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Renaissance Ceilings

( Originally Published 1920 )

OBSCURED though it had long been by the conflicting Gothic and Byzantine influences, still traditions of classic architecture lingered in Central and Southern Italy. When, therefore, with the close of the fourteenth century there came about a revival in learning, men turned eagerly to the Greek and Latin authors ; they also showed an enthusiastic interest in such monuments of the Augustan age as time had left them. So in Italy the Renaissance in literature was coeval with a revived appreciation of Greco-Roman art. Outside of the peninsula, it was but natural that the twin phases of this great movement should have advanced at a very different rate. Each fresh discovery of an author was quickly heralded abroad, by means of letters and copies, for there was a liberal exchange of treasures and criticisms between literati of all nations. Such a rapid diffusion of knowledge of classic architecture and decoration was not such an easy matter. To understand an author required merely the exercise of an intellectual effort, but in order to appreciate fragments of an almost lost body of art, actual inspection was necessary. So while in Italy the close scrutiny and measurement of Roman temples and baths, the too eager collection of statuary, pottery, mosaics and other fragments prompted definite study of old writers dealing with such subjects, and quickened a desire to imitate those wonders of a past age, foreigners had to wait and see. Hence the progress of Renaissance in art was slow, for interchange by travel was then very slow, even on the Continent. As for us, who were scarcely in touch with Italy until some three hundred years later, Renaissance architecture and decoration came to our shores only after a long delay and by devious ways. Indeed, the inspiration came to us in a succession of waves at irregular intervals and of unequal force, often curiously at variance with the actual condition of affairs at the centre of the movement.

In Italy, at the end of the fourteenth century, all was propitious for a great change. Puissant prelates, emulous courts and no less magnificent princes of commerce had long patronised art in no niggardly spirit. This revival of classic learning found artists and patrons alike adequately equipped for a task both difficult and alluring. That keen sense of proportion which marked the best work of the Greek and Roman master-builders was adopted with such modifications as the requirements of the day suggested. On the rules appertaining to the five orders, as deduced from ancient writers and existing edifices, a neo-classicism was erected, which, in the hands of the early ardent masters, produced great things, though destined to degenerate into fetishism. For even at its best, the Renaissance in architecture was an artificial thing, and therefore, carried within itself the seeds of early decay. What Ruskin said was cruel truth, neo-classicism conducted men's inventive and constructive faculties from the Grand Canal to Gower Street, and those who remember Gower Street a decade or so ago, will realise how deadly the criticism. At its' best the Renaissance taught thoroughness, a love of bold lines treated with constraint, and made gay with an abundance of decoration growing out of the parent idea and forming an organic whole with the building.

Raphael and his compeers found the Roman buildings lavishly decorated with a wonderful array of ornaments painted, carve, moulded and incrusted; an orna mentation founded either upon pure geometry or on a curious blend of conventionalised natural forms, naturalistic representations, and the weird children of a cosmopolitan mythology. All of this was very rich, much of it decidedly graceful, and the whole satisfying to those who looked upon the surface treatment as an essential part of right designing and construction. They dipped deeply into this source of inspiration, at times copying boldly, but, generally speaking, spurred on to inventions of their own. We see this work in its most luxuriant form in the decoration of the loggia at the Vatican, carried out or inspired by Raphael, and in what remains to us of the grandeur that once clothed the Villa Madama.

The loggias are a series of galleries, once open but now enclosed with glass, surrounding the Cortile di San Damaso. The whole surface of the inner walls, the pillars overlooking the court, and the lofty series of vaults between each couple of columns, are covered with one mass of decoration, forming a framework to the ceiling panels, painted by Raphael and his pupils, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments. Much of the decoration consists of what is known as arabesques, that quaint mixture of subjects mentioned above, united by series of flowing scrolls, mostly bearing buds and scanty leaf forms. The so-called Vitruvian scroll, consisting of a florid spiral scroll, now curling inward to form an ever-narrowing circle, now shooting upwards en vrilles, like the spirally twisted tendrils of a vine, were introduced ; and, as with their prototypes, these often imprison animal or human forms or heads, which sometimes actually unite with the semi-vegetable scrolls. Apart from these grotesques there is an endless wealth of flowers and fruits and vegetables, birds, beasts, and fishes, and human figures singly or grouped. One of the vaults presents that favourite subject for artists of that sunny clime—a vine-covered trellis work. The diamond-shaped framework is just visible under a toad of vine leaves and grapes, opening up overhead into great gaps, through which, as it were, we see the vivid scriptural pictures. It is noticeable, however, that in most cases, as the ceiling itself is approached, the decoration be-comes closely symbolical, figures and ornamentation having a direct bearing on the pictures filling the series of four panels. This elaborate decoration is carried out in slightly raised stucco, carefully painted. It is due to Giovanni da Udine who worked under the guidance of Raphael ; but the second middle loggia is by the great master himself. Here, as in practically all the work of the Cinquecento pure colours are used, with a view to produce a light pleasing effect.

At the Villa Madama, which was also planned and embellished under the direction of Raphael, the same lavishness was shown, not an inch of the inner walls being left uncovered either by sculpture, painting, or the painted raised stucco arabesques.

