This is part one in a two-part series. Read part two here.
The capital of Tuscany—according to its most respectable and veracious chroniclers—is the oldest city extant. Its history is traced with great accuracy up to the Deluge, which is as much as could be reasonably expected. The egg of Florence is Fiesole. This city, according to the conscientious and exhaustive Villani, was built by a grandson of Noah, Attalus by name, who came into Italy in order “to avoid the confusion occasioned by the building of the Tower of Babel.”1 Noah and his wife had, however, already made a visit to Tuscany, soon after the Deluge; so that it is not remarkable that “King Attalus” should have felt inclined to visit the estates of his ancestor. At the same time, it is obvious that the Noahs had not been satisfied with the locality, and had reëmigrated; for Attalus, upon his arrival, found Italy entirely without inhabitants. He, therefore, with great propriety claimed jurisdiction over the whole country, elected himself king, and his wife Electra queen; built himself a palace, with a city attached to it; and in short, made himself generally, at home. We are also fortunate in having some genealogical particulars as to his wife’s antecedents; and it is to be regretted that modern historians, of the skeptical, the irreverent, and the startling schools, could not imitate the gravity, the good faith, and the respect for things established, by which the elder chroniclers were inspired. The apothecaries of the Middle Ages never dealt so unkindly with the Pharaohs of Egypt, as the historical excavators of more recent times have done with the embalmed, crowned, and consecrated mummies which they have been pleased to denounce as delusions. Your Potiphars or your Mizraims, even when converted into balsam, or employed as a styptic, were at least not denuded of their historical identity by the druggists who reduced their time-honored remains to a powder. Their dust was made merchandise, but their characters were respected. Moreover, there was an object and a motive, even if mistaken ones, on the part of the mediæval charlatans. But what ointment, what soothing syrup, what panacea has been the result of all this pulverizing of Semiramis and Sardanapalus, Mucius Scævola and Junius Brutus? Are all the characters graven so deeply by the stylus of Clio upon so many monumental tablets, and almost as indelibly and quite as painfully upon school-boy memory, to be sponged out at a blow, like chalk from a blackboard? We, at least, cling fondly to our Tarquins; we shudder when the abyss of historic incredulity swallows up the familiar form of Mettus Curtius; we refuse to be weaned from the she-wolf of Romulus. Your unbelieving Guy Faux, who approaches the stately superstructures of history, not to gaze upon them with the eye of faith and veneration, but only that he may descend to the vaults, with his lantern and his keg of critical gunpowder, in order to blow the whole fabric sky-high, — such an ill-conditioned trouble-tomb should be burned in effigy once a year.
Electra, then, wife of Attalus, founder and king of Fiesole, was of very brilliant origin, being no less than one of the Pleiades, and the only one of the sisters who seems to have married into a patriarchal family. “The reason why the seven stars are seven is a pretty reason”; but it is not because they are not eight, as Lear suggests, but, as we now discover by patient investigation, because one of them had married and settled in Tuscany. We are not informed whether the lost Pleiad, thus found on the Arno, was happy or not, after her removal from that more elevated sphere which she had just begun to move in. But if respectability of connection and a pleasant locality be likely to insure contentment to a fallen star, we have reason to believe that she found herself more comfortable than Lucifer was after his emigration.
Great care must be taken not to confound Attalus with Tantalus, — a blunder which, as Villani observes, is often committed by ignorant chroniclers. But Tantalus, as we all very well know, was the son of Jupiter, and grandson of Saturn. Now we are quite sure that Noah never married a daughter of Saturn, because that voracious heathen ate up all his children except Jupiter. This simple fact precludes all possibility of a connection with Saturn by the mother’s side, and illustrates the advantage of patient historical investigation, when founded upon a reverence for traditional authority. Had it not been for such an honest chronicler as Giovanni Villani, our historic thirst might have been tantalized for seven centuries longer with this delusion. Certainly, to confound Tantalus, ancestor of all the Trojans, with Attalus, ancestor of all the Tuscans, would be worse than that “confusion of Babel” which the quiet-loving potentate came to Florence to avoid.
