The Renaissance Passes From Italy
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Italy's Political and Military Weakness — Louis XI of France and His Claim to the Kingdom of Naples — Charles VIII and His Invasion — Italy is Revealed to the Nations of the North — Some Conditions in Europe at the Opening of the Sixteenth Century — Francis I — He Invites Italian Artists to France — French Contacts with Italy — Spain and France Compared — French Sculpture and Painting — The Development of Renaissance Architecture in France — Art in France from Francis I to Louis XVI and the Revolution — Louis XIV and the Establishment of the Academy of Architecture and the School of Fine Arts in Rome — Official Recognition and Regulation of Art — Louis XV and the Deluge.
THE Renaissance in Italy had completed the appointed triad—the rapture of its youth, the splendor of its virile maturity, the weakness and the extravagant affectations of its decadent old age. The political impotence of the country, split up as it was into the innumerable petty principalities and dukedoms which were the fruit of personal ambition and self-aggrandizement, always centrifugal in their action and destructive of national unity; the growing wealth of the middle or burgher class in which the old sturdy sense of independence of the days of the Italian Republics was replaced by a desire for ease and personal safety: these led to the employment of mercenary soldiers to fight the battles of the towns. No longer did the citizen seize pike or halberd and run to the ramparts to defend his city to the death under the gonfalon of his quarter. Paid captains commanding bands of hired ruffians recruited from France, Spain, England, Switzerland, and Germany, sold their services to the highest bidder, and conducted the wars of the cities on a leisurely plan which shed but little blood and gave ample opportunity for treacherous and profitable accommodation between opposing leaders.
Thus weakened, Italy became the cockpit of Europe and the prey of the nations of the North. It was Louis XI of France who prepared her actual fall; he had laid the explosive train—a claim to the succession of the Kingdom of Naples, which included all of Southern Italy and the Two Sicilies. Ferdinand V of Spain disputed this claim and advanced his own. When Louis died his son succeeded him as Charles VIII, a defective boy of thirteen who took over the government from his able sister, who had acted as Regent, in his twenty-second year, a year notable in the history of the world ; the discovery of America and the expulsion of the Moors from Spanish soil in 1492 made Spain rich and powerful and the accession of the incompetent Charles, his feeble brain inflamed with dreams of conquest—these were the immediate events that led to the exploitation of Italy and the spread of her arts and culture to the rest of Europe.
Charles invaded Italy with horse and foot in 1494, reached Naples with no effective opposition, and was forced to re-treat to France by the menace of a league that had been formed behind him by Venice as he marched south. With him across the frontier he took sundry Italian artists and artisans of minor rank. The significance of this invasion for the student of art lies in the revelation of the beauty and riches of Italy to the "barbarians," as the French were then called by the cultivated Italians. Once more, after a thou-sand years, Italy was to ravish the senses and arouse the cupidity of the Northrons; and until the middle of the sixteenth century the Italian soil was to tremble under the shock of foreign battalions fiercely striving for her possession; for the soldiery of Spain and France were no holiday fighters and terrified the Italians grown soft in luxury and the leisurely and bloodless moves of mimic warfare.
We may here conveniently and briefly survey some of the conditions in northern Europe in this period of political and artistic transition. When Charles cracked his poor head against the lintel of a low door at Amboise and died, he was succeeded by Louis XII and he in turn by Francis I in 1515. In 1519 Charles I of Spain fell heir to the vast dominions of the Holy Roman Empire and became the Emperor Charles V, ruler over all of modern Germany and Austria, the Nether-lands, Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and Southern Italy, and all of North and South America west of Brazil. In 1509 Henry VIII became King of England at eighteen. These three were all young kings of about the same age and similar vanity, and the prospects for peace in Europe were small, all being ambitious, Francis careless and fiery, Henry burly and bluff but crafty, Charles a serious religious bigot, endowed with a dull persistence, a stubborn will, and an undershot jaw. Their realms were fairly well consolidated by now and their power practically autocratic. Disunited Italy could not effectively oppose any one of these northern autocrats, although England's part in Italy's fate is negligible except as an indirect force; Henry merely tried to recover some of the provinces of France that had been appanages of the English crown while Francis was engaged in his long and bitter struggle with Charles over the Neapolitan claim.
This struggle took Francis into Italy repeatedly, his tastes were such as to give him some appreciation of Italian art, and he invited numbers of artists to visit France and beautify the new buildings he was constructing or projecting. Lionardo da Vinci, Benvenuto Cellini, Primaticcio, Andrea del Sarto, and Niccolo dell' Abbate, among others, accepted. As early as the middle of the fifteenth century French artists had visited Italy and brought back sketches and impressions; but such contacts under monarchical rule were apt to be sterile; it required the seal of authority of the sovereign and his active interest to give a real impetus to a new form of art.
