All that part of Rome which lies on the right bank of the Tiber is divided into two Regions; namely, Trastevere and Borgo. The first of these is included between the river and the walls of Urban the Eighth from Porta Portese and the new bridge opposite the Aventine to the bastions and the gate of San Spirito; and Trastevere was the last of the thirteen Regions until the end of the sixteenth century, when the so-called Leonine City was made the fourteenth and granted a captain and a standard of its own.
The men of Trastevere boast that they are of better blood than the other Romans, and they may be right. In many parts of Italy just such small ancient tribes have kept alive, never intermarrying with their neighbours nor losing their original speech. There are villages in the south where Greek is spoken, and others where Albanian is the language. There is one in Calabria where the people speak nothing but Piedmontese, which is as different from the Southern dialects as German is from French. Italy has always been a land of individualities rather than of amalgamations, and a country of great men, rather than a great country.
It is true that the Trasteverines have preserved their individuality, cut off as they have been by the river from the modernizing influences which spread like a fever through the length and breadth of Rome. Their quarter is full of crooked little streets and irregularly shaped open places, the houses are not high, the windows are small and old fashioned, and the entrances dark and low. There are but few palaces and not many public buildings. Yet Trastevere is not a dirty quarter; on the contrary, to eyes that understand Italians, there is a certain dignity in its poverty, which used to be in strong contrast with the slipshod publicity of household dirt in the inhabited parts of Monti. The contrast is, in a way, even more vivid now, for Monti, the first Region, has suffered most in the great crisis, and Trastevere least of all. Rome is one of the poorest cities in the civilized world, and when she was trying to seem rich, the element of sham was enormous in everything. In the architecture of the so-called new quarters the very gifts of the Italians turned against them; for they are born engineers and mathematicians, and by a really marvellous refinement of calculation they have worked miracles in the construction of big buildings out of altogether insufficient material, while the Italian workman's traditional skill in modelling stucco has covered vast surfaces of unsafe masonry with elaborately tasteless ornamentation. One result of all this has been a series of catastrophes of which a detailed account would appal grave men in other countries; another consequence is the existence of a quantity of grotesquely bad street decoration, much of which is already beginning to crumble under the action of the weather. It is sadder still, in many parts of Monti to see the modern ruins of houses which were not even finished when the crash put an end to the building mania, roofless, windowless, plasterless, falling to pieces and never to be inhabited—landmarks of bankruptcy, whole streets of dwellings built to lodge an imaginary population, and which will have fallen to dust long before they are ever needed, stuccoed palaces meant to be the homes of a rich middle class, and given over at derisory rents to be the refuge of the very poor. In the Monti, ruin stares one in the face, and poverty has battened upon ruin, as flies upon garbage.
But Trastevere escaped, being despised by the builders on account of its distance from the chief centres. It has even preserved something of the ancient city in its looks and habits. Then, as now, the wine shops and cook shops opened directly upon the street, because they were, as they still often are, mere single, vaulted chambers, having no communication with the inner house by door or stairway. The little inner court, where the well is, may have been wider in those days, but it must always have been a cool, secluded place, where the women could wrangle and tear one another's hair in decent privacy. In the days when everything went to the gutter, it was a wise precaution to have as few windows as possible looking outward. In old Rome, as in Trastevere, there must have been an air of mystery about all dwelling-houses, as there is everywhere in the East. In those days, far more than now, the head of the house was lord and despot within his own walls; but something of that power remains by tradition of right at the present time, and the patriarchal system is not yet wholly dead. The business of the man was to work and fight for his wife and children, just as to fight and hunt for his family were the occupations of the American Indian. In return, he received absolute obedience and abject acknowledgment of his superiority. The government-fed Indian and the Roman father of today do very little fighting, working, or hunting, but in their several ways they still claim much of the same slavish obedience as in old times. One is inclined to wonder whether nowadays the independence of women is not due to the fall in value of men, since it is no longer necessary to pursue wild beasts for food, since fighting is reduced to a science, taught in three months, and seldom needed for a long time, and since work has become so largely the monopoly of the nimble typewriter. Women ask themselves and others, with at least a show of justice, since man's occupation is to sit still and think, whether they might not, with a little practice, sit quite as still as he and think to as good a purpose. In America, for instance, it was one thing to fell big trees, build log huts, dam rivers, plough stony ground, kill bears, and fight Indians; it is altogether another to sit in a comfortable chair before a plate-glass window, and dictate notes to a dumb and skilful stenographer.
But with the development of women's independence, the air of privacy, not to say of mystery, disappears from the modern dwelling. In Trastevere things have not gone as far as that. One cannot tread the narrow streets without wondering a little about the lives of the grave, black-haired, harsh-voiced people who go in and out by the dark entrances, and stand together in groups in Piazza Romana, or close to Ponte Sisto, early in the morning, and just before midday, and again in the cool of the evening.
It seems to be a part of the real simplicity of the Italian Latin to put on a perfectly useless look of mystery on all occasions, and to assume the air of a conspirator when buying a cabbage; and more than one gifted writer has fallen into the error of believing the Italian character to be profoundly complicated. One is too apt to forget that it needs much deeper duplicity to maintain an appearance of frankness under trying circumstances than to make a mystery of one's marketing and a profound secret of one's cookery. There are few things which the poor Italian more dislikes than to be watched when he is buying and preparing his food, though he will ask any one to share it with him when it is ready; but he is almost as prone to hide everything else that goes on inside his house, unless he has fair warning of a visit, and full time to make preparation for a guest. In the feeling there is great decency and self-respect, as well as a wish to show respect to others.
To Romans, Trastevere suggests great names—Stefaneschi, Anguillara, Mattei, Raphael, Tasso. The story of the first has been told already. Straight from the end of the new bridge that bears the name of Garibaldi, stands the ancient tower of the great Guelph house of Anguillara that fought the Orsini long and fiercely, and went down at last before them, when it turned against the Pope. And when he was dead the Orsini bought the lands and strongholds he had given to his so-called nephew, and set the eel of Anguillara in their own escutcheon, in memory of a struggle that had lasted more than a hundred years. The Anguillara were seldom heard of after that; nor does anything remain of them today but the melancholy ruins of an ancient fortress on the lake of Bracciano, not far from the magnificent castle, and the single tower that bears their name in Rome.
But Baracconi has discovered a story or a legend about one of them who lived a hundred years later, and who somehow was by that time lord of Cære, or Ceri, again, as some of his ancestors had been. It was when Charles the Fifth came to Rome, and there were great doings; for it was then that the old houses that filled the lower Forum were torn down in a few days to make him a triumphal street, and many other things were done. Then the Emperor gave a public audience in Rome, and out of curiosity the young Titta dell' Anguillara went in to see the imperial show. There he saw that a few of the nobles wore their caps, and he, thinking himself as good as they, put on his own. The Grand Chamberlain asked him why he was covered. 'Because I have a cold,' he answered, and laughed. He was told that only Grandees of Spain might wear their caps in the Emperor's presence. 'Tell the Emperor,' said the boy, 'that I, too, am a Grandee in my house, and that if he would take my cap from my head, he must do it with his sword,' and he laid his hand to the hilt of his own. And when the Emperor heard the story, he smiled and let him alone.
Many years ago, before the change of government, the Trasteverine family, into whose possession the ancient tower had come, used to set out at Christmas-tide a little show of lay figures representing the Nativity and the Adoration of the Kings, in the highest story of the strange old place, and almost in the open air. It was a pretty and a peaceful sight. The small figures of the Holy Family, of the Kings, of the shepherds and their flocks, were modelled and coloured with wonderful skill, and in the high, bright air, with the little landscape as cleverly made up as the figures, it all stood out clearly and strangely lifelike. There were many of these Presepi, as they were called, in Rome at that season, but none so pretty as that in the gloomy old tower, of which every step had been washed with blood.
Of all tales of household feud and vengeance and murder that can be found in old Rome, one of the most terrible is told of the Mattei, whose great palace used to stand almost opposite the bridge of Saint Bartholomew, leading to the island, and not more than two hundred yards from the Anguillara tower. It happened in the year 1555, about the time when Paul the Fourth, of inquisitorial memory, was elected Pope, thirty years before the sons of the Massimo murdered their father's unworthy wife, and Orsini married Victoria Accoramboni; and the deeds were done within the walls of the old house of which a fragment still remains in the Lungaretta, with a door surmounted by the chequered shield of the Mattei.
At that time there were four brothers of the name, Marcantonio, Piero, Alessandro, and Curzio; and the first two quarrelled mortally, wherefore Piero caused Marcantonio to be murdered by hired assassins. Of these men, Alessandro, who dearly loved both his murdered brother and his younger brother Curzio, slew one with his own hand, but the rest escaped, and he swore a blood feud against Piero. Yet, little by little, his anger subsided, and there was a sort of armed peace between the two.
