Italian Painting Early Renaissance, 1400-1500

THE ITALIAN MIND: There is no way of explaining the Italian fondness for form and color other than by considering the necessities of the people and the artistic character of the Italian mind. Art in all its phases was not only an adornment but a necessity of Christian civilization. The Church taught people by sculpture, mosaic, miniature, and fresco. It was an object-teaching, a grasping of ideas by forms seen in the mind, not a presenting of abstract ideas as in literature. Printing was not known. There were few manuscripts, and the majority of people could not read. Ideas came to them for centuries through form and color, until at last the Italian mind took on a plastic and pictorial character. It saw things in symbolic figures, and when the Renaissance came and art took the lead as one of its strongest expressions, painting was but the color-thought and form-language of the people.

And these people, by reason of their peculiar education, were an exacting people, knowing what was good and demanding it from the artists. Every Italian was, in a way, an art critic, because every church in Italy was an art school. The artists may have led the people, but the people spurred on the artists, and so the Italian mind went on developing and unfolding until at last it produced the great art of the Renaissance.

THE AWAKENING: The Italian civilization of the fourteenth century was made up of many impulses and inclinations, none of them very strongly defined. There was a feeling about in the dark, a groping toward the light, but the leaders stumbled often on the road. There was good reason for it. The knowledge of the ancient world lay buried under the ruins of Rome. The Italians had to learn it all over again, almost without a precedent, almost without a preceptor. With the fifteenth century the horizon began to brighten. The Early Renaissance was begun. It was not a revolt, a reaction, or a starting out on a new path. It was a development of the Gothic period ; and the three inclinations of the Gothic period—religion, the desire for classic knowledge, and the study of nature—were carried into the art of the time with greater realization.

The inference must not be made that because nature and the antique came to be studied in Early Renaissance times that therefore religion was neglected. It was not. It still held strong, and though with the Renaissance there came about a strange mingling of crime and corruption, aestheticism and immorality, yet the Church was never abandoned for an hour. When enlightenment came, people began to doubt the spiritual power of the Papacy. They did not cringe to it so servilely as before. Religion was not violently embraced as in the Middle Ages, but there was no revolt. The Church held the power and was still the patron of art. The painter’s subjects extended over nature, the antique, the fable, allegory, history, portraiture ; but the religious subject was not neglected. Fully three-quarters of all the fifteenth-century painting was done for the Church, at her command, and for her purposes.

But art was not so wholly pietistic as in the Gothic age. The study of nature and the antique materialized painting somewhat. The outside world drew the painter’s eyes, and the beauty of the religious subject and its sentiment were somewhat slurred for the beauty of natural appearances. There was some loss of religious power, but religion had much to lose. In the fifteenth century it was still dominant.

KNOWLEDGE OF THE ANTIQUE AND NATURE. The revival of antique learning came about in real earnest during this period. The scholars set themselves the task of restoring the polite learning of ancient Greece, studying coins and marbles, collecting manuscripts, founding libraries and schools of philosophy. The wealthy nobles, Palla Strozzi, the Albizzi, the Medici, and the Dukes of Urbino, encouraged it. In 1440 the Greek was taught in five cities. Immediately afterward, with Constantinople falling into the hands of the Turks, came an influx of Greek scholars into Italy. Then followed the invention of printing and the age of discovery on land and sea. Not the antique alone but the natural were being pried into by the spirit of inquiry. Botany, geology, astronomy, chemistry, medicine, anatomy, law, literature—nothing seemed to escape the keen eye of the time. Knowledge was being accumulated from every source, and the arts were all reflecting it.

The influence of the newly discovered classic marbles upon painting was not so great as is usually supposed. The painters studied them, but did not imitate them. Occasionally in such men as Botticelli and Mantegna we see a following of sculpturesque example—a taking of details and even of whole figures—but the general effect of the antique marbles was to impress the painters with the idea that nature was at the bottom of it all They turned to the earth not only to study form and feature, but to learn perspective, light, shadow, color—in short, the technical features of art. True, religion was the chief subject, but nature and the antique were used to give it setting. All the fifteenth-century painting shows nature study, force, character, sincerity ; but it does not show elegance, grace, or the full complement of color. The Early Renaissance was the promise of great things ; the High Renaissance was the fulfilment.

