WE have now traced the evolution of Italian art along a single line through the most distinctive of its developments. We have gotten a glimpse of Greek painting as known and practiced in Italy, of the mosaics that were derived from it either on Roman or Eastern soil, and finally, of the easy but significant transition from mosaic to the more facile painting which better suited the realistic purpose of the Renaissance. We have seen in this early period the slow shifting of emphasis, the swing of the great pendulum from idealized naturalism over to decoration, the wax and wane of the pictorial, and finally the triumph of naturalism again in the Renaissance. And last we have noticed along with the perfecting of the Florentine technique, the exhaustion of the Christian theme. Florentine painting has run its course. We stand at the threshold of that greater development which is to give us names that are above every name. But before considering the achievements of Leonardo and Michelangelo, we must briefly return and follow the parallel but different development of that sister art which the Florentine never dissociated from painting in his thought, and which was to be the especial expression of his feeling in this latest period.
As stated in a former chapter, the art of sculpture died almost utterly in the middle ages. Its continuance was architectural rather than sculptural in the strict sense of the word. Strangely conventional representations of animals and men occur in the decoration of the great mediæval churches in Italy, and still more in the north where, in the splendid Gothic period, they assume a character worthy of consideration as sculpture. But of all the arts, sculpture was the most impossible for a people hampered by poverty. There is no link like the mosaics to connect the sculpture of the Renaissance with that of the Greek. But if the practice of sculpture did not continue, the works of sculpture did. Few have been preserved from ancient times, but those few have preserved more of their original character than could have been preserved by an art which was dependent for its continuance on the lessening skill of successive generations. The revival of sculpture, therefore, is not unnaturally referred to the interest which was aroused by those ancient works. That interest began in the twelfth century, following the same impulse, essentially economic in character, to which the revived intellectual life of the time is to be referred.
While as yet the great industrial development of Florence was undreamed of, commerce had raised the neighboring Pisa to wealth and power. The little Arno in its sluggish lower course, afforded the shallow access to the mainland which the small craft of the time required, an access much prized on this seldom indented coast. Pisan architecture is a monument to both the wealth and the originality of the city at a time when no other city in Italy had been awakened from mediævalism. The extensive use of ancient materials in these buildings testifies also to a lively consciousness of the ancient art, of whose works in sculpture especially, this flourishing community seems to have been the earliest collector.
It is therefore appropriate that the revival of this art should have begun in Pisa. Niccolô Pisano (Nicholas of Pisa) is the acknowledged initiator of the movement. His work is most conveniently studied in his early masterpiece, the Pulpit of Pisa (B 379), an epoch-making work at which the tourist usually casts only a hasty glance on his way to do homage to that unfortunate tower which would be beautiful if only it did not lean. The pulpit is a little hexagonal enclosure resting upon pillars which, in turn, rest upon the backs of lions, most unplausible and inartistic of suggestions, which seems to have entered Italy with the returning Crusaders, and to have been derived originally from so remote a people as the Hittites, where it doubtless had a significance that is lost to us. It is wholly in keeping with the weird fantasy of Asia, which forever separates its art from that of the West, by a great gulf that no man can cross. The arches that span these pillars are decorated with cusps which are unmistakably Gothic, though there is nothing beyond this superficial reminiscence to remind us that Italy was at this time beginning to feel the influence of that far-reaching art. The enclosure itself is made by an architectural framework with pillars at the corners and panels at the sides. Architecturally it is sound, though it cannot compare in grace of proportion with Greek work or even with some later constructions of the Renaissance. But it is the panels and their reliefs that interest us particularly. We may notice first the Visit of the Magi. The Madonna, quite unlike her former Byzantine self or the later conception of the Renaissance, is a queenly figure, imbued rather with beautiful strength than with tender sentiment. She wears the tiara or coronet which reminds us of the classic ,Juno but which does not recur in Christian art. Altogether, she is queenly and magnificent rather than distinctively Christian. The horses, with their exaggerated manes, the kneeling kings with their abundant curly hair, are elaborate, but ill-proportioned and exceedingly ill-draped. It is in this last feature that Niccolô especially shows his limitation. The draperies look like wooden boards nailed on. They are totally lacking in flexibility and texture, as well as in grace and harmony of line. Turning to another panel, the Presentation in the Temple, we see again the short, ill-proportioned figures, the heavy, bushy hair, the powerful, queenly Madonna, with little improvement in detail. Other things for the moment puzzle us, as, for instance, the old man at the right, who seems to lean or half fall backward, his heavy weight supported by a slender youth who almost disappears beneath his elbow. We guess in vain for the significance of this figure.
