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Carlo Crivelli - Early Works

( Originally Published 1900 )

WHICH is the oldest picture by Crivelli in existence? Is there any picture which belongs to the time before he left the region of Venice for the Marches? In answer to both questions we can produce the " Virgin and Child" now at Verona. In the first place, it is the only picture which we can trace back to Venice, for apparently, after he had once left it, Crivelli did no more work for the city whose name was never absent from his signature. But while the provenance of the picture is evidence about the painter's residence, its style bears witness to a corresponding period in his training as an artist. While nearly all his works testify more or less directly to his derivation from the Vivarini, this one above all others, demonstrates his connection with the school of Padua. The setting of the picture and the accessories would by them-selves be sufficient to prove this. It was in the school of Squarcione that architectural structures of coloured marbles forming a framework or background for the figures originated. The realistic treatment of the ruined wall on the left, as well as the festoon of fruit, suggest the same influences. But there is another point of view. Morelli was the first to remark that this picture recalls the types of Gregorio Schiavone.

But Schiavone, as we have seen (p. 9), is the pupil through whom we are brought nearest to Squarcione, the head of the school. It is in the child-types, with their curious pinched up features, that the connection is most apparent. The only example of Squarcione which is even plausibly available for purposes of comparison—the Lazzara altar-piece at Padua—shows the same peculiarity in the heads. But, while dwelling on these elements, we must not forget—and the observation is important in the case of an artist of such strong individuality—that the picture, and especially its principal figure, the Virgin, is already thoroughly Crivellian. We note, too, the hanging of watered silk, and the brocaded mantle covering the head. The expression of the Virgin's face has been considerably affected by the alteration in the arrangement of the hair. Except for this, it contains the germ of the Crivellian type ; only the features are broader and less refined, just as in the hands the anatomical structure is not insisted upon and the fingers have not yet obtained that slender tapering form which became so characteristic with him. It was a curious fancy to represent the actors in the " Flagellation " scene on the left as children. The figure grasping the column is a reduced copy of the Infant Jesus standing in front of the Virgin.

If we were able to believe in the signature prominently inscribed on the predella with the " Pietà" at Berlin (No. 1173), we should have to discuss and account for another primitive work by Crivelli. But, as we have explained elsewhere (p. 100), it cannot be brought into relation with anything that we know about him. On the one hand, it is not the Crivelli with whom we are familiar ; and, on the other, it suggests neither Jacobello, nor the Vivarini, nor Padua. The landscape with its rows of round bushes and curious pyramidal trees, cut, as it were, in layers, which occur again in Crivelli's "St. George," and in the " Madonna " at South Kensington, together with the brocade mantle in which the female saint on the right is enveloped, probably suggested the name to the person who thought to confirm his attribution by clumsily inserting a signature.

The region of Fermo, as we have seen, witnessed Crivelli's earliest activity in the Marches. At Massa, half-way between Fermo and Macerata, there is still preserved the picture which he finished in 1468 for the parish church of S. Silvestro. Originally painted for the high altar, when taste changed it was relegated to the bell-room, where it suffered a good deal of damage. At the time of Crowe and Cavalcaselle's visit, it had been removed to the sacristy, and later was in the priest's house, but for many years past it has hung in the Sindaco's office in the Municipio.* The ancona is of a simple form, and apparently nothing has been lost ; but the architectural framework—if there ever was one—has perished, and the panels present a very bald appearance. As a work of art it is one of the least attractive of Crivelli's pictures. The figures are stiff, and the colour is dull, though this may be partly due to the treatment which the picture has received. But it is of great importance as the earliest dated work, and as forming the connecting link between what we may call his Venetian stage and his fully formed and characteristic style.

" The Virgin," though weak and characterless as compared with his later examples, is already of the refined and delicate though rather melancholy type, with which we shall become familiar. Crivelli has yet hardly learnt to bring the mother and the Child together by those tender glances and caressing attitudes which are so exquisitely expressed in some of his later works. The Virgin here seems to have little interest in the Child, or anything else. But, with all its defects, the type is a notable advance, and the affinity with his later Virgins is unmistakable. On the other hand, the Child as clearly belongs to the Squarcionesque type, which appears in the Verona picture. The accessories are the usual ones in the early pictures ; a simple marble throne, and a hanging of red watered silk.

