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Carlo Crivelli - His Life

( Originally Published 1900 )

WITH the exception of one or two facts, we start on our inquiry into Crivelli's life with no better sources of information than were at our disposal in our investigation of his artistic origins. Until some documentary evidence is unearthed, we have to rely ultimately on the pictures and what they tell us, for reconstructing Crivelli's personal history as well as his artistic career. Under these circumstances the facts which we can collect are, naturally, very few and very general. Let us see what they are.

First, as to the date of Crivelli's birth. In the absence of any definite statement we must make an inference from the dates which he sometimes appended to his signature. The earliest is on the altar-piece at Massa, and the year is 1468 ; the latest is 1493, on the " Coronation," in the Brera, an interval of twenty-five years. But the picture at Massa cannot be Crivelli's earliest work. As we shall see when we come to examine it, while containing indications of immaturity, on the other hand it already possesses in a definite form the characteristics which we may describe as Crivellian. In other words, it postulates a course of development. The probabilities are that Crivelli's strongly pronounced individuality would assert itself early, and quickly emancipate itself from the fetters of mere imitation. Still, there must have been a period, however short, of discipleship ; and if any of Crivelli's earliest productions had survived we should no doubt see in them less of himself and more of his masters than is the case with the picture at Massa. If we were able to accept it as authentic, the Berlin " Pieta," with its un-Crivellian character, would be an illustration of what we mean. As we cannot, we must be content with the " Madonna" at Verona, which, though its authorship could never be a matter of doubt, presents more points of contact with Schiavone (i.e. with Squarcione) than any other of his existing pictures.

We may then suppose that Crivelli began his career as a painter not later than 1460, and that he was then about the age of twenty.* As the latest dated picture is of 1493, we might infer that he was cut short by death in the zenith of his career at the age of about fifty. This is exactly the impression which the dated pictures of 1491-93 convey. Though not in every respect his finest works, they show him at the height of his powers ; and while they contain all the indications of maturity, there are none of decay.

Crivelli, in signing a picture, never omitted to describe himself as " Venetus," and this must be our warrant for believing that Venice or its district was his place of origin and his earliest home. This is confirmed by the fact that the picture which everyone agrees in putting first as the determining fact of his career. Fixed as it were in a backwater of the stream of artistic progress, he was able to pursue his own ideals and methods untouched by the distracting influences which would have affected him in other parts of Italy. One of the most obvious characteristics of Crivelli's art is its permanence and uniformity. Almost at once he achieved his style, and though we shall be able to trace a certain amount of development in it, the change is relatively very small. In the main, no doubt, this is due to his strong individuality. But something must also be attributed to his freedom from external influences. What he might have become in different surroundings it is useless to speculate. He might have been greater, but he might also have been less. He would hardly have been the Crivelli whom we know. Let us rather believe that he found his vocation in that sphere in which he was so eminently successful ; and that the task to which he devoted him-self, the preservation and elevation of all that was best in the old Venetian tradition, was the one for which he was best qualified.

Having brought Crivelli into the Marches, a new source of evidence gives us some information as to his movements there, and that is the provenance of the pictures, where it is known, taken in connection with their dates and style. It would not, of course, be safe to assert that a picture was always painted at the place for which it was ordered. Indeed, in one case, that of the altar-piece formerly in the Franciscan church at Macerata, the signature which has been preserved tells us that the work was done at Fermo (see p. 104). But when, partly from dated signatures, partly from considerations of style, we begin to draw up a chronological list of Crivelli's works, and then find that the pictures of a particular period, which are either in their original positions or of which the original positions are known, belong to a circle of towns in a limited district, the inference is irresistible that the artist resided in that district at that particular time. The Chronological Table at the end of the volume will illustrate this. Starting with the earliest dated picture, the altar-piece of 1468, we note that it still remains at the place for which it was painted, Massa Fermana, some twenty miles from Fermo. In 1470 there is the " Madonna " at Macerata, which, as the signature states, was painted at Fermo. Near to it in date comes the " Madonna " which has always been at Ancona, almost within sight of Macerata. Rather later is the picture still in S. Agostino at Pausula, between Macerata and Fermo. Finally, there are the scattered panels (the most important being those at Brussels) of the altar-piece which we know was painted for the Franciscan Convent at Monte Fiore, near Fermo. These are the only pictures of this period of which the original positions are known ; and, if their evidence is worth anything, it shows that in the years between 1468 and 1473, when a series of pictures belonging to another district begins to make its appearance, Crivelli was at work in the region between Ancona and Fermo. Coming from the North it was quite natural that the northern district of the Marches should first detain him. And, taking a suggestion from the signature at Macerata, we may suppose that his headquarters were at Fermo.

