Amazing articles on just about every subject...

The Hunt In Milan

( Originally Published 1914 )

THE incident of the Venetian picture was but byplay in our real quest, which was, to search for and find a Foppa. Those twenty francs of Morelli's had simply got to be won. So after the loss of less time than my narrative may perhaps suggest, I settled down seriously to pursue a steady and relentless search. Memory, as I try to recall those far-off days, brings before my mind's eye a confused vision of dirty antichità shops, dark, deep-laden in dust, malodorous. Usually there were a number of pieces of furniture in the style of Giovanni Batista Maggiolino, with which the houses of Milan seem to have been filled. They were, for the most part, inlaid chests-of-drawers and other pieces of bedroom furniture, and whole suites of them were to be had for little more than their price as old timber. They used to be heaped up on the pavements, and piled high in garrets and lofts. Everyone was selling them, and few desired to buy. Yet they were really very admirable work, beautifully inlaid, a kind of Italian Sheraton, and nowadays they command a good price, and are not easy to obtain. In an afternoon, I could have bought enough to panel a great room. I wonder where they have all gone to now.

In such places I sought long and carefully, finding and passing by many a good picture, either too costly for our notions of what was a reasonable price in those days, or of some school or period which I did not understand. How often in these later days have I regretted the economies of that time. Why did we not empty out our purses to the dregs? Why were we so foolish as not to plunge deeply into debt rather than, for instance, allow a genuine Gentile Bellini to slip through our fingers, when we might have captured it for a mere eighty pounds? I-might have had a now well-known Giotto for seventy pounds. Alas for the foolish economies and abnegations of an imprudently prudent youth !

Each day I went to look at one or other of the known Foppas, to impress its style ever more and more distinctly on my memory ; then off to the slums again to pursue the apparently endless quest. Of course, I encountered and recognised a certain number of forgeries, and, no doubt, failed to identify many more; but the surprising thing was the extraordinary number of genuine, but utterly bad, old pictures that had been swept together by dealers. The galleries of Europe contain on their walls many bad old pictures; their magazines are filled with a much larger quantity of worse; but it was a revelation to me then to discover that there still existed in the dark backgrounds of the dealers' warehouses an almost countless multitude of yet viler daubs, which had maintained a dishonoured existence throughout some four centuries, and were still hopeful of finding purchasers. I suppose they were painted by minor craftsmen in the smaller towns, or by itinerant journeymen going from place to place, perhaps for some domestic oratory or village chapel. Who can say that they may not have stimulated as fervent devotions in simple hearts as were ever poured forth by Pope or Cardinal beneath some altar-piece by Raphael or Titian? Be that as it may, the search through these wrecks of bad or in-different works of art was a sorry and fatiguing business. As daylight waned, and I gladly hied me back home from my slummy haunts, it was often with a sense of utter weariness, disgust, and failure. At last the day came when not only all the recognised art dealers of Milan had been visited, but all the furniture-menders, frame-makers, and gilders, and every discoverable person who added the sale of old goods to any other trade, had been visited by us, some of them more than once. We had not found the desired Foppa, though we had by no means drawn an absolute blank. One acquisition, indeed, we had made which carne very near to what we were seeking, but before telling about that I ought, perhaps, to say something about who Foppa was.

I hope some of my readers may never have heard of him, because I am not writing this little book for my colleagues, the hard-shell students of art-history, but just for the entertainment of nice people who have other interests in life than the mere question who painted this or the other more or less obscure picture. Not that the work that leads to the decision of such apparently unimportant questions is not worth while. There is really no better fun than to hunt out forgotten facts of whatever kind, and bring order into any sort of neglected chaos. Fifty years ago, pictures were vaguely attributed to painters of repute, sometimes on mere grounds of tradition, sometimes because a name was wanted as a kind of handle for holding on to some admired work, and sometimes as the mere say-so of a selfappointed " authority. When the real love of old works of art set in and captured the fancy of a great many people, and when facilities of travel improved, and public picture-galleries began to grow, and loan exhibitions to be held, of course it became inevitable that all these attributions should be tested. Lovers of art, as they grew familiar with the paintings of the Old Masters, became conscious that many a "Raphael" was not painted by Raphael. They also learnt that many a picture to which no name was attached was as fine as, or finer than, others by artists of well-rooted reputations. Thus the hunt began—the hunt after for-gotten reputations, and for the purifying of the record of established masters.