But we have only to wander into the nearby enclosure of the wondrous Campo Santo to find our explanation. Here are ranged numerous sarcophagi and other antiques, most of which were there in Niccolô’s time. On one is represented the myth of Hippolytos and Phaedra, a moment’s glance at which confirms Vasari’s statement that the queenly Madonna we have noticed in Niccolô’s pulpit was copied from this sarcophagus. Farther on is one of the large marble vases of which the Romans were so fond, decorated, as usual, with Greek myths copied from classical Greek works, and here is, strange to relate, a Bacchanal or ceremonial revel in which, along with the piper and the dancing menad, we see the drunken Silenus, congenial to Roman taste, whose obvious need of support explains the presence of the youth already mentioned. Niccolô has copied again, and this time with strange irrelevancy, for the helpless figure in the Presentation has no plausible explanation. Plainly Niccolô is interested in good figures wherever he sees them, and copying them, not very skillfully to be sure, he cannot resist the temptation to put them in wherever they will fit, irrespective of their significance.
The history of the Renaissance would be a sorry one if this process had continued, but it did not continue in the work of the later sculptors, nor even in the work of Niccolô himself, whose later works, though sometimes less judiciously planned than the Pulpit of Pisa, show an improvement in detail and a growing independence of classical models. The great pulpit at Siena is more ambitious and less well judged, particularly in the fact that the sculptor has run away with the architect, for where, in Pisa, little pillars were placed at the corners, statues have been substituted in the larger work. It is all statues, a thing almost framed together out of human figures, and the panels crowded with vast numbers who are uncomfortable in their suggestion. But some of the best of these figures show a marvellous improvement in draperies. These are soft, flexible and graceful in a way that is surprising to one coming direct from the early work in Pisa. The artist is every inch a sculptor, not an architect or a sculptor decorator like the maker of the beautiful pulpit in Santa Croce. He has lost his sense of fitness, but he has devoted himself with unremitting zeal to the perfecting of his sculptor’s technique.
Better still is the wonderful shrine of St. Dominic in Bologna (B 384) to which we shall have occasion later to refer, for it had the extraordinary fortune to be begun by the first sculptor of the Renaissance and finished by the last. This work of Niccolô Pisano remaining unfinished, was continued by a sculptor of the intermediate period, and finally finished by Michelangelo in his youth. It is second to no monument in Italy in its interest, and possibly in its beauty as well. How far Niccolô is responsible for this shrine it is hard to tell. The general conception of it is in keeping with the architecture of his time, its pinnacle being suggestive of the Gothic which was in vogue in his day. The one thing that we can attribute to him with certainty is the decoration upon the sarcophagus proper. Rows of figures are ranged around it in much the style of the Roman sarcophagi, a style not to be recommended, but having certain advantages merely as decoration. These figures are rather formal as they stand in measured rows, but what they lose in flexibility as a company of living beings, they gain in architectural suggestion. They make a good colonnade if not a good company of men. Incidentally they lack subtlety of countenance, but there is much of grace and charm about them all. Altogether, we shall go farther and often fare worse.
Niccolô was more than a sculptor. He was an organizer, a leader of men. There is abundant evidence that the creations with which his name is associated in Bologna, in Perugia, in Siena, in Pisa, were not the work of a single chisel. There was a company of which he was the undoubted master, which not only increased the volume of his output but better provided for the succession. There can be no question that Niccolô was very fruitful as the builder of a school.
His son and successor, Giovanni Pisano, is in some ways even more interesting, though his work is at first less attractive. In his there is no copying of the antique. His work would have been better and worse if he had copied. Oftentimes it is atrociously bad in detail, notably in the Crucifixion, a thoroughly representative work. There are medieval mannerisms which are at first offensively prominent. The terrible anatomy of the crucified figures indicates how far art has to travel before a Michelangelo is possible. But we must beware of judging the fidelity and value of art simply or primarily by its skill. Giovanni’s skill leaves much to be desired, but he has the fire of a true artist. There is in his work infinitely more of passion, earnestness and candor than in the work of Niccolô, and it is these things that count in the long run. He never tucks in a drunken Silenus because he is interested in the figure and has room for him. With him it is the idea that counts, and he is always true to it, no matter how helpless his grammar or his rhetoric. In a word, while Niccolô represents the first appearance of sculpture as a technic art, inviting the attention of those who have art’s message, Giovanni is the first who in any large sense feels that message. Less classical, less skillful, he is more genuine. True art is always born of the life of the time. Never can it be produced by imitation, or by the resurrection of dead themes and vanished ideals. And with all the much-mooted influence of the classical, an influence which was assiduously encouraged by the great art patrons of the time, it is doubtful whether that influence at any time contributed anything of value to the Renaissance. The art that we care for is not retrospective. It is the expression, oftentimes imperfect, even helpless, of the ideals and passions of the time.
