Italian Gothic Painting

It is in the distinction between the wall surfaces which were preserved by Italian buildings and those of the north, which were distributed into window openings and buttresses, that we find a connection with the topic of Italian painting and the elementary conditions of its development.

The Byzantine and early Christian system of church building was one of small window openings, placed as far as possible in the upper portions of the building, and of large interior surfaces devoted to the gorgeous color effects of the mosaics. The Italians of the fourteenth century abandoned the mosaics, but they replaced them by wall frescoes (paintings on plaster), and their system of wall surfaces required for the frescoes was the same as that required for mosaics. It is here that the real break with the style of the north is apparent. The northern buttress was essentially necessary as the support of a vaulted ceiling which otherwise lacked the necessary sup-porting walls ; for the development of the window openings amounted to the absence of the wall. In other words, the demand for frescoes explains the Italian Gothic.

The system of stained glass decoration shows the romantic and poetical exaltation of the northern artistic spirit. The effects of the northern Gothic are mysterious and, so to speak, transcendental. The spirit of the Italian was cooler and clearer, less addicted to mystery and romantic effect—more disposed to explicit story telling by pictorial art than to mysterious contrasts of light and shade in nave and aisles. The interiors of the Italian churches are sufficiently lighted by normal window openings of small dimensions. Otherwise the church walls, and generally also the walls of the public buildings, were decorated with pictures on the plaster surfaces.

The history of Italian painting, which between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries produced all the greatest works of modern art in this department, is essentially a history of wall painting, and the conditions of its perfection and greatness are all to be sought and found in this point of departure.

As late as the sixteenth century all the most important pictures were wall pictures. Even when canvas and oils were used, as in Venice, in preference to painting on a plaster surface it was still wall decoration which was the main purpose of the art. The canvases were directly attached to the walls and made a part of their architectural existence. Panel pictures, that is to say, detached framed pictures, were a subordinate matter and even these were designed, in a great majority of cases, for definite places—for chapels, churches, shrines, altar pictures, and the like. Above all, the dexterity and the talent of the artist were first developed by his practice as a wall painter. The composition of Raphael’s Madonnas is determined, for instance, by the methods which he practiced as a fresco artist.

It must be considered, then, what was involved for Italian art in this one grand fact of its original use and main purpose. First, it follows that the pictures were made for public uses and for public inspection, and it consequently follows that they were made to meet a public demand. It consequently follows also that the commissions were large in scale and in the amount of work to be done by a given artist, and it follows that there was a great deal of work to do for a number of artists. It follows also that the artist had to meet public criticism when he failed and that he received public approbation when he succeeded. It also follows that his subjects were substantially dictated by public choice as regards their general matter and character and that these subjects were in advance grateful to the public. This last point is the elementary one above all others.

Every artist who is in advance doubtful as to whether his subject matter will attract an audience or a buyer works under a disadvantage. This is, in general, the weakness of the modern artist, who mainly works for private buyers. His pictures are painted on speculation as regards the choice of a subject. In Italy the artist was told in advance what was wanted, as an artist always naturally will be told when he receives a public commission. More than that, the choice of subjects was limited by tradition and by the purposes of the art, and the artist was familiar in advance with most that were likely to be suggested. These were the stories of Genesis, the lives of the Saints and Apostles, the great historical turning points in the history of the Church, the life of the Savior, the events of His Passion, the later history of the Acts of the Apostles.

Let it not be considered that this was a narrow or limited range of choice. For the conceptions of the Middle Ages the Bible was an epitome of the life of individual man from the cradle to the grave and an epitome of the history of the human race. It was the business of the artist to illustrate this point of view to make it clear to the people. They themselves, however, were the motive power; the choice of subjects was made because they expected and demanded it. To aid and suggest to the artist was the business of every man of learning and every man of thought—monks, clergy, and public officers of the state being his direct employers. Finally all the genius, talent, invention, and originality which the artist possessed himself were in his favor and contributed to the success of the general result.

He had, moreover, the advantage of working for a definite place. His picture was not transported from a studio of one light to be hung in a gallery with another light. It was not exposed to the vicissitudes of chance sales or the gazers of shop windows and tossed about among the hanging committees of picture exhibitions. The modern painter as such is an itinerant, a Bohemian. In America, at least, he lives on sufferance, con-tending with a mistaken preference for foreign pictures, with the whims of the rich, the fashions of the hour, and the great difficulty of earning his bread. The Italian painter was a respected man of business, a well-to-do tradesman, a successful artisan, in a word, a recognized and respected member of society, the school-master of his age, the Sunday school superintendent, the historian, the man of letters, and the poet. All this was involved in the topics of Italian art in an age when printing was unknown, when manuscript books were dear, when teaching through the eye and by object lessons was more than a theory of kindergartens.

