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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Giotto's Campanile

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Of all the beautiful things with which Giotto adorned his city, not one speaks so powerfully to the foreign visitor-the forestiere whom he and his fellows never took into account, though we occupy so large a space among the admirers of his genius nowadays-as the lovely Campanile which stands by the great Cathedral like the white royal lily beside the Mary of the Annunciation, slender and strong and everlasting in its delicate grace. It is not often that a man takes up a new trade when he is approaching sixty, or even goes into a new path out of his familiar routine. But Giotto seems to have turned without a moment's hesitation from his paints and panels to the less easily-wrought materials of the builder and sculptor, without either faltering from the great enterprise or doubting his own power to do it. His frescoes and altar-pieces and crucifixes, the work he had been so long accustomed to, and which he could execute pleasantly in his own workshop, or on the cool new walls of church or convent, with his trained school of younger artists round to aid him, were as different as possible from the elaborate calculations and measurements by which alone the lofty tower, straight and lightsome as a lily, could have sprung so high and stood so lightly against that Italian sky. No longer mere pencil or brush, but compasses and quaint mathematical tools, figures not of art by arithmetic, elaborate weighing of proportions and calculations of quantity and balance, must have changed the character of those preliminary studies in which every artist must engage before he begins *a great work. Like the poet or the romancist when he turns from the flowery ways of fiction ` and invention, where he is unincumbered by any restrictions save those of artistic keeping and personal will, to the grave and beaten path of history - the painter must have felt when he too turned from the freedom and poetry of art to this first scientific undertaking. The Cathedral was so far finished by this time, its front not scarred and bare as at present, but adorned with statues according to old Arnolfo's plan, who was dead more than thirty years before; but there was no belfry, no companion peal of peace and sweetness to balance the hoarse old vacca with its voice of iron. Giotto seems to have thrown himself into the work not only without reluctance but with enthusiasm. The foundation-stone of the building was laid in July of that year, with all the greatness of Florence looking on; and the painter entered upon his work at once, working out the most poetic effort of his life in marble and stone, among masons' chippings and the dust and blaze of the public street. At the same time he designed, though it does not seem sure whether he lived long enough to execute, a new facade for the Cathedral, replacing Arnolfo's old statues by something better, and raising over the doorway the delicate tabernacle work which we see in Pocetti's picture of St. Antonino's consecration as bishop of St. Mark's. It would be pleasant to believe that while the foundations of the Campanile were being laid and the ruder mason-work progressing, the painter began immediately upon the more congenial labour, and made the face of the Duomo fair with carvings, with soft shades of those toned marbles which fit so tenderly into each other, and elaborate canopies as delicate as foam; but of this there seems no certainty. Of the Campanile itself it is difficult to speak in ordinary words. The enrichments of the surface, which is covered by beautiful groups set in a graceful framework of marble, with scarcely a flat or unadorned spot from top to bottom, has been ever since the admiration of artists and of the world. But we confess, for our own part, that it is the structure itself that affords us that soft ecstasy of contemplation, sense of a perfection before which the mind stops short, silenced and filled with the completeness of beauty unbroken, which Art so seldom gives, though nature often attains it by the simplest means, through the exquisite perfection of a flower or a stretch of summer sky. Just as we have looked at a sunset, we look at Giotto's tower, poised far above in the blue air, in all the wonderful dawns and moonlights of Italy, swift darkness shadowing its white glory at the tinkle of the Ave Mary, and a golden glow of sunbeams accompanying the midday Angelus. Between the solemn antiquity of the old Baptistery and the historical gloom of the great Cathedral, it stands like the lily-if not, rather, like the great Angel himself hailing her who was blessed among women, and keeping up that lovely salutation, musical and sweet as its own beauty, for century after century, day after day.

In its first appeal to the stranger's eye there is something unpleasing; a mingling, as it seems to him, of over severity with over minuteness. But let him give it time, as he should to all other consummate art. I remember well how, when a boy, I used to despise that Campanile, and think it meanly smooth and finished. But I have since lived beside it many a day, and looked out upon it from my windows by sunlight and moonlight, and I shall not soon forget how profound and gloomy appeared to me the savageness of the Northern Gothic, when I afterwards stood, for the first time, beneath the front of Salisbury. The contrast is indeed strange, if it could be quickly felt, between the rising of those grey walls out of their quiet swarded space, like dark and barren rocks out of a green lake, with their rude, mouldering, rough-grained shafts, and triple lights, without tracery or other ornament than the martins' nests in the height of them, and that bright, smooth, sunny surface of glowing jasper, those spiral shafts and fairy traceries, so white, so faint, so crystalline, that their slight shapes are hardly traced in darkness on the pallor of the Eastern sky, that serene height of mountain alabaster, coloured like a morning cloud, and chased like a sea shell. And if this be, as I believe it, the model and mirror of perfect architecture, is there not something to be learned by looking back to the early life of him who raised it? I said that the Power of human mind had its growth in the Wilderness; much more must the love and the conception of that beauty, whose every line and hue we have seen to be, at the best, a faded image of God's daily work, and an arrested ray of some star of creation, be given chiefly in the places which He has gladdened by planting there the fir-tree and the pine. Not within the walls of Florence, but among the far away fields of her lilies, was the child trained who was to raise that head-stone of Beauty above the towers of watch and war. Remember all that he became; count the sacred thoughts with which he filled Italy; ask those who followed him what they learned at his feet; and when you have numbered his labours, and received their testimony, if it seem to you that God had verily poured out upon this His servant no common nor restrained portion of His Spirit, and that he was indeed a king among the children of men, remember also that the legend upon his crown was that of David's: - " I took thee from the sheepcote, and from following the sheep."



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