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Art Of The Vatican

( Originally Published 1913 )

Across the Tiber and near the site where once the circus of Nero claimed its Christian martyrs, stands St. Peter's, and by its side, almost dwarfing the great cathedral, is the Vatican the massive, irregular palace of the popes. It represents, as it stands today, the contributions of many centuries and the designs of many minds. No unified plan is exemplified; indeed, the Vatican comprises two separate palaces joined merely by long galleries. Its gardens, courts, grounds and buildings cover an area equalling that of many a city boasting a population of 130,000 people. Incredible stories are told of the vast number of rooms contained within this curious structure but that seven thousand rooms, two hundred stairways and twenty courts are included is generally accepted as authentic.

Volumes might be written about the sights this palace has witnessed. For centuries a court rivaling in splendor those of European and Eastern countries was here maintained; at other times, Rome being at the mercy of invaders, the palace was almost reduced to ruins. The popes made the Lateran Palace their chief abode, taking refuge in the Vatican in times of danger, since it was in part a fortress. Prom the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries Rome passed through a most trying period. Its population was once reduced to less than five hundred souls, and it was said that Rome was more like a den of thieves than an abode for civilized beings. Entire streets were laid waste and cattle grazed about the ruins. The popes sought safety in France and upon the return of the pontiff to the ancient capital, the Vatican was partly restored and a covered way made to the castle of St. Angelo to insure further safety.

The accession of Martin V. to the papal throne marks the beginning of the Renaissance in Rome. Nicholas V. founded the Vatican library, but to a great extent the art today in this palace is due to the ceaseless efforts of Sixtus IV., who stood in the relation to Rome that Lorenzo de Medici did to Florence, and his nephew, Julius IT. It was the latter who had the former summer palace, the Belvedere, joined to the Vatican; he it was who brought Raphael to Rome to beautify a suite of rooms and who would brook no refusal on the part of Angelo of the task assigned-the adornment of the Sistine Chapel.

Sixtus IV. became pope in 1471. He founded the Sistine Chapel, which immortalizes his name, and began its decoration. A rectangular room, perhaps fifty feet wide and one hundred fifty feet long, its wonderful paintings have made it widely celebrated. Until the completion of St. Peter's it was the most important church in Rome and the center of a religious system world-wide in its activities. It is not surprising, therefore, in an age when the best work of the artist was demanded for places of worship that this chapel should have become a veritable gem of exceptional beauty.

In order to gain some conception of this famous chapel it is necessary to keep in mind its architectural plan, the better to understand the conditions confronting those summoned thither to adorn it. A room of the dimensions above given, having six windows on either side and two at the entrance, with the altar end enclosed, wholly unattractive and barnlike in its bareness and regularity confronted Botticelli, who was summoned to supervise the beautifying of the walls, and the six frescoes on either side; two at the entrance and three across the altar were executed under his direction. He and his assistants also painted the portraits of twenty-six popes above these frescoes. The three altar frescoes were later washed out to make room for Angelo's Last Judgment; the two at the entrance have suffered from the ravages of time. The twelve on the side walls are in a fair state of preservation. Six on the right of the altar represent scenes in the life of ChristThe Baptism, Temptation, Calling of the Apostles, Sermon on the Mount, Charge to Peter, and The Last Supper. Those on the wall to the left of the altar have to do with the leadership of Moses-The Exodus, Crossing the Red Sea, After the Passage, Commandments Given front the Mount, Punishment o f Palse Prophets and Commands Given to Joshua.

The second from the altar on either side are ascribed to Botticelli, but they do not show him at his best. Rosselli painted three, Ghirlandajo one, Perugino one and Pinturicchio three. All these artists were called to Rome by Sixtus IV. to undertake this commission. Botticelli's style of painting has already been discussed. Perugino is remembered as a teacher of Raphael, and like certain other teachers of the Renaissance he had the humiliating experience of seeing his pupil far surpass him. Perugino had the faculty of showing distance and space in his pictures; each figure has plenty of room; there is no crowding, but rather a sense of spaciousness that is very gratifying. The others had but mediocre ability.

