AND now into this dawning school, employed chiefly in the service of the Church, with its tentative and languid essays to understand Florentine composition, resulting in what is scarcely more than a mindless imitation, and with its rather more intelligent perception of the Humanist qualities of Pisanello’s work, there enters a new factor ; or rather a new agency makes a slightly more successful attempt than Gentile and Castagno had done to help the Venetians to realise the supreme importance of the human figure, its power in relation to other objects to determine space, its modelling and the significance of its attitude in conveying movement. Giotto had been able to present all these qualities in the human form, but he had done so by the light of genius, and had never formulated any sufficient rules for his followers’ guidance. In Ghiberti’s school, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the fascination of the antique in art was making itself felt, but Donatello had escaped from the artificial trammels it threatened to exercise, and had carried the Florentine school with him in his profound researches into the human form itself. Donatello had been working in Padua for ten years before Pisanello’s death, and in an indirect way the Venetians were experiencing some after-results of the systematising and formulating of the new pictorial elements. Though the intellectual life had met with little encouragement among the positive, practical inhabitants of Venice, in Padua, which had been subject to her since 1405, speculative thought and ideal studies were in full swing. There was no re-birth in Venice, whose tradition was unbroken and where men were too genuinely pagan to care about the echo of a paganism in the remote past.” St. Mark was the deity of Venice, and the other twelve Apostles ” were only obscurely connected with her religious life, which was strong and orthodox, but untroubled by metaphysical enthusiasms and inconvenient heresies. Padua, on the other hand, was absorbed in questions of learning and religion. A university had been established here for two centuries. The abstract study of the antique was carried on with fervour, and the memory of Livy threw a lustre over the city which had never quite died out. It seemed perfectly right and respectable to the Venetians that the savants, lying safely removed from the busy stream of commercial life, should cultivate inquiries into theology and the classics, which would only have been a hindrance to their own practical business ; but such, as it was well known, were of absorbing interest in the circles which gathered round the Medici in Florence. The school of art, which was now arising in Padua, was fed from such sources as these. The love of the antique was becoming a fashion and a guiding principle, and influenced the art of painting more formally than it could succeed in doing among the independent and original Florentines.
Francesco Squarcione, though, as Vasari says, he may not have been the best of painters, has left work (now at Berlin) which is accepted as genuine and which shows that he was more than the mere organiser he is sometimes called. He had travelled in Greece, and was apparently a dealer, supplying the demand for classic fragments, which was becoming widespread. When he founded his school in Padua he evidently was its leading spirit and a powerful artistic influence. His pupils, even the greatest, were long in breaking away from his convention, and few of them threw it off entirely, even in after life. That convention was carried with undeviating thoroughness into every detail. Draperies are arranged in statuesque folds, designed to display every turn of the form beneath ; the figures are moulded with all the precision and limitations of statuary. The very landscape becomes sculpturesque, and rocks of a volcanic character are constructed with the regularity of masonry. The colour and technique are equally uncompromising, and the surface becomes a beautiful enamel, unyielding, definite in its lines, lacquer-like in its firmness of finish, while the Gothic forms, which had hitherto been so prevalent, were replaced by more or less pedantic adaptations from Roman bas – reliefs. This system of design was practised most determinedly in Padua itself, but it soon spread to Venice. Squarcione himself was employed there after 1440, and though Antonio da Murano clung to the old archaic style he saw the Paduan manner invading his kingdom, and his own brother became strongly Squarcionesque.
The two brothers of Murano come most closely together in an altarpiece in the gallery of Bologna, where the framework is more simple than Alemanus’s German taste would have permitted, and the Madonna and Child have some natural ease, and the delicacy of feeling of primitive art. Bartolommeo, when he breaks away and sets out to paint by himself, is crude and strong, but full of vital force. In his altarpiece of 1464, in the Academy, he gives his saints reality by taking them off their pedestals and making them stand upon the ground, and though they are still isolated from one another in the partitions of an ancona, their sparkling eyes, individual features, and curly beards give them a look of life. The draperies, thin and clinging, with little rucked folds, which display the forms, and the drawing of the bony structure, exaggerated in the arms and legs, are Squarcionesque. The rocks and stones, too, show the Paduan convention. In several of his other altarpieces, Bartolommeo introduces rich ornaments and swags of fruit, such as Donatello had first brought to Padua, or which Paduan artists delighted to copy from classic columns. Antonio’s manner to the end is the local Venetian manner, infused as it was with the soft and charming influence of Gentile da Fabriano and Pisanello, but Bartolommeo adopts the new and more ambitious style. Though not a very good painter, and inclined to be puffy and shapeless in his flesh forms, he was the head of a crowd of artists, and works of his school, signed Opus factum, went all over Italy, and are found as far south as Bari. Works of his pupils are numerous ; the ” St. Mark en-throned ” in the Frari is as good if not better than the master’s own work, and the triptych in the Correr Museum is a free imitation.
Round this early school gathered such painters as Antonio da Negroponte and Quirizio da Murano, who were both working in 1450. Negroponte has left an enthroned Madonna in S. Francesco della Vigna, which is one of the most beautiful examples of colour and of the fanciful charm of the Renaissance that the early art of Venice has to show. The Mother and Child are placed in a marble shrine, adorned with antique reliefs, rich wreaths of fruit swag above her head, a little Gothic loggia is full of flowers and fruit, and birds are perched on cornucopias. On either side, four badly drawn little angels, with ugly faces and awkwardly foreshortened forms, foreshadow the beautiful, music-making angels which became such a feature of North Italian art. The Divine Mother, adoring the Child lying across her knees, has an exquisite, pensive face, conceived with all the delicacy and simplicity of early art. It seems quite possible, as Professor Leonello Venturi suggests, that we have here the early master of Crivelli, in whom we find the love of fruit garlands, of chains of beads and rich brocades carried to its farthest limits, who takes keen pleasure in introducing the ugly but lively little angels, and who gives the same pensive and almost mincing expression to his Madonnas.
Antonio da Murano and Bartolommeo Vivarini.
Venice. Academy : Altarpiece, 1464; Two Saints. Frari : Madonna and four Saints. S. Giovanni in Bragora : Madonna and two Saints. S. Maria Formosa : Triptych. London. Madonna and Saints. Vienna. S. Ambrose and Saints.
Antonia da Negroponte.
Venice. S. Francesco della Vigna : Altarpiece. 38