Art – The Renaissance In Italy

DAWN, mid-day and dusk; infancy, maturity, and old age; seed, fruit, and decay; eternal triads, the fate of all created things; a sequence eternally renewed so that decline is but the step that precedes the birth of something new; not to be regarded with repining and regret, but to be accepted as the natural order in the world; the art of the Renaissance passed through these three inevitable stages of transition from one state of being to another, as Grecian and Gothic had passed. To see the beauty in each, to learn the lesson each offers to our view, not to wish that this work were more mature, this not quite so over-ripe; not to expect the qualities of a Michael Angelo in a Botticelli—wishes vain and unfruitful; this is the business of the artist and the student of art alike.

What has been already said upon the general characteristic complexity of the period in Italy must suffice as an atmospheric envelope, through which we may occasionally throw a cross light illuminating some salience of personality or manners. The names that crowd in upon us, each evoking a swarm of associations and ideas, are countless; their mention without developing these mental pictures would be a mere stupid list ; our frame is too small to contain many and we must therefore concentrate our attention upon a few, to typify in each stage of the art of Italy in the Renaissance the major traits of that stage or of that personality.

We have mentioned Cimabue, Giotto, and Pisano as being precursors of the Renaissance in the Middle Age itself. These men and the group that immediately followed them laid the foundations upon which the structure of Italian Renaissance art arose. Painting and sculpture were developing a technique and a point of view; architecture lingered behind her younger sisters in Mediaeval by-ways, and it was not until she was led across the borders of the fifteenth century by Brunelleschi that she forsook them for the Roman road where Italian genius moved with freedom.

In 1402 this Filippo Brunelleschi, a young sculptor, disappointed in not receiving the award in the competition won by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence—later declared by Michael Angelo worthy of being the gates of Paradise—foreswore sculpture and took the road for Rome with his young friend Donatello to study architecture. These two boys, Donatello but sixteen and Brunelleschi nine years his senior, threw themselves with the ardor of their age and the precocity of their time into the study of classical antiquity in Rome, pursuing their re-searches far out into the Campagna. After five years Filippo returned to Florence to secure the commission to erect a dome over the crossing of nave and transepts of Arnolfo’s Cathedral of Santa Maria del’ Fiore. After some time he persuaded the Syndics of his ability, was given the work and carried it to its superb conclusion despite many vicissitudes and hindrances, including the unwelcome association with him of his old rival Ghiberti. He adorned his native city with many beautiful structures, works of real originality and genius, inspired by the principles of classic architecture but adapted to their modern uses. The Capella Pazzi, the Ospedale degli Innocenti, both embellished by the exquisite sculpture of Donatello and Della Robbia, and the stupendous Palazzo Pitti, are his; and he built fortifications at Pisa, and dams at Mantua to control the waters of the Po.

It is to be especially remarked of the work of the architects of the Early Renaissance that it is singularly free from mere imitation of antique motifs; it is truly creative; and it was reserved for the so-called High Renaissance, when the creative faculty in Italian art was exhausted, to imitate the Classic as closely as the men of the decadence were able, or feebly to attempt to follow the great gesture of Angelo.

Brunelleschi’s friend and partner Donatello was by all accounts one of the simplest and most lovable artists of the Renaissance. Some of his work exhibits that touch of austerity, almost of awkwardness, to be seen in Phidian. sculpture which, it will be recalled, was not only the transition from the primitive art of the pre-Periclean age but was in itself the culmination of all the great qualities of Greek sculpture; and, although it cannot be said of Donatello that in him culminates the sculpture of the Renaissance, he is the authentic link between the old order and the new and rises to heights unattained save by Michael Angelo himself. A man of versatility too, capable of the Saint George of Or San Michele in Florence, the superb equestrian statue of Gattamelata in Padua, and things of such wonderful spirituality, grace, beauty, and charm as the Saint Cecilia, the medallions of cherubs in the frieze of the Capella Pazzi, or the dancing children in the outdoor pulpit of the Duomo of Prato and for the organ loft of the Duomo of Florence. His was a truly sculptural gift, moving with power and sweetness within the limits of the craft and never straying into the barren fields of the merely pictorial where so many sculptors have lost themselves.