Attalus brought with him from Babel an eminent astrologer and civil engineer, who assured him, after careful experiments, that, of all places in Europe, the mount of Fiesole was the healthiest and the best. He was therefore ordered to build the city there at once. When finished, it was called Fia sola, because of its solitariness; Attalus, in consequence of his participation in the Babel confusion, having become familiar with Tuscan several thousand years before that language was invented. The city, thus auspiciously established, flourished forty or fifty centuries, more or less, without the occurrence of any event worth recording, down to the time of Catiline. The Fiesolans, unfortunately, aided and comforted that conspirator in his designs against Rome, and were well punished for their crime by Julius Cæsar, who battered their whole town about their ears, in consequence, and then ploughed up their territory, and sowed it with salt. The harvest of that agricultural operation was reaped by Florence; for the conqueror immediately afterwards, by command of the Roman Senate, converted a little suburb at the bottom of the hill into a city. Into this the Fiesolans removed at once, and found themselves very comfortable there; being saved the trouble of going up and down a mountain every time they came out and went home again. Florence took its name from one Fiorino, marshal of the camp, in the Roman army, who was killed in the battle of Fiesole. As he was the flower of chivalry, his name was thought of good augury; the more so, as roses and lilies sprang forth plenteously from the spot where he fell. Hence the fragrant and poetical name which the City of Flowers has retained until our days; and hence the cognizance of the three flowers-de-luce which it has borne upon its shield. Julius Cæsar, whose sword had severed the infant city from its dead mother in so Cæsarean a fashion, had set his heart upon calling the town after himself, and took the contrary decree of the Roman Senate very much in dudgeon. He therefore left the country in a huff, and revenged himself by annihilating vast numbers of unfortunate Gauls, Britons, Germans, and other barbarians, who happened to come in his way.
The first public edifice of any importance erected in the city was a temple to Mars, with a colossal statue of that divinity in the midst of it. This is the present baptistery, formerly cathedral, of Saint John; for the temple never was destroyed, and never can be destroyed, until the day of judgment. This we know on the authority of more than one eminent historian. It is also proved by an inscription to that effect in the mosaic pavement, which any one may inspect who chooses to do so.
The town was utterly destroyed A. D. 450, by Totila, Flagellum Dei, who, with great want of originality, immediately rebuilt Fiesole; thus repeating, but reversing, the achievement of the Romans five hundred years before. So Fiesole and Florence seem to have alternately filled and emptied themselves, like two buckets in a well, down to the time of Charlemagne. That emperor rebuilt Florence, but experienced some difficulty in doing so, by reason of the statue of Mars, which had been thrown into the Arno. The temple, converted to Christian purposes, had been the only building to escape the wrath of Totila; but owing to the pagan incantations practised when the town was originally consecrated to the god of war, the statue of that divinity would not consent to lie quietly and ignominiously in the bed of the Arno, while his temple and town were appropriated to other purposes. The river was dragged. The statue was found and set upon a column near the edge of the river, on a spot which is now the head of the Ponte Vecchio. True to its pugnacious character, it brought nothing but turbulence and bloodshed upon the town. The long and memorable feuds between the Guelphs and Ghibellines began by the slaying of Buondelmonte in his wedding dress, at the base of the statue. (A. D. 1215.)
There could be no better foundation for romance or drama than the famous Buondelmonte marriage, before which, sings Dante, Florence had never cause to shed a tear, and after which the white lily of her escutcheon was dyed red in her heart’s blood. There were four noble families in Florence, of surpassing importance, — the Buondelmonti, the Uberti, the Donati, and the Amidei. A match-making widow of the Donati has a daughter of extraordinary beauty, whom she intends to bestow in marriage upon the young chief of the Buondelmonti. Before she has time to complete her arrangements, however, Buondelmonte betroths himself to a daughter of the house of Amidei. Signora Donati way-lays him, as he passes the door, and suddenly displays to him the fatal beauty of her daughter. “She should have been your bride,” said the widow, “had you not been so hasty.” The gentleman, dazzled by the beauty of the girl, and satisfied by the prudent mother as to the dowry, marries Signorina Donati upon the spot. Next day, riding across the Ponte Vecchio upon a white horse, he is beset by a party of friends and relatives of the deserted damsel, and killed close by the statue of Mars. All the nobles of Florence take part in the question; upon one side the Nerli, the Rossi, the Frescobaldi, the ——; but “courage, gentle reader,” as Tristram Shandy observes, in his famous historical chapter upon Calais; “I scorn it; ’tis enough to have thee in my power; but to make use of the advantage which the fortune of the pen has now gained over thee would be too much.”