The four saints flanking the central panel present the same characteristics. They are unmistakably Crivellian, but they are still only on the way to that strength of characterisation which he was so soon to reach. Take, for instance, the St. Silvester, and compare it with the later version of the same type, the St. Peter, in the National Gallery altar - piece (No. 788). It is the same model, and, making allowance for the fact that the one is on the right and the other on the left of the central panel, the pose is identical. On the whole, the St. Silvester is the best of the Massa panels, but if we put it by the side of the St. Peter, it appears at once less strong and less interesting. The head of the Silvester is fine, but it has not the sort of grim fascinating power of the St. Peter. Notice, too, how in the latter the formal and rather uninteresting straight line of the cope and its orphrey has been improved by being caught up under the right arm. St. Lawrence, again, is comparatively weak in character, though elaborate care has been spent on his vestments. St. Francis touches a higher level, and compares favourably with later examples of the same theme. The Baptist, with his bony, anatomical forms, set in a rocky landscape, decidedly suggests Padua.

The four scenes in the predella, not to speak of their having suffered considerably, are, on the whole, ugly and elementary. The " Crucifixion," with its clumsy, formless Christ, and grotesque weeping Virgin is typical. The figures in the "Flagellation " are better drawn, and the scene is animated and well finished. The " Resurrection " has been much damaged, but enough remains to show that it is far behind the similar subject in the Northbrook collection, which cannot have been painted many years later. The three gabled panels which originally crowned the ancona, display an equal lack of skill. The dead Christ in the centre shows little feeling for anatomy or sense of form in the body, and the arms and hands are poor. The " Annunciation," the earliest version of a subject which Crivelli developed later with great elaboration, is better in drawing, but without much interest.

This is the oldest ancona of Crivelli's which has survived, but it can hardly have been his earliest attempt at that form of picture. As in other cases, the figures seem to have little relation to the central panel or to one another ; a deficiency inherent in the form of the ancona, which Crivelli only partially got over when he abandoned it later for groups of figures on a single panel.

The picture which presents the closest resemblance to the altar-piece of Massa, is the " Virgin and Child " belonging to Sir F. Cook. But, as Mr. Berenson remarks,* it is more advanced in type and characteristics, and must therefore be placed after it. The picture at Massa has suffered so much that it is hardly fair to compare its dulled and sombre surface with the bright and clear tones of the picture at Richmond. Originally there may have been less difference between them. The composition is simple enough. It is a tall, round-topped panel, in which the Virgin, seated on a throne, holds the Child standing on her knee, while the small figure of a donor kneels below. The types of both mother and Child at once recall those of Massa. But the Virgin's features, though they have something of the same vacancy, are more refined and expressive. The Child is still of the type which we may call Squarcionesque. But when we come to the accessories, their elaboration is such that we might be looking at a picture of Crivelli's latest period. The Virgin indeed, as at Massa, wears a plain blue mantle with a narrow gold border ; and behind the throne is the hanging of red watered silk which is a regular feature of the early works. But the throne itself, with the fantastic dolphins which form its arms and frame its arched and inscribed head, has only one parallel till a much later date. No better instance could be given of the way in which Crivelli sometimes, as it were, anticipates himself.

We next come to a group of Madonnas which, while of a decidedly early type, show an advance on the Massa and Richmond pictures, and must therefore be regarded as subsequent to them.

First, we may place the " Madonna " at Ancona. In some respects it presents analogies with the one at Verona. In both she is enveloped in a brocaded mantle coming up over the head, and the sash round the Child's waist is arranged in the same peculiar way. Both, too, have a landscape background and a festoon of fruit. On the other hand, the heads and the action show distinct progress. The Virgin has lost the look of vacancy, and her eyes are fixed with interest and affection on the Child, who also displays more life than we have hitherto seen. The Virgin's left hand is stiff and affected, but the action is more expressive than in the earlier cases. The Child, how-ever, still bears evident traces of its derivation from the Squarcionesque type.

