National Gallery – The Flowering Of The Tuscan School

THE first bud of promise for the flowering of the Tuscan school may be said to have appeared in the unique genius of Botticelli. He lived in the last half of the great fifteenth century, and antedates Michelangelo and Raphael, who dominated the full ripeness of the Golden Age.

It is true that nearly all the Madonnas of Botticelli have that expression which has been referred to as ” peevish,” but they are more humanly impressive than some of Raphael’s apathetic Virgins, whose beauty is often inexpressive and conventional. Botticelli was perhaps the most intellectual and thoughtful painter of his day. His works, although appreciated by contemporaries, soon went out of vogue. Not until the last century has this man been quite understood, and a place high in the arts assigned to him.

He was born in 1447, — five years before Leonardo da Vinci. He lived sixty-three years, dying in 1510; though Vasari claims that he became aged and decrepit and lived until 1515. After he came under the influence of Savonarola, it is said that he painted no more; in that case, his period of activity is restricted to about forty years. The chief fascination of this painter is owing to his penetration into the realm of sensation. He has little poise or equilibrium, but his sensitiveness has a poignant charm.

Compare the two faces by Botticelli in the National Gallery, — one entirely human, and one entirely spiritual: his Portrait of a Young Man, No. 626, and the lovely little Madonna of the familiar tondo, No. 275. The youth, in his dusky browns and reds, speaks of the prosperities of the earth; the Virgin has about her all the ethereal charm and glow of the celestial world. The eyes, with their rather heavy lids, suggest, in the youth, a sense of humour and a capacity for pleasure; the same wide-set eyes of the Virgin denote an innocent dreamy rapture. Facts like these prove that Botticelli could paint the soul, and not only the outward shape of the features. Few artists can thus use the same anatomic characteristics of a face so as to express, in two cases, entirely opposite temperaments. Some critics say that the tondo is not the work of the master; this may be true of the Child, and the accessories; but it hardly seems possible that the Madonna can have been painted by a pupil.

The colouring is very subdued. On the back of the panel is inscribed the name, ” Giuliano da San Gallo.” This is more probably the owner of the painting than the artist. If San Gallo had been able to paint such pictures as this, his name would be more widely known in the graphic arts.

The picture usually supposed to represent Mars and Venus, No. 915, is interpreted by Jean Paul Richter to refer to a different subject. He believes that it is illustrative of an episode in the poem of Angelo Poliziano, entitled, Stanze per la Giostra ” (” Song of the Tournament “), which was written in honour of Giuliano de Medici. The plot of the poem is too intricate to outline here; but the scene to which the critic has reference is, when Giuliano, dreaming, experiences fear at the thought of a lady-love who is clad in the armour of Minerva; whereupon Cupid comes and whispers in his ear comforting words, and, the dream being dispelled, the lady-love appears again, divested of armour, and robed in white. This lady-love being the famous Simonetta, Richter is convinced that the head of the Venus in this picture is a literal portrait of the renowned beauty. The composition of the picture is singular, being brought into a space nearly three times as long as it is high ; there is another of these horizontal panels (but more likely by a pupil), numbered 916, in which the lines are much less harmonious. Still another interpretation has been put upon this picture. It is suggested that it probably represents the Bower of Bliss which was overthrown by Sir Guyon, in Spenser’s ” Faërie Queene,” Book II., 12; and the descriptions of the two persons certainly correspond remarkably to these :

” Upon a bed of roses she was layd… And was arrayed, or rather disarrayed, All in a veil of silk and silver thin.”

Of the ” young man sleeping by her,” it is said :

His warlike arms, the idle instruments Of sleeping praise, were hung upon a tree. Ne for them ne for honour carèd he.”

No. 782 is a school piece; it is a pleasant, but not brilliant, work. Another round painting, No. 226, is somewhat reminiscent of several works of the master ; for instance, the two angels crown the Madonna in a similar manner to those in the Magnificat Madonna in the Uffizi, while the Child’s hand is in the attitude of that of the infant in another circular picture in that gallery. The picture here is only claimed as a copy, the original one being in Rome. Another work, of which the authenticity is questioned, is the curious ” Assumption of the Virgin,” No. 1126, in which a vista of heaven, like an inverted bowl, is shown, with the ranks of the blessed in varying degrees ranged in most uncomfortable and precarious circular galleries. The picture is a large one, and is a curious and literal idea of an actual throng of worshippers spending Eternity as the old hymn suggests:

” There dawns no Sabbath, no Sabbath is o’er; Those Sabbath-keepers have one evermore ! ”

The individual figures, especially of the angels, are beautiful.

