Renaissance Fancies and Studies Part 4
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It is, in a measure, different with Rembrandt, exactly because he is the master, not of light, but of darkness, or of light that utterly dazzles.
His ugly women and dirty Jews of Rotterdam are either hidden in the gloom or reduced to mere vague outlines, specks like gnats in the suns.h.i.+ne, in the effulgence of light. Hence we can enjoy, almost without any disturbing impressions, the marvellous imagination shown in his etchings of Bible stories. Rembrandt is to Durer as an archangel to a saint: where the German draws, the Dutchman seems to bite his etching plate with elemental darkness and glory. Of these etchings I would mention a few; the reader may put these indications alongside of his remembrances of the Arena Chapel, or of Angelico's cupboard panels in the Academy at Florence: they show how intimately dramatic imagination depends in art upon mere technical means, how hopelessly limited to mere indication were the early artists, how forced along the path of dramatic realisation are the men of modern times.
_The Annunciation to the Shepherds_: The heavens open in a circular whirl among the storm darkness, cherubs whirling distantly like innumerable motes in a sunbeam; the angel steps forward on a ray of light, projecting into the ink-black night. The herds have perceived the vision, and rush headlong in all directions, while the trees groan beneath the blast of that opening of heaven. A horse, seen in profile, with the light striking on his eyeball, seems paralysed by terror. The shepherds have only just awakened. _The Nativity_: Darkness. A vague crowd of country folk jostling each other noiselessly. A lantern, a white speck in the centre, sheds a smoky, uncertain light on the corner where the Child sleeps upon the pillows, the Virgin, wearied, resting by its side, her face on her hand. Joseph is seated by, only his head visible above his book. The cows are just visible in the gloom. The lantern is held by a man coming carefully forward, uncovering his head, the crowd behind him. _A Halt on the Journey to Egypt_: Night. The lantern hung on a branch. Joseph seated sleepily, with his fur cap drawn down; the Virgin and Child resting against the packsaddle on the ground. _An Interior_: The Virgin hugging and rocking the Child. Joseph, outside, looks in through the window. _The Raising of Lazarus_: A vault hung with scimitars, turbans, and quivers. Against the brilliant daylight just let in, the figure of Christ, seen from behind, stands out in His long robes, raising His hand to bid the dead arise. Lazarus, pale, ghost-like in this effulgence, slowly, wearily raises his head in the sepulchre. The crowd falls back. Astonishment, awe. This coa.r.s.e Dutchman has suppressed the incident of the bystanders holding their nose, to which the Giottesques clung desperately. This is not a moment to think of stenches or infection. _Entombment_: Night. The platform below the cross.
A bier, empty, spread with a winding-sheet, an old man arranging it at the head. The dead Saviour being slipped down from the cross on a sheet, two men on a ladder letting the body down, others below receiving it, trying to prevent the arm from trailing. Immense solemnity, carefulness, hushedness. A distant illuminated palace blazes out in the night. One feels that they are stealing Him away.
I have reversed the chronological order and chosen to speak of Tintoret after Rembrandt, because, being an Italian and still in contact with some of the old tradition, the great Venetian can show more completely, both what was gained and what was lost in imaginative rendering by the liberation of the individual artist and the development of artistic means. First, of the gain. This depends mainly upon Tintoret's handling of light and shade, and his foreshortenings: it enables him to compose entirely in huge ma.s.ses, to divide or concentrate the interest, to throw into vague insignificance the less important parts of a situation in order to insist upon the more important; it gives him the power also of impressing us by the colossal and the ominous. The masterpiece of this style, and probably Tintoret's masterpiece therefore, is the great Crucifixion at S. Rocco. To feel its full tragic splendour one must think of the finest things which the early Renaissance achieved, such as Luini's beautiful fresco at Lugano; by the side of the painting at S.
Rocco everything is tame, except, perhaps, Rembrandt's etching called the Three Crosses. After this, and especially to be compared with the frescoes of Masaccio and Ghirlandaio of the same subject, comes the Baptism of Christ. The old details of figures dressing and undressing, which gave so much pleasure to earlier painters, for instance, Piero della Francesca, in the National Gallery, are entirely omitted, as the nose-holding in the Raising of Lazarus, is omitted by Rembrandt. Christ kneels in the Jordan, with John bending over him, and vague mult.i.tudes crowding the banks, distant, dreamlike beneath the yellow storm-light.
Of Tintoret's Christ before Pilate, of that figure of the Saviour, long, straight, wrapped in white and luminous like his own wraith, I have spoken already. But I must speak of the S. Rocco Christ in the Garden, as imaginative as anything by Rembrandt, and infinitely more beautiful.