Such was the chapel when Michael Angelo reluctantly undertook the decoration of its ceiling merely a blue field sprinkled with golden stars. The stern soldier-Pope Julius -had suggested the prophets as an appropriate subject for the roof's decoration, but he wisely left the master to his own devices. Angelo ordered the room closed at once and even the pope was refused admittance.

None but a sculptor could have created the architectural impressions conveyed in this ceiling; the spectator of today forgets that it is all the work of a brush, so real are the illusive dividing pillars. The ceiling decoration reaches down below the tops of the windows and has one general theme: the preparation of the world for the coming of Christ. Nine scenes from the Genesis cycle fill the main portion of the ceiling; beginning from the altar they represent the Creation of Light, Creation of the Sun and Moon, Hovering over the Waters, Creation of Man, Creation of Eve, Temptation and Expulsion from the Garden, the Sacrifice of Noah, the Deluge and Noah's Degeneracy. In the spaces between the arches of the windows and the central ceiling frescoes, Angelo painted prophets and sibyls-those who had foretold the coming of one. Five such spaces occurring on either side and one at each end gave opportunity to choose twelve figures. Jonah was painted above the altar; on the right side, Jeremiah, the Persian Sibyl, Ezekiel, the Erythraean Sibyl, and Joel. Zacharias was placed above the entrance and continuing around the room we find the Delphic Sibyl, Isaiah, the Curaean Sibyl, Daniel, the Libyan Sibyl. In the arches above the windows was shown the genealogy of Christ, starting with the sons of Noah. These being the principal figures, there are beside two hundred smaller ones-youth, children and fanciful creatures, such as those adorning the capitals of the pillars. No floral or folial designs were employed to fill the expanse; every portion is alive with figures, human and divine.

Had Michael Angelo accomplished nothing else the sublime conception of this Chapel ceiling would place him foremost among the gifted of the Italian Renaissance. Be yond all else in modern art, there is here a masterful sweep, a loftiness of theme, a dignity of execution that transcends the work and makes its creator worthy to be compared with the masters of ancient Greece.

Thirty years later, the great painter being then nearly sixty years of age, Clement VII. commissioned him to make the altar end of the Chapel worthy of the rest of the interior. It was shown to the people on Christmas Day in 1541, having occupied the artist for eight or nine years.

The figure of Jonah reaches down into this front wall. At his feet on either side, groups of angels are shown with instruments of the Passion. The heavy cross may easily be dis cerned on the left in the illustration reproducing this room.* Beneath the figure of Christ, majestic angels blow trumpets to awaken the dead who respond to the call and come forth, still in the shrouds of the grave. All go to be judged; the wicked are condemned to eternal woe; the blessed to eternal bliss. In the lowest realms the well-known figure of Charon, borrowed from antiquity, waits for the disembarking of his load that he may return for other victims. All the figures were originally nude; when the pope criticized this, Angelo is said to have replied to the one who told him: "Tell the pope that he must employ himself a little less in correcting my pictures, which is very easy, and employ himself a little more in reforming men, which is very difficult." Nevertheless, prudish sentiment resulted later in many of the figures being draped by one of the artist's pupils.

"This immense and unique picture, in which the human figure is represented in all possible attitudes, where every sentiment, every passion, every reflection of thought, and every aspiration of the soul are rendered with inimitable perfection, has never been equalled and never will be equalled in the domain of Art.

"This time the genius of Michael Angelo simply attacked the infinite. The subject of this vast composition, the manner in which it is conceived and executed, the admirable variety and the learned disposition of the groups, the inconceivable boldness and firmness of the outlines, the contrast of light and shade, the difficulties, I might almost say the impossible vanquished, as if it were all mere play, and with a happiness that savours of prodigy, the unity of the whole and the perfection of the details, make The Last Judgment the most complete and the greatest picture in existence. It is broad and magnificent in effect, and yet each part of this prodigious painting gains infinitely when seen and studied quite near; and we do not know of any easel-picture worked upon with such patience and finished with such devotion... With nothing but a single episode in a restricted space, and solely by the expression of the human body, the artist has succeeded in striking you with astonishment and terror, and in making you really a spectator of the supreme catastrophe.