But the masterpiece of Botticelli in the National Gallery is the exquisite Nativity, No. 1034. The figure of the Madonna is faultlessly lovely in its attitude of adoration of the Divine Child. The picture must have been one of the very last executed by Botticelli, for it was painted during the time that Savonarola was goading souls to repentance, and stirring up all manner of dead con-sciences. At the top of the picture is a Greek inscription, which has been thus translated : ” This picture I, Alexander, painted at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, in the half-time after the time during the fulfilment of the 11th of St. John, in the Second Woe of the Apocalypse, in the loosing of the Devil for three years and a half. Afterwards he shall be chained and trodden down as in this picture.” Mystical as this sounds, the eleventh chapter of the Apocalypse is capable of being read so as to interpret this picture. The men being embraced by angels in the foreground are evidently those into whom the ” spirit of life from God entered ” (supposed to refer to Savonarola and the two others who were martyred with him) ; devils are seen hurrying into clefts in the rocks, while the angelic host appears above, whence comes ” a great voice from heaven, saying, ` Come up hither.’ And they ascended up to heaven in a cloud.” This choir of angels is among the most beautifully decorative of such inventions in the field of art.

Botticelli’s complex nature has been well ex-pressed by Mr. Ralph Adams Cram in his able work on ” Religious Painting in Italy.” ” Gay and mirth-loving,” says Mr. Cram, ” he yet painted nothing that was not touched with passionate emotionalism that verged often on the morbid; surrounded by . . . all the luxury and vice of an epoch of enormous glory, he yet turned and followed the fierce prophet who cursed it all in the name of Christ; loving the newly discovered art and literature of Greece and Rome, he linked him-self with the man who condemned them all to the flames.” He continues : ” The culmination of medievalism, the inception of modernism, centre in him.”

Perhaps the two faces in the National Gallery, the youth and the Madonna, express as well as anything which he has left to us the two-sided nature of this great man.

Among the Piagnoni Painters was Lorenzo di Credi, 1459 to 1537. A sweet, thoughtful hush seems to pervade his compositions, which are always finished with the tender, consecrated spirit of reverence which characterized the work of Fra Angelico, although technically his treatment is different. His two Madonnas here, Nos. 593 and 648, hardly do justice to his ability, for they are not painted in his finest manner.

Albertinelli is only represented by one picture in the London gallery, a little Virgin and Child, No. 645.

There are a couple of strenuous crowded compositions by Baldassare Peruzzi, and a Trinità by Pesellino, which, in the old, conventional way, is interesting.

Among the friends and co-workers of Andrea del Sarto were three of about his own age, — Francia Bigio, Francesco Ubertini, called Bachiacca, and Jacopo da Pontormo. They are all three to be studied in the National Gallery. The most intimate relations existed between Andrea del Sarto and Francia Bigio. This talented young artist, six years the senior of Andrea, having been born in 1482, was a pupil of Albertinelli. There could hardly be a more delightful portrait than his, of a young man dressed in a tunic, the front of which is decorated with the Cross of Malta, No. 1035. One can understand the sympathy which must have existed, on æsthetic grounds, at least, between Francia Bigio and Del Sarto; for one has only to glance from this portrait by him, to Andrea’s Sculptor, 690, to see that the two temperaments expressed themselves in the same way. A charm of pose characterizes both, and, in each case, all the intellectual possibilities of the face are brought out to the fullest extent.

Francesco Ubertini, although often classed as a member of the Umbrian school, may be here mentioned. He and Pontormo were both engaged, together with Andrea, in painting a series of panels representing the history of Joseph, for the wedding-furniture of Francesco Borgherini and his bride. Two of Andrea’s panels are in the Pitti Palace, and two of Ubertini’s and one of Pontormo’s are in the National Gallery. Ubertini’s work is brilliant in tone, and the panels are long and narrow. They are numbered 1218 and 1219. The first shows Joseph standing in a kind of porte-cochère, sur-rounded by his brethren, who have brought him their offerings. The other exhibits two scenes, the first being a journey of the brothers in the time of famine, little Benjamin, in blue, being conspicuous ; he lags a little in his walk, as a tired child might do. At the other end of the panel they are all kneeling and beseeching help from Joseph. The shape of the panel indicates that these were used on a chest.

Pontormo’s panel in this set is square instead of oblong. It is numbered 1131. It has been pronounced the finest piece of work ever executed by Pontormo. It contains, by a curious system of division, five separate scenes of episodes in Joseph’s career. The figures, though small, are well modelled, and the composition is harmonious. It is interesting to note that the figure of a little boy seated on the steps in the foreground is a portrait study of Pontormo’s pupil, Bronzino, of whom we shall soon speak.

Pontormo was brought up by his grandmother, his parents having died when he was very small; he was early sent to study with Leonardo da Vinci, moving on from teacher to teacher until he had been instructed by Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo, and Andrea del Sarto as well. He became famous for heraldic and decorative work also; he arranged various pageants, one of which was that representation of the Golden Age which had so tragic a sequel, the boy who appeared as the Genius of the Golden Age dying, from the result of having been completely gilded. In spite of this disaster, Pontormo’s fame advanced, and illustrious men came for their portraits, and he became a prolific painter of historic personages and scenes.

