Painting In Rome And The Vatican

The great pictures of Rome are in the Vatican, with a few important exceptions noted farther along. The enormous papal palace is almost a city in itself, however, and it is easy to spend hours and walk miles there, wasting eyesight in endless corridors full of ornate bric-a-brac. There are three places in it which must be seen without fail: the Sistine Chapel, for Michelangelo’s frescoes; the Raphael Rooms; and the room of Ancient Roman Paintings. The first two are near together, and the third is on the way to them. On the way, also, is the Library, whose early Christian and medieval manuscript illuminations will appeal to some tastes as the most important of all. The Greek and Roman vases, in Rooms V—VII of the Museo Etrusco, offer interesting material for comparison with the Roman wall-paintings.

There is a small picture-gallery in another part of the palace, the Pinacoteca. It is famous for its RAPHAEL Transfiguration; but this is an uneven work, poorly united, with fine details in the upper part, and inferior ones, executed by his pupils, in the lower. Better of their kind are the small Italian primitives in another room : several works in the Byzantine style, a LORENZO MONACO Life of St. Benedict (68), and FRA ANGELICO’S Miracles of St. Nicholas (116).


The flood of tourists in the Vatican passes by this inconspicuous, little advertised room, called the Cabinet of Antique Paintings, on the right of the Icing corridor in the Library. It contains a most extraordinary treasure: the Odyssey series of Roman frescoes. Far from being primitive, they represent an advanced stage of development rarely equalled in the present day. Although known to connoisseurs, their merits have never been sufficiently appreciated, and histories of art give them nothing like the emphasis they deserve.

Some other Roman frescoes in the room should be noted for the sake of comparison. These correspond to the first and second types mentioned in the section on Naples. Pasiphae and the Bull belongs to the first or linear type, since it is essentially an outline drawing, like those on certain late Greek vases. It is in a monochrome of brown, except for a slight film of blue over the dress. Shadows are barely suggested, and the figures are comparatively flat, against a flat, plain wall. The form is simple; but that fact should not be taken as meaning that it is necessarily inferior in quality to pictures with solid modelling in deep space. What it tries to do, it does with forceful directness, in a way that suggests the drawing of such present-day artists as Picasso. With the most economical means, it is effective both as representation and as design. By the outline alone, it gives a realistic sense of the heavy bulk and strength of the bull, and of the girl’s slender lightness. The lines are sufficiently varied in breadth and thickness to avoid monotony, and they combine to form a rhythmic pattern of long diagonals and short curves.

The famous Aldobrandine Wedding belongs in form to the second or sculptural type. A long row of statuesque figures, roundly modelled, stands in space against a nearby wall. They are rather a series of separate figures than a composition, since no definite pattern of line or color connects them. Lighting and coloring are fairly naturalistic, but of no great subtlety or depth.


The third or pictorial type comes to full complex development in the Odyssey series, of which an example is reproduced. (Lacking color, the illustration gives a very inadequate notion of it.) Similar in general to the Landscape with Figures at Naples, it is more monumental in plan, and more rich and subtle in detail. It also includes the element of represented action, lacking in the other, and a more animated rhythm of line and mass. Involving genuinely deep space, and an atmosphere merging light and color, it reveals a mature command of the painter’s art, and anticipates many of the greatest achievements of Chinese, Renaissance and modern painting.

The series is connected by a painted framework of architectural pilasters, and by continuous internal themes of form and narrative. Aided by contrast with their frames (flat, bright red and gold on purplish gray) the panels recede into far-off depths of cool blue-green surf and rocky, misty shore. Small, energetic human figures, ships in harbor, houses, trees and animals among the crags, are swept lightly into being with deft, sketchy, simplified strokes. There is no hint of sculptural rigidity or hardness; nothing stands out sharply. Every object takes its definite place in space, and is bathed in the same rich, diffused and variegated atmosphere. Cast shadows are used when needed for the design, to round a shape into solid emphasis, or to spread contrasting films of darker color against the lighter. The incidents from Homer are dramatized clearly enough, but neither human figures nor their actions dominate. The basis of the form in each case is landscape, and into it (as in Brueghel and Claude Lorrain) the people fit as incidental factors, to fill the space with visually interesting forms. Scenery and objects unnecessary to the story receive as much emphasis or more. In other words, the Homeric poem is not merely illustrated, but used as a theme for free imaginative development in pictorial terms. The arrangement of forms is always rhythmic, including only shapes and colors that repeat a few definite themes. But the designs thus made are loose and casual, free-floating and irregular, never tightly obvious.

The Destruction of Ulysses’ Fleet consists of three contrasting themes: the angular, strenuous figures of the attacking giants in the foreground; the ships with high curving prows, in a line that leads out to the open sea; and the rocks that circle the harbor. Many small straight lines of wreckage, oars and yard-arms form a minor theme, and all appear against a background of sea and sky. The atmosphere is delicate and rich, blended of many tints and enlivened with strong contrasts. Its pearly opalescence, its colored shadows, anticipate modern impressionism, but without loss of spatial clarity. A ruddy purple with greenish gold, the reflection of sun on nearby rocks and men, fades to silvery lavender and pale blue in the distance. In the shadowy places a deep purplish gray (underpainted with reddish brown in the men) contrasts with the blue-green sea.

The Fleet Approaching Circe’s Island. In the next picture vigorous action gives way to a broad expanse of rugged cliffs and harbor: dark blue-green water streaked with silvery light, between the rose-purple cliff on the left and the greenish-gold shore at the right. Three delicate figures at the right form a stately pattern like those of Puvis de Chavannes. Behind them the shore is a hazy, translucent alabaster of white and violet, with broad strokes of green for the rocky contours. The painting is extremely thin, with the whiteness of the plaster shining through films of dry cool color. It gives to fresco as a medium the distinctive charm of water-color, with greater power.

Ulysses in the House of Circe. Here architecture takes the place of cliffs as the dominant background feature. A cool, faintly violet light softens the texture of massive rectangular towers, turning to deeper rose and purple, with greenish glints, in the shadowy portal. (The coloring here suggests Renoir.) Around the static building are a few shadowy forms of trees and people, curved into a gently flowing pattern. Leafage is simplified into a few soft, bristling smudges, in the Chinese manner. The various shades of darkness, and the placing of a few slanting sticks in the ground, mark off spatial intervals with a delicate lightness also suggestive of Sung landscape.

The Attack of the Lestrigoni. Here a quick, back-and-forth motion dominates. The rock forms are smaller and more broken; the trees (again simplified in the manner of Chinese landscape) echo the lines and colors of the human figures, and all dart this way and that in a lively rhythm. As in a Pieter Brueghel, the small figures, though apparently dispersed, are all related to each other and to the landscape, through repeated shapes and systematic grouping, in lines that wind through space at rhythmic intervals. There is great variety in color and lighting. The tranquil design of men and goats under the tree is lightly modelled in violet and reddish brown against a rich glow of yellowish and bluish green, which distinguishes them and the tree from the purple rocks behind. The extreme left of the picture shows deft but unobtrusive skill in light and shade. Distant and subordinated, the figures of man, tree, goat and house with people are flatly silhouetted in various densities of reddish purple, against a pale light that merges in the distance with the deep violet of vague hilltops, bushes and houses, and the blue-green of the sky.