The moonlight tips the draperies of the three sleeping apostles, gigantic, solemn. Above, among the bushes, leaning His head on His hand, is seated Christ, weary to death, numbed by grief and isolation, recruiting for final resistance. The sense of being abandoned of all men and of G.o.d has never been brought home in this way by any other painter; the little tear-stained Saviours, praying in broad daylight, of Perugino and his fellows, are mere distressed mortals. This betrayed and resigned Saviour has upon Him the _weltschmerz_ of Prometheus. But even here we begin to feel the loss, as well as the gain, of the painter being forced from the dramatic routine of earlier days: instead of the sweet, tearful little angel of the early Renaissance, there comes to this tragic Christ, in a blood-red nimbus, a brutal winged creature thrusting the cup in His face. The uncertainty of Tintoret's inspirations, the uncertainty of result of these astonis.h.i.+ng pictorial methods of attaining the dramatic, the occasional vapidness and vulgarity of the man, unrestrained by any stately tradition like the vapidness and vulgarity of so many earlier masters, comes out already at S. Rocco. And princ.i.p.ally in the scene of the Temptation, a theme rarely, if ever, treated before the sixteenth century, and which Tintoret has made unspeakably mean in its unclean and dramatically impotent suggestiveness: the Saviour parleying from a kind of rustic edifice with a good-humoured, fat, half feminine Satan, fluttering with pink wings like some smug seraph of Bernini's pupils. After this it is scarce necessary to speak of whatever is dramatically abortive (because successfully expressing just the wrong sort of sentiment, the wrong situation) in Tintoret's work: his Woman taken in Adultery, with the dapper young Rabbi, offended neither by adultery in general nor by this adulteress in particular; the Was.h.i.+ng of the Feet, in London, where the conversation appears to turn upon the excessive hotness or coldness of the water in the tub; the Last Supper at S. Giorgio Maggiore, where, among the mysterious wreaths of smoke peopled with angels, Christ rises from His seat and holds the cup to His neighbour's lips with the gesture, as He says, "This is My blood," of a conjuror to an incredulous and indifferent audience. To Tintoret the contents of the chalice is the all-important matter: where is the majesty of the old Giottesque gesture, preserved by Leonardo, of pus.h.i.+ng forward the bread with one hand, the wine with the other, and thus uncovering the head and breast of the Saviour, the gesture which does indeed mean--"I am the bread you shall eat, and the wine you shall drink"? There remains, however, to mention another work of Tintoret's which, coming in contact with one's recollections of earlier art, may suggest strange doubts and well nigh shake one's faith in the imaginative efficacy of all that went before: his enormous canvas of the Last Day, at S. Maria dell' Orto. The first and overwhelming impression, even before one has had time to look into this apocalyptic work, is that no one could have conceived such a thing in earlier days, not even Michelangelo when he painted his Last Judgment, nor Raphael when he designed the Vision of Ezechiel. This is, indeed, one thinks, a revelation of the end of all things. Great storm clouds, whereon throne the Almighty and His Elect, brood over the world, across which, among the creva.s.sed, upheaving earth, pours the wide glacier torrent of Styx, with the boat of Charon struggling across its precipitous waters. The angels, confused with the storm clouds of which they are the spirit, lash the d.a.m.ned down to the h.e.l.l stream, band upon band, even from the far distance. And in the foreground the rocks are splitting, the soil is upheaving with the dead beneath; here protrudes a huge arm, there a skull; in one place the clay, rising, has a.s.sumed the vague outline of the face below. In the rocks and water, among the clutching, gigantic men, the huge, full-bosomed woman, tosses a frightful half-fleshed carca.s.s, gra.s.s still growing from his finger tips, his grinning skull, covered half with hair and half with weeds, greenish and mouldering: a sinner still green in earth and already arising.
[Footnote 12: How peccable is the individual imagination, unchastened by tradition! I find among the ill.u.s.trations of Mr. Berenson's very valuable monograph on Lotto, a most curious instance in point. This psychological, earnest painter has been betrayed, by his morbid nervousness of temper, into making the starting of a cat into the second most important incident in his Annunciation.]
A wonderful picture: a marvellous imaginative mind, with marvellous imaginative means at his command. Yet, let us ask ourselves, what is the value of the result? A magnificent display of att.i.tudes and forms, a sort of bravura ghastliness and impressiveness, which are in a sense _barrocco_, reminding us of the wax plague models of Florence and of certain poems of Baudelaire's. But of the feeling, the poetry of this greatest of all scenes, what is there? And, standing before it, I think instinctively of that chapel far off on the windswept Umbrian rock, with Signorelli's Resurrection: a flat wall accepted as a flat wall, no place, nowhere. A half-dozen groups, not closely combined. Colour reduced to monochrome; light and shade nowhere, as nowhere also all these devices of perspective. But in that simply treated fresco, with its arrangement as simple as that of a vast antique bas-relief, there is an imaginative suggestion far surpa.s.sing this of Tintoret's. The breathless effort of the youths breaking through the earth's crust, shaking their long hair and gasping; the stagger of those rising to their feet; the stolidity, hand on hip, of those who have recovered their body but not their mind, blinded by the light, deafened by the trumpets of Judgment; the absolute self-abandonment of those who can raise themselves no higher; the dull, awe-stricken look of those who have found their companions, clasping each other in vague, weak wonder; and further, under the two archangels who stoop downwards with the pennons of their trumpets streaming in the blast, those figures who beckon to the re-found beloved ones, or who shade their eyes and point to a glory on the horizon, or who, having striven forward, sink on their knees, overcome by a vision which they alone can behold. And recollecting that fresco of Signorelli's, you feel as if this vast, tall canvas at S. Maria dell' Orto, where topple and welter the dead and the quick, were merely so much rhetorical rhodomontade by the side of the old hymn of the Last Day--
"Mors stupebit et natura Quum resurget creatura Judicanti responsura."
