THERE is perhaps hardly a place in Rome where you feel so transported into the heart of that old life of the Renaissance, as you do in the Borgia Apartments. After mid-day it is almost empty of sightseers ; and in the long rooms, where the silence is only broken by the splash of the fountain in the quiet, grassy court outside, you realise the setting of the passionate lives that once ran their course here. Here the light caught Lucrezia’s golden hair, here the famous pontiff rustled in his brocaded robes, and Casar Borgia strode in gilded armour. Here great ambitions were matured, and blackest crimes consummated ; and here, too, came and went the little, deaf, beauty-loving painter from the Umbrian hills, and drew his cartoons, and spaced his decorations, and overlooked his army of workmen, and left us as splendid a scheme of rich ornament as the quattro-cento has to show.
The preservation of these rooms is due to their having been for so long shut up. Pope Julius, moved partly by reprobation of the crimes of his predecessor, partly by hatred of the whole house of Borgia, refused to live in the apartments ; but at the end of the sixteenth century the nephews of Leo XI. used them for a time. For two centuries they seem to have been uninhabited, and the Abbé Taja in 1750 laments this abandonment, and deplores their loss to all lovers of the fine arts. Later, in the eighteenth century, we learn from Chattard that they were used for the meals of cardinals and officials who assembled during Holy Week. In 1816, when, in consequence of the peace of Tolentino, the precious collection of pictures was sent back from Paris, some of them were collected in the Borgia apartments, and the marble cross-bars of the windows were replaced by iron ones to give more light. The light was, how-ever, so bad that the pictures were removed, and a miscellaneous museum and library took their place.
In 1891 the present Pope, Leo XIII., moved the library, and the delicate task of restoration began. The book-shelves and marbles had cracked and destroyed the plaster in places, and in the time of Pius VII. some varnish had been applied to the ceilings, making a sort of crust. The restoration has been carried out with the greatest care under the direction of Signor Lodovico Seitz, and has fortunately been restricted to repairing the plaster and stucco, and to cleaning the frescoes from dust and damp. Though in some parts of the fifth and sixth halls the stucco has been taken off, the walls reconstructed, and the surface refixed, it has been done with such nicety that no mark is perceptible, and retouching, with one or two trifling exceptions, has been absolutely tabooed. What repainting there is dates from the time of Pius VII., but is fortunately slight. This applies to the actual paintings.
Most of the decorations of the lower walls have been repainted, following the fragmentary traces that remained, or, where these were quite obliterated, they have been replaced with harmonious hangings. The minor decorations of the halls are a study in them-selves, and are the more interesting as it is evident that the artist has superintended the whole, subordinating the marble work, the painting of the lower panels, and even the tiled floor to suit his scheme of colour.
It is extraordinary that no contract for these rooms has been discovered. No sign of the agreement for them remains in Alexander Borgia’s account book. It is only from incidental mention in letters to and from Orvieto, and from payments made, that we can find out when the work was begun, and how long it lasted.
Messrs. Ehrle and Stevenson, in their monumental work on the Borgia Apartments, show very clearly that Pintoricchio’s part only began with the second room. The private or living rooms of the Pope at that time were the second, or the Hall of Mysteries the third, the Hall of Saints ; and the fourth, or Arts and Sciences, besides the two withdrawing rooms. Vasari knew this quite well at the end of the sixteenth century. It is only with Chattard, about 1764, that the whole of the six rooms were said to have been decorated for Alexander VIII. In Vasari’s life of Pintoricchio, he says the Pope made him paint the rooms he inhabited, and the Borgia Tower and, more clearly still, in the life of Perino del Vaga, he says the latter was painting the vault of the Sala Pontifici, by which you enter the rooms of Pope Alexander, already painted by Pintoricthio. Taking off this room, there remain five, to which he assigned three years.
