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French Gothic And The Italian Renaissance

( Originally Published 1912 )



DURING the Middle Ages the dominant influence in western art was the Gothic of France. This fact is so familiar that the statement borders upon banality. The generalization holds even in some apparent exceptions. If France borrowed the Flamboyant from England, she nevertheless gave the style its distinctive character, and passed it on to other nations in a French guise. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, the superior excellence of the French manner was acknowledged throughout Europe, from Sicily to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Hungary.

It has, however, generally been assumed that the influence of Gothic ended with the Middle Ages, and that Renaissance art sought its inspiration in other sources considered more pure or more troubled according to the critic's angle of vision. Scholars have almost entirely overlooked the very deep influence which the French Middle Ages exerted upon the art of the Italian Renaissance. It is, indeed, a curious paradox that a period which seems the antithesis and negation of Gothic should, nevertheless, owe to its despised predecessor essential features of its greatness ; so curious, indeed, that the point may be worth investigation in some detail, even at the risk of falling into that most slippery and sticky of bogs, analysis of style.

Fortunately, however, not all our way lies through this swamp. French mediŠval influence was exerted upon Italian Renaissance art not only through the borrowing of artistic motives, but also through the borrowing of philosophic ideas. French scholasticism had held in Europe as preeminent a position as French architecture. It was, indeed, the force which more than any other had moulded mediŠval art. In the Gothic cathedral architecture and philosophy had been inseparably entwined. European art in the Middle Ages was, therefore, deeply influenced by French scholasticism, and in Italy continued to be so influenced throughout the Renaissance.

No conception was more characteristic of scholasticism than that of the sibyls. For the mediŠval mystic the entire world was imbued with symbolism. In every detail of nature God had written the solution of the enigma of the universe, if man would but read. If the dove has red feet, it is because she signifies the Church which advances across the centuries with feet bathed in the blood of martyrs. The nut of which the shell is 'hard as the wood of the cross, but of which the inner meat sustains the life of man, is the image of Christ. The Old Testament is the transparent shadow of the New; David and Solomon, Adam and Isaac figures of Jesus. Pagan literature was interpreted in the same spirit. The " Iliad " of Homer, the " Metamorphoses " of Ovid, became profound allegories of Christian truth. Of all pagan figures the sibyls lent themselves most easily to such imaginative poetizing. There was about these strange beings, half women, half goddesses, a grandeur, an aloofness which had baffled antiquity itself, and which made them seem to the Middle Ages worthy companions for the Hebrew prophets. According to M. MÔle, a r˘le in the Christian drama was first given to the sibyls by St. Augustine, who put into the mouth of the ErythrŠa an acrostic poem on the Last Judgment. The sibyl was conceived by the author of " Dies Irae " as ushering in cheek by jowl with David, amid ashes and destruction, the final evening of the world:

Dies Irae, dies ilia
Solvet saeclum in favilla
Teste David cum Sibylla.

The Gothic artists did not hesitate to make for the sibyl a place beside the most authenticated Hebrew kings and prophets. Surely the temple of paganism was never despoiled of a grander or more striking column for the adornment of the Christian church.

The austerity and power of the mediŠval sibyls fascinated the Italian Renaissance. Castagno's" Cumana," which seems sculptured in flint, is but an attempt to express, in terms of the concrete and near-sighted Quattrocento, the unbounded vastness of a Gothic ideal. Definitive expression was given these pagan prophetesses by Michel Angelo who sealed them with immortal beauty. How much of the stormy grandeur of the Sistine is due to the iconographic conception of the sibyls, which the Titan of the Cinquecento was so well able to represent, but which he or any man of the Renaissance would have been powerless to invent!

Michel Angelo's " Last Judgment " is equally inspired by mediŠval thought, in part tempered by the fire of Dante, in part mined directly from its native rocks. The author of the " Dies Irae " had already conceived the relentless, avenging ChristŚrex tremendae majestatis Ś although without the physical violence, the convulsive corporeal energy which Michel Angelo portrayed. It is unfortunate that the painter took his inspiration from literature rather than from the Gothic artists. MediŠval sculptors, in fact, had attained in their representations of the Last Judgment heights to which they hardly rose in the treatment of other subjects. They were wiser than Michel Angelo because they wove together many moods to form a single symphony. A colour scheme gains force by the introduction of extraneous tints, and a piece of music will be more overwhelming if softer passages are introduced in contrast with the climaxes. In the " Last Judgment" of Bourges, terror is unquestionably the prevailing note Ś terror inspired by the gaping tombs, by the rising of the dead, by the malevolence of the fiends, by the tortures of the damned, by the jaws of Hell. But the feeling of horror is heightened by contrast. The Christ who shows His wounds, even while alluding to His own sufferings, is not without sympathy for those of others. For all His sternness, He is approachable, as not even Fra Angelico at Orvieto was able to paint Him. The Virgin and St. John intercede for sinners, not entirely without hope of success. Abraham with real benevolence receives the souls of the blessed to his bosom. An angel, openly delighted, lays his hand with inexpressible tenderness upon a soul who has been weighed in the scale of justice and not found wanting. Neither Christ nor his ministers know Michel Angelo's exulting joy in the infliction of punishment. And in the voussoirs sing in triumph the choirs of the heavenly host, celebrating the victory of the blessed. The mediŠval conception is more convincing, less exaggerated, of finer grain. Michel Angelo's work is like a piece of music orchestrated only for trombones.