Later, we think, than the Ancona picture, though nearer to it, perhaps, in date than anything that we possess, comes Lord Northbrook's " Madonna." The design is very similar. The landscape background, the curtain, the festoon of fruit, are almost precisely the same. But the marble balustrade in front is of more elaborate workmanship, and for the first time Crivelli has introduced, in the right hand corner, the fracture of which he became so fond, and, in the left, a fly, represented with minute accuracy. The Child, though not a particularly successful creation, is more natural and less " Squarcionesque." Above all, the Virgin, though her look cannot be called expressive, has more refinement and charm in her features than any that we have yet seen. She is the prototype of that Crivellian type of beauty of which the Virgin in the Brera triptych is a good example.

The Macerata picture for its early date (1470) is surprisingly advanced. The Virgin's features have that suggestion of melancholy which is illustrated again by the Lateran picture. The Child is well drawn, and of a not unpleasing type, with chubby face, and full, curling hair. It has nothing of the Squarcionesque character. The action is simple and direct ; the expression of a moment of pure affection. The fingers are not strained from their natural position, and it is noticeable that, as in other early examples, they have not that attenuated form of which later he be-came so fond. The exaggerated foreshortening of the Child's foot also appears in some of the earlier pictures. In its types, which are really all that is left for comparison, the Macerata picture comes closest perhaps to Lord Northbrook's " Madonna," but it has also points of contact, as we shall see presently, with some later works. Any comparison of the accessories has been made impossible by the mutilation of the picture. High as it may be ranked for unaffected charm, we think that Mr Berenson is scarcely justified in calling this " the loveliest of all Crivelli's Madonnas."

Somewhere in this group a place must be found for the Stonyhurst " Madonna." The elaborate perfection of the brocaded drapery and of the decorative accessories, together with the animation of the Child, show that it does not belong to the earliest stage.

On the other hand, the almost expressionless features of the Virgin resemble most nearly the type of the Madonna at Verona. But, on the whole, we must assign it rather to the end of the period than to the beginning.

The last of the group of early Madonnas, and in some ways the finest, is the picture, dated 1472, belonging to Mr Benson. The effect is archaic and almost Byzantine, but its merits are very great. Though on a comparatively small scale the decorative effect is superb. The Child's head is heavy, and inferior to that of Macerata, but the action is lively and realistic. The great charm, however, of the picture is the Virgin. Her features are not beautiful, and the drawing of the hands might be criticised. But if ever grace and dignity were conceived and executed by Crivelli they are here. Pre-eminently does this Virgin possess all that we understand by " distinction." Taken separately, the turn of the head and the action of the fingers might be called affected. But they do not offend as parts of the whole, so perfectly has the artist defined the ideal that was before his mind. A curious feature in the picture is the treatment of the drapery. The folds of the brocaded mantle are more elaborate than anything which Crivelli had yet attempted, and they are expressed by clear-cut lines without any shadow. It must be regarded as an experiment which Crivelli did not repeat. There is no further trace of it in any of his known works.

We shall probably not be wrong in associating with these early pictures the very fine " St. George and the Dragon," now at Boston. The picture, with all its lavish use of raised gilt ornament, which Crivelli later restricted or abandoned,* nevertheless, shows few traces of the elementary stage. The action is extraordinarily vigorous and full of life. The dragon has been transfixed by the lance in the act of making its deadly spring. St. George, rising in the stirrups, and grasping his sword in both hands, is about to deal the final blow. The concentrated expression of the face, with the open mouth as if uttering some imprecation on the monster, is admirably suited to the action. The horse rearing, with head averted from the dragon, shares in the excitement of the supreme moment. The composition is ingenious and original. The interest of the scene is largely increased by the foreshortening of the horse, which seems to bear down on the spectator. Mr Berenson has well compared this picture with the interesting one of the same subject by an unknown painter at Brescia, but there we see at once how comparatively tame is the side view of the scene.

To the same period we may also ascribe Lord North-brook's " Resurrection." The composition is of the familiar and conventional type which Crivelli had already utilised in the predella at Massa. But in workmanship, as well as in elevation of feeling, there is a notable advance on the earlier version.

