Venice Academy - Room III - Sala Scuole Varie Italiane
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
IN Room 3 there is an elaborate frieze, most of the panels of which were painted for the Scuola Grande of S. Giovanni Evangelista by Titian. Four of these represent the symbols of the Evangelists, and fifteen smaller ones hold angels and carved heads. Forming part of the same frieze are some paintings on canvas, depicting the Tables of Law, and another with the head of an angel. These are works of the last century.
In this room the Venetian school gives place to examples of the art of the Renaissance from other parts of Italy. The earliest painter here represented is Gentile da Fabriano, the master of Jacopo Bellini, godfather of Gentile Bellini, and thus, in a way, the founder of the entire Venetian school of painting.
His real name was Gentile di Niccolô di Giovanni Massi. He was born between 136o and 1370, probably in the Umbrian town of Fabriano. It has been supposed that he studied with Allegretto Nuzi, though, if Nuzi died in 1365, as has also been claimed, it is hardly possible that Gentile could have been his pupil unless born ear-lier than the date usually assigned. It has also been said that he may have had some instruction from Ottavanio Nelli, a painter whose style re-calls Allegretto's. But he went far ahead of him if that is true. Not much is fully ascertained about Gentile's life. His first important work, so far as known, was decorating a chapel about 1419, perhaps, for Pandolfo• Malatesta, Lord of Brescia and Bergamo. After that he removed to Venice, where, along with other works, assisted by the Veronese Pisanello, he helped decorate the hall of the Ducal Palace, with scenes from the life of Barbarossa. Everything of this period has perished. As early as 1422 he settled in Florence, and in 1423 the picture by which he is most generally known, the Adoration of the Kings, now in the Accademia in that city, was painted.
Gentile was the first of the Umbrians to achieve greatness, and not for a generation after his death did Umbria produce any one equal to him. Berenson aptly says of Fabriano, that " he devoted his life to recording the medieval idea of terrestrial happiness, . . . when the actuality, of which it was the enchanting refraction, was just about to fade into the past."
Fabriano loved the glitter and solidity of highly raised gold embossing. He built out his frame-work of throne or dais or chair with actual lumps and ridges of the shining stuff, and scattered it broadcast over gown and veil and robes, putting exquisite workmanship into the brocades and borders, and lining and counterlining his golden aureoles with " much fine gold," throwing flowers and faces full of smiling pleasure everywhere. That his gay joyousness had foundation of solid ability, and, for his time, unusual and real knowledge, the descendants of his art prove. Without Fabriano, who can tell what the art of Venice would have been?
His Madonna and Child, in Room 3, shows the Mother seated, a half-length figure. Her robe is very elaborately brocaded in black and gold, and she wears a white linen head-covering. Over the baby's body is a gauzy white veil, one end of which his mother is lifting. In the nimbus about her head are the words of the Annunciation in golden, mediæval letters. The background is gold, and on it are painted angels who guard the Holy Pair. The horns of the moon show at the base of the picture, the moon being one of the symbols of the Virgin. If this actually is by Gentile da Fabriano, for its attribution has been doubted, it is difficult to judge as to what was its original estate, so greatly has it been repainted. The pig-ment in places is tremendously thick, and his signature is generally considered to be a modern addition.
Younger than Gentile da Fabriano, somewhat younger, probably, than Jacopo Bellini, was Piero della Francesco, though the year of his birth is not yet definitely settled. It has been given as early as 1398, and even later than 1410. His full name was Piero di Benedetto dei Franceschi, and he was born at Borg) San Sepolcro, between Arezzo and Urbino. His death occurred, it is stated, in the same year that Columbus discovered America. Piero studied with Domenico Veneziano, who was no Venetian, whose works, on the contrary, show the influence of Florence and Donatello more than all else. In 1451 Piero was summoned to Rimini by Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta. This last named villain was then thinking of rebuilding the Cathedral of San Francesco from designs by Leo Battista Alberti. Piero must have been doubly glad to go to Malatesta's court, for, in the century before, Carlo and Galeotto Malatesta had guaranteed the little city of San Sepolcro the preservation of its in-dependence, and without their protection it most likely would have been annexed by Florence long before its ultimate seizure in 1441. It is supposed that Piero was called to Rome by Nicholas V., where, according to Vasari, he executed some frescoes which have entirely perished. This destruction was due, it is said, to Julius II., who had the rooms holding them entirely redecorated.
