Fra Bartolommeo
By Leader Scott

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Fra Bartolommeo.
CHAPTER I.
THOUGHTS ON THE RENAISSANCE.

It seems to be a law of nature that progress, as well as time, should be marked by periods of alternate light and darkness–day and night.

This law is nowhere more apparent than in the history of Art. Three times has the world been illuminated by the full brilliance of Art, and three times has a corresponding period of darkness ensued.

The first day dawned in Egypt and Assyria, and its works lie buried in the tombs of prehistoric Pharaohs and Ninevite kings. The second day the sun rose on the shores of many-isled Greece, and shed its rays over Etruria and Rome, and ere it set, temples and palaces were flooded with beauty. The gods had taken human form, and were come to dwell with men.

The third day arising in Italy, lit up the whole western world with the glow of colour and fervour, and its fading rays light us yet.

The first period was that of mythic art; the world like a child wondering at all around tried to express in myths the truths it could not comprehend.

The second was pagan art which satisfies itself that in expressing the perfection of humanity, it unfolds divinity. The third era of Christian art, conscious that the divine lies beyond the human, fails in aspiring to express infinitude.

Tracing one of these periods from its rise, how truly this similitude of the dawn of day is carried out. See at the first streak of light how dim, stiff, and soulless all things appear! Trees and objects bear precisely the relation to their own appearance in broad daylight as the wooden Madonnas of the Byzantine school do to those of Raphael.

Next, when the sun–the true light–first appears, how it bathes the sea and the hills in an ethereal glory not their own! What fair liquid tints of blue, and rose, and glorious gold! This period which, in art, began with Giotto and ended with Botticelli, culminated in Fra Angelico, who flooded the world of painting with a heavenly spiritualism not material, and gave his dreams of heaven the colours of the first pure rays of sunshine.

But as the sun rises, nature takes her real tints gradually. We see every thing in its own colour; the gold and the rose has faded away with the truer light, and a stern realism takes its place. The human form must be expressed, in all its solidity and truth, not only in its outward semblance, but the hidden soul must be seen through the veil of flesh. And in this lies the reason of the decline; only to a few great masters it was given to reveal spirituality in humanity–the others could only emulate form and colour, and failed.

It is impossible to contemplate art apart from religion; as truly as the celestial sun is the revealer of form, so surely is the heavenly light of religion the first inspirer of art.

Where would the Egyptian, Assyrian, and Etruscan paintings and sculptures have been but for the veneration of the mystic gods of the dead, which both prompted and preserved them?

What would Greek sculpture have been without the deified personifications of the mysterious powers of nature which inspired it? and it is the fact of the pagan religion being both sensuous and realistic which explains the perfection of Greek art. The highest ideal being so low as not to soar beyond the greatest perfection of humanity, was thus within the grasp of the artist to express. Given a manly figure with the fullest development of strength; a female one showing the greatest perfection of form; and a noble man whose features express dignity and mental power;–the ideal of a Hercules, a Venus, and a Jupiter is fully expressed, and the pagan mind satisfied. The spirit of admirers was moved more by beauty of form than by its hidden significance. In the great Venus, one recognises the woman before feeling the goddess.

As with their sculpture, without doubt it was also with painting. Mr. Symonds, in his Renaissance of the Fine Arts, speaks of the Greek revival as entirely an age of sculpture; but the solitary glance into the more perishable art of painting among the Greeks, to be seen at Cortona, reveals the exquisite perfection to which this branch was also brought. It is a painting in encaustic, and has been used as a door for his oven by the contadino who dug it up–yet it remains a marvel of genius. The subject is a female head–a muse, or perhaps only a portrait; the delicacy and mellowness of the flesh tints equal those of Raphael or Leonardo, and a lock of hair lying across her breast is so exquisitely painted that it seems to move with her breath. The features are of the large-eyed regular Greek type, womanly dignity is in every line, but it is an essentially pagan face–the Christian soul has never dawned in those eyes! With this before us, we cannot doubt that Greek art found its expression as much in colour as in form and that the same religion inspired both.

In an equal degree Renaissance Art has its roots in Christianity; but the religion is deeper and greater, and has left art behind.

The early Christians must have felt this when they expressed everything in symbols, for these are merely suggestive, and allow the imagination full play around and beyond them; they are mere stepping-stones to the ideal which exists but is as yet inexpressible.

“Myths and symbols always mark the dawn of a religion, incarnation and realism its full growth.” So after a time when the first vague wonder and ecstasy are over, symbols no longer content people; they want to bring religion home to them in a more tangible form, to humanize it, in fact. From this want it arises that nature next to religion inspires art, and finally takes its place. For it follows as a matter of course that as art is a realistic interpreter of the spiritual, so it is more easy to follow nature than spirituality, nature being the outward or realistic expression of the mind of God.

It was a saying of Buffalmacco, who was not one of the most devout painters of the fourteenth century, “Do not let us think of anything but to cover our walls with saints, and out of disrespect to the demons to make men more devout.” And Savonarola, though he has been accused of being one of the causes of the decline, thus upheld the sacred influences of art; when he exclaimed in one of his fervent bursts of eloquence, “You see that Saint there in the Church and say, ’I will live a good life and be like him.’” If these were the feelings of the least devout and the religious fanatic, how hallowed must the influences of Christian painting have been to the intermediate ranks. Mr. Symonds beautifully expresses the tendency of that time: “The eyes of the worshipper should no longer have a mere stock or stone to contemplate; his imagination should be helped by the dogmatic presentation of the scenes of sacred history, and his devotion quickened by lively images of the passion of our Lord.... The body and soul moreover should be reconciled, and God’s likeness should be once more acknowledged in the features and limbs of men.” [Footnote: Symonds’ Renaissance of the Fine Arts, chap. i. p. 11.]

