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MORNINGS IN FLORENCE
JOHN RUSKIN, M.A.
MORNINGS IN FLORENCE.
THE FIRST MORNING.
If there is one artist, more than another, whose work it is desirable that you should examine in Florence, supposing that you care for old art at all, it is Giotto. You can, indeed, also see work of his at Assisi; but it is not likely you will stop there, to any purpose. At Padua there is much; but only of one period. At Florence, which is his birthplace, you can see pictures by him of every date, and every kind. But you had surely better see, first, what is of his best time and of the best kind. He painted very small pictures and very large–painted from the age of twelve to sixty–painted some subjects carelessly which he had little interest in–some carefully with all his heart. You would surely like, and it would certainly be wise, to see him first in his strong and earnest work,–to see a painting by him, if possible, of large size, and wrought with his full strength, and of a subject pleasing to him. And if it were, also, a subject interesting to yourself,–better still.
Now, if indeed you are interested in old art, you cannot but know the power of the thirteenth century. You know that the character of it was concentrated in, and to the full expressed by, its best king, St. Louis. You know St. Louis was a Franciscan, and that the Franciscans, for whom Giotto was continually painting under Dante’s advice, were prouder of him than of any other of their royal brethren or sisters. If Giotto ever would imagine anybody with care and delight, it would be St. Louis, if it chanced that anywhere he had St. Louis to paint.
Also, you know that he was appointed to build the Campanile of the Duomo, because he was then the best master of sculpture, painting, and architecture in Florence, and supposed to be without superior in the world. [Footnote: “Cum in universe orbe non reperiri dicatur quenquam qui sufficientior sit in his et aliis multis artibus magistro Giotto Bondonis de Florentia, pictore, et accipiendus sit in patria, velut magnus magister.”–(Decree of his appointment, quoted by Lord Lindsay, vol. ii., p. 247.)]
And that this commission was given him late in life, (of course he could not have designed the Campanile when he was a boy;) so therefore, if you find any of his figures painted under pure campanile architecture, and the architecture by his hand, you know, without other evidence, that the painting must be of his strongest time.
So if one wanted to find anything of his to begin with, especially, and could choose what it should be, one would say, “A fresco, life size, with campanile architecture behind it, painted in an important place; and if one might choose one’s subject, perhaps the most interesting saint of all saints–for him to do for us–would be St. Louis.”
Wait then for an entirely bright morning; rise with the sun, and go to Santa Croce, with a good opera-glass in your pocket, with which you shall for once, at any rate, see an opus; and, if you have time, several opera. Walk straight to the chapel on the right of the choir (“k” in your Murray’s guide). When you first get into it, you will see nothing but a modern window of glaring glass, with a red-hot cardinal in one pane–which piece of modern manufacture takes away at least seven-eighths of the light (little enough before) by which you might have seen what is worth sight. Wait patiently till you get used to the gloom. Then, guarding your eyes from the accursed modern window as best you may, take your opera-glass and look to the right, at the uppermost of the two figures beside it. It is St. Louis, under campanile architecture, painted by–Giotto? or the last Florentine painter who wanted a job–over Giotto? That is the first question you have to determine; as you will have henceforward, in every case in which you look at a fresco.
Sometimes there will be no question at all. These two grey frescos at the bottom of the walls on the right and left, for instance, have been entirely got up for your better satisfaction, in the last year or two –over Giotto’s half-effaced lines. But that St. Louis? Re-painted or not, it is a lovely thing,–there can be no question about that; and we must look at it, after some preliminary knowledge gained, not inattentively.
Your Murray’s Guide tells you that this chapel of the Bardi della Liberta, in which you stand, is covered with frescos by Giotto; that they were whitewashed, and only laid bare in 1853; that they were painted between 1296 and 1304; that they represent scenes in the life of St. Francis; and that on each side of the window are paintings of St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Louis king of France, St. Elizabeth, of Hungary, and St. Claire,–“all much restored and repainted.” Under such recommendation, the frescos are not likely to be much sought after; and accordingly, as I was at work in the chapel this morning, Sunday, 6th September, 1874, two nice-looking Englishmen, under guard of their valet de place, passed the chapel without so much as looking in.
You will perhaps stay a little longer in it with me, good reader, and find out gradually where you are. Namely, in the most interesting and perfect little Gothic chapel in all Italy–so far as I know or can hear. There is no other of the great time which has all its frescos in their place. The Arena, though far larger, is of earlier date–not pure Gothic, nor showing Giotto’s full force. The lower chapel at Assisi is not Gothic at all, and is still only of Giotto’s middle time. You have here, developed Gothic, with Giotto in his consummate strength, and nothing lost, in form, of the complete design.
By restoration–judicious restoration, as Mr. Murray usually calls it –there is no saying how much you have lost, Putting the question of restoration out of your mind, however, for a while, think where you are, and what you have got to look at.
You are in the chapel next the high altar of the great Franciscan church of Florence. A few hundred yards west of you, within ten minutes’ walk, is the Baptistery of Florence. And five minutes’ walk west of that is the great Dominican church of Florence, Santa Maria Novella.
Get this little bit of geography, and architectural fact, well into your mind. There is the little octagon Baptistery in the middle; here, ten minutes’ walk east of it, the Franciscan church of the Holy Cross; there, five minutes walk west of it, the Dominican church of St. Mary.
Now, that little octagon Baptistery stood where it now stands (and was finished, though the roof has been altered since) in the eighth century. It is the central building of Etrurian Christianity,–of European Christianity.
From the day it was finished, Christianity went on doing her best, in Etruria and elsewhere, for four hundred years,–and her best seemed to have come to very little,–when there rose up two men who vowed to God it should come to more. And they made it come to more, forthwith; of which the immediate sign in Florence was that she resolved to have a fine new cross-shaped cathedral instead of her quaint old little octagon one; and a tower beside it that should beat Babel:–which two buildings you have also within sight.
But your business is not at present with them; but with these two earlier churches of Holy Cross and St. Mary. The two men who were the effectual builders of these were the two great religious Powers and Reformers of the thirteenth century;–St. Francis, who taught Christian men how they should behave, and St. Dominic, who taught Christian men what they should think. In brief, one the Apostle of Works; the other of Faith. Each sent his little company of disciples to teach and to preach in Florence: St. Francis in 1212; St. Dominic in 1220.
The little companies were settled–one, ten minutes’ walk east of the old Baptistery; the other five minutes’ walk west of it. And after they had stayed quietly in such lodgings as were given them, preaching and teaching through most of the century; and had got Florence, as it were, heated through, she burst out into Christian poetry and architecture, of which you have heard much talk:–burst into bloom of Arnolfo, Giotto, Dante, Orcagna, and the like persons, whose works you profess to have come to Florence that you may see and understand.
Florence then, thus heated through, first helped her teachers to build finer churches. The Dominicans, or White Friars the Teachers of Faith, began their church of St. Mary’s in 1279. The Franciscans, or Black Friars, the teachers of Works, laid the first stone of this church of the Holy Cross in 1294. And the whole city laid the foundations of its new cathedral in 1298. The Dominicans designed their own building; but for the Franciscans and the town worked the first great master of Gothic art, Arnolfo; with Giotto at his side, and Dante looking on, and whispering sometimes a word to both.
And here you stand beside the high altar of the Franciscans’ church, under a vault of Arnolfo’s building, with at least some of Giotto’s colour on it still fresh; and in front of you, over the little altar, is the only reportedly authentic portrait of St. Francis, taken from life by Giotto’s master. Yet I can hardly blame my two English friends for never looking in. Except in the early morning light, not one touch of all this art can be seen. And in any light, unless you understand the relations of Giotto to St. Francis, and of St. Francis to humanity, it will be of little interest.
Observe, then, the special character of Giotto among the great painters of Italy is his being a practical person. Whatever other men dreamed of, he did. He could work in mosaic; he could work in marble; he could paint; and he could build; and all thoroughly: a man of supreme faculty, supreme common sense. Accordingly, he ranges himself at once among the disciples of the Apostle of Works, and spends most of his time in the same apostleship.
Now the gospel of Works, according to St. Francis, lay in three things. You must work without money, and be poor. You must work without pleasure, and be chaste. You must work according to orders, and be obedient.
Those are St. Francis’s three articles of Italian opera. By which grew the many pretty things you have come to see here.
And now if you will take your opera-glass and look up to the roof above Arnolfo’s building, you will see it is a pretty Gothic cross vault, in four quarters, each with a circular medallion, painted by Giotto. That over the altar has the picture of St. Francis himself. The three others, of his Commanding Angels. In front of him, over the entrance arch, Poverty. On his right hand, Obedience. On his left, Chastity.
Poverty, in a red patched dress, with grey wings, and a square nimbus of glory above her head, is flying from a black hound, whose head is seen at the corner of the medallion.
Chastity, veiled, is imprisoned in a tower, while angels watch her.
Obedience bears a yoke on her shoulders, and lays her hand on a book.
Now, this same quatrefoil, of St. Francis and his three Commanding Angels, was also painted, but much more elaborately, by Giotto, on the cross vault of the lower church of Assisi, and it is a question of interest which of the two roofs was painted first.
Your Murray’s Guide tells you the frescos in this chapel were painted between 1296 and 1304. But as they represent, among other personages, St. Louis of Toulouse, who was not canonized till 1317, that statement is not altogether tenable. Also, as the first stone of the church was only laid in 1294, when Giotto was a youth of eighteen, it is little likely that either it would have been ready to be painted, or he ready with his scheme of practical divinity, two years later.
Farther, Arnolfo, the builder of the main body of the church, died in 1310. And as St. Louis of Toulouse was not a saint till seven years afterwards, and the frescos therefore beside the window not painted in Arnolfo’s day, it becomes another question whether Arnolfo left the chapels or the church at all, in their present form.
On which point–now that I have shown you where Giotto’s St. Louis is –I will ask you to think awhile, until you are interested; and then I will try to satisfy your curiosity. There fore, please leave the little chapel for the moment, and walk down the nave, till you come to two sepulchral slabs near the west end, and then look about you and see what sort of a church Santa Croce is.
Without looking about you at all, you may find, in your Murray, the useful information that it is a church which “consists of a very wide nave and lateral aisles, separated by seven fine pointed arches.” And as you will be–under ordinary conditions of tourist hurry–glad to learn so much, _without_ looking, it is little likely to occur to you that this nave and two rich aisles required also, for your complete present comfort, walls at both ends, and a roof on the top. It is just possible, indeed, you may have been struck, on entering, by the curious disposition of painted glass at the east end;–more remotely possible that, in returning down the nave, you may this moment have noticed the extremely small circular window at the west end; but the chances are a thousand to one that, after being pulled from tomb to tomb round the aisles and chapels, you should take so extraordinary an additional amount of pains as to look up at the roof,–unless you do it now, quietly. It will have had its effect upon you, even if you don’t, without your knowledge. You will return home with a general impression that Santa Croce is, somehow, the ugliest Gothic church you ever were in. Well, that is really so; and now, will you take the pains to see why?
There are two features, on which, more than on any others, the grace and delight of a fine Gothic building depends; one is the springing of its vaultings, the other the proportion and fantasy of its traceries. _This_ church of Santa Croce has no vaultings at all, but the roof of a farm-house barn. And its windows are all of the same pattern,–the exceedingly prosaic one of two pointed arches, with a round hole above, between them.