FLORENTINE SCHOOL: The Florentines were draughtsmen more than colorists. The chief medium was fresco on the walls of buildings, and architectural necessities often dictated the form of compositions. Distemper in easel pictures was likewise used, and oil-painting, though known, was not extensively employed until the last quarter of the century. In technical knowledge and intellectual grasp Florence was at this time the leader and drew to her many artists from neighboring schools. Masaccio (1401 ?–1428 ?) was the first great nature student of the Early Renaissance, though his master, Masolino (1383-1447), had given proof positive of severe nature study in bits of modelling, in drapery, and in portrait heads. Masaccio, however, seems the first to have gone into it thoroughly and to have grasped nature as a whole. His mastery of form, his plastic composition, his free, broad folds of drapery, and his knowledge of light and perspective, all placed him in the front rank of fifteenth-century painters. Though an exact student he was not a literalist. He had a large artistic sense, a breadth of view, and a comprehension of nature as a mass that Michael Angelo and Raphael did not disdain to follow. He was not a pietist, and there was no great religious feeling in his work. Dignified truthful appearance was his creed, and in this he was possibly influenced by Donatello the sculptor.

He came early in the century and died early, but his contemporaries did not continue the advance from where he carried it. There was wavering all along the line. Some from lack of genius could not equal him, others took up nature with indecision, and others clung fondly to the gold-embossed ornaments and gilded halos of the past. Paolo Uccello (1397 ?–1475), Andrea Castagno (1390-1457), Benozzo Gozzoli (1420?–1497 ?), Baldovinetti (1427–1499), Antonio del Pollajuolo (1426–1498), Cosimo Rosselli (1439–1507), can hardly be looked upon as improvements upon the young leader. The first real successor of Masaccio was his contemporary, and possibly his pupil, the monk Fra Filippo Lippi (1406–1469). He was a master of color and light-and-shade for his time, though in composition and command of line he did not reach up to Masaccio. He was among the first of the painters to take the individual faces of those about him as models for his sacred characters, and clothe them in contemporary costume. Piety is not very pronounced in any of his works, though he is not without imagination and feeling, and there is in his women a charm of sweetness. His tendency was to materialize the sacred characters.

With Filippino (1457 ?–1504), Botticelli (1446–1510), and Ghirlandajo (1449–1494) we find a degree of imagination, culture, and independence not surpassed by any of the Early Florentines. Filippino modelled his art upon that of his father, Fra Filippo, and was influenced by Botticelli. He was the weakest of the trio, without being by any means a weak man. On the contrary, he was an artist of fine ability, much charm and tenderness, and considerable style, but not a great deal of original force, though occasionally doing forceful things. Purity in his type and graceful sentiment in pose and feature seem more characteristic of his work. Botticelli, even, was not so remarkable for his strength as for his culture, and an individual way of looking at things. He was a pupil of Fra Filippo, a man imbued with the religious feeling of Dante and Savonarola, a learned student of the antique and one of the first to take subjects from it, a severe nature student, and a painter of much technical skill. Religion, classicism, and nature all met in his work, but the mingling was not perfect. Religious feeling and melancholy warped it. His willowy figures, delicate and refined in drawing, are more passionate than powerful, more individual than comprehensive, but they are nevertheless very attractive in their tenderness and grace.

Without being so original or so attractive an artist as Botticelli, his contemporary, Ghirlandajo, was a stronger one. His strength came more from assimilation than from invention. He combined in his work all the art learning of his time. He drew well, handled drapery simply and beautifully, was a good composer, and, for Florence, a good colorist. In addition, his temperament was robust, his style dignified, even grand, and his execution wonderfully free. He was the most important of the fifteenth-century technicians, without having any peculiar distinction or originality, and in spite of being rather prosaic at times.