In France the geographical barriers that fostered the isolation of the Italian cities and the consequent individuality of their arts are lacking; save for the extreme southeastern and southwestern provinces where the spurs of the Alps and the Pyrenees thrust forward, France is one great undulating and gently diversified expanse, so that in all periods her arts have a strong general character that pervades and unites them.
In Spain also there are few physical barriers to national stylization; to all intents and purposes a great tableland whose flanks slope to the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores, here the conformation of the land and the temperature of the seas that beat upon those shores produce wide extremes of climate, and with the long Moorish occupation as a social force modified the arts in detail.
The tendency in France was all toward centralization of power in the hands of the King; the same is true in Spain from the time when Ferdinand and. Isabella married and united the provinces of Aragon and Castile; and the whole drift in Europe was toward the monarchy that seemed to promise stability, order, peace, and prosperity, after the chaotic conditions of Feudalism and its snatching and marauding barons.
French and Spanish art came in close contact and in mass contact with the art of Italy in its maturity; they did not seek the original sources which were the founts of Italy's inspiration but drank from the reservoir she had filled through the conduits of her genius. Had the full flood of the classic revival swept France and Spain at the same time as it broke over Italy, the historian and the critic would have a different story to record. It would be intensely interesting to see what each, stirred by the identical impulse, would have made of it, given their racial origins and social traditions. As it was, France had been feudal, a system which was now dying out. Spain had been occupied for centuries by the oriental Moor. Up to the time of Francis I French art was Medival, Gothic; the increasing internal security of the times led to a change in the character of the French chateau and manor-house, and the forbidding Medieval fortress was to gradually shed its military aspect and its defensive features and become the country house of the gentleman of France. Spain has not had a truly indigenous art, and in her ecclesiastical architecture borrowed freely from France, dipping her borrowed plumes in a tincture of her own. But the strongest single influence in Spanish architecture is that of the Moor and his social customs, at which we have al-ready glanced; it spread from the bare outer walls of his dwellings and their rich interiors and arcaded patios, the tiled and colored domes and minarets of his mosques, to the houses and churches of the Spaniard. So we may find in the same Spanish building, incorporated in the design, not added thereto, Moorish, Gothic, and Renaissance elements—the broad wall spaces of the Moorish occupation, the label mouldings that are relics of the Gothic phase, and the ornamental motifs of the Italian Renaissance. Spanish architecture had a swift decadence in its outer forms in the late Renaissance period; when her artists, always prone to over-emphasis, came under the influence of the Rococo architecture that infested the rest of Europe they presently evolved the Churrigueresque style which for mad and turgid efflorescence cannot be matched in the world.
In France architecture responded first to the call of the Renaissance. In sculpture there existed a strong school of artisans, image-makers rather than sculptors, with a high degree of technical and manual skill—an excellent foundation for the great modern school that was to develop after passing through the insipidities and posturings of the school of Bernini and, much later, under the influence of the frozen inanities of Canova. But in the Early Renaissance in France sculpture occupies a place distinctly dependent upon architecture; it had not yet been submitted to the broader vision, the superior imagination, of the men who were to lift it from the level of a mere craft to that of an art.
Painting had drawn its inspiration from the Netherlands; in fact there were many itinerant Flemish and Dutch painters in France, whose gallicized names conceal their foreign origin; there was no such thing as a really native primitive school as there had been in Italy, so strongly is all early French painting permeated by this foreign influence. That great art of stained and painted glass which is one of the glories of French Gothic did not develop insensibly into a native school of color as we might suppose, due perhaps to the absence of adequate wall surfaces in the churches, and the fortress-like character of the dwellings, whose bare and rough stone walls, unplastered, were concealed by tapestries. Instead of pure painting as mural decoration there was a great deal of painted sculpture which seemed to meet the taste of the time and the conditions of architectural design.
We may therefore most profitably address ourselves to a consideration of the development of Renaissance architecture in France. As in all transitional periods it is in minor details, of ornamentation, of the work around windows and doors, the forms of chimneys, the profiles of mouldings, that we first observe the advent of the new style. The passing of Feudalism, the waning power of the great nobles, their new status as the defenders and bulwarks of the kingdom and the King, were exhibited in architecture by such changes as a great increase in the size of windows, replacing the arrow slits and ports for musketry fire of the fortalice every noble had been forced to maintain and defend. Now measurably safe from the encroachments of neighbors, the moat was filled and became a grassy girdle, the drawbridge and portcullis disappeared, the huge circular towers from which a cross-fire could rake walls and moat dwindled to small oriels or angle turrets and finally vanished.