"It is impossible to form an idea of the incredible science displayed by Michael Angelo in the varied contortions of the damned, heaped one upon the other in the fatal bark. All the violent contractions, all the visible tortures, all the frightful shrinkings that suffering, despair, and rage can produce upon human muscles are rendered in this group with a realism that would make the most callous shudder. To the left of this bark you see the gaping mouth of a cavern; this is the entrance to Purgatory, where several demons are in despair because they have no more souls to torment."

Beneath the frescoes of Botticelli and his assistants tapestries of Raphael once hung. Today scenes painted to represent tapestries are usually to be seen in their place, although on special feast days the surviving originals are sometimes brought from where they usually hang in one of the long galleries that connect the Vatican and Belvedere palaces. There were ten of them and they reproduced scenes in the Acts of the Apostles, or more definitely, happenings in the lives of Peter and Paul. Raphael made the cartoons or drawings after which these picture tapestries were woven. Seven of these cartoons are today in the South Kensington Museum; they are particularly valued as drawings although color was used to indicate the appearance each should have when finished. He began them in 1514 and finished them in 1516. As quickly as one was ready it was sent at once to the weavers in Flanders who completed the series in three or four years. Seven were in their places in the Chapel in 1519, and all the following year.

The first in this series had for its subject the Miraculous Draught of Fishes; second, Charge to St. Peter; Martyrdom of Stephen; Healing of the Lame; Death of Ananias ; Con version of St. Paul; Punishment of Elymas ; Paul and Barnabas at Lystra ; Preaching at Athens; Paul in Prison. Such being the particular theme, the borders were wonderful as well. Instead of always using floral designs to beautify these, Raphael sometimes chose what is called a "running story." The coat of arms of the Medici adorns the top of one, while beneath the pope is shown riding with his suite. The borders, corresponding to the frames of pictures, sometimes abound with flowers, fruit, animals, woven in intricate patterns.

These tapestries had a troubled history. After the death of Leo X. they were pawned to raise 5000 ducats; in 1545 the Vatican succeeded in buying them back again. In 1798, the French being in control, they were again sold and exhibited in Paris among other places. In 1808 Pius VII repurchased the seven that survived. One was cut in two-the better to sell; another was partially destroyed to extract the threads of gold, which were gold in truth. Today, when the ravages of time and the destruction of man have done their worst, something remains of the former beauty, yet only the imagination can aid the spectator to fancy what may have been the impression these celebrated tapestries gave those who witnessed them in their freshness and first beauty.

The Sistine Chapel is but one of many treasure houses of art in the Vatican. Although unlimited time and space might be devoted to an exhaustive study of its rare paintings, some mention should be made of Raphael's wonderful work in the Stanze and Loggie. Raphael was one of several painters summoned to Rome to decorate the suite of rooms known now by his name. However, when his surpassing skill was fairly understood, he was put in charge of the entire decoration, and while much of it was done by his pupils, it all bears the stamp of his genius since he probably supplied the designs and was fortunate in having pupils so imbued with his spirit that they were able to carry out his conceptions as he wished.

The Stanze of Raphael comprises four rooms known generally by the name of the most conspicuous picture: Stanza della Segnatura; Stanza d'Eliodoro; Stanza dell'Incendio; Stanza della Constantino. The first is the most interesting to all lovers of Raphael because this was his first work when he came fresh from Florence where his first painting had been done. Again, less pressure was then brought to bear upon Raphael to involve him in more undertakings than he could well manage and less of the execution had to be entrusted to others. Indeed, his spirit pervades this room as the spirit of Michael Angelo pervades the Sistine Chapel.