Thirty years long, then, the town gates were all fastened, and the streets all chained, so as to make many little compact inclosures for slaughtering purposes; while the whites and blacks, Guelphs and Ghibellines, red caps and brown, all buffeted each other pell-mell. To the exhaustion thus produced of noble blood is often ascribed the establishment of a popular government at the close of the thirteenth century. The causes lay really much deeper, however, — in the great revolutions consequent upon the extinction of the Suabian dynasty, and in the wonderful progress in culture made by the Florentine democracy.
O Buondelmonte, quanto mal fuggisti
Le nozze sue per gli altrui conforti!
Molti sarebber lieti, che son tristi,
Se Dio t’ avesse conceduto ad Ema
La prima volta ch’ a città venisti.
Ma conveniasi a quella pietra scema
Che guard ail ponte, che Florenza fesse
Vittima nella sua pace postrema.
Con queste genti, e con altre con esse,
Vid’ io Fiorenza in si fatto riposo,
Che non avea cagione onde piangesse.
Con queste genti vid’ io glorioso
E giusto il popol suo tanto, che ‘l giglio
Non era ad asta mai posto a ritroso,
Nè per division fatto vermiglio.
- Paradiso, XVI. 140-154.
II. San Miniato.
The walk to the church of San Miniato is a paved, steep path, through olive orchards fringed by a row of cypresses, to the little church of San Salvadore; thence, through a garden of roses and cabbages, fresh and fragrant in the December sun, to the convent of Miniato. From the terrace is one of the best views of the city; not so fine, however, as that from Bello Sguardo. The gentle, beautiful chain of hills which encircle Florence smile cheerfully in the sunshine, clapping their hands and skipping like lambs, if little hills ever did make such a demonstration. These environs of the town are like a frame of golden filigree, almost too fantastic a one for so shadowy and sombre a city. The green hill-sides and plains are sown thickly with palaces and villas glancing whitely through silvery forests of olives and myrtle; while the distant Apennines, like guardian giants, lift their icy shields in the distance.
The church is built upon the grave of the eminent saint, Miniato. This personage was, it seems, the son of the king of Armenia, — very much as all the heroes in the Arabian Nights are sons of the emperor of China. Having been converted to Christianity, he was offered by the emperor Decius great honors and rewards suitable to his royal rank, if he would renounce his faith. (A. D. 250.) He refused, and the emperor cut off his head. The execution took place in Florence, on the north side of the Arno. The holy man was not so easily disposed of, however; for he immediately clapped his head upon his shoulders again, and holding it on with both hands, waded across the river, and marched steadily up the hill on the other side. Arrived at the top, he gave up his head and the ghost. Hence the convent and church of San Miniato.
The church, to an architectural student, is interesting and important. A man needs a good eye and a good education to feel and thoroughly appreciate the grand symphonies which this wonderful architectural music of the Middle Ages has so long been silently playing. San Miniato belongs to the close of the Romanesque or Latin period. The early Christian school had expired in the midst of the general convulsions of the ninth and tenth centuries, — in the struggles of an effete and expiring antiquity with the brutal, blundering, but vigorous infancy of mediæval Europe. During the three centuries which succeeded, there was rather a warming into unnatural life of the mighty corpse, than the birth of a new organism, capable. of healthy existence and unlimited reproduction. The Romanesque art seems to have dealt with the ancient forms, without moulding any thing essentially and vitally new. Where there seemed originality, it was, after all, only a theft from the Saracenic or Byzantine, and the plagiarism became incongruity when engrafted upon the Roman. Thus a Latin church was often but an early Christian basilica with a Moorish arcade.