Of the painters contemporary with these simple giants of this early period we cannot but choose Masaccio, Ugly Tom, as he was affectionately called, a giant in stature as well as ability, a genius who started for Rome at twenty-seven and was never heard of again, vanishing without a trace from the perilous brigand-haunted highroads of Italy. Here was a remarkable man, far ahead of his time, to whose work the succeeding generation went to school. Raphael himself laid it under tribute and borrowed motifs from it. Through him the art of painting moves from infancy to maturity in one superb step with unhesitating authority. Atmosphere, movement, real light and air, a large sense of composition, breadth and dignity of treatment, modernity, suddenly appear in Italian painting. In his untimely and mysterious death the art of the world mourns the loss of a figure that gave promise of being ranged with the very greatest masters of painting of a later day.

It is always a matter for wonderment that men like Masaccio and Donatello and Raphael and a hundred others, should have produced such remarkable things in their youth. The time fostered precocious genius, it is true, but the training of the artist had much to do with it. Masaccio died at twenty-seven, Raphael at thirty-seven, with an immense amount of work of the highest quality behind them. But they, like their compeers, had begun their apprenticeship at a very early age, frequently at eight or nine or ten, learning the technical secrets of their trade—for trade it was—grinding colors, preparing panels, learning to draw and paint and model and carve; in very many cases the boy was apprenticed to a goldsmith, whose trade included all of the arts of design, and he learned to set gems, work in the precious metals, cast bronze and chase it. So that by the age at which a boy in America is about to enter college, the boy of the Renaissance was a fully trained, perfectly equipped master of a number of delicate and difficult crafts. Architects passed through this same training; it gave a boy a thorough technical training in art in all its branches and his special bent declared itself later. Would that we might re-turn to this principle in the education of the artist, encourage versatility and well-rounded training and combat the dangerous tendency toward a narrow specialism ! For the architect the system had the defects of its merits; the emphasis upon the decorative, pictorial aspects of art and the apparent neglect in most instances to foster a sound knowledge of construction resulted in a fertility of invention in details and a weakness on the structural side that vitiates the worth of a great deal of the architecture of the Renaissance in Italy, so much of it charmingly irrational, delight-fully untrue. But it was not a scientific age; the science of Renaissance architecture was to be developed much later, by the French.

Bramante Lazzari, the architect who planned Saint Peter’s in Rome, Andrea Verocchio, sculptor and painter, teacher of Lionardo da Vinci, and Andrea Mantegna, the painter so long attached to the Gonzaga family in Mantua, may be selected as representative of the second stage, the period of full development, in which a robust and yet delicate sophistication effaces the marks of transition visible in the term just traversed. These men may be regarded, with Lionardo da Vinci who was only seventeen years younger than his master Verocchio, and with the two great figures of Michael Angelo and Raphael, as marking the highest level of Renaissance art, although in point of time Lionardo and Bramante were contemporaries and Angelo and Raphael were born twenty-five and thirty-five years later. Titian, the Venetian master, was, too, a contemporary of Michael Angelo; but it is usual to treat the Venetian school as lying outside the main current of Italian art just as Venice herself, politically and geographically, occupied a unique position. The intensely personal genius of Angelo accords him a place apart. Raphael is much more easily apprehended as the child of his time, of his training, and of the traditions in which he was nurtured. In his harmonious nature, in his highly sensitive artistic gifts, the aesthetics of art and its science, the golden clews that other men had followed were gathered up and woven into a splendid tissue of supreme accomplishment. So Raphael, while by no means the hero of the Renaissance, also has his place apart like Angelo, and like Lionardo, whose personality is one of the most fascinating of all time.

Bramante was born in Urbino. His first master was Mantegna, but his bent was architectural, and chance and a wandering foot led him through the cities. of Lombardy and finally to Milan, where he emerges from obscurity about 1492 as the author of the lovely Santa Maria delle Grazie. He was then forty-eight. Three years later he began the beautiful Cancellaria in Rome, the offices of the Chancellor of the Roman Church. He must have returned to Milan, for he is supposed to have fled from there with Lionardo da Vinci when their patron Ludovico Sforza fell into the hands of Louis XII of France in 1499. He made as thorough a study as Brunelleschi of Roman and Graeco Roman remains; these studies, and especially of those works transmitting Grecian inspiration, combined with the probable influence of the subtle Lionardo, and possible acquaintance with the refinements of the best Gothic architecture, must have turned his mind toward those subtleties and refinements of which his work is full. The profile of every moulding is studied with the most sensitive care and the most subtle science; his arcades are rhythmically spaced, the openings toward the centre being of greater span; and the curvature of horizontal lines seems to be the only Greek refinement that was sealed from him.

