General Character Of Sodoma
( Originally Published 1908 )
IN addition to the long list of frescoes and paintings which we have already considered and about which we have been able to obtain contemporary information, there still remains to be noted a small number of minor works, of but little relative value as examples of his art, but bearing some historical importance.
Chief among these are the various portraits of himself. The only thoroughly authenticated one is that of Monte Oliveto, painted, as we have seen, when five-and-twenty years of age, at the epoch of his first important commission. It is a young, rugged face, with blunt, plebeian features, full, however, of intelligence and some wistful thoughtfulness lying behind the eyes, in spite of the evident self-consciousness induced by the new clothes. There is a small panel portrait in the Uffizi, said to be his by some critics. The technique is heavier than was usual with him in middle life, but it is not altogether unlike the Monte Oliveto fresco, allowing for the face to have matured. The hair is long, in curls around the neck, and the short beard untrimmed. A dress of black, mingled with crimson velvet, the fine white shirt just showing at the throat, and a dark velvet cap, are set against a background of dark, sombre sky. It is a face grown thin, without refinement, a mouth still full and sensual in spite of the deep hollows under the eyes, as of one who had suffered from neuralgic pain; but the eyes have the same look that they had in youth ; there is the old contradiction in the face, even as in the work, the dual elements eternally at war.
The bearded head of the old man in the Pitti (No 382), also said to be a portrait of himself, is not recognised by critics of authority, nor does it bear much resemblance to the other two.
Local tradition has further associated his name with the peering head wedged in between the two tree-trunks in his famous " Adoration of the Magi," made for the brothers John and Arduino Arduini. Unlike their fellow - townsmen, these gentlemen were none too generous in their remuneration to the painters, and Bazzi, never having laid by a penny in his life, and possibly being in debt into the bargain, began the famous lawsuit against the Arduini.
This picture, so singularly fitted for the consideration of students, for it illustrates all his more noticeable characteristics, is still in the Piccolomini chapel of the church of Sant' Agostino at Siena. The head above referred to is that of one of the shepherds, a subordinate personage rendered suddenly striking by some peculiar realism in its treatment.
It is neither a beautiful face nor a good face which looks from between the tree-trunks away from the Madonna and towards the gaily harnessed horses led by negro slaves. But it is undoubtedly a portrait, and there are many who accept it as Sodoma's own, in spite of its sharper features. But the Italian countenance, often full and puffy in early youth, is apt to assume in later life a sharpness of outline almost unrecognisable. Della Valle speaks of two portraits of himself, one of them signed Giovanni Antonio da Vercelli, where he also declares the honour of his Siennese citizenship, and Vasari mentions that in the perished fresco at San Francesco, of which there only remains the fragment now in the Siena Gallery, Sodoma had drawn his own likeness, clean-shaven and with flowing hair.
Above the gate of San Viene we have another version of himself in his old age, bearing a brush in his hand, which points towards a cartellino with the words " Fac tu." These various portraits, alternately with and without beard, but show that the painter was a close observer of current fashion, as befitted a Chevalier of the Pope's creation and a Knight-at-arms, and they also enable us to follow his changeful physiognomy throughout a variety of phases.
There is a good deal of his work in England, chiefly in private collections. Our National Gallery is unfortunate in having but two very small and very poor specimens of the master's work. They are not in any way representative. The " Madonna under the red canopy with the kneeling monk presented by St. Peter" is probably one of his late "pot-boilers." It was originally in the Rosini collection at Pisa, and may have been painted there during the last years of the artist's life, while he was working at the choir decorations in the cathedral.
The head of Christ, crowned with thorns, was probably part of a much larger picture, and has been remounted. It is evidently the central figure of a procession to Calvary, for the head is bent under the weight of a large cross, the eyes are downcast, and the hands uplifted as if in prayer. Nevertheless, it is quite shallow in sentiment, and has none of that peculiar pathos and intensity with which his sincerer work is imbued.
There is, however, another fragment by Sodoma in the National Gallery,—the Child in Signorelli's large altar-piece of the Circumcision. It appears that the Franciscan brothers, for whom this panel was painted, objected to Signorelli's treatment of the infant Christ, and, on the plea of it having been spoiled by the damp (!), caused it to be repainted by Sodoma, who also touched up the Virgin's face. Vasari gives the historical basis for this theory,* and upon a closer examination of the picture itself we may see that the attitude of the Child's legs has been altered, the old outline showing through the Madonna's robe, and the whole modelling is obviously by another hand.
It is to be regretted that our public galleries possess no worthier specimen of Sodoma's work.