The San Miniato has an arcade, of course not pointed, upon the façade and the interior. Its tessellated marble work, its ancient mosaics, with its Roman capitals and columns, all make it interesting. These last show that at the close of the epoch, even as at its beginning, the chain which binds the school to the ancient Roman is fastened anew.
The frescos in the sacristy, by Spinello Aretino, painted at the end of the fourteenth century, are singularly well preserved, — fresh as if painted yesterday. ‘Tis a great pity that the works of other masters of the same age, Spinello’s superiors, could not have been as fortunate. If the frescos of Orgagna, and of Benozzo Gozzoli in the Campo Santo at Pisa, were in as good condition, it would be much more satisfactory.
These pictures of Spinello are drawn with much boldness and energy, but it is not the fortunate audacity of Orgagna. They are much more the work of a mechanic, not self-distrustful, but with comparatively little feeling for the higher range of artistic expression. They are quite destitute of sentiment, but are not without a strong, rough, hardy humor. The drawing is far from accurate, but the coloring is well laid on. They represent the life and adventures of Saint Benedict, are of colossal size, and depict the saint in various striking positions. Here he is portrayed as rescuing a brother friar from the inconveniences resulting from a house having fallen upon him in another he is miraculously mending a crockery jug belonging to his nurse; and in a third he is unsuccessfully attempting to move a large stone, upon which the Devil has seated himself much to Benedict’s discomfiture. The fiend is drawn, con amore, in black, with hairy hide, bats wings, and a monkey’s tail; the traditional Devil who has come down to us unharmed through all the vicissitudes of the Middle Ages. The saints and friars are generally attired in mazarine blue.
III. Academy of the Fine Arts.
There is here a large hail, containing a brief chronicle of the progress of painting from Cimabue to —— Carlo Dolce! There maybe a still deeper descent; but that is bathos sufficient for any lover of his species.
It is desirable to look at these painters of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries with some reference to the political condition of Florence and of Italy at that time. In truth, Florence during the period of its life was Italy, — the vicida vis, creative, contemplative, ornative, impulsive to the clay of Europe. The art of painting seems to spring full-grown into existence, with the appearance of Cimabue in the latter part of the thirteenth century. Even so the Italian language suddenly crystallizes itself into a brilliant and perpetual type, at the same epoch as the wondrous poem of Dante flashes forth from the brooding chaos, — the fiat lux of a new intellectual world.
The Emperor Frederic II., last of the imperial Hohenstaufens, died in 1250. Chivalrous, adventurous, despotic, as became the head of the conquering German races at their epoch of triumph, — imaginative, poetical, debauched, atheistical, as might be expected of a prince born in Italy, he seemed to justify the somewhat incongruous eagerness with which the Florentine mind sought political salvation in the bosom of the Church.
Yet here seems the fatal flaw in the liberal system of Italy at that period. The Ghibelline party was at least consistent. To be an imperialist, a Hohenstaufenite, was at least definite; as much so as to be an absolutist, a Habsburgite, a Napoleonite to-day. But to be a Guelph, — to be in favor of municipal development, local self-government, intellectual progress, and to fight for all these things under the banner of the Church, in an age which witnessed the establishment of the Inquisition, in an age when the mighty spirit of Hildebrand was rising every day from his grave in more and more influential and imposing shape, — this was to place one’s self in a false position. Dante, no doubt, felt all this to the core of his being. A poet by nature, with that intense, morbid, proud, uncomfortable, alternately benevolent and misanthropical temperament which occasionally accompanies the poetic faculty, he had little in common with the bustling, vivacious character of his fellow-townsmen. Fiorentino di nascita, non di costumi, as he describes himself, he had slight sympathy with Blacks or Whites, Guelphs or Ghibellines. A Guelph by birth, a Ghibelline by banishment, he was in reality an absolutist in politics, and a bigot in religion. Had a hell never been heard of, he would have invented one, for the mere comfort of roasting his enemies in it, and his friends along with them, — the solitary enjoyment of his lifetime. His part in public affairs has been much magnified. He was prior in 1300; but almost any citizen of Florence might be prior. He was once sent to Rome, on a diplomatic errand; but he was only the envoy of a party, only one of a set of delegates appointed by the Whites. He was banished for his political opinions, and afterwards condemned to death; but even this was no distinction; for six hundred other persons, most of them obscure men, were included in the same sentence, for the same offence. They all happened, in short, to belong to the party opposed to the one which was successful. His merits of style can hardly be exaggerated. Alone of mankind he almost created a language. Imagine the English, or the German, or the French poetry of the year 1300 flowing musically and familiarly from the lips of 1857! The culture, too, of his epoch might almost be measured by his personal accomplishments. The Aristotle, the Bacon, the Humboldt of Florence was one of the world’s great poets into the bargain; but he was any thing but a statesman or a politician.