He was, after executing such works as this Cancellaria and the Court of the Belvedere in the Vatican, made Clerk to the Signet in the Papal organization, and under Julius II made his design for a new Saint Peter’s to take the place of the old basilica found to be too small to receive the huge tomb which Julius projected for himself and which Michael Angelo was to execute for him. The faults of Saint Peter’s as it exists to-day are not to be ascribed to Bramante nor to his conception, but to the departures from that conception. When, years later, Angelo was placed in charge of the work he declared that all the changes proposed or made by other architects since Bramante’s death in 1514 were errors and himself adhered as closely as circumstances permitted to the original plan.

Bramante’s position and appointments permitted him to live in a very splendid manner. He brought his young nephew Raphael to Rome and launched him in the Roman world. When he died he was buried in the great church that crowned his career, with every mark of honor that Rome could be-stow upon his memory.

At ten years of age the name of Andrea Mantegna was entered on the books of the guild of painters of Padua. All his life he loved and studied the sculpture of Greece and Rome, especially the bas-reliefs, and the reflection of this interest informs all his dignified and distinguished painting. At the age of twenty-seven he entered the household of Ludovico Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, as painter-in-ordinary and served three successive princes of that house except for a brief interlude when his services were loaned to Innocent VIII for the decoration of a chapel. His familiarity with classical lore, his collection of antiquities, a wide correspondence and intercourse with scholars, so imbued him with the spirit of the antique that in him Rome might have been said to live again. Cold as the marbles of his original inspiration at first, he learned to invest his majestic and suave compositions with an envelope of color adequate to his themes. He represents in a peculiar degree the type of artist who was able to satisfy the ardent desire of the time for some visualization of the glories of Italy’s classical past. He was the acclaimed figure of his day in painting, although to modern taste the archeological flavor of his work, its constructed episodes and display of the erudition of the age, rob it of a living interest.

In her life of Isabella d’ Este the Marchioness of Francesco Gonzaga, one of the three patrons of Mantegna, Miss Cartwright quotes a letter containing the most minute instructions for the concoction of a picture Isabella wished Perugino to execute, to occupy a place beside one of Mantegna’s, the literary content, the symbolic and mythological allusions and significances, having been worked up for her by Paride da Ceresara, a humanist of her court. To clog the wings of a painter’s spirit with such stuff is almost incredible; it marks a tendency that was to extinguish the spark of artistic inspiration in Italy.

Upon the one hand of Andrea Verocchio—Andrew Trueeye—is the influence of his master Donatello; on the other his own great pupil Lionardo continues a tradition of con-summate craftsmanship. His best work, completed by the Venetian Leopardi, is the equestrian statue of the Bergamese captain of the forces of Venice, Bartolommeo Colleoni, superb in workmanship, in sculptural quality appropriate to bronze, in portraiture and characterization, the supreme equestrian figure of the world. Verocchio’s other principal works are in Florence, the city of his birth, among them the well-known David, the Doubting Thomas of Or San Michele, and the charming Boy with a Dolphin surmounting the fountain in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio. Besides Lionardo da Vinci and Lorenzo di Credi the Florentines, Perugino the Umbrian was a pupil, and Perugino was the master of Raphael. So that two artists as divergent in temperament, point of view, and accomplishment, as Raphael and Lionardo derive from Donatello through Verocchio.

