Art of The Berlin Galleries – Sculpture In Marble Of Donatello And Desiderio, And Old Florentine Paintings

Among the marbles in this cabinet we find some important paintings of the early leaders, Fra Angelico, Masaccio and Fra Filippo Lippi, the pioneers of the Quattrocento, who with Ucello and Castagno brought forth the new art expression of the Renaissance.

The most magnificent work of Fra Angelico is his Last Judgment ” (60), a triptychon, which was acquired in 1884 from the collection of the Earl of Dudley of London. In no work has Angelico shown the breadth and richness of his thought as in this altarpiece. Best known for the ecstatic feeling and the sacramental earnestness which inspired him, and which led him to the picturing of angelic beauty, heavenly blitheness, vivid portrayal of the blessed and the saints, we find here also a Dantesque canto on the pathos of the dies irae. The fate of the accidiosi, gulosi, iracundi, invidi, libidinosi, is depicted with startling vividness, without the grotesque caricatures we generally find in the work of the northern painters, Bosch, Teniers and Cranach. But the Fra did not love the side of evil, and this portion is subdued, with ever diminishing figures, and forms the contrast to the procession of monks, saints and angels, entering the gates of paradise. Here the master pours out his soul in the joy of life that is hallowed by faith and holy ardour. The rhythmic dance of angels, full of heavenly joy and ecstacy, through the flowery meads towards the heavenly gates, is the most beautiful Fra Angelico has ever painted. This work was the culmination of his art, painted in Rome about 1450, and with all the feeling of the Middle Ages it gives an expression of this feeling which is almost modern.

It is exceedingly rare to find an easel painting by Masaccio (1401-1427), even in Italy, for his working-days extended only over ten years — at the age of twenty-seven he was murdered in a Roman street. But the Berlin Museum possesses three panels by this young genius.

Almost nothing is known of Masaccio’s life. The only estimate we can form of him as a man is what Vasari tells about him, that he was very absorbed and absent minded, a man who had thrown himself heart and soul into his art, and careless about temporal affairs. ” So not because of any vicious habits (for he was a man of innate goodness), but merely on account of excessive neglect of himself, everybody called him not Thomas, his real name, but Masaccio [a rough English rendering would be ` that poor wretch of a Tom ’1. For all that, his readiness and courtesy in helping others left nothing to be desired.”

And yet, in spite of the short period of his activity, the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the Carmine at Florence are regarded as having been an academia for the artists that followed. For no man more signally influenced the art of the Renaissance than Masaccio. His greatest achievement is that he was the first who practised that quality in art, for which Bernard Berenson has so aptly used the phrase : the giving of tactile values. As Berenson expresses it : ” I feel that I could touch every figure, that it would yield a definite resistance to my touch, that I should have to expend much effort to displace it, that I could walk around it.”

Thus Masaccio was the first to give bodily form to his figures. Heretofore they had been flat — he gave them the illusion of being round. This new doctrine of form, originated by Donatello, was transferred by Masaccio to the graphic arts, and thereby he led in that quality which became the strongest characteristic and the greatest glory of the Florentine school — form.

Two of his panels in the Berlin Museum are the only remains of the predella of an altarpiece, the main panel of which is lost, which he painted for the Church del Carmine in Pisa. On one of these panels we have an ” Adoration of the Kings (58A), not as crowded as Pisano’s which we saw in the first room, but with an orderly grouping of exquisitely painted figures. The principal person-ages are not, as is usually the case, the three Kings, but two finely drawn figures, occupying the centre of the scene, and representing the donors of the altarpiece, Giuliano di Colino degli Scarsi and his brother, in the costume of jurists of Pisa. The manger-group on the left must have been a re-production of the manner of its stage representation at the time. The hilly landscape with its rolling masses binds the composition together in a grand, yet restful manner.

In contrast with this festive scene the two views on the other panel (58B) are oppressive. They represent the martyrdom of St. Peter and of St. John the Baptist. Peter is being crucified outside the gates between the two Roman pyramids, with his head down, as he himself desired. John is being held down to earth by the pike of a soldier, while another soldier swings the broad sword that shall sever John’s head. The action of the murdering soldiers is very expressive and has a high plane of reality and significance. On both the panels we must admire the strength of the young men, the gravity and power of the old. Small as the composition is, it has all the breadth of feeling, the firm symmetry, the austere simplicity that we find in his large frescoes.