In consequence of the persistent labours of some three generations of earnest workers, a great change has been wrought Pictures have been deprived of false attributions which once masqueraded as the work of greater men. Pictures have been raised from anonymity into the rank of acknowledged masterpieces by famed artists. Finally, for-gotten artists of the first rank have been found anew, and equipped with a longer or shorter list of known works now acknowledged to have been painted by them. Simultaneously with this work of connoisseurship, the old archives have been ransacked, dates have been discovered, the trust-worthy facts about artists' lives have been revealed, and all manner of interesting information clearly set down, grouped together, and made to yield precious treasures of deduction. This work has called into existence a whole class of investigators—experts, historians, archivists, and the like-and for them the museums and universities of Europe and America have provided a reward of bread and butter in return for their devotion of a lifetime to research. These men, however, are paid not so much in money as in sport. Theirs is the joy of the hunt. They do not have to await the winter for their quarry. They are hot on the scent all the year round, and never know but that tomorrow may give them some new fact or open their eyes to some unsuspected generalisation which will thrill them with the delight of success in keener form than ever big-game hunters experienced, and will bring them also the envy and admiration of their rivals, and, rarely, even the momentary attention of the great world.

Based on all this activity of research, the whole giant growth of art-dealing has arisen with its huge money re-wards, and out of the same impulse has come that vast enterprise of excavation—the most sporting category of all historical sports—which has carried men who at home are fancied to be dry-as-dust antiquarians to places remote and sometimes insecure, where, superintending perhaps hundreds of labourers, talking unknown tongues, and as lawless as the miners of Damsite Gulch, they have delved into the piled heaps of ancient ruin and recovered lost cities, forgotten civilisations, nameless races, and treasures of glorious beauty. Yes, indeed, the hunt is worth while in any of its forms, and the mere fox-hunter, in what he believes to be the greatest moment of his glory, does not begin to know the passionate thrill of delight, almost enough to strike a man dead, which comes, it may be in the still hours of the night, at a moment of discovery to some silent worker in his quiet study.

Whether Foppa was quite, or only almost, forgotten before the days of research I myself forget. I think he was a name and little more. Presently, he began to emerge. Pictures were assigned to him with certainty one - after another, and now he is the subject of a thick and large octavo biography, by Miss Constance Jocelyn Ffoulkes, fully documented, fully illustrated, and accepted as authoritative by those entitled to an opinion. To that book let any reader desirous of accurate detail refer. He will there find dates of birth and other events. He will find a list of his pictures and photographs of them, including the two that will be referred to below. ,He will find whence his art was derived, and how he lived much longer than used to be supposed, and how, in his old age, he failed in power, and actually painted the bad pictures which kind critics had wanted to ascribe to someone else. For us here, all that we need to note is that from him and his contemporary, Mantegna, the great Renaissance schools of painting in North Italy derived their origin. Those of Venice and the East go back to Mantegna ; those of Milan, Brescia, and the West go back to Foppa. His importance, from the historical point of view, is thus obvious. Bevilacqua and Borgognone were his followers, if not both his pupils. Luini, amongst other well-known artists of the next generation, descended from him. Those grey faces I had by now so well learned to recognise re-emerge characteristically in Luini. Borgognone's fascinating angels first appeared on Foppa's panels. Foppa's compositions were repeated and developed long after he had ceased to paint for Lombard patrons.