To this first period of residence at Fermo we may assign a now dismembered altar-piece, of which important fragments are in the National Gallery, at Brussels, and at High Legh Hall in Cheshire. We have already explained (pp. 16-17) the grounds for believing that these panels belong to the period before Crivelli settled at Ascoli about 1473, and not to the second visit to Fermo in 1487. Independent consideration of their style would suggest a relatively early date. We therefore feel some confidence in placing them near to the Macerata picture of 1470 and we shall see presently how the neighbouring " Madonna," at Pausula, confirms this conclusion.

The altar-piece was in the convent church at Monte Fiore, near Fermo. It is described as a triptych, having in the centre the Virgin and Child, flanked by St. Francis and St. Peter Martyr. Above was the Dead Christ supported by Angels. The predella contained half-lengths of Christ and the twelve apostles. When Italy was conquered by the French Revolutionary armies at the end of the last century the altar-piece was dismembered. Later, the greater part of it reappeared at Rome; and some forty years ago the "Madonna" and "St. Francis" became the property of the Royal Gallery at Brussels, while the " Dead Christ " passed to the National Gallery. The Christ and seven apostles from the predella were acquired by the late Mr G. Cornwall Legh, and are still at High Legh Hall.

The Brussels "Madonna" impresses one, above all, with the feeling of life. Those of Macerata and of Mr Benson were indeed distinguished from the earlier pictures by the same quality, but here we get it in an ever higher degree. The Virgin's eyes are no longer half closed, nor is her expression either melancholy or abstracted. The Child, of the fully-developed type which we have seen hitherto only at Macerata, turns its face towards the mother with a look which is animated if not positively mischievous. Crivelli by no means always adhered to the types which he had here created. Especially in the case of the Virgin his tendency is to revert to the melancholy and abstracted type, however refined and softened it may become in later instances. Perhaps this picture may be regarded as the most successful example of its particular type. We may further note among the accessories the first occurrence of the treatment of the face of the marble steps as a sculptured frieze ; a form of decoration which becomes quite regular in the later pictures. It was not, however, an invention of Crivelli's, for it appears in Bartolommeo Vivarini, and no doubt originated at Padua.

Were we not in possession of the facts about its provenance, the " Dead Christ," in the National Gallery (No. 602), would hardly in itself suggest an immediate connection with the panels at Brussels. It is true that it has indications of a relatively early date, in the simple architectural forms of the tomb, and in the piece of red watered silk which hangs over its front. The boy-angels have the same fully-developed type of features as the Child at Brussels, and the treatment of the hair is much the same. But both in action and in the expression of a kind of reverent sympathy, not to speak of the treatment of the drapery, they are far beyond anything that we have yet met with. The picture, in fact, illustrates how thoroughly appropriate Crivelli's conceptions always are, when he had once become master of his art. Here we get side by side the quiet cheerfulness of the Virgin and Child, and the deep pathos of the attendants on the dead Christ. We may add that the form of the latter shows an immense advance on the gable panel at Massa, the only previous example of the subject. The tone of this beautiful picture is surpassingly clear and brilliant.

With this group of pictures we may associate the striking " Madonna" at Pausula. We know from the signature on the Macerata picture that Crivelli was at work in the Fermo district in 1470, and with this work, especially through the allied "Madonna" at Brussels, the picture at Pausula has definite analogies ; particularly in the broad, flat, clear treatment, with little or no shadow, and sharply-defined outlines, and also in the type of the Child. But it is by far the strongest of the group, and in any case marks a distinct advance on anything which we have yet examined.

The composition is quite unlike anything that Crivelli had yet, or indeed ever produced, and is decidedly original. Framed is a mandorla or vesica of winged cherub heads, the Virgin is holding the Child to her bared breast a motive common in all stages of Italian art, but unique among Crivelli's surviving pictures. The crowned and majestic mother, of a type which is less tender and more grand than most of Crivelli's Virgins, looks down on the Child, who glances at the spectator with head thrown back and action full of life and reality. Noteworthy, too, is the broad and effective treatment of the drapery. We cannot tell how the composition was originally completed, for at some much later period (seventeenth or eighteenth century) the sides of the panel have been daubed over with angels, and a background of clouds. Damaged and disfigured as it is, and hanging in a mean and narrow sacristy, this picture cannot fail to strike the spectator as one of Crivelli's most monumental and impressive works.

