15th Century Renaissance Painting

FOR a skeleton view of the subject, we shall lay down the following preliminary outlines:

In the eighteenth century great Italian painting is conspicuous by its absence. The names of the Tiepoli (singular, Tiepolo) in Venice, or of Canaletto and of Guardi, famed for their views of Venetian architecture, will hold a very minor place in the perspective which places the sixteenth century in the foreground.

In the seventeenth century the painters of Spain and the Netherlands were at least the equals and often the superiors of their Italian brethren of the same date, a fact which has its analogies in the history of architecture. At this time the Italian painting was still excellent in color, in design, and in science; but it had come to have a more academic and formal, less spirited and less genuine, quality in the treatment and conception of subjects. Its color cannot compare with that of the Venetians of the sixteenth century. Its composition did not rival that of Raphael. Its intellectual quality did not remotely approach the genius of Michael Angelo or Da Vinci. Above all its scale and dimension of productions had fallen. Scarcely any great architectural compositions were produced in the seventeenth century; which was almost entirely confined to panel painting and canvas as distinct from frescoes. The importance of Guido’s “Aurora ” makes it one of the rare exceptions to this statement.

In turning to the sixteenth century painting we note its most important monumental works as the decoration of the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, by Michael Angelo; the wall-paintings of the Vatican by Raphael, and the decoration of the Doge’s Palace in Venice by a whole series of the great Venetian artists. The forerunner and first great painter of this period was Da Vinci, whose ” Last Supper ” in Milan was finished about 1498. As leading ‘up to this period we begin with the fifteenth century.

To a comprehension at once of the limitations of this time and of its remarkable advance over that which preceded, we must remember what this preceding time had done and what its characteristics were. In my ” Roman and Medieval Art ” I have given some illustrations of the art of Giotto, its leading master, and some account of the art revolution accomplished in the fourteenth century and best represented by his work.

This work was the overthrow of that stiff and formal style of design which Byzantine art had practiced for nearly a thousand years preceding;* but Italian painting was still in its infancy during the fourteenth century and was still controlled by the medieval point of view, in which nature for its own sake played no part.

Italian Christian art was still satisfied during the fourteenth century with the most primitive and summary indications of natural surroundings and backgrounds. Portraiture was not attempted, neither was perspective or the realistic rendering of details. Its color scheme was, how-ever, bright and decorative, its conception of the subject matter serious and original.

In contrast with these traits the realistic point of view was the ruling one for the fifteenth century. No figure but was drawn and colored from an actual model; no background without a landscape (Fra Angelico is the sole exception and only in some cases) ; no landscape that did not in effort strive to show the facts of nature; no face that was not a portrait; no expression that did not strive to reveal character.

More than this, the actual Italian life of the time was represented in the disguise of scripture subjects. The drunkenness of Noah takes place in an Italian vineyard (Benozzo Gozzoli in Pisa). The building of the Tower of Babel is done by Italian masons in an Italian landscape (Benozzo Gozzoli in Pisa). The birth of the Savior is a domestic scene in Florence (Ghirlandajo in Santa Maria Novella).

We should hasten to add that the incongruities of these representations soon cease to amuse, or even to draw the attention of, a student as anachronisms. On the contrary, it is the actual life of Italy which he delights to find, as the time itself delighted to represent it.

There is a double point of view from which we learn to understand that neither impiety nor indifference to the attributed subject is in question in these pictures. The literature of the Bible, as illustrated by art, was so far part and parcel of the daily lives of the people that it was most natural for them to see it represented through the medium of their own actual surroundings. The subjects were traditional, and although they had been represented in earlier times with less matter-of-fact detail, they never had been presented so as to represent the life of Palestine.

On the other hand, the literature of the Bible was valued as a species of epitome of life and history at large, in which all periods of civilization and all varieties of costume were equally congenial to the heart and spirit of the matter. The Madonna was not only the Virgin Mary, but a type and ideal of the purity of motherhood. The drunkenness of Noah was the standard temperance sermon. In the domestic life of the Holy Family was found a type and ideal of the domestic life of humanity at large.

What we should then mainly gather from those realistic features of fifteenth century art which strike us as incongruous, is that a dawning, or rather a reawakened, sense of the beauty of actual nature and interest in visible things for their own sake led the artist to create their counterparts and the people to delight in looking at them. The traditional subjects of Christian art were not less interesting, but rather more so on this account.