When, therefore, one day, whilst hot upon the Foppa scent, we stumbled on a Bevilacqua, we felt that success might not, after all, elude us. It came about in this way. There was an old man who sold pictures in a back street in rather a remote quarter of the city, whose shop I had visited late one afternoon. I found in it a picture, apparently of the Leonardo School, a version of the "Madonna del Lago," which he sent home after me on approval. Daylight revealed it as a modern copy done on an old panel, so I took it back to him. He was disappointed, and well he might be, to see it returned on his hands, as perhaps it had often been returned before, and he was more than usually eager that I should see every picture he possessed, in hopes that he might not fail, after all, to sell me something. He was a queer little old fellow, and wore a black velvet cap, which made him look like a sorcerer out of a Rembrandt. He took us through his various living rooms, and finally up to his bedroom. My wife entered first, and at once saw and recognised the Bevilacqua. I followed and did the like, but we said nothing, and awaited developments. For anyone who knew as well as we did the Brera Bevilacqua there could be no doubt about this one, though people with a general knowledge of the school often mistake it for a Borgognone. Really it comes much closer to Foppa than any picture Borgognone ever painted, and the angels might have been designed by him. I am not going to tell the price we paid for it, nor shall I hereafter reveal our prices generally. Suffice it to say that they were moderate for those days, and, from the point of view of to-day, absurdly small. We, however, thought them quite large enough, and no doubt they gave the vendors a sufficient profit. Thus we carried off our first substantial purchase, and if our home-coming that day lacked the wild enthusiasm with which we had convoyed the Venetian daub, like the Florentines their Rucellai Madonna, we, at all events, enjoyed a solid delight in that we knew what we had got without the shadow of a doubt, knew it to be a sound painting by a definite, if not absolutely first-rate master, and were thus secure against any unforeseen and violent reaction or disappointment.*

That same day, too, I obtained access to the apartment of a dealer who was known as the Widow Arrigoni. She kept her things in two or three lofty salons. For the most part, they were large things, giving to the rooms somewhat of the imposing aspect which every dealer in Italy nowadays knows how to achieve. Great gilt pieces of furniture and other rococo objects curled and twisted and glimmered among dark hangings, and there were several large and, to my thinking, ugly late works, which then had no interest for me. She owned also quantities of splendid old stuffs, and a great deal of china. Much of all this was of fine quality, but not in our line. I was about to go away when she said:

" I know what you want—a Raphael. I have one, and will now show it to you." Alas, how many "Raphaels " had I even then already been shown ; and how many more was I afterward destined to behold ! Dealers nowadays, even the most ignorant, know too much to play thus with the great names ; but the habit of the eighteenth century still lingered on when I began to collect, and Raphaels, Michelangelos, Titians, and Leonardos were frequently among the pretensions of the smallest dealers. Accordingly, my heart did not flutter when the Raphael was produced, even though it was framed in what is, or then was, known as a "robbery " box. A robbery is a well-made cabinet of blackened wood, closed by shutters or wings, into which the frame fits under glass. The fact that a picture is so carefully enshrined is thought likely to dispose a buyer to regard it instinctively as a thing of special value. The glass prevents him, at least until it is removed, from examining the paint too closely, so that a strong first impression may be produced, and on that foundation a clever salesman can often effect a satisfactory bargain.

This " Raphael," when its doors were opened, proved to be a very obvious Flemish-Milanese picture-one of several known versions of the " Virgin with the Cherries," a composition based upon some Leonardesque design, which was popular with Italianising Flemings in the first half of the sixteenth century. I find in my old diary that I attributed this picture, which I presently purchased, to Bernard van Orley. It was not really by him, but it came out of that entourage. No one has yet fully accounted for the origin and popularity of the type, examples of which can be seen in almost every gallery in Europe to-day. Who first gave it vogue ; in what place it obtained fame ; where and why it was so often repeated—these are questions to which no answer has yet been given. My example of it was a good one, with an attractive landscape of Flemish type seen through an open window. I soon tired of it, however, and before many years was lucky enough to exchange it and an old Steinway grand piano for a Neri di Bicci Madonna and a new Steinway, neither of which has yet worn out its welcome.

I promised to call on the Widow Arrigoni again, and see some other treasures not just then accessible, but it was twenty years before I fulfilled that promise. I was then spending two or three days in Milan, and had drawn an absolute blank in all the dealers' shops in the city. I bethought me, by some sudden illumination, of the old lady, and found her name in the directory, though not, I think, any longer as a dealer. Arrived at her door, my summons was answered by a curious-looking domestic, who, in reply to my question whether her mistress was at home, informed me that she was, but that she was, at that very moment, in the act of dying. That, I believe, was the last time when I even hoped to make a purchase from the dealers of Milan. Those I once knew are all dead ; their successors, except one or two of European reputation, have now nothing to sell.

Home | More Articles | Email: