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The Renaissance In Florence
While Fra Angelico, living in monastic confinement alone with his dreams, painted the Christian soul, the urge for a more physically wholesome and active existence was already being reflected in the pictures of other artists. As if Italy had been for centuries in a state of mourning and penance, she now cast off her black robes of inhibitions. A sensuous race could not forever be solemn and subdued. A cultured race could not forever turn its energies to the flagellation of the spirit. Because Italy was sensuous and cultured and brimful of repressed energy, she threw herself into the proper business of life, enjoyment. It was an awakening of the spirit, the rebirth of the activities and ideals of ancient Greece-the Renaissance.
The rest of Europe did not take part in this dance of life. We have seen that even in the time of Cimabue and Giotto, Italy was far ahead of her neighbors in civilization. Taine in his Philosophy o f Art contrasts Italian life at the time of the Renaissance with conditions in England, Germany and France. He shows us that at the moment Italy was entering upon its richest era, England was engaged in its horrible War of Roses, in which, the battles over, the children of the vanquished were slaughtered in cold blood. Until the year 1550, England remains a country of hunters, serfs and soldiers. In the interior of the Kingdom only two or three houses in the villages possess chimneys. The homes of country gentlemen are straw-covered huts roughly plastered with mud. The middle classes sleep upon round logs for pillows. The cooking utensils of the house are not even of tin, but of wood.
Germany too is engaged in atrocious warfare. The emperor is without authority; the individual barons, ignorant and insolent, settle their quarrels in their own way, which is by the strength of their fists. The gentlemen and socalled learned class are a coarse and drunken people, if one is to believe the memoirs of Hans of Schweinichen.
As for France, that country is in its most disastrous period in history-conquered and-devastated by the English. Wolves range through the streets of Paris. And even after the English are driven out, the country is at the mercy of its lords and gentlemen, brigands and assassins who terrify the peasants. The legend of Bluebeard sprang from the escapades of one of these noble murderers, Gilles de Retz. Rabelais more ably than other commentators shows us the bestiality of Gothic customs of the middle of the sixteenth century.
In short, throughout the rest of Europe, the feudal regime still exists. Men are like animals, savage and strong, thinking only of drinking, eating, fighting, and amusing themselves. Italy, on the contrary, is a country almost modern. The Italians manufacture, trade, and spend the money they earn in a civilized manner. The cares of war do not hang over the citizens of Florence. The state employs a system whereby its little battles are fought by paid troops. And these skirmishes seldom amount to war but come to an end with one or two casualties. Everywhere diplomacy attempts to replace force.
Taine tells us of this age of culture and learning. Poets wrote in a Latin as impeccable as that of Cicero and Vergil. Education and erudition were taken out of cloistered monasteries and furthered by princes. Cosimo de Medici founded an academy of philosophy. Princes surrounded themselves with writers, philosophers, artists, in order to converse with them on matters of the spirit. The principal banker of Florence, Lorenzo de Medici, was also one of the principal poets. Cellini tells us that when his statue of Perseus was unveiled, no less than twenty sonnets were written about it the first day. It is obvious that the society of the period was ripe for a reign of art similar to that of the ancient Greeks.
On the other hand, the individual in this cultivated society does not live in fat security. If there is diplomacy, there is also intrigue. If there is national peace there is much violence in the personal quarrels and encounters of a people of hot blood. The meekness imposed by Christianity has worn off and exposed the natural man; so that we find the cultured sixteenth century Italian primitive and fierce in temperament. The most profound philosophers, such as Machiavelli, carefully reasoned the necessities for treachery, murder and betrayal. The destruction of one's enemies became as fine an art as the painting of altar-pieces for churches. The hero of the period is Cxsar Borgia, the greatest traitor of all time. So necessary for the maintenance of peace did this princely assassin consider dissimulation, perfidy, traps of every device, that he practiced them upon everybody, even his own family. When a noble served him well by carrying out his orders to harass and bleed the people, he had him butchered and exposed in the market place, to show his dear citizens how he dealt with those who oppressed them.
The result of this lack of personal security and police protection was that individuals had to depend upon themselves for attack and defense. They had to acquire the habit of extreme and sudden resolution; which is to say, they had to know how to kill and have killed. A man could not be a good, pious, contemplative Christian in such an environment of violence and betrayal. He could not adopt an Oriental attitude of resignation, and still live. He was compelled to be a man of action. The development of the individual into a resourceful man of action is, according to Taine, one of the chief causes for the Renaissance.
We have an excellent example of the nature of such a man in Benvenuto Cellini. His memoirs tell us of the hazards of life, and the, resolute and wily efforts of man to overcome them. His own character is distinguished by its energy and courage, its vigorous initiative, its habitude of sudden resolve, its capacity for action and suffering. He was the superb animal, all militant, and all resistant, nourished by the tough customs of medieval society. He was completely masculine. In him was the perfect example of creative ability resulting from wide and active experience and capacity for living.
