Sodoma In Monte Oliveto
( Originally Published 1908 )
WE now come to that series of frescoes in the surrounding country, in which, as we have already noticed, Sodoma's artistic personality seems to have first fully asserted itself. In 1503 he was given his first important commission, which was to paint in fresco the two end walls of the little convent of St. Anna in Creta, not far from San Quirico.* He received twenty golden scudi in return for the six large frescoes and the row of medallions which he left there. On the shorter wall, facing the entrance, are three scenes representing the miracle of the loaves and fishes. The most important and the best preserved of these is the central one, containing the figure of Our Lord in white, with upraised fingers, blessing the five little loaves which a smiling child presents to Him. Behind these the group of apostles is densely packed ; the row of heads all the same height stretches across two thirds of the fresco, giving a sense of congestion which Sodoma in his larger scenes evidently found it very difficult to avoid. It is a defect he shares in common with Luini, and it is noticeable, though to a less degree, in the fresco .to the left, where one of the younger apostles is still offering bread to the already satiated crowd.
In both of these compartments there is a complicated landscape background, a winding river, low hills with little towns, tall, feathery trees, such as one sees in spring in Umbria, and in the central scene a classical arch, evidently copied from some print or painting of Rome.
The third fresco on this wall is too badly damaged to be clearly seen, damp and neglect having done their work more or less in all of the series. Upon the entrance wall, above the door, is a Pietà," the dead Christ wept over by the Virgin, across whose knees He is stretched.
In the right hand fresco of this group Sodoma was possibly inspired by a remembrance of a design, which had been immensely worked upon, both by Leonardo himself and by his school, the Virgin and Child with St. Anne. But instead of placing the Virgin on the knees of St. Anne, as in Leonardo's cartoon and in the works of all the other Lombard masters, Sodoma raised the Virgin's mother upon a throne approached by steps, and seated upon these steps the young Mary with her Infant and two Olivetan brothers at the sides. The colour has peeled terribly, and the head of Christ is utterly defaced. This scene was enclosed under a painted portico of rich Renaissance design, which corresponds with that on the left, where stands St. Bernard, surrounded by six Olivetan brothers in their white robes. In the soffit of the doorway is a medallion enclosing a bust of Our Lord, and across the longer walls of the refectory runs a frieze containing little square scenes from the life of the Virgin in chiaro-oscuro, and round medallions of saints, that of Santa Scholastica being one of the best. This frieze is, however, almost destroyed by the damp.
The successful completion of these works led to his being employed on a far greater series, that of the cloister of Monte Oliveto. That important monastery had been founded on the ridge of a deep ravine in the very heart of the wild tract of country lying round Siena by Bernardo Tolomei, a young Siennese noble of devout tendencies, who had been shocked by the corruption among the Benedictine order and had instituted the reformed branch.
Luca Signorelli had been commissioned to illustrate the life of St. Benedict in a series of lunettes around the four walls of the cloister, but he had hardly finished nine of the series when he was called away in 1498 by the council of the cathedral of Orvieto, to line the lower part of the chapel of San Brizio with his dramatic presentation of the Four Last Things. The monks of Monte Oliveto were thus left with their convent walls unfinished, but the Abbot, one Domenico Airoldi, was from Lecco, on the Lake of Como, and Vasari says that Sodoma went out to the monastery to visit his fellow-Lombard. Whether he solicited the order or not, Frate Domenico appointed him to complete the series. He painted in all thirty-one frescoes, for which the rate of payment varied, according to the merit of the painting. He received altogether 241 ducats, about £62, and beside this remuneration in cash he was further rewarded by a rich suit of clothes, which had belonged to a Lombard gentleman who had recently entered the order. From a quaint entry in the Archives (quoted by Milanesi) we learn the details of which this dress consisted. " A cape, a doublet of velvet, a gabardine of black velvet, a pair of light purple stockings, a black cap, a hat with a silken border, a felt riding-cloak, a pair of velvet boots, a sword, and two embroidered shirts." In such attire Sodoma introduced his own portrait into the third fresco.