Then it happened that Piero, who was rich, fell in love with his own niece, the beautiful Olimpia, the dowerless daughter of his other brother Curzio; and Curzio, tempted by the hope of wealth, consented to the match, and the dispensation of the Church was obtained for the marriage. It is not rare, even nowadays, for a man to marry his niece in Europe, whether they be Catholics or Protestants, but the Italians are opposed to such marriages; and Alessandro Mattei, pitying the lovely girl, whose life was to be sold for money, and bitterly hating the murderer bridegroom, swore that the thing should not be. Yet he could not prevent the wedding, for Piero was rich and powerful, and of a determined character. So Piero was married, and after the wedding, in the evening, he gave a great feast in his house, and invited to it all the kinsmen of the family, with their wives.
And Alessandro Mattei came also, with his son, Girolamo, and bringing with him two men whom he called his friends, but whom no one knew. These were hired murderers, but Piero smiled pleasantly and made a pretence of being well satisfied. The company feasted together, and drank old wine, with songs and rejoicings of all sorts. Then Alessandro rose to go home, for it was late, and Piero led him to the door of the hall to take leave of him courteously, so that all the kinsfolk might see that there was peace, for they were all looking on, some sitting in their places and some standing up out of respect for the elder men as they went to the door. Alessandro stood still, exchanging courtesies with his brother, while his servants brought him his cloak, and the arquebuse he carried at night for safety; for he had his palace across the Tiber, where it stands today. Then taking the hand-gun, he spoke no more words, but shot his brother in the breast, and killed him, and fled, leaving his son behind, for the young man had wished to stay till the end of the feast, and the two hired assassins had been brought by his father to protect him, though he did not know it.
When they heard the shot, the women knew that there was blood, so they sprang up and put out the lights in an instant, that the men might not see to kill one another; therefore Curzio, the bride's father, did not see that his brother Alessandro had gone out after the killing. He crept about with a long knife, feeling in the dark for the embroidered doublet which Alessandro wore, and when he thought that he had found it, he struck; but it was Girolamo who was dressed like his father, and the two who were to watch him were on each side of him, and one of them feeling that Curzio was going to strike, and knowing him also by the touch of what he wore, killed him quietly before his blow went home, and dragged out Girolamo in haste, for the door was open, and there was some light in the stairs, whence the servants had fled. But others had sought Alessandro, and other blows had been dealt in the dark, and the bride herself was wounded, but not mortally.
Girolamo and the man who had killed Curzio came to the Bridge of Saint Bartholomew, where Alessandro was waiting, very anxious for his son; and when he saw him in the starlight he drew a long breath. But when he knew what had happened and how the murderer had killed Curzio to save the boy, Alessandro was suddenly angry, for he had loved Curzio dearly. So he quickly drew his dagger and stabbed the man in the breast, and threw his body, yet breathing, over the bridge into the river. But that night he left Rome secretly and quickly, and he lived out his days an outlaw, while Girolamo, who was innocent of all, became the head of the Mattei in Rome.
It is no wonder that the knife is a tradition in Trastevere. Even now it is the means of settling difficulties, but less often by treachery than in the other regions. For when two young men have a difference it is usual for them to go together into some quiet inner court or walled garden, and there they wind their handkerchiefs round their right wrists and round the hilt of the knife to get a good hold, and they muffle their left arms in their jackets for a shield, and face each other till one is dead. If it be barbarous, it is at least braver than stabbing in the dark.
Raphael is remembered in Trastevere for the beautiful little palace of the Farnesina, which he decorated for the great and generous banker, Agostino Chigi, and for the Fornarina, whose small house with its Gothic window stands near the Septimian gate, where the old Aurelian wall crosses Trastevere and the Lungara to the Tiber. And he has made Trastevere memorable for the endless types of beauty he found there, besides the one well-loved woman, and whom he took as models for his work. He lived at the last, not in the house on the Roman side, which belonged to him and is still called his, but in another, built by Bramante, close to the old Accoramboni Palace, in the Piazza Rusticucci, before Saint Peter's, and that one has long been torn down.
We know little enough of that Margaret, called the Fornarina from her father's profession; but we know that Raphael loved her blindly, passionately, beyond all other thoughts; as Agostino Chigi loved the magnificent Imperia for whom the Farnesina was built and made beautiful. And there was a time when the great painter was almost idle, out of love for the girl, and went about languidly with pale face and shadowed eyes, and scarcely cared to paint or draw. He was at work in the Vatican then, or should have been, and in the Farnesina, too; but each day, when he went out, his feet led him away from the Pope's palace and across the square, by the Gate of the Holy Spirit and down the endless straight Lungara towards the banker's palace; but when he reached it he went on to the Fornarina's house, and she was at the window waiting for him. For her sake he refused to marry the great Cardinal Bibbiena's well-dowered niece, Maria, and the world has not ceased to believe that for too much love of the Fornarina he died. But before that, as Fabio Chigi tells, Pope Leo the Tenth, being distressed by the painter's love sickness, asked Agostino Chigi if there were not some way to bring him back to work. And the great banker, as anxious for his Farnesina as the Pope was for his Vatican, spirited away the lovely girl for a time, she consenting for her lover's sake. And Chigi then pretended to search for her, and comforted Raphael with news of her and promises of her return, so that after being half mad with anxiety he grew calmer, and worked for a time at his painting. But soon he languished, and the cure was worse than the evil; so that one day Chigi brought the girl back to him unawares and went away, leaving them together.
Of the end we know nothing, nor whether Margaret was with him when he died; we know nothing, save that she outlived him, and died in her turn, and lies in a grave which no one can find. But when all Rome was in sorrow for the dead man, when he had been borne through the streets to his grave, with his great unfinished Transfiguration for a funeral banner, when he had been laid in his tomb in the Pantheon, beside Maria Bibbiena, who had died, perhaps, because he would not love her, then the pale Margaret must have sat often by the little Gothic window near the Septimian gate, waiting for what could not come any more. For she had loved a man beyond compare; and it had been her whole life.
If one comes from the Borgo by the Lungara, and if one turns up the steep hill to the right, there is the place where Tasso died, seventy-five years after Raphael was gone. The small monastery of Sant' Onofrio, where he spent the last short month of his life, used to be a lonely and beautiful place, and is remembered only for his sake, though it has treasures of its own—the one fresco painted in Rome by Lionardo da Vinci, and paintings by Domenichino and Pinturicchio in its portico and little church, as well as memories of Saint Philip Neri, the Roman-born patron saint of Rome. All these things barely sufficed to restrain the government from turning it into a barrack for the city police a few years ago, when the name of one of Italy's greatest poets should alone have protected it. It was far from the streets and thoroughfares in older times, and the quiet sadness of its garden called up the infinite melancholy of the poor poet who drew his last breath of the fresh open air under the old tree at the corner, and saw Rome the last time, as he turned and walked painfully back to the little room where he was to die. It is better to think of it so, when one has seen it in those days, than to see it as it is now, standing out in vulgar publicity upon the modern avenue.
There died the man who had sung, and wandered, and loved; who had been slighted, and imprisoned for a madman; who had escaped and hidden himself, and had yet been glorious; who had come to Rome at last to receive the laureate's crown in the Capitol, as Petrarch had been crowned before him. His life is a strange history, full of discordant passages that left little or no mark in his works, so that it is a wonder how a man so torn and harassed could labour unceasingly for many years at a work so perfectly harmonious as 'Jerusalem Freed'; and it seems strange that the hot-headed, changeable southerner should have stood up as the determined champion of the Epic Unity against the school of Ariosto, the great northern poet, who had believed in diversity of action as a fundamental principle of the Epic; it is stranger still and a proof of his power that Tasso should have earned something like universal glory against the long-standing supremacy of Ariosto in the same field, in the same half-century, and living at the same court. Everything in Tasso's life was contradictory, everything in his works was harmonious. Even after he was dead, the contrasts of glory and misery followed his bones like fate. He died in the arms of Cardinal Aldobrandini, the Pope's nephew, almost on the eve of his intended crowning in the Capitol; he was honoured with a magnificent funeral, and his body was laid in an obscure corner, enclosed in a poor deal coffin. It was six years before the monks of Sant' Onofrio dug up the bones and placed them in a little lead box 'out of pity,' as the inscription on the metal lid told, and buried them again under a poor slab that bore his name, and little else; and when a monument was at last made to him in the nineteenth century, by the subscriptions of literary societies, it was so poor and unworthy that it had better not have been set up at all. A curious book might be written upon the vicissitudes of great men's bones.
Opposite the Farnesina stands the great Palazzo Corsini, once the habitation of the Riario family, whose history is a catalogue of murders, betrayals, and all possible crimes, and whose only redeeming light in a long history was that splendid and brave Catherine Sforza, married to one of their name, who held the fortress of Forlì so bravely against Cæsar Borgia, who challenged him to single combat, which he refused out of shame, who was overcome by him at last, and brought captive to the Vatican in chains of gold, as Aurelian brought Zenobia. In the days of her power she had lived in the great palace for a time. It looks modern now; it was once a place of evil fame, and is said to have been one of the few palaces in Rome which contained one of those deadly shafts, closed by a balanced trap door that dropped the living victim who stepped upon it a hundred and odd feet at a fall, out of hearing and out of sight for ever. From the Riario it was bought at last, in 1738, by the Corsini, and when they began to repair it, they found the bones of the nameless dead in heaps far down among the foundations.