Physical activity, the necessity for strength and dexterity, brought about an age of athletes similar to the ancient Greeks. Men were proud of their bodies. Exercises and tournaments assumed a great importance. The handsome athletic body was as much a public ideal as it had been in pagan times. The slim and soft-spoken Cxsar Borgia possessed slender white hands, but his phenomenal strength was the fear of all. He was said to have cut off the head of a bull with one stroke of his sword.
We see then how great a factor in the flowering of the Renaissance was the individual. The soil for a golden era of art was there; it remained only for the proper cultivators to plant the germ. History has shown us that the husbandmen of art have always been active, energetic, vital men.
To conclude, the Renaissance was not a miracle without cause or explanation. It was the result (1) of an innate love of life as well as culture in the Italian; (2) of the release from the solemnity imposed by primitive Christianity and A
the consequent liberation of the mind, body and spirit; (3) of the development of the individual by the hazards of his environment to an unparalleled degree of self-dependence, initiative and action. The opportunity element, too, while not of major importance, must not be overlooked. The release of men from military duties and warfare was a contributing factor in the widespread practice of the arts. And by no means least important is the encouragement of artists by wealthy princes and officers of the Church. Besides the economic aspect, the influence of these potentates in forming the tastes of the people was essential to the general cultivation and appreciation of painting.
The revival of pagan ideals was, as we said, patterned on the civilization of ancient Greece. First came sculpture which could most readily employ the pagan ideals of proportion and the beauty of the nude. Then came the period of research into the methods of painting. The discovery of perspective, the study of anatomy, of light and shade, interested painters a great deal more than the spiritual values of religion. Joy and beauty became the new religion.
Massaccio's paintings, which carried forward the principles and ideals of Giotto, served as a standard and inspiration to young painters for many years. His influence was abetted by the sculptors, notably Donatello, who had turned to the classical models of ancient Greece and Rome. The art of painting became preoccupied with the representation of beautiful people, and from that it was only a step to preoccupation with the folds of rich draperies, the problems of perspective, the improvement of color, the representation of anything and everything as a display of the artist's virtuosity and skill.
For a time there was some danger of painting degenerating to mere exhibitionism, the easy admiration of the populace for the tour de force encouraging the artists in that direction. And the experiments of painters who wished to show how well they were able to reproduce with paint all the petty, involved accidents of nature, led to a sort of handmade photography on a grand scale. This was the first indication of what genre painting was to become in the hands of the later Venetians and the Flemish.
We reproduce a specimen of this kind of painting. It is the work of Ghirlandaio, in his day the principal painter of Florence. This picture, The Adoration, is so overloaded with detail, that every square centimeter in the 93
UNDERSTANDING MODERN ART
canvas seems to be crawling with life. We have perfect perspective, a beautiful Madonna, a realistic Child, pedigreed live stock, ornamental architecture, horsemen, castles, floating angels and accessories. And yet the picture is devoid of spirit. We are not impressed. We take little interest in this teeming composition. It lacks the merit of simplicity and unity of statement which is so characteristic of the Primitives. The whole presentation is lacking in significance, the gestures of the figures in the foreground being especially commonplace. So that while the picture illustrates an incident, it does so only halfheartedly, without conviction. It is plain that the artist regarded his knowledge and ability as a painter sufficient in themselves. The result is excellent still-life painting; but movement, drama, significance, life itself, are absent. The lifeless product is only a step above mere decoration.
The same style of painting does not impose its restrictions so severely in the hands of an artist who is really motivated by feeling and conviction. We see in Filippino Lippi's Apparition of the Virgin Before Saint Bernard (Fig. 20) the same overcrowded composition employed by his teacher. There is no feeling of spaciousness in the canvas, no unity of line or rhythm, none of that harmony of design apparent in Fra Angelico's picture for instance. Each part of the canvas may be segregated and framed. But there is such dramatic significance in the presentation of the story, such conviction in the gestures and faces of the actors, that we are made to feel the episode. It gets under our skin. It is great illustration.
Ghirlandaio's most illustrious pupil, however, was Botticelli. Whether we like his poetic conceptions and allegories or not, we must take cognizance of the fact that he brought to painting one of its most precious qualities, the rhythm of line. His is the most beautiful line in all European art. His rivals may be found among the Japanese but nowhere else. Without his innovations there would have been no Raphael, and even the art of Leonardo and Michelangelo owed much to him. But while these later and more famous painters used line only as a part of their general equipment, Botticelli's sense of harmonious rhythm escaped him at every turn, so that the result is, as Berenson says, "a symphony of line."
In Botticelli's Spring, we see how graceful and flowing are the lines of the bodies and draperies. The very pose of the hands creates lines beautiful in themselves. The Florentine can be said to have founded the art of European line decoration. If the Englishman Hogarth had examined this picture of Spring instead of the back of a nude woman he would have found more Lines of Beauty than he could catalogue. The Victorian Beardsley, famous for his line decoration, only popularized the decorative quality of Botticelli's line.