Our knowledge of contracts of the time enable us to construct pretty, accurately what must have been the conditions of the missing agreement. The master would have been required to use the best colours, to begin and end within certain time limits, to design all the cartoons, and to paint the faces and principal parts with his own hand. We can gather from the existing work that Pintoricchio performed his share of such a contract honestly ; assistants were evidently and inevitably employed, but the homogeneous character of the whole is remarkable, and proves, not only that the painter’s supervision must have been incessant, but also that he had the power of directing and over-seeing his pupils’ work, so as to keep their individuality in sufficient abeyance to his own guiding influence. That he had by this time his own workshop of helpers and skilled painters working under him we do not doubt, but I do not think that any critics who have studied the consistent character of the work, now doubt that he had the supreme direction, and that he was undisturbed by rivals. The unity of ornament, too, leads us to believe that he directed and designed all this part himself. Probably the marble work is by Andrea Bregno, who had been working with him in the Sixtine Chapel, and Santa Maria del Popolo.
Something of the beauty which greets us in these halls we owe to the mellowing hand of time ; yet even when new, the effect must have been rich and glowing, brilliant and deep rather than gaudy, and all is planned to suit the subdued light of a northern aspect. The square, not very high rooms are spaced, divided, and slightly vaulted with the most consummate skill. The rich soft colours, the heavy gold, the airy outlook of landscape, the glowing background, give an effect, choice, jewelled, of an exquisite finish, of a sensuous gratification, almost without parallel. The imagination furnishes the empty chambers with all the choice objects they once contained. The priceless majolica, the gold and silver vessels, the brocaded hangings, the ivory carvings what a background for the scenes of love and revelry once enacted here ! The thrum of music, the laughter and wit and boisterous merriment, the muttered conferences, the whispered plotting, the ghastly treacheries, the dying groans. In one of these rooms, the Hall of Arts, the first husband of the young Lucrezia was murdered. In the adjoining room the Pope himself died in agonies. On these and on what other deeds of darkness and despair and triumphant villainy have these chaste and innocent conceptions of Pintoricchio looked down. It gives them a curious attraction, born of incongruity ; as a writer says : ” They have all the fascination of ` fleurs du mal.”
It was about this time that the grotesque first crept into art. Dr. Schmarsow thinks that the earliest signs may be detected in the Borgia Apartments. The early art of the Renaissance had shown a preference for the classic, inspired by the decorations on antique marbles. The objects were clear and simple, human beings, animals, keeping true to nature, ornamented with gar-lands, ribbons, and other accessories, fanciful, but not fantastic. The origin of the expression “grottesque,” which is first used in Pintoricchio’s contract in Siena in 1502, is explained by Benvenuto Cellini in 1571. It was taken from the objects found by students of art who explored antique monuments in caverns or grottoes. Paintings, ornamented with grotesques, were crowded with objects all complicated, twisted and adapted, masks, swans with abnormally long necks, fabulous monsters, unnatural flowers. Exuberantly as Pintoricchio afterwards uses such objects, the tendency is only seen slightly here and in the Buffalini chapel. His work in the first hall (the Hall of Mysteries) of the life of our Lord, has something of a medioeval tendency. The scenes are seven in number : “The Annunciation,” “The Nativity,” “The Adoration of the Magi,” “The Resurrection,” “The Ascension,” “The Descent of the Holy Spirit,” and “The Assumption of the Virgin.” The composition of all is of the simplest, no strong emotions are rendered, and the figures are all of that peaceful and primitive devotion suited to the ruling of the early Church, and recalling Fiorenzo and Bonfigli. Indeed, the contrast is great between the simplicity of ornament and more ambitious, scientific spirit in the Sixtine, and the return here to the conventional composition and the mediaeval fondness for accessory. Both “The Annunciation” and “The Adoration of the Magi” are of the Umbro Perugian type. Pintoricchio repeats the angel of the first scene again at Spello, with several other figures. In the radial lines of the pavement we recognise the example of Perugino in the Sixtine fresco. The whole scene in the stately halls opening out in a beautiful landscape, is full of soft dignity. The rose-pink of the angels’ robes, the peacock-blues and greens of Mary’s garments, the rose-wreath, the lilies, make a luscious combination of colour. It is the impassionate character, the childlike and unconscious spirit of all Pintoricchio’s creations that gives them such a piquancy, in contrast to their splendid setting.