There also lived Christina, Queen of Sweden, of romantic and execrable memory, for twenty years; and here she died, the strangest compound of greatness, heroism, vanity and wickedness that ever was woman to the destruction of man; ending her terrible life in an absorbing passion for art and literature which attracted to itself all that was most delicate and refined at the end of the seventeenth century; dabbling in alchemy, composing verses forgotten long ago, discoursing upon art with Bernini, dictating the laws of verse to the poet Guidi, collecting together a vast library of rare books and a great gallery of great pictures, and of engravings and medals and beautiful things of every sort—the only woman, perhaps, who was ever like Lucrezia Borgia, and outdid her in all ways.
Long before her time, a Riario, the Cardinal of Saint George, had like tastes and drew about him the thinkers and the writers of his age, when the Renascence was at its climax and the Constable of Bourbon had not yet been shot down at the walls a few hundred yards from the Corsini palace, bequeathing the plunder of Rome to his Spaniards and Germans. Here Erasmus spent those hours of delight of which he eloquently wrote in after years, and here, to this day, in the grand old halls whence the Riario sent so many victims to their deaths below, a learned and literary society holds its meetings. Of all palaces in Rome in which she might have lived, fate chose this one for Queen Christina, as if its destiny of contrasts past and future could best match her own.
Much more could be told of Trastevere and much has been told already; how Beatrice Cenci lies in San Pietro in Montorio, how the lovely Farnesina, with all its treasures, was bought by force by the Farnese for ten thousand and five hundred scudi,—two thousand and one hundred pounds,—how the Region was swept and pillaged again and again by Emperors and nobles, and people and Popes, without end.
But he who should wander through the Regions in their order, knowing that the greatest is last, would tire of lingering in the long Lungara and by the Gate of the Holy Spirit, while on the other side lies the great Castle of Sant' Angelo, and beyond that the Vatican, and Saint Peter's church; and for that matter, a great part of what has not been told here may be found in precise order and ready to hand in all those modern guide books which are the traveller's first leading-strings as he learns to walk in Rome.
Yet here, on the threshold of that Region which contains many of the world's most marvellous treasures of art—at the Gate of the Holy Spirit, through which Raphael so often passed between love and work—I shall say a few words about that development in which Italy led the world, and something of the men who were leaders in the Renascence.
Art is not dependent on the creations of genius alone. It is also the result of developing manual skill to the highest degree. Without genius, works of art might as well be turned out by machinery; without manual skill, genius could have no means of expression. As a matter of fact, in our own time, it is the presence of genius, without manual skill, or foolishly despising it, that has produced a sort of school called the impressionist.
To go back to first principles, the word Art, as every child knows, is taken directly from the Latin ars, artis, which the best Latin dictionary translates or defines: 'The faculty of joining anything corporeal or spiritual properly or skilfully,' and therefore: 'skill, dexterity, art, ability,' and then: 'skill or faculty of the mind or body that shows itself in performing any work, trade, profession, art, science.' From the meaning of the Latin word we may eliminate what refers to spiritual things; not because literature, for instance, is not art, as well as music and the rest, but because we have to do with painting, sculpture, architecture, metal working, and the like, in which actual manual skill is a most integral element.
Now it is always admitted that art grew out of handicraft, when everything was made by hand, and when the competition between workers was purely personal, because each man worked for himself and not for a company in which his individuality was lost. That is nowhere more clear than in Italy, though the conditions were similar throughout Europe until the universal introduction of machinery. The transition from handicraft to art was direct, quick and logical, and at first it appeared almost simultaneously in all the trades. The Renascence appears to us as a sort of glorious vision in which all that was beautiful suddenly sprang into being again, out of all that was rough and chaotic and barbarous. In real fact the Renascence began among carpenters, and blacksmiths, and stone masons, and weavers, when they began to take pride in their work, when they began to try and ornament their own tools, when the joiner who knew nothing of the Greeks began to trace a pattern with a red-hot nail on the clumsy wooden chest, when the smith dinted out a simple design upon the head of his hammer, when the mason chipped out a face or a leaf on the corner of the rough stone house, and when the weaver taught himself to make patterns in the stuff he wove. The true beginning of the Renascence was the first improvement of hand-work after an age in which everything people used had been rougher and worse made than we can possibly imagine. Then one thing suggested another, and each generation found some new thing to do, till the result was a great movement and a great age. But there never was, and never could have been, any art at all without hand-work. Progress makes almost everything by machinery, and dreams of abolishing hand-work altogether, and of making Nature's forces do everything, and provide everything for everybody, so that nobody need work at all, and everybody may have a like share in what is to cost nobody anything. Then, in the dream, everybody will be devoted to what we vaguely call intellectual pursuits, and the human race will be raised to an indefinitely high level. In reality, if such things were possible, we should turn into oysters, or into something about as intelligent. It is the experience of all ages that human beings will not work unless they are obliged to, and degenerate rapidly in idleness, and there have not been many exceptions to the rule. Art grew out of hand-work, but it grew in it, too, as a plant in the soil; when there is no more hand-work, there will be no more art. The two belong to each other, and neither can do without the other.
Of course, I do not mean to say that there was a succession of centuries, or even one century, during which no pictures were painted in Italy, or no sculptures carved. The tradition of the arts survived, like the tradition of Latin poetry, with the same result, that rude works were produced in the early churches and convents. But there was no life in those things; and when, after a long time, after the early Crusades, Byzantine artists came to Italy, their productions were even worse than those of the still ignorant Italians, because they were infinitely more pretentious, with their gildings and conventionalities and expressionless types, and were not really so near the truth. What I mean is that the revival of real art came from a new beginning deep down and out of sight, among humble craftsmen and hard-working artisans, who found out by degrees that their hands could do more than they had been taught to do, and that objects of daily use need not be ugly or merely plain in order to be strong and well made and serviceable. And as this knowledge grew among them with practice and by experiment, they rose to the power of using for new purposes of beauty the old methods of painting and sculpture, which had survived, indeed, but which were of no value to the old-fashioned artists who had learned them from generation to generation, without understanding and without enthusiasm.
The highest of the crafts in the Middle Age was goldsmithing. When almost every other artistic taste had disappeared from daily life in that rough time, the love of personal adornment had survived, and when painters and sculptors were a small band of men, trained to represent certain things in certain ways—trained like a church choir, in fact, to the endless repetition of ancient themes—the goldsmiths had latitude and freedom to their hearts' desire and so many buyers for their work that their own numbers were not nearly so limited as those of 'artists' in the narrow sense. One chief part of their art lay in drawing and modelling, another in casting metals, another in chiselling, and they were certainly the draughtsmen of an age in which the art of drawing was practically lost among painters; and it was because they learned how to draw that so many of them became great painters when the originality of two or three men of genius had opened the way.
One says 'two or three,' vaguely, but the art had grown out of infancy when they appeared, and there was an enormous distance between Cimabue, whom people call the father of painting, and the Cosmas family, of whom the last died about the time that Cimabue was born. But though Cimabue was a noble, the Cosmas family who preceded him were artisans first and artists afterwards, and men of the people; and Giotto, whom Cimabue discovered sketching sheep on a piece of slate with a pointed stone, was a shepherd lad. So was Andrea Mantegna, who dominated Italian art a hundred and fifty years later—so was David, one of the greatest poets that ever lived, and so was Sixtus the Fifth, one of the strongest popes that ever reigned—all shepherds.
It is rather remarkable that although so many famous painters were goldsmiths, none of the very greatest were. Among the goldsmiths were Orcagna, Ghiberti, Ghirlandajo, Antonio del Pollaiuolo, Francia, Verrocchio, Andrea del Sarto. But Benvenuto Cellini, the greatest of goldsmiths, was never a painter, and the very greatest painters were never goldsmiths, for Cimabue, Giotto, Mantegna, Lionardo da Vinci, Perugino, Raphael, Michelangelo, all began in the profession that made them the greatest artists of their age. It is very hard to get at an idea of what men thought about art in those times. Perhaps it would be near the truth to say that it was looked upon as a universal means of expression. What strikes one most in the great pictures of that time is their earnestness, not in the sense of religious faith, but in the determination to do nothing without a perfectly clear and definite meaning, which any cultivated person could understand, and at which even a child might guess. Nothing was done for effect, nothing was done merely for beauty's sake. It was as if the idea of usefulness, risen with art from the hand-crafts, underlay the intentions of beauty, or of devotion, or of history, which produced the picture. In those times, when the artist put in any accessory he asked himself: 'Does it mean anything?' whereas most painters of today, in the same case, ask themselves: 'Will it look well?' The difference between the two points of view is the difference between jesting and being in earnest—between an art that compared itself with an ideal future, and the art of today that measures itself with an ideal past. The great painters of the Renascence appealed to men and to men's selves, whereas the great painters of today appeal chiefly to men's eyes and to that much of men which can be stirred through the eye only.