Again, in the chaos of newly-developing artistic means, and of struggling individual imaginations, we get once more, at the end of the eighteenth century, to what we found at the beginning of the fourteenth: the art that does not show, but merely speaks. We find it in what, of all things, are the apparently most different to the quiet and placid outline ill.u.s.tration of the Giottesque: in the terrible portfolio of Goya's etchings, called the Disasters of War. Like Durer and Rembrandt, the great Spaniard is at once extremely realistic and extremely imaginative.
But his realism means fidelity, not to the real aspect of things, of the _thing in itself_, so to speak, but to the way in which things will appear to the spectator at a given moment. He isolates what you might call a case, separating it from the mult.i.tude of similar cases, giving you one execution where several must be going on, one firing off of cannon, one or two figures in a burning or a ma.s.sacre; and his technique conduces thereunto, blurring a lot, rendering only the outline and gesture, and that outline and gesture frequently so momentary as to be confused. But he is real beyond words in his reproduction of the way in which such dreadful things must stamp themselves upon the mind. They are isolated, concentrated, distorted: the multiplicity of horrors making the perceiving mind more sensitive, morbid as from opium eating, and thus making the single impression, which excludes all the rest, more vivid and tremendous than, without that unconsciously perceived rest, it could possibly be. Nay, more, these scenes are not merely rather such as they were recollected than as they really were seen; they are such as they were recollected in the minds and feelings of peasants and soldiers, of people who could not free their attention to arrange all these matters logically, to give them their relative logical value. The slaughtering soldiers--Spaniards, English, or French--of the Napoleonic period become in his plates Turks, Saracens, huge vague things in half Oriental costumes, whiskered, almost turbaned in their fur caps, they become almost ogres, even as they must have done in the popular mind. The shooting of deserters and prisoners is reduced to the figures at the stake, the six carbine muzzles facing them: no shooting soldiers, no stocks to the carbines, any more than in the feeling of the man who was being shot. The artistic training, the habit of deliberately or unconsciously looking for visible effects which all educated moderns possess, prevents even our writers from thus reproducing what has been the actual mental reality. But Goya does not for a moment let us suspect the presence of the artist, the quasi-writer. The impression reproduced is the impression, not of the artistic bystander, but of the sufferer or the sufferer's comrades. This makes him extraordinarily faithful to the epigraphs of his plates. We feel that the woman, all alone, without bystanders, earthworks, fascines, smoke, &c., firing off the cannon, is the woman as she is remembered by the creature who exclaims, "Que valor!" We feel that the half-dead soldier being stripped, the condemned turning his head aside as far as the rope will permit, the man fallen crushed beneath his horse or vomiting out his blood, is the wretch who exclaims, "Por eso soy nacido!" They are, these etchings of Goya's, the representation of the sufferings, real and imaginative, of the real sufferers. In the most absolute sense they are the art which does not merely show, but tells; the suggestive and dramatic art of the individual, unaided and unhampered by tradition, indifferent to form and technicality, the art which even like the art of the immediate predecessors of Giotto, those Giuntas and Berlinghieris, who left us the hideous and terrible Crucifixions, says to the world, "You shall understand and feel."
We are all of us familiar with the two adjacent rooms at South Kensington which contain, respectively, the casts from antique sculpture and those from the sculpture of the Renaissance; and we are familiar also with the sense of irritation or of relief which accompanies our pa.s.sing from one of them to the other. This feeling is typical of our frame of mind towards various branches of the same art, and, indeed, towards all things which might be alike, but happen to be unlike. Times, countries, nations, temperaments, ideas, and tendencies, all benefit and suffer alternately by our habit of considering that if two things of one sort are not identical, one must be in the right and the other in the wrong.
The act of comparison evokes at once our innate tendency to find fault; and having found fault, we rarely perceive that, on better comparing, there may be no fault at all to find.