And to make the simplicity of the roof more conspicuous, the aisles are successive sheds, built at every arch. In the aisles of the Campo Santo of Pisco, the unbroken flat roof leaves the eye free to look to the traceries; but here, a succession of up-and-down sloping beam and lath gives the impression of a line of stabling rather than a church aisle. And lastly, while, in fine Gothic buildings, the entire perspective concludes itself gloriously in the high and distant apse, here the nave is cut across sharply by a line of ten chapels, the apse being only a tall recess in the midst of them, so that, strictly speaking, the church is not of the form of a cross, but of a letter T.
Can this clumsy and ungraceful arrangement be indeed the design of the renowned Arnolfo?
Yes, this is purest Arnolfo-Gothic; not beautiful by any means; but deserving, nevertheless, our thoughtfullest examination. We will trace its complete character another day; just now we are only concerned with this pre-Christian form of the letter T, insisted upon in the lines of chapels.
Respecting which you are to observe, that the first Christian churches in the catacombs took the form of a blunt cross naturally; a square chamber having a vaulted recess on each side; then the Byzantine churches were structurally built in the form of an equal cross; while the heraldic and other ornamental equal-armed crosses are partly signs of glory and victory, partly of light, and divine spiritual presence. [Footnote: See, on this subject generally, Mr. R. St. J. Tyrwhitt’s “Art-Teaching of the Primitive Church.” S. P. B. K., 1874.]
But the Franciscans and Dominicans saw in the cross no sign of triumph, but of trial.[Footnote: I have never obtained time for any right study of early Christian church-discipline,–nor am I sure to how many other causes, the choice of the form of the basilica may be occasionally attributed, or by what other communities it may be made. Symbolism, for instance, has most power with the Franciscans, and convenience for preaching with the Dominicans; but in all cases, and in all places, the transition from the close tribune to the brightly-lighted apse, indicates the change in Christian feeling between regarding a church as a place for public judgment or teaching, or a place for private prayer and congregational praise. The following passage from the Dean of Westminster’s perfect history of his Abbey ought to be read also in the Florentine church:–“The nearest approach to Westminster Abbey in this aspect is the church of Santa Croce at Florence. There, as here, the present destination of the building was no part of the original design, but was the result of various converging causes. As the church of one of the two great preaching orders, it had a nave large beyond all proportion to its choir. That order being the Franciscan, bound by vows of poverty, the simplicity of the worship preserved the whole space clear from any adventitious ornaments. The popularity of the Franciscans, especially in a convent hallowed by a visit from St. Francis himself, drew to it not only the chief civic festivals, but also the numerous families who gave alms to the friars, and whose connection with their church was, for this reason, in turn encouraged by them. In those graves, piled with standards und achievements of the noble families of Florence, were successively interred–not because of their eminence, but as members or friends of those families–some of the most illustrious personages of the fifteenth century. Thus it came to pass, as if by accident, that in the vault of the Buonarotti was laid Michael Angelo; in the vault of the Viviani the preceptor of one of their house, Galileo. From those two burials the church gradually be same the recognized shrine of Italian genius.”] The wounds of their Master were to be their inheritance. So their first aim was to make what image to the cross their church might present, distinctly that of the actual instrument of death.
And they did this most effectually by using the form of the letter T, that of the Furca or Gibbet,–not the sign of peace.
Also, their churches were meant for use; not show, nor self-glorification, nor town-glorification. They wanted places for preaching, prayer, sacrifice, burial; and had no intention of showing how high they could build towers, or how widely they could arch vaults. Strong walls, and the roof of a barn,–these your Franciscan asks of his Arnolfo. These Arnolfo gives,–thoroughly and wisely built; the successions of gable roof being a new device for strength, much praised in its day.
This stern humor did not last long. Arnolfo himself had other notions; much more Cimabue and Giotto; most of all, Nature and Heaven. Something else had to be taught about Christ than that He was wounded to death. Nevertheless, look how grand this stern form would be, restored to its simplicity. It is not the old church which is in itself unimpressive. It is the old church defaced by Vasari, by Michael Angelo, and by modern Florence. See those huge tombs on your right hand and left, at the sides of the aisles, with their alternate gable and round tops, and their paltriest of all possible sculpture, trying to be grand by bigness, and pathetic by expense. Tear them all down in your imagination; fancy the vast hall with its massive pillars,–not painted calomel-pill colour, as now, but of their native stone, with a rough, true wood for roof,–and a people praying beneath them, strong in abiding, and pure in life, as their rocks and olive forests That was Arnolfo’s Santa Croce. Nor did his work remain long without grace.
That very line of chapels in which we found our St. Louis shows signs of change in temper. _They_ have no pent-house roofs, but true Gothic vaults: we found our four-square type of Franciscan Law on one of them.
It is probable, then, that these chapels may be later than the rest –even in their stonework. In their decoration, they are so, assuredly; belonging already to the time when the story of St. Francis was becoming a passionate tradition, told and painted everywhere with delight.
And that high recess, taking the place of apse, in the centre,–see how noble it is in the coloured shade surrounding and joining the glow of its windows, though their form be so simple. You are not to be amused here by patterns in balanced stone, as a French or English architect would amuse you, says Arnolfo. “You are to read and think, under these severe walls of mine; immortal hands will write upon them.” We will go back, therefore, into this line of manuscript chapels presently; but first, look at the two sepulchral slabs by which you are standing. That farther of the two from the west end is one of the most beautiful pieces of fourteenth century sculpture in this world; and it contains simple elements of excellence, by your understanding of which you may test your power of understanding the more difficult ones you will have to deal with presently.
It represents an old man, in the high deeply-folded cap worn by scholars and gentlemen in Florence from 1300–1500, lying dead, with a book in his breast, over which his hands are folded. At his feet is this inscription: “Temporibus hic suis phylosophye atq. medicine culmen fuit Galileus de Galileis olim Bonajutis qui etiam summo in magistratu miro quodam modo rempublicam dilexit, cujus sancte memorie bene acte vite pie benedictus filius hunc tumulum patri sibi suisq. posteris edidit.”
Mr. Murray tells you that the effigies “in low relief” (alas, yes, low enough now–worn mostly into flat stones, with a trace only of the deeper lines left, but originally in very bold relief,) with which the floor of Santa Croce is inlaid, of which this by which you stand is characteristic, are “interesting from the costume,” but that, “except in the case of John Ketterick, Bishop of St. David’s, few of the other names have any interest beyond the walls of Florence.” As, however, you are at present within the walls of Florence, you may perhaps condescend to take some interest in this ancestor or relation of the Galileo whom Florence indeed left to be externally interesting, and would not allow to enter in her walls.
“Seven years a prisoner at the city gate, Let in but his grave-clothes.”
I am not sure if I rightly place or construe the phrase in the above inscription, “cujus sancte memorie bene acte;” but, in main purport, the legend runs thus: “This Galileo of the Galilei was, in his times, the head of philosophy and medicine; who also in the highest magistracy loved the republic marvellously; whose son, blessed in inheritance of his holy memory and well-passed and pious life, appointed this tomb for his father, for himself, and for his posterity.”
There is no date; but the slab immediately behind it, nearer the western door, is of the same style, but of later and inferior work, and bears date–I forget now of what early year in the fifteenth century.
But Florence was still in her pride; and you may observe, in this epitaph, on what it was based. That her philosophy was studied _together with useful arts,_ and as a part of them; that the masters in these became naturally the masters in public affairs; that in such magistracy, they loved the State, and neither cringed to it nor robbed it; that the sons honoured their fathers, and received their fathers’ honour as the most blessed inheritance. Remember the phrase “vite pie bene dictus filius,” to be compared with the “nos nequiores” of the declining days of all states,–chiefly now in Florence, France and England.
Thus much for the local interest of name. Next for the universal interest of the art of this tomb.
It is the crowning virtue of all great art that, however little is left of it by the injuries of time, that little will be lovely. As long as you can see anything, you can see–almost all;–so much the hand of the master will suggest of his soul.
And here you are well quit, for once, of restoration. No one cares for this sculpture; and if Florence would only thus put all her old sculpture and painting under her feet, and simply use them for gravestones and oilcloth, she would be more merciful to them than she is now. Here, at least, what little is left is true.
And, if you look long, you will find it is not so little. That worn face is still a perfect portrait of the old man, though like one struck out at a venture, with a few rough touches of a master’s chisel. And that falling drapery of his cap is, in its few lines, faultless, and subtle beyond description.
And now, here is a simple but most useful test of your capacity for understanding Florentine sculpture or painting. If you can see that the lines of that cap are both right, and lovely; that the choice of the folds is exquisite in its ornamental relations of line; and that the softness and ease of them is complete,–though only sketched with a few dark touches,–then you can understand Giotto’s drawing, and Botticelli’s;–Donatello’s carving and Luca’s. But if you see nothing in _this_ sculpture, you will see nothing in theirs, _of_ theirs. Where they choose to imitate flesh, or silk, or to play any vulgar modern trick with marble–(and they often do)–whatever, in a word, is French, or American, or Cockney, in their work, you can see; but what is Florentine, and for ever great–unless you can see also the beauty of this old man in his citizen’s cap,–you will see never.
There is more in this sculpture, however, than its simple portraiture and noble drapery. The old man lies on a piece of embroidered carpet; and, protected by the higher relief, many of the finer lines of this are almost uninjured; in particular, its exquisitely-wrought fringe and tassels are nearly perfect. And if you will kneel down and look long at the tassels of the cushion under the head, and the way they fill the angles of the stone, you will,–or may–know, from this example alone, what noble decorative sculpture is, and was, and must be, from the days of earliest Greece to those of latest Italy.
“Exquisitely sculptured fringe!” and you have just been abusing sculptors who play tricks with marble! Yes, and you cannot find a better example, in all the museums of Europe, of the work of a man who does _not_ play tricks with it–than this tomb. Try to understand the difference: it is a point of quite cardinal importance to all your future study of sculpture.
I _told_ you, observe, that the old Galileo was lying on a piece of embroidered carpet. I don’t think, if I had not told you, that you would have found it out for yourself. It is not so like a carpet as all that comes to.
But had it been a modern trick-sculpture, the moment you came to the tomb you would have said, “Dear me! how wonderfully that carpet is done,–it doesn’t look like stone in the least–one longs to take it up and beat it, to get the dust off.”
Now whenever you feel inclined to speak so of a sculptured drapery, be assured, without more ado, the sculpture is base, and bad. You will merely waste your time and corrupt your taste by looking at it. Nothing is so easy as to imitate drapery in marble. You may cast a piece any day; and carve it with such subtlety that the marble shall be an absolute image of the folds. But that is not sculpture. That is mechanical manufacture.
No great sculptor, from the beginning of art to the end of it, has ever carved, or ever will, a deceptive drapery. He has neither time nor will to do it. His mason’s lad may do that if he likes. A man who can carve a limb or a face never finishes inferior parts, but either with a hasty and scornful chisel, or with such grave and strict selection of their lines as you know at once to be imaginative, not imitative.