Each of these rooms presented four bare walls-those on the side expansive, those at either end broken by windows. On the larger spaces of the first room Raphael painted, on one side, the School of Athens-on the other, the Disputa, or Discussion. At one end Parnassus, at the other, jurisprudence. Above each painting is a figure personifying the picture beneath; above The Disputa, Theology; Above Parnassus, Poetry; Philosophy typified the School of Athens and Justice, Jurisprudence. It is evident that even Raphael found himself at first nonplussed by the extent of space to be filled, but no other artist ever met this problem more adequately. None other was so gifted as he with the faculty of gaining broader conceptions as to how to meet needs as they presented themselves to him. His genius was inborn, something beyond the possibility of explanation.

The second room was named from its greatest picture: Heliodorus Driven from the Temple; the third, from the Incendio de Borgo-a fire that visited Rome in the seventh cen tury where, legend related, Leo IV. extinguished the flames by making the sign of the cross.

The Hall of Constantine had slight attention from the master. Indeed, it has been seriously questioned whether or not he gave it any consideration whatever.

The Loggie of Raphael is deservedly loved. This is a gallery-once an open corridor-overlooking the Court of St. Damascus; it has sometimes been called "Raphael's Bible" because of the succession of biblical scenes represented. Pillars and pilasters divide this loggie into thirteen recesses or compartments-smaller than rooms by nature of the dimensions of a corridor. Each of these was roofed with a domed cupola, providing spaces for four scenes of small proportions. The subjects selected for these various compartments were: Creation, Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, another of Moses' later years, Joshua, David, Solomon, Christ. While necessarily small, each scene is remarkably distinct. However, these fifty-two scenes are but a portion of the decoration. "Bordering them, filling the angles and curves of the dome, in the walling between the pilasters, on the faces of pillar and pilaster, around the entrances, on the embrasures of the windows, everywhere, leaving not an uncovered inch, are stucco-work and monochromes imitating reliefs, grotesques, wreaths of fruit and flowers, birds, children, landscapes, fishes, musical instruments, beasts, all kinds of conventionalized animals, reptiles, fanciful arabesques, and scrolls-all painted in the brightest and gayest of colours. So bright that even today, in spite of weather and time, and in spite of the fact that flakes of the plaster are continually sifting downwith an ultimate and sure ruin as consequence-even today the gay freshness of the tones is a marvel and delight. The designs themselves, in their spontaneous fertility of invention, their fantastical originality, their exuberance of colour, and a very abandon of richness and floridity, yet are so combined and made into such a perfect ensemble that there is not a hint of useless or overdone exaggeration in part or whole. To attempt any adequate description of this ornamentation would require volumes."

Passing by the Borgia Apartments, the Chapel of Nicholas V, and Vatican Picture Gallery, it remains to speak of the Sculpture Galleries in this remarkable palace. These collec tions are probably the finest and most numerous in the world. Until recent excavations in Greece, it had been supposed that many of the statues in the Vatican were originals; this impression has been largely swept away by recent discoveries but in many cases the original is now known to no longer exist and a copy is thereby rendered the more valuable. Again, only the finest statues of antiquity would have been regarded as worthy of repeated copy and this fact in itself throws light upon the masterpieces of the past.

Most beautiful of all the Vatican statues is the Apollo Belvedere, so-called because brought early to the Belvedere Palace. Never has the sense of motion been so marvelously trans mitted to marble as in this figure of Greek divinity. The Laocoon is also here. It will be remembered that Laocoon was a priest of Apollo who blasphemed against the god. As he and his sons were about to offer a sacrifice to Neptune, two huge serpents suddenly appeared, crushing them in fearful agony. A Mercury, thought to be a copy of Praxiteles' far-famed statue, A Crouching Venus and Silenus with the Infant Hercules are among the most famous of the marbles. One room is given over to busts, those of Demosthenes, Augustus and Meander being especially noteworthy. The Nile group is in the Vatican and one unusual room devoted to animals of every variety, collected from many sources, done in bronze and various kinds of stone, has its own peculiar interest.

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