As the result of such comparison, we shall find that Renaissance sculpture is unrestful, huddled, lacking selection of form and harmony of proportions; it reproduces ugliness and perpetuates effort; it is sometimes grotesque, and frequently vulgar. Or again, that antique sculpture is conventional, insipid, monotonous, without perception for the charm of detail or the interest of individuality; afraid of movement and expression, and at the same time indifferent to outline and grouping; giving us florid nudities which never were alive, and which are doing and thinking nothing whatever. Thus, according to which room or which mood we enter first, we are sure to experience either irritation at wrong-headedness or relief at right-doing; whether we pa.s.s from the sculpture of ancient Greece to the sculpture of mediaeval Italy, or _vice versa_.
But a more patient comparison of these two branches of sculpture, and of the circ.u.mstances which made each what it was, will enable us to enjoy the very different merits of both, and will teach us also something of the vital processes of the particular spiritual organism which we call an art.
In the early phase of the philosophy of art--a phase lingering on to our own day in the works of certain critics--the peculiarities of a work of art were explained by the peculiarities of character of the artist: the paintings of Raphael and the music of Mozart partook of the gentleness of their life; while the figures of Michelangelo and the compositions of Beethoven were the outcome of their misanthropic ruggedness of temper.
The insufficiency, often the falseness, of such explanations became evident when critics began to perceive that the works of one time and country usually possessed certain common peculiarities which did not correspond to any resemblance between the characters of their respective artists; peculiarities so much more dominant than any others, that a statue or a picture which was unsigned and of obscure history was constantly attributed to half-a-dozen contemporary sculptors or painters by half-a-dozen equally learned critics. The recognition of this fact led to the subst.i.tution of the _environment_ (the _milieu_ of Monsieur Taine) as an explanation of the characteristics, no longer of a single work of art, but of a school or group of kindred works. Greek art henceforth was the serene outcome of a serene civilisation of athletes, poets, and philosophers, living with untroubled consciences in a good climate, with slaves and helots to char for them while they ran races, discussed elevated topics, and took part in Panathenaic processions, riding half naked on prancing horses, or carrying olive branches and sacrificial vases in honour of a divine patron, in whom they believed only as much as they liked. And the art of the Middle Ages was the fantastic, far-fetched, and often morbid production of nations of crusaders and theologians, burning heretics, wors.h.i.+pping ladies, seeing visions, and periodically joining hands in a vertiginous death-reel, whose figures were danced from country to country. This new explanation, while undoubtedly less misleading than the other one, had the disadvantage of straining the characteristics of a civilisation or of an art in order to tally with its product or producer; it forgot that Antiquity was not wholly represented by the frieze of the Parthenon, and that the Gothic cathedrals and the frescoes of Giotto had characteristics more conspicuous than morbidness and insanity.
Moreover, in the same way that the old personal criticism was unable to account for the resemblance between the works of different individuals of the same school, so the theory of the environment fails to explain certain qualities possessed in common by various schools of art and various arts which have arisen under the pressure of different civilisations; and it is obliged to slur over the fact that the sculpture of the time of Pericles and Alexander, the painting of the early sixteenth century, and the music of the age of Handel, Haydn, and Mozart are all very much more like one another in their serene beauty than they are any of them like the other productions, artistic or human, of their environment.
Behind this explanation there must therefore be another, not controverting the portion of truth it contains, but completing it by the recognition of a relation more intimate than that of the work of art with its environment: the relation of form and material. The perceptions of the artist, what he sees and how he sees it, can be transmitted to others only through processes as various as themselves: hair seen as colour is best imitated with paint, hair seen as form with twisted metal wire.
It is as impossible to embody certain perceptions in some stages of handicraft as it would be to construct a complex machine in a rudimentary condition of mechanics. Certain modes of vision require certain methods of painting, and these require certain kinds of surface and pigment. Until these exist, a man may see correctly, but he cannot reproduce what he is seeing. In short, the work of art represents the meeting of a mode of seeing and feeling (determined partly by individual characteristics, partly by those of the age and country) and of a mode of treating materials, a craft which may itself be, like the mind of the artist, in a higher or lower stage of development.
The early Greeks had little occasion to become skilful carvers of stone. Their buildings, which reproduced a very simple wooden structure, were ornamented with little more than the imitation of the original carpentering; for the Ionic order, poor as it is of ornament, came only later; and the Corinthian, which alone offered scope for variety and skill of carving, arose only when figure sculpture was mature. But the Greeks, being only just in the iron period (and iron, by the way, is the tool for stone), were great moulders of clay and casters of metal. The things which later ages made of iron, stone, or wood, they made of clay or bronze. The thousands of exquisite utensils, weapons, and toys in our museums make this apparent; from the bronze greaves delicately modelled like the legs they were to cover, to the earthenware dolls, little Venuses, exquisitely dainty, with articulated legs and go-carts.