While the ancona of 1473, still in the cathedral of Ascoli, indicates, as we have seen reason to believe, the beginning of a new episode in Crivelli's life, it does not reveal any great advance on the works which we have just been considering. It is, indeed, the most elaborate existing work which he had yet produced, and we have only to compare it with the altar-piece of Massa in order to see that the five years between them have been marked by decided progress both in skill and conception. And yet, when we take into consideration the Macerata and Benson " Madonnas" (only to mention those of which the dates are certain ; the contrast with the works at Pausula and Monte Fiore is still greater), we must confess that, for so important a commission, the result is disappointing. On the whole it falls short of the promise of the later productions of the residence at Fermo. The Virgin is a not unsuccessful attempt after that refined and delicate ideal which was one day to be realised in the Brera triptych. But the redeeming feature of the whole is the panel which contains St. Emidius, the patron of Ascoli. In one sense the most important figure in this assembly of saints, Crivelli evidently concentrated all his efforts upon it. Calm, dignified, self-contained, the saint, through all the elaborate magnificence of his episcopal vestments, remains a character and a personality. Whether Crivelli created this youthful beardless type, or whether he inherited it from tradition or older local works of art, it is interesting to notice that it became fixed for the presentation of St. Emidius. Only one other example from Crivelli's hand has reached us, in the "Annunciation," of the National Gallery, where he is represented with far less elaboration and distinction than in this his earliest attempt, though the likeness is unmistakable. Formerly there must have been other examples in pictures at Ascoli which have disappeared. But the type thus created reappears not only in the work of Crivelli's pupils, but also in the beautiful silver statue of the saint made in 1487 by Pietro Vanini and still the property of the cathedral.

The other figures do not call for much notice, but we may observe that St. Peter, though presenting the familiar Crivellian type, does not wear the triple crown as in the later examples. The " Pietà " panel, which occupies its usual place in the centre of the upper tier, is the earliest complete treatment of the theme by Crivelli which has come down to us. It will be enough to say that it is the prototype of the Crawshay and Panciatichi versions, and that it is as far from attaining the truth and pathos of those master-pieces as it is inferior to them in skill of composition.

One may notice how this picture, especially the central panel, in a way sums up the past and anticipates the future work of Crivelli, not only in the types but also in its details. The elaborate throne, the brocade hanging, the background of cherub heads, are all features of his later style.

Before leaving this first period of Crivelli's activity, we may refer to a group of pictures which present certain features in common and appear to belong to it. They are all of small dimensions. The most interesting is the panel in the Poldi-Pezzoli Museum at Milan, which represents the Saviour appearing with the instruments of the Passion to St. Francis, who kneels before him and receives in a chalice the stream of blood from the pierced side. The facial types have a meagre look which suggests relationship with those of Schiavone. And the accessories—the ruined wall treated realistically, the column, and the landscape seen through an arch on the left—all provide points of contact with the "Madonna" at Verona. It is true that the hanging behind the Cross is not of watered silk but of brocade. But it is curious that its treatment is exactly the same as that of the Virgin's mantle in the Verona picture, the design being expressed by dark lines on a light ground. The effect produced by the elaborate patterned brocades in the later pictures is quite different. The instances are so obvious that it is unnecessary to specify them.

The forms which appear in the small " Dead Christ supported by Angels" in the Louvre (No. 1269), are very similar. And, generally, the signs of early date are even more obvious and definite. Not to speak of the watered silk hanging, the angel on the right reproduces the features of the Child in the Ancona picture. There can be little doubt, in fact, that we must date this panel earlier than the Monte Fiore version in the National Gallery (No. 602). It illustrates another common feature of these small panels—the way in which the high lights are strongly defined.

On the two panels representing the "Annunciation " at Frankfurt, obviously an early version of the picture of 1486 in the National Gallery, we shall have more to say when we come to the later picture. Here it will be enough to point out the similarity in types and treatment with the pictures we have just been discussing. But the Virgin has a beauty and charm which bring her into comparison with some of the best examples in the succeeding period.

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