A very beautiful and highly-finished drawing is to be found, however, in the British Museum ; in the same case as the four authentic Leonardos. It is in black chalk touched with white in the high lights, and re-presents the head of a youth, evidently a portrait. The nimbus, and the letters I.O. which have converted it into a saint are thought to be a later addition. The trustees of the Museum regard it as the portrait of Timoteo Viti by Raphael—probably because it was at one time in a private collection at Urbino, but Morelli has pointed out to us the fact that it is probably by Sodoma, and a careful examination of and the chalk drawing in the Uffizi of the young man crowned with laurel, will, I think, show the same characteristics of line and shading.
Signor Morelli had himself two fine panels of Sodoma's, which he left, together with the rest of his collection, to the public gallery at Bergamo. One of these is a "Madonna and Child" in the orthodox Lombard manner, so entirely Leonardesque in treatment that it was formerly counted among that master's work. The other, a male head in oils, has traces of a certain Flemish tendency, a peculiar manner of laying on the colour which we may observe in the Frankfort portrait and in his early tondi at Siena. Besides these there are two drawings in red chalk, one for the figure of Christ in the " Resurrection," the other of "St. Christopher crossing the stream."
Signor Enrico Costa of Florence has a late work, a small panel depicting the half-length figure of the dead Christ upheld by the Virgin and Magdalen, a subject which Sodoma never approached in his early period, but which we find frequent after 1525.
In the sacristy of San Tommaso, Milan, there is a somewhat similar panel ; and we have already described that belonging to Dr. Richter.
The public gallery of Genoa has possessed for some years a " Holy Family " classified among Sodoma's late work. It formed part of a small collection left to the city by Prince Oddone di Savoia, brother of the late King ; and Lady Layard has at Venice, among the collection of her late husband, a small panel of the " Virgin and Child surrounded by a glory of angels."
In the vaulted offices under the great Hospital at Siena, now belonging to the Societa di Eseguzione di Pia Disposizione, is to be found a " Madonna and Child with St. John," painted on panel, a charming little picture of his late middle period, but which has been spoiled by the little St. John having been retouched and the flesh tints varnished until they are far too yellow. The Virgin holds the infant Christ, who playfully toys with St. John's cross. St. Joseph in a yellow robe is seen behind the Virgin's right shoulder, and to her left is an airy landscape, such as Sodoma loved to paint, with winding river, distant town upon the water's edge with all its minutiae—turret, buttress, and bridge.
Perhaps one of his most genial characteristics is this great delight in landscape, which was but another and probably less developed form of his love for nature shown in the fondness for animals. The tendency to look more and more at the external world was a growing one in his day, and painters of such opposite schools as Perugino, Leonardo, and Titian united in their poetic appreciation of natural scenery and their recognition of its harmony with man.
In Sodoma the natural beauty seems sometimes to out-weigh the human interest, especially in much of his later work, where the figures are carelessly done. His stretches of country are nearly always painted with tenderness and care, as if in age he had grown weary of his intercourse with men and turned to the mute life of hill and lake and wind-swept plain for refreshment.
There is, finally, a small number of pictures by him quoted by early writers, which have either altogether disappeared, or else exist in remote corners under other names.
There are two early panels mentioned by Della Valle done for the Savini family, for which Antonio Barili carved the frames ; the " Virgin and Child with St. Joseph holding a vase," and a " Virgin and Child with St. Joseph, St. John Baptist, and St. Catherine of Siena."
Then there was the small panel for the organ of San Francesco, of the "Virgin nursing her Child," recently found by Mrs. Richter, and Della Valle also tells of a cassone, or marriage chest, decorated for one of the brides of the Saracini household, with scenes relative to the Judgment of Paris.
The picture representing Phaeton falling from the chariot of the Sun has already been mentioned (see P. 85).
Vasari, speaking of Sodoma's friendship with James V. of Piombino, distinctly says that he painted sundry pictures for him, and in the correspondence between that Prince and the Signoria of Siena, we remember that James gives as an excuse for Sodoma's delay in returning that he was so absorbed in the picture he was painting for him that he could not tear himself away from it. But we are not told the subject.
Baron Rumohr speaks of having found at Siena certain fragments by Sodoma treating the metamorphoses of Cephalus, but I have not been able to trace them ; and in the records of that lawsuit between the painter and the brothers Arduini we remember that part of Biringucci's verdict was that the Arduini should restore to Sodoma a round panel representing the "Virgin and Child, with St. Joseph and St. Elizabeth."