The school of Giotto was the first to feel this need of the soul. He, taking his ideas from nature, clothed the soul in a thin veil; the Italians call his school that of poetic art; it reached sentiment and poetry, but did not pass them. Yet the thirteenth century was sublime for the expression of the idea; one only has to study the intense meaning in the works of Giotto, and Orcagna, Duccio, and the Lorenzetti of Siena to perceive this. The fourteenth century, on the contrary, rendered itself glorious for manifestation of form. “Artists thought the veil of ideality a poor thing, and wished to give the solidity of the body to the soul; they stole every secret from nature; the senses were content, but not sentiment.” [Footnote: Purismo nell’ Arte, da Cesare Guasti.]

The artists of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, of whom we have to speak, blended the two schools, and became perfection as far as they went. Michelangelo drew more from the vigorous thirteenth-century masters, and Raphael from the more sensuous followers of Masaccio and Lippi. The former tried to put the Christian soul into his works, but its infinite depth was unattainable. As his many unfinished works prove, he always felt some great overwhelming meaning in his inmost soul, which all his passionate artistic yearnings were inadequate to express. Raphael tried to bring realism into religion through painting, and to give us the scenes of our Lord’s and the Apostles’ lives in such a humanized aspect, that we should feel ourselves of his nature. But the incarnation of religion in art defeated its own ends; sensuousness was introduced in place of the calm, unearthly spirituality of the earlier masters. Compare the cartoon of S. Paul preaching at Athens, in which he has all the majesty of a Csar in the Forum, with the lowly spirit of the Apostle’s life! In truth, Raphael failed to approach nearer to sublimity than Fra Angelico, with all his faulty drawing but pure spirit.

After him, artists loved form and colour for themselves rather than for the spiritual meaning. Miss Owen [Footnote: Art Schools of Medieval Christendom, edited by Ruskin.] accuses Raphael of having rendered Art pagan, but this seems blaming him for the weakness of his followers, who took for their type his works rather than his ideal. The causes of the decline were many, and are not centred in one man. As long as Religion slumbered in monasticism and dogma, Art seizing on the human parts, such as the maternity of the Madonna, the personifications of saints who had lived in the world, was its adequate exponent. The religion awakened by the aesthetic S. Francis, who loved all kinds of beauty, was of the kind to be fed by pictures. But when Savonarola had aroused the fervour of the nation to its highest point, when beauty was nothing, the world nothing, in comparison to the infinity of God;–then art, finding itself powerless to express this overwhelming infinity, fell back on more earthly founts of inspiration, the classics and the poets.

Lorenzo de’ Medici and Pope Nicholas V. had fully as much to do with the decline as Savonarola. The Pope in Rome, and Lorenzo in Florence, led art to the verge of paganism; Savonarola would have kept it on the confines of purism; it was divided and fell, passing through the various steps of decadence, the mannerists and the eclectics, to rise again in this nineteenth century with what is after all its true aim, the interpretation of nature, and the illustration of the poetry of a nation.

But with the decadence we have happily nothing to do; the artists of whom we speak first, Fra Bartolommeo and Albertinelli, belong to the culmination of art on its rising side, while Andrea del Sarto stands as near to the greatest artists on the other side, and is the last of the group before the decline. On Fra Bartolommeo the spirituality of Fra Angelico still lingered, while the perfection of Raphael illumined him. Andrea del Sarto, on the other side, had gathered into his hands the gleams of genius from all the great artists who were his elder contemporaries, and so blending them as to form seemingly a style of his own, distinct from any, has left on our walls and in our galleries hundreds of masterpieces of colour, as gay and varied as the tints the orientals weave into their wondrous fabrics.

It might be said with truth that Fra Bartolommeo painted for the soul, and Andrea del Sarto for the eye.

Continue...

Foreword  •  Fra Bartolommeo. - CHAPTER I. - THOUGHTS ON THE RENAISSANCE.  •  CHAPTER II. - THE “BOTTEGA” OF COSIMO ROSELLI. - A.D. 1475-1486.  •  CHAPTER III. - THE GARDEN AND THE CLOISTER. - A.D. 1487-1495.  •  CHAPTER IV. - SAN MARCO. - A.D. 1496-1500.  •  CHAPTER V. - FRA BARTOLOMMEO IN THE CONVENT. - A.D. 1504-1509.  •  CHAPTER VI. - ALBERTINELLI IN THE WORLD. - A.D. 1501-1510.  •  CHAPTER VII. - CONVENT PARTNERSHIP. - A.D. 1510–1513.  •  CHAPTER VIII. - CLOSE OF LIFE. - A.D. 1514–1517.  •  CHAPTER IX. - PART I. - SCHOLARS OF FRA BARTOLOMMEO.  •  PART II.  •  CHAPTER X. - RIDOLFO GHIRLANDAJO. - A.D. 1483–1560.  •  Andrea D’Agnolo, - Called Andrea Del Sarto. - CHAPTER I. - YOUTH AND EARLY WORKS. - A.D. 1487-1511.  •  CHAPTER II. - THE SERVITE CLOISTER. - A.D. 1511-1512.  •  CHAPTER III. - SOCIAL LIFE AND MARRIAGE. - A.D. 1511-1516.  •  CHAPTER IV. - WORKS IN FLORENCE. - A.D. 1511-1515.  •  CHAPTER V. - GOING TO FRANCE. - A.D. 1518-1519.  •  CHAPTER VI. - ANDREA AND OTTAVIANO DE’ MEDICI. - A.D. 1521-1523.  •  CHAPTER VII. - THE PLAGUE AND THE SIEGE. - A.D. 1525-1531.  •  CHAPTER VIII. - SCHOLARS OF ANDREA DEL SARTO.

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