But if, as in this case, he wants to oppose the simplicity of his central subject with a rich background,–a labyrinth of ornamental lines to relieve the severity of expressive ones,–he will carve you a carpet, or a tree, or a rose thicket, with their fringes and leaves and thorns, elaborated as richly as natural ones; but always for the sake of the ornamental form, never of the imitation; yet, seizing the natural character in the lines he gives, with twenty times the precision and clearness of sight that the mere imitator has. Examine the tassels of the cushion, and the way they blend with the fringe, thoroughly; you cannot possibly see finer ornamental sculpture. Then, look at the same tassels in the same place of the slab next the west end of the church, and you will see a scholar’s rude imitation of a master’s hand, though in a fine school. (Notice, however, the folds of the drapery at the feet of this figure: they are cut so as to show the hem of the robe within as well as without, and are fine.) Then, as you go back to Giotto’s chapel, keep to the left, and just beyond the north door in the aisle is the much celebrated tomb of C. Marsuppini, by Desiderio of Settignano. It is very fine of its kind; but there the drapery is chiefly done to cheat you, and chased delicately to show how finely the sculptor could chisel it. It is wholly vulgar and mean in cast of fold. Under your feet, as you look at it, you will tread another tomb of the fine time, which, looking last at, you will recognize the difference between the false and true art, as far as there is capacity in you at present to do so. And if you really and honestly like the low-lying stones, and see more beauty in them, you have also the power of enjoying Giotto, into whose chapel we will return to-morrow;–not to-day, for the light must have left it by this time; and now that you have been looking at these sculptures on the floor you had better traverse nave and aisle across and across; and get some idea of that sacred field of stone. In the north transept you will find a beautiful knight, the finest in chiselling of all these tombs, except one by the same hand in the south aisle just where it enters the south transept.
Examine the lines of the Gothic niches traced above them; and what is left of arabesque on their armour. They are far more beautiful and tender in chivalric conception than Donatello’s St. George, which is merely a piece of vigorous naturalism founded on these older tombs. If you will drive in the evening to the Chartreuse in Val d’Ema, you may see there an uninjured example of this slab-tomb by Donatello himself; very beautiful; but not so perfect as the earlier ones on which it is founded. And you may see some fading light and shade of monastic life, among which if you stay till the fireflies come out in the twilight, and thus get to sleep when you come home, you will be better prepared for to-morrow morning’s walk–if you will take another with me–than if you go to a party, to talk sentiment about Italy, and hear the last news from London and New York.
THE SECOND MORNING.
THE GOLDEN GATE.
To-day, as early as you please, and at all events before doing anything else, let us go to Giotto’s own parish-church, Santa Maria Novella. If, walking from the Strozzi Palace, you look on your right for the “Way of the Beautiful Ladies,” it will take you quickly there.
Do not let anything in the way of acquaintance, sacristan, or chance sight, stop you in doing what I tell you. Walk straight up to the church, into the apse of it;–(you may let your eyes rest, as you walk, on the glow of its glass, only mind the step, half way;)–and lift the curtain; and go in behind the grand marble altar, giving anybody who follows you anything they want, to hold their tongues, or go away.
You know, most probably, already, that the frescos on each side of you are Ghirlandajo’s. You have been told they are very fine, and if you know anything of painting, you know the portraits in them are so. Nevertheless, somehow, you don’t really enjoy these frescos, nor come often here, do you?
The reason of which is, that if you are a nice person, they are not nice enough for you; and if a vulgar person, not vulgar enough. But if you are a nice person, I want you to look carefully, to-day, at the two lowest, next the windows, for a few minutes, that you may better feel the art you are really to study, by its contrast with these.
On your left hand is represented the birth of the Virgin, On your right, her meeting with Elizabeth.
You can’t easily see better pieces–nowhere more pompous pieces–of flat goldsmiths’ work. Ghirlandajo was to the end of his life a mere goldsmith, with a gift of portraiture. And here he has done his best, and has put a long wall in wonderful perspective, and the whole city of Florence behind Elizabeth’s house in the hill country; and a splendid bas-relief, in the style of Luca della Robbia, in St. Anne’s bedroom; and he has carved all the pilasters, and embroidered all the dresses, and flourished and trumpeted into every corner; and it is all done, within just a point, as well as it can be done; and quite as well as Ghirlandajo could do it. But the point in which it _just_ misses being as well as it can be done, is the vital point. And it is all simply–good for nothing.
Extricate yourself from the goldsmith’s rubbish of it, and look full at the Salutation. You will say, perhaps, at first, “What grand and graceful figures!” Are you sure they are graceful? Look again and you will see their draperies hang from them exactly as they would from two clothes-pegs. Now, fine drapery, really well drawn, as it hangs from a clothes-peg, is always rather impressive, especially if it be disposed in large breadths and deep folds; but that is the only grace of their figures.
Secondly. Look at the Madonna, carefully. You will find she is not the least meek–only stupid,–as all the other women in the picture are.
“St. Elizabeth, you think, is nice”? Yes; “and she says, ‘Whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’ really with a great deal of serious feeling?” Yes, with a great deal. Well, you have looked enough at those two. Now–just for another minute–look at the birth of the Virgin. “A most graceful group, (your Murray’s Guide tells you,) in the attendant servants.” Extremely so. Also, the one holding the child is rather pretty. Also, the servant pouring out the water does it from a great height, without splashing, most cleverly. Also, the lady coming to ask for St. Anne, and see the baby, walks majestically and is very finely dressed. And as for that bas-relief in the style of Luca della Robbia, you might really almost think it _was_ Luca! The very best plated goods, Master Ghirlandajo, no doubt–always on hand at your shop.
Well, now you must ask for the Sacristan, who is civil and nice enough, and get him to let you into the green cloister, and then go into the less cloister opening out of it on the right, as you go down the steps; and you must ask for the tomb of the Marcheza Stiozzi Ridolfi; and in the recess behind the Marcheza’s tomb–very close to the ground, and in excellent light, if the day is fine–you will see two small frescos, only about four feet wide each, in odd-shaped bits of wall–quarters of circles; representing–that on the left, the Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate; and that on the right, the Birth of the Virgin.
No flourish of trumpets here, at any rate, you think! No gold on the gate; and, for the birth of the Virgin–is this all! Goodness!–nothing to be seen, whatever, of bas-reliefs, nor fine dresses, nor graceful pourings out of water, nor processions of visitors?
No. There’s but one thing you can see, here, which you didn’t in Ghirlandajo’s fresco, unless you were very clever and looked hard for it–the Baby! And you are never likely to see a more true piece of Giotto’s work in this world.
A round-faced, small-eyed little thing, tied up in a bundle!
Yes, Giotto was of opinion she must have appeared really not much else than that. But look at the servant who has just finished dressing her; –awe-struck, full of love and wonder, putting her hand softly on the child’s head, who has never cried. The nurse, who has just taken her, is–the nurse, and no more: tidy in the extreme, and greatly proud and pleased: but would be as much so with any other child.
Ghirlandajo’s St. Anne (I ought to have told you to notice that,–you can afterwards) is sitting strongly up in bed, watching, if not directing, all that is going on. Giotto’s lying down on the pillow, leans her face on her hand; partly exhausted, partly in deep thought. She knows that all will be well done for the child, either by the servants, or God; she need not look after anything.
At the foot of the bed is the midwife, and a servant who has brought drink for St. Anne. The servant stops, seeing her so quiet; asking the midwife, Shall I give it her now? The midwife, her hands lifted under her robe, in the attitude of thanksgiving, (with Giotto distinguishable always, though one doesn’t know how, from that of prayer,) answers, with her look, “Let be–she does not want anything.”
At the door a single acquaintance is coming in, to see the child. Of ornament, there is only the entirely simple outline of the vase which the servant carries; of colour, two or three masses of sober red, and pure white, with brown and gray.
That is all. And if you can be pleased with this, you can see Florence. But if not, by all means amuse yourself there, if you find it amusing, as long as you like; you can never see it.
But if indeed you are pleased, ever so little, with this fresco, think what that pleasure means. I brought you, on purpose, round, through the richest overture, and farrago of tweedledum and tweedledee, I could find in Florence; and here is a tune of four notes, on a shepherd’s pipe, played by the picture of nobody; and yet you like it! You know what music is, then. Here is another little tune, by the same player, and sweeter. I let you hear the simplest first.
The fresco on the left hand, with the bright blue sky, and the rosy figures! Why, anybody might like that!
Yes; but, alas, all the blue sky is repainted. It _was_ blue always, however, and bright too; and I dare say, when the fresco was first done, anybody _did_ like it.
You know the story of Joachim and Anna, I hope? Not that I do, myself, quite in the ins and outs; and if you don’t I’m not going to keep you waiting while I tell it. All you need know, and you scarcely, before this fresco, need know so much, is, that here are an old husband and old wife, meeting again by surprise, after losing each other, and being each in great fear;–meeting at the place where they were told by God each to go, without knowing what was to happen there.
“So they rushed into one another’s arms, and kissed each other.”
No, says Giotto,–not that.
“They advanced to meet, in a manner conformable to the strictest laws of composition; and with their draperies cast into folds which no one until Raphael could have arranged better.”
No, says Giotto,–not that.
St. Anne has moved quickest; her dress just falls into folds sloping backwards enough to tell you so much. She has caught St. Joachim by his mantle, and draws him to her, softly, by that. St. Joachim lays his hand under her arm, seeing she is like to faint, and holds her up. They do not kiss each other–only look into each other’s eyes. And God’s angel lays his hand on their heads.
Behind them, there are two rough figures, busied with their own affairs,–two of Joachim’s shepherds; one, bare headed, the other wearing the wide Florentine cap with the falling point behind, which is exactly like the tube of a larkspur or violet; both carrying game, and talking to each other about–Greasy Joan and her pot, or the like. Not at all the sort of persons whom you would have thought in harmony with the scene;–by the laws of the drama, according to Racine or Voltaire.
No, but according to Shakespeare, or Giotto, these are just the kind of persons likely to be there: as much as the angel is likely to be there also, though you will be told nowadays that Giotto was absurd for putting _him_ into the sky, of which an apothecary can always produce the similar blue, in a bottle. And now that you have had Shakespeare, and sundry other men of head and heart, following the track of this shepherd lad, _you_ can forgive him his grotesques in the corner. But that he should have forgiven them to himself, after the training he had, this is the wonder! _We_ have seen simple pictures enough in our day; and therefore we think that of course shepherd boys will sketch shepherds: what wonder is there in that?
I can show you how in _this_ shepherd boy it was very wonderful indeed, if you will walk for five minutes back into the church with me, and up into the chapel at the end of the south transept,–at least if the day is bright, and you get the Sacristan to undraw the window-curtain in the transept itself. For then the light of it will be enough to show you the entirely authentic and most renowned work of Giotto’s master; and you will see through what schooling the lad had gone.
A good and brave master he was, if ever boy had one; and, as you will find when you know really who the great men are, the master is half their life; and well they know it–always naming themselves from their master, rather than their families. See then what kind of work Giotto had been first put to. There is, literally, not a square inch of all that panel–some ten feet high by six or seven wide–which is not wrought in gold and colour with the fineness of a Greek manuscript. There is not such an elaborate piece of ornamentation in the first page of any Gothic king’s missal, as you will find in that Madonna’s throne;–the Madonna herself is meant to be grave and noble only; and to be attended only by angels.