Hence the human figure came to be imitated by a process which was not sculpture in the literal sense of carving. It is significant that the Latin word whence we get _effigy_ has also given us _fictile_, the making of statues being thus connected with the making of pots; and that the whole vocabulary of ancient authors shows that they thought of statuary not as akin to cutting and chiselling, but to moulding ([Greek: pla.s.so]
= _fingo_), shaping out of clay on the wheel or with the modelling tool. It seems probable that marble-work was but rarely used for the round until the sixth century; and the treatment of the hair, the propping of projecting limbs and drapery, makes it obvious that a large proportion of the antiques in our possession are marble copies of long-destroyed bronzes. So that the Greek statue, even if eventually destined for marble, was conceived by a man having the habit of modelling in clay.
[Footnote 13: I am confirmed in these particulars by my friend Miss Eugenie Sellers, whose studies of the ancient authorities on art--Lucian, Pausanias, Pliny, and others, will be the more fruitful that they are a.s.sociated with knowledge--uncommon in archaeologists--of more modern artistic processes.]
[Footnote 14: This becomes overwhelmingly obvious on reading Professor Furtw.a.n.gler's great "Masterpieces of Greek Sculpture." Praxiteles appears to have been exceptional in his preference for marble.]
Let us turn from early Greece to mediaeval Italy. Hammered iron had superseded bronze for weapons and armour, and silver and gold, worked with the chisel, for ornaments. On the other hand, the introduction from the East of glazed pottery had banished to the art of the gla.s.s-blower all fancy in shaping utensils. There was no demand in common life for cast metal-work, and there being no demand for casting, there was no practice either in its cognate preliminary art of moulding clay. Hence, such bronze work as originated was very unsatisfactory; the lack of skill in casting, and the consequent elaboration of bronze-work with the file, lasting late into the Renaissance. But the men of the Middle Ages were marvellously skilful carvers of stone. Architecture, ever since the Roman time, had given more and more importance to sculptured ornament: already exquisite in the early Byzantine screens and capitals, it developed through the elaborate mouldings, traceries, and columns of the Lombard style into the art of elaborate reliefs and groups of the full-blown Gothic; indeed the Gothic church is, in Italy, the work no longer of the mason, but of the sculptor. It is no empty coincidence that the hillside villages which still supply Florence with stone and with stonemasons should have given their names to three of its greatest sculptors, Mino da Fiesole, Desiderio da Settignano, and Benedetto da Maiano; that Michelangelo should have told Vasari that the chisel and mallet had come to him with the milk of his nurse, a stonecutter's wife from those same slopes, down which jingle to-day the mules carting ready-shaped stone from the quarries. The mediaeval Tuscans, the Pisans of the thirteenth, and the Florentines of the fifteenth century, evidently made small wax or clay sketches of their statues; but their works are conceived and executed in the marble, and their art has come out of the stone without interposition of other material, even as the figures which Michelangelo chopped, living and colossal, direct out of the block.
[Footnote 15: Interesting details in Vasari's treatise, and in his Lives of J. della Quercia, Ferrucci, and other sculptors.]
The Greek, therefore, was a moulder of clay, a caster of bronze, in the early time when the art acquires its character and takes its direction; in that period, on the contrary, the Tuscan was a chaser of silver, a hammerer of iron, above all a cutter of stone. Now clay (and we must remember that bronze is originally clay) means the modelled plane and succession of planes smoothed and rounded by the finger, the imitation of all nature's gently graduated swellings and depressions, the absolute form as it exists to the touch; but clay does not give interesting light and shade, and bronze is positively blurred by high lights; and neither clay nor bronze has any resemblance to the texture of human limbs or drapery: it gives the form, but not the stuff. It is the exact reverse with marble. Granulated like a living fibre, yet susceptible of a delicate polish, it can imitate the actual substance of human flesh, with its alternations of opacity and luminousness; it can reproduce, beneath the varied strokes of the chisel, the grain, running now one way, now another, which is given to the porous skin by the close-packed bone and muscle below. Moreover, it is so docile, so soft, yet so resistant, that the iron can cut it like b.u.t.ter or engrave it lightly like agate; so that the shadows may pour deep into chasms and pools, or run over the surface in a network of shallow threads; light and shade becoming the artist's material as much as the stone itself.
The Greek, as a result, perceived form not as an appearance, but as a reality; saw with the eye the complexities of projection and depression perceivable by the hand. His craft was that of measurements, of minute proportion, of delicate concave and convex--in one word, of _planes_.
His dull, malleable clay, and ductile, s.h.i.+ning bronze had taught him nothing of the way in which light and shadow corrode, blur, and pattern a surface. His fancy, his skill, embraced the human form like the gypsum of the moulder, received the stamp of its absolute being. The beauty he sought was concrete, actual, the same in all lights and from all points of view: the comely man himself, not the beautiful marble picture.