Dr. Auguste Schmarsow, of all the critics, is the one who has given most careful study to these frescoes and has brought most knowledge and erudition to bear upon them. He divides a great deal of the execution among the various schools to which he thinks Pintoricchio’s assistants belonged, and his assignments, if not to be taken as actual facts, are worth considering it being allowed that the whole is due to one designer. All critics concur in giving the figures in the ” Annunciation” to the master. In the next, the “Nativity,” the Virgin and Child are also from Pintoricchio’s own hand, and many details recall the altar-piece in Santa Maria del Popolo. The ” Adoration of the Magi” is attributed to a Lombard, except the boy at the right, who is by a pupil of Botticelli. We should be sorry to hold Pintoricchio immediately responsible for the ill-drawn Child and awkward hands in this fresco ; and in the patterns on the dresses and the terra-cotta mouldings of the buildings we see the Lombard taste. In the ” Resurrection” we have the broken tomb, the risen Saviour, and the guards in armour, set in a landscape of rocky ground and cypresses.
The principal figure, upon a gilded glory, set round with cherubs’ heads and tongues of flame and grasping a banner, is far too ill-drawn for the master, and Schmarsow gives it entirely to a Lombard. The guards are all of a refined Umbrian type, full of spirit and intelligence, and Dr. Steinmann suggests that we may have here portraits of Casar Borgia and his brother, who at the time would be boys of seventeen and eighteen. It is, as he argues, difficult to say what other portraits (and that they are portraits is evident) would be allowed in the same scene with that of the donor, Pope Alexander himself, who kneels on the left hand, the most conspicuous figure of the whole group, clothed in a gorgeous mantle, embossed with gold, his hands raised in prayer. His face has a strong beaked nose, low forehead, heavy jowl, double chin and crafty eye, and the tonsure shows the unusual development of the back of the skull. It is a splendidly realistic portrait, full of strength and truth, and clever modelling of the heavy fleshy face. This is entirely by Pintoricchio, who naturally would not leave such an important detail to any inferior hand. It is in unconscious satire that the Pope raises his clasped hands and eyes to the figure of the risen Lord, and that the inscription is to be read like a sentence from the Judgment Seat ” I wait for my resurrection.” These figures, in contrast to some of the puppet-like ones in the two preceding frescoes, are full of life, vivid and solid. In ” The Ascension,” painted on the archway over the window, the figure of Christ is the same in attitude if not in drapery. The whole is feebly drawn, and the gestures of the Apostles show a great want of unity. In this composition Schmarsow sees an imitation of Melozzo da Forli, while the heads and drapery are of the school of the Sienese, Bernardino Fungai, and by the same hand as the prophets on the roof nearest the window.
The “Descent of the Holy Spirit” has suffered more than any of the frescoes from damp and restoration. The scene is placed in an open field an arbitrary action of the painter intended to give unity to the background by making it a landscape like the other spaces, in Pintoricchio’s special manner. The usual harmony of design is lacking here, and the lower part of the scene is out of harmony with the upper. We trace the Lombard style again, particularly on the left hand, while some figures on the right recall the Sienese. The two inner figures of prophets on the vault are in the style of Fiorenzo. It is not likely that Pintoricchio would himself have worked at these, but Perugian pupils were certainly working with him.
In the remaining fresco of the ” Assumption,” the composition is entirely Umbrian, and may be compared with that in Santa Maria del Popolo, and in the Vatican. In St. Thomas, and in the angels on the right, Schmarsow sees the style of Perugino, but that master was a protégé of Cardinal Giuliano della Rovere, and at this time was busied on work for his patron ; in any case, he would not have been likely to take service under his old pupil. Of course, Pintoricchio must have had designs by him in his possession. The Madonna in some degree recalls the much more beautiful one Pintoricchio afterwards painted for the monks of Monte Oliveto. But the figure which gives its artistic importance to the fresco is that of the man in black who kneels on the right of the open tomb, facing St. Thomas. This figure alone, in grandeur and simplicity of attitude, in intensity of expression, in fine drawing and handling, and in depth of colour, would vindicate Pintoricchio’s claim to be called a great painter taken in conjunction with the Pope on the opposite wall, it carries conviction of the power and the insight of the man who could produce two such diverse and striking types, though the art that produced them may be empirical rather than scientific. We do not know who this last may be. There are no signs of his rank in his dress, no cardinal’s hat by his side ; but it is evident that he must have been a person of importance. It is conjectured that he is Francesco Borgia, the Pope’s brother, who, in 1493 became Bishop of Teano, and Papal treasurer.