Compared with the tremendous output of the bottega of Raphael with his band of pupils and assistants, designing and executing mural paintings of imposing dimensions; decorating the Stanze and Loggia of the Vatican for the Pope; the Farnesina Palace with Baldassare Peruzzi for the Sienese banker Chigi; making cartoons for tapestries; designing architecture like the Palazzo Pandolfini in Florence; painting masterly portraits of Pope and great lady; compared with these overwhelming accomplishments of a life that was cut short at thirty-seven, the known works of Lionardo seem few indeed, and yet their beauty and their profound psychology cause them to rank among the most highly prized paintings in the world. It has been said of Lionardo that he was haunted by the ghost of a smile, the smile that lies behind the eyes of Mona Lisa and seems just about to move the quiet lips; the smile, faint and bewitching, that transpires through the countenance of La Belle Ferroniere like a little candle faintly shining; the smile that seems to lie in the very texture of the skin, and lurk in the shadows of his faun-like Saint John the Baptist. Of his Last Supper nothing remains except the composition to speak of his mastery of that most difficult element of art, a mastery unquestionable. The color departed long since and the restorations give no idea of its original beauty, but even in its ruined and defaced condition the most immature observer must feel it to be a great picture.

In him is incarnated the versatility of the Renaissance and its artists. Of illegitimate birth, he possessed great personal dignity, magnetism, and beauty. The interest of Ludovico Sforza, so long his patron in Milan, was first aroused by his abilities as a musician, poet, and singer. But he was also an engineer of ingenuity, ability, and imagination, a natural philosopher who carried his researches into many fields in physics and natural history. He was a consummate draftsman and left a vast number of drawings executed with the most delicate care and showing how profoundly he studied tree, insect, plant, flower, man and woman, youth and old age, the beautiful and the grotesque. His life was serene; born near Florence in 1452 he was thus the contemporary of Bramante and his friend, twenty-three years older than Michael Angelo and thirty-one the senior of Raphael; but genius is not to be placed by the calendar, and these three, with Titian who was Leonardo’s junior by twenty-five years and whose exceptionally long and prolific life carried the splendid tradition of an earlier time almost to the decadent close of the sixteenth century, rank apart together as the greatest artists of this marvellously fecund period and present strange contrasts—the subtle wizardry of Leonardo, the simple joyous calm of Raphael, happy-starred youth, the mundane and glowing splendor of Titian, the apocalyptic, power-writhen visions of Michael Angelo.

Of Raphael there has been said enough in these pages to give an idea of the general quality of the man and his works.

If frequent reference to him has seemed to place especial emphasis upon him it is merely that he was so normal and so sane and summed up so many excellent qualities that he is a convenient figure to serve as a measure of comparison.

The long span of life that was the lot of Michael Angelo Buonarroti bridges the interval between the Renaissance at its best and in its decadence. From his young manhood in the days of Savonarola in Florence to the suppression of liberty of thought through the Spanish domination that began in 1527 and the introduction of the wickedest engine ever devised for the destruction of mental freedom and personal liberty, the Inquisition, the Italy he loved passed from unfettered thought to the mental shackles of the Catholic Reaction—the reaction of the Church to the Protestant Reformation that was sweeping through the countries of the North. It was his sad fate to see Italian art too decline, and to contribute to that decline, not consciously and deliberately, but, strangely enough, through the very force and power of his work and the mannerisms that crept into it and which a breed of little men mistook for the secret of his mighty genius and tried to borrow that haply they might give distinction to their own stupid concepts.

At sixteen he broke with his master Domenico Ghirlandaio and thenceforth pursued his own path. Obtaining access for study to the gardens of San Marco where Lorenzo de’ Medici had installed his fragments of antique art, he attracted the attention of that extraordinary being, was taken into his household, and thereafter until Lorenzo’s death he was the companion and intimate of the Magnifico, of Poliziano, Ficino, Pico della Mirandola, and men of like intellect and caliber. Thus his mind was nourished upon all the culture of the day; and his spiritual side responded to the sway of Savonarola then at the height of his power over the Florentine conscience. When Lorenzo the Magnificent died Angelo fled to Bologna and, after a brief return to Florence, proceeded to Rome, where he was destined to spend the greater part of his life, much of it in the service of the Medici family who debauched and enslaved Florence, whose political policies he bitterly detested, and who yet had placed him under lasting obligation for his start in life and for opportunities adequate to the exercise of even his superlative genius. This relation to the Medici is noted here as one of the controlling factors of his artistic life. We cannot spare the space for many biographical details; his life has been written many times, voluminously and ably. We may note here only the principal lineaments of a life and art that were in very truth but one; he lived only for his art; he never married and lived simply, even meanly, for a man of good birth who was the acknowledged master of the world of art in a time and a city of ostentatious display. He slept little and poorly and often rose while it was yet dark to work by the light of a candle stuck in his cap.