Verrocchio (1435-1488) was more of a sculptor than a painter, but in his studio were three celebrated pupils —Perugino, Leonardo da Vinci, and Lorenzo di Credi—who were half-way between the Early and the High Renaissance. Only one of them, Leonardo, can be classed among the High Renaissance men. Perugino belongs to the Umbrian school, and Lorenzo di Credi (1450-1537), though Florentine, never outgrew the fifteenth century. He was a pure painter, with much feeling, but weak at times. His drawing was good, but his painting lacked force, and he was too pallid in flesh color. There is much detail, study, and considerable grace about his work, but little of strength. Piero di Cosimo (1462—1521) was fond of mythological and classical studies, was somewhat fantastic in composition, pleasant in color, and rather distinguished in landscape backgrounds. His work strikes one as eccentric, and eccentricity was the strong characteristic of the man.

UMBRIAN AND PERUGIAN SCHOOLS: At the beginning of the fifteenth century the old Siennese school founded by Duccio and the Lorenzetti was in a state of decline. It had been remarkable for intense sentiment, and just what effect this sentiment of the old Siennese school had upon the painters of the neighboring Umbrian school of the early fifteenth century is matter of speculation with historians. It must have had some, though the early painters, like Ottaviano Nelli, do not show it. That which afterward became known as the Umbrian sentiment probably first appeared in the work of Niocolo da Foligno (1430 ?-1502), who was probably a pupil of Benozzo Gozzoli, who was, in turn, a pupil of Fra Angelico. That would indicate Florentine influence, but there were many influences at work in this upper-valley country. Sentiment had been prevalent enough all through Central Italian painting during the Gothic age—more so at Sienna than elsewhere. With the Renaissance Florence rather forsook sentiment for precision of forms and equilibrium of groups ; but the Umbrian towns being more provincial, held fast to their sentiment, their detail, and their gold ornamentation. Their influence upon Florence was slight, but the influence of Florence upon them was considerable. The larger city drew the provincials its way to learn the new methods. The result was a group of Umbro-Florentine painters, combining some up-country sentiment with Florentine technic. Gentile da Fabriano, Niccolo da Foligno, Bonfiglio (1425?-1496?), and Fiorenzo di Lorenzo (1444 ?–152o) were of this mixed character.

The most positive in methods among the early men was Piero della Francesca (1420?–1492). Umbrian born, but Florentine trained, he became more scientific than sentimental, and excelled as a craftsman. He knew drawing, perspective, atmosphere, light-and-shade in a way that rather foreshadowed Leonardo da Vinci. From working in the Umbrian country his influence upon his fellow-Umbrians was large. It showed directly in Signorelli (1441 ?–1523), whose master he was, and whose style he probably formed. Signorelli was Umbrian born, like Piero, but there was not much of the Umbrian sentiment about him. He was a draughtsman and threw his strength in line, producing athletic, square-shouldered figures in violent action, with complicated foreshortenings quite astonishing. The most daring man of his time, he was a master in anatomy, composition, motion. There was nothing select about his type, and nothing charming about his painting. His color was hot and coarse, his lights lurid, his’ shadows brick red. He was, however, a master-draughtsman, and a man of large conceptions and great strength. Melozzo da Forli (1438-1494), of whom little is known, was another pupil of Piero, and Giovanni Santi (1435 ?– 1494), the father of Raphael, was probably influenced by both of these last named.

The true descent of the Umbrian sentiment was through Foligno and Bonfiglio to Perugino (1446-1524). Signorelli and Perugino seem opposed to each other in their art. The first was the forerunner of Michael Angelo, the second was the master of Raphael ; and the difference between Michael Angelo and Raphael was, in a less varied degree, the difference between Signorelli and Perugino. The one showed Florentine line, the other Umbrian sentiment and color. It is in Perugino that we find the old religious feeling. Fervor, tenderness, and devotion, with soft eyes, delicate features, and pathetic looks characterized his art. The figure was slight, graceful, and in pose sentimentally inclined to one side. The head was almost affectedly placed on the shoulders, and the round olive face was full of wistful tenderness. This Perugino type, used in all his paintings, is well described by Taine as a “body belonging to the Renaissance containing a soul that belonged to the Middle Ages.” The sentiment was more purely human, however, than in such a painter, for instance, as Fra Angelico. Religion still held with Perugino and the Umbrians, but even with them it was becoming materialized by the beauty of the world about them.