A remarkable peculiarity of this Renaissance decorative work in its hey-day is that the very sense of proportion, which the architect made his ruling law, was curiously neglected. In the ancient decoration as found in the so-called baths of Titus, the Domus Aurea, and later on in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, in spite of fantastic forms, every part was considered in relation to the whole. This is not so with the neo-classic style. We find the large and small constantly mixed, and a tendency to encourage fantastic conceptions, with the introduction of the incongruous. This fatal facility for running mad was kept within bounds by the geniuses who initiated the movement and their capable immediate disciples, all of whom, working much in churches, ecclesiastical buildings, and royal apartments, were largely inspired by that honoured handmaiden of art—symbolism. This disregard of proportion in decorative detail is all the more peculiar inasmuch as Palladio insisted on exact observance of proportion in architecture. Serlio, too, is very definite in this matter, prescribing small designs with few details in low relief for the ceilings of small low rooms, painted in monochrome (in which opinion he differed from his betters) while demanding more elaborate designs in high relief for high and spacious rooms. He prefers two colours only; or, if many are used, blue to act as a foil. But he is eager for rich cornices. As the influence of the Cinquecento receded, exuberance got out of bounds, leading to overloading and accentuation of eccentricity. While the ancients and cinquecentists showed us plants blossoming forth with human heads, or animal forms sinking into plants, introducing judiciously symbolical masks from store-house of the drama, the later men gave us human heads hanging by the hair and all manner of wonderful little gems stuck on walls, jostling other details without rhyme or reason. It degenerated into a rage for putting as much work as possible into the legitimate task of covering surfaces. This led to the heavy over-loading of the Louis XIV. style. The Romans had used a delightful idea of decorating certain baths and fountains with rocks, fishes, shells and other aquatic forms, and Raphael adopted this with happy results in one of his rooms in the Villa Madama. Inspired with this and the rustic style, the mere imitators fell into mannerism, and produced the rocaille style of Louis XV., in which scrolls and foliage twined over rocks and shells. This speedily developed into that exaggeration known as the rococo, in which we see a profusion and confusion of scrolls, foliage, rock work and animal forms, the product of mental indigestion.

This striving after richness of effect and singularity in the choice of subjects came at quite an early date. We find evidence of this all over Italy. Even the glories of Sansovino in Venice are often cumbered by over emphasis of detail, by overloading generally, leading to many strange aberrations of his successors. Certainly some of the most magnificent ceilings ever conceived were to be - seen in the ducal palace and the library of San Marco. But for all their beautiful purity of colour wealth of gilding and exquisite execution they are often far from happy taken as whole. One of Sansovino's masterpieces in the Palace is the Golden Staircase, a grandly proportioned work on which ornamentation was bestowed with a lavishness thoroughly symbolical of that love of display shown by the representatives of the proud Republic. The vaulted ceiling is a fitting enough crowning to the wonders of the balustrade and walls. In its prime it was a shimmering mass of gold and dainty tints-like a rainbow imprisoned in gossamer goldsmith and filigree work covering every inch of the stucco ma ings, carried out with superb craftsman ship by Alessandro Vittoria. The elaborately foliated stucco mouldings framed a series of square and octagonal panels joined by boldly sculptured bands, each compartment filled in with painted decoration from the brush of Battista Franco. It is an arresting vision seen from a distance, mounting or descending, but looked at closely, it is far too oppressive with its too bold moulding, its fatiguing detail laid upon detail. The same is true of that other vaulted ceiling by the same trio in St Mark's Library. There the twenty squares and octagons are joined together by sculptured bands, the splendid framings enclosing little gems from the brushes of Salviati, Zellatti, Battista Franco, Schiavone, Giovanni de Milo, Guilio Licino, and greatest of all, Paul Veronese, the spaces between each panel being covered with charming tracery. Everything is a miracle of beauty by itself ; seen as a whole the ceiling lacks unity ; it is a collection of fragments ; seemingly too heavy for its position ; wearisome to contemplate. The truth is, the design was a faulty translation of the deeply elliptical ceilings of ancient Rome. But while the classic coffers or lakes give the impression of being structurally comprehensible, even necessary, their moulded sides as natural as the flowered knot in the centre, the coves being of regular size and separated merely by their mouldings, the Renaissance imitators forgot all idea of fitness, and merely built up the coves with exaggerated carved framework, because they desired to pile ou embellishments. They were gilding the lily, painting the rose, not allowing the lily to unfold its own ivory calyx, the rose to uncurl its glowing petals. Therein lay the canker of the Renaissance : it was not a form born of necessity ; it was a mannerism. So with other ceilings within these two celebrated buildings grandly moulded and carved stucci frame many immortal paintings by the great masters. But it is heavy and wearisome. Elsewhere it became oppressive, not only by reason of mere weight of tortured stucco, but because of the lurid glimpses of unreason shown in the elaboration of the arabesques.