And here is this saucy imp of a lad declares his people must do without gold, and without thrones; nay, that the Golden Gate itself shall have no gilding that St. Joachim and St. Anne shall have only one angel between them: and their servants shall have their joke, and nobody say them nay!
It is most wonderful; and would have been impossible, had Cimabue been a common man, though ever so great in his own way. Nor could I in any of my former thinking understand how it was, till I saw Cimabue’s own work at Assisi; in which he shows himself, at heart, as independent of his gold as Giotto,–even more intense, capable of higher things than Giotto, though of none, perhaps, so keen or sweet. But to this day, among all the Mater Dolorosas of Christianity, Cimabue’s at Assisi is the noblest; nor did any painter after him add one link to the chain of thought with which he summed the creation of the earth, and preached its redemption.
He evidently never checked the boy, from the first day he found him. Showed him all he knew: talked with him of many things he felt himself unable to paint: made him a workman and a gentleman,–above all, a Christian,–yet left him–a shepherd. And Heaven had made him such a painter, that, at his height, the words of his epitaph are in nowise overwrought: “Ille ego sum, per quem pictura extincta revixit.”
A word or two, now, about the repainting by which _this_ pictura extincta has been revived to meet existing taste. The sky is entirely daubed over with fresh blue; yet it leaves with unusual care the original outline of the descending angel, and of the white clouds about his body. This idea of the angel laying his hands on the two heads–(as a bishop at Confirmation does, in a hurry; and I’ve seen one sweep four together, like Arnold de Winkelied),–partly in blessing, partly as a symbol of their being brought together to the same place by God,–was afterwards repeated again and again: there is one beautiful little echo of it among the old pictures in the schools of Oxford. This is the first occurrence of it that I know in pure Italian painting; but the idea is Etruscan-Greek, and is used by the Etruscan sculptors of the door of the Baptistery of Pisa, of the _evil_ angel, who “lays the heads together” of two very different persons from these–Herodias and her daughter.
Joachim, and the shepherd with the larkspur cap, are both quite safe; the other shepherd a little reinforced; the black bunches of grass, hanging about are retouches. They were once bunches of plants drawn with perfect delicacy and care; you may see one left, faint, with heart-shaped leaves, on the highest ridge of rock above the shepherds. The whole landscape is, however, quite undecipherably changed and spoiled.
You will be apt to think at first, that if anything has been restored, surely the ugly shepherd’s uglier feet have. No, not at all. Restored feet are always drawn with entirely orthodox and academical toes, like the Apollo Belvidere’s. You would have admired them very much. These are Giotto’s own doing, every bit; and a precious business he has had of it, trying again and again–in vain. Even hands were difficult enough to him, at this time; but feet, and bare legs! Well, he’ll have a try, he thinks, and gets really a fair line at last, when you are close to it; but, laying the light on the ground afterwards, he dare not touch this precious and dear-bought outline. Stops all round it, a quarter of an inch off, [Footnote: Perhaps it is only the restorer’s white on the ground that stops; but I think a restorer would never have been so wise, but have gone right up to the outline, and spoiled all.] with such effect as you see. But if you want to know what sort of legs and feet he _can_ draw, look at our _lambs_, in the corner of the fresco under the arch on your left!
And there is one on your right, though more repainted–the little Virgin presenting herself at the Temple,–about which I could also say much. The stooping figure, kissing the hem of her robe without her knowing, is, as far as I remember, first in this fresco; the origin, itself, of the main design in all the others you know so well; (and with its steps, by the way, in better perspective already than most of them).
“_This_ the original one!” you will be inclined to exclaim, if you have any general knowledge of the subsequent art. “_This_ Giotto! why it’s a cheap rechauffe of Titian!” No, my friend. The boy who tried so hard to draw those steps in perspective had been carried down others, to his grave, two hundred years before Titian ran alone at Cadore. But, as surely as Venice looks on the sea, Titian looked upon this, and caught the reflected light of it forever.
What kind of boy is this, think you, who can make Titian his copyist, –Dante his friend? What new power is here which is to change the heart of Italy?–can you see it, feel it, writing before you these words on the faded wall?
“You shall see things–as they Are.”
“And the least with the greatest, because God made them.”
“And the greatest with the least, because God made _you_, and gave you eyes and a heart.”
I. You shall see things–as they are. So easy a matter that, you think? So much more difficult and sublime to paint grand processions and golden thrones, than St. Anne faint on her pillow, and her servant at pause?
Easy or not, it is all the sight that is required of you in this world,–to see things, and men, and yourself,–as they are.
II. And the least with the greatest, because God made them,–shepherd, and flock, and grass of the field, no less than the Golden Gate.
III. But also the golden gate of Heaven itself, open, and the angels of God coming down from it.
These three things Giotto taught, and men believed, in his day. Of which Faith you shall next see brighter work; only before we leave the cloister, I want to sum for you one or two of the instant and evident technical changes produced in the school of Florence by this teaching.
One of quite the first results of Giotto’s simply looking at things as they were, was his finding out that a red thing was red, and a brown thing brown, and a white thing white–all over.
The Greeks had painted anything anyhow,–gods black, horses red, lips and cheeks white; and when the Etruscan vase expanded into a Cimabue picture, or a Tafi mosaic, still,–except that the Madonna was to have a blue dress, and everything else as much gold on it as could be managed,–there was very little advance in notions of colour. Suddenly, Giotto threw aside all the glitter, and all the conventionalism; and declared that he saw the sky blue, the tablecloth white, and angels, when he dreamed of them, rosy. And he simply founded the schools of colour in Italy–Venetian and all, as I will show you to-morrow morning, if it is fine. And what is more, nobody discovered much about colour after him.
But a deeper result of his resolve to look at things as they were, was his getting so heartily interested in them that he couldn’t miss their decisive _moment_. There is a decisive instant in all matters; and if you look languidly, you are sure to miss it. Nature seems always, somehow, trying to make you miss it. “I will see that through,” you must say, “with out turning my head”; or you won’t see the trick of it at all. And the most significant thing in all his work, you will find hereafter, is his choice of moments. I will give you at once two instances in a picture which, for other reasons, you should quickly compare with these frescos. Return by the Via delle Belle Donne; keep the Casa Strozzi on your right; and go straight on, through the market. The Florentines think themselves so civilized, forsooth, for building a nuovo Lung-Arno, and three manufactory chimneys opposite it: and yet sell butchers’ meat, dripping red, peaches, and anchovies, side by side: it is a sight to be seen. Much more, Luca della Robbia’s Madonna in the circle above the chapel door. Never pass near the market without looking at it; and glance from the vegetables underneath to Luca’s leaves and lilies, that you may see how honestly he was trying to make his clay like the garden-stuff. But to-day, you may pass quickly on to the Uffizii, which will be just open; and when you enter the great gallery, turn to the right, and there, the first picture you come at will be No. 6, Giotto’s “Agony in the garden.”
I used to think it so dull that I could not believe it was Giotto’s. That is partly from its dead colour, which is the boy’s way of telling you it is night:–more from the subject being one quite beyond his age, and which he felt no pleasure in trying at. You may see he was still a boy, for he not only cannot draw feet yet, in the least, and scrupulously hides them therefore; but is very hard put to it for the hands, being obliged to draw them mostly in the same position,–all the four fingers together. But in the careful bunches of grass and weeds you will see what the fresco foregrounds were before they got spoiled; and there are some things he can understand already, even about that Agony, thinking of it in his own fixed way. Some things,–not altogether to be explained by the old symbol of the angel with the cup. He will try if he cannot explain them better in those two little pictures below; which nobody ever looks at; the great Roman sarcophagus being put in front of them, and the light glancing on the new varnish so that you must twist about like a lizard to see anything. Nevertheless, you may make out what Giotto meant.
“The cup which my Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?” In what was its bitterness?–thought the boy. “Crucifixion?–Well, it hurts, doubtless; but the thieves had to bear it too, and many poor human wretches have to bear worse on our battlefields. But”–and he thinks, and thinks, and then he paints his two little pictures for the predella.
They represent, of course, the sequence of the time in Gethsemane; but see what choice the youth made of his moments, having two panels to fill. Plenty of choice for him–in pain. The Flagellation–the Mocking –the Bearing of the Cross;–all habitually given by the Margheritones, and their school, as extremes of pain.
“No,” thinks Giotto. “There was worse than all that. Many a good man has been mocked, spitefully entreated, spitted on, slain. But who was ever so betrayed? Who ever saw such a sword thrust in his mother’s heart?”
He paints, first, the laying hands on Him in the garden, but with only two principal figures,–Judas and Peter, of course; Judas and Peter were always principal in the old Byzantine composition,–Judas giving the kiss–Peter cutting off the servant’s ear. But the two are here, not merely principal, but almost alone in sight, all the other figures thrown back; and Peter is not at all concerned about the servant, or his struggle with him. He has got him down,–but looks back suddenly at Judas giving the kiss. What!–_you_ are the traitor, then–you!
“Yes,” says Giotto; “and you, also, in an hour more.”
The other picture is more deeply felt, still. It is of Christ brought to the foot of the cross. There is no wringing of hands or lamenting crowd–no haggard signs of fainting or pain in His body. Scourging or fainting, feeble knee and torn wound,–he thinks scorn of all that, this shepherd-boy. One executioner is hammering the wedges of the cross harder down. The other–not ungently–is taking Christ’s red robe off His shoulders. And St. John, a few yards off, is keeping his mother from coming nearer. She looks _down_, not at Christ; but tries to come.
And now you may go on for your day’s seeings through the rest of the gallery, if you will–Fornarina, and the wonderful cobbler, and all the rest of it. I don’t want you any more till to-morrow morning.
But if, meantime, you will sit down,–say, before Sandro Botticelli’s “Fortitude,” which I shall want you to look at, one of these days; (No. 1299, innermost room from the Tribune,) and there read this following piece of one of my Oxford lectures on the relation of Cimabue to Giotto, you will be better prepared for our work to-morrow morning in Santa Croce; and may find something to consider of, in the room you are in. Where, by the way, observe that No. 1288 is a most true early Lionardo, of extreme interest: and the savants who doubt it are–never mind what; but sit down at present at the feet of Fortitude, and read.
Those of my readers who have been unfortunate enough to interest themselves in that most profitless of studies–the philosophy of art –have been at various times teased or amused by disputes respecting the relative dignity of the contemplative and dramatic schools.
Contemplative, of course, being the term attached to the system of painting things only for the sake of their own niceness–a lady because she is pretty, or a lion because he is strong: and the dramatic school being that which cannot be satisfied unless it sees something going on: which can’t paint a pretty lady unless she is being made love to, or being murdered; and can’t paint a stag or a lion unless they are being hunted, or shot, or the one eating the other.
You have always heard me–or, if not, will expect by the very tone of this sentence to hear me, now, on the whole recommend you to prefer the Contemplative school. But the comparison is always an imperfect and unjust one, unless quite other terms are introduced.
The real greatness or smallness of schools is not in their preference of inactivity to action, nor of action to inactivity. It is in their preference of worthy things to unworthy, in rest; and of kind action to unkind, in business.
