Early Italian Renaissance Sculpture

Critical Review

As we are dealing in comparisons and with a view to understanding both ourselves and the past, let it be said here what is the greatest virtue of the early Italian sculpture.

The first notion of the novice in criticism is that art is judged by a certain amount of technical perfection and of positive science. It is difficult or impossible to imagine from this point of view why one artist possessing the requisite positive science might not always equal another possessing the same amount of science, and difficult to see why the same talent and the same effort might not always reach the same point of science.

To the first difficulty we answer, that technical science in art up to a point of comparative perfection is assumed to start with, by the historic critic. The modern is supposed to possess it before he could reach the distinction of making a publicly exhibited work. That is the affair of the schools and the exhibitions. The old artist must have possessed it to have won a place in the estimation of centuries. The historic critic does not worry himself over the slips in drawing which a modern can point out in the ” Last Judgment.” He is satisfied with knowing that no modern has drawn, could draw, or can draw, a similar number of variously fore-shortened figures without making more mistakes. We do not take the trouble to correct the grammar of Shakespeare.

What is then in question in our admiration for Ghiberti or Luca della Robbia if it be not the technical science ?

The answer is that all classic art, whether in music, literature, or design, is conditioned by a sentiment of personal unconsciousness or simplicity and of absorption in the subject matter. All these arts exist to awaken or create ideas. The form exists for the sake of a meaning. If then the “Annunciation ” of a Robbia relief, the “Christ and Peter Walking on the Water,” on the first Ghiberti doors, or the equestrian portrait of ” Gattamelata ” by Donatello has that stamp of unconsciousness and of simplicity, or of great power, which art carries with it when the meaning fills and transcends the form, we pronounce these works classic because the artist has made his technical science the means to an end and has achieved it by sinking his own personality in his subject.

Great art is generally simple, the greatest art invariably so. It is the unconsciousness and ease of good breeding that we demand from a work of art and just as good breeding is the non-obtrusion and the unconsciousness of self so it is in art. Its standard is the conquest of self in behalf of the subject matter. Then comes the question, ” What is that subject matter? ” and according to its value so ranks the work of art.

Our standards are the same and our point of view the same in the matter of early Italian painting, but it is much more difficult to illustrate a painting, whereas we can fairly reproduce the sculpture in a photograph, especially if the composition be simple. As far as pictures are concerned as related to the actual text of my book, I cannot anywhere make my meaning so clear or force the reader to admiration and respect simply by illustration, as I can with the statuary art of the Italian fifteenth century. Its charm of unconsciousness is too palpable to be ignored, too evident to be overlooked, and too beautiful to escape appreciation. Let us choose our examples first where the point is clearest ; the ” Madonna with Angels,” by Luca della Robbia (Fig. 126), the “Annunciation,” by Andrea della Robbia (Fig. 125), ” Christ Healing the Sick,” by Luca and Andrea della Robbia (Fig. 124), the ” Swathed Infant,” by Andrea della Robbia (Fig. 122), the “Madonna,” probably by Mino da Fiesole (Fig. 139).

Now this trait of unconsciousness and simplicity does not lie solely in the genius of the individual artist, it lies also in the genius of a period. The whole Greek sculpture is saturated with it until we reach the decadence of Greek sculpture, and by the absence of that quality that decadence is fixed and determined. This trait is the essential determinant in our estimate of Dutch painting. Its absence fixes the place of the Italian art of the seventeenth century. Compare the “Annunciation” by Sassoferrato (Fig. 107), with the ” Annunciation ” by Andrea della Robbia. Compare the Madonnas of Guido, or of Carlo Dolci with those of the Robbias and of Mino da Fiesole.

We will return now to the presumed case of the novice, who supposes that scientific and technical perfection fixes the place of a work of art, and declare that this perfection has little to do with it. For wherever the mission exists which needs to find an utterance in art, there will the tools be found to make this utterance, and the conscience which will learn the use of those tools up to the point required.

It is difficult to believe that hundreds on hundreds of paintings, all in fact painted in the greatest time of Italian art, bear this quality to view of unconsciousness, of ingenuous sincerity, of absorption in the subject matter for its own sake, but so it is. It long outlasted the time of Michael Angelo’s ” Last Judgment” in Venetian paintings and otherwise mainly disappeared from Italian art after 1530. In fifteenth century Italian sculpture it is the conspicuous and obvious charm.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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