It was not that those early artists were religious enthusiasts, moved by a spiritual faith such as that which inspired Fra Angelico and one or two others. Few of them were religious men; several of them, like Perugino, were freethinkers. It was not, I think, because they looked upon art itself as a very sacred matter, not to be jested with, since they used their art against their enemies for revenge and ridicule. It was rather because everyone was in earnest then, and was forced to be by the nature of the times; whereas people now are only relatively in earnest, and stake their money only where men once staked their lives. That was one reason. Another may be that the greatest painters of those times were practically men of universal genius and were always men of vast reading and cultivation, the equals and often the superiors of the learned in all other branches of science, literature and art. They were not only great painters, but great men and great thinkers, and far above doing anything solely 'for effect.' Lionardo da Vinci has been called the greatest man of the fifteenth century—so has Michelangelo—so, perhaps, has Raphael. They seemed able to do everything, and they have not been surpassed in what they did as painters, sculptors, architects, engineers, fortifiers of cities, mathematicians, thinkers. No one nowadays ever thinks of a painter as being anything but a painter, and people shrug their shoulders at the idea that an artist can do anything of the kind called 'serious' in this age.
One asks what were the surroundings, the customs, the habits, in which these men grew to be already great at an age when modern boys are at college. One asks whether that system of teaching or education, whatever it may have been, was not much more likely to make great men than ours. And the answer suggests itself: our teaching is for the many, and the teaching of that day was for the few.
Let anyone try and imagine the childhood of Giotto as the account of it has come down to us through almost all the authorities. He was born in the year 1276—when Dante was about eleven years old. That was the time when the wars of Guelphs and Ghibellines were at their height. That was the year in which Count Ugolino della Gherardesca got back his lordship over Pisa—where he was to be starved to death with his two sons and two grandsons some twelve years later. That was the time when four Popes died in sixteen months—the time when the Sicilian Vespers drove Charles of Anjou from Sicily for ever—when Guido da Montefeltro was fighting and betraying and fighting again—the time of Dante's early youth, in which fell most of those deeds for which he consigned the doers to hell and their names to immortality.
Imagine, then, what a shepherd's hut must have been in those days, in a narrow valley of the Tuscan hills—the small cottage built of unhewn stones picked up on the hillside, fitted together one by one, according to their irregular shapes, and cemented, if at all, with clay and mud from the river bed—the roof of untrimmed saplings tied together and thatched with chestnut boughs, held down by big stones, lest the wind should blow them away. The whole, dark brown and black with the rich smoke of brushwood burned in the corner to boil the big black cauldron of sheep's milk for the making of the rank 'pecorino' cheese. One square room, lighted from the door only. The floor, the beaten earth. The beds, rough-hewn boards, lying one above the other, like bunks, on short strong lengths of sapling stuck into the wall. For mattresses, armfuls of mountain hay. The people, a man, his wife and two or three children, dressed winter and summer in heavy brown homespun woollen and sheepskins. For all furniture, a home-made bench, black with age and smoke. The food, day in, day out, coarse yellow meal, boiled thick in water and poured out to cool upon the black bench, divided into portions then with a thin hide thong, crosswise and lengthwise, for each person a yellow square, and eaten greedily with unwashed hands that left a little for the great sheep-dog. The drink, spring water and the whey left from the cheese curds, drunk out of a small earthen pot, passed from mouth to mouth. A silent bunch of ignorant human beings, full of thought for the morrow, and of care for the master's sheep that were herded together in the stone pen all round the hut; fighting the wolves in winter, and in summer time listening for the sound of war from the valley, when Guelph and Ghibelline harried all the country, and killed every stray living thing for food. And among these half-starved wretches was a boy of twelve or thirteen years, weak-jointed, short-winded, little better than a cripple and only fit to watch the sheep on summer days when the wolves were not hungry—a boy destined to be one of the greatest artists, one of the greatest architects, and one of the most cultivated men of that or any other age—Giotto.
The contrast between his childhood and his manhood is so startling that one cannot realize it. It means that in those days the way from nothing to much was short and straight for great minds—impossible and impracticable for small ones. Great intelligences were not dwarfed to stumps by laborious school work, were not stuffed to a bursting point by cramming, were not artificially inflamed by the periodical blistering of examinations; but average intelligences had not the chance which a teaching planned only for the average gives them now. Talent, in the shape of Cimabue, found genius, in the form of Giotto, clothed in rags, sketching sheep with one stone on another; talent took genius and fed it and showed it the way, and presently genius overtopped talent by a mountain's head and shoulders. Cimabue took Giotto from his father, glad to be rid of the misshapen child that had to be fed and could do nothing much in return; and from the smoky hut in the little Tuscan valley the lad was taken straight to the old nobleman painter's house in the most beautiful city of Italy, was handed over to Brunetto Latini, Dante's tutor, to be taught book-learning, and was allowed to spend the other half of his time in the painting room, at the elbow of the greatest living painter.
The boy was a sort of apprentice-servant, of course, as all beginners were in those times. In the big house, he probably had a pallet bed in one of those upper dormitories where the menservants slept, and he doubtless fed with them in the lower hall at first. They must have laughed at his unmannerly ways, and at his surprise over every new detail of civilized life, but he had a sharp tongue and could hold his own in a word-fight. There were three tables in a gentleman's house in the Middle Age,—the master's, which was served in different rooms, according to the weather and the time of year; secondly, the 'tinello,' or canteen, as we should call it, for the so-called gentlemen retainers—among whom, by the bye, ranked the chief butler and the head groom, besides the chaplain and the doctor; thirdly, the servants' hall, where all the lower people of the house fed together. Then, as now in old countries, the labour of a large household was indefinitely subdivided, and no servant was expected to do more than one thing, and every servant had an assistant upon whom he forced all the hard work. A shepherd lad, brought in from the hills in his sheepskin coat, sheepskin breeches, and leg swathings of rags and leather, would naturally be the butt of such an establishment. On the other hand, the shepherd boy was a genius and had a tongue like a razor, besides being the favourite of the all-powerful master; and as it was neither lawful nor safe to lay hands on him, his power of cutting speech made him feared.
So he learned Latin with the man who had taught Dante,—and Dante was admitted to be the most learned man of his times,—and he ground the colours and washed the brushes for Cimabue, and drew under the master's eye everything that he saw, and became, as the chronicler Villani says of him, 'the most sovereign master of painting to be found in his time, and the one who most of all others took all figures and all action from nature.' And Villani was his contemporary, and knew him when he was growing old, and recorded his death and his splendid funeral.
One-half of all permanent success in art must always lie in the mechanical part of it, in the understanding and use of the tools. They were primitive in Giotto's day, and even much later, according to our estimate. Oil painting was not dreamt of, nor anything like a lead pencil for drawing. There was no canvas on which to paint. No one had thought of making an artist's palette. Not one-tenth of the substances now used for colours were known then. A modern artist might find himself in great difficulties if he were called upon to paint a picture with Cimabue's tools.
But to Giotto they must have seemed marvellous after his pointed stone pencil and his bit of untrimmed slate. Everything must have surprised and delighted him in his first days in Florence—the streets, the houses, the churches, the people, the dresses he saw; and the boy who had begun by copying the sheep that were before his eyes on the hillside, instantly longed to reproduce a thousand things that pleased him. So, when he was already old enough to understand life and its beauty, he was suddenly transported to the midst of it, just where it was most beautiful; and because he instantly saw that his master's art was unreal and far removed from truth, dead, as it were, and bound hand and foot in the graveclothes of Byzantine tradition, his first impulse was to wake the dead in a blaze of life. And this he did.
And after him, from time to time, when art seemed to be stiffening again in the clumsy fingers of the little scholars of the great, there came a true artist, like Giotto, who realized the sort of deathlike trance into which art had fallen, and roused it suddenly to things undreamed of—from Giotto to Titian. And each did all that he meant to do. But afterwards came Tintoretto, who said that he would draw like Michelangelo and paint like Titian; but he could not, though he made beautiful things: and he was the first great artist who failed to go farther than others had gone before him; and because art must either advance or go backward, and no one could advance any more, it began to go backward, and the degeneration set in.
About three hundred years elapsed between Giotto's birth and Titian's death, during which the world changed from the rough state of the Middle Age to a very high degree of civilization; and men's eyes grew tired of what they saw all the time, while many of the strong types which had made the change faded away. Men grew more alike, dress grew more alike, thoughts grew more alike. It was the beginning of that overspreading uniformity which we have in our time, which makes it so very easy for any one man to be eccentric, but which makes it so very hard for any one man to be really great. One might say that in those times humanity flowed in very small channels, which a strong man of genius could thwart and direct. But humanity now is a stream so broad that it is almost like an ocean, in which all have similar being, and the big fish come to the surface, and spout and blow and puff without having any influence at all on the tide.