The marble picture, on the other hand--a picture in however high and complete relief--a picture for a definite point of view, arranged by receiving light projected at a given angle on a surface cut deep or shallow especially to receive it--was produced by the sculpture that spontaneously grew out of the architectural stone-cutting of the Byzantine and Lombard schools. The mouldings on a church, still more the stone ornaments of its capitals, pulpit, and choir rails, seen, as they are, each at various and peculiar heights above the eye, under light which, however varying, can never get behind or above them if outdoor, below or in flank if indoor--these mouldings, part of a great architectural pattern of black and white, inevitably taught the masons all the subtle play of light and surface, all the deceits of position and perspective.
And the mere manipulation of the marble taught them, as we have seen, the exquisite finenesses of surface, texture, crease, accent, and line.
What the figure actually was--the real proportions and planes, the actual form of the model--did not matter; no hand was to touch it, no eye to measure; it was to be delightful only in the position which the artist chose, and in no other had it a right to be seen.
These were the two arts, originating from a material and a habit of work which were entirely different, and which produced artistic necessities diametrically opposed. It might be curious to speculate upon what would have resulted had their position in history been reversed; what statues we should possess had the marble-carving art born of architectural decoration originated in Greece, and the art of clay and bronze flourished in Christian and mediaeval Italy. Be this as it may, the accident of the surroundings--of the habits of life and thought which pressed on the artist, and combined with the necessities of his material method--appears to have intensified the peculiarities organic in each of the two sculptures. I say _appears_, because we must bear in mind that the combination was merely fortuitous, and guard against the habit of thinking that because a type is familiar it is therefore alone conceivable.
We all know all about the antique and the mediaeval _milieu_. It is useless to recapitulate the influence, on the one hand, of antique civilisation, with its southern outdoor existence, its high training of the body, its draped citizens, naked athletes, and half-clothed work-folk, its sensuous religion of earthly G.o.ds and muscular demiG.o.ds; or the influence, on the other hand, of the more complex life of the Middle Ages, essentially northern in type, sedentary and manufacturing, huddled in unventilated towns, with its constant pre-occupation, even among the most sordid grossness, of the splendour of the soul, the beauty of suffering, the ignominy of the body, and the dangers of bodily prosperity. Of all this we have heard even too much, thanks to the picturesqueness which has recommended the _milieu_ of Monsieur Taine to writers more mindful of literary effect than of the philosophy of art. But there is another historical circ.u.mstance whose influence, in differentiating Greek sculpture from the sculpture of mediaeval Italy, can scarcely be overrated. It is that, whereas in ancient Greece sculpture was the important, fully developed art, and painting merely its shadow; in mediaeval Italy painting was the art which best answered the requirements of the civilisation, the art struggling with the most important problems; and that painting therefore reacted strongly upon sculpture. Greek painting was the shadow of Greek sculpture in an almost literal sense: the figures on wall and base, carefully modelled, without texture, symmetrically arranged alongside of each other regardless of pictorial pattern, seem indeed to be projected on to the flat surface by the statues; they are, most certainly, the shadow of modelled figures cast on the painter's mind.
The sculptor could learn nothing new from paintings where all that is proper to painting is ignored:--plane always preferred to line, the constructive details, perceptible only as projection, not as colour or value (like the insertion of the leg and the thigh), marked by deep lines that look like tattoo marks; and perspective almost entirely ignored, at least till a late period. It is necessary thus to examine Greek painting in order to appreciate, by comparison with this negative art, the very positive influence of mediaeval painting or mediaeval sculpture. The painting on a flat surface--fresco or panel--which became more and more the chief artistic expression of those times, taught men to consider perspective; and, with perspective and its possibility of figures on many planes, grouping: the pattern that must arise from juxtaposed limbs and heads. It taught them to perceive form no longer as projection or plane; but as line and light and shade, as something whose charm lay mainly in the boundary curves, the silhouette, so much more important in one single, unchangeable position than where, the eye wandering round a statue, the only moderate interest of one point of view is compensated by the additional interest of another. Moreover, painting, itself the product of a much greater interest in colour than Antiquity had known, forced upon men's attention the important influence of colour upon form. For, although the human being, if we abstract the element of colour, if we do it over with white paint, has indeed the broad, somewhat vague form, the indecision of lines which characterises antique sculpture; yet the human being as he really exists, with his coloured hair, eyes, and lips, his cheeks, forehead, and chin patterned with tint, has a much greater sharpness, precision, contrast of form, due to the additional emphasis of the colour. Hence, as pictorial perspective and composition undoubtedly inclined sculptors to seek greater complexities of relief and greater unity of point of view, so the new importance of drawing and colouring suggested to them a new view of form. A human being was no longer a mere arrangement of planes and of ma.s.ses, h.o.m.ogeneous in texture and colour. He was made of different substances, of hair, skin over fat, muscle, or bone, skin smooth, wrinkled, or stubbly, and, besides this, he was painted different colours. He had, moreover, what the Greeks had calmly whitewashed away, or replaced by an immovable jewel or enamel: that extraordinary and extraordinarily various thing called an Eye.