The first development of fifteenth century art was Florentine, and the artists of Florence became the masters and teachers of all Italy. It is, therefore, by no means especially in Florence that their work is to be studied. On the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel at Rome is a most important series of frescoes by a number of Florentine painters. In the Campo Santo at Pisa* there is another series, the work of the Florentine Benozzo Gozzoli. Besides these we may name as especially important the wall-paintings of Ghirlandajo (Geerlandaio) in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.

The Florentine Masaccio (Masatcheo) was the first great innovator of his time, and his name stands in fifteenth century painting as does that of Giotto in the fourteenth. Not only was he the first in time, but he was also distinctly the greatest of his entire period, which lasted down to the ” Last Supper” of Da Vinci. This position is awarded him not only on grounds of execution and technical improvement of design, but also for the great dignity and power of his thoughtful paintings.

In the Brancacci (Brancatchy) Chapel of the Church of Santa Carmine (Carminy) at Florence are found the great wall-paintings of this master, who died so young that we other wise can quote no really important picture by his hand. They were executed between 1423 and 1428.

From the various paintings of this chapel I have selected a detail from a small portion of ” The Raising of Eutychus,” in which the strong realism and differentiation of the portraits and of their facial expressions are well illustrated. These may be compared with the faces in Giotto’s “Deposition,” for a contrast with the style preceding.* Supposed to be from a design of Masaccio, as executed by his follower Filippino Lippi, is the picture of ‘St. Peter in Prision.

Visited by St. Paul,” another of the series in this chapel.

According to the natural conditions of the large wall spaces to be decorated (see for example the lower side walls of the Sistine Chapel, Fig. 88, or the walls of the Campo Santo at Pisa, Fig. 143, ” Roman and Medieval Art “) , the most usual shape of the wall-painting was that of a large oblong panel, and this was filled with a multitude of figures of life-size dimensions. The range and choice of subjects covered the whole field of Bible history. There are no similar pictures to be seen outside of Italy, and here they can only be known on the plastered walls of the original buildings.

Owing to the habit of the artists of introducing large groups of accessory figures and spectators, who are not active participants in the scene represented, and who mainly fill the foreground of the painting, these works frequently lack variety and interest of action. On the other hand, they always offer interesting studies of contemporary Italian costume and individuality. As entire compositions they are very important as illustrating, by contrast, the great advance made after the time of the ” Last Supper.”

It is in the draping; pose, action, and physiognomy of the individual figures, and in the realistic accessories and background details that we notice their own epoch-making importance in contrast with earlier times. Comparison with contemporary paintings of northern Europe, among which the Flemish and German would offer most accessible illustration, is one good way to appreciate their value. But however remarkable these pictures become in the history of design, when compared with earlier Italian or northern contemporary work, we shall fail of hitting the mark if we consider them purely or mainly from the standpoint of the artist in design.

The main point to be considered is that they represented a public art, existing for the people at large, serving for their education, edification, and instruction. We must bear constantly in mind their individual large dimensions and the fact that all chapels, churches, public halls, and civic buildings were habitually decorated with them. They existed for every one, were accessible to every one and largely took the place in the education of the time, now occupied by printed books. These were just coming into use in the later part of the fifteenth century, but had not yet usurped the place hitherto filled by the pictures.

It is, moreover, to be constantly kept in view that the subjects themselves were traditional and familiar to the thought of the time. Thus they were popular in the best sense. When we consider, finally, the nature of the subjects treated, as regards elevation of thought and wide significance, even apart from their sacred character, the position of Italian painting in the history of culture begins to dawn upon us.

There is, then, this threefold point of view for fifteenth century Italian paintings. First, considering the arts of drawing and painting in their relation to visible nature and in their ability to represent it, as important departments of modern culture, we observe that fifteenth century Italy first acquired and developed this knowledge and that our own knowledge is a traditional inheritance from this period.

Second, considering the general interest of the early Renaissance for modern history, it is a great point that we are able so closely to revive the memories of this time through the medium of pictures which so faithfully portray the facts of its own life, although generally Biblical in subject.

Third, we learn to appreciate the importance of Italian art as a part of the intellectual and educational apparatus of the nation at large, its large patronage for public purposes, and the significance of its subjects as revealing the interests and modes of thought of the common people.

As matter-of-fact history concerning the development of this earliest Renaissance style, we emphasize its wonder-fully sudden first appearance in the art of Masaccio; considering that the fourteenth century period, headed by Giotto, did not make any advances beyond the limits he himself had reached and that the dates of Masaccio’s pictures in the Brancacci Chapel are the very earliest dates for anything in painting distinct from the style of Giotto.

