Francesco Raibolini – Music And Color

IT would appear that Francia, with his many varied capacities, must have possessed a love of music, and very probably was acquainted with the art, and perhaps was even a performer himself. The use he makes of musical instruments in his pictures points to a love of music, and it is important to notice that he paints the instruments that were in use in his time so accurately that they can be identified and described.

The Italian painters were quite frank in their anachronisms, and did not hesitate to introduce the instruments of their own times into the sacred scenes, any more than they hesitated to place the drama of sacred writ in the midst of their own scenery, and to associate with it persons dressed in the fashion of their own times. The great advantage of their action in this respect to those who have come after them is the value their pictures have in giving us clear information as to the times in which they lived and the appliances that were used. In ecclesiastical vestments there has been no change, and the copes, chasubles and dalmatics that the Bishops wear in the pictures are the same as those used in the present day. In the habits of the religious the same conservatism exists, and the same habits can be seen worn by the successors of the monks and friars in the pictures.

Much of the architecture still remains that was depicted in these old pictures ; the country is the same, and the scenes in which these thrilling events are represented as taking place can be visited at this day, and the effect of Bolognese or Umbrian scenery can be witnessed and realized. We can gaze at the same sky as the artists saw, and can in our imagination people it with the celestial visions which they saw as they knelt in rapt adoration. We can enter the churches in which they worshipped, and can be present at the same sublime service that stirred their souls to such noble effort ; but the instruments which they heard we can but very seldom either hear, or even see, and we are therefore the more grateful to them for having painted with such accuracy that we can attempt to understand the music which they heard on the instruments that they used. Francia stands out as one who constantly introduced the musical instruments of his time into his greatest pictures.

In the Felicini altar-piece (Plate XIII.) the child-angel at the foot of the throne is playing upon a lute—the instrument upon which the Italian makers lavished all their finest skill. It was perhaps one of the most difficult of all instruments to play, with its numerous strings and the great difficulty of keeping it in tune. The Italian lutes of Francia’s period had generally eleven strings, five pairs of unisons and one single treble. The tuning was in fourths and thirds, and the instrument was played with the fingers. No instrument was more decorative than the lute, as its curved back, ornamental head—usually turned at about a right angle—and, above all, its beautiful ” rose ” underneath the strings, all lent themselves to the most elaborate treatment. The delicately sensitive timbre of the voice made it a great favourite, and some of the very oldest instrumental compositions that we possess were written for this instrument. The one held by the angel in the Felicini picture is of a very simple kind, and the head does not bend back as much as was the case in the finer lutes ; but the shape of it is delightful, and the ” rose ” is a very elaborate piece of carving into the delineation of which the artist has put his best work.

Another lute, a lemon-shaped one, is to be seen in the Bentivoglio altar-piece (Plate XIV.), held upright upon the knee by the angel. A full view of this one is to be seen, and it will be perceived that the head is set at a right angle, whereas the head of the one last named was at an obtuse angle. The number of the pegs and strings can be counted, and will be found eleven in number, tuned as was the other one—five pairs of unisons and one single treble. This is also a treble lute, and perhaps somewhat larger than the one just named ; but, owing to the position of it, this is not quite certain. Its pear- or lemon-shaped back will distinguish it clearly from a guitar, with which lutes are sometimes confused.

Another lute is to be seen in the St. Petersburg picture (Plate XX.), and this one has a specially beautiful ” rose ” carved in a most elaborate design of a central star with roses around it. This is quite a big lute, with a fine handsome curve, and the head is inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl.

A fourth can be seen in the hand of the angel who is seated below the miraculous Madonna in San Vitale, around which Francia painted a choir of angels. It also is a lute with a carved right-angled head. In Francia’s time lutes were the most popular instruments in Europe, originally, perhaps, brought from Arabia, but finding their home in Italy, Spain, and England, and in constant demand. At Padua, near to where Francia lived, there were a great many lutes made, some of them specially fine, and the manufactory continued in that city down to the end of the seventeenth century.

In the Bentivoglio altar-piece (Plate XIV.) appears another instrument as well as the lute. This is the viol, and the one that is depicted is the viola da braccio, which is played with a bow. This is a member of the great family of viols, which are distinguished from violins by many striking characteristics. The edges of the back are flush with the ribs, there being no projecting edge as in the violin ; the back is flat, and not curved ; the sound – holes are C – shaped rather than f-shaped ; the corners often square ; and the peg-box terminates in a carved head, often that of a woman or Cupid. The one under consideration was the alto viol, which later than Francia’s date had sympathetic metal strings added underneath the gut strings, and was then called the viola d’amore. It has six strings, which were tuned in fourths, with the exception of an interval of a major third, which occurs towards the middle of the compass. The one in this picture is of a somewhat stiff, formal shape ; but in the drawing by Francia in the Albertina in Vienna, is to be seen a very large alto viol, which is still more formal in design, and belongs to quite an early period. The end of this one is only slightly curved, but the one in the Bentivoglio picture has the end ornamented with two carved volutes. The bridge of these instruments was in Francia’s time close up to the ornamental end, and therefore close to the shoulder in playing ; but later on it took a position in the centre of the instrument. In the St. Petersburg picture (Plate XX.) can be seen another viol, which is either a large tenor viol or a small bass one, probably the latter, and which, like the other, had an ornamental peg-box decorated with ivory and mother – of – pearl, matching the lute in the same picture. This one had seven strings, tuned, in the same way as the lute, in fourths and a third, but a fifth lower than the other viol, and the sound produced was one of great richness, true tenor in tone, soft and penetrating rather than ringing and brilliant. The sound – holes of this are beautifully curved, and the instrument altogether is a fine one.