A Dutchman can be just as solemnly and entirely contemplative of a lemon pip and a cheese paring, as an Italian of the Virgin in Glory. An English squire has pictures, purely contemplative, of his favorite horse–and a Parisian lady, pictures, purely contemplative, of the back and front of the last dress proposed to her in La Mode Artistique. All these works belong to the same school of silent admiration;–the vital question concerning them is, “What do you admire?”
Now therefore, when you hear me so often saying that the Northern races–Norman and Lombard,–are active, or dramatic, in their art; and that the Southern races–Greek and Arabian,–are contemplative, you ought instantly to ask farther, Active in what? Contemplative of what? And the answer is, The active art–Lombardic,–rejoices in hunting and fighting; the contemplative art–Byzantine,–contemplates the mysteries of the Christian faith.
And at first, on such answer, one would be apt at once to conclude–All grossness must be in the Lombard; all good in the Byzantine. But again we should be wrong,–and extremely wrong. For the hunting and fighting did practically produce strong, and often virtuous, men; while the perpetual and inactive contemplation of what it was impossible to understand, did not on the whole render the contemplative persons, stronger, wiser, or even more amiable. So that, in the twelfth century, while the Northern art was only in need of direction, the Southern was in need of life. The North was indeed spending its valour and virtue on ignoble objects; but the South disgracing the noblest objects by its want of valour and virtue.
Central stood Etruscan Florence–her root in the earth, bound with iron and brass–wet with the dew of heaven. Agriculture in occupation, religious in thought, she accepted, like good ground, the good; refused, like the Rock of Fesole, the evil; directed the industry of the Northman into the arts of peace; kindled the dreams of the Byzantine with the fire of charity. Child of her peace, and exponent of her passion, her Cimabue became the interpreter to mankind of the meaning of the Birth of Christ.
We hear constantly, and think naturally, of him as of a man whose peculiar genius in painting suddenly reformed its principles; who suddenly painted, out of his own gifted imagination, beautiful instead of rude pictures; and taught his scholar Giotto to carry on the impulse; which we suppose thenceforward to have enlarged the resources and bettered the achievements of painting continually, up to our own time,–when the triumphs of art having been completed, and its uses ended, something higher is offered to the ambition of mankind; and Watt and Faraday initiate the Age of Manufacture and Science, as Cimabue and Giotto instituted that of Art and Imagination.
In this conception of the History of Mental and Physical culture, we much overrate the influence, though we cannot overrate the power, of the men by whom the change seems to have been effected. We cannot overrate their power,–for the greatest men of any age, those who become its leaders when there is a great march to be begun, are indeed separated from the average intellects of their day by a distance which is immeasurable in any ordinary terms of wonder.
But we far overrate their influence; because the apparently sudden result of their labour or invention is only the manifested fruit of the toil and thought of many who preceded them, and of whose names we have never heard. The skill of Cimabue cannot be extolled too highly; but no Madonna by his hand could ever have rejoiced the soul of Italy, unless for a thousand years before, many a nameless Greek and nameless Goth had adorned the traditions, and lived in the love, of the Virgin.
In like manner, it is impossible to overrate the sagacity, patience, or precision, of the masters in modern mechanical and scientific discovery. But their sudden triumph, and the unbalancing of all the world by their words, may not in any wise be attributed to their own power, or even to that of the facts they have ascertained. They owe their habits and methods of industry to the paternal example, no less than the inherited energy, of men who long ago prosecuted the truths of nature, through the rage of war, and the adversity of superstition; and the universal and overwhelming consequences of the facts which their followers have now proclaimed, indicate only the crisis of a rapture produced by the offering of new objects of curiosity to nations who had nothing to look at; and of the amusement of novel motion and action to nations who had nothing to do.
Nothing to look at! That is indeed–you will find, if you consider of it–our sorrowful case. The vast extent of the advertising frescos of London, daily refreshed into brighter and larger frescos by its billstickers, cannot somehow sufficiently entertain the popular eyes. The great Mrs. Allen, with her flowing hair, and equally flowing promises, palls upon repetition, and that Madonna of the nineteenth century smiles in vain above many a borgo unrejoiced; even the excitement of the shop-window, with its unattainable splendours, or too easily attainable impostures, cannot maintain itself in the wearying mind of the populace, and I find my charitable friends inviting the children, whom the streets educate only into vicious misery, to entertainments of scientific vision, in microscope or magic lantern; thus giving them something to look at, such as it is;–fleas mostly; and the stomachs of various vermin; and people with their heads cut off and set on again;–still _something_, to look at.
The fame of Cimabue rests, and justly, on a similar charity. He gave the populace of his day something to look at; and satisfied their curiosity with science of something they had long desired to know. We have continually imagined in our carelessness, that his triumph consisted only in a new pictorial skill; recent critical writers, unable to comprehend how any street populace could take pleasure in painting, have ended by denying his triumph altogether, and insisted that he gave no joy to Florence; and that the “Joyful quarter” was accidentally so named–or at least from no other festivity than that of the procession attending Charles of Anjou. I proved to you, in a former lecture, that the old tradition was true, and the delight of the people unquestionable. But that delight was not merely in the revelation of an art they had not known how to practise; it was delight in the revelation of a Madonna whom they had not known how to love.
Again; what was revelation to _them_–we suppose farther and as unwisely, to have been only art in _him_; that in better laying of colours,–in better tracing of perspectives–in recovery of principles, of classic composition–he had manufactured, as our Gothic Firms now manufacture to order, a Madonna–in whom he believed no more than they.
Not so. First of the Florentines, first of European men–he attained in thought, and saw with spiritual eyes, exercised to discern good from evil,–the face of her who was blessed among women; and with his following hand, made visible the Magnificat of his heart.
He magnified the Maid; and Florence rejoiced in her Queen. But it was left for Giotto to make the queenship better beloved, in its sweet humiliation.
You had the Etruscan stock in Florence–Christian, or at least semi- Christian; the statue of Mars still in its streets, but with its central temple built for Baptism in the name of Christ. It was a race living by agriculture; gentle, thoughtful, and exquisitely fine in handiwork. The straw bonnet of Tuscany–the Leghorn–is pure Etruscan art, young ladies:–only plaited gold of God’s harvest, instead of the plaited gold of His earth.
You had then the Norman and Lombard races coming down on this: kings, and hunters–splendid in war–insatiable of action. You had the Greek and Arabian races flowing from the east, bringing with them the law of the City, and the dream of the Desert.
Cimabue–Etruscan born, gave, we saw, the life of the Norman to the tradition of the Greek: eager action to holy contemplation. And what more is left for his favourite shepherd boy Giotto to do, than this, except to paint with ever-increasing skill? We fancy he only surpassed Cimabue–eclipsed by greater brightness.
Not so. The sudden and new applause of Italy would never have been won by mere increase of the already-kindled light. Giotto had wholly another work to do. The meeting of the Norman race with the Byzantine is not merely that of action with repose–not merely that of war with religion,–it is the meeting of _domestic_ life with _monastic_, and of practical household sense with unpractical Desert insanity.
I have no other word to use than this last. I use it reverently, meaning a very noble thing; I do not know how far I ought to say–even a divine thing. Decide that for yourselves. Compare the Northern farmer with St. Francis; the palm hardened by stubbing Thornaby waste, with the palm softened by the imagination of the wounds of Christ. To my own thoughts, both are divine; decide that for yourselves; but assuredly, and without possibility of other decision, one is, humanly speaking, healthy; the other _un_healthy; one sane, the other–insane.
To reconcile Drama with Dream, Cimabue’s task was comparatively an easy one. But to reconcile Sense with–I still use even this following word reverently–Nonsense, is not so easy; and he who did it first,–no wonder he has a name in the world.
I must lean, however, still more distinctly on the word “domestic.” For it is not Rationalism and commercial competition–Mr. Stuart Mill’s” other career for woman than that of wife and mother “–which are reconcilable, by Giotto, or by anybody else, with divine vision. But household wisdom, labour of love, toil upon earth according to the law of Heaven–these are reconcilable, in one code of glory, with revelation in cave or island, with the endurance of desolate and loveless days, with the repose of folded hands that wait Heaven’s time.
Domestic and monastic. He was the first of Italians–the first of Christians–who _equally_ knew the virtue of both lives; and who was able to show it in the sight of men of all ranks,–from the prince to the shepherd; and of all powers,–from the wisest philosopher to the simplest child.
For, note the way in which the new gift of painting, bequeathed to him by his great master, strengthened his hands. Before Cimabue, no beautiful rendering of human form was possible; and the rude or formal types of the Lombard and Byzantine, though they would serve in the tumult of the chase, or as the recognized symbols of creed, could not represent personal and domestic character. Faces with goggling eyes and rigid lips might be endured with ready help of imagination, for gods, angels, saints, or hunters–or for anybody else in scenes of recognized legend, but would not serve for pleasant portraiture of one’s own self –or of the incidents of gentle, actual life. And even Cimabue did not venture to leave the sphere of conventionally reverenced dignity. He still painted–though beautifully–only the Madonna, and the St. Joseph, and the Christ. These he made living,–Florence asked no more: and “Credette Cimabue nella pintura tener lo campo.”
But Giotto came from the field, and saw with his simple eyes a lowlier worth. And he painted–the Madonna, and St. Joseph, and the Christ,–yes, by all means if you choose to call them so, but essentially,–Mamma, Papa, and the Baby. And all Italy threw up its cap,–“Ora ha Giotto il grido.”
For he defines, explains, and exalts, every sweet incident of human nature; and makes dear to daily life every mystic imagination of natures greater than our own. He reconciles, while he intensifies, every virtue of domestic and monastic thought. He makes the simplest household duties sacred, and the highest religious passions serviceable and just.
THE THIRD MORNING.
BEFORE THE SOLDAN.
I promised some note of Sandro’s Fortitude, before whom I asked you to sit and read the end of my last letter; and I’ve lost my own notes about her, and forget, now, whether she has a sword, or a mace;–it does not matter. What is chiefly notable in her is–that you would not, if you had to guess who she was, take her for Fortitude at all. Everybody else’s Fortitudes announce themselves clearly and proudly. They have tower-like shields, and lion-like helmets–and stand firm astride on their legs,–and are confidently ready for all comers. Yes; –that is your common Fortitude. Very grand, though common. But not the highest, by any means.
Ready for all comers, and a match for them,–thinks the universal Fortitude;–no thanks to her for standing so steady, then!
But Botticelli’s Fortitude is no match, it may be, for any that are coming. Worn, somewhat; and not a little weary, instead of standing ready for all comers, she is sitting,–apparently in reverie, her fingers playing restlessly and idly–nay, I think–even nervously, about the hilt of her sword.
For her battle is not to begin to-day; nor did it begin yesterday. Many a morn and eve have passed since it began–and now–is this to be the ending day of it? And if this–by what manner of end?
That is what Sandro’s Fortitude is thinking. And the playing fingers about the sword-hilt would fain let it fall, if it might be: and yet, how swiftly and gladly will they close on it, when the far-off trumpet blows, which she will hear through all her reverie!
There is yet another picture of Sandro’s here, which you must look at before going back to Giotto: the small Judith in the room next the Tribune, as you return from this outer one. It is just under Lionardo’s Medusa. She is returning to the camp of her Israel, followed by her maid carrying the head of Holofernes. And she walks in one of Botticelli’s light dancing actions, her drapery all on flutter, and her hand, like Fortitude’s, light on the sword-hilt, but daintily–not nervously, the little finger laid over the cross of it.