Although the name of Masolino is generally known as that of Masaccio’ s teacher, and although his participation in the execution of certain frescoes in this chapel has been asserted by Vasari, we should, admitting this participation, which is doubted by the great critic, Jacob Burchardt, still have the same fact to emphasize regarding the sudden development of the new style, for the paintings by Masolino near Milan are later than those of the Florentine Chapel.

As matter-of-fact history, we again emphasize the absence of any important advance beyond the style of Masaccio until the very close of the fifteenth century. Many of its later artists continued its traditions into the sixteenth century, in which they overlap and post-date the epoch-making works of that time.

In the fifteenth century, as related to the fourteenth, we can only quote one similar case of an overlap of style, that of the Florentine artist, Fra Angelico of Fiesole, who in many ways reminds us of the Giotto period. For piety and simple purity of conception this artist monk holds a place distinctly his own (Fig. 63).

We have so far made no mention of the altar pieces the Madonna pictures, pictures of saints, and Biblical painting on panel. These were painted for shrines, chapels, and churches, as devotional pictures. They consequently exhibit a more traditional quality and resemble one another as types more closely than the wall frescoes, in which contemporary secular life was so largely used to convey Biblical subjects. The idea of fifteenth century art derived from these latter pictures would, for this reason, be a narrow one and yet they are the only pictures which foreign museums or galleries can display, because they are the only ones which are transferable or portable.

We should remember, then, that such paintings represent a minor field of the whole art of the time in spite of their number, interest, and frequent beauty. Their destination for an altar or shrine is to be constantly kept in view, and should not be overlooked because the picture has been transferred to a gallery of paintings. This destination involved serious devotional appearance and was characterized by traditional repetitions of certain set arrangements and motives. As studied in their details these oil paintings will however give interesting evidence of the realistic tendencies of the age, especially when compared with earlier works.

A point of much importance in the estimate of these panel pictures is that painting in oil colors, then newly introduced from Flanders, where the Van Eycks had first successfully practiced it, had not yet begun to treat the lights and shadows, or to represent the figures, with that soft modelling which Da Vinci was the first to practice and teach.

In fresco (painting on walls) distinct outlines, without shading, were the desideratum, because the balance of out-lines and figures had to be considered for architectural results. The oil paintings of this period show us in reality the methods usual in fresco and have consequently a certain hardness and formalism of outlines which rather obscure their really faithful studies of the human figure and of natural objects.

To this same appearance of formalism was also contributory the very anxiety and painstaking efforts of art to represent that which was actual and real in nature.

As far as the names of the painters are concerned, and aside from those already mentioned, we feel disposed to lay stress on those who were related as teachers and masters to the great artists of the next generation.

Michael Angelo, for instance, had been an apprentice in the studio of Ghirlandajo (frescoes in Maria Novella, Florence) although his most direct predecessor as regards the study of the nude and fore-shortening of the figure was Luca Signorelli (frescoes in Orvieto).

Raphael’s master is generally said to have been Perugino, but recent researches of the great Italian critic, Giovanni Morelli, have quite clearly proven that Timoteo della Vite was Raphael’s first teacher and that his connection with Perugino was of later date than is usually supposed.

Leonardo da Vinci’s teacher in painting was Verocchio (Verokyo), who was still more distinguished as a sculptor.

All of these names belong to the Florentine School. The only great rival school of fifteenth century painting was that of Padua, headed by Mantegna, whose specialties were anatomy, perspective, and foreshortening. The effort of the century to realize nature in art with scientific exactitude reached its climax in Mantegna as far as painting is concerned. The hardness and formalism then characteristic of this effort are correspondingly prominent in his work. In the late fifteenth century we observe the first activity of Venetian painters under inspirations drawn from the School of Padua.

Among these earlier Venetians, Carpaccio (Carpatchyo) stands foremost in interest when the study of the contemporary Italian life is in question. His series of pictures in the Academy of Venice for the life of Saint Ursula is a famous authority for costumes and daily life in fifteenth century Venice. The two brothers Bellini of Venice, like Perugino, lived in both the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and according as earlier or later paintings are selected will represent the style of one or the other century. The early art of Giovanni Bellini, the more important of the two brothers, will serve as an excellent illustration of the hard effects and painstaking formalism of Mantegna and the Paduan School, from which he was an offshoot.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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