[Footnote 16: At all events, Greek painting preceding or contemporaneous with the great period of sculpture. Later painting was, of course, much more pictorial.]
All these differences between the monochrome creature--colour abstracted--of the Greeks and the mottled real human being, the sculptors of the Renaissance were led to perceive by their brothers the painters; and having perceived, they were dissatisfied at having to omit in their representation. But how show that they too had seen them?
Here return to our notice two other peculiarities which distinguish mediaeval sculpture from antique: first, that mediaeval sculpture, rarely called upon for free open-air figures, was for ever producing architectural ornament, seen at a given height and against a dark background; and indoor decoration seen under an unvarying and often defective light; and secondly, that mediaeval sculpture was the handicraft of the subtle carver in delicate stone.
The sculpture which was an essential part of Lombard and Gothic architecture required a treatment that should adapt it to its particular place and subordinate it to a given effect. According to the height above the eye and the direction of the light, certain details had to be exaggerated, certain others suppressed; a sculptured window, like those of Orsanmichele, would not give the delightful pattern of black and white unless some surfaces were more raised than others, some portions of figure or leaf.a.ge allowed to sink into quiescence, others to start forward by means of the black rim of undercutting; and a sepulchral monument, raised thirty feet above the spectator's eye, like those inside Sta. Maria Novella, would present a mere intricate confusion unless the rec.u.mbent figure, the canopy, and various accessories, were such as to seem unnatural at the level of the eye. Thus, the heraldic lions of one of these Gothic tombs have the black cavity of the jaw cut by marble bars which are absolutely out of proportion to the rest of the creature's body, and to the detail of the other features, but render the showing of the teeth even at the other side of the transept. Again, in the more developed art of the fifteenth century, Rossellino's Cardinal of Portugal has the offside of his face shelved upwards so as to catch the light, because he is seen from below, and the near side would otherwise be too prominent; while the beautiful dead warrior, by an unknown sculptor, at Ravenna has had a portion of his jaw and chin deliberately cut away, because the spectator is intended to look down upon his rec.u.mbent figure. If we take a cast of the Cardinal's head and look down upon it, or hang a cast of the dead warrior on the wall, the whole appearance alters; the expression is almost reversed and the features are distorted. On the other hand, a cast from a real head, placed on high like the Cardinal's, would become insignificant, and laid at the height of a table, like the dead warrior's, would look lumbering and tumid. Thus, again, the head of Donatello's Poggio, which is visible and intelligible placed high up in the darkness of the Cathedral of Florence, looks as if it had been gashed and hacked with a blunt knife when seen in the cast at the usual height in an ordinary light.
Now this subtle circ.u.mventing of distance, height, and darkness; this victory of pattern over place; this reducing of light and shadow into tools for the sculptor, mean, as we see from the above examples, sacrificing the reality to the appearance, altering the proportions and planes so rigorously reproduced by the Greeks, mean sacrificing the sacred absolute form. And such a habit of taking liberties with what can be measured by the hand, in order to please the eye, allowed the sculptors of the Renaissance to think of their model no longer as the h.o.m.ogeneous _white man_ of the Greeks, but as a creature in whom structure was accentuated, intensified, or contradicted by colour and texture.
Furthermore, these men of the fifteenth century possessed the cunning carving which could make stone vary in texture, in fibre, and almost in colour.
A great many biographical details substantiate the evidence of statues and busts that the sculptors of the Renaissance carried on their business in a different manner from the ancient Greeks. The great development in Antiquity of the art of casting bronze, carried on everywhere for the production of weapons and household furniture, must have accustomed Greek sculptors (if we may call them by that name) to limit their personal work to the figure modelled in clay. And the great number of their works, many tediously constructed of ivory and gold, shows clearly that they did not abandon this habit in case of marble statuary, but merely gave the finis.h.i.+ng strokes to a copy of their clay model, produced by workmen whose skill must have been fostered by the apparently thriving trade in marble copies of bronzes.
It was different in the Renaissance. Vasari recommends, as obviating certain miscalculations which frequently happened, that sculptors should prepare large models by which to measure the capacities of their block of marble. But these models, described as made of a mixture of plaster, size, and cloth shavings over tow and hay, could serve only for the rough proportions and att.i.tude; nor is there ever any allusion to any process of minute measurement, such as pointing, by which detail could be transferred from the model to the stone. Most often we hear of small wax models which the sculptors enlarged directly in the stone. Vasari, while exaggerating the skill of Michelangelo in making his David out of a block mangled by another sculptor, expresses no surprise at his having chopped the marble himself; indeed, the anecdote itself affords evidence of the commonness of such a practice, since Agostino di Duccio would not have spoilt the block if he had not cut into it rashly without previous comparison with a model. We hear, besides, that Jacopo della Quercia spent twelve years over one of the gates of S. Petronio, and that other sculptors carried out similar great works with the a.s.sistance of one man, or with no a.s.sistance at all,--a proceeding which would have seemed the most frightful waste except in a time and country where half of the sculptors were originally stone-masons and the other half goldsmiths, that is to say, men accustomed to every stage, coa.r.s.e or subtle, of their work. The absence of replicas of Renaissance sculpture, so striking a contrast to the scores of repet.i.tions of Greek works, proves, moreover, that the actual execution in marble was considered an intrinsic part of the sculpture of the fifteenth century, in the same way as the painting of a Venetian master. Phidias might leave the carving of his statues to skilful workmen, once he had modelled the clay, even as the painters of the merely designing and linear schools, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, or Botticelli, might employ pupils to carry out their designs on panel or wall. But in the same way as a t.i.tian is not a t.i.tian without a certain handling of the brush, so a Donatello is not a Donatello, or a Mino not a Mino, without a certain individual excellence in the cutting of the marble.