There was hardly any such thing possible as eccentricity in Giotto's time. When the dress and manners and language of every little town differed distinctly from those of the nearest village, every man dressed as he pleased, behaved as he had been taught, and spoke the dialect of his native place. There was a certain uniformity among the priesthood, whose long cassock was then the more usual dress of civilians in great cities in times of peace and who spoke Latin among themselves and wrote it, though often in a way that would make a scholar's blood run cold. But there was no uniformity among other classes of men. A fine gentleman who chose to have his cloth tights of several colours, one leg green and one blue, or each leg in quarters of four colours, attracted no attention whatever in the streets; and if one noble affected simple habits and went about in an old leathern jerkin that was rusty in patches from the joints of his armour, the next might dress himself in rich silk and gold embroidery, and wear a sword with a fine enamelled hilt. No one cared, except for himself, and it must have been hard indeed to produce much effect by any eccentricity of appearance. But there was the enormous and constantly changing variety that takes an artist's eye at every turn,—which might make an artist then of a man who nowadays would be nothing but a discontented observer with artistic tastes.
I do not think that these things have ever been much noticed as factors in the development of European art. Consider what Florence, for instance, was to the eye at that time. And then consider that, until that time, art had been absolutely prohibited from painting what it saw, being altogether a traditional business in which, as Burckhardt says, the artist had quite lost all freedom of mind, all pleasure and interest in his work, in which he no longer invented, but had only to reproduce by mechanical repetition what the Church had discovered for him, in which the sacred personages he represented had shrivelled to mere emblems, and the greater part of his attention and pride was directed to the rich and almost imperishable materials in which alone he was allowed to work for the honour and glory of the Church.
In the second Council of Nicea, held in the year 787, the question of sacred pictures was discussed, and in the acts of the Council the following statement is found:—
'It is not the invention of the painter which creates the picture, but an inviolable law, a tradition of the Church. It is not the painters, but the holy fathers, who have to invent and dictate. To them manifestly belongs the composition, to the painter only the execution.'
It would be hard to find a clearer definition of the artist's place and work before Giotto.
Consider all these things, and then think of the sensations of the first man upon whom it flashed all at once that he might be free and might paint everything he saw, not as monks dictated to him, but as he saw it, to the best of his strength and talent. He must have felt like a creature that had been starved, suddenly turned out free to roam through a world full of the most tempting things and with a capacity to enjoy them all. He did not realize his freedom completely at first; it was impossible for him to throw off at once all the traditions in which he had been brought up and taught; but he realized enough to change the whole direction of all the art that came after him.
Two things are remarkable about the early Italian artists. With the solitary exception of Cimabue—the first of the Renascence—none of them was born rich, but, on the other hand, a great many of them were not born poor either. Giotto and Mantegna were shepherd boys, it is true; but Michelangelo was the son of a small official of ancient family in the provinces, the mayor of the little city of Chiusi e Caprese; Lionardo da Vinci's father was a moderately well-to-do land-holder; Raphael's was a successful painter, and certainly not in want. Secondly, a very great number of them made what must have been thought good fortunes in those days, while they were still young men. Some, like Andrea del Sarto, squandered their money and died in misery; one or two, like Fra Angelico, refused to receive money themselves for their work and handed over their earnings to a religious community. None, so far as I can find out, toiled through half a lifetime with neither recognition nor pay, as many a great artist has done in our times—like the Frenchman Millet, for instance, whose Angelus fetched such a fabulous price after his death. The truth is that what we mean by art had just been discovered, and it met with immediate and universal appreciation, and the result was a demand for it which even a greater number of painters could not have oversatisfied. Consequently, there was plenty to do for every man of genius, and there were people not only willing to pay great sums for each work, but who disputed with each other for the possession of good paintings, and quarrelled for what was equivalent to the possession of great artists.
Another element in the lives of these men, as in the lives of all who rose to any eminence in those days, was the great variety that circumstances introduced into their existence. Change and variety are favourable to creative genius as they are unfavourable to uncreative study. The scholar and the historian are best left among their books for twenty years at a time, to execute the labour of patient thought which needs perpetual concentration on one subject. If Gibbon had continued to be an amateur soldier and a man of the world, as he began, he might have written a history, but it would not have been the most astonishing history of modern times. In Macaulay's brilliant and often too creative work, one sees the influence of his changing political career, to the detriment of sober study. For the more the creative man sees and lives in his times, the more he is impelled to create. In the midst of his best years of painting, Lionardo da Vinci was called off to build canals, and Cæsar Borgia kept him busy for two years in planning and constructing fortifications. Immediately before that time he had finished his famous Last Supper, in Milan, and immediately afterwards he painted the Battle of Anghiari—now lost—which was the picture of his that most strongly impressed the men of his day.
Similarly, Michelangelo was interrupted in his work when, the Constable of Bourbon having sacked Rome, the Medici were turned out of Florence, and the artist was employed by the Republic to fortify and defend the city. It was betrayed, and he escaped and hid himself—and the next great thing he did was the Last Judgment, in the Sixtine Chapel. He did stirring work in wild times, besides painting, and hewing marble, and building Saint Peter's.
That brings one back to thinking how much those men knew. Their universal knowledge seems utterly unattainable to us, with all our modern machinery of education. Michelangelo grew up in a suburb of Florence, to which his father moved when he was a child, at a notary's desk, his father trying to teach him enough law to earn him a livelihood. Whenever he had a chance, he escaped to draw in a corner, or to spend forbidden hours in an artist's studio. He was taught Latin and arithmetic by an old schoolmaster, who was probably a priest, and a friend of his father's. At fourteen he earned money in Ghirlandajo's studio, which means that he was already an artist. At twenty-five he was probably the equal of any living man as sculptor, painter, architect, engineer and mathematician. Very much the same might be said of Lionardo. One asks in vain how such enormous knowledge was acquired, and because there is no answer, one falls back upon wild theories about untaught genius. But whatever may be said of painting and sculpture, neither architecture nor engineering, and least of all the mathematics so necessary to both, can be evolved from the inner consciousness.
Men worked harder then than now, and their teachers and their tools helped them less, so that they learned more thoroughly what they learned at all. And there was much less to distract a man then, when he had discovered his own talent, while there was everything to spur him. Amusements were few, and mostly the monopoly of rich nobles; but success was quick and generous, and itself ennobled the men who attained to it—that is, it instantly made him the companion, and often the friend, of the most cultivated men and women of the day. Then, as now, success meant an entrance into 'society' for those whose birth had placed them outside of it. But 'society' was different then. It consisted chiefly of men who had fought their own way to power, and had won it by a superiority both intellectual and physical, and of women who often realized and carried out the unsatisfied intellectual aspirations of their husbands and fathers. For wherever men have had much to do, and have done it successfully, what we call culture has been more or less the property of the women. In those times, the men were mostly occupied in fighting and plotting, but the beautiful things produced by newly discovered art appealed to them strongly. Women, on the other hand, had nothing to do. With the end of the Middle Age, the old-fashioned occupations of women, such as spinning, weaving and embroidering with their maids, went out of existence, and the mechanical work was absorbed and better done by the guilds. Fighting was then a large part of life, but there was something less of the petty squabbling and killing between small barons, which kept their women constant prisoners in remote castles, for the sake of safety; and there was war on a larger scale between Guelph and Ghibelline, Emperor and Pope, State and State. The women had more liberty and more time. There were many women students in the universities, as there are now, in Italy, and almost always have been, and there were famous women professors, whose lectures were attended by grown men. No one was surprised at that, and there was no loud talk about women's rights. Nobody questioned the right of women to learn as much as they could, where-ever anything was taught. There were great ladies, good and bad, like Vittoria Colonna and Lucrezia Borgia, who were scholars, and even Greek scholars, and probably equal to any students of their time. Few ladies of Michelangelo's day did not know Latin, and all were acquainted with such literature as there was—Dante, Macchiavelli, Aretino, Ariosto and Petrarch,—for Tasso came later,—the Tuscan minor poets, as well as the troubadours of Provence—not to mention the many collections of tales, of which the scenes were destined to become the subjects of paintings in the later days of the Renascence.
Modern society is the enemy of individuality, whether in dress, taste or criticism, and the fear of seeming different from other people is greater than the desire to rise higher than other people by purely personal means. In the same way, socialism is the enemy of all personal distinction, whatever the socialists may say to the contrary, and is therefore opposed to all artistic development and in favour of all that is wholesale, machine-made, and labour-saving. And nobody will venture to say that modern tendencies are not distinctly socialistic.