There is something of the same monotony in Signorelli's frescos at Orvieto which form the most complete chronicle in art of the ending of the world. It is only in the ceiling that contrast is attempted, and even here rather grudgingly. The previous work of Fra Angelico forced the Cortonese to devote this space to the choruses of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, virgins and doctors; but those which he painted are executed in a dry manner that makes them seem almost as joyless, and certainly more bored, than the seething masses of the damned below. Hell and Paradise are passed over swiftly, each being crowded into the half of an awkward lunette, most of which is occupied by an opening; it seems as though the artist had purposefully suppressed, so far as he dared, both, in order that he might not be forced by logic to dwell more than he wished upon the delights of Heaven. Similarly Purgatory with its element of hope interested him but little. It is represented by means of small monochrome medallions, depicting scenes from the opening cantos of Dante's description, hidden away among the exquisite vine-and scroll-work of the dado. The scenes of terror, on the other hand, are developed with extraordinary amplitude. The mediŠval legend is elaborated with a fulness of detail Gothic artists had never attempted. Act by act the dreadful drama unfolds. The cosmic upheavals which shall announce the ending of time Ś fire, flood, earthquakes, pestilence, war; the coming of the Anti-Christ, his miracles, his horrid preaching, lawlessness, murder in the world; the blowing of the trumpets, the opening of the tombs, the resurrection of the dead, ghastly skeletons clothing themselves with the nude flesh of perfect youth; the elect separated from the lost; the damning of the damned. The curtain falls on a divine tragedy of hate.

Although treated in a completely Renaissance spirit, the Orvieto frescos are founded upon the Gothic epic. Without the basis of the legend Signorelli's achievement would have been impossible.

Indeed, the debt which the Renaissance owes' to the Middle Ages for having supplied the subject matter of its art is incalculable. Quattrocento artists were constantly drawing upon the rich stock of mediaeval lore. In the cloister of S. Maria Novella a follower of Castagno painted the blind old man Lamech, led by Tubal-Cain, shooting with his bow and arrow the aged and wicked Cain skulking in the bushes. Not only the Hebrew Apocrypha but the legends of countless later saints had been touched with gold by Gothic poetry. Renaissance artists often chafed at the limitations imposed upon them by tradition. When freed from this restraint, however, their achievement, instead of soaring to greater altitudes, like Simon Magus fell. The Council of Trent, in signing the death-warrant of Christian mythology, gave the coup de grÔce to art. The Renaissance only stood, because built on the solid foundations of the Middle Ages.

The spirit of St. Francis himself is thoroughly French. Indeed it is inconceivable that such a character could have existed in Italy had it not been for the influence of the scholastic thinkers of France. Italy, before the coming of French influence, had in matters pertaining to religion tended to be indifferent, even sceptical -and flippant. There is no trace of mysticism, of scholasticism, of philosophy worthy of the name before the first half of the twelfth century. French influence poured in, and St. Francis of Assisi was born.

Before the coming of French influence, the Madonna was comparatively little worshipped in Italy. It was the French who developed the cult of the Virgin,, surrounding it with the poetry of legend, and glorifying it by the beauties of art. Without French medieval thought the world could never have possessed that series of Italian Madonnas beginning with the Rucellai and culminating in the visions of Botticelli.