It is, on the whole, not easy to justly estimate the artistic position of a man so productive as Sodoma, and so extraordinarily unequal in his productions, without falling either into the error of viewing him too completely in the light of his inferior work, and so underrating his masterpieces, or that of extending an unmerited value to all that came from his hand. He has suffered from literary injustice in Vasari's biassed criticism, he has suffered from technical contempt through his own defect of overproduction, and consequent inequality. The mere fact that his life was a long one, and his paintings far too numerous, has crowded out, in popular estimation, the memory of those few works of absolute genius on which his higher reputation rests.
And much that has been put down to Sodoma's wayward individuality may, in reality, be attributed to the general tendencies of his age and the society in which he lived. It is undeniable that the really great man, the hero, guides, rather than is guided by, his environment ; but we have not claimed for Sodoma a position among the greatest.
And one has to bear in mind, also, that what his con-temporaries sought in art was less the edification of the mind than the pleasure of the eye. The sensuousness that had entirely taken possession of Italian literature was spreading now into the more lately developed field of painting, and the criticism of either art was directed rather towards its beauty of form, pleasing line or ringing metre, than to the idea or sentiment expressed. Painting especially, in seeking thus exclusively for mere plastic beauty, was losing touch more and more with thought, and, as it became less intellectual, beginning to lose also some of the highest qualities of beauty.
The whole of Siennese art had been from the beginning less thoughtful, less literary than the Florentine ; it was the emotional expression of simpler natures not trained in the subtleties of feeling which the combined influence of the Florentine scholastics and Greek revivalists had brought about. Siena awoke late to a knowledge of the classics, and suffered much less than Florence and Venice from that form of religious eclecticism which ended in artistic insincerity. But even Siena on her hill - tops could not escape the general tide of thought which was sweeping over Europe, and in the transition from the mediaeval to the modern standpoint, she, too, passed through her phase of uncertainty and affectation.
Sodoma came at the beginning of this phase. What was best in him held to the old tradition, the sincerity of the Middle Ages. The practical side of him, the obvious need of bread, carried him along with the tide ; and the sincerity which is found in modern art, the poetry of realism, was as yet undiscovered. Hence the anomalous character of his painting, the indecision of his mental bias.
He left a great deal that was showy and trivial ; he was often unequal in the different parts of a picture itself, frequently throwing all his skill into the working of a central figure and dashing in the subordinate subjects hurriedly, as in St. Anna in Creta ; or else working but half-heartedly at the ostensible motiv, and concentrating his energy upon the perfection of some lesser group, as in the Descent into Hades. He had all the advantages and all the defects of an over-rich artistic imagination, and a bias towards thé subtle and mystic which often degenerated into the production of what was merely weak.
The sensuality with which not only Vasari but con-temporary poems tax him was probably an integral part of his character, the ardent, fiery, impressionable artist-nature, as quick to throw itself into extremes of degradation as to rise to sublimest heights of intuitive faith.
It is the same temperament which we find in St. Augustine, St. Francis, and St. Bernardino, the vitality which, ill-directed, secures us the libertine, and, chastened and inspired, supplies the saint.
Sodoma did not become a saint ; he remained a sinner and a reprobate to the end of his life, and died poor and neglected in the public infirmary. What in others developed into a feverish and ardent piety, in him remained forever merely potential. It sufficed, however, to give a particular character to his art. His strength can never be said to have lain in dramatic grouping or even in proportion of composition. His abundant fancy led him often to overcrowd his canvas, and a violent two-fold action going on at the same time induces a great feeling of restlessness in most of his larger works. He was at his best in the portrayal of single figures, overwhelmed by some profound or subtle emotion ; St. Catherine swooning in the excess of her religious fervour, Eve bewildered as she first steps into the light of day, St. Sebastian uplifted in the wonder of his martyrdom, or, most profound of all, Our Lord in the hands of the scourgers. If he could not invest his Madonnas with the great purity of Perugino or Botticelli's solemn thoughtfulness, he could at least paint men and women under the influence of strong and exalted passion, the mysterious sweetness of whose faces haunts one with persistent power. Unfortunately, Sodoma, as Rio observes, was too often content to sacrifice quality to quantity, and, amid all his work, there are only some five or six of his paintings which can take their place among the great works of the century.
But it is through the merits of these that his claim to greatness lies, and one has grown to associate with his name a sense of the dignity of suffering and the majesty of human nature at its moments of martyrdom and sacrifice.
Wherever humanity has escaped from its daily round to reach a supreme crisis of noble emotion, the artist became, as it were, inspired by his subject and rose to the occasion in art that was both spiritual and strong.