It would be gratifying if we could assign to Giovanni Pisano, as a less critical age has done, the wonderful sculptures upon the façade of the Cathedral at Orvieto (B 400), but their authorship is and must forever remain doubtful. Their date, however, is approximately certain. Whoever executed them, they belong approximately to the period that we are considering. In their own way they are without a rival in the art of Italy. Unlike the works of Niccolô, they do not forget that their purpose is decoration. The great flat surfaces that they were called upon to beautify, are divided into compartments by a branching vine whose graceful lines and foliage are in themselves a masterpiece ; not the slightest attempt at the irregularity of nature, no methodical scrolls like those of the Later Renaissance, merely a vine that twines in and out, always gracefully, to frame little spaces in which the artist is to execute the pictures in stone which the taste of the time demanded. And these pictures are inevitably the Bible story, or rather, tradition that has gathered round it, a story which was still young in art and had the invigorating freshness which these first vivid portrayals inevitably manifest. Detailed analysis is unnecessary. It is sufficient to note the great charm with which these figures, still wrongly proportioned, to be sure, but not the less vivid and real, perform their part in the stories assigned them, the exquisite delicacy of the draperies, the grace with which the angels move with outspread wings and folded feet. The charm is both that of sculpture and of decoration. Every figure and detail is beautifully executed and instinct with grace and loveliness, but the greater charm is in the placing of these figures and the setting. It is a case where the frame is not less beautiful and artistic than the picture, There are no more beautiful decorations in this first century of the Renaissance, possibly none even in the second.
It is significant that the first important work of sculpture in Florence also bears the name of Pisano, this time Andrea Pisano, who was employed to make bronze doors for the great Baptistery which now needed embellishment on account of the imposing majesty of the new Cathedral opposite. The Baptistery is an octagonal building with doors on three sides. The front opening, that facing the Cathedral, was the one destined to receive these doors, wooden doors still closing the other openings.
Bronze doors were no new thing in Italy. We find them as far back as Imperial times. The old Baptistery of St. John in the Lateran contains doors which were taken from the Baths of Caracalla, in the shape of great flat slabs of bronze. Doubtless such doors were common in ancient times. They were without decoration, or at best and there can be no better they were decorated with inlaid patterns in silver. This latter art, which was an alternate, it would seem, to decoration in relief, seems to have continued in the Eastern Empire. We still have fragments of this superb art which perished with the looting of Constantinople. There is a pair of doors now religiously preserved in St. Paul’s without the Walls at Rome, nearly destroyed by the great fire of a century ago, which show some feeble remains of this majestic art, an art employed by the Romans for the decoration of bronze in every possible connection; witness, for instance, the magnificent platform candelabrum in the Pompeian collection of the Museum at Naples. Other examples of this art are to be noted in the bronze doors of the Cathedral at Amalfi, and still other cathedrals in Southern Italy have doors thus decorated. All of them owe this decoration to the influence of Constantinople.
In the Western empire the alternate form of decoration seems to have triumphed. Relief cast in bronze was certainly of early date, but with the early devastation of Italy all such forms of art perished. Bronze was peculiarly sought on account of the value of the metal, and classical examples, it is needless to say, have not survived. The poverty of the devasted empire forced men to resort to the humbler wood for this purpose, and doors framed together in the usual fashion were universal. When wealth permitted they were sometimes covered with thin plates of bronze beaten out into figures in a rude form of repousée work. Such doors may now be seen in the church of San Zeno at Verona.