Equally striking are the artistic borrowings of Renaissance Italy from medieval France. Several features of Brunelleschi's architecture are derived from French Gothic. The compound piers of his churches such as S. Spirito at Florence, though treated with classical detail, are a Gothic feature. The continuous reveals of his windows, doorways and arcades, the most characteristic decorative mannerism of his style, were simply an adaptation of the continuous mouldings of French Flamboyant. The famous borders to Ghiberti's doors of the ' Baptistery of Florence, with the charming and naturalistic imitations of flowers and beasts, are a literal copying of the type of ornament that had been evolved by the Gothic artists of France. The quatrefoils, in which are placed the reliefs in the celebrated doors of Ghiberti and Andrea Pisano, are a motive taken from Gothic edifices of France at least a century earlier in date. The shape of the panels is only slightly altered from those of the fašade of Amiens, filled with works of plastic art even more compelling in beauty, and is precisely the same as that of certain medallions in the ambulatory windows of Sens.

But it was especially in sculpture and in painting that the Italian Renaissance depended upon the French Middle Ages. It is recognized that the men who did most to form the art of the Renaissance were the two sculptors, Giovanni Pisano and Donatello. Giovanni Pisano's contribution to the artistic progress of the period was line; that of Donatello was realism. Now Giovanni Pisano's line and Donatello's realism were both inspired and made possible by the Gothic art of France.

Let us take up the question of realism first, since it may seem incredible that the great sculptor of the Renaissance should have owed, even indirectly, his art to the North. And to begin with, the reader must agree that the value of realism in art has generally been over-estimated. For four centuries the imitation of nature has been the chief and often the sole ideal of artists, and exactly those centuries have in general been a time of precipitate artistic decline. The value of pure beauty, of illustrative beauty, of decorative beauty, of beauty which is not necessarily any direct imitation, least of all any realistic representation of natural objects, has been overlooked. That is the reason, perhaps, that decorative art has largely gone out of the world, and that we have no longer objects of utility such as furniture, wall-paper, stuffs or household articles, which are also works of art. The Middle Ages thoroughly understood decoration. The mediŠval artist felt it to be quite immaterial whether or not he attained naturalistic representation. He was generally content with beauty, and cared little whether his figures produced illusion. The modern artist cares chiefly whether his figures produce illusion, and too often is indifferent whether they be beautiful.

Until the twelfth century medieval art contented itself with pure and abstract beauty such as it could attain. There was much study of design and of decoration, but there was little realism. But in the second half of the twelfth century the French artists of the Ile-de-France began to turn to nature, preserving, however, their sense of design, their feeling for pure beauty, derived from long centuries of schooling in the field of conventional art; they took the forms of nature, selected with an artistic tact that has never been equalled those which of all others most happily lent themselves to the particular purpose in hand, conventionalized them just as far as was necessary. This process was first applied to purely architectural numbers, especially to capitals. The plant forms selected were the bulbous ferns, the graceful and slender flora of the early spring. The Romanesque abbey, austere and sublime as the winter, suddenly burst into the spring blossom of Gothic.

This was the first step towards naturalism and realism in the long and steady evolution that has gone on from the twelfth century to the present day. And mark how radical a step it was. Architecture would seem the least imitative of the arts. The natural acanthus is said to have inspired the classic Corinthian capital; it almost certainly did not; but even if it did, all feeling for nature, all realism, was long ago crushed out of the motive. Except in the Gothic period, architecture has always been unimitative. Even in the Italian Renaissance, when men were going mad on realism, architecture remained conventional. We seek in the buildings of Palladio and even of Bramante in vain for one touch of the imitation of nature which bore so fair a flower in Gothic art.

The Gothic capital was the first step towards realism. Facilis descensus Averno. The naturalism which had begun in so charming and delicate a manner was carried by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries even in France to extravagance. In the capitals and string-courses the imitation of nature became ever more exact, the conventionalization less, the total result more restless. Nothing could be greater than the delicacy with which the Flamboyant architectural foliage is carved; nothing more tender than the love with which each detail is observed and studied. But the beauty of the building as a whole has been lost in the elaboration of the parts.

From architecture realism soon spread to the sister arts of sculpture and painting. In the twelfth century, as, for example, in the western portal of Chartres, the artists had carved statues chiefly with an eye to beauty. Soon after, the study of nature entered. In the northern transept of Chartres in the early thirteenth century we find more naturalistic proportions, more realistic features, draperies that are far more real; but still the ancient beauty, the sense of design, the feeling for decoration survives. At Reims in the second half of the thirteenth century, realism has already become dominant. There is no longer rigidity in the pose of the figures Ś they move freely, place their weight now on one foot, now on the other, turn as do living human beings.

As time went on the sculptures became more and more naturalistic. Along with decorative significance departed also illustration and sincerity. The art is no longer charged with the intellectuality of earlier times. The artist forgets Christ in his intense interest in the wrinkles and moles of the peasant who serves as his model.