[Footnote 17: Several Greek vases and coins show the sculptor modelling his figure; while in Renaissance designs, from that of Nanni di Banco to a mediocre allegorical engraving in an early edition of Vasari, the sculptor, or the personified art of Sculpture, is actually working with chisel and mallet.]
These men brought, therefore, to the cutting of marble a degree of skill and knowledge of which the ancients had no notion, as they had no necessity. In their hands the chisel was not merely a second modelling tool, moulding delicate planes, uniting insensibly broad ma.s.ses of projection and depression. It was a pencil, which, according as it was held, could emphasise the forms in sharp hatchings or let them die away unnoticed in subdued, imperceptible washes. It was a brush which could give the texture and the values of the colour--a brush dipped in various tints of light and darkness, according as it poured into the marble the light and the shade, and as it translated into polis.h.i.+ngs and rough hewings and granulations and every variety of cutting, the texture of flesh, of hair, and of drapery; of the blonde hair and flesh of children, the coa.r.s.e flesh and bristly hair of old men, the draperies of wool, of linen, and of brocade. The sculptors of Antiquity took a beautiful human being--a youth in his perfect flower, with limbs trained by harmonious exercise and ripened by exposure to the air and sun--and, correcting whatever was imperfect in his individual forms by their hourly experience of similar beauty, they copied in clay as much as clay could give of his perfections: the subtle proportions, the majestic ampleness of ma.s.ses, the delicate finish of limbs, the harmonious play of muscles, the serene simplicity of look and gesture, placing him in an att.i.tude intelligible and graceful from the greatest possible distance and from the largest variety of points of view. And they preserved this perfect piece of loveliness by handing it over to the faithful copyist in marble, to the bronze, which, more faithful still, fills every minutest cavity left by the clay. Being beautiful in himself, in all his proportions and details, this man of bronze or marble was beautiful wherever he was placed and from wheresoever he was seen; whether he appeared foreshortened on a temple front, or face to face among the laurel trees, whether shaded by a portico, or s.h.i.+ning in the blaze of the open street. His beauty must be judged and loved as we should judge and love the beauty of a real human being, for he is the closest reproduction that art has given of beautiful reality placed in reality's real surroundings. He is the embodiment of the strength and purity of youth, untroubled by the moment, independent of place and of circ.u.mstance.
Of such perfection, born of the rarest meeting of happy circ.u.mstances, Renaissance sculpture knows nothing. A lesser art, for painting was then what sculpture had been in Antiquity; bound more or less closely to the service of architecture; surrounded by ill-grown, untrained bodies; distracted by ascetic feelings and scientific curiosities, the sculpture of Donatello and Mino, of Jacopo della Quercia and Desiderio da Settignano, of Michelangelo himself, was one of those second artistic growths which use up the elements that have been neglected or rejected by the more fortunate and vigorous efflorescence which has preceded.
It failed in everything in which antique sculpture had succeeded; it accomplished what Antiquity had left undone. Its sense of bodily beauty was rudimentary; its knowledge of the nude alternately insufficient and pedantic; the forms of Donatello's David and of Benedetto's St. John are clumsy, stunted, and inharmonious; even Michelangelo's Bacchus is but a comely lout. This sculpture has, moreover, a marvellous preference for ugly old men--gross, or ascetically imbecile; and for ill-grown striplings: except the St. George of Donatello, whose body, however, is entirely encased in inflexible leather and steel, it never gives us the perfection and pride of youth. These things are obvious, and set us against the art as a whole. But see it when it does what Antiquity never attempted; Antiquity which placed statues side by side in a gable, balancing one another, but not welded into one pattern; which made relief the mere repet.i.tion of one point of view of the round figure, the shadow of the gable group; which, until its decline, knew nothing of the pathos of old age, of the grotesque exquisiteness of infancy, of the endearing awkwardness of adolescence; which knew nothing of the texture of the skin, the silkiness of the hair, the colour of the eye.
Renaissance Fancies and Studies Part 4
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