In his poetry, accordingly, written when the Florentine democracy was young, vigorous, and mischievous, there is no chord of sympathy with the polity of his native place. On the contrary, the whole magnificent “Commedia” is a De profundis chanted out of an oppressed and scornful bosom, a fiery protest, an excoriating satire against the liberty upon which the Commonwealth prided itself. Florence banished and would have burned her poet. The poet banished and burned Florence in the great hell which his imagination created and peopled. His ashes, — so often and so vainly implored for by the repentant and sorrowing mother, who had driven him from her bosom with curses, to wander and to starve, “to eat the bitter bread of exile, and to feel that sharpest arrow in the bow of exile, the going up and down in another’s house,” — his ashes are not the property of the Republic. Are his laurels? Yes. The “Divina Commedia” is a splendid proof of the vitality which pervades a republican atmosphere. There was little of justice perhaps, and less of security and comfort; but there was at any rate life, intellectual development, thought, pulsation, fierce collision of mind with mind, attrition of human passions and divine faculties, out of which an elemental fire was created which flamed over the civilized world, and has lighted the torches of civilization for centuries. He who would study the artes humaniores must turn of necessity to two fountain heads; and he finds them in the trampled market-places of two noisy, turbulent, unreasonable, pestilent little democratic cities, — Athens and Florence. Extinguish the architecture and the sculpture, the poetry and the philosophy of Attica; obliterate from the sum of civilization the names of Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Machiavelli, — of Cimabue, Giotto, Leonardo da Vinci, Brunelleschi, Michel Angelo, — of Brunetto, Ficino, Politian; and how much diminished will be the remainder!
Nevertheless, it is in vain to look for any special seal set by the spirit of liberty upon the artistic productions of the earlier age in Florence. The works of the great painters bear the impress of the Church. If the spirit of liberty be present at all, it is veiled and hooded by monastic garments. But it should never be forgotten, that, in this age, the Church embodied an element of liberty. The keys of Saint Peter were brandished against the universal sceptre of the Suabians; cultivated intellect was matched, and often successfully, against brutal violence. The Pope was the rival of Cæsar.
The first great painting in the Academy—to return from this digression—is the famous Madonna of Cimabue. This picture is astonishing. Although considered by many critics to manifest lingering traces of the Byzantine bandages, it seems to us, on the contrary, to be wonderfully free from stiffness and conventionality. The genius of Cimabue extricates itself at a bound from the trammels of preceding systems, and flies vigorously towards nature.
The Madonna is colossal. She wears a hood, and holds her child in her arms. There is a strong human, yet spiritualized expression upon the face. The drapery is gracefully arranged, not folded like mummy cloths; and the color is strong and liberally laid on, without any attempt, however, at transparency of shadow. There is little indication of the technical glories of succeeding centuries. Perhaps the best part of the picture is in the lower margin. Here are four heads of saints, painted with a breadth and energy absolutely startling, when one recollects by whom and when they were executed. Dominic Ghirlandaio, two hundred years later, could hardly have put more masculine expression into a quartet of heads.