Besides the five-and-twenty frescoes in the cloister he painted sundry scenes about the corridors and landings. On the stairs leading to the dormitory he placed a very interesting " Coronation of the Virgin," within a vesica. Christ is in mauve and red, bending forward to place the crown upon the Virgin's brow, she being in white with a pale grey mantle. The face of Our Lord is particularly beautiful. Below is a pale landscape and the shield of the Olivetan order. On the wall of the archway leading from the church into the cloister is a fresco of " Christ bearing the Cross," in which again the artist has remembered the traditions of his Lombard training. The figure is a three-quarter one, the face turned over the left shoulder. The flesh-tints are warm and vivid, and there is a good deal of hatching on the muscles. A purple drapery wraps the loins, and a soldier immediately behind Him strikes Him with a sword. This figure has a good deal of pathos, but perhaps there is more dignity in the fresco of " Christ bound to the Column " which faces it This is but a variation of the theme which he treated so remarkably later on, and we may notice how invariably Sodoma succeeded when it was a question of portraying Our Lord under conditions of mental suffering. Here, too, He is almost nude, save for the pale muslin girth ; the hands are bound behind Him to the flecked marble pillar ; there is a light mauve sky behind, and faintly indicated green hills. On the opposite lintel is a fresco of San Bernardo in the act of establishing the Olivetan order, over the door of the Father-General's apartments is a " Madonna with St. Peter and St. Michael," and on one of the staircases an inferior " Pietà."
The frescoes in the cloister necessitated great breadth of treatment and a more monumental form of composition than anything he had yet done. It was the severest training that he could have, and should have brought out all his decorative faculties, but that he was hampered by the colourlessness of his subject.
The greater number of the scenes consisted of only the figures of white-robed monks, and Sodoma had to avoid the violent contrast which would have occurred had he laid on too vivid colour in these compartments where secular dress was introducible. The endless groups of white forms against white convent walls or the pale outlines of Roman hills could only become works of first-rate merit by virtue of some pronounced strength in their grouping, and, as we have already seen, composition was by no means Sodoma's strongest point.
The earlier frescoes are, for this reason, perhaps the most interesting.
Vasari specially admired these at the four corners, St. Benedict setting out for Rome on his white charger, followed by his old nurse ; the parents of St. Maurus and St. Placidus bringing their children to the saint, the introduction of the bad women into the convent, and the final burning of Monte Cassino by the victorious Goths. In all of these Sodoma permitted himself the use of deepened colour, and, probably being on that account more interested in the work, he attained a greater success in the disposition and general treatment.
Throughout the whole series there are many single heads of striking power, for instance, St. Benedict reproving the truant monk in No. 13, and the stern, concentrated face of the mason building the wall in No. 24.
There are some graceful women's types in No. 19, one of the few frescoes in which female forms appear. It represents the attempt of the wicked Fiorenzo to seduce the monks by introducing a score of women of doubtful character within the convent walls. Sodoma, probably weary in his artistic soul of treating the eternal white dresses of the brothers, and delighted to get a chance of drawing nude figures, put in some of these women undraped. With what grace and tenderness he could handle the female form we may judge from his Eve in the " Descent into Hades," or the various studies for the Leda (considered a copy by Dr. Richter) of the Borghese Gallery.
His fresco of "Christ bound to the Column" in the Siena Gallery, and the famous " St. Sebastian " of the Uffizi, as well as the sundry drawings he has left of studies for dead Christs, not only attest to a great knowledge of anatomy but to a sentiment of the beauty and divineness of the human form which is almost Greek in spirit.
The monks, however, not quite able to comprehend the painter's serene delight in the pure outlines of human limb and muscle, insisted on having the figures draped, and Sodoma was set to alter his own work.
But the grace of these figures is apparent through their draperies, and the combination of colour most harmonious. Behind them is a graceful loggia, a classical arch and colonnade in the centre, and to the left St. Benedict leans over a balcony to exhort them.
The first fresco of all, where St. Benedict leaves the paternal roof, is a very charming one. The young saint in blue robe and flying orange mantle, is mounted upon a rearing white horse. Behind him his nurse in pink, follows more sedately upon an ass. To the left stands the father in cap and gown of red, and the young mother in stately black garb, leading the tiny sister by the hand. There are not too many figures here to confuse the eye, and the colouring is most delicate. In the middle distance, to the right, rises the town of Norcia, rich in towers and battlements.
