Philosophy Of The Perfection Of Italian Painting

WE MAY leave the fifteenth century style with some re-marks regarding the frequency of the Madonna, saints, and Biblical subjects, subsequently to continue.

We occasionally hear complaints from modern travelers as to the limited range of the old Italian subjects and their constant repetitions.

Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” contains many allusions of this nature, jocose in themselves and well enough in a professedly comic book, but very significant reminders also of remarks otherwise made seriously. This complaint overlooks the point that the fact of repetition was essential to the greatness of Italian art. The repetition of subject argues a popular demand, and this demand argues a popular interest. This popular interest is the necessary support of all great art, which cannot exist without it, and which can never become great simply by the patronage of persons of wealth. The subject which can be repeated is the subject which has general interest in the time which called for it. More than this, we assert that the subjects of Italian art were worth repeating, and that the later substitution of literature for art is our only excuse, and possibly an insufficient one, for our own modern lack of a corresponding Biblical art.

The fact of repetition does not imply anything but an absorption of the public mind in a certain range of subjects, for the artist reflects his age. Our first pictures is to ask what they teach us about the people for whom they were made.

It may be said next that both with Greek statues and Italian paintings, the repetition of subjects involved in the national interest in those subjects is what led to the ultimate great technical achievements of the men of great genius. It was also the explanation of the great average perfection of art during given generations, for average perfection means, of course, that the artist of ordinary or inferior capacity did comparatively better than would be naturally expected. On this last head it is clear that the artist of subordinate talent, working for a demand which repeats the subject, is able to profit by the conceptions of his greater predecessors or contemporaries. In other words, not only the subject but also the treatment is to a large extent traditional.

Originality of conception was not forced upon an artist who did not possess it. It was not even demanded of an artist of genius or of high rank. Raphael’s “Betrothal of Mary and Joseph,” in Milan, copies closely a picture a picture of Perugino. The pose of the figures on Ghiberti’s doors was borrowed by the same painter. The paintings of Leonardo’s pupils are with difficulty distinguished from those of the master. Repetition, not only of subject, but also of poses and conceptions, was the rule rather than the exception.

The evolution of scientific design was much assisted by these conditions, as the artist of superior genius started with a fund of ready-made and traditional knowledge for the given subject, to which he was able to add something of his own. The great watchword, “cooperation,” was applied, practically, in Italian art long before theorists had worked out its importance for social problems. We may point this moral by allusion to the St. Sebastian subject. This was for nearly two centuries the one type in which the nude form was constantly studied (Fig. 69).

We must not forget that both with the Greeks and the Italians the repetition of subject means that art existed to represent and teach belief in other words, it means that art was religious.

The first and main advantage of Italian painting over all which has followed was that the subject-matter itself was superior in importance to any which the art of painting has since handled. It was Christian art in the best and highest sense, and in such a sense that all beliefs and all sects of our own time unite in proclaiming its greatness. Just as we may, and do, in a strictly literary sense, consider the Bible as great and classic literature because its style is a living reflex of its noble and inspired teaching, so may the Italian art of the early sixteenth century be viewed as a translation of the Bible into the language of forms, fully worthy of the great original. The story of Genesis was told on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in a way which revived the old Hebrew simplicity and grandeur of Genesis itself. The lives of the Apostles live again in the cartoons and tapestries of Raphael, and the treachery of Judas has gone down to history in the great fresco of Da Vinci, as well as in the translation of King James the First, or the Revised Version.

That only a highly refined and cultivated general taste and a generally high level of civilization could account for the great pictures of the sixteenth century is also apparent, after slender knowledge of them. Whether we come to the knowledge of this civilization first through the picture, as many of us do, or whether we come to the picture through a knowledge of the civilization, as some few of us do makes little difference. Each helps to explain and illustrate the other.

We shall, then, at the outset abandon the idea that we are dealing with a phenomenal existence of some five or six ” Old Masters,” who happened fortuitously and by some strange accident to have been born within the limits of one generation some four hundred years ago. We shall rather consider these few artists as only the tallest among many other giants the waves which rise a little higher than the ocean of their fellows.

The average excellence of Italian painting between 1500 and 1530 is a much more remarkable fact than the existence of its first-quoted and much-quoted phenomenal geniuses.

This average excellence is one phase and one illustration of a perfection of civilization and of that high degree of material prosperity in the most modern sense, which I have previously endeavored to describe in matter introductory to the architecture of the Renaissance and tending to explain its subsequent diffusion and still continuing traditional power.

We have already seen that the ” Last Supper,” of Leonard da Vinci (Vinchy) in Milan, fixes the high-water mark of Italian painting after which the tide stood at its full till 1530. To comprehend the incredible industry, activity, and ambition of the Italian painters in the intervening time, we must remember the great patronage de-voted to their art, the great wealth of the cities, princes, popes, and prelates whom they served, the stirring life and stirring rivalries of these small Italian States in which, for the time being, all the vigor of later modern civilization was bottled and confined.

Industries and pursuits were not specialized, as in later times; the great painters were generally sculptors, architects, and engineers in the bargain. Many others were jewelers and designers in metal. The architect Brunellesco was a competitor for the commission of designing the first set of bronze doors for the Florence Baptistery which were done by Ghiberti, and otherwise ranked as one of the leading sculptors of his day. The architect Michelozzo was the greatest bronze-caster of his time, and actually cast the famous bronze doors designed by Ghiberti. Fra Giocondo, who, after Bramante, was for some time employed on St. Peter’s Church, is thought, by Jacob Burckhardt, to have been the greatest architect of his day, but he figures in Vasari’s ” Lives ” especially as a painter, and the most interesting story told of his life concerns his talent in nursery gardening. He was also a civil engineer, and a man of letters of such distinction that we owe to him the discovery, in the Library at Paris, of the Letters of Pliny. It was this same Fra Giocondo who first published in print the announcement of the discovery of the New World.* Michael Angelo was poet, engineer, military general, politician, architect, sculptor, and painter. Leonardo da Vinci was an improvising poet, a musician who was able also to make his own instruments, an athlete, an anatomist, an author, a civil and military engineer, an expert in the construction of canals, as well as architect, sculptor, and painter. His accomplishments included also a knowledge of botany, mathematics, and astronomy. He is the first modern by whom hints for the later science of geology were given.

( Originally Published 1894 )

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