A wonderful softness broods over the whole decoration of this room ; the details, elaborate as they are, are subordinated to a quiet and restful effect. All absence of violent action or emotion contributes to the impression ; the same peaceful types are repeated ; the same character of landscape : all modifies the pictorial to the decorative effect. We may notice here a feature which Pintoricchio shares very strikingly with Perugino it is that feeling for restraint, the instinct to keep all of small size and well within the picture which gives these painters such a peculiarly refined character, especially in contrast with those who followed, copyists of Raphael and Michael Angelo. Everywhere in the decorative part of the rooms we see the bull’s head, the appropriate device of the savage representative of the House of Borgia, a device which the House which was of Spanish extraction had borne since the thirteenth century. The decoration is repeated over and over again, and does not show much resource or ingenuity, but the subdued tone of the whole is very happy and thoroughly appropriate.
A marble doorway surrounded by two putti bearing a shield, leads to the Hall of Saints. Here Pintoricchio has surpassed himself in beauty. Here is more varied and more lively action and better effects of grouping than we find anywhere in his work, except in the Sixtine Chapel. When these apartments were little known, the Libreria at Siena was often quoted as the achievement on which the Umbrian master’s fame rested, but to know him at his best we must see him here in Rome. For technique, colour, decoration, and poetical feeling, these rooms, and especially the Hall of Saints, rank higher than anything else he has left, with the exception, perhaps, of the Buffalini and Sixtine Chapels.
The legends of the saints are varied by a scene from the Old and one from the New Testament. It does not appear what was the reason of this con-junction.
Over the door we have “Susanna and the Elders.” The middle of the composition is occupied by a splendid fountain in the style of the Renaissance. The top part, with the child holding the dolphin, resembles Verrocchio’s work in the courtyard of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The fountain is placed in a little garden plot set round with palings and a rose hedge, and the fanciful hand which painted it has filled it with animals: a hare, a stag lying down by the shoes which Susanna has just slipped off, a fawn, white rabbits gambolling in all directions, a monkey attached to a golden chain. These are evidently painted by a real student – lover of animals. In front of the fountain stands the saint, in a clinging white robe that reminds us of the sculpture of Agostino di Duccio ; her feet are bare ; a heavy necklace and pendant are round her throat. The two elders, in rich robes and Eastern turbans, grasp her arms on either side ; but her attitude, with her hand on the shoulder of one, is free from violent emotion, calm and trustful. Pintoricchio has seldom painted a more exquisite and poetical figure than this, with fair head and delicately – modelled arms and hands. Its purity and innocence, and the subject of the legend, make it a strange choice for the private apartments of a Borgia.
In the background on the left, the same white figure is being hurried to execution by guards in the dress of the fifteenth century, while Daniel, mounted on a white horse and holding a sceptre, intervenes in her favour. On the other side, the elders, bound to a tree, are stoned to death, even a little figure of a child casting stones at them. These figures show a great deal of animated action and good drawing and modelling, and are full of life and spirit. Behind is a landscape in the well-known style of Pintoricchiothe whole strongly recalling the work of Fiorenzo. Bernardino here is in his most idyllic and fairy-tale vein, and nowhere is the painting more finished ; but the very great care of detail, carried into the most distant part, gives too great an importance to accessories, and damages the unity of the whole, showing him less as a great composer than a decorator.
In the next fresco, Santa Barbara escapes from the tower in which she had been imprisoned by her cruel father, and in which she had built three windows in honour of the Trinity. On the left of the tower we see the great rent made by a miracle, through which she escaped. The father, armed with a scimitar, and shielding his eyes with his hand, is anxiously searching for her in the wrong direction. He is accompanied by two armed followers, one of whom catches sight of her, and, suddenly converted, looks longingly after her. In the background the saint escapes in company with Santa Giulia, and on the right her father is asking for news from a shepherd, who, for betraying that he has seen her, is turned into a marble pillar and painted white to convey this idea. Santa Barbara herself is a naïve and charming figure, gracefully posed, with flying draperies and long fair hair circled with pearls. Her streaming locks and blowing draperies give the impression of flight and movement very successfully. The whole effect is gay and fanciful. The saint, her little fair face turned up, her hands clasped, might be a fairy princess, escaping from an enchanted castle, over a sward carpeted with blossoms. She makes a bright figure in effective contrast to the white – robed Susanna.