He painted in oils and did much toward bringing that medium into more universal and trust-worthy vogue. " He painted his lights with clear colour, using the same tint somewhat darkened for the shadows. The medium tints are always cool and reticent, and the flesh-tones warmed with a due amount of colour. The delicacy of chiaroscuro which he achieved was largely the result of fine and transparent glazings, and few painters in any age have excelled him in the faculty of illumination of flesh-tints."
His colouring, if quiet, is harmonious, his chiaroscuro shows both knowledge and considerable invention. He does not focus his light on one part of his picture, but distributes it in the various planes, showing careful study of every field. His treatment of architectural forms and backgrounds is worthy of the man whose treatise on perspective was, perhaps, the first thing of its kind to make popular the science, which, up to then, was almost untaught. But he was something more than an admirable workman. In all his compositions there is an individuality, a real power, that compels admiration, even when one objects to the lack of beauty in most of his works. It is the character of the figures in his paintings that gives Piero such a high place in the annals of art. Without ever obtruding his own personality, he succeeds in creating living, real human beings, in whom can be felt the complexity or simplicity of their natures almost as truly as if the people themselves were before you. He had an objective way of painting portraits that has, perhaps, never been excelled. Impersonality, says Mr. Berenson, is " his most distinguishing virtue, — one which he shares with only two other artists : the one nameless, who carved the pediments of the Parthenon, and the other, Velasquez, who painted without ever betraying an emotion."
His picture, in Room 3 in the Academy, is probably an early work, so considered from the uneven drawing in the face and in a crudeness in colour and composition. It represents St. Jerome seated on a stone bench, dressed in a sleeveless, belted shirt that leaves his breast and his legs, from the knees down, bare. He holds an open book on his lap, and seems to be expounding its contents to the man kneeling at the right of the picture, facing the saint. This figure, clad in a monk's garb, is in profile, with hands met prayerwise, his regard strictly on the aged saint. It has been said that this monk represented Girolamo, son of Carlo Malatesta of Sogliano. Back of the two is a hilly country dotted with towns and towers, trees and rivers.
It is not Piero at his greatest expression, but there is already more than a hint of that absolute frankness of regard, that unbiassed view, which gave to all his works that impersonality so often noticed and not less often admired.
There is a Madonna and Child with St. Joseph and St. Catherine in this room, by Jacopo Raibolini, son and pupil of the celebrated Francesco called Il Francia. Jacopo, or Giacomo, as he is also titled, was born in the latter part of the fifteenth century. He never equalled his father, but his works have some of the delicacy and charm, with the light, clear, but not brilliant flesh-tones characteristic of the older man.
The picture here is small in size, about two feet wide by two and a half high, with figures two-thirds life-size. The Virgin is auburn-haired, dressed in a crimson robe and a light indigo blue mantle lined with sage green. This falls from her head, while across her forehead is a thin white veil. She is holding upright on a pedestal in front of her the baby Christ, who is reaching out a wreath to St. Catherine, kneeling before them. At the left and back is St. Joseph. The distance is a landscape. The Virgin's face is weak though rather sweet in expression, the Child graceful and really lovely in outline. As a whole, the picture has some undeniable charm in treatment and conception, but, compared with the productions of the Venetians of the same time, it seems thin and sadly ineffectual in colour.
The canvas called Homer is the only example of Caravaggio in the Academy. It represents the aged bard standing facing three-quarters to the left, playing a violin. He is dressed in a rough great-coat of blue, the thick gray fur collar coming close about his neck, opening only to show the kerchief tied under his gray beard. The eyes are closed, the laurel-crowned head lifted, as if listening to his own music. Caravaggio has thrown deep shadows over and behind him. Only the wrinkled forehead, the sightless eyes, the beard and kerchief, the thumb and finger of the hand on the strings, come into full light. The effect of the chiaroscuro is almost startling. It is as if a vision of yesterday were for a moment swept out of the misty shadows of the past, into the light of the present.
True to his own ideal, Caravaggio has not made the immortal poet beautiful. The worn, lined face is rugged, rather than handsome. It is a real, a living man portrayed, but a man in whose blind face are felt the concentration of passionate force and an indescribable upliftedness. Not less wonderful are the hands, half-lost in the shadow, but showing the fine curves, the tense nerves, of the hand of genius. The picture, above all, impresses one as a portrait. So living, so actual is it that it seems as if Caravaggio must have drawn it from the living bard himself. And, while he has de-parted far from the ideal type of the ineffable Homer, he has succeeded in portraying something of the inner power, the inspiration, the undying force of a great creator.
