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Leonardo, Raphael, And Michelangelo
If Giotto by his excellence and manifold achievements merits the name of genius, what title can we give to Leonardo da Vinci? In him are united all the intellectual and cultural attainments of the Florentines. In an age propitious to the muses few of his contemporaries rivaled him as poet, painter and musician. Princes besought his verses, convents his paintings. Add to these decorative accomplishments the man's many practical talents and he seems the most liberally endowed person in history. A mechanical wizard, he invented countless appliances, telephone systems, musical instruments, machines; he was a designer of buildings, and a builder of waterways, sewerage systems, fortifications; and alone and untaught in natural science he was able to discover by observation, by attention to cause and effect, natural laws that paved the way for many modern inventions. It was he who first saw the possibilities of the aeroplane, and he who first discovered the principle of sound waves. His name is not unhonored nor unsung. But it is chiefly as the creator of a sweet, wistfully smiling lady called Mona Lisa that this prince of mortals is remembered.
It is not our intention here to demand more due for Leonardo's scientific accomplishments. We are concerned only with his painting. But we must be pardoned for looking askance at the famous Mona Lisa. It is our conviction that the master's less famous paintings are of greater moment, and certainly of more importance to our investigation. And so, avoiding comments upon his "soul," we shall seek his exact contributions to painting.
For a fairly long-lived man it is amazing that Leonardo left so few canvases. On the other hand when we consider the extent and variety of his activities we wonder that he found time to paint at all. The truth is that he was not essentially a painter. The job well done was not enough to give him satisfaction. To him paint was a means for exploring human and natural truths which eluded scientific apparatus and even words. The subtle, the mystical, the inexpressible challenged his command of the medium of paint. The things that he wished to say had never been touched upon by others. He sought new methods. He experimented with new colors, oils, materials of every sort. Through his anatomical studies he explored every problem of facial expression and gesture. The line between the poet and the scientist was lost. His notebooks are rich in comment and in odd drawings and sketches-a section of human skull, a part of a rare plant, the formations of clouds. This insatiable curiosity was reflected by a truthfulness in painting which had nothing in common with the realism of catalogued trifles.
Leonardo's paintings, however, were limited by this very quality of intellectual independence and curiosity. He could not complete a picture easily because he could not arrive at that complaisance which would permit him to leave it. The painted face or figure seldom equaled his conception; he changed and repainted constantly. The novelist Merejkowsky pictures him at work upon his fresco of The Last Supper over a period of sixteen years, painting when the mood came upon him, wiping out a face which he had finished the day before. His great undertaking for the Council Hall of Florence, begun in competition with Michelangelo, was abandoned as soon as the rough cartoon for the picture succeeded in expressing what he had intended to paint. Plainly he was not one of your Rubens type of artist who leapt from one canvas to the next in a frenzy to cover them and sign his name. His aim was quality, but such is the irony of fate that the very urge for excellence which led him to experiment with new materials only succeeded in robbing the world of his masterpieces. His pigment has blackened, his surfaces crumbled away.
Certain valuable works, however, do remain. In the Virgin Among the Rocks, in the Louvre, we have an opportunity of seeing an innovation of great importance: the use of landscape as an emotional factor. The mood of the canvas is created by the color, design and character of the background. To realize what a step forward this was we have only to recall the ineffectual paintings of Ghirlandaio in which the most dramatic incident is posed before a humdrum, stereotyped background. In creating a world sympathetic to his characters, Leonardo showed the same psychological insight which had led him to study minutely the vagaries of expression and meaningful pose.
Drama is the keynote in Da Vinci's work. In his efforts to produce an ever more powerful effect upon the beholder he exhausted all the methods of his predecessors. Significant grouping in Giotto's manner was not enough. Nor did individual gestures and strained faces satisfy him. The innovation above mentioned, that of fitting nature's moods to his subject, was a step towards fulfilment. However, it was his discovery of the dramatic importance of strong light and shade, chiaroscuro, to supplant the decorative line of the Florentines which most merits attention. A real pioneer in dramatic painting he pointed the ways which were later taken by the two greatest dramatists with paint in history, El Greco and Rembrandt.
By no means the least of Leonardo's achievements was his ability to make of a portrait something more than a superficial likeness elegantly arrayed. The type was not enough; he must know the individual completely. Of course his unmatched knowledge of anatomy enabled him to express subtle traits of physiognomy with which his predecessors could only struggle. So we see that even the art of portraiture, generally regarded as a Venetian development, must pay its due to the great Florentine. RAPHAEL'S exact contributions to painting are difficult to gauge. He was the most facile of Florentine painters and influenced by all of them. Regardless of the fact that he has remained for four hundred years the preeminent (popularly) artist of the Renaissance, he nevertheless marks the decline of its glory. He is essentially the people's artist, the illustrator. He is said to surpass by far his teacher, Perugino, but this heretofore universal opinion has lately been undergoing revision, and we are inclined to the judgment of the revisionists.
That Raphael invented types of beauty and pulchritude that have won the hearts of all classes of people in the civilized world is beyond question; but that does not seem to us the greatest accomplishment of the painter. In order to achieve the soft, subtle modeling that will permit the dark eyes of his Madonnas to shine so warmly he is naturally compelled to sacrifice form. In fact his pictures lack form quite as much as Botticelli's without equaling the magic grace of the latter's line. In his less pretentious compositions and portraits, there is an apparent compromise between painting as practiced by Perugino, and the decorative line of Botticelli. It is a tribute to Raphael that he combined them so skillfully; in less able hands the two styles would be incompatible, incapable of fusion. In making these opposite methods into a style of his own the young genius apparently hit upon the elements of art most appealing to his fellow citizens.