It was an easy step from this to the casting of plates with figures in relief to be attached to the wooden doors as before, and finally to the casting of solid doors, now governed in all their forms by ten centuries of tradition. The new bronze doors which were made in the tenth century, and again, be it noted, by a Pisan, one Bonanus by name, who seems to have worked all over Southern Italy and whose monuments are found in Pisa, Monreale, and elsewhere, revived the art of casting solid bronze doors, but in form they are framed together with rails, panels, nails, and moldings, as the wooden doors had been. It had become quite impossible for men to realize that a door was a door unless it was framed in this fashion. The great conflagration in the Cathedral of Pisa in the sixteenth century destroyed all but one of these doors of Bonanus, which now guards the east entrance usually entered by the visitor (M I). It must be remembered that these doors antedate Niccolô Pisano and therefore are in no sense to be compared with works of the Renaissance. Their helplessness is further to be explained by the fact that they were cast, and that the artist in all his figures had to consider whether a mould could be made for this figure or not. Smooth rounded forms, with a minimum of under cutting, seemed indispensable, for the art of the bronze caster had not acquired that doubtful cleverness which now enables him to cast the most inappropriate forms. These doors furnish an excellent example of the compromises of the early art. Not only are the figures exceedingly imperfect, mere signs for men, but all other things are confessedly so. The artist tries to make a man look like a man, without much success, to be sure, but with obvious intention. He does not even try to make a mountain look like a mountain or a temple look like a temple. These things he thinks of as too large for this purpose, being innocent, as indeed the bronze worker should be, of skill in perspective. Hence we find him quite as dependent upon the label of his picture as upon the picture itself. He is by no means sure that we can guess the meaning without the label, though the subject is appropriate enough. In the Temptation, for instance, the “exceeding high mountain” is the merest mole-hill and of impossible shape. Nearby stands the pinnacle of the temple, which is less than a doll’s house in character. It is difficult for us to understand that the stories thus represented in visual symbols have an added freshness to the spectator. We are so familiar with more elaborate, realistic presentations that as we gaze upon these, our only impression is that of the grotesque. We think of them as caricatures, and laugh, where of old men stood in awe and went away with a feeling unknown before, that these persons and incidents were real. The visual aid to the mind, which serves the purpose of one age, is suggestive to another age only of inadequacy. The person who smiles at the art of Bonanus is voluntarily interposing a great gulf between him-self and this age, which it should be his purpose to understand.
With only such models as these, Andrea went to work at the new doors which were to be for half a century the wonder of Florence, and to the end of time one of the masterpieces of the bronze worker’s art. The doors, as a matter of course, are made upon the model of the framed wooden door. This model was not discarded in bronze until the twentieth century and then in but a single example. Each door has fourteen pan els, square, and decorated within with a highly ornate and rather complicated moulded outline suggestive of fine joiner’s work. This leaves a quatrefoil panel with round, converging corners and diamond points on the four sides, in which must be inserted his pictorial representation. As every Baptistery is dedicated to John the Baptist, the natural, not to say inevitable theme was the story of his life. This occupies twenty of the twenty-eight panels, the remaining eight at the bottom being occupied by figures of the cardinal virtues.
It will be apparent at a glance that Andrea was confronted with a double problem. On the one hand he must tell these stories truthfully and in a manner to explain their meaning and suggest the appropriate sentiment. That is what we may call the problem of representation. It is the intellectual element in art, generally the first of which we are conscious, but not always the most important. The other problem is the decorative, how to make these figures or stories fit in the rather exacting space which the cabinet maker’s tradition had imposed upon him. We have noticed in a former chapter the influence of the frame upon the arrangement of the picture. The fact that a picture must always have a certain balance, not to say symmetry, is due to the fact that it is placed in a symmetrical frame or setting, and the more conspicuous and elaborate this frame the more exacting it becomes. A square or oblong frame is the least noticeable, therefore the least exacting, a round frame far more so, and the frame that Andrea had chosen, more exacting even than the circle or any of the usual forms. To make his picture fit in these frames and seem to be in sympathy with their character, is a very different problem that cannot be separated from the latter. Both things must be thought about at once. And then, finally, there is the farther problem which has to do with the function of the doors. The doors are partitions whose purpose is to enclose a space. Their character as partitions must be respected in the artist’s thought. This, again, is a principle of decoration, of adaptation with which we have become familiar. To all these we must add the problem of his material, this bronze, uniform in color and therefore giving him nothing of the painter’s means of expression. Moreover, it has to be cast, and the process and its limitations must be borne in mind and so considered that the spectator will forget it. An extremely complicated problem, and unnecessarily complicated in part by his own choice.