But if his line has been more or less successfully imitated, few painters have achieved a rhythmic grace equal to his. We remember that rhythm is the repetition of a kind of line. The sinuous, seductive harmony created by this repetition fascinates us in spite of the chaste character of his ladies.
In the accompanying illustration, for instance, the long line of the drapery of the center figure is repeated in the lines of the two figures to the left and in the lines made by the drapery of the young man and his lifted arm. The lifted upper arm follows the other upper arm. The long line of the young man's leg, from hip to foot, stops the leaning action of these diagonal lines. On the other side of the canvas, the group is held together by the arms, not only because the figures are holding on to each other, but because they follow each other in direction. The long curve made by the back of the young woman trying to escape the unwelcome embraces is repeated by the trees on the extreme right.
We cannot pass Botticelli without speaking of the types which he created. In his ideal of woman he is poetic, tender, a, bit sentimental. There is an absence of sensuality, and in its place a dreamy lyricism. There is nothing profoundly religious, nor is there the materialistic spirit of some of his contemporaries. Instead there is the poetry of a sensitive, introspective person.
Botticelli's contemporaries who specialized in religious pictures were affected by his sentiment. Sentimentality in this swashbuckling day of the Renaissance was compelled to act as substitute for real faith. The Primitives knew little about painting but their faith was strong enough to express itself in spite of artistic limitations. But the spirit of early Christianity had so disappeared from Italian life that pictures for churches were more a decorative convention than a necessity. The story of the Bible continued to be the principal material for artists, mainly because churches were wealthy enough to compete with each other for talented men. The Popes were constantly on the lookout for newer and better painters. But artists approached their work cold and scientific, and where they sought to touch the sympathies of the spectator they did so by making their figures too expressive of dreamy emotion.
This is the criticism often made of Perugino. The first impression one receives from his pictures is that they are the work of a fervid religious mystic like Fra Angelico. But that Perugino was no kindly saint nor humble recluse is evidenced by the municipal court records at the time of his first visit to Florence, when he was arrested and fined ten gold florins for waylaying and beating a man. Historians call him an atheist and a villain. He was nevertheless a most accomplished artist and it matters little if his religious emotion was manufactured on demand. Mr. Leo Stein, in his book on esthetics, declares that emotion is unnecessary in the making of a work of art. He says:
One who looks at a picture will often have stronger emotions than the man who painted it; the spectators at a game will be more emotionally stirred than the players; the audience at the theater than the actors.... Most painters when they try to make a picture are perfectly cool.
If this statement which seems beyond dispute is accepted, one can have no quarrel with Perugino on the ground of his being detached from his religious pictures. It is possible that in his efforts to make us feel what he himself does not, he overstresses the sentiment. But when he is restrained, when he is at his best, as in his Deposition from the Cross in the Pitti Palace and in his Kneeling Christ, here reproduced (Fig. 22), neither Raphael, nor Leonardo, nor Michelangelo is his superior. Besides his significant manner of presenting his story and the uncommonplace arrangement of his figures; besides his complete mastery of form, of light and shade, of perspective, anatomy, line, color, he introduces a new quality in painting, space, or spatial relation.
In contrast to the crowded, teeming compositions of Ghirlandaio and Lippi, and to the almost flat backgrounds of Botticelli, Perugino gives us the illusion of different planes and distances. There is a spatial relationship between foreground and middle distance and distance which is just as convincing as the more scientific experiments of Cezanne. Giotto, by his method of presentation, could make us feel sympathetic to his characters; Perugino, by his control of space, by his convincing way of giving us the illusion of vast, unlimited areas, plausible, peopled, built up, makes us feel that we are a part of the picture. It is Mr. Berenson's belief that the religious emotion so strongly conveyed to us by Perugino is produced by this feeling of identification with the universe-created by space-composition. There is no doubt that the serenity which bathes his paintings is accomplished by his consideration of figures as masses placed in a given area, like the pillars of a building, or any other object. Such figures are architectonic, since they are handled as architectural masses.
To us Perugino remains the most typical Renaissance painter. Botticelli was somewhat withdrawn from the people; the princely Raphael, as we shall see, spent his short life exclusively in the company of popes and potentates; the scholarly Leonardo's mind was turned inward; Michelangelo brooded for a vanishing era. But this painter from Perugio who loved to crack a skull as well as his neighbor did, who practiced deceit and violence upon his fellows, was yet linked to them more closely than all his contemporaries, in art as well as in life. It is told that men, women and children ran to see his pictures; and that they came not of mere curiosity but because the calm and serenity of his compositions soothed them and made them forget the turbulence and violence of their existence. Scoundrel or not Perugino like no contemporary touched the hearts of his public. And if sentiment overlays his pictures it detracts nothing from their value as art.