Stained glass underwent precisely the same evolution. The figures of the twelfth century, grand and hieratic, charged with symbolism and intellectuality, glorious in colour and decorative quality, begin to show in the thirteenth century the study of nature. Later the figures become less rigid, more life-like. Mary, who in earlier works had stood impassive, impersonal, a symbol beside the cross, swoons at its foot. Sentimentality goes hand in hand with realism. In measure as the study of nature supplants the study of beauty, the colours become softer and weaker, the design less vigorous Ś in short, both illustration and decoration decline.

Now with these naturalistic tendencies of French mediŠval art the Italian artists of the Renaissance were well acquainted. From the middle of the twelfth until the fifteenth century Italy, like the rest of Europe, had been the obedient follower of France in matters artistic. French methods, French ideas, French designs, were carefully studied and closely imitated. Donatello, therefore, could not have failed to be aware of French realism. When he set himself the task of studying nature as his purpose in life, there is little reason to doubt that he derived his inspiration by some means from France. We thus see that French mediŠval art is at the basis of what superficially seems most antagonistic. To it we owe the study of nature in the Renaissance, the art of Masaccio and of Michel Angelo. In fact, to it we owe all modern art.

In the case of Giovanni Pisano the influence of French mediŠval models is so clear and unmistakable that it has been universally recognized even by critics who had little familiarity with Gothic work. His father, Niccolo, is given much importance in the hand-books of Italian art, especially those of the machine-made variety, as having instituted the classical revival. In point of fact he did nothing of the kind. The imitation of antique fragments had been going on in Italy long before his time, not only in architecture but in sculpture as well, as is evident, for example, in the Baptistery of Florence or the reliefs of the fašade of Modena. Niccolo Pisano was a very indifferent artist. He is inferior to contemporary sculptors of France and even to the twelfth century sculptors of Lombardy, in composition, in feeling for beauty, and, in fact, in almost every true requisite of plastic art.

With his son, Giovanni, the matter was different. Giovanni was trained under unfortunate auspices, and his early work executed in connexion with, or under the influence of, his father shows many of the latter's faults in confusion of composition and vulgarity of detail. However, Giovanni's own genius soon asserted itself. He turned from the turgid art of Niccol˘ to the limpid beauty of French Gothic, became French in spirit, as thoroughly and completely French as if he had been born and brought up in the ateliers of Paris.

Now, as we have said, not Niccol˘ but Giovanni Pisano was the great formative artist of the Italian Renaissance. Giovanni was the man who blazed out the path that subsequent sculptors and painters for two centuries were to follow. And the great work of Giovanni was that he introduced from France the study of line. Until his time the beauty of line had hardly been known in Italy. The French, however, had perfected it. In many works of sculpture, such as, for example, the tympanum of the Cathedral of Senlis, the Gothic sculptors of France had developed line, to its utmost possibilities. From such compositions as this Giovanni Pisano took his line, which he passed on to the entire Tre and Quattrocento. Now it is this French line which forms the chief merit of the greatest artists of the Italian Renaissance. It is line 'which sweeps us off our feet in the New Haven Bernardo Daddi, for me, one of the greatest Italian pictures in America. It is line, " singing line " as Berenson calls it, which makes unforgettable the " Annunciation " and the " Guidoriccio " of Simone Martini. It is line that wins us in the transcendent Neroccio of the Yale gallery. It is line that gives to the works of Botticelli that indescribable sweetness and languor which fascinates as does the taste of some exotic fruit. The spirit of Botticelli is essentially mediŠval. His drawings for Dante, in which perhaps more than in any other work the inmost character of the artist is revealed, are as far removed from the tactile values of Masaccio as they are akin to the mysticism of the Middle Ages. Nor was the French spirit in the Italian Renaissance limited to these examples. It would be easy to follow it, permeating, conquering almost every artist of the Quattrocento. The " Ilaria " clearly shows this French influence. Indeed, so patent is it, that the latest student of the monument, Mr. Marquand, inclines to believe the sculpture actually the work of a French artist. The same French influence breathes in the gracious sweeping lines of the Civitale, now in the Metropolitan Museum, a monument not unworthy to be compared with the "Ilaria " herself for decorative content.

It is therefore clear that to the already recognized sources of the Italian Renaissance we must add French Gothic, and that we must ascribe to it some importance. The share of the classical revival has already been greatly diminished by the demonstration of the fact that the Gothic and especially the Romanesque of Italy formed the basic element out of which was created the new style. This share must now be still further reduced. The singular fact also appears that when France in the sixteenth century took the Renaissance from Italy, she was in reality but receiving back what she herself had at least in part given.



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