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Chapter 7


The difficulty referred to at the close of the last chapter is the same as that which those who rarely go to a theatre have to get over before they can appreciate an actor. They go to "Macbeth" or "Othello," expecting to find players speaking and acting on the stage much as they would in actual life; and not finding this, are apt to think the acting coarse and unnatural. They forget that the physical conditions of the stage involve compliance with conventions from which there is no escape, and expect the players to play a game which the players themselves know to be impossible, and are not even trying to play. So important is it to understand the standpoint from which the artists at Varallo worked, that I shall venture some further remarks upon their aim and scope before going on to the works themselves.

Their object, or the object of those who commissioned them, was to bring the scene with which they were engaged home to the spectator in all its fulness, short of actual life and motion; but in this "short of actual life and motion" what a cutting-out of the part of Hamlet is there not involved. We can spare a good deal of Hamlet; but if the part is totally excised,--even though the Hamlet be Mr. Irving himself,--the play must suffer. To try to represent action without the immediate changes of position and expression which are its most essential features, seems like courting defeat, and to a certain extent defeat does invariably follow the attempt to treat very violent rapid action except loosely and sketchily. Violent action carried to high degree of finish is hardly ever successful in painting or sculpture; a crowd done in Michael Angelo's Medici chapel manner must inevitably fail, and if a crowd is to be treated in sculpture at all, Tabachetti's broad, large-brushed, and somewhat sketchy treatment is the one most to be preferred. In spite, however, of the incomparable success of Tabachetti's work, I am tempted to question whether quiet and reposeful sculpture is not always most permanently pleasing, as not involving so peremptory a demand for the change that cannot, of course, ensue. At any rate, as one lie generally leads to others, so with the attempt to render action without action's most essential characteristic, there is a departure from realism which involves a host of other departures if the error is to be distributed so as to avoid offence. In other words, convention, or a composition between artist and spectator, whereby, in view of admitted bankruptcy and failure of possible payment in full, a less thing shall be taken as a greater, has superseded nature at a very early point in the proceedings.

Nevertheless, within the limits of the composition we expect to be paid in full; whatever the dividend is we are to have all of it, and we sometimes take a different view of the terms of the settlement to that taken by those with whom we are dealing. It being admitted that the object of the Sacro Monte workmen was to bring a scene home to the spectator in all possible fulness, we expect to have a quotum of our own ideas of the scene, whatever they may be, put before us, and are more or less offended when we find a composition which we consider to be unreal even within its own covenanted limitations. The fault, however, rests greatly with ourselves, in forgetting that it must be the ideal of medieval Italians and not our own that we should look for, and that their ideas concerning the chief actors in the sacred dramas were not as ours are. For us, the [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] view of history has been gathered to its fathers, and [Greek text which cannot be reproduced] is reigning in its stead. We believe that we have advanced upon, not degenerated from our ancestors, except here and there as by way of back eddy, but Italians in the Middle Ages may be excused for having been overawed by the remains of the old splendour which met them everywhere; and even if this had not been so, to children and half-educated people that which happened long ago is always grander and larger than any like thing that happened recently. As regards the sacred dramas this grandioseness of conception extended even to the villains of the piece, who must be greater, more muscular, thorough-going, unredeemed villains than any now existing. The realism which would have proved so touching and grateful now--for we should have found it turned into idealism through the impress of that seal which it is time's glory to set upon aged things--would in the Middle Ages have seemed as unworthy, and as much below the dignity of the subject as modern treatment of the same subjects, with modern costumes, would seem to ourselves.

Ages thwart and play at cross purposes with one another, as parents do with children; and our forefathers have been at infinite trouble and expense to give us what we do not want, and have withheld what they might have given with very little trouble, and we should have held as priceless. We cannot help it; it always has been and always will be so. Omne ignotum pro magnifico is a condition of existence or at any rate of progress, and the unknown of the past takes a splendour reflected from that of the future. The artists and public of the sixteenth century could no more find what they deemed a worthy ideal in their own familiar, and as it seemed to them prosaic age than we in ours, and every age must make its art work to its own liking and not to that of other people. Caimi was thinking mainly of his own generation; he could not wait a couple of hundred years or so till the work should become touching and quaint through age; he wanted it to be effective then and there, which if the Apostles were shown as mere common peasants and fishermen of the then present day, it would not and could not be--not at any rate with the pit, and it was to the pit as well as to the boxes that these pieces were being played. Let the ablest sculptors of the present time be asked to treat sacred subjects as was attempted at Varallo, with the condition that they must keep closely to the costume of to-day, and they would probably one and all of them decline the task. We know very well that, laugh at it as we may, our costume will three hundred years hence be as interesting as that of any other age, but that is not to the point: it has got to be effective now, whereas our familiarity with it has bred contempt.

