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Giotto And Fra Angelico
In actual time only a few years separate Giotto from Cimabue. Vasari, the historian of Florence, tells the touching story of how the renowned Cimabue, strolling out into the country, came upon the youngster scraping upon a rock the outlines of one of the sheep which he had been set to watch, and how the master had been so delighted with the boy's talent that he had immediately arranged to bring him to Florence as his pupil. But more accurate historians, with no cause to be overpatriotic for beloved Florence, have rejected this story as fable. In view of the innovations in painting effected by Giotto and his completely different point of view, it seems more reasonable to suppose that his talents were unspoiled by his celebrated predecessor.
Nature and the high degree of the culture of the time cooperated to produce in Giotto exceptional talents. He was a genius. A close friend of the immortal Dante, he was himself no mean poet. And so renowned was he for his wit and his spirited conversation that many distinguished Florentines sought him for their social gatherings. In a day when guests never had cause to fear the banalities of after-dinner speeches he was an outstanding attraction. As a sculptor he ranks with the best of his time. And as an architect alone he would have achieved sufficient distinction to earn him a place in the history of art. Whoever has seen the Duomo in Florence will acknowledge his mastery of architectural design. He was a genius, but not, as some historians have it, a phenomenon. Gentle Italy, which had tamed the invading barbarians of the north, and which was to produce the great Leonardo, bred and fostered scores of well-rounded, talented men decades before the Renaissance. It was in Giotto's innovations, in his new point of view, in his scientific discoveries, as well as in his great spiritual and poetic resources that he established himself as one of the most important painters of all time.
Like Cimabue, he is called a Primitive. But some critics, notably Berenson, include him in their discussions of Renaissance art. The difference between the Primitives and the painters of the Renaissance is the difference in the religious point of view. The Primitives, like the early Christian amateur artists of the catacombs, stressed the spiritual, the subjective, the emotional side of religion. Their work was characterized by a rigid and sometimes involved system of design derived from the Byzantines, of whom there were many itinerant representatives in Italy. We shall see that the Renaissance painters, on the other hand, were concerned, as were the ancient Greeks and the pagan Romans, primarily with the beauty of the human body, the physical ideal; and that their pictures are characterized by a reality, a scientific understanding, a warmth of color and a general plausibility never before realized. In other words, their art was something completely opposed in spirit to the asceticism and subjectivity of the Primitives. The cult of self-denial, humility, the flagellation of the spirit, the smell of monasteries, were forgotten by the adventurous, joyous Christians who made a great to-do about the paintings of the stories of the Bible, but whose concepts of life were thoroughly pagan.
While Giotto remains in spirit a Primitive, in execution he anticipates the Golden Era. He was the first European painter to shake off the traditions of the Byzantines and paint objects and people with some scientific understanding of the problems of perspective and form and light and shade. He makes his figures appear real instead of reducing them to a conventional system of design and depending upon morbid distortion and emaciation to drive home the lesson of Christian humility. His scenes are simple and plausible, yet they are bathed in an atmosphere of mysticism. This combining of the real with the imagined, or if we prefer, the objective with subjective, gives him a unique place in the history of painting. He is the link between the Primitives and the painters of the Renaissance.
Being an innovator at a time when innovation in painting was an event of importance and not the result of a search for novelty at the cost of everything else, Giotto's work was considered sensational. It was not generally understood since he was, in knowledge and scientific observation, far ahead of his time. While many painters were fascinated by his canvases, few grasped his principles and the value of his restrained dramatic force; and since most painters are mere craftsmen, his contemporaries succeeded only in copying the surface e fJ'ects and the technique. The combination of his grasp upon the qualities of painting and his poetic manner of presentation was something that baffled his hosts of followers and imitators.
To realize how far ahead of his time he was, we have only to compare one of his earliest paintings, The Death o f Saint Francis, painted long before the full attainment of his powers, with a similar composition, The Death of Saint Jerome, painted a century later by Sano di Pietro.
Let us look first at the Saint Jerome. The picture is highly ornamented with gold leaf, pressed into different decorative motifs in the Byzantine manner. The halos are not only gold, they are as fancy as a Mexican chieftain's saddle. The figures of the friars are all short with large heads, a tradition which dates back to the earliest Christian art such as our picture of Moses striking the rock. In the paintings of the heads the only imagination shown is in the different decorative treatments of the beards; otherwise, the monks may be taken for brothers as well as Fathers. Grief is depicted in each face in precisely the same way, a pulling together of the eyebrows.
The bed upon which the dead Saint Jerome lies seems badly constructed; the slightest push would send it crashing to the floor. And if we look under it we fail to see the lower parts of the Father in black and of the two friars who are bent over the dead man. With the greatest naivete the artist has cut off their bodies where they cease to be visible at the top. Plainly this is an unconvincing picture, lacking in plausibility. When we consider that there is an almost complete absence of form, and no knowledge of perspective evident in the drawings of the buildings, we see how primitive this painting is.