Add to these conditions the material considerations connected with the scale of the designs and the method of their execution. The paintings were rapidly executed in light but warm colors, with distinct outlines and summary indication of details, on damp plaster. When the plaster was dry, work was impossible. A given surface was plastered each day and so the work went on. An ultimate dexterous rapidity in outline drawing was one result of this fresco art. The large scale of the pictures with life-size figures also demanded bold and simple compositions.

Finally, we have to consider the natural development of technical improvements and devices in any art which is much practiced because much in demand. The amount of commissions and the number of artists engaged on them are grand points in estimating the difference between Italian painting and our own. Some of the simplest technical methods of mixing paints and colors have been lost since the sixteenth century.

No modern painter can tell how Titian mixed his colors or what chemical composition of pigments he employed. Wherever there is large demand for any art, it naturally rises to the level of the demand. In so far as the public at large is more important than a private individual, in so far was the Italian painting ultimately superior to our own.

The favorable conditions under which the modern art of music is practiced offer the easiest means of understanding the perfection of Italian painting. given a superior voice and the modern singer is certain of a well-paid career. Given a distinct musical talent and at least a well-paid daily occupation is secure. The demand creates the supply and the supply makes practice, practice makes perfection.

Doubtless the Italian had a native genius and talent for art, but there were centuries when it lay dormant for want of patronage. Once more, then, we must come back to the history of the times and the questions of politics, of civilization, and of commerce.

In the earlier Middle Ages, Italy had been crushed by foreign barbarism. The nearer the German was to his original home and original surroundings, the better use he ultimately made of Roman civilization. It was in Germany itself and in the Romanesque art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries that we have found the finest works of early medieval art. In Italy the Lombards and Ostrogoths were corrupted by luxury without being refined by civilization. In the ninth and tenth centuries Italy at large was the most barbarous country in Europe. Saracenic incursions from Sicily, constant German invasions from the north, and the violence of the Northmen in Naples (eleventh century) all depressed her condition.

From this depressed condition she was first distinctly raised by the popes of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who carried their contest with the emperors to a successful issue and in securing the independence of the Lombard towns of North Italy* from the emperor, naturally secured the liberties of the more southern states.

From this time date the independence and prosperity of Italy at large, a prosperity which had previously reached astounding proportions in Pisa and Genoa (eleventh century) and at still earlier times in Ravenna and in Venice.

The political constitution of Italy was that of a series of independent civic states. The feudal system had never taken deep root in Italy, and when civilization revived the commerce and manufactures of the towns did not have to struggle with the exactions and oppressions of the feudal barons, which in Northern Europe obliged t h e cities to ally themselves with the monarchy.

The civilization of Italy reached in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a phenomenal all essential points that of the later moderns, which has been almost entirely derived from it. The inventions of the nineteenth century relate generally to enlargements in the area of civilization or increase in its population. The various applications of machinery relate to the amount of production, not to the quality. The silks, laces, and velvets of Italy made in the fourteenth century were fully equal to ours. The same point would apply to all textile fabrics, implements, and utensils, furniture, pottery, glass, and the ordinary luxuries of modern life. The various applications of steam and electricity relate to increased speed of communication or intercourse required by larger areas, but they do not affect the quality of individual culture. Italy mainly possessed, on a small scale, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the essential features of modern civilization as regards luxuries and comforts.

Although scientific information was far inferior to our own, this was perhaps fully compensated by a versatility of talents and capacities in the individual man, made possible by the small area of his surroundings, to which we can offer no parallel. There are, for instance, no modern artists who unite in one person the capacities of an engineer, poet, highly educated man of letters, architect, painter, and sculptor, and who have made actual test of capacity in all these directions. Leonardo da Vinci and Michael Angelo did all these things and did them all equally well. Da Vinci was also an accomplished musician who knew how to make his own instruments and was one of the greatest men of science of his day.

These cases of versatility are paralleled by other notorious cases which illustrate a genlarge. Our own scientific advances have obliged men to specialize their talents and to narrow their field. Without wishing to depreciate the importance of our own advance, we must be willing to concede the advantages enjoyed by earlier periods in contrast with our own.

As a result of the occupations, there is no doubt that the average Italian of the fifteenth century was, at least, fully the mental and physical equal of the modern in any department of daily life. His possible scientific knowledge was less, but his actual education was more symmetrical and more comprehensive, because it was less specialized and more versatile, whereas versatility in our day is generally supposed to indicate superficiality and to be inconsistent with thoroughness.