Luca Signorelli, to whom, says Sir Frederick Burton, ” is due the inauguration of the study of the human form for its own sake,” is the next great painter for us to observe in this famous century. Travellers are familiar with his famous frescoes at Orvieto; he can hardly be appreciated elsewhere. One of the pictures by him, in London, No. 910, called the Triumph of Chastity, is a fresco, although it has been transferred to canvas. The drawing of the figures is vigorous and the colouring opalescent, but the authenticity of the work is questioned by Dr. J. P. Richter. Cupid, kneeling in the foreground, is being bound and deprived of his bow and arrow by several strapping damsels, — positive Amazons, who, in a prudish rage, are heartlessly arrayed against the poor youth. There are some warriors watching the proceeding, — their aspect is a trifle dejected, as if they regretted this strenuous attack on the part of the ladies. There is an allegory here which modern self-sufficient women may absorb without detriment to their real strength of mind.

Signorelli has also two large pictures here, No. 1128 and No. 1133, the Circumcision and the Nativity. The first of these is one of the finest of his productions, though the figure of the Child has been repainted. The priest on his knees before the Virgin and Child is said to be a portrait of Signorelli himself. The full, rich brush-work in this picture is significant, this being one of the earliest paintings among those in the National Gallery which we have examined, in which this broad handling is observable. In the Nativity the principal figures are a trifle stiff, but it is a good specimen of the realistic tendencies of Luca. It is divided into four scenes, the first being that in the temple, where the scribes are seen taking the list of taxpayers. The second scene is the centre of the composition, — the Birth of Our Lord and the Adoration of the Shepherds. Luca has been so independent of tradition that he fails to show either the manger or the swaddling-clothes, which are hardly ever omitted in paintings of this subject. Another scene shows the angel appearing to the shepherds, and on the other side a very attractive shepherd is seen, sitting among the rocks, playing on his pipe. Signorelli was a whole generation earlier than Michelangelo, but his vigorous figure-drawing is prophetic of the coming of the master.

Vasari tells a pretty story of Signorelli, on the occasion of his making a visit to Vasari’s father, Signorelli extended his hand to young Vasari, then a boy of eight, and said, ” Antonio, let little Georgio by all means learn to draw, that he may not degenerate; for, even though he should here-after devote himself to learning, yet the knowledge of design, if not profitable, cannot fail to be honourable and advantageous.” And he said to the boy himself, ” Study well, little kinsman.”

There are in this collection two unfinished pictures by Michelangelo. They are both early, and do not exhibit the great Florentine at his best. The picture of the Madonna and Child with Angels, No. 809, was executed when Buonarroti was only a boy in his teens, working in the studio with Ghirlandaio, and it shows some of the master’s influence. It is more virile, however, even as the work of Michelangelo’s early days, than the most mature work of Ghirlandaio. The only other Michelangelo, No. 790, is the Entombment of Our Lord. The very fact that these pictures are un-finished makes them valuable in telling us some-thing of the technique employed by Michelangelo. The flesh is laid in first with a green ground, which in the earliest treatises is recommended, — thus, even in the height of the Golden Age, this primitive law of colouring is still observed. The draperies were painted over a white ground. The drawing of the figures in the Entombment is splendidly strong, and the feeling of tugging strength sup-porting dead weight is nowhere more realistically expressed. Still, it must be admitted that the picture is not attractive. Symonds considers the early Madonna as one of the most beautiful easel-pictures of Michelangelo.

Angelo Bronzino, a pupil of Pontormo, whose portrait as a youth we found, painted by that artist, in miniature, sitting on the lower step in the picture of Joseph and His Brethren, was born in the sixteenth century, 1502, and lived until 1572. He is one of the few artists, of whom we shall speak at this time, who was born after the great century had come in. There are several of his pictures in the National Gallery, among the best being No. 649, a portrait of a boy dressed in crimson and sable, — really quite a young courtier of the period. The picture has caused some discussion, having been ascribed by various critics to Pontormo ; but in Sir Edward Poynter’s great work on the gallery, it is given to Bronzino.

The other works of Bronzino in London are portraits, with the exception of a classical extravaganza, entitled Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time, or All Is Vanity. This picture, No. 651, represents Venus in an extremely awkward attitude, turning to kiss Cupid, who assumes a position positively grotesque and almost impossible, while Father Time, apparently much irritated at the pranks of some children in the background, sweeps out his arm angrily, as if wishing to brush them from the face of the earth ! A very innocent-looking little harpy squats behind the rampant young Folly, amiably offering a bit of honeycomb to any one who will accept it; but, as they are all engaged in other interests, it is probable that she will continue to offer it in vain. The picture is not a powerfully conceived allegory, although it purports to be one. It smacks of the mannerisms of the Decadence, — the Golden Age is tarnished.

A good conventional portrait is No. 670, of a Knight of St. Stephen, the other two portraits by Bronzino being only heads, No. 704, a likeness of Cosimo I. of Tuscany, and No. 1323, of Piero de Medici, who died in 1469.