And at the first glance–you will think the figure merely a piece of fifteenth-century affectation. ‘Judith, indeed!–say rather the daughter of Herodias, at her mincingest.’
Well, yes–Botticelli _is_ affected, in the way that all men in that century necessarily were. Much euphuism, much studied grace of manner, much formal assertion of scholarship, mingling with his force of imagination. And he likes twisting the fingers of hands about, just as Correggio does. But he never does it like Correggio, without cause.
Look at Judith again,–at her face, not her drapery,–and remember that when a man is base at the heart, he blights his virtues into weaknesses; but when he is true at the heart, he sanctifies his weaknesses into virtues. It is a weakness of Botticelli’s, this love of dancing motion and waved drapery; but why has he given it full flight here?
Do you happen to know anything about Judith yourself, except that she cut off Holofernes’ head; and has been made the high light of about a million of vile pictures ever since, in which the painters thought they could surely attract the public to the double show of an execution, and a pretty woman,–especially with the added pleasure of hinting at previously ignoble sin?
When you go home to-day, take the pains to write out for yourself, in the connection I here place them, the verses underneath numbered from the book of Judith; you will probably think of their meaning more carefully as you write.
“Now at that time, Judith heard thereof, which was the daughter of Merari, … the son of Simeon, the son of Israel.” And then write out, consecutively, these pieces–
Chapter viii., verses 2 to 8. (Always inclusive,) and read the whole chapter.
Chapter ix., verses 1 and 5 to 7, beginning this piece with the previous sentence, “Oh God, oh my God, hear me also, a widow.”
Chapter ix., verses 11 to 14.
Chapter x., verses 1 to 5.
Chapter xiii., verses 6 to 10.
Chapter xv., verses 11 to 13.
Chapter xvi., verses 1 to 6.
Chapter xvi., verses 11 to 15.
Chapter xvi., verses 18 and 19.
Chapter xvi., verses 23 to 25.
Now, as in many other cases of noble history, apocryphal and other, I do not in the least care how far the literal facts are true. The conception of facts, and the idea of Jewish womanhood, are there, grand and real as a marble statue,–possession for all ages. And you will feel, after you have read this piece of history, or epic poetry, with honourable care, that there is somewhat more to be thought of and pictured in Judith, than painters have mostly found it in them to show you; that she is not merely the Jewish Delilah to the Assyrian Samson; but the mightiest, purest, brightest type of high passion in severe womanhood offered to our human memory. Sandro’s picture is but slight; but it is true to her, and the only one I know that is; and after writing out these verses, you will see why he gives her that swift, peaceful motion, while you read in her face, only sweet solemnity of dreaming thought. “My people delivered, and by my hand; and God has been gracious to His handmaid!” The triumph of Miriam over a fallen host, the fire of exulting mortal life in an immortal hour, the purity and severity of a guardian angel–all are here; and as her servant follows, carrying indeed the head, but invisible–(a mere thing to be carried–no more to be so much as thought of)–she looks only at her mistress, with intense, servile, watchful love. Faithful, not in these days of fear only, but hitherto in all her life, and afterwards forever.
After you have seen it enough, look also for a little while at Angelico’s Marriage and Death of the Virgin, in the same room; you may afterwards associate the three pictures always together in your mind. And, looking at nothing else to-day in the Uffizi, let us go back to Giotto’s chapel.
We must begin with this work on our left hand, the Death of St. Francis; for it is the key to all the rest. Let us hear first what Mr. Crowe directs us to think of it. “In the composition of this scene, Giotto produced a masterpiece, which served as a model but too often feebly imitated by his successors. Good arrangement, variety of character and expression in the heads, unity and harmony in the whole, make this an exceptional work of its kind. As a composition, worthy of the fourteenth century, Ghirlandajo and Benedetto da Majano both imitated, without being able to improve it. No painter ever produced its equal except Raphael; nor could a better be created except in so far as regards improvement in the mere rendering of form.”
To these inspiring observations by the rapturous Crowe, more cautious Cavalcasella [Footnote: I venture to attribute the wiser note to Signor Cavalcasella because I have every reason to put real confidence in his judgment. But it was impossible for any man, engaged as he is, to go over all the ground covered by so extensive a piece of critical work as these three volumes contain, with effective attention.] appends a refrigerating note, saying, “The St. Francis in the glory is new, but the angels are in part preserved. The rest has all been more or less retouched; and no judgment can be given as to the colour of this–or any other (!)–of these works.”
You are, therefore–instructed reader–called upon to admire a piece of art which no painter ever produced the equal of except Raphael; but it is unhappily deficient, according to Crowe, in the “mere rendering of form”; and, according to Signor Cavalcasella, “no opinion can be given as to its colour.”
Warned thus of the extensive places where the ice is dangerous, and forbidden to look here either for form or colour, you are to admire “the variety of character and expression in the heads.” I do not myself know how these are to be given without form or colour; but there appears to me, in my innocence, to be only one head in the whole picture, drawn up and down in different positions.
The “unity and harmony” of the whole–which make this an exceptional work of its kind–mean, I suppose, its general look of having been painted out of a scavenger’s cart; and so we are reduced to the last article of our creed according to Crowe,–
“In the composition of this scene Giotto produced a masterpiece.”
Well, possibly. The question is, What you mean by ‘composition.’ Which, putting modern criticism now out of our way, I will ask the reader to think, in front of this wreck of Giotto, with some care.
Was it, in the first place, to Giotto, think you, the, “composition of a scene,” or the conception of a fact? You probably, if a fashionable person, have seen the apotheosis of Margaret in Faust? You know what care is taken, nightly, in the composition of that scene,–how the draperies are arranged for it; the lights turned off, and on; the fiddlestrings taxed for their utmost tenderness; the bassoons exhorted to a grievous solemnity.
You don’t believe, however, that any real soul of a Margaret ever appeared to any mortal in that manner?
_Here_ is an apotheosis also. Composed!–yes; figures high on the right and left, low in the middle, etc., etc., etc.
But the important questions seem to me, Was there ever a St. Francis?– _did_ he ever receive stigmata?–_did_his soul go up to heaven–did any monk see it rising–and did Giotto mean to tell us so? If you will be good enough to settle these few small points in your mind first, the “composition” will take a wholly different aspect to you, according to your answer.
Nor does it seem doubtful to me what your answer, after investigation made, must be.
There assuredly was a St. Francis, whose life and works you had better study than either to-day’s Galignani, or whatever, this year, may supply the place of the Tichborne case, in public interest.
His reception of the stigmata is, perhaps, a marvellous instance of the power of imagination over physical conditions; perhaps an equally marvellous instance of the swift change of metaphor into tradition; but assuredly, and beyond dispute, one of the most influential, significant, and instructive traditions possessed by the Church of Christ. And, that, if ever soul rose to heaven from the dead body, his soul did so rise, is equally sure.
And, finally, Giotto believed that all he was called on to represent, concerning St. Francis, really had taken place, just as surely as you, if you are a Christian, believe that Christ died and rose again; and he represents it with all fidelity and passion: but, as I just now said, he is a man of supreme common sense;–has as much humour and clearness of sight as Chaucer, and as much dislike of falsehood in clergy, or in professedly pious people: and in his gravest moments he will still see and say truly that what is fat, is fat–and what is lean, lean–and what is hollow, empty.
His great point, however, in this fresco, is the assertion of the reality of the stigmata against all question. There is not only one St. Thomas to be convinced; there are five;–one to each wound. Of these, four are intent only on satisfying their curiosity, and are peering or probing; one only kisses the hand he has lifted. The rest of the picture never was much more than a grey drawing of a noble burial service; of all concerned in which, one monk, only, is worthy to see the soul taken up to heaven; and he is evidently just the monk whom nobody in the convent thought anything of. (His face is all repainted; but one can gather this much, or little, out of it, yet.)
Of the composition, or “unity and harmony of the whole,” as a burial service, we may better judge after we have looked at the brighter picture of St. Francis’s Birth–birth spiritual, that is to say, to his native heaven; the uppermost, namely, of the three subjects on this side of the chapel. It is entirely characteristic of Giotto; much of it by his hand–all of it beautiful. All important matters to be known of Giotto you may know from this fresco.
‘But we can’t see it, even with our opera-glasses, but all foreshortened and spoiled. What is the use of lecturing us on this?’
That is precisely the first point which is essentially Giottesque in it; its being so out of the way! It is this which makes it a perfect specimen of the master. I will tell you next something about a work of his which you can see perfectly, just behind you on the opposite side of the wall; but that you have half to break your neck to look at this one, is the very first thing I want you to feel.
It is a characteristic–(as far as I know, quite a universal one)–of the greatest masters, that they never expect you to look at them; seem always rather surprised if you want to; and not overpleased. Tell them you are going to hang their picture at the upper end of the table at the next great City dinner, and that Mr. So and So will make a speech about it; you produce no impression upon them whatever, or an unfavourable one. The chances are ten to one they send you the most rubbishy thing they can find in their lumber-room. But send for one of them in a hurry, and tell him the rats have gnawed a nasty hole behind the parlor door, and you want it plastered and painted over;–and he does you a masterpiece which the world will peep behind your door to look at for ever.
I have no time to tell you why this is so; nor do I know why, altogether; but so it is.
Giotto, then, is sent for, to paint this high chapel: I am not sure if he chose his own subjects from the life of St. Francis: I think so,–but of course can’t reason on the guess securely. At all events, he would have much of his own way in the matter.
Now you must observe that painting a Gothic chapel rightly is just the same thing as painting a Greek vase rightly. The chapel is merely the vase turned upside-down, and outside-in. The principles of decoration are exactly the same. Your decoration is to be proportioned to the size of your vase; to be together delightful when you look at the cup, or chapel, as a whole; to be various and entertaining when you turn the cup round; (you turn _yourself_ round in the chapel;) and to bend its heads and necks of figures about, as it best can, over the hollows, and ins and outs, so that anyhow, whether too long or too short-possible or impossible–they may be living, and full of grace. You will also please take it on my word today–in another morning walk you shall have proof of it–that Giotto was a pure Etruscan-Greek of the thirteenth century: converted indeed to worship St. Francis instead of Heracles; but as far as vase-painting goes, precisely the Etruscan he was before. This is nothing else than a large, beautiful, coloured Etruscan vase you have got, inverted over your heads like a diving-bell.’ [Footnote: I observe that recent criticism is engaged in proving all Etruscan vases to be of late manufacture, in imitation of archaic Greek. And I therefore must briefly anticipate a statement which I shall have to enforce in following letters. Etruscan art remains in its own Italian valleys, of the Arno and upper Tiber, in one unbroken series of work, from the seventh century before Christ, to this hour, when the country whitewasher still scratches his plaster in Etruscan patterns. All Florentine work of the finest kind–Luca della Robbia’s, Ghiberti’s, Donatello’s, Filippo Lippi’s, Botticelli’s, Fra Angelico’s–is absolutely pure Etruscan, merely changing its subjects, and representing the Virgin instead of Athena, and Christ instead of Jupiter. Every line of the Florentine chisel in the fifteenth century is based on national principles of art which existed in the seventh century before Christ; and Angelico, in his convent of St. Dominic, at the foot of the hill of Fesole, is as true an Etruscan as the builder who laid the rude stones of the wall along its crest–of which modern civilization has used the only arch that remained for cheap building stone. Luckily, I sketched it in 1845. but alas, too carelessly,–never conceiving of the brutalities of modem Italy as possible.]
