Italian Painters, Wallace Collections
( Originally Published 1908 )
Titian, by whom there is one picture in Hertford House, ' Perseus and Andromeda' (II) is one of the supreme names in art. He was born in 1477 at Cadore in the mountains near Venice, but he was quite a child when he came to that city which was to be for ever after associated with his name. When he was only nine he was sent there to study art, for he had already shown great promise. He entered the studio of Gentile Bellini. How the beautiful city must have influenced his poetic soul ! As he grew up he became the friend of popes, kings, and nobles. He visited Michael Angelo in Rome when he was seventy.
In writing of artists, over and over again we find how early they begin their life's work. We have a band of aspiring children, Titian at nine in the studio of Bellini, Andrea at seven putting all his childish soul into learning the goldsmith's art, Bonington at five drawing with a real appreciation of line, Lawrence at twelve keeping his parents by his brush—these seem to say to us ` you cannot begin too early if you would be a painter.'
Titian went on learning all his life, and he lived to be nearly a hundred, confessing at the end that he was only at last beginning to understand painting. When we think of him we think of beautiful colour, in this he had no rival ; but he attained excellence in all the other qualities of a painter, composition, draughtsmanship, the rendering of light and shade.
Let us come to his ` Perseus and Andromeda and notice the colour and the great mastery that is shown in the composition. While you are looking at it I will tell you the legend of Andromeda. She paid a heavy penalty for a small sin. She disputed with the Nereides, Neptune's nymphs, as to who should hold the palm for beauty, and for this she was condemned to be chained to a rock and exposed to the fury of a terrible sea-monster, which was raging through the country. Perseus heard of her fate and, armed with the sword of Hermes, and borne through the air swifter than eagle's flight on his magic golden sandals, he came to release her. He killed the monster which was just about to devour her, and broke her chains. We see her here looking up at her deliverer who is doing battle for her. She knows that he will conquer and she will be his bride.
Prom Titian we pass on to Andrea del Sarto who was born in 1486, and began his working life at seven years old, when he was apprenticed to a goldsmith. When he was quite a young man he married, and he was deeply devoted to his wife, though she was one of the unfortunate influences of his life. The King of France, Francis I, had seen one of his pictures, and sent for him to come to Fontainebleau. Andrea came and was well treated ; but Lucretia, his wife, was not content that he should be away from her. She wrote letters urging him to return. He could not bear to refuse her anything, so he went to the king and begged permission to go home to Florence.
Francis I made him promise to return soon, and gave him money to buy statues and pictures to bring back with him. Once home again he never returned. He spent the money on building a fine house and letting his wife enjoy a life of luxury. Francis was wounded and hurt : he had trusted him and admired his genius. He would never allow his name to be mentioned again. It was very galling to the great painter to know that he had stolen the money, that he had broken his trust with the king who had made his year at Fontainebleau so delightful. Browning tells us in his beautiful poem of Andrea's regret for what might have been, in the evening of his days. The painter confides to Lucretia that in spite of all his gifts :
` I do what many dream of, all their lives, —Dream ? strive to do, and agonize to do, And fail in doing,' the lesser artists have that in their nature and character which draws them to heaven while he is chained to earth.
Andrea was called the ` faultless painter,' Titian the ` divine.' He was called ` faultless ' because he combined the greatest qualities that an artist can have, colour, draughtsmanship, composition. He complains of it himself,
' A man's reach must exceed his grasp, Or what's heaven for ?'
Heaven might give him that inspiration and imagination which were sometimes wanting in his pictures. The sordid story of his life could not but influence his art in a harmful way.
` The Virgin and Child with St. John and two Angels' (g) is a beautiful and tender picture. Andrea's wife was generally the model for the Madonna. In this picture the Virgin is looking pensively down, one arm round the child who is standing looking, not at her, but out into the world. St. John is in a lowlier place, standing at the Virgin's knee.
Another beautiful ' Virgin and Child ' (8) is by Luini, who was born at Luino on the Lake Maggiore in 1475-a painter of simplicity and religious feeling of whom I have not space to tell you more.
But I must point out a picture by Cima da Conegliano, a contemporary of Andrea, of ' Catharine of Alexandria' (I). This picture was painted for the church of S. Rocco at Mestre, near Venice, for the centrepiece of an altar. St. Catharine, one of the saints of the church, was put to death by the Emperor Maximus, after being broken on a wheel. When you see a representation of her, by the old masters, you will always see a portion of the wheel represented. She is standing here on a carved pedestal, wearing the martyr's crown, a palm of victory in her hand. In the background is a quaint Italian landscape, probably of Conegliano, the native place of the painter, a little village which he loved so well that you find it in many of his pictures.
We have ` The Mystic Marriage of St. Catharine ' by Sassoferrato (646). You know the saint dreamt that the infant Christ put a wedding ring on her finger. Sassoferrato copied Raphael so often, that he gained something of Raphael's power.
There is a great contrast between the magnificence of Titian and the dull architectural pictures of Canaletto, who was born a hundred years after Titian's death. Most of us know Venice through the exquisite imaginings of Turner. It will come as a surprise to us, when we look at these pictures, to realise how differently the same place appears to different people. Those of you who have been to Venice will have another impression all your own. Yet the city should have taught some of her beauty to Canaletto, for he lived there all his life. He shows us the town as it seemed to him : he painted the buildings painstakingly, accurately, as though he were making out a plan, and gave us an idea of Venice in his day, which is valuable, as an historical manuscript is valuable. It is a record of details carefully set down without fire or fervour. He was no poet-painter ; he must have been a prosaic, matter-of-fact man. Here is a ` A Fête on the Grand Canal ' (496) ; the gondolas are moored on either side to watch the scene, some are fine in gold and silver, some quite plain. And here is a picture which should be bright and gay, but it seems colourless,—` A Fête on the Piazzetta' (500). The Piazzetta is the principal square in Venice in front of the square of St. Mark. This picture was probably painted by one of Canaletto's pupils. It is a curious scene, men are performing gymnastic feats on a raised platform, a crowd of people below, with their backs to us, are watching them. While giving a faithful record of the Venice of his day, Canaletto and his followers missed all the sunshine and gaiety of it. If you want to see The Rialto ' (511), as the Merchant of Venice might have seen it, Canaletto gives it you. This bridge, which was a marble arch across the Grand Canal, was built a hundred years before he was born.
One of Canaletto's pupils was Francesco Guardi, who painted much the same subjects in much the same way. He had not as great a knowledge of perspective, but he had a certain delicacy of touch and beauty of colouring that Canaletto lacked. You might look at his picture of one of the vaulted arcades of ' The Doge's Palace' (504).