The lunette opposite this is one of the happiest of the series” The Visit of St. Anthony to Paul the Hermit.” Beneath a rough natural stone archway in which the hermitage is concealed, its presence indicated by the bell which the hermit uses to call him-self to prayers, the two saints sit, sharing the loaf of bread which has been brought by the faithful raven, which flies away on the left. Close to St. Paul two disciples in white robes contemplate the edifying conversation, behind St. Anthony are grouped three women, richly dressed. They advance with half-closed, wanton eyes, and by the little horns on their fashion-ably dressed hair, their bats’ wings, and the claws peeping out from under their flowing skirts, their demoniacal character is betrayed. The last of the group, with head thrown back and hands resting on either side of her waist, is a very original and beautiful figure. The face and hands of St. Anthony are strongly drawn and the robes finely draped. In the hermit, dressed in the legendary garment of palm leaves, and in the very inferior figures of disciples, the hand of an assistant may be seen. The latter recall Signorelli, without his force and freshness.
In “The Visitation,” which fills the remaining space on this side, we have one of those sweet, home-like narrative paintings so dear to Umbrian art. The Virgin and St. Elizabeth, dressed in the long conventional blue and green draperies, clasp hands in the foreground, the Virgin with downcast eyes, the saint with the searching gaze prescribed by tradition. Behind them, St. Joseph leans on a staff, and a procession of children and pages follows : a girl with graceful swathings of scarf and sleeve carries a basket of fruit upon her head, and with a child at her feet, is distantly reminiscent of certain figures by Botticelli in the Sixtine Chapel. The smiling landscape, across which the visitors have journeyed, is seen through a perspective of elaborately drawn and decorated arches, on which some of those drawings of grotesque ornamentation can be discerned. On the right, in the shadows of the arcades, is a delightful group, one of those bits with which Pintoricchio gives interest and charm to his compositions. Zacharias, who is as yet unaware of the arrival, leans in an angle, absorbed in a book. On the ground a group of women, young and old, are occupied in spinning and embroidery ; at the back another graceful figure twirls a distaff, and a child plays with a dog on the ground in front. In some of the secondary parts of the execution of this, Schmarsow sees the hand of Pintoricchio’s best scholar. The architecture has nothing of the Umbrian style, but shows the hand of one to whom the Lombard decoration, with its terra-cotta work, is familiar. The whole of the fresco is more broadly painted, the draperies in large, broad folds, the value of the landscape better kept, more softly modulated than in any we have yet noticed.
The light over the windows is so bad that it is almost impossible to get an adequate view of the frescoes placed there. This is particularly unfortunate in the Hall of Saints, for no one of the scenes is more beautiful, more happily grouped or more full of interest than the one of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom. The young Saint who, transfixed with arrows and bound with cords, stands at the base of a column placed against a mass of ruined brickwork on Mount Palatine, is a pathetic figure, full of calm dignity and resignation. It is drawn and modelled with care and freedom, and has a force and solidity which make us regret that Pintoricchio did not give himself more chance by oftener painting studies from the nude. The figure and drapery with some modifications seem to have been adapted from his fresco of the ” Baptism of Christ,” but he has learnt more since then, and it stands firmer and gives a greater sense of elasticity and poise. The groups of archers on either hand, shooting at their human mark, under the superintendence of a Janissary in Eastern dress,* are full of movement and variety. One draws his bow, another is putting the arrow in the string, another has just let fly, while behind him a fourth in half armour shades his eyes with his hand and watches the weapon speed to the mark a quaint, matter-of-fact rendering of a scene of tragedy, which deprives it of its serious character and gives it, as Steinmann remarks, a social air, as of a friendly shooting match.