We are almost at the opposite extreme of existence from the early Renascence. That was the age of small principalities; ours is the day of great nations. Anyone who will carefully read the history of the Middle Age and of the Renascence will come to the inevitable conclusion that the greatest artists and writers of today are very far from being the rivals of those who were great then. Shakespeare was almost the contemporary of Titian; there has been neither a Shakespeare nor a Titian since, nor any writer nor artist in the most distant manner approaching them. Yet go backward from them, and you will find Dante, as great as Shakespeare, and at least three artists, Michelangelo, Lionardo da Vinci and Raphael, quite as great as Titian. They lived in a society which was antisocialistic, and they were the growth of a period in which all the ideas of civilized mankind tended in a direction diametrically opposed to that taken by our modern theories. This is undeniable. The greatest artists, poets and literary men are developed where all conditions most develop individuality. The modern state, in which individuality is crushed by the machinery of education in order that all men may think alike, favours the growth of science alone; and scientific men have the least individuality of all men who become great, because science is not creative like art and literature, nor destructive like soldiering, but inquisitive, inventive and speculative in the first place, and secondly, in our age, financial. In old times, when a discovery was made, men asked, 'What does it mean? To what will it lead?' Now, the first question is, 'What will it be worth?' That does not detract from the merit of science, but it shows the general tendency of men's thoughts. And it explains two things, namely, why there are no artists like Michelangelo nor literary men like Shakespeare in our times—and why the majority of such artists and literary men as we have are what is commonly called reactionaries, men who would prefer to go back a century or two, and who like to live in out-of-the-way places in old countries, as Landor lived in Florence, Browning in Venice, Stevenson in Samoa, Liszt in Rome,—besides a host of painters and sculptors, who have exiled themselves voluntarily for life in Italy and France. The whole tendency of the modern world is scientific and financial, and the world is ruled by financiers and led by a financial society which honours neither art nor literature, but looks upon both as amusements which it can afford to buy, and which it is fashionable to cultivate, but which must never for a moment be considered as equal in importance to the pursuit of money for its own sake.
It was the great scope for individuality, the great prizes to be won by individuality, the honour paid to individuality, that helped the early painters to their high success. It was the abundance of material, hitherto never used in art, the variety of that material, in an age when variety was the rule and not the exception, it was the richness of that material, not in quantity and variety only, but in individual quality, that made early paintings what we see. It was their genuine and true love of beauty, and of nature and of the eternal relations between nature and beauty, that made those men great artists. It was the hampering of individuality, the exhaustion and disappearance of material and the degeneration of a love of beauty to a love of effect, that put an end to the great artistic cycle in Italy, and soon afterwards in the rest of the world, with Rembrandt and Van Dyck, the last of the really great artists.
Progress is not civilization, though we generally couple the two words together, and often confound their values. Progress has to do with what we call the industrial arts, their development, and the consequent increase of wealth and comfort. Civilization means, on the other hand, among many things, the growth and perfecting of art, in the singular; the increase of a general appreciation of art; the refinement of manners which follows upon a widespread improvement of taste; the general elevation of a people's thoughts above the hard conditions in which a great people's struggles for existence, preëminence and wealth take place.
Progress, in its right acceptation, ought also to mean some sort of moral progress—such, for instance, as has transformed our own English-speaking race in a thousand years or more from a stock of very dangerous pirates to a law-abiding people—if we may fairly say as much as that of ourselves.
Civilization has nothing to do with morality. That is rather a shocking statement, perhaps, but it is a true one. It may be balanced by saying that civilization has nothing to do with immorality either. The early Christians were looked upon as very uncivilized people by the Romans of their time, and the meanest descendants of the Greeks secretly called the Romans themselves barbarians. In point of civilization and what we call cultivation, Alcibiades was immeasurably superior to Saint Paul, Peter the Hermit or Abraham Lincoln, though Alcibiades had no morality to speak of and not much conscience. Moreover, it is a fact that great reformers of morals have often been great enemies of art and destroyers of the beautiful. Fra Bartolommeo, who is thought by many to have equalled Raphael in the latter's early days, became a follower of Savonarola, burned all his wonderful drawings and studies, and shut himself up in a monastery to lead a religious life; and though he yielded after several years to the command of his superiors, and began painting again, he confined himself altogether to devotional subjects as long as he lived, and fell far behind Raphael, who was certainly not an exemplary character, even in those days.
In Europe, and in the Latin languages, there is a distinction, and a universally accepted one, between education and instruction. It is something like that which I am trying to make clear between Civilization and Progress. An 'instructed man' means a man who has learned much but who may have no manners at all, may eat with his knife, forget to wash his hands, wear outlandish clothes, and be ignorant even of the ordinary forms of politeness. An 'educated person,' on the contrary, may know very little Latin, and no Greek, and may be shaky in the multiplication table; but he must have perfect manners to deserve the designation, and tact, with a thorough knowledge of all those customs and outward forms which distinguish what calls itself civilized society from the rest of the world. Anyone can see that such instruction, on the one hand, and such education, on the other, are derived from wholly different sources, and must lead to wholly different results; and it is as common nowadays to find men who have the one without the other, as it ever was in ancient Greece or Rome. I should like to assert that it is more common, since Progress is so often mistaken for Civilization and tacitly supposed to be able to do without it, and that Diogenes would not be such a startling exception now as he was in the days of Alexander the Great. But no one would dare to say that Progress cannot go on in a high state of Civilization. All that can be stated with absolute certainty is that they are independent of each other, since Progress means 'going on' and therefore 'change'; whereas Civilization may remain at the same high level for a very long period, without any change at all. Compare our own country with China, for instance. In the arts—the plural 'arts'—in applied science, we are centuries ahead of Asia; but our manners are rough and even brutal compared with the elaborate politeness of the Chinese, and we should labour in vain to imitate the marvellous productions of their art. We may prefer our art to that of the far East, though there are many critics who place the Japanese artists much higher than our own; but no one can deny the superior skill of the Asiatics in the making of everything artistic.
Nor must we undervalue in art the importance of the minor and special sort of progress which means a real and useful improvement in methods and materials. That is doubtless a part, a first step, in the general progress which tends ultimately to the invention of machinery, but which, in its development, passes through the highest perfection of manual work.
The first effect of this sort of progress in art was to give men of genius new and better tools, and therefore a better means of expression. In a way, almost every painter of early times was an inventor, and had to be, because for a long time the methods and tools of painting were absurdly insufficient. Every man who succeeded had discovered some new way of grinding and mixing colours, of preparing the surface on which he worked, of using the brush and the knife, and of fixing the finished picture by means of varnishes. The question of what painters call the vehicle for colour was always of immense importance. Long before Giotto began to work there seem to have been two common ways of painting, namely, in fresco, with water-colours, and on prepared surfaces by means of wax mixed with some sort of oil.
In fresco painting, the mason, or the plasterer, works with the painter. A surface as large as the artist expects to use during a few hours is covered with fresh stucco by the mason, and thoroughly smoothed with a small trowel. Stucco, as used in Italy, is a mixture of slaked lime and white marble dust, or very fine sand which has been thoroughly sifted. If stained to resemble coloured or veined marbles, and immediately ironed till it is dry with hot smooth irons, the surface of the mass is hardened and polished to such a degree that it is almost impossible to distinguish it from real marble without breaking into it. Waxing gives it a still higher polish. But if water-colours are used for painting a picture upon it, and if the colours are laid on while the stucco is still damp, they unite with the lime, and slowly dry to a surface which is durable, but neither so hard nor so polished as that produced when the stucco is ironed. The principal conditions are that the stucco must be moist, the wall behind it absolutely dry and the colours very thin and flowing. Should the artist not cover all that has been prepared for his day's work, the remainder has to be broken out again and laid on fresh the next day. It is now admitted that the wall-paintings of the ancients were executed in this way. As it was impossible for the artist at any time to have the whole surface of the freshly stuccoed wall at his disposal in order to draw his picture before painting it, he either drew the design in red upon the rough dry plaster, and then had the stucco laid over it in bits, or else he made a cartoon drawing of the work in its full size. The outlines were then generally pricked out with a stout pin, and the cartoon cut up into pieces of convenient dimensions, so that the painter could lay them against the fresh stucco and rub the design through, or pounce it, as we should say, with charcoal dust, like a stencil. He then coloured it as quickly as he could. If he made a mistake, or was not pleased with the effect, there was no remedy except the radical one of breaking off the stucco, laying it on fresh, and beginning over again. It was clearly impossible to paint over the same surface again and again as can be done in oil painting.
No one knows exactly when eggs were first used in fresco painting, nor does it matter much. Some people used the yolk and the white together, some only one or the other, but the egg was, and is, always mixed with water. Some artists now put gum tragacanth into the mixture. It is then used like water in water-colour work, but is called 'tempera' or 'distemper.' The effect of the egg is to produce an easy flow of the colour with so little liquid that the paint does not run on the surface, as it easily does in ordinary water-colours. The effect of the yellow yolk of the egg upon the tints is insignificant, unless too much be used. By using egg, one may paint upon ordinary prepared canvas as easily as with oils, which is impossible with water-colour.
As for the early paintings upon panels of wood, before oils were used, they were meant to be portable imitations of fresco. The wood was accordingly prepared by covering it with a thin coating of fine white cement, or stucco, which was allowed to dry and become perfectly hard, because it was of course impossible to lay it on fresh every day in such small quantities. The vehicle used could therefore not be water, which would have made the colours run. The most common practice of the Byzantine and Romanesque schools seems to have been to use warm melted wax in combination with some kind of oil, the mixture being kept ready at hand over a lighted lamp, or on a pan of burning charcoal. There are artists in Europe, still, who occasionally use wax in this way, though generally mixed with alcohol or turpentine, and the result is said to be very durable. Sir Joshua Reynolds painted many pictures in this way.