In Italy and Spain the comparative freedom from snow, and the long rainless months of summer, made roofs of steep pitch unnecessary. As the traveller comes up through France from the Mediterranean to the north it is interesting to observe how the flat Italianate roofs give way insensibly to the steep pitches which are distinctive of architecture truly French; and as we leave Provence rounded tiles are replaced by flat ones, and these at last by slate or thin plates of stone.
The structures which the Italians of the Early Renaissance began to embroider with arabesques derived from classical sources were essentially Italian, Roman, Classic, in principle. But the French buildings which were modified by the Renaissance artists imported by Charles and Francis were of a totally different nature, plan, and construction; they were Gothic, Mediaeval; therefore the classic details which are hardly noticeable in the transitional period in Italy and seem quite at home and in the natural order of things, are very obvious, and very obviously alien to the character of the structure they decorate, in France. This lack of unity between the structure and its decoration produces many quaint and interesting results. The inveterate picturesqueness of the Gothic was slow to yield to the balanced masses and regular spacings of the Classic. And in this combination, of picturesque and clustered masses, of irregular disposition of windows and wall spaces, of high roofs, dormers and chimneys, of all the fundamental structure that was French, with the columns, cornices, and ornamental details of Italy, lay the rudiments of a style that, when the elements were thoroughly interfused, would be as individual as that of Italy. In the reigns of Francis I, of Henri II, III, IV, and Louis XIII, the process of assimilation of Renaissance principles of design continued. The architecture of Italy became completely gallicized by the time of Louis XIV. Modifying details and externals at first, the classic influence penetrated to the structure itself and the very ossature of French architecture became transformed. The lucid and logical French intellect, the intellect of a race of great builders, applied its cool science to the study of Roman and Greek remains as Brunelleschi and Bramante had done before them and evolved from them the modern science of plan, of functional fitness, which the emotional nature of the Italians with their preoccupation with externals, that lack of an innate constructive faculty so remarkable in the heirs of the great structural tradition of the Romans, had failed to develop.
Out of the old Latin alphabet of architecture, the artists of France organized a new language, eloquent, flexible, dignified or playful at will, soundly based upon scientific principles rather than caprice, and containing therefore the principle of growth, of infinite adaptation. Once more art and science met in the same structure to move forward hand in hand to the creation of new beauty in the satisfaction of the demands of modern life. And the Renaissance, revivified, purged of the false rhetoric and excited, over-dramatic gestures of the Italian decadence became the sane expression of civilization.
Let us briefly review some of the architecture that was executed in France from Francis I to Louis XVI.
Francis was a very restless person, constantly moving about from place to place in his realm attended by an immense retinue of splendidly dressed and equipped courtiers with their servants and attendants. Where shelter was not sufficient for this throng of two thousand and upward with horses and dogs, they had to dwell in tents. Hence the enormous hunting-lodges, palatial in extent and character, which Francis built here and there, at Chambord, at Saint Germain, at Fontainebleau. Besides these he added a wing to the royal chateau at Blois in that silvery valley of the Loire of which he was so fond, and began the modern Louvre in Paris upon the site of an old rendezvous for wolf-hunters called the Louverie.
The names of three architects are identified with the work of this reign: Pierre Lescot, who was the first architect of the new Louvre and served several kings as such; Jean Bullant; and Philibert Delorme who worked at Fontainebleau and the Tuileries in Paris. Among the sculptors who had emerged from the guilds of artisans we may mention Michel Colombe, Germain Pilon, and, the best of his time, Jean Goujon. These men were working side by side with the Italians imported by Francis, not, we may imagine, without heartburnings on the part of the native artists who saw the Renaissance invade France. The Clouets, Flemish artists, were painting the portraits of Francis and his court, while Primaticcio was decorating Fontainebleau, and Lionardo, Cellini, and Andrea del Sarto were also working for the King; but French painters of ability had not yet appeared.
The marriage of Henri II with Catherine de' Medici, a daughter of that house which gave two queens to France and two Popes to the Church, reinforced the Italian vogue. Pervaded by Italians, the French court inclined more and more strongly toward Italian manners, Italian dress, Italian art. Catherine de' Medici was the dominating intellect in the reigns of her three sons, who followed their father as Francis II, Charles IX, the hero of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew, and the degenerate Henri III.