Accordingly, after the quatrefoil ornamentation of the top of the bell, you get two spaces at the sides under arches, very difficult to cramp one’s picture into, if it is to be a picture only; but entirely provocative of our old Etruscan instinct of ornament. And, spurred by the difficulty, and pleased by the national character of it, we put our best work into these arches, utterly neglectful of the public below, –who will see the white and red and blue spaces, at any rate, which is all they will want to see, thinks Giotto, if he ever looks down from his scaffold.
Take the highest compartment, then, on the left, looking towards the window. It was wholly impossible to get the arch filled with figures, unless they stood on each other’s heads; so Giotto ekes it out with a piece of fine architecture. Raphael, in the Sposalizio, does the same, for pleasure.
Then he puts two dainty little white figures, bending, on each flank, to stop up his corners. But he puts the taller inside on the right, and outside on the left. And he puts his Greek chorus of observant and moralizing persons on each side of his main action.
Then he puts one Choragus–or leader of chorus, supporting the main action–on each side. Then he puts the main action in the middle–which is a quarrel about that white bone of contention in the centre. Choragus on the right, who sees that the bishop is going to have the best of it, backs him serenely. Choragus on the left, who sees that his impetuous friend is going to get the worst of it, is pulling him back, and trying to keep him quiet. The subject of the picture, which, after you are quite sure it is good as a decoration, but not till then, you may be allowed to understand, is the following. One of St. Francis’s three great virtues being Obedience, he begins his spiritual life by quarreling with his father. He, I suppose in modern terms I should say, commercially invests some of his father’s goods in charity. His father objects to that investment; on which St. Francis runs away, taking what he can find about the house along with him. His father follows to claim his property, but finds it is all gone, already; and that St. Francis has made friends with the Bishop of Assisi. His father flies into an indecent passion, and declares he will disinherit him; on which St. Francis then and there takes all his clothes off, throws them frantically in his father’s face, and says he has nothing more to do with clothes or father. The good Bishop, in tears of admiration, embraces St. Francis, and covers him with his own mantle.
I have read the picture to you as, if Mr. Spurgeon knew anything about art, Mr. Spurgeon would read it,–that is to say, from the plain, common sense, Protestant side. If you are content with that view of it, you may leave the chapel, and, as far as any study of history is concerned, Florence also; for you can never know anything either about Giotto, or her.
Yet do not be afraid of my re-reading it to you from the mystic, nonsensical, and Papistical side. I am going to read it to you–if after many and many a year of thought, I am able–as Giotto meant it; Giotto being, as far as we know, then the man of strongest brain and hand in Florence; the best friend of the best religious poet of the world; and widely differing, as his friend did also, in his views of the world, from either Mr. Spurgeon, or Pius IX.
The first duty of a child is to obey its father and mother; as the first duty of a citizen to obey the laws of his state. And this duty is so strict that I believe the only limits to it are those fixed by Isaac and Iphigenia. On the other hand, the father and mother have also a fixed duty to the child–not to provoke it to wrath. I have never heard this text explained to fathers and mothers from the pulpit, which is curious. For it appears to me that God will expect the parents to understand their duty to their children, better even than children can be expected to know their duty to their parents.
But farther. A _child’s_ duty is to obey its parents. It is never said anywhere in the Bible, and never was yet said in any good or wise book, that a man’s, or woman’s, is. _When,_ precisely, a child becomes a man or a woman, it can no more be said, than when it should first stand on its legs. But a time assuredly comes when it should. In great states, children are always trying to remain children, and the parents wanting to make men and women of them. In vile states, the children are always wanting to be men and women, and the parents to keep them children. It may be–and happy the house in which it is so –that the father’s at least equal intellect, and older experience, may remain to the end of his life a law to his children, not of force, but of perfect guidance, with perfect love. Rarely it is so; not often possible. It is as natural for the old to be prejudiced as for the young to be presumptuous; and, in the change of centuries, each generation has something to judge of for itself.
But this scene, on which Giotto has dwelt with so great force, represents, not the child’s assertion of his independence, but his adoption of another Father.
You must not confuse the desire of this boy of Assisi to obey God rather than man, with the desire of your young cockney Hopeful to have a latch-key, and a separate allowance.
No point of duty has been more miserably warped and perverted by false priests, in all churches, than this duty of the young to choose whom they will serve. But the duty itself does not the less exist; and if there be any truth in Christianity at all, there will come, for all true disciples, a time when they have to take that saying to heart, “He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me.”
‘_Loveth_’–observe. There is no talk of disobeying fathers or mothers whom you do not love, or of running away from a home where you would rather not stay. But to leave the home which is your peace, and to be at enmity with those who are most dear to you,–this, if there be meaning in Christ’s words, one day or other will be demanded of His true followers.
And there is meaning in Christ’s words. Whatever misuse may have been made of them,–whatever false prophets–and Heaven knows there have been many–have called the young children to them, not to bless, but to curse, the assured fact remains, that if you will obey God, there will come a moment when the voice of man will be raised, with all its holiest natural authority, against you. The friend and the wise adviser–the brother and the sister–the father and the master–the entire voice of your prudent and keen-sighted acquaintance–the entire weight of the scornful stupidity of the vulgar world–for _once_, they will be against you, all at one. You have to obey God rather than man. The human race, with all its wisdom and love, all its indignation and folly, on one side,–God alone on the other. You have to choose.
That is the meaning of St. Francis’s renouncing his inheritance; and it is the beginning of Giotto’s gospel of Works. Unless this hardest of deeds be done first,–this inheritance of mammon and the world cast away,–all other deeds are useless. You cannot serve, cannot obey, God and mammon. No charities, no obediences, no self-denials, are of any use, while you are still at heart in conformity with the world. You go to church, because the world goes. You keep Sunday, because your neighbours keep it. But you dress ridiculously, because your neighbours ask it; and you dare not do a rough piece of work, because your neighbours despise it. You must renounce your neighbour, in his riches and pride, and remember him in his distress. That is St. Francis’s ‘disobedience.’
And now you can understand the relation of subjects throughout the chapel, and Giotto’s choice of them.
The roof has the symbols of the three virtues of labour–Poverty, Chastity, Obedience.
A. Highest on the left side, looking to the window. The life of St. Francis begins in his renunciation of the world.
B. Highest on the right side. His new life is approved and ordained by the authority of the church.
C. Central on the left side. He preaches to his own disciples.
D. Central on the right side. He preaches to the heathen.
E. Lowest on the left side. His burial.
F. Lowest on the right side. His power after death.
Besides these six subjects, there are, on the sides of the window, the four great Franciscan saints, St. Louis of France, St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Clare, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.
So that you have in the whole series this much given you to think of: first, the law of St. Francis’s conscience; then, his own adoption of it; then, the ratification of it by the Christian Church; then, his preaching it in life; then, his preaching it in death; and then, the fruits of it in his disciples.
I have only been able myself to examine, or in any right sense to see, of this code of subjects, the first, second, fourth, and the St. Louis and Elizabeth. I will ask _you_ only to look at two more of them, namely, St. Francis before the Soldan, midmost on your right, and St. Louis.
The Soldan, with an ordinary opera-glass, you may see clearly enough; and I think it will be first well to notice some technical points in it.
If the little virgin on the stairs of the temple reminded you of one composition of Titian’s, this Soldan should, I think, remind you of all that is greatest in Titian; so forcibly, indeed, that for my own part, if I had been told that a careful early fresco by Titian had been recovered in Santa Croce, I could have believed both report and my own eyes, more quickly than I have been able to admit that this is indeed by Giotto. It is so great that–had its principles been understood-there was in reality nothing more to be taught of art in Italy; nothing to be invented afterwards, except Dutch effects of light.
That there is no ‘effect of light’ here arrived at, I beg you at once to observe as a most important lesson. The subject is St. Francis challenging the Soldan’s Magi,–fire-worshippers–to pass with him through the fire, which is blazing red at his feet. It is so hot that the two Magi on the other side of the throne shield their faces. But it is represented simply as a red mass of writhing forms of flame; and casts no firelight whatever. There is no ruby colour on anybody’s nose: there are no black shadows under anybody’s chin; there are no Rembrandtesque gradations of gloom, or glitterings of sword-hilt and armour.
Is this ignorance, think you, in Giotto, and pure artlessness? He was now a man in middle life, having passed all his days in painting, and professedly, and almost contentiously, painting things as he saw them. Do you suppose he never saw fire cast firelight?–and he the friend of Dante! who of all poets is the most subtle in his sense of every kind of effect of light–though he has been thought by the public to know that of fire only. Again and again, his ghosts wonder that there is no shadow cast by Dante’s body; and is the poet’s friend, _because_ a painter, likely, therefore, not to have known that mortal substance casts shadow, and terrestrial flame, light? Nay, the passage in the ‘Purgatorio’ where the shadows from the morning sunshine make the flames redder, reaches the accuracy of Newtonian science; and does Giotto, think you, all the while, see nothing of the sort?
The fact was, he saw light so intensely that he never for an instant thought of painting it. He knew that to paint the sun was as impossible as to stop it; and he was no trickster, trying to find out ways of seeming to do what he did not. I can paint a rose,–yes; and I will. I can’t paint a red-hot coal; and I won’t try to, nor seem to. This was just as natural and certain a process of thinking with _him_, as the honesty of it, and true science, were impossible to the false painters of the sixteenth century.
Nevertheless, what his art can honestly do to make you feel as much as he wants you to feel, about this fire, he will do; and that studiously. That the fire be _luminous_ or not, is no matter just now. But that the fire is _hot_, he would have you to know. Now, will you notice what colours he has used in the whole picture. First, the blue background, necessary to unite it with the other three subjects, is reduced to the smallest possible space. St. Francis must be in grey, for that is his dress; also the attendant of one of the Magi is in grey; but so warm, that, if you saw it by itself, you would call it brown. The shadow behind the throne, which Giotto knows he _can_ paint, and therefore does, is grey also. The rest of the picture [Footnote: The floor has been repainted; but though its grey is now heavy and cold, it cannot kill the splendour of the rest.] in at least six-sevenths of its area–is either crimson, gold, orange, purple, or white, all as warm as Giotto could paint them; and set off by minute spaces only of intense black,–the Soldan’s fillet at the shoulders, his eyes, beard, and the points necessary in the golden pattern behind. And the whole picture is one glow.
A single glance round at the other subjects will convince you of the special character in this; but you will recognize also that the four upper subjects, in which St. Francis’s life and zeal are shown, are all in comparatively warm colours, while the two lower ones–of the death, and the visions after it–have been kept as definitely sad and cold.