As a technician Perugino was excellent. There was no dramatic fire and fury about him. The composition was simple, with graceful figures in repose. The coloring was rich, and there were many brilliant effects obtained by the use of oils. He was among the first of his school to use that medium. His friend and fellow-worker, Pinturricchio (1454-1513), did not use oils, but was a superior man in fresco. In type and sentiment he was rather like Perugino, in composition a little extravagant and huddled, in landscape backgrounds quite original and inventive. He never was a serious rival of Perugino, though a more varied and interesting painter. Perugino’s best pupil, after Raphael, was Lo Spagna (?–1530 ?), who followed his master’s style until the High Renaissance, when he became a follower of Raphael.

SCHOOLS OF FERRARA AND BOLOGNA: The painters of Ferrara, in the fifteenth century, seemed to have relied upon Padua for their teaching. The best of the early men was Cosimo Tura (1425 ?—1498 ?), who showed the Paduan influence of Squarcione in anatomical insistences, coarse joints, infinite detail, and fantastic ornamentation. He was probably the founder of the school in which Francesco Cossa (fl. 1450—1470), a nail and strong, if somewhat morbid painter, Ercole di Giulio Grandi (?–1531), and Lorenzo Costa (1460 ?—1536) were the principal masters. Cossa and Grandi, it seems, afterward removed to Bologna, and it was probably their move that induced Lorenzo Costa to follow them. In that way the Ferrarese school became somewhat complicated with the Bolognese school, and is confused in its history to this day. Costa was not unlikely the real founder, or, at the least, the strongest influencer of the Bolognese school. He was a painter of a rugged, manly type, afterward tempered by Southern influences to softness and sentiment. This was the result of Paduan methods meeting at Bologna with Umbrian sentiment.

The Perugino type and influence had found its way to Bologna, and showed in the work of Francia (1450–1518), a contemporary and fellow-worker with Costa. Though trained as a goldsmith, and learning painting in a different school, Francia, as regards his sentiment, belongs in the same category with Perugino. Even his subjects, types, and treatment were, at times, more Umbrian than Bolognese. He was not so profound in feeling as Perugino, but at times he appeared loftier in conception. His color was usually rich, his drawing a little sharp at first, as showing the goldsmith’s hand, the surfaces smooth, the detail elaborate. Later on, his work had a Raphaelesque tinge, showing perhaps the influence of that rising master. It is probable that Francia at first was influenced by Costa’s methods, and it is quite certain that he in turn influenced Costa in the matter of refined drawing and sentiment, though Costa always adhered to a certain detail and ornament coming from the north, and a landscape background that is peculiar to himself, and yet reminds one of Pinturricchio’s landscapes. These two men, Francia and Costa, were the Perugino and Pinturricchio of the Ferrara-Bolognese school, and the most important painters in that school.

THE LOMBARD SCHOOL: The designation of the Lombard school is rather a vague one in the history of painting, and is used by historians to cover a number of isolated schools or men in the Lombardy region. In the fifteenth century these schools counted for little either in men or in works. The principal activity was about Milan, which drew painters from Brescia, Vincenza, and elsewhere to form what is known as the Milanese school. Vincenzo Foppa (fl. 1455-1492), of Brescia, and afterward at Milan, was probably the founder of this Milanese school. His painting is of rather a harsh, exacting nature, and points to the influence of Padua, at which place he perhaps got his early art training. Borgognone (?—1523) is set down as his pupil, a painter of much sentiment and spiritual feeling. The school was afterward greatly influenced by the example of Leonardo da Vinci, as will be shown further on.