It has been remarked that none of the soft beauty of nature ever appears in his designs, no tree, no blossom, no light of dawn or eventide, but stark rocks only as the bleak and fitting setting for the superhuman shapes that peopled the austere world of his imagination. Adolescence, even childhood, is, with him, muscular. His personages are usually mature, his women like mothers of Titans, his men like Titans themselves. They reflect the travail of soul that seems always to have been his, and his irritations and disappointments seem to live in the moody mien and writhen limbs of the creatures of his sombre fancy. The human body he made plastic to the expression of whatever mood or passion he wished to embody. His painting is like his sculpture in these traits, and his architecture is as plastic as his sculpture, his sculptural conception of architecture as the disposition and modulation of light and shade violating canons held sacred by some of his contemporaries, and leading many followers astray.

In sculpture, his Moses intended for the tomb of Pope Julius II, and the tombs of the Medici in the sacristy of San Lorenzo in Florence; in painting, the vaulted ceiling and the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; in architecture, the dome of Saint Peter’s and the buildings of the Capitol in Rome; these are his best-known works.

He died in 1564, at eighty-nine, acclaimed the supreme artist of his epoch, and was laid to rest by reverent hands in the Westminster Abbey of Florence, the Church of Santa Croce.

We may briefly note the short career of Antonio Correggio of Parma, who is a curiously isolated figure in Italian art; apparently he had few or no opportunities for travel or study, but his extraordinary genius triumphed over all such disadvantages; he was a master of chiaroscuro and of draftsman-ship, and his color is soft and sweet; his compositions are an ordered riot of joyous and beautiful beings; he had an enormous vogue during the romantic period in English literature, and has been ranked with Angelo, Lionardo, and Raphael, as one of the four greatest artists of Italy. Born in 1494 he was thus contemporary with Michael Angelo, and died at forty, just as Angelo was beginning the Last Judgment.

With the exception of Giorgione, who was born in 1478 and lived but thirty-three years, the three chief figures in the art of painting in Venice belong to the sixteenth century—Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese. Tiziano Vecello was born the year before Giorgione in the fifteenth century, but he lived and worked for ninety-nine years and the picture-galleries of Europe are glorified by many of the masterpieces of this long and fruitful life. Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto because he was the son of a dyer, dates from 1512 to 1594 and Paolo Cagliari of Verona, always called Veronese, from 1530 to 1588. The Venetian school had had a resplendent history before the advent of these her greatest masters, beginning with Bellini at 1400; but beautiful as the work of that school had been it was chiefly in the general pietistic vein of most Italian painting. It was reserved for this later Venetian school to celebrate the pomps and glories of this world. The time, the lovely city, the sumptuous life of Venice, all conspired to produce a splendid and mundane art full of color and movement. The favorite medium of the Venetians was oil, as fresco was that of the Florentines; and the medium lends itself, in its comparative ease of handling and its certainty of effect, to the rapid decoration of ample spaces.

While Italy was hastening to her decadence elsewhere, here on the bosom of the Venetian lagoons bloomed a late and in many ways the most beautiful flower of the Italian Renaissance. The splendor, the dignity, and the pageantry of Venetian public and private life found in Veronese and Tintoretto their supremely competent celebrants; after the lapse of four centuries their canvases are as modern and fresh in feeling as though painted yesterday. Tintoretto’s life-long ambition was to unite the power and force of Michael Angelo’s design with the glorious color of the Venetians. The walls and ceilings of the palaces and churches of Venetia glow with the visions of these three masters. They did not devote themselves entirely to secular themes like the Venice Enthroned of Veronese in the Ducal Palace. Titian’s Ma-donna in the Church of the Frari, and Tintoretto’s series of religious pictures like those in the Scuola di San Rocco, are among the most noteworthy paintings of their kind in the world. But the point of view, the mental attitude of the Venetians, were far removed from that of Michael Angelo, who replied to the peevish complaint of the Pope that there was no gold in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, that “these were simple folk, who wore no gold on their garments.” And the airy spaces, the wide-winged breezes of the Adriatic, infused a spirit of freedom into Venetian art very different from the cloistral inspiration of the Florentine school. A great religious picture in Venice was an opportunity and a vehicle for the assembly of rich fabrics, vessels of gold and silver, majestic architectural settings, and over all these the magical light of the most beautiful city in the world.

