatever slight difference there may be in the expression and gesture of the apostles at the Last Supper, they are always seated on one side only of a table facing the spectator, with Judas alone on a stool on the opposite side. And although there are two themes of the Entombment of Christ, one where the body is stretched on the ground, the other where it is being carried to the sepulchre, the action is always out of doors, and never, as might sometimes be expected, gives us the actual burial in the vault. These examples are more than sufficient. Yet I feel that any description in words is inadequate to convey the extreme monotony of all these representations, because the monotony is not merely one of sentiment by selection of the dramatic moment, but of the visible composition of the paintings, of the outlines of the groups and the balancing of them. A monotony so complete that any one of us almost knows what to expect, in all save technical matters and the choice of models, on being told that in such a place there is an old Italian fresco, or panel, or canvas, representing some princ.i.p.al episode of Gospel history.
The explanation of this fidelity to one theme of representation in an art which was the very furthest removed from any hieratic prescriptions, in an art which was perpetually growing--and growing more human and secular--must be sought for, I think, in no peculiarities of spiritual condition or national imagination, but in two facts concerning the merely technical development of painting, and the results thereof. These two facts are briefly: that at a given moment--namely, the end of the thirteenth century and the beginning of the fourteenth--there existed just enough power of imitating nature to admit of the simple indication of a dramatic situation, without further realisation of detail; and that at this moment, consequently, there originated such pictorial indications of the chief dramatic situations as concerned the Christian world. And secondly, that from then and until well into the sixteenth century, the whole attention of artists was engrossed in changing the powers of indication into powers of absolute representation, developing completely the drawing, anatomy, perspective, colour, light and shade, and handling, which Giotto and his contemporaries had possessed only in a most rudimentary condition, and which had sufficed for the creation of just such pictorial themes as they had invented, and no more.
Let me explain myself further. The artists of the fourteenth century, with the exception of Giotto himself--to whose premature excellence none of his contemporaries and disciples ever attained--give us, by means of pictorial representation, just about the same as could be given to us by the conventional symbolism of writing. In describing a Giottesque fresco, or panel, we are not stopped by the difficulty of rendering visible effects in words, because the visible effects that meet us are in reality so many words; so that, to describe the picture, it almost suffices to narrate the story, no arrangements of different planes and of light and shade, no peculiarities of form, foreshortening, colour, or texture requiring to be seen in order to be fully understood. The artists of the fifteenth century--for the Giottesques do little more than carry, without developing them, the themes of Giotto into various parts of Italy--work at adding to the art exactly those qualities which belong exclusively to it, and which baffle the mere written word: they acquire the means, slowly and laboriously, of showing these events no longer merely to the mind, but also to the eye; they place these people in real s.p.a.ce, in real relations of distance and light, they give them a real body which can stand and move, made of real flesh and blood and bones, and covered with real clothes; they turn these abstractions once more into realities like the realities of nature whence they had been abstracted. But the work of the fifteenth century does not go beyond filling up the programme indicated by the Giottesques; and it is only after the men of the sixteenth century have been enabled to completely realise all that the men of the fourteenth century had indicated, that art, with Michelangelo, Tintoret, and still more with the great painters of Spain and Flanders, proceeds to encounter problems of foreshortening, of light and shade, of atmospheric effect, that could never have been imagined by the contemporaries of Giotto, nor even by the contemporaries of Ghirlandaio and the Bellini. Hence, throughout the fifteenth century, while there is a steady development of the artistic means required to realise those narrative themes which the Giottesques had invented, there is no introduction of any new artistic means unnecessary for this result, but which, like the foreshortenings of Michelangelo, and the light and shade of Tintoret, like the still further additions to painting represented by men like Velasquez and Rembrandt, could suggest new treatment of the old histories and enable the well-known events to be shown from totally new intellectual standpoints, and in totally new artistic arrangements. If we look into the matter, we shall recognise that the monotony of representation throughout the Renaissance can be amply accounted for without referring to the fact, which, however, doubtless went for something, that the men of the fifteenth century were too much absorbed in the working out of details to feel any desire for new pictorial versions of the stories of the Gospel, and the lives of the Saints.
Moreover, the Giottesques--among whom I include the immediate precursors, sculptors as well as painters, of Giotto--put into their Scripture stories an amount of logic, of sentiment, of dramatic and psychological observation and imagination more than sufficient to furnish out the works of three generations of later comers. Setting aside Giotto himself, who concentrates and diffuses the vast bulk of dramatic invention as well as of artistic observation and skill, there is in even the small and smallest among his followers, an extraordinary happiness of individual invention of detail. I may quote a few instances at random. It would be difficult to find a humbler piece of work than the so-called Tree of the Cross, in the Florentine Academy: a thing like a huge fern, with medallion histories in each frond, it can scarcely be considered a work of art, and stands halfway between a picture and a genealogical tree.
Yet in some of its medallions there is a great vivacity of imaginative rendering; for instance, the Ma.s.sacre of the Innocents represented by a single soldier, mailed and hooded, standing before Herod on a floor strewn with children's bodies, and holding up an infant by the arm, like a dead hare, preparing slowly to spit it on his sword; and the kiss of Judas, the soldiers crowding behind, while the traitor kisses Christ, seems to bind him hand and foot with his embraces, to give him up, with that stealthy look backwards to the impatient rabble--a representation of the scene, infinitely superior in its miserable execution to Angelico's Ave Rabbi! with its elaborate landscape of towers and fruit trees.