Still more are these new elements discernible in the third work by Masaccio, a tondo (58C) with finely carved frame, in imitation of a so-called ” Desco da parto,” which means a plate upon which presents and food were handed to a woman lying in childbirth. This tondo offers one of the first presentations of a non-biblical subject ever made. The scene shows the interior of a house, on the one side a rich corridor, on the other the room where the child is born. In this room, richly hung with tapestries, we see the mother stretched on a couch and waited upon by servants and neighbours. In the corridor we see a number of women friends approaching the door of the chamber to offer congratulations. They are accompanied by two pages blowing on heraldic trumpets — rather an inconsiderate noise to torture the ears of the young mother — and two other pages, one of whom carries such a Desco da parto. The architecture shows the new building style of the Early Renaissance, which had just been introduced, already in full perfection.

The impression which Masaccio made upon the younger generation of artists was so powerful that even those who at first followed the footsteps of Fra Angelico soon fell into the example of the great realist. Thus in the work of his greatest pupil, Fra Filippo Lippi, we do no longer find the pietism of the Dominican monk but a naturalism full of material beauty. Lippi’s strongest impulse was towards expression of the pleasant, genial, spiritually comfortable joy of life — as might be expected from one whose sins and follies and immorality brought shame and disgrace on himself and the religious order of the Carmelites with which he was connected. At one time Abbot of San Quirico, Lippi died an unfrocked priest.

With Masaccio we find the first bold and unequivocal departure from the authority of the traditions of art recognized by all the followers of Giotto, the first unbiased natural inspiration — with Fra Filippo Lippi we have the first direct recourse to the individual as a substitute for the ideal. He it was who brought the human type into art, in exchange for that ideal but conventional type which had been called divine. He made the Madonna a real mother of a real baby, and gave to sacred personages the features of living men and women.

What Burckhart calls ” the most beautiful painting in the Museum,” is Filippo’s ” Adoration of the Child ” (69), which the artist, still young, painted for the family chapel of the Medici in the Palazzo Riccardi. On the walls of this chapel Benozzo Gozzoli had painted the three Magi in the forms of the Medici themselves — who came riding in a gorgeous Oriental cavalcade towards this altarpiece with its idyllic setting in an umbrous woodscene. It was a new way of portraying the worshipping Madonna, away from the stable, and surrounded by the dark, clustering trees of a cool forest. The attractive, winsome face of the Virgin, robed in red and blue, bends forward over her graceful, delicate hands as she looks upon the fascinating babe that lies playfully among the grass and flowers. The little John, in lambskin, holding a small cross, and with that air of gentle sadness which Filippo loved to give him, stands a little way off, and the God-father himself witnesses the scene from above, shedding illuminating rays from the dove over the little group below.

In his middle period Fra Filippo lost much of his delicate charm because of his study of scientific naturalism, and the ” Madonna with the Child” (58) is by no means in as fascinating a mood as he displayed again later on — for which remember his ” Mother of Consolation ” in the first room. The Madonna before us stands in a niche, the shell-like top of which forms the background to her head. The type of her face is a broad oval, with a snub nose, dolorous looking mouth, and short chin, and the child looks rather dropsical. We note here also his principal weakness in the bunchy, billowy draperies, which he acquired from his first master, the Giottesque painter Lorenzo Monaco.

( Originally Published 1912 )

The Art of The Berlin Galleries:The Kaiser Friedrich Museum – History Of The CollectionThe Italian PaintingsRoom 29 – Italian Paintings Of The 14th, And The First Half Of The 15th CenturyRoom 30 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturySculpture In Marble Of Donatello And Desiderio, And Old Florentine PaintingsRooms 34 — Ferrarese And Bolognese Paintings Of The 15th And 16th CenturiesRoom 35 – Lombard PaintingsRoom 64 – The Carpets After Raphael’s CartoonsRoom 38 – Florentine Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRoom 37 – Umbrian And Paduan Paintings Of The 15th CenturyRead More Articles About: The Art of The Berlin Galleries