In sculpture Venice was not especially notable—we may mention the Lombardi, Alessandro Leopardi, and Jacopo Sansovino; she floats between her tinted skies and the skies’ reflection like the city of a dream; and those skies, tender with the colors of the dawn or piled high with the glories of her jewelled sunsets, turned the thoughts of her artists toward color.

In architecture it is interesting to trace the persistent repetition of the same composition in the Venetian palaces of every period; whether they be Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, or Renaissance, they present a similar disposition of voids and solids, the openings grouped in the centre of the facade leaving a space of wall, sometimes blank, sometimes pierced with windows, at each side. Upon every period Venice made her personal impress. To the Byzantine, the Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance, she gave a character that makes it Venetian above all. Her architecture is full of color—the soft tones of figured marbles faded to indescribable hues by the sea air and the sun give her buildings a human quality, a friendly warmth, that is all her own. Her intercourse with the East, the tradition of color established early in her history by that jewel-box of the world, the Church of Saint Mark, the proximity of the quarries of creamy Istrian and rose-flushed Verona marbles, all contributed to her effect. Much of Brunelleschi’s architecture in Florence, particularly his interiors, executed in a cold gray stone and dead white plaster, is repellent merely be-cause of its sad and dreary color; for, examined as form merely, it is found to be full of a virile and masculine type of charm and beauty. And Rome is fortunate in her wonderful travertine that turns gold with age, in color and texture one of the finest building materials in the world, bestowing upon the Eternal City her cheerful and sympathetic warmth of tone.

Among the architects who gave Venice her Renaissance buildings Jacopo Sansovino easily holds the first place. Born a Florentine, he came to Venice early in life, fell in love with her, acquired citizenship, and is identified with the Venetian rather than the Florentine school. He was a sculptor as well, and the figures which give their name to the Giants’ Staircase in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace are his, with the staircase itself. But the building upon which his fame securely rests is the Library on the westerly side of the Piazzetta of Saint Mark, built about 1536. The little church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli, one of the gems of Italy’s crown, built by the Lombardi in 1481, exhibits many of the characteristics of the Early Renaissance in Tuscany and elsewhere, and is in essence a belated transitional building.

After the fire of inspiration had burned low, after the creative power had departed from Italy, her architects fell back upon rules and formulas for the confection of masterpieces. To this school of formulists belong Andrea Palladio of Vi cenza, Vincenzo Scamozzi of Venice, and Giacomo Barozzi of Bologna and Rome, known as Vignola; and to this group of men and their work, largely because they reduced their formulas to writing and published them, the architects of succeeding generations have unfortunately gone for inspiration rather than to the original Roman and Graeco-Roman sources from which the artists of Italy’s creative prime derived theirs. But even upon the work of these men Venice had her effect and gave the palaces they built on her canals a brio and dash more hers than theirs.

Corresponding to them in point of time are the followers of Michael Angelo, among whom may be noted Giorgio Vasari, almost as famous for his bad architecture and painting as for his immortal Lives of the Painters and Sculptors; also Giulio Romano, Raphael’s first assistant, in whom architecture descended to mere rhetoric. Later came Bernini, who built the vast and imposing colonnade around the Piazza of Saint Peter, who was called to Versailles by Louis XIV, and whose posturing and affected angels and saints debase the sky-line of many places in Rome and elsewhere.

The classic inspiration had run its course and at the feet of Michael Angelo the stream divided; one branch led to the frozen region of the formulists, the other plunged over the precipice to the extravagances and meaningless gestures of the Rococo.

After a considerable period of decadence in painting, the Caracci attempted to lead the way to a return to sound principles, and to that end established a sort of academy at Bologna in the latter part of the sixteenth century; their teaching has appreciably affected modern painting through its influence upon the French school. After them the twilight gathers about the art of Italy; against her darkening sky the solitary genius of the Venetian Tiepolo ascends like a signal rocket of farewell and lingers there like a silver star.