The canvas, though not one of his most celebrated, is characteristic enough to give some just idea of the man who was the chief master of the so-called naturalisti, a school of art in sharp hostility to that of the eclectics, especially as that school was represented by the Caracci. The principal aim of the naturalisti was to represent actual nature, life as it is rather than ideal conceptions of what it might or should be. This predilection brought them at times to gross exaggeration of gesture, attitude, and expression. Power, not beauty, was their watchword. At their best, they could portray scenes with a pathos, an intensity, a directness of appeal, entirely impossible to the tamer eclectics. At their worst, they were led into coarseness, vulgarity, and melodrama. Their style was hardly suitable for religious subjects, and some of Caravaggio's works were actually torn down from the altars they adorned. His famous Entombment, in the Vatican, has been said to re-semble more nearly the funeral of a gipsy chief than that of the Lord Jesus. Yet who else has with so overpowering convincingness displayed the grief of the Mother as he in that very scene? Wherever strong passion can be indicated or wildest climax suggested, there Caravaggio is at his height. It was in the effort to achieve such extraordinary effects that he became the past master he was in the treatment of chiaroscuro. His piercing lights, dense shadows, and pitchy backgrounds were the most essential tools for securing dramatic expression. Exaggerator as he was, coarse as he showed himself in innumerable instances, Caravaggio, who came at a time when the light of the great Renaissance was dying into a feeble flicker, proved himself a painter of virility, of intense passion of ideas, and, as has been said, in him was seen something of that " powerful nature, which, in spite of all inferiority, claims a certain kindred with that of Michelangelo himself."
His full name was Michelangelo Amerighi, Caravaggio being the name of the town which, in 1569, gave him birth.
The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew, in this same room, is the work of a man strongly influenced by Caravaggio, Jusepe Ribera, a Spaniard, born in 1588. So long did he live and work in Italy, however, that he has come to be regarded as a product of the Italian rather than of the Spanish school. In the country of his adoption he was called Lo Spagnoletto, and many are the stories told of his lawlessness and his bitter enmity to painters whom he feared might rival him. Admiring Caravaggio's works extravagantly as he did, one of his own most noticeable if more or less superficial attributes was the intensity of his shadows. In his treatment of chiaroscuro he, too, showed a vivid appreciation of the dramatic value of sharply contrasted light and shade, and, though this very thing sometimes made his work smack of the melodramatic, in many cases he reaches a high plane of expression. His colouring is at times cold and forced, at others has a golden brilliancy of tone. Mr. Ricketts says of him, that " on the whole one may even be astonished that, with the blackness of his shadows, the plastic over-emphasis of his scheme of relief, his pictures should be so rich, or so satisfying. He speaks the language of Caravaggio more freshly and with greater sincerity."
The Martyrdom of St. Bartholomew is a subject he treated more than once. In fact, he seemed to have a special fondness for showing the nude figures of old men drawn on the rack, thrust into walled-up rooms, or suffering other agonies of martyrdom. Such pictures gave him a chance to display his knowledge of the human figure and to employ to great advantage his schemes of forced lighting. This one here does not nearly equal the great Bartholomew in the Prado, but it is a characteristic example of the horrible which Ribera loved to paint.
The figures are a little over half-length. The aged saint, nude, except for a loin-cloth, is in the centre, in full face, brought squarely against a huge tree-trunk behind him. His left wrist is tied to a stump of an old branch, while an executioner at his other side is pulling on the cord about his right wrist, stretching his arm in the process above his head and binding it to the tree. On the right, the second servant of torture is slicing off the skin and upper flesh of his leg, leaving the muscles exposed, under a rain of blood-drops. Both executioners are about their fiendish task with a dogged determination to fulfil their orders that does not, nevertheless, prevent the one on the right, at least, from showing some real feeling of horror at the performance.
The modelling and construction of these two figures are as masterly as is the management of the light and shade which throws all the cruel hands and arms into sharp light and sweeps into obscurity their bodies, here of so much less pictorial importance. Bartholomew's entire body and head are in full brilliance. The agony of the eyes and half-open mouth, the shrinking of the muscles of the torso, are wonderfully expressed, — every stroke of Ribera's brush evidently planned to increase the horror of the scene. Nothing of the dreadful is spared. Apparently, in spite of, his long dwelling in Naples, that sun-kissed city, the gloom of the Spanish nature never wholly lifted its weight from Ribera's spirit.