When Henri III was stabbed the House of Valois came to an end, and King Henry of Navarre became King of France as Henry IV, the first of the Bourbon dynasty, an able and virile man who governed France well until the dagger of Ravaillac put an end to his gallant life. He was a great builder, and assembled large numbers of artists and artisans of all kinds in the Louvre. His widow, Marie de' Medici, had been brought up in the Palazzo Pitti in Florence, into which her family had moved when Tuscany was made a duchy; when their son Louis XIII married in 1615, Marie bought the place of the Duc de Piney-Luxembourg on the left bank of the Seine and employed Salomon Debrosse to build her the Palais du Luxembourg of today; the design is obviously based upon that of the garden front of the Pitti by Ammanati—an instance of direct transplantation of style and motif from one country to another.
The Italian influence at the court of France diminished after the marriage of Louis XIII with Anne of Austria, and when Richelieu came to power France became French again. Armand du Plessis, Cardinal Duc de Richelieu, the minister of Louis and the real ruler of France, was a wise and convinced patron of arts and letters; he established the royal printing-press, founded the French Academy in 1635, and embellished the realm with many important and beautiful monuments, built and decorated in a style that had become thoroughly sophisticated and thoroughly French. And he established the power of the Crown upon a foundation that lasted upward of one hundred and fifty years.
Louis XIII was succeeded by his son Louis XIV, le Grand, the Sun King, who reigned in glory for no less than seventy-two years; an able, vain, and pompous little king. He ruled with vigor and prosecuted his wars and administered his internal affairs with equal success; he persecuted the Protestants with similar vigor, many of them artisans of a high type, who, forced to emigrate, carried their arts to England and America. In Louis le Grand the power and majesty of the French monarchy culminated in autocracy. He encouraged, established, or re-established all the arts and manufactures that minister to magnificence and luxury. The inherited fiscal policy of Richelieu, relieving the upper classes of taxation at the expense of the lower, made vast sums available for the erection of beautiful buildings filled with tapestries, carpets, carved and gilded furniture, mirrors, porcelains, bronzes, through which moved the courtiers of the King, clad in silks and laces, satins and velvets—an artificial and supercivilized society.
Louis XIV enlarged Versailles from the status of the hunting-lodge that had been a favorite resort of his father to that of the seat of government and the residence of the King and all his court. He employed the French architects Louis Le Vau and J. Hardouin-Mansart, and summoned Bernini up from Rome to consult upon the project. Le Notre laid out the superb park and gardens upon the lines of the great plaisances of Italy, and Le Brun, the court painter, the King's director of all things artistic, the autocrat in the realm of art, supervised and dictated the work of a throng of painters and sculptors. Louis also added a wing to the Louvre from a design by Claude Perrault, paved the streets of Paris, and built monuments, squares, and arches to celebrate his grandeur.
In his reign, in 1671, the Academy of Architecture and the School of Fine Arts in Rome were founded—potent factors in the development of French art, at once pernicious and beneficial in their results; beneficial in their recognition of art as a force in the state and society, as contributing to the glory of a country and a nation, in providing for instruction and in rewarding merit ; and pernicious in the stifling effect of official regulation, and the formulation of arbitrary standards of taste or manner to which art must conform. The history of art in France since Richelieu and Louis XIV is to be read in the sustained conflict between academic officialdom and its beneficiaries, and the original and progressive architects, painters, and sculptors of France. The works of Palladio, Vignola, Scamozzi, Serlio, and of old Vitruvius, authors of architectural cook-books, were undoubtedly in the hands of French architects, and contributed toward the formulistic tendencies of the whole age.
Religiously, France was as worldly as the monarch and his court. But after a sufficiently lively life, when the grey years were closing in about the old King, he came under the sway of the Widow Scarron, whom he made his morganatic wife as Madame de Maintenon, and became so devoutly religious, so suppressed the gaieties of which he had been the leading spirit, that when he died there was a terrific reaction, the former royal governess was bundled off, and the reign of his great-grandchild Louis XV has become a synonym for gay and cynical corruption. The kingdom was fast slipping into bankruptcy. The courtesans whom the Regent and the King maintained as mistresses dominated the scene; and this corruption and feminist domination of manners and taste was reflected in the capricious design of the period, frivolous and perverted as the empty souls that gave it febrile birth.
The reigns of Louis XIV and Louis XV cover a period of one hundred and thirty-one years. They and Richelieu had sown the wind that became the whirlwind to sweep Louis XVI and his Queen and monarchy itself into limbo. The growth of privilege, the heartless and selfish cynicism of the upper classes, the exploitation of the poor, had their just and inevitable sequel in the French Revolution.