In all of these outdoor scenes, Sodoma has obviously taken pleasure in the landscape, and we see, too, that on every possible opportunity he had been happy to intro-duce animals into the groups. In No. 3, the episode of the broken sieve, he has painted his own portrait in the figure of the tall youth just outside the door. He has on the gaudy clothes, the marvellous yellow mantle and red stockings, of the Milanese who had become a monk. But he could not paint his own likeness without that of his constant companions, the pet crow, whom he had taught to speak, and the two badgers, and the goose and great white swan, in the background.
Under each of these frescoes he painted two medallions, containing fancy portraits of the various generals of the order, the only genuine one being that of Fra Domenico of Lecco. But these getting spoiled in the course of time and the eyes effaced, Fra Antonio Bentivoglio of Bologna had them washed out altogether.
The series finished, Sodoma found himself back again at Siena, surrounded by his badgers, and his marmosets, and all that herd of animal life which Vasari despised him so for keeping.
Possibly at this time, too, was painted that much-disputed female portrait at the Stadel Institute, Frankfort, over which the old and the modern school of criticism still wages a lively war.
Dr. Bode, in his Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft,* believes it to be a northern production, and has attributed it to the Flemish painter, Jan Scorel.
The compilers of the official catalogue of the gallery, acknowledging in it somewhat of the Italian manner, have, at any rate, granted it to be by Sebastiano del Piombo. It was Signor Morelli who first proclaimed it to be a genuine work of Sodoma, a portrait, probably, of some young Siennese gentlewoman, decked out in the jewellery of hand-wrought gold, in which the descendants of the Etruscan race yet preserve their hereditary skill.
Morelli draws our attention to the following characteristics, and as we shall find them repeated in most of his work it may not be superfluous to enumerate them here :
"1. The hands have tapering fingers, the knuckles being often only indicated by a kind of dimple. The hand in the Frankfort portrait should be compared with the hand of the young king in the right of Sodoma's fine altar-piece, the `Adoration of the Magi' in the church of St. Agostino in Siena ; with the hand of Eve in the fresco of the `Descent into Hades' in the public other in the Morelli collection.
"2. The eyes are almond shaped. The characteristic is met with in all Sodoma's pictures : in the portrait at Frankfort, in the ` Madonna with St. Leonard' in the Palazzo Pubblico at Siena, in the `Adoration of the Magi,' in St. Agostino, and in the fresco in S. Domenico, both in that city; in the so-called `Madonnone' at Vaprio, and in the frescoes in the Farnesina at Rome ; as also in the following drawings :—the head of a young man crowned with laurel, and the Madonna with the Child who holds a cat in His arms, both in the Uffizi—the last named being ascribed to Leonardo,—and the study for the head of Leda—a pen drawing at Windsor (Grosvenor Gallery Publication, 5o).
" 3. This landscape consists generally of a broad well-watered plain, with groups of low trees. He often introduces on one side a hill, with buildings, towers, Roman temples and arches. Landscape backgrounds of this description occur in the female portrait at Frankfort, in the picture with the `Madonna and St. Leonard' in the Palazza Pubblico at Siena, in the `Adoration of the Magi' in S. Agostino, in the `St. Sebastian' of the Uffizi, and elsewhere. I may supplement the characteristic of Sodoma which I have just mentioned by a few more : quod abundat non viciat.
"4. The ear in the female portrait at Frankfort is similar in form to those in his other works. It should be compared with the ears in the following pictures :—with those of St. Leonard in the Palazzo Pubblico at Siena, of St. Joseph in St. Agostino, of a halbardier with his back to the spectator in the `Crucifixion' in the public gallery at Siena, and with those of one of Alexander the Great's attendants in the fresco in the Farnesina. The children in Sodoma's pictures have always, however, a more rounded form of ear.
" 5. Sodoma's treatment of hair is also peculiar to himself. In female heads it is often arranged in crisp waves on the temples, as in the portrait at Frankfort. We meet with this characteristic in the following works :—the `Lucretia' in the Kestner Museum, the ` Roxana' in the Farnesina, the ` Madonnone' at Vaprio, the Madonna belonging to Mme. Ginoulhiac at Milan, the pen gallery at Siena, and with the hand of the Madonna in two other pictures, one in the possession of Mme. Ginoulhiac at Milan, the drawing in the head of Leda (Grov. Gall. Pub. n. 5o) and the pen drawings under the name of Leonardo at Chatsworth (Braun, 51) and in the Uffizi (No. 421, Braun, 448 (I) ). These are some of his leading traits. We shall call attention to others as we proceed."