In the earlier ages both of painting and sculpture these considerations, obvious as they are, were not taken into account. The first artists during the medieval revival of art rose as little to theory as children do. They found the mere doing at all so difficult that they were at the mercy in great measure of what they could get. The real was as much as, and more than, they could manage, and they would have idealised long before they did, if they had not felt the task too much for them. They could, with infinite trouble, they hardly knew how, save themselves yet so as by fire and get a head or figure of some sort that was not quite unlike what it was meant for, but they could only do this by helping their unpractised memories to the facts morsel by morsel, treating nature as though she were a stuffed set piece, getting her to sit as still for as long a time as she could be persuaded to do, and then going all over her touch for touch with a brush like the point of a pin. If the early masters had been able to do all they would have liked to have done, no doubt they would most of them have been as vulgar as we are; fortunately their incompetence stood them in good stead and saved them from becoming the Guidos, Domenichinos, and Guercinos, that so many of their more competent successors took so much trouble to become. Incompetence, if amiable and painstaking, will have with it an unconscious involuntary idealism of its own which is perhaps more charming than any that can be attained by aiming at it deliberately; at any rate it will take the thing portrayed apart from the everyday familiar routine of life which is the great enemy of fancy and the ideal; but the artists of the Sacro Monte had got far beyond the point at which incompetence could be of much use to them, and had to find some other means whereby to steer clear of the everyday life which to the public for whom they had to play, would have appeared so vulgar, and to us so infinitely more delightful than much that they have actually left us. These means they could only find in much the same quarters as dramatic writers and players find them on the stage, and to a certain extent no doubt the Varallo chapels, like all other attempts to place a scene upon a stage, must submit to the charge of being more or less stagey, but--more especially considering that they are seen by daylight,--it is surprising how little stagey they are.

Also, like all other attempts to place a scene upon the stage, they will be found to consist of a few stars, several players of secondary importance, and a certain number of supers. It is a mistake to attempt, as I am told is attempted at the Comedie Francaise, to have all the actors of first-class merit. They kill one another even in a picture, and on the whole in any work of art it is better to concentrate the main interest on a sufficient number of the most important figures, and to let the setting off of these be the chief business of the remainder. Gaudenzio Ferrari hardly understood this at all, and has no figures which can be considered as mere stage accessories. Tabachetti understood it, but could hardly bring himself down to the level of his supers. D'Enrico understood it perhaps a shade too well; he was a man of business as well as of very considerable genius, and turned his supers over to Giacomo Ferro, who might be trusted to keep them sufficiently commonplace to show his own work to advantage. It must be owned, however, that the greater number of D'Enrico's chapels would be better if there had been a little more D'Enrico in them and less Giacomo Ferro, and if the D'Enrico had been always taking pains.

We, of course, should have preferred the figures in the Varallo chapels to be all of them as realistic as the artist could make them, provided he chose good types, as a good man may be very well trusted to do. Whenever we get a bit of realism as in the Eve, and Sleeping St. Joseph of Tabachetti, in the Herod, laughing boys, and Caiaphas of D'Enrico, and still more in the Vecchietto, or in the three or four of the figures in the St. Eusebius Chapel at Crea, we accept it with avidity, and we may be sure that the masters who gave us the figures above-named could have given us any number equally realistic if they had been inclined to do so. Tabachetti's instinct was certainly towards realism as far as he dared, but even he is not in most cases realistic--not, I mean, in the sense of making his personages actual life-like portraits. That he was not more so than he is is probably due to some of the considerations on which I have above imperfectly dwelt, and to others that have escaped myself, but were patent enough to him.

One other practical consideration would make against realism in such works as those at Varallo, I mean the fact that if the figures were to be portraits of the Varallo celebrities of the time, the whole place would have been set by the ears in the competition as to who was to be represented and with what precedence. It was only by passing a kind of self-denying ordinance and forbidding portraiture at all that the work could be carried out. Here and there, as in the case of Tabachetti's portrait of the Countess Solomoni of Serravalle in his Journey to Calvary, or as in that of the Vecchietto (in each case a supposed benefactress and benefactor) an exception was made; in most others it seems to have been understood that whatever else the figures were to be, they must not be portraits.

Samuel Butler

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