In the San Vitale picture the other angel is using a very rare instrument—an orpharion (or orphareon, as it is sometimes spelled). At the present time this is perhaps the very rarest of all old Italian instruments, and does not appear to have been at any time a popular instrument.

Mr. Dolmetsch, who knows more about old instruments than any other living man, and to whose kindness I am indebted for much of the information in this chapter, only knew of two orpharions in Europe. One was sold at Christie’s, in 1898, in the sale of the Bardini collection exhibited at the New Gallery, and fetched £347, and is believed to have gone to America ; and the other is the priceless instrument which belongs to Lord Tollemache, and which is to be seen under a glass case in the little anteroom on the first-floor at famous Helmingham. This one belonged to Queen Elizabeth, and when she stayed at Helmingham from August 14 to 18, 1561, she played upon it, and then gave it to her hostess, the wife of Sir Lionel Tollemache. Orpharions are flat-backed instruments strung with brass wire, eleven strings, tuned in fourths and a third, as the viol was, and the head, with the peg-box, sometimes handsomely carved, as in the lute. The shape of the one painted by Francia can be clearly seen in the picture, and the number of pegs and strings can be counted. The combination of the two instruments, the lute and the orpharion, is unusual, and in that way the picture has exceptional interest.

In the San Frediano at Lucca picture (Plate XXVIII.) King David is playing upon a psaltery, of which only seven pegs and strings are to be seen in the picture, but which probably possessed other strings pegged into the curve of the instrument. This was a species of lyre or harp having a very variable number of metal strings (brass only), and tuned in a diatonic scale.

In another drawing in the Albertina can be seen a double pipe and a single pipe, the single one being a sort of shawm, with the reed protected in what is called a pirouette. This had eight holes. The double pipe was after the nature of a flute, as it was not possible in a double pipe to have a reed. It had ten holes in front for nine notes, the lower two being for the optional interchange of the right or left hand.

It is important to understand that the Old Masters painted their representations of musical instruments from the actual objects themselves when in the hands of the performers, and that they did it with such accuracy that the instruments may not only be distinguished, but the method of holding the bow may be learned from the picture, and in many cases the very chord reproduced that the performer is producing in the picture. This is so much the case that I am informed by Mr. Dolmetsch that the playing of the great viola da gamba in the picture of St. Cecilia in the Louvre was so perfectly represented by Domenichino that from it he was able to learn the method of bowing. In some pictures of viols he was able even to realize the chord that was being produced.

The first person to relinquish facts, and to try and produce an imaginative arrangement of musical instruments, was Raphael, and his work can be seen and contrasted in the very gallery that contains so many of the works of Francia.

In his picture of St. Cecilia can be seen how he failed when he allowed his imagination to run wild. The viola on the ground is broken as a viol could not by any possibility break ; the very strongest parts have given way in a manner in which the wood could not fracture. The tailpiece, which is held in position only by the strings, remains in its place stretched right forward, although the strings, which alone could hold it, are all broken ; and, most wonderful of all, the bridge, which could not by any possibility stand upright by itself, is standing bravely up without a string anywhere near it. The pipes of the portable organ also, which from its position, if once loosened, must inevitably fall out of the frame, are only just thinking of doing so, and are slowly moving forward at various degrees of speed, some of the heaviest of them going far slower than the very light ones move, and many of them keeping quite still in their positions with the most remarkable equanimity.

This is the contrast to the marvellous accuracy of the earlier school of artists, and especially to the skill with which Francia painted the instruments which it is quite evident he loved so well.

It may be well also to refer to a striking characteristic of the art of Francia in respect to colour, which consists in his fondness for making one colour tone all the effect of a picture and give the key to its colour scheme.

In the Manzuoli altar-piece green is the leading colour. It appears in the shot colour of the vestments, in the mantle, in the lining of the vestments, the armour, the hills, the columns, the dragon, and the throne.

In the Bentivoglio altar-piece (Plate XV.) the leading colour is blue ; in the Scappi altar-piece (Plate XVIII.) it is brown ; in the Felicini one (Plate XIII.) it is reddish-brown ; and in ” The Annunciation ” (Plate XXII.) it is very distinctly red of a full deep hue.

It is hardly needful to insist further upon this point, but it will be found very characteristic of our master right down to his death ; and in most of his chief works some colour that in his mind was suitable, either for its effect in relation to the subject, or in respect to the decoration of the church, or the position of the picture, was selected, and gave the general hue to the picture, and all the other colours were modified so as to come into full harmony with it. The effect of the red in ” The Annunciation ” is very inspiring, and that of the green is remarkable in the Manzuoli picture, and the manner in which the colour has been introduced into the accessories, and each tint blended with the other, is a proof of a remarkable love of colour, an instinct for its right use and a power of blending that is notable.

Francia was evidently a man to whom music and colour appealed with overwhelming force.