The scene in which the event takes place is more interestingly painted in some ways than any of the other landscapes. It is easy to see that studies for it have been made upon the Palatine itself; where tradition has always held that Sebastian, who was a captain of the Roman Guard, met his martyrdom. The small old Roman brickwork, overgrown with exquisitely drawn acanthus and ivy, is rendered with detailed care, and broken columns stand or lie around. In the background we see the half-ruined Colosseum, as Sixtus IV. left it when he built the Sixtine Bridge from its blocks. On the right is a church it may be San Giovanni e Paolo, or the one raised in honour of the saint himself. Nowhere up to this time has the beauty and the melancholy of the Roman landscape been rendered by any artist, and once more we feel how deeply beauty in all its forms _appealed to the Umbrian painter.
We now turn to the principal wall, facing the window, the post splendid of all the frescoes which Pintoricchio has left. At the foot of the great arch of Constantine, which is crowned with a golden bull, St. Catherine of Alexandria holds a theological dispute with fifty philosophers at a council convoked by the Emperor Maximian. The only woman in the great assemblage, the fair little figure stands before the throne of the Emperor and illustrates the points of her arguments upon her fingers. The same model has served here as for Santa Barbara tradition says it was Lucrezia herself, the dearly-loved daughter of the Pope with the small delicate features and long fair hair, which she is described by Burckhardt as possessing. The scene is laid in the usual sunny landscape. Old men with high caps and turbans dispute together, potentates ride upon the scene, pages attend their masters, bearing their volumes for reference, a greyhound steals forward at the feet of a squire who bears a halberd on his shoulder. Some are hastily searching their books as if short of arguments, but the king’s daughter is speaking on without hesitation, as if inspired by an unerring director. Lucrezia was fifteen the year this was painted, and was given in marriage to Giovanni Sforza. Full of wit and charm as she was, the painter may have caught the idea of his composition from seeing her foremost in lively discussion among the nobles of her father’s court, but the figure and gesture is practically copied from Masolino’s of the same subject in San Clemente. All the evil Lucrezia witnessed, all the black deeds she took part in, if history says truly, seem to have swept over that fair head, and when she settled down at Pesaro with her third husband, we gather that she was glad to leave intrigue and crime behind and to lead a comparatively peaceable, respectable existence for the rest of her life.
The idea of the splendour of the Pope’s court has fascinated the painter, and round the beautiful girl, who was its centre, he has grouped other remarkable person-ages who must have struck him there. The sad-eyed, bitter-looking man in Greek dress, who stands on the left in the foreground, is said to be Andrea Paleologos, commonly called the Despot of Morea, nephew and heir of the unfortunate Emperor Constantine, under whose rule Constantinople fell into the hands of the Turks. Andrea had with his father, taken refuge at the Papal court some twenty years earlier ; they had brought with them a precious gift the bones of St. Andrew and the hospitality of successive Popes had been extended to them. Andrea could never forget his former grandeur or reconcile himself to his position, though, as he made profit out of his hereditary rights in many petty ways, he was held in little repute. Certainly the resentful, brooding expression, the isolated air, accords well with the descriptions of the disappointed, disinherited man, standing silent and moody while the gay court of the Renaissance is unheeding of him. This interesting attribution is now questioned by some authorities.
In the British Museum are drawings of a Turk and a Turkish woman, both seated cross-legged. The drawing of the man serves for the Janissary in the ” Martyrdom of St. Sebastian,” reversed, and the arm slightly altered.
At Frankfort is a drawing of an Albanian, and also the one from which the alleged portrait of the Despot of Morea is taken.
In the Louvre are two drawings of Turks and one of a Turkish woman. Here we find the Turk standing on the Emperor’s left hand, and supposed to be the Sultan Djem.
All these drawings appear to be by the same hand and done at the same time alike in size and style. The two in the British Museum have been ascribed to Gentile Bellini, and are believed to have been sketches made by him in Constantinople. They have all the appearance of being from life. There are touches of reality in the under-robe of the Turk, the wrinkles in his face and the muscles of the neck, which entirely disappear when the sketch is transferred to the plaster wall. The question then arises, Did Pintoricchio transfer drawings by Bellini straight into his fresco, or can we entertain the opinion advanced by Signor A. Venturi, that the drawings are not by Bellini at all, but by Pintoricchio himself?