Yet it does possess a highly meritorious painting quality. As a composition it is not only successful but excellent. The distribution of the black patterns, their different shapes and sizes, all confined to the upper part of the picture so that our gaze is kept circulating around the faces of the friars, is skillfully managed. The figure in black brings our roving glance to a halt. From his black gown we look to the head of the kneeling monk below him, and follow the curved arm of the dead Saint to his holy head. The heavy band of gold which decorates the bed or bier at the bottom, serves to emphasize the importance of the Saint, to underscore him. Altogether it is strong composition.
But when we compare this painting with the Giotto, we realize at once all its other limitations. The first thing that strikes us in the Giotto is the manner in which the delegation of monks has been broken up into groups. Instead of ranging them in monotonous formation around the bier, the more ingenious artist has distributed them with the skill of a stage director who wished to shake us with grief. At the foot is the group which the ritual of the Church demands be stationed with the Cross. At the head are the friars who chant for the soul of the Dead. In contrast to these rigid, formally arranged groups, the other friars are in such a state of grief and tension that the emotion is immediately imparted to us. This dramatic mise-en-scene in painting is the significance upon which we dwelt in Chapter 2.
We recall that the primitive ascetics, the Byzantines, played upon the emotions of spectators by horrifying them with repulsive distortion, by caricaturing the miserable aspects of creatures writhing in humility; by fancy gold halos about the heads of emaciated saints. And there is no doubt that these means succeeded, because they were intended to impress simple, uncultured people. But Giotto's method, less elementary, was more convincing to a civilized populace.
In actual painting qualities Giotto is as far ahead of his predecessors as in his manner of presentation. Plausibility as we have said, takes the place of decorative conventions. The bed is solid, there is no danger of some one brushing by it and taking off a leg. The banner below the cross sags in the most natural manner. The friars are not manikins cast in a mold with one set of features and one fixed facial expression, but are individual humans, gesturing each in his own way, their bodies bent into different positions. Even in the figures kneeling before the bier, the artist has bothered to show how feet may be caught in long gowns.
Significance and plausibility are not the extent of his innovations. His color is also his own. Instead of the areas of gold, the brilliant deep reds and blues of Oriental design, he preferred to paint his pictures in a light, harmonious palette. Nature, at least in Italy, did not reveal itself to him in brilliant deep colors.
He also discarded the proportions of the Primitives. We see in this Death o f Saint Francis men of normal build, much better looking than the short, large-headed types generally depicted. The young friars are even handsome. This alone was a departure from custom.
More important than all these changes is Giotto's discovery of the means of expressing form. By a subtle, masterful use of light and shade, he attained a volume and a solidity since unsurpassed. His figures and surfaces are sculptural. He omitted the many details that would encroach upon the simplicity of his forms, as he would if he were carving them from rock. There is a ponderableness to all his figures. To see how simply he realized this quality of form, let us look carefully at a head of Christ in the famous fresco at Padua (Fig.17). The eyes are in their sockets. The nose comes forward. The forehead is round. There are millions of portraits more clever in brushwork, more luscious in color, but how many of them possess this elementary form? Add to this the poetic conception of Christ, and we see the reasons for Giotto's supreme position in the history of early Italian art.
It was a hundred years after him that a painter appeared who showed talent of as high an order, and who profited by the lessons of the great Florentine. This man was Massaccio. He gave the movement toward the Renaissance an added push by his attention to the problems of figure painting and his complete orientation from the naive and severe art of the Primitives. But before going on to the new era we may tarry to look at the work of the last of the great Primitives, Fra Beato Angelico.
He is still the religious mystic. It is told of him that he prayed each time before he commenced a painting; that when he depicted the trials of Christ he would be overcome by his tears, and be compelled to leave off working. He was renowned for his goodness and kindness of heart. He was one of the last Christians of the old school who were being fast displaced by converts to the pagan Christianity of gorgeous ritual and pomp.
Looking at his Flight into Egypt, we are struck with the swirling composition of the landscape. It imparts an emotional, subjective atmosphere to the painting. The whole canvas from the rigid unnatural little trees to the decorative grasses in the foreground is unrealistic, the product of a visionary mystic. The scene is not in nature but in the mind. It is truly primitive in feeling, aspiring to God, humble and naive. The faces of the Madonna and Child are perhaps too sweet and angelic, but otherwise there. is an honesty in the painting of the forms, of the animal and of the humans, equally as fine as Giotto's. There is less of the dramatic here than in Giotto's work, but greater emotional intensity, more the painting of the heart. Critics have called it sentimental, but it seems to us the consummation of Primitive art.