With regard to using oils on a dry surface in wall painting, instead of fresco, Lionardo da Vinci tried it repeatedly with the result that many of his wall paintings were completely lost within thirty or forty years after they had been painted. The greatest of those which have survived at all, the Last Supper in Milan, has had to be restored so often that little of the original picture remains untouched.
The enormous value of linseed oil and nut oil as a vehicle was apparent as soon as it was discovered in Holland. Its great advantages are that, unlike water or egg, it will carry a large quantity of colour upon the canvas at the first stroke, that it dries slowly, so that the same ground may be worked over without haste while it is still fresh, and that it has a very small effect in changing the tints of the original paints used. One may see what value was attached to its use from the fact that those who first brought it to Italy worked in secret. Andrea Castagno, surnamed the Assassin, learned the method from his best friend, Domenico Veneziano, and then murdered him while he was singing a serenade under a lady's window, in order to possess the secret alone. But it soon became universally known and made a revolution in Italian painting.
In the older times, when rare and valuable pigments were used, as well as large quantities of pure gold, the materials to be employed and their value were stipulated for in the contract made between the painter and his employer before the picture was begun, and an artist's remuneration at that time was much of the nature of a salary, calculated on an approximate guess at the time he might need for the work. That was, of course, a survival from the time of the Byzantine artists, to whom gold and silver and paints were weighed out by the ecclesiastics for whom they painted, and had to be accounted for in the finished picture. There is a story told of an artist's apprentice, who made a considerable sum of money by selling the washings of his master's brushes when the latter was using a great quantity of ultramarine; and that shows the costliness of mere paints at that time. As for the more valuable materials, the great altar picture in Saint Mark's, in Venice, is entirely composed of plates of pure gold enamelled in different colours, and fastened in a sort of mosaic upon the wood panel as required, the lights and shades being produced by hatching regular lines through the hard enamel with a sharp instrument. The whole technical history of painting lies between that sort of work and the modern painter's studio.
Before oil painting became general, artists were largely dependent on commissions in order to do any work except drawing. Fresco needed a wall, and work done in that manner could not be removed from place to place. The old-fashioned panel work with its gold background was so expensive that few artists could afford to paint pictures on the mere chance of selling them. But the facilities and the economy of pure tempera work, and work in oils, soon made easel pictures common.
Between the time of Giotto and that of Mantegna another means of expression, besides painting, was found for artists, if not by accident, by the ingenuity of the celebrated goldsmith, Maso Finiguerra, who was the first man in Italy, and probably the first in the world, to take off upon paper impressions in ink from an engraved plate.
The especial branch of goldsmithing which he practised was what the Italians still call 'niello' work, or the enamelling of designs upon precious metals. The method of doing such work is this. Upon the piece to be enamelled the design is first carefully drawn with a fine point, precisely as in silver chiselling, and corrected till quite perfect in all respects. This design is then cut into the metal with very sharp tools, evenly, but not to a great depth. When completely cut, the enamelling substance, which is generally sulphate of silver, is placed upon the design in just sufficient quantities, and the whole piece of work is then put into a furnace and heated to such a point that the enamel melts and fills all the cuttings of the design, while the metal itself remains uninjured. This is an easier matter than might be supposed, because gold and silver, though soft under the chisel, will not melt except at a very high temperature. When the enamel has cooled, the whole surface is rubbed down to a perfect level, and the design appears with sharp outlines in the polished metal.
Now anyone who has ever worked with a steel point on bright metal knows how very hard it is to judge of the correctness of the drawing by merely looking at it, because the light is reflected in all directions into one's eyes, not only from untouched parts of the plate, but from the freshly cut lines. The best way of testing the work is to blacken it with some kind of colour that is free from acid, such as a mixture of lampblack and oil, to rub the surface clean so as to leave the ink only in the engraved lines, and then take an impression of the drawing upon damp paper. That is practically what Finiguerra did, and in so doing he discovered the art of engraving. Probably goldsmiths had done the same before him, as they have always done since, but none of them had thought of drawing upon metal merely for the sake of the impression it would make, and without any intention of using the metal afterwards. Within fifty years of Finiguerra's invention very beautiful engravings were sold all over Italy, and many famous painters engraved their own works—foremost among these, Mantegna and Botticelli.
Early Italian art rose thus by regular steps, from the helpless, traditional, imitative work of the Romanesque and Byzantine artists to its highest development. It then passed a succession of climaxes in the masterpieces of Lionardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, and thence descended gradually to the miserably low level of the eighteenth century.
It is easy to trace the chief objects which painting had in view in its successive phases. Tradition, Reality and Illusion were the three. Cimabue was still a Traditionist. Giotto was the first Realist. Mantegna first aimed at the full illusion which finished art is capable of producing, and though not so great a man as Giotto, was a much greater painter. Then came Lionardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, the men of universal genius, who could make use of tradition without being commonplace, who could be realistic without being coarse, and who understood how to produce illusion without being theatrical. In the decay of Italian art what strikes one most strongly is the combination of the three faults which the great men knew how to avoid—coarseness, commonplace thought and theatrical execution.
Cimabue had found out that it was possible to paint sacred pictures without the dictation of priests, as prescribed by the Council of Nice. The idea discovered by Giotto, or rather the fact, namely, that nature could be copied artistically, produced a still greater revolution, and he had hosts of scholars and followers and imitators. But they were nothing more, or at the most it may be said that they developed his idea to the furthest with varying success. It was realism—sometimes a kind of mystic evocation of nature, disembodied and divinely pure, as in Beato Angelico; often exquisitely fresh and youthful, as in his pupil, Benozzo Gozzoli, whose vast series of frescoes half fills the Camposanto of Pisa—sometimes tentative and experimental, or gravely grand, as in Masaccio, impetuous and energetic as in Fra Lippo Lippi, fanciful as in Botticelli—but still, always realism, in the sense of using nature directly, without any distinct effort at illusion, the figures mostly taken from life, and generally disposed in one plane, the details minute, the landscapes faithful rather than suggestive.
The lives of those men were all typical of the times in which they lived, and especially the life of the holy man we call Beato Angelico, of saintly memory, that of the fiery lay brother, Filippo Lippi, whose astounding talents all but redeemed his little less surprising sins—and lastly that of Andrea Mantegna.
The first two stand out in tremendous contrast as contemporaries—the realist of the Soul, and the realist of the Flesh, the Saint and the Sinner, the Ascetic and the Sensualist.
Beato Angelico—of his many names, it is easier to call him by the one we know best—was born in 1387. At that time the influence of the Empire in Italy was ended, and that of the Popes was small. The Emperors and the Popes had in fact contended for the control of municipal rights in the free Italian cities; with the disappearance of those rights under the Italian despots the cause of contention was gone, as well as the partial liberty which had given it existence. The whole country was cut up into principalities owned and ruled by tyrants. Dante had been dead about sixty years, and the great imperial idea which he had developed in his poem had totally failed. The theoretical rights of man, as usual in the world's history, had gone down before the practical strength of individuals, whose success tended, again, to call into activity other individuals, to the general exaltation of talent for the general oppression of mediocrity. In other words, that condition had been produced which is most favourable to genius, because everything between genius and brute strength had been reduced to slavery in the social scale. The power to take and hold, on the one hand, and the power to conceive and execute great works on the other, were as necessary to each other as supply and demand; and all moral worth became a matter of detail compared with success.
In such a state of the world, a man of creative genius who chanced to be a saint was an anomaly; there was no fit place for him but a monastery, and no field for his powers but that of Sacred Art. It was as natural that Angelico should turn monk as that Lippo Lippi, who had been made half a monk against his will, should turn layman.
In the peaceful convent of Saint Mark, among the Dominican brethren, Beato Angelico's character and genius grew together; the devout artist and the devotional mystic were inseparably blended in one man, and he who is best remembered as a famous painter was chosen by a wise Pope to be Archbishop of Florence, for his holy life, his gentle character and his undoubted learning.
He could not refuse the great honour outright; but he implored the Pope to bestow it upon a brother monk, whom he judged far more worthy than himself. He was the same consistent, humble man who had hesitated to eat meat at the Pope's own table without the permission of the prior of his convent—a man who, like the great Saint Bernard, had given up a prosperous worldly existence in pure love of religious peace. It was no wonder that such a man should become the realist of the angels and a sort of angel among realists—himself surnamed by his companions the 'Blessed' and the 'Angelic.'
Beside him, younger than he, but contemporary with him, stands out his opposite, Filippo Lippi. He was not born rich, like Angelico. He came into the world in a miserable by-way of Florence, behind a Carmelite convent. His father and mother were both dead when he was two years old, and a wretchedly poor sister of his father took care of him as best she could till he was eight. When she could bear the burden no longer, she took him to the door of the monastery, as orphans were taken in those days, and gave him over to the charity of the Carmelite fathers. Most of the boys brought to them in that way grew up to be monks, and some of them became learned; but the little Filippo would do nothing but scrawl caricatures in his copybook all day long, and could not be induced to learn anything. But he learned to draw so well that when the prior saw what he could do, he allowed him to paint; and at seventeen the lad who would not learn to read or write knew that he was a great artist, and turned his back on the monastery that had given him shelter, and on the partial vows he had already taken. He was the wildest novice that ever wore a frock. He had almost missed the world, since a little more inclination, a little more time, might have made a real monk of him. But he had escaped, and he took to himself all the world could give, and revelled in it with every sensation of his gifted, sensuous nature. It was only when he could not get what he wanted that he had curious returns of monkish reasoning. The historian of his life says that he would give all he possessed to secure the gratification of whatever inclination chanced to be predominant at the moment; but if he could by no means accomplish his wishes, he would then depict the object which attracted his attention and he would try, by reasoning and talking with himself, to diminish the violence of his inclination.