In order to make such an argument conclusive it would be necessary to know the original position of every important work belonging to the period. While future research may discover the facts about a few more pictures, for the present the clue in many cases has been lost, and so far our reasoning must remain imperfect. It would, for instance, be of crucial importance to know the original home of Sir F. Cook's Madonna, more nearly related than any other to the pictures at Massa. If it were found to have belonged to the district between Ancona and Fermo our theory would be strikingly confirmed. It is obvious that, as it became more certain, this local theory might be applied in some cases to help us to fix the place of a picture in the chronological list, no unimportant consideration with a painter who is in some respects so equal and uniform as Crivelli. The panels of the Monte Fiore altar-piece (i.e. Brussels, Nos. 16-17, and National Gallery, No. 602) would, on internal grounds, naturally be classed with the early pictures ; but—assuming that our argument will stand—it is important to be able to infer from their locality that they were actually painted before 1473, the year when Crivelli moved to Ascoli.

For this residence at Ascoli, which began apparently about 1473 and lasted till 1487, the pictures themselves must again be our principal evidence. To begin with, there is the important ancona of 1473 which has never left the cathedral of Ascoli. For 1476 there is the great altar-piece, now in the National Gallery (No. 788), which came from S. Domenico ; and to the next year belongs the " St. Bernardino " in the Louvre, which was originally in the church of the Annunziata. For the same church was painted, in 1486, the Annunciation, now in the National Gallery (No. 739). It will be noticed that between the last two pictures there is a considerable gap, which at present we are unable to fill up. The four pictures named above are the only ones which, with our existing information, can be traced to Ascoli ; unless, indeed, the " Crucifixion " of the Brera (No. 189).

Darkened though it is by time, it is far from being an unfavourable example of that generally contemptible painter. Nevertheless, it is incredible that, if the master had been available, the work would not have been given to him rather than to the pupil. This consideration gains greater weight when we find that in 1486 Crivelli did execute, at the order of the town authorities, the beautiful " Annunciation" now in the National Gallery. It was destined for the church to which the annual procession was made, the Annunziata ; and, like the altar-piece in the Town Hall, the words "Libertas Ecclesiastica" were inscribed below it. If we supposed that Crivelli only returned to Ascoli about 1485, we could understand why he executed the second commission and not the first. But, after all, we are here only dealing with conjecture, and it is perhaps more important to notice that his selection to paint this memorial picture is some evidence that at the time he was regarded as a regular member of the community. The order would no doubt be given, if possible, to a citizen, or at least a resident. In 1487 Crivelli left Ascoli for Fermo, it is said at the invitation of Count Lodovico Vinci. This statement rests on evidence which Ricci obtained from the archives of the Vinci Family at Fermo. Remembering the reward which Crivelli received from Naples three years later, presumably for political support, we might conjecture that intrigues were already on foot to betray the town to the king, and that Crivelli had made Ascoli too hot to hold him. Whether this were the case, or whether he simply went away in disgust at the party in power, Fermo would be just the place where he might look for more congenial surroundings, for Fermo and Ascoli generally took opposite sides on every question. However, the ostensible reason for his departure appears to have been the invitation of Count Vinci. The results of this visit, on which he was accompanied by his relation and pupil Vittorio Crivelli, were a number of pictures, which in the time of Ricci could still be traced to Fermo. The only one which it is now possible to identify with certainty is the great picture at Berlin (No. 1156A) of the " Infant Christ giving the Keys to Peter surrounded by six Saints," four of whom are Franciscans. It belonged, as we have shown elsewhere (p. 99), to the Minorite church at Fermo. Apart from other considerations, on mere grounds of style no more appropriate date could be assigned to it than this. Its character is mature, not to say late. On the other hand, as we shall see presently, the form of signature (i.e. the omission of " miles ") shows that it was painted before 1490. The years 1487-90 then provide, approximately, the correct date.

In 1490 the anti-Papalists got the upper hand in Ascoli, and called in the Neapolitans. Crivelli evidently did not regard the revolution unfavourably, and he may even have given it his active support, for Ferdinand II. of Naples (at that time Prince Ferdinand of Capua) conferred on him the honour of knighthood.* What-ever its object, political services or artistic distinction, it intensely gratified the recipient, who henceforth never omitted the title " miles " (knight) from his signature. In one case only (" Virgin and Child," Brera No. 193) another form appears : "eques laureatus." On grounds of style we might well put this picture last on the list of Crivelli's works, and, taking this fact together with the change in form of the title, we may reasonably suppose that the latter indicates a new and superior honour. It is apparently connected with the laurel wreath, the traditional reward for all forms of artistic distinction.

It is curious that Crivelli painted no more pictures for Ascoli after 1490. Five works of this period have come down to us, and we know where four of these came from. They are towns in the region to the north-west of Ascoli, such as Fabriano and Camerino. It is useless to conjecture what this may imply with regard to Crivelli's movements. In any case, it appears that he did not live to face the counter-revolution at Ascoli in 1496, when the town became finally Papal. The latest dated picture is of 1493, and we must suppose that he died about that year. We have already shown that, in all probability, he had scarcely passed the prime of life. After his reputation became established he must have been a prosperous and important personage in his own country, for he was able to charge substantial prices, a fact of which, in one case, the donor determined that posterity should not be ignorant (see p. 91).

Such is the meagre record which, at least for the present, must do duty as a life of Crivelli. We cannot but regret that the facts are not only scanty, but also of so superficial and external a character. Of the man we know nothing. Yet, as we look at his pictures and see that firm hand and those mingled types of strength and beauty, we feel that we may have missed a striking and interesting personality.

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