Yet we shall see that he was capable of creative ability of a high order. His natural genius was for composition. In this field it is true he surpassed his teacher. Perugino had taught him the secrets of his art of attaining spatial relation. But Perugino himself regarded his figures, either singly or in groups, as masses placed in a given space. It is evident that he attempted to secure action and movement also; but in this he failed. In his picture we see numerous figures trying to run. But they are frozen in arrested action. The painter of masses could not handle his figures as intricate, decorative, mobile patterns; they are static, architectonic. Raphael was the first painter to compose a group from the point of view of connected pattern, so that his compositions are the most orderly possible, while still possessing movement. They are beautiful upside down or in any postion, and they keep our gaze circulating about like the rhythms of Botticelli.
This use of pattern to secure movement is well illustrated in Raphael's fresco, The School of Athens. Not only are the groups themselves inventively arranged, but the patterns of dark in the various figures "tie up" with each other to give the picture movement and unity. Nothing is isolated. In addition to this variety of pattern in the grouping there is a variety of pose and gesture in the individuals that recalls the dramatic stage setting of Giotto. The benefits derived from Leonardo's psychological studies in character portrayal and pose are also obvious. And while his figures do not possess the distinctive individuality that Leonardo's do, they are nevertheless gracious and fine in type and convincing in their expression. It is only when he is faced with the problem of painting portraits of ladies and Madonnas that he succumbs to popular demand and produces a too sweet, poorly modeled face. And in all his religious subjects he comes nowhere near the holy ardor of Fra Angelico for instance. His forte is never intensity of spirit, but rather a mastery of decorative, mobile composition, a richness of color, an undisturbed movement, and an ideal of beauty which has been the standard of the Western world for four centuries.
Michelangelo was a much stronger character. His personal force expends itself in his work. He does not aim to please, he is not a painter of or for the people, even though the people thrill to his work. He has ideals of beauty as well as Raphael. But while Raphael's beauty is of an f _-ffeminate, pure, adolescent, sentimental type, not visionary like Botticelli's, but real enough to be found in the flesh among the cultured, sheltered Florentines, Michelangelo's is an ideal that is almost Nietzschean-a lyrical, morbid, intense and brooding Superman. There is a fatalism, almost a despondency in the gestures and poses of his figures that reflect the state of his own being. There is a physical power that goes beyond the Greek or pagan worship of strength. Beauty in the sense of prettiness or grace is neither in his character nor in his work.
The man is gentle in heart but rough in manner. He is too melancholy to be the princely favorite that Raphael was. What causes underlay his somber spirit we can only guess. We do know that the wars, intrigues, and demands of his patrons kept him in a state of despair, bitterness, and fear. Seven of the best years of his life were spent on a selfish project of Pope Julius. This vain potentate commissioned him to erect a magnificent tomb for the papal remains. The project was never carried to completion. The years spent upon this futile, herculean task would have embittered sunnier natures. The realization that church and secular society were no longer motivated by considerations for the public welfare was enough to discourage him. He felt that the times were out of joint.
The days of the Renaissance were indeed coming to a close. The followers of Raphael were enjoying great vogue. Totally without talent, they lent their imitative faculties to the manufacture of cheap, sentimental pictures which pandered to the moral decay. For attempting to restore Christianity to a fast disintegrating society the monk Savonarola is burnt at the stake. The pagan ideals of physical joyousness have degenerated into a flabbiness of self-indulgence. Art became the same thing that it is today among us-something to decorate the homes, to keep before our eyes images of pretty girls and flattering portraits done by avaricious craftsmen. The problems of form which thrilled Giotto's followers, of line which kept Florence spellbound in Botticelli's time, of space, which drew the populace of Perugio to see the canvases of Perugino, all these attainments in the art of painting now crystallized into nothing but a sugary sentimentalism. The old ideals of Florence were dying. And in the midst of this decay was Michelangelo, last of the titans, full of vigorous energy and poetic ideals. He felt himself cut off from his environment. His mind dwelled upon the glories of ancient Greece, upon the Superman, and these he painted. But he painted them in the disconsolate attitudes of hopeless mortals like himself.His spirit alone might not have been sufficient to establish him as a great painter, however renowned he may have been as a sculptor. But he understood the demands of powerful painting as well as he did the carving of marble. Form to him was the essential of both. He strove for a volume and bulk and weight just as Giotto had before him. He attained it in every muscle and anatomical form. He attained it by light and shade and by means of functional line.
By the latter method he was able to reveal the movement and direction of the form, just as an ellipse gives us the illusio_-i of the roundness of the inside of a pail. Botticelli had made good use of functional line because it was his only way of expressing form; but his line was essentially decorative, beautiful more than functional. Leonardo, in his anatomical studies and in his sketches, showed how powerful line could be when used with the proper emphasis in the proper place, in the rendering of volume and roundness. Michelangelo combined the two uses of line and for this reason he has been regarded the greatest draughtsman of the Renaissance.
With his death died the golden age of Florence. The religious spirit had given it birth, the pomp of the Church had sustained it. Now there was disintegration. Society fell apart. There was neither the spirit to guide it, nor the vitality necessary to the enjoyment of a carefree existence. The energy was spent, the body sick. The art of painting, like the art of living, moved northward in Italy to a more robust and pristine society, that of Venice.