Giotto’s Madonna is the pendant to that of Cimabue; but although painted twenty-five years later, it shows less progress in art than might be expected. Giotto’s triumphs are to be found in the frescos of the Santa Croce. In that unequalled series, the art-student recognizes, almost at a glance, the power of the master. Largeness, rhythm, and harmony of composition, — dramatic movement, and individual beauty of expression, — heads which have brains, eyes which can smile, lips which can speak, fluent limbs which can move, or remain in natural repose, — the whole surrounded and inspired by that atmosphere of piety, that effluence of religious ecstasy, which can never be imitated, and which came from the unquestioning faith of the artist; — such wonders were for the first time revealed by Giotto. The shepherd boy, whom Cimabue found drawing pictures upon a stone in the open field, nobly repaid his patron and master, by extending still farther the domain of art, — by throwing its doors wide open to the cool breath of nature and the liberal sunshine. To pass from the Byzantines into the school of Giotto is to come out from the catacombs into the warm precincts of the cheerful day.
Of the pictures of the early part of the fifteenth century, none are more worthy of attention in this collection than those of Fra Angelico of Fiesole. (1387-1455.) Nevertheless, it seems no great progress from Cimabue, Giotto, and Orgagna, whose compositions are so full of energetic life and human passion, to these careful, gentle miniatures upon an expanded scale. The Fra was a miniatore, after all, — a manuscript illuminator of the first class. His effort to represent a descent from the cross in a large and dramatic manner is feeble and flat. This flight seems beyond his strength; and his waxy little wings, which sustained him so well within his own sphere, melted at once in this higher region.
Far better is an exquisite little picture in his very best manner, a work which hangs in the apartment De’ Piccoli Quadri. This is a Judgment Day, and a cheerful painting of its class. There is an old conceit, very cleverly carried out through the whole composition, of representing all the just made perfect as actually converted into little children. Kings with crowns, popes, bishops, cardinals in hats and mitres, monks cowled and robed in conventual habiliments, are all philandering together through gardens of amaranth and asphodel towards the Grecian portico of heaven; and all these fortunate personages, whether monarchs, priests, fine ladies, or beggars, are depicted with perfectly infantine faces. To do this well lay exactly in the quaint, delicate nature of the angelic Frater; and this portion of the picture is most exquisitely handled. The other moiety, where devils with rabbits’ ears, tiger faces, and monkeys’ tails, are forking over the damned into frying-pans, while Satan devours them as fast as cooked, is common-place and vulgar. At the same time, it is certain that the whole composition shows much poetry of invention and delicacy of finish.
Andrew Castagno’s Magdalen, like Donatello’s Wooden Statue of the same penitent in the Baptistery, seems a female Robinson Crusoe, — hirsute, cadaverous, fleshless, uncombed and uncomely, certainly a more edifying spectacle than the voluptuous, Titianesque exhibitions of fair frailty which became the fashion afterwards.
Of Gentile da Fabriano, a very rare master, there hangs an Adoration of the Magi, marked May, 1423. One always feels grateful to such of the Quattrocentisti as enlarged the sphere of artistic action, by going out of the conventional circle of holy families, nativities, and entombments. There is a dash about Gentile, a fresh, cavalier-like gentility, quite surprising, and altogether his own. A showy, flippant frivolity in several of the figures enlivens and refreshes us with its mundane sparkle and energy. One of the three kings, in particular, — a young, well-dressed, vivacious, goguenard-looking personage, with a very glittering pair of spurs, which his groom is just unbuckling, while another holds a highly bedizened war-horse, who is throwing up his head, showing all his teeth, and crying ha, ha, with all his might, — has a very dramatic effect.
Of the Lippo Lippis, the Lorenzo di Credis, the Ghirlandaios, the Peruginos, and the other great masters of the fifteenth century, of whom are many masterpieces in this collection, there shall, for the present, not a word be said.
There is also a portrait of Savonarola, by Fra Bartolommeo. The face is neither impressive nor attractive. The head is shorn, except the monastic coronal, and shows a small organ of benevolence, and a very large one of self-esteem. The profile is not handsome, — the nose being regularly aquiline, while the mouth is heavy with a projecting upper lip. A strong, blue beard, closely shaven, but very visible, darkens and improves the physiognomy.