Necessarily, you might think, being full of monks’ dresses. Not so. Was there any need for Giotto to have put the priest at the foot of the dead body, with the black banner stooped over it in the shape of a grave? Might he not, had he chosen, in either fresco, have made the celestial visions brighter? Might not St. Francis have appeared in the centre of a celestial glory to the dreaming Pope, or his soul been seen of the poor monk, rising through more radiant clouds? Look, however, how radiant, in the small space allowed out of the blue, they are in reality. You cannot anywhere see a lovelier piece of Giottesque colour, though here, you have to mourn over the smallness of the piece, and its isolation. For the face of St. Francis himself is repainted, and all the blue sky; but the clouds and four sustaining angels are hardly retouched at all, and their iridescent and exquisitely graceful wings are left with really very tender and delicate care by the restorer of the sky. And no one but Giotto or Turner could have painted them.
For in all his use of opalescent and warm colour, Giotto is exactly like Turner, as, in his swift expressional power, he is like Gainsborough. All the other Italian religious painters work out their expression with toil; he only can give it with a touch. All the other great Italian colourists see only the beauty of colour, but Giotto also its brightness. And none of the others, except Tintoret, understood to the full its symbolic power; but with those–Giotto and Tintoret–there is always, not only a colour harmony, but a colour secret. It is not merely to make the picture glow, but to remind you that St. Francis preaches to a fire-worshipping king, that Giotto covers the wall with purple and scarlet;–and above, in the dispute at Assisi, the angry father is dressed in red, varying like passion; and the robe with which his protector embraces St. Francis, blue, symbolizing the peace of Heaven, Of course certain conventional colours were traditionally employed by all painters; but only Giotto and Tintoret invent a symbolism of their own for every picture. Thus in Tintoret’s picture of the fall of the manna, the figure of God the Father is entirely robed in white, contrary to all received custom: in that of Moses striking the rock, it is surrounded by a rainbow. Of Giotto’s symbolism in colour at Assisi, I have given account elsewhere. [Footnote: ‘Fors Clavigera’ for September, 1874.]
You are not to think, therefore, the difference between the colour of the upper and lower frescos unintentional. The life of St. Francis was always full of joy and triumph. His death, in great suffering, weariness, and extreme humility. The tradition of him reverses that of Elijah; living, he is seen in the chariot of fire; dying, he submits to more than the common sorrow of death.
There is, however, much more than a difference in colour between the upper and lower frescos. There is a difference in manner which I cannot account for; and above all, a very singular difference in skill,–indicating, it seems to me, that the two lower were done long before the others, and afterwards united and harmonized with them. It is of no interest to the general reader to pursue this question; but one point he can notice quickly, that the lower frescos depend much on a mere black or brown outline of the features, while the faces above are evenly and completely painted in the most accomplished Venetian manner:–and another, respecting the management of the draperies, contains much interest for us.
Giotto never succeeded, to the very end of his days, in representing a figure lying down, and at ease. It is one of the most curious points in all his character. Just the thing which he could study from nature without the smallest hindrance, is the thing he never can paint; while subtleties of form and gesture, which depend absolutely on their momentariness, and actions in which no model can stay for an instant, he seizes with infallible accuracy.
Not only has the sleeping Pope, in the right hand lower fresco, his head laid uncomfortably on his pillow, but all the clothes on him are in awkward angles, even Giotto’s instinct for lines of drapery failing him altogether when he has to lay it on a reposing figure. But look at the folds of the Soldan’s robe over his knees. None could be more beautiful or right; and it is to me wholly inconceivable that the two paintings should be within even twenty years of each other in date–the skill in the upper one is so supremely greater. We shall find, however, more than mere truth in its casts of drapery, if we examine them.
They are so simply right, in the figure of the Soldan, that we do not think of them;–we see him only, not his dress But we see dress first, in the figures of the discomfited Magi. Very fully draped personages these, indeed,–with trains, it appears, four yards long, and bearers of them.
The one nearest the Soldan has done his devoir as bravely as he could; would fain go up to the fire, but cannot; is forced to shield his face, though he has not turned back. Giotto gives him full sweeping breadth of fold; what dignity he can;–a man faithful to his profession, at all events.
The next one has no such courage. Collapsed altogether, he has nothing more to say for himself or his creed. Giotto hangs the cloak upon him, in Ghirlandajo’s fashion, as from a peg, but with ludicrous narrowness of fold. Literally, he is a ‘shut-up’ Magus–closed like a fan. He turns his head away, hopelessly. And the last Magus shows nothing but his back, disappearing through the door.
Opposed to them, in a modern work, you would have had a St. Francis standing as high as he could in his sandals, contemptuous, denunciatory; magnificently showing the Magi the door. No such thing, says Giotto. A somewhat mean man; disappointing enough in presence-even in feature; I do not understand his gesture, pointing to his forehead –perhaps meaning, ‘my life, or my head, upon the truth of this.’ The attendant monk behind him is terror-struck; but will follow his master. The dark Moorish servants of the Magi show no emotion–will arrange their masters’ trains as usual, and decorously sustain their retreat.
Lastly, for the Soldan himself. In a modern work, you would assuredly have had him staring at St. Francis with his eyebrows up, or frowning thunderously at his Magi, with them bent as far down as they would go. Neither of these aspects does he bear, according to Giotto. A perfect gentleman and king, he looks on his Magi with quiet eyes of decision; he is much the noblest person in the room–though an infidel, the true hero of the scene, far more than St. Francis. It is evidently the Soldan whom Giotto wants you to think of mainly, in this picture of Christian missionary work.
He does not altogether take the view of the Heathen which you would get in an Exeter Hall meeting. Does not expatiate on their ignorance, their blackness, or their nakedness. Does not at all think of the Florentine Islington and Pentonville, as inhabited by persons in every respect superior to the kings of the East; nor does he imagine every other religion but his own to be log-worship. Probably the people who really worship logs–whether in Persia or Pentonville–will be left to worship logs to their hearts’ content, thinks Giotto. But to those who worship _God_, and who have obeyed the laws of heaven written in their hearts, and numbered the stars of it visible to them,–to these, a nearer star may rise; and a higher God be revealed.
You are to note, therefore, that Giotto’s Soldan is the type of all noblest religion and law, in countries where the name of Christ has not been preached. There was no doubt what king or people should be chosen: the country of the three Magi had already been indicated by the miracle of Bethlehem; and the religion and morality of Zoroaster were the purest, and in spirit the oldest, in the heathen world. Therefore, when Dante, in the nineteenth and twentieth books of the Paradise, gives his final interpretation of the law of human and divine justice in relation to the gospel of Christ–the lower and enslaved body of the heathen being represented by St. Philip’s convert, (“Christians like these the Ethiop shall condemn”)–the noblest state of heathenism is at once chosen, as by Giotto: “What may the _Persians_ say unto _your_ kings?” Compare also Milton,–
“At the Soldan’s chair,
Defied the best of Paynim chivalry.”
And now, the time is come for you to look at Giotto’s St. Louis, who is the type of a Christian king.
You would, I suppose, never have seen it at all, unless I had dragged you here on purpose. It was enough in the dark originally–is trebly darkened by the modern painted glass–and dismissed to its oblivion contentedly by Mr. Murray’s “Four saints, all much restored and repainted,” and Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcasella’s serene “The St. Louis is quite new.”
Now, I am the last person to call any restoration whatever, judicious. Of all destructive manias, that of restoration is the frightfullest and foolishest. Nevertheless, what good, in its miserable way, it can bring, the poor art scholar must now apply his common sense to take; there is no use, because a great work has been restored, in now passing it by altogether, not even looking for what instruction we still may find in its design, which will be more intelligible, if the restorer has had any conscience at all, to the ordinary spectator, than it would have been in the faded work. When, indeed, Mr. Murray’s Guide tells you that a _building_ has been ‘magnificently restored,’ you may pass the building by in resigned despair; for _that_ means that every bit of the old sculpture has been destroyed, and modern vulgar copies put up in its place. But a restored picture or fresco will often be, to _you_, more useful than a pure one; and in all probability–if an important piece of art–it will have been spared in many places, cautiously completed in others, and still assert itself in a mysterious way–as Leonardo’s Cenacolo does–through every phase of reproduction. [Footnote: For a test of your feeling in the matter, having looked well at these two lower frescos in this chapel, walk round into the next, and examine the lower one on your left hand as you enter that. You will find in your Murray that the frescos in this chapel “were also till lately, (1862) covered with whitewash”; but I happen to have a long critique of this particular picture written in the year 1845, and I see no change in it since then. Mr. Murray’s critic also tells you to observe in it that “the daughter of Herodias playing on a violin is not unlike Perugino’s treatment of similar subjects.” By which Mr. Murray’s critic means that the male musician playing on a violin, whom, without looking either at his dress, or at the rest of the fresco, he took for the daughter of Herodias, has a broad face. Allowing you the full benefit of this criticism–there is still a point or two more to be observed. This is the only fresco near the ground in which Giotto’s work is untouched, at least, by the modern restorer. So felicitously safe it is, that you may learn from it at once and for ever, what good fresco painting is–how quiet–how delicately clear–how little coarsely or vulgarly attractive–how capable of the most tender light and shade, and of the most exquisite and enduring colour.
In this latter respect, this fresco stands almost alone among the works of Giotto; the striped curtain behind the table being wrought with a variety and fantasy of playing colour which Paul Veronese could not better at his best.
You will find, without difficulty, in spite of the faint tints, the daughter of Herodias in the middle of the picture—slowly _moving_, not dancing, to the violin music–she herself playing on a lyre. In the farther corner of the picture, she gives St. John’s head to her mother; the face of Herodias is almost entirely faded, which may be a farther guarantee to you of the safety of the rest. The subject of the Apocalypse, highest on the right, is one of the most interesting mythic pictures in Florence; nor do I know any other so completely rendering the meaning of the scene between the woman in the wilderness, and the Dragon enemy. But it cannot be seen from the floor level: and I have no power of showing its beauty in words.]
But I can assure you, in the first place, that St. Louis is by no means altogether new. I have been up at it, and found most lovely and true colour left in many parts: the crown, which you will find, after our mornings at the Spanish chapel, is of importance, nearly untouched; the lines of the features and hair, though all more or less reproduced, still of definite and notable character; and the junction throughout of added colour so careful, that the harmony of the whole, if not delicate with its old tenderness, is at least, in its coarser way, solemn and unbroken. Such as the figure remains, it still possesses extreme beauty–profoundest interest. And, as you can see it from below with your glass, it leaves little to be desired, and may be dwelt upon with more profit than nine out of ten of the renowned pictures of the Tribune or the Pitti. You will enter into the spirit of it better if I first translate for you a little piece from the Fioretti di San Francesco.
_”How St. Louis, King of France, went personally in the guise of a pilgrim, to Perugia, to visit the holy Brother Giles._–St. Louis, King of France, went on pilgrimage to visit the sanctuaries of the world; and hearing the most great fame of the holiness of Brother Giles, who had been among the first companions of St. Francis, put it in his heart, and determined assuredly that he would visit him personally; wherefore he came to Perugia, where was then staying the said brother. And coming to the gate of the place of the Brothers, with few companions, and being unknown, he asked with great earnestness for Brother Giles, telling nothing to the porter who he was that asked. The porter, therefore, goes to Brother Giles, and says that there is a pilgrim asking for him at the gate. And by God it was inspired in him and revealed that it was the King of France; whereupon quickly with great fervour he left his cell and ran to the gate, and without any question asked, or ever having seen each other before, kneeling down together with greatest devotion, they embraced and kissed each other