Crossing the frontiers into France we find that the Renaissance quickly received recognition from the great, though it was slow in making general headway under Henry IV. and Louis XIII. In the succeeding reign, however, the style was in full force, and we see its influence at the Louvre and Versailles. In Gallic hands the Renaissance style lost some of its licentiousness (indeed, there was far less gauloiseries in this period than under Gothic sway), but both ponderosity and in-congruity increased. It was quite as exuberant as, but less imaginative than the Italian. In fact, it was merely imitative, an imitation of an imitation, and only later gave scope for creative efforts. The rigid, vertical and horizontal lines of the main architecture were nullified by over-balancing of ornamentation. This is particularly noticeable in much of the ceiling work, where the cornices are extraordinarily massive, deeply moulded, and even under-cut, and are duplicated round the ceiling itself, these borders being connected with heavy central panellings by means of bands or scrolls. Bastard heroic painting also came into fashion, the stodgy stucco framing pictures in which we see battles amidst the clouds and the apotheosis of portentous patrons wearing full-bottomed wigs and Roman costume, or the no less unethereal dress of the period. Garlands were much in vogue, but as they were reduced in length they grew in bulk, so that the swags of this period are semi-circles of plaited fruits, flowers and leaves, tapering at the ends and swelling inordinately in the middle. These paunchy collections of vegetable matter, weighing half a hundredweight or so, are carelessly fastened overhead to nothing at all by the flimsiest of ribbon bows, conveying a sense of insecurity that is hardly reposeful. Cornucopias also swell out into Brobding nagian proportions, are fantastically curled, and let out a veritable flood of the good things vouchsafed not merely by Ceres, Pomona and Flora, but even by Diana and Neptune, for game and fish hang threateningly overhead. With Louis Quinze and Louis Seize a lighter vein was struck. There was a considerable amount of delicate scroll plaster mouldings and flat paintings, light colours, white and gold, betraying the influence of Watteau. This same comic operetta champestre sentiment, however, also suggested the rustic rocaille style, which, as we have seen, degenerated into the rococo with all its absurd medley, inappropriateness and ostentatious enrichment of commonplace objects. The Empire style in its early stages shows the influence of the Republican return to the simplicity of pre-Augustan Rome. It is the day of a rather emasculated classicism, of straight lines, moderate curves, reduced embellishments, and low relief in model-ling and sculpture. The heavy garlands and swags are replaced by narrow bands of foliage—oak, occasionally, but more generally bay leaves, olive branches, myrtle—neatly worked into compact masses, the leaves placed in regular lines, with sparse admission of acorns, olives, or tiny blooms—giving the opportunity for light touches of colour and gilding, the whole bound about by narrow ribbons winding spirally and crossing each other. The long palm leaf replaces the spreading acanthus. For ceiling decoration the style lent itself well, so long as restraint was shown. The colouring, while also mode-rate in tone, had lost the purity of the early Renaissance. The red was no longer frankly that of the pomegranate, but of terra-cotta ; the pink no longer that of the rose-leaf, but of dusky cream ; the green no longer that of the laurel, but of the cypress and olive; the blues, too, are milky or inky. Monochrome began its reign ; that monochrome introduced in Italy by weaklings, who followed the brave Cinquecento days, who blinked at the glow in which the sun of -Raphael and his school was setting. Later, however, a more robust rendering of the classic idea in architecture and decoration prevailed, with a judicious bending to local needs and shedding of overloading, This acclimatised classicism rules to this day practically over a good third of Europe, perhaps not always with the best results, but often enough with some dignity, purposefulness, and happy effects. An example of a latter-day French classic ceiling, devoid of the Renaissance arabes-que oppression, is given in plate. It represents the ceilings on the first floor of the Hôtel de Ville of Tours, built by Victor Laloux in the early years of this century. The large coved square is at the rear of the building and placed over the well of the grand staircase. The long strip of deeply covered ceiling is over a corridor, and here M. Laloux has made an effective break to connect the staircase dome with the sumptuous decoration of the reception room. To the right is the Council Chamber, to the left the Salle des Marriages, each provided with a suitable vestibule, deeply coved and leading respectively to a Committee Room and the Mayor's Parlour. The four squares and two ovals outside the coffered corridor are over minor offices. Although somewhat heavy in certain details, especially in the Salle des Fétes, it is a well-conceived ceiling plan, dignified, and providing diversity with a unity worth of a painstaking artist.

One of the results of the Renaissance has been that on the Continent, especially in France and Italy, it is recognised that a flat ceiling if it cannot be adorned with moulded plaster work, at least cannot be left bare. Ceilings are almost always not only colour washed but decorated with more or less ambitious work of the painter. Much of this is of the flimsiest quality, often marked by bad taste. It may be right enough for the ceilings of sleeping apartments to be festooned with curtains painted in grisaille, looped up by pink or green ribbons, but it is rather disconcerting when these same ribbons are made to support heavy baskets brimming over with flowers the like of which no mundane garden has ever seen, or fruit suggesting dyspepsia. Peeping amorini have ousted the elder Romans, they are, however usually quite as much unaccountably lop-sided and odd-jointed. There is this much to be said for the modern Continental decorators : they paint pictures on walls, and reserve their ceilings for genuine decorative treatment.

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