Again, in a series of predella histories of the Virgin, in the same place, also a very mediocre and anonymous work, there is extraordinary charm in the conception of the respective positions of Mary and Joseph at their wedding: he is quite old and grey; she young, unformed, almost a child, and she has to stand on two steps to be on his level, raising her head with a beautiful, childlike earnestness, quite unlike the conventional bridal timidity of other painters. Leaving these unknown mediocrities, I would refer to the dramatic value (besides the great pictorial beauty) of an Entombment by Giottino, in the corridor of the Uffizi: the Virgin does not faint, or has recovered (thus no longer diverting the attention from the dead Saviour to herself, as elsewhere), and surrounds the head of her son with her arms; the rest of the figures restrain themselves before her, and wink with strange blinking efforts to keep back their tears. Still more would I speak of two small frescoes in the Baroncelli Chapel at Santa Croce, which are as admirable in poetical conception as they are unfortunately poor in artistic execution.
One of them represents the Annunciation to the Shepherds: they are lying in a grey, hilly country, wrapped in grey mists, their flock below asleep, but the dog vigilant, sniffing the supernatural. One is hard asleep; the other awakes suddenly, and has turned over and looks up s.c.r.e.w.i.n.g his eyes at the angel, who comes in a pale yellow winter sunrise cloud, in the cold, grey mist veined with yellow. The chilliness of the mist at dawn, the wonder of the vision, are felt with infinite charm. In the other fresco the three kings are in a rocky place, and to them appears, not the angel, but the little child Christ, half-swaddled, swimming in orange clouds on a deep blue sky. The eldest king is standing, and points to the vision with surprise and awe; the middle-aged one s.h.i.+elds his eyes coolly to see; while the youngest, a delicate lad, has already fallen on his knees, and is praying with both hands crossed on his breast.
For dramatic, poetic invention, these frescoes can be surpa.s.sed, poor as is their execution, only by Giotto's St. John ascending slowly from the open grave, floating upwards, with outstretched arms and illumined face, to where a cloud of prophets, with Christ at their head, enwraps him in the deep blue sky.
These pictorial themes elaborated by the painters of the school of Giotto were not merely as good, in a way, as any pictorial themes could be: simple, straightforward, often very grand, so that the immediately following generations could only spoil, but not improve upon them; they were also, if we consider the matter, the only pictorial representations of Scripture histories possible until art had acquired those new powers of foreshortening, and light and shade and perspective, which were sought for only after the complete attainment of the more elementary powers which the Giottesques never fully possessed. Let us ask ourselves how, in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, any notable change in general arrangement of any well-known Scripture subject could well have been introduced; and, in order to do so, let us realise one or two cases where the same subjects have been treated by later masters. Tintoretto's Last Judgment, where the Heavenly Hosts brood, poised on their wings, above the river of h.e.l.l which hurries the d.a.m.ned down its cataracts, is impossible so long as perspective and foreshortening will barely admit (as is the case up to the end of the fifteenth century), of figures standing firmly on the ground and being separated into groups at various distances. In Rembrandt's and Terburg's Adoration of the Shepherds, the light emanates from the infant Christ; in Ribera's magnificent Deposition from the Cross, the dead Saviour and His companions are represented, not, as in the Entombments of Perugino and Raphael, in the open air, but in the ghastly light of the mouth of the sepulchre. These are new variations upon the hackneyed themes, but how were they possible so long as the problems of light and shade were limited (as was the case even with Leonardo), to giving the modelling, rather in form than in colour, of a face or a limb? One of the earliest and greatest innovations is Signorelli's treatment of the Resurrection in the chapel of San Brizio, at Orvieto; he broke entirely with the tradition (exemplified particularly by Angelico) of making the dead come fully fleshed and dressed as in their lifetime from under the slabs of a burial place, goaded by grotesque devils with the snouts and horns of weasels and rams, with the cardboard masks of those carnival mummers who gave the great pageant of h.e.l.l mentioned by old chroniclers. But Signorelli's innovation, his naked figures partially fleshed and struggling through the earth's crust, his naked demons shooting through the air and tying up the d.a.m.ned, could not possibly have been executed or even conceived until his marvellous mastery of the nude and of the anatomy of movement had been obtained.
Indeed, wherever, in the art of the fifteenth century, we find a beginning of innovation in the conception and arrangement of a Scripture history, we shall find also the beginning of the new technical method which has suggested such a partial innovation. Thus, in the case of one of the greatest, but least appreciated, masters of the early Renaissance, Paolo Uccello. His Deluge, in the frescoes of the green cloister of S. Maria Novella, is wonderfully original as a whole conception; and the figure clinging to the side of the ark, with soaked and wind-blown drapery; the man in a tub trying to sustain himself with his hands, the effort and strain of the people in the water, are admirable as absolute realisation of the scene. Again, in the Sacrifice of Noah, there is in the foreshortened figure of G.o.d, floating, brooding, like a cloud, with face downward and outstretched hands over the altar, something which is a prophecy, and more than a prophecy, of what art will come to in the Sixtine and the Loggie. But these inventions are due to Uccello's special and extraordinary studies of the problems of modelling and foreshortening; and when his contemporaries try to a.s.similate his achievements, and unite them with the achievements of other men in other special technical directions, there is an end of all individual poetical conception, and a relapse into the traditional arrangements; as may be seen by comparing the Bible stories of Paolo Uccello with those of Benozzo Gozzoli at Pisa.
Renaissance Fancies and Studies Part 2
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