The perfection of Italian art is also involved in this summary of the conditions of daily life. The Italian artist was sometimes a recognized statesman, politician, and general. Michael Angelo was the captain general of his state during the siege of Florence in 1529, and is the inventor of the system of fortifications usually attributed to Vauban in the time of Louis XIV. of France. Leonardo da Vinci was the military engineer of Caesar Borgia and wrote the first treatise on the use of artillery. Raphael was offered the rank of a cardinal and was sculptor and architect as well as painter Benvenuto Cellini was musician, goldsmith, sculptor, and cannoneer. Giotto the painter was an equally great architect and sculptor and a personal friend of the poet Dante. In all these cases the varied activity and experience of the artist reacted on his art and the man did what he was.

As regards the peculiar distinctions of various Italian states, something has also to be said. Milan was the capital of the fertile agricultural districts of the north. Genoa, Venice, and Pisa were great in commerce. The Universities of Bologna and Padua were famous centers of learning. Florence was the home of bankers and manufacturers. Ferrara was a model of administrative politics. Siena, Perugia, and Urbino were all important commercial and manufacturing republics. These were the various great centers of Italian art. Rome and Naples were less active. Rome was a center to which finished talent was naturally drawn and the native artists could not vie with the genius of the whole of Italy which was always at the call of the popes. Naples did not escape from foreign rule through the entire Middle Ages.

From all these various ways of conceiving the culture of Italy in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, we move to the actual monuments of the art of painting in the fourteenth century, which was the first in which Italy achieved even relative perfection in this art. The fifteenth century, as belonging to the Italian Renaissance, is excluded from the. topic of this book as far as Italy is concerned.

The greatest early painters of Italy were Duccio of Siena, and Cimabue and Giotto of Florence, but these men of genius, it must be remembered, were not isolated in their greatness.

Successful genius means helpers, assisters, supporters, rivals, followers, and predecessors. Among these men Cimabue is distinguished as the first great innovator on Byzantine methods. Duccio’s genius may be fairly compared with Giotto’s as an expert in design, but the latter is better known for his wider influence and wider personal activity and not less remarkable for his original and thoughtful genius of conception.

Photographs and engravings are a poor substitute for Italian frescoes, but even in face of the originals we have still to make many concessions to the shortcomings of the first efforts of modern painting, and for the deficiences involved in the break with the traditions of Byzantine mosaic which had been the traditional authority of Italian art for nine entire centuries. Cimabue himself designed one of these mosaics in Pisa.

The fourteenth century frescoes must be judged first as compositions in color and as wall decorations in color. From this point of view they are thoroughly successful. They must be judged next as serious and faithful efforts to realize the inner meaning and significance of the Bible stories. From this point of view they are thoroughly successful. As architectural compositions in outline they are also fine efforts. That they are often quaint in details and inadequate in execution of realistic accessories must be readily admitted.

They cannot, however, be justly judged in this particular from the standpoint of a realistic nineteenth century painting. Many decorative considerations assert themselves when pictures are painted on plaster walls, which do not hold for smaller canvas pictures executed in oil color. Details cannot be elaborated on such a surface and with the mediums used for mixing the colors, nor is it desirable that they should be. Suggestion and slight indication of accessories were sufficient for an art where the point and moral, or fact, of the story were the main thing and nature was only the means to an end. Due concessions must be also made to the general attitude of medieval Christian art as determined by tradition and historic conditions.

The fourteenth century Italian painting at large may be fairly illustrated from the work of Giotto. No artist surpassed him in technical proficiency during the entire century. He was never surpassed in solemnity, in seriousness, in religious feeling, and in original power. The artists of his time were frequently his equals and worthy rivals in individual works. The fourteenth century painting has then these following general qualities. It did not attempt facial portraiture, it did not elaborate backgrounds or landscape details, it did not attempt perspective. The action and gesture are treated with more or less success, according to the individual genius and talent. The idea was the main thing. The artist –was satisfied when he had conveyed it, and the public was satisfied when it grasped it.

The universally quoted monument of Giotto’s greatness is the fresco decoration of a chapel in Padua, which was begun in 1303—the Chapel of Santa Maria dell’ Arena. There are also important works by this artist in Florence (Church of Santa Croce), in Assisi (Church of St. Francis), and elsewhere. The School of Giotto and of the fourteenth century at large is otherwise best known through the frescoes of the Chapel of the Spaniards in Florence (Church of Maria Novella), and of the Campo Santo of Pisa. This last spot is the burial ground of the city reserved for distinguished citizens and surrounded by cloisters on whose inner walls is a long series of famous paintings, among which the most noted are the Triumph of Death and the Last Judgment. It was also in Pisa that the Italian sculptor’s art began its history and that its earliest, and therefore in many senses most famous, monument is found.