The Sultan Djem no doubt had a suite which included women, and Pintoricchio would have had no difficulty in finding models. We can hardly doubt, apart from tradition, that the painter did intend the very prominent Greek in his fresco to represent Paleologos, who would so obviously balance the other distinguished refugee at the opposite corner ; but if so, why copy an old drawing of thirteen years earlier, when it was essential to secure a portrait, and when Paleologos himself was always about the court? The same remark holds good of the drawing of the Turks. With so many Turks in Rome in 1493, and all the town wild about them, is it probable that Pintoricchio should have had recourse for them to old drawings by Bellini ? On the other hand, the style of the drawings has no resemblance whatever to that of Pintoricchio, though I cannot see much more to Gentile Bellini. I am inclined to think that the attribution to this last is an arbitrary one, and arises from his having been known to have visited the East, but that the drawings were supplied to Pintoricchio by a third person unknown, probably one of his assistants, whom he commissioned to procure sketches.
The figure on the Emperor’s left, in Turkish dress, has usually been taken for Prince Djem, the younger son of the Sultan Mahommed II., but as it is on record that Djem closely resembled his father, and as we have an excellent likeness of the latter in Gentile Bellini’s famous portrait (now in Lady Layard’s possession), we are able to identify Djem in the much more striking personage, the fierce and stately prince on horseback on the extreme right. It was as a hostage that Innocent VIII. brought him to Rome in 1489. We have plenty of evidence of how “el Gran Turco” struck the fancy of the Romans. All the Chronicles of the time, the letters and diaries of Ambassadors, are full of descriptions of his dress and person, and of the gay hunting parties which the Pope used to give in his honour. Mantegna has left a graphic description of his appearance in a letter written from Rome in 1485, in which he speaks of his fierce aspect, his wonderful seat on a horse, and his turban made of ” thirty thousand ells of fine linen.”
We can guess that the Turks made a great impression on Pintoricchio, for he brings them in again to his frescoes fifteen years later at Siena. The Emperor has been said to be a portrait of Casar Borgia ; but as he was only eighteen or nineteen at the time, this seems impossible. The young man on horseback on the right, tradition names as Giovanni Sforza, who was about twenty.
Here, too, is another portrait, less splendid but as notable as any. In the corner on our left may be seen the slim form and thin dark face, sensitive and observant, of the little painter himself, and by his side a man with a shrewd, firm face, with a grand gold chain round his shoulders and holding an architect’s square in his hand. This is no doubt one of the sculptors or decorators of the rooms. It may be Bramante, or the elder San Gallo, or Andrea Bregno, that conjuror in marble.
The ceiling in this room is a marvel of richly-gilt and embossed stucco, mingled with painting. The eight large triangular spaces between the bars of framework illustrate the myth of Osiris and Isis which, with its history of the deification of the bull, appropriately symbolises the exaltation of the House of Borgia. The young King Osiris, having conquered Egypt, ploughs the land with bulls and teaches the Egyptian to plant orchards and vineyards. The peace and prosperity of his rule is crowned by his marriage with Isis. Warriors pile their useless armour and children play around their knees. In this segment one particularly delightful putto is riding astride of a swan, the original for which, in marble, had been among the recent discoveries of antiques. As the history proceeds, the wicked brother raises the Egyptians in mutiny and Isis finds the remains of her murdered husband. Isis is a graceful fantastic figure, with swathing draperies, and the cut-up hands and legs of the unfortunate Osiris are disposed about the ground with a very naive effect. Then we have his burial, wrapped in cloth of gold the pyramid erected to him, and his apparition deified in the form of the famous bull Apis, ending with a procession and the bull borne in triumph. The intervals are lavishly filled in with grotesques, which are here very marked in character. It is curious to note Pintoricchio’s study of the antique, the classic armour, and the mythical histories in the small tondi on the wide cross architrave Mercury soothing Argus to sleep, and then slaying him at Jove’s command. Jove seizing Io, and obtaining possession of the cow into which her friend was transformed. The design of the principal subjects is in Pintoricchio’s style and full of fancy and invention, but the execution would seem to have been entrusted to assistants, apparently to the same hand which worked on the archers round St. Sebastian and in parts of the Susanna.
( Originally Published 1908 )
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