By Leader Scott
Public Domain Books
Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael: the three great names of the noblest period of the Renaissance take our minds from the host of fine artists who worked alongside them. Nevertheless beside these giants a whole host of exquisite artists have place, and not least among them the three painters with whom Mr. Leader Scott has dealt in these pages. Fra Bartolommeo linking up with the religious art of the preceding period, with that of Masaccio, of Piero de Cosimo, his senior student in the studio of Cosimo Roselli, and at last with that of the definitely “modern” painters of the Renaissance, Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo himself, is a transition painter in this supreme period. Technique and the work of hand and brain are rapidly taking the place of inspiration and the desire to convey a message. The aesthetic sensation is becoming an end in itself. The scientific painters, perfecting their studies of anatomy and of perspective, having a conscious mastery over their tools and their mediums, are taking the place of such men as Fra Angelico.
As a painter at this end of a period of transition–a painter whose spiritual leanings would undoubtedly have been with the earlier men, but whose period was too strong for him–Fra Bartolommeo is of particular interest; and Albertinelli, for all the fiery surface difference of his outlook is too closely bound by the ties of his friendship for the Frate to have any other viewpoint.
Andrea del Sarto presents yet another phenomenon: that of the artist endowed with all the powers of craftsmanship yet serving an end neither basically spiritual nor basically aesthetic, but definitely professional. We have George Vasari’s word for it; and Vasari’s blame upon the extravagant and too-well-beloved Lucrezia. To-day we are so accustomed to the idea of the professional attitude to art that we can accept it in Andrea without concern. Not that other and earlier artists were unconcerned with the aspect of payments. The history of Italian art is full of quarrels and bickerings about prices, the calling in of referees to decide between patron and painter, demands and refusals of payment. Even the unworldly Fra Bartolommeo was the centre of such quarrels, and although his vow of poverty forbade him to receive money for his work, the order to which he belonged stood out firmly for the scudi which the Frate’s pictures brought them. In justice to Andrea it must be added that this was not the only motive for his activities; it was not without cause that the men of his time called him “senza errori,” the faultless painter; and the production of a vast quantity of his work rather than good prices for individual pictures made his art pay to the extent it did. A pot-boiler in masterpieces, his works have place in every gallery of importance, and he himself stands very close to the three greatest; men of the Renaissance.
Both Fra Bartolommeo and Albertinelli are little known in this country. Practically nothing has been written about them and very few of their works are in either public galleries or private collections. It is in Italy, of course, that one must study their originals, although the great collections usually include one or two. Most interesting from the viewpoint of the study of art is the evolution of the work of the artist-monk as he came under the influence of the more dramatic modern and frankly sensational work of Raphael, of the Venetians and of Michelangelo. In this case (many will say in that of the art of the world) this tendency detracted rather than helped the work. The draperies, the dramatic poses, the artistic sensation arrests the mind at the surface of the picture. It is indeed strange that this devout churchman should have succumbed to the temptation, and there are moments when one suspects that his somewhat spectacular pietism disguised the spirit of one whose mind had little to do with the mysticism of the mediaeval church. Or perhaps it was that the strange friendship between him and Albertinelli, the man of the cloister and the man of the world, effected some alchemy in the mind of each. The story of that lifelong friendship, strong enough to overcome the difficulties of a definite partnership between the strict life of the monastery and the busy life of the bottega, is one of the most fascinating in art history.
Mr. Leader Scott has in all three lives the opportunity for fascinating studies, and his book presents them to us with much of the flavour of the period in which they lived. Perhaps to-day we should incline to modify his acceptance of the Vasari attitude to Lucrezia, especially since he himself tends to withdraw the charges against her, but leaves her as the villainess of the piece upon very little evidence. The inclusion of a chapter upon Ghirlandajo, treated merely as a follower of Fra Bartolommeo, scarcely does justice in modern eyes to this fine artist, whose own day and generation did him such honour and paid him so well. But the author’s general conclusions as to the place in art and the significance of the lives of the three painters with whom he is chiefly concerned remains unchallenged, and we have in the volume a necessary study to place alongside those of Leonardo, of Michelangelo and of Raphael for an understanding of the culmination of the Renaissance in Italy.