Andrea has solved this problem in a very simple way. It is questionable whether a more ambitious scheme would have produced better results. He does not pay so very much attention to the exacting frame that we have spoken of, but he is careful to use a comparatively small picture and have it fill only the center of the panel. He leaves the panel for the most part only a flat slab of bronze, which is what it ought to be, first and always. The artist should do nothing to make us forget that we are looking at a door, and a door ought to have a flat panel there precisely as the doors in our houses. These small scenes, located in the center of the panel, are comparatively out of reach of the curves and points of the frame and therefore relatively free from their dictation, but there are nice little touches of adaptation just the same. Take the Feast of Herod (B 395). The dainty way in which the skirt of Salome curves out behind suggests a consciousness of the large corner which is there to be filled and leaves it not quite so vacant. If the skirt dropped straight down and the picture came to a square corner there, it would be much less satisfactory. Other things of the sort may be traced through the whole. The artist shows a mild consciousness of this problem of decorative composition and is always true to it to the measure of his powers. That is about as far as it goes. He never has perspective. The buildings that it would occasionally be convenient to put into the background are in the same plane as the figures. Notice, for instance, the absurd size of the prison. Brought into the foreground and necessarily reduced to the scale of the figures in order to get it into the picture at all, it becomes a mere symbol. It is a thing which a lusty prisoner could carry away on his back. But it is plain that this is a limitation. Sometimes the limitation is more apparent, as in the Baptism of Jesus, where he is supposed to be standing waist deep in the water. The artist finds it quite impossible to show us this river in perspective. He can do nothing more than represent a sort of crinkly effect round the legs of the Christ, which we recognize as symbolizing water, and take the will for the deed. Now it is not at all certain that Andrea would have done better to make a more ambitious attempt at picture. He would certainly have done better to have avoided this necessity, if he had been quite free to choose his themes, but unfortunately the only themes men cared for in this day were themes that only pictorial art could adequately express. So he accepts the theme, represents the wonderful figures in the foreground with great success and power, and then represents temples and other unmanageable things as mere hints or suggestions, funny to us but not in the least to men with only the tradition of Bonanus behind them. Their one thought was, not “How strange that he did not do bet-ter,” but “How marvelous that he did so well ! ” And marvelous it certainly is. These doors, all things considered, have never been surpassed. There are perhaps better things to do, indeed, we would like to see some wealthy patron today revive the wonderful art of bronze inlaid with silver, flat surface, perfect in function, decorated with this supremely appropriate art. But, accepting the program of the Renaissance, with regard to which no one seems to have hesitated, it is an open question whether, with the themes that the age dictated to the artist, a better middle ground could have been found than that chosen by Andrea.
But we are interested or should be, most of all in the spirit of the man. In what way does he represent these stories? Let us not for a moment assume that they are so hackneyed as to be of no consequence. They were so to the artist of two centuries later, but not to Andrea or to his age. They never are or can be, if they are to be the subject of true art. With what kind of feeling does he enshrine these themes ?
We shall perhaps divine this best from such a scene as the Execution of John the Baptist. Here in front of the tiny prison is the Baptist, kneeling before his executioner, while two other soldiers stand by, witnesses of the act. The scene when realistically portrayed, as it would have been by a Rubens, for instance, is revoltingly brutal. The soldiers, properly conceived, must have been coarse and callous. How impossible it seems to represent such a theme in a way to appeal to our sympathies ! Yet this must be done if the result is to be art. It is apparent at a glance that the artist has appreciated this necessity. The soldiers standing by bow their heads in an attitude that is expressive of sympathy and grief, unplausible, if you will, but infinitely grateful. They give the key note to the feeling which the artist would fain inspire in us. They are our representatives, our spokes-men, as it were, and the brutality of a decapitation is lost in the solemn pathos that attends the exodus of the great prophet. In like manner, the Feast of Herod, undramatic and mild, if you will, but dignified, is full of grace and charm. All indicates that our artist is refined and exquisite in his feeling, and that all that passes under his hand is transfigured by his refining touch.
Now this is not realism, it is true; but unmitigated realism, brutal where the reality is brutal, is not art. We shall study art to little purpose if we do not discover that its guiding star is not mere reality, but beauty ; beauty, to be sure, in forms infinitely varied and sometimes in their austerity bordering on ugliness and pain, but beauty always. There is no end of truth which we contemplate with horror, and to which we are, and must forever remain, unreconciled. The mere representation of such truth will never make art no matter how skillful. Our artist is deeply imbued with this principle, not as a theory but as an instinct as, in the case of the artist, it must be.
The visitor to Florence passes all too lightly this wonderful creation, bent on the quest for the more famous doors of Ghiberti. It is worth our while, however, to stop and muse for a moment on the impression that these doors must have produced on men who had never seen anything better than the doors of Bonanus at Pisa. The progress which they indicate is almost incredible. It is a progress in technical mastery, both of expression and of decorative arrangement. It is a progress in the direction of refinement and exquisiteness of sentiment. But the artist is still naïve and childlike. There are no astounding tricks of cleverness to arouse our wonder, and to divert our attention from the story and its spirit.