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Carlo Crivelli - Master

( Originally Published 1900 )

CARLO CRIVELLI is one of those painters about whose life hardly any information, traditional or otherwise, has come down to us. But about his artistic origin, with the exception of one questionable statement, there is an absolute blank ; and we are reduced to the necessity of making his pictures tell their own story about the masters under whom he studied, and the school to which he belonged. These are conditions which expose the inquirer to many dangers and temptations ; and the greatest care must be taken not to go beyond the facts contained in the pictures, or to allow the imagination to usurp the place of legitimate inference. Fortunately in the case of Crivelli some at least of the inferences, and perhaps those of most importance, are so clear, that we may feel some confidence when we make them that we have got near to the truth.

Crivelli, as we shall see, whenever he signed a picture, never forgot to remind the world that he was a Venetian. Here then is our starting-point. When we consider that he left Venice early in his career, never apparently to return, we cannot doubt that as an artist he meant by this insistence on his place of origin to emphasise the fact that it was there that he had learnt his art. The conditions of place then are settled. What about the conditions of time?

A number of Crivelli's pictures have come down to us which, partly from the dates inscribed on them, partly from their characteristics, may be classed as early works. In the matter of time then, our starting-point is the fact that the earliest date inscribed on a picture by Crivelli is 1468, and that a picture which, though early in style, is by no means elementary. Crivelli may well have begun his artistic career as far back as 1460. Who were the masters in painting in Venice and its neighbourhood at that period, and were there any other local influences within the range of which Crivelli is likely to have come? When these questions have been answered we must go on to inquire how far the style of those masters and the traces of those influences can be discovered in Crivelli's early works.

The most superficial glance at Crivelli's pictures would tell us that he has nothing in common with what is known as Venetian art proper, the school of the Bellini and Giorgione, of Titian and Tintoret. But long before the Bellini, Venice had its painters with a character and tradition of their own. While it is probably true that all Italian art is ultimately indebted to Byzantine inspiration, this influence was more direct in the case of Venice than elsewhere. At a time when, on the western side of Italy, the older forms of painting were being endowed with new life and undergoing a new birth, Venice with her Eastern connections preserved the artistic traditions of Constantinople. But Venice could not remain for ever unaffected by the astonishing progress which was being made by national Italian art, and early in the fifteenth century we find the old Venetian school in process of transformation under the influence of Umbrian and Veronese masters.* This new generation, reinforced perhaps by the infusion of a German element, had its leading representatives in the Vivarini of Murano. They, in their turn, were affected by the new centre of artistic teaching which had lately sprung up in Padua, associated with the name of Squarcione. Under the influence of each of these elements, the old Venetian school, the painters of Murano, and the school of Padua, Crivelli directly or indirectly came ; and we will endeavour now to show how his early pictures provide the evidence for this statement.

The very form of many of Crivelli's works is suggestive of the atmosphere in which he was trained at Venice. Though by no means confined to Venice, the old Venetian school, with its Byzantine traditions, had a special liking for the " Ancona "—the altar-piece consisting of many single figures, each in its separate compartment ; with the gilded framework forming a more or less elaborate architectural setting for the whole. Such an obstacle to composition of a wider scope was speedily got rid of by the more progressive schools, but at Venice it remained longer ; and for Crivelli, whose special achievement it was to perpetuate in a more modern form all that was best in the Byzantine tradition, it was peculiarly appropriate. We shall observe that even he, as he advanced, done, between the years 1440 and 1460, must, almost inevitably, have been in some sense their pupil.

Now, can we find any traces of Crivelli's master in Antonio Vivarini's panels of 1464? The youthful figures in the lower tier, with their smooth, round faces, seem to be a survival of the German influence. On the other hand, the strongly marked characteristics of the half-lengths in the upper tier are a feature which may be ascribed to Antonio himself; and here we seem to find the suggestion for the still more strongly individualised types of Crivelli. It is not, however, so much to any precise features that we must look for analogies with Crivelli. It is rather in the general character, of the figures, severe and earnest, in their traditional attitudes, and in the arrangement of the ancona as a whole,* that we must look for the forms with which Crivelli's education made him familiar and which reappear in his own works.