There was no lack of adventure in his life, either. Once, at Ancona, on the Adriatic, he ventured too far out to sea in an open boat, and he and his companions were picked up by a Barbary pirate and carried off to Africa. But for his genius he might have ended his days there, instead of spending only eighteen months in slavery. A clever drawing of the pirate chief, made on a whitewashed wall with a bit of charcoal from a brazier, saved him. The Moor saw it, was delighted, set him to paint a number of portraits, in defiance of Moses, Mahomet and the Koran, and then, by way of reward, brought him safe across the water to Naples and gave him his liberty.
He painted more pictures, earned money, and worked his way back to Florence. As long as he worked at all he did marvels, but a pretty face was enough to make him forget his art, his work and the Princes and Dukes who employed him. Cosimo de Medici once shut him up with his picture, to keep him at it; he tore the sheets of his bed into strips, knotted them together, escaped by the window—and was of course forgiven. The nuns of Saint Margaret employed him to paint an altar-piece for them; he persuaded them to let the most beautiful of their novices sit as a model for one of the figures; he made love to her, of course, and ran away with her, leaving the picture unfinished. It is characteristic of him that though he never forsook her, he refused the Pope's offer of a dispensation from his early vows which would have enabled him to marry her—for he hated all ties and bonds alike, and a regular marriage would have seemed to him almost as bad as slavery in Africa.
Lippo represented one extreme of character, Beato Angelico the other. Between them were many men of almost equal genius, but of more common temper, such as Botticelli, who was Lippo's pupil, or Benozzo Gozzoli, the pupil of Angelico. Of Sandro Botticelli we know at least that he resembled his master in one respect—he positively refused to learn anything from books, and it was in sheer despair that his father, Filipepe, apprenticed the boy to a goldsmith, who rejoiced in the nickname of Botticello—'the little tun'—perhaps on account of his rotund figure, and it was from this first master of his that the boy came to be called 'Botticello's Sandro.' The goldsmith soon saw that the boy was a born painter, and took him to Lippo Lippi to be taught. Both Botticelli and Gozzoli, like many first-rate artists of that time, were quiet, hard-working men, devoted to their art, and not remarkable for anything else. The consequence is that little is known about their lives. It is natural that we should know most about the men who were most different from their companions, such as Michelangelo on the one hand, and Benvenuto Cellini on the other, or Beato Angelico and Lippo Lippi, or the clever Buffalmacco—whose practical jokes were told by Boccaccio and Sacchetti, and have even brought him into modern literature—and Lionardo da Vinci. Then, as now, there were two types of artists, considered as men; there were Bohemians and scholars. Lionardo and Michelangelo were grave and learned students; so was Beato Angelico in a sense limited to theology. But Benvenuto, Lippo Lippi and Buffalmacco were typical Bohemians. As for the latter, he seems scarcely ever to have painted a picture without playing off a practical jest upon his employer, and he began his career by terrifying his master, who insisted upon waking him to work before dawn. He fastened tiny wax tapers upon the backs of thirty black beetles, and as soon as he heard the old man stirring and groping in the dark, he lighted the tapers quickly, and drove the beetles into the room, through a crack under the door, and they ran wildly hither and thither on the pavement. The master took them for demons come to carry off his soul; he almost lost his senses in a fit, and he used half the holy water in Florence to exorcise the house. But ever afterwards he was too much frightened to get up before daylight, and Buffalmacco slept out the long night in peace.
Andrea Mantegna, the great painter and engraver, who made the final step in the development of pictorial art in Italy, was a shepherd's son, like Giotto, born about one hundred years after Giotto's death. Similar conditions and a similar bent of genius produced different results in different centuries. Between Giotto and Mantegna the times had changed; men lived differently, thought differently and saw differently.
How Mantegna got into the studio of the learned master Squarcione of Padua is not known. The shepherd lad may have strayed in on a summer's day, when the door was open, and attracted the painter's attention and interest. One of the greatest living painters today was a Bavarian peasant boy, who used to walk ten miles barefoot to the city and back on Sundays, carrying his shoes to save them, in order to go into the free galleries and look at the pictures; and somehow, without money, nor credit, nor introduction, he got into the studio of a good master, and became a great artist. Mantegna may have done the same. At all events, he became old Squarcione's favourite pupil.
But when he was inside the studio, he found there a vast collection of antique fragments of sculpture, which the master had got together from all sources, and which the pupils were drawing. He was set to drawing them, too, as the best way of learning how to paint.
That was the logical manifestation and characteristic expression of Renascence, which was a second birth of Greek and Roman art, science and literature—one might call it, in Italy, the second birth of civilized man. It brought with it the desire and craving for something more than realism, together with the means of raising all art to the higher level required in order to produce beautiful illusions. Men had found time to enjoy as well as to fight and pray. In other words, they fought and prayed less, and the result was that they had more leisure. The women had begun to care for artistic things much earlier, and they had taught their children to care for them, and the result was a general tendency of taste to a higher level. Genius may be an orphan and a foundling, but taste is the child of taste. Genius is the crude, creative force; but the gentle sense of appreciation, neither creative nor crude, but receptive, is most often acquired at home and in childhood. A full-grown man may learn to be a judge and a critic, but he cannot learn to have taste after he is once a man. Taste belongs to education rather than to instruction, and it is the mother that educates, not the schoolmaster.
That faculty of taste was what Italy had acquired between the time of Cimabue and the time of Mantegna—roughly speaking, between the year 1200 and the year 1450—between the first emancipation of art from the old Byzantine and Romanesque thraldom and the time when the new art had so overspread the country that engravings of the most famous pictures began to be sold in the streets in every important city in Italy. Only a few years after Mantegna's death, Albert Dürer, the great painter engraver of Nüremberg, appeared before the council of Venice to try and get a copyright for his engravings, which were being so cleverly forged by the famous Raimondi that the copies were sold in the Piazza of Saint Mark as originals. In passing, it is interesting to remember that Dürer, whose engravings now sell for hundreds of dollars each, sold them himself at his own house for prices varying between the values of fifteen and twenty-five cents, according to the size of the plate. The Council of Venice refused him the copyright he asked, but interdicted the copyist from using Dürer's initials.
The immense sale of prints popularized art in Italy at the very time when the first great printing houses, like the Aldine, were popularizing learning. Culture, in the same sense in which we use the word, became preëminently the fashion. Everyone wished to be thought clever, and a generation grew up which not only read Latin authors with pleasure, wrote Latin correctly, and had some acquaintance with Greek, but which took a lively interest in artistic matters, and constituted a real public for artists, a much larger and a much more critical one than could be found today among an equal population in any so-called civilized country. The era of collectors began then, and Mantegna's old master was the first of them. Every man of taste did his best to get possession of some fragment of antique sculpture, everyone bought engravings, everyone went to see the pictures of the great masters—everyone tried to get together a little library of printed books. It took two hundred and fifty or three hundred years to develop the Renascence, but what it produced in Italy alone has not been surpassed, and in many ways has not been equalled, in the four hundred years that have followed it.
With its culmination, individualities, even the strongest, became less distinctly defined, and the romantic side of the art legend was ended. It is so in all things. The romance of the ocean belongs to those who first steered the perilous course that none had dared before; many have been in danger by the sea, many have perished in the desperate trial of the impossible, but none can be Columbus again; many have done brave deeds in untracked deserts, but none again can be the pioneers who first won through to our West. The last may be the greatest, but the first will always have been the first, the daring, the romantic, who did what no man had done before them.
And so it is also in the peaceful ways of art. Giotto, Beato Angelico, Lippo Lippi, Botticelli, never attained to the greatness of Lionardo or Michelangelo or Raphael. Sober criticism can never admit that they did, whatever soft-hearted enthusiasts may say and write. But those earlier men had something which the later ones had not, both in merit and in genius. They fought against greater odds, with poorer weapons, and where their strength failed them, heart and feeling took the place of strength; and their truth and their tenderness went straight to the heart of their young world, as only the highest perfection of illusion could appeal to the eyes of the critical, half-sceptic generation that came after them.
And so, although it be true that art is not dependent on genius alone, but also on mechanical skill, yet there is something in art which is dependent on genius and on nothing else. It is that something which touches, that something which creates, that something which itself is life; that something which belongs, in all ages, to those who grope to the light through darkness; that something of which we almost lose sight in the great completeness of the greatest artists, but which hovers like a halo of glory upon the brows of Italy's earliest, truest and tenderest painters.
Sorry, no summary available yet.