IV. Santa Maria Novella.
This church was so beloved by Michel Angelo as to be called his bride. It must be confessed that the great artist was determined in his choice less by the external charms than by the interior excellence of his sposa; for although she has now got herself a new front and vamped herself up a little, thus looking a trifle younger than she must have done three hundred years ago, still she has any thing but a bridal or virginal aspect.
This church and monastery belong to the earlier German period of Italy, if such a thing as Italian Gothic can be said to have ever existed. The truth is, that with the exception of Milan cathedral, which is modern, exotic, and exceptional, the German, or, to use the common and senseless expression, the Gothic system of architecture never fairly took root in Italy. Certainly, the pointed windows and arches of the Florence duomo and its campanile do not constitute it a Gothic church. The square cornices, vast masses of wall, heavy pilasters, and, in general, the horizontal outlines and heavy expression of all these churches, have a character very remote from that of the airy, upspringing, fantastic German architecture, in which every shaft, arch, vault-girdle, pillar, window-frame, pinnacle, seems struggling and panting upward with an almost audible eloquence. This is not the expression of the duomo here. There is no perpetual Excelsior ringing from point, spire, and turret. On the contrary, the grave, almost rigid aspect of the ancient basilica—the Roman business-hall, compounded of Greek elements, and transformed into a Grecian temple—is ever at work repressing that devotional ecstasy which is the characteristic of the Gothic church. The Italian language in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was like the Italian architecture of the same period. The different intellectual manifestations, subjected to the same influences, obeyed one general law. The conquering German mind of the Dark Ages easily impressed itself where the soil was still virgin. Throughout savage Europe the dominion was yielded at once to the new power which succeeded to the decrepit empire of Rome. Gaul, Germany, Britain, Iberia obeyed instinctively the same impulse. The children born of that vigorous embrace were of fresh and healthy beauty. The manifestations of the German mind in the cathedrals of Paris, Cologne, Antwerp are undimmed and unrivalled. The early German architecture in the actual realms of Germany is as romantic, energetic, and edifying as its poetry at the same epoch. A great German cathedral is a religious epic in stone. All the ornaments, all the episodes, spring from and cluster around one central, life-giving principle.
In Italy, on the other hand, the architecture of the so-called Gothic period embodies a constant struggle between the ancient and the new-born mind, — a contest in which the eventual triumph of the elder is already foreshadowed, even while the new has apparently gained the ascendency. Why was this? Because in Italy the German conquerors had invaded the land of ancient culture, of settled and organized form. The world could not be created de novo, as in the shaggy deserts of Hercynia and Belgica. The seeds of human speech, planted in those vast wildernesses, sprouted readily into new and luxuriant languages. English, Flemish, German, French spring from German roots hidden in Celtic soil. The Latin element, afterwards engrafted, is exotic, excrescent, and not vital to the organization. In Italy, where a language, a grammar, a literature already existed in full force, the German element was almost neutralized. The Goths could only deface the noble language of Rome. They gave it auxiliary verbs, — that feeblest form of assistance to human eloquence, — and they took away its declensions. Architecture presented the same phenomenon. It submitted to what seemed the German tyranny for a time, but it submitted under a perpetual and visible protest. The Gothic details in the campanile and the duomo look altogether extraneous and compulsory; they are not assimilated into the constitution of the structure. The severe Roman profile is marked as distinctly as ever, notwithstanding the foreign ornaments which it has been forced to assume.
Santa Maria Novella, then, is as good a German Italian church as can be found; but, for the reasons stated, it is not particularly interesting as a piece of architecture. Its wealth is in its frescos. In the quadrangle of the cloister is a series of pictures by Paolo Uccello, who, by the introduction of linear perspective, of which he is esteemed the inventor, made a new epoch in art. In the “chapel of the Spaniards” is a famous collection of frescos by Giotto’s scholars. A large, thoughtful, and attractive composition is called the Wisdom of the Church. On the opposite side is a very celebrated painting, entitled the Church Militant and Triumphant; the militating and triumphing business being principally confided to the dogs of the Lord, — videlicet, Domini-canes. A large number of this dangerous fraternity is represented as a pack of hounds, fighting, pulling, biting, and howling most