One figure in the Lateran altar-piece — the St. Christopher in the lower tier—is markedly different in style from the rest. In looking at it we are reminded of nothing so much as some of the forms in Mantegna's earliest altar-piece, dated 1454, and now in the Brera. In other words, it is decidedly Paduan in character. We shall hardly be wrong in attributing this new element, directly or indirectly, to Antonio's younger brother, Bartolommeo Vivarini, whose pictures reveal very considerable obligations to the school of Padua. What was this school which could thus strongly impress the leading Venetian painters, and did its influence extend to Crivelli?

About the same period when the Muranese painters were infusing new life into Venetian art the neighbouring town of Padua was the centre of a parallel but quite distinct movement, that traditionally associated with the name of Squarcione. Everyone who has even a superficial acquaintance with the history of Italian art has read of his journey to Greece, of the drawings (presumably of antiquities) that he brought back with him, and of the successful and popular art school that he established at Padua. What truth there may be in the first of these statements it is difficult to say. The distinctive features, it is true, of the works of the artists who came from his school (Mantegna is the best known instance) are the clear-cut, plastic character of the figures, as though they were copied from statues, and the introduction of architectural adjuncts and ornaments derived from ancient remains. The models for the latter, however, are Roman rather than Greek, and an abundance of them was ready to hand in Squarcione's day in North Italy. The collection of statues which we are told he possessed, a term no doubt including bas-reliefs and architectural fragments, was probably derived from this source. This interest of Squarcione's in ancient sculpture coincided with, even if it was not partly due to, another source of influence. In 1444 Donatello came to Padua, and his bronze reliefs for the high altar of S. Antonio at once attracted great attention and powerfully impressed the local artists, not only by suggesting plastic treatment in painting generally, but by providing definite models for certain artistic forms. A very common ornamental feature in Paduan pictures is the festoon of fruit or flowers. Familiar as this was from hundreds of Roman altars and sarcophagi, there can be little doubt that it was Donatello who popularised the festoon. An obvious example on an early work produced under his direction is the tomb of John XXIII. (dated 1426), in the Baptistery of Florence.

Whatever may be the truth as to the exact relation of these various influences, it is now generally agreed that Squarcione was the manager of an atelier where models and facilities for instruction were provided, rather than a great artist surrounded by a circle of disciples. This view is based mainly on the fact that hardly any pictures by him exist, and on the very inferior character of those that do. Yet there must have been some strong personal influence at work to impress on the school such an extraordinary individuality ; for, in spite of the great difference in merit between such artists as Mantegna and Zoppo, nothing is more remarkable than the uniformity of characteristics which make a Paduan picture recognisable almost at the first glance. Combined with the features derived from the school of Venice, these characteristics are so marked in Crivelli that we require no traditional or documentary evidence to prove that at some time he was a member of the school of Squarcione. We need not illustrate this at length, for nearly every picture of his bears witness to it, in the plastic forms, the festoons of fruit, the marble thrones and other architectural accessories. It might be suggested that he learnt the lesson through the medium of the Vivarini, for they,as we have seen, especially after Bartolommeo became associated with his brother (and that in 1450, before Crivelli's time), show considerable traces of Squarcione's influence. But the traces are so much stronger in Crivelli that it is only reasonable to suppose that he came into personal contact with the Paduan school. One piece of evidence will suffice. It is safe to say that among the pictures in the National Gallery there is only one painter whose productions could possibly be mistaken for Crivelli's, and that is Gregorio Schiavone. And on one of his pictures there (No. 63o) Schiavone has added to his signature the significant words "disipuli Squarcioni," "pupil of Squarcione." Crivelli, on the other hand, is equally justified in describing himself as "Venetian," for he never forgot the impulse which he had derived both from the old Venetion school and from the painters of Murano ; and, with much in common, he develops on quite different lines from the greatest product of the Paduan school, Mantegna. Nevertheless, the Paduan was the most important outside influence under which he came ; and while his vocation was to perpetuate under improved and modernised forms the old Venetian tradition, nothing contributed more to the enrichment and ennobling of that foundation than the lessons which he learnt in the school of Squarcione.

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