PRINCIPAL WORKS: FLORENTINES — Masaccio, frescos in Brancacci Chapel Carmine Florence (the series completed by Filippino) ; Masolino, frescos Church and Baptistery Castiglione d’ Olona ; Paolo Uccello, frescos S. M. Novella, equestrian portrait Duomo Florence, battle-pieces in Louvre and Nat. Gal. Lon.; Andrea Castagno, heroes and sibyls Uffizi, altar-piece Acad. Florence, equestrian portrait Duomo Florence ; Benozzo Gozzoli, Francesco Montefalco, Magi Ricardi palace Florence, frescos Campo Santo Pisa; Baldovinetti, Portico of the Annunziata Florence, altar-pieces Uffizi; Antonio Pollajuolo, Hercules Uffizi, St. Sebastian Pitti and Nat. Gal. Lon.; Cosimo Rosselli, frescos S. Ambrogio Florence, Sistine Chapel Rome, Madonna Uffizi ; Fra Filippo, frescos Cathedral Prato, altar-pieces Florence Acad., Uffizi, Pitti and Berlin Gals., Nat. Gal. Lon.; Filippino, frescos Carmine Florence, Caraffa Chapel Minerva Rome, S. M. Novella and Acad. Florence, S. Domenico Bologna, easel pictures in Pitti, Uffizi, Nat. Gal. Lon. Berlin Mus., Old Pinacothek Munich ; Botticelli, frescos Sistine Chapel Rome, Spring and Coronation Florence Acad., Venus, Calumny, Madonnas Uffizi, Pitti, Nat. Gal. Lon., Louvre, etc.; Ghirlandajo, frescos Sistine Chapel Rome, S. Trinity Florence, S. M. Novella, Palazzo Vecchio, altar-pieces Uffizi and Acad. Florence, Visitation Louvre ; Verrocchio, Baptism of Christ Acad. Florence ; Lorenzo di Credi, Nativity Acad. Florence, Madonnas Louvre and Nat. Gal. Lon., Holy Family Borghese Gal. Rome ; Piero di Cosimo, Perseus and Andromeda Uffizi, Procris Nat. Gal. Lon., Venus and Mars Berlin Gal.

UMBRIANS—Ottaviano Nelli, altar-piece S. M. Nuovo Gubbio, St. Augustine legends S. Agostino Gubbio ; Niccolo da Foligno, altar-piece S. Niccolo Foligno ; Bonfigli, frescos Palazzo Communale, altar-pieces Acad. Perugia ; Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, many pictures Acad. Perugia, Ma-donna Berlin Gal.; Piero della Francesca, frescos Community and Hospital Borgo San Sepolcro, San Francesco Arezzo, Chapel of the Relicts Rimini, portraits Uffizi, pictures Nat. Gal. Lon.; Signorelli, frescos Cathedral Orvieto, Sistine Rome, Palazzo Petrucci Sienna, altar-pieces Arezzo, Cortona, Perugia, pictures Pitti, Uffizi, Berlin, Louvre, Nat. Gal. Lon.; Melozzo da Forli, angels St. Peter’s Rome, frescos Vatican, pictures Berlin and Nat. Gal. Lon.; Giovanni Santi, Annunciation Milan, Pieta Urbino, Madonnas Berlin, Nat. Gal. Lon., S. Croce Fano ; Perugino, frescos Sistine Rome, Crucifixion S. M. Maddalena Florence, Sala del Cambio Perugia, altar-pieces Pitti, Fano, Cremona, many pictures in European galleries ; Pinturricchio, frescos S. M. del Popolo, Appartamento Borgo Vatican, Bufolini Chapel Aracoeli Rome, Duomo Library Sienna, altar-pieces Perugia and Sienna Acads., Pitti, Louvre; Lo Spagna, Madonna Lower Church Assisi, frescos at Spoleto, Turin, Perugia, Assisi.

FERRARESE AND BOLOONESE—CoSimo Tura, altar-pieces Berlin Mus., Bergamo, Museo Correr Venice, Nat. Gal. Lon.; Francesco Cossa, altar-pieces S. Petronio and Acad. Bologna, Dresden Gal.; Grandi, St. George Corsini Pal. Rome, several canvases Constabili Collection Ferrara ; Lorenzo Costa, frescos S. Giacomo Maggiore, altar-pieces S. Petronio, S. Giovanni in Monte and Acad. Bologna, also Louvre, Berlin, and Nat. Gal. Lon.; Francia, altar-pieces S. Giacomo Maggiore, S. Martino Maggiore, and many altar-pieces in Acad. Bologna, Annunciation Brera Milan, Rose Garden Munich, Pieta Nat. Gal. Lon., Scappi Portrait Uffizi, Baptism Dresden.

LOMBARDS—Foppa, altar-pieces S. Maria di Castello Savona, Borromeo Col. Milan, Carmine Brescia, panels Brera Milan ; Borgognone, altar-pieces Certosa of Pavia, Church of Melegnano, S. Ambrogio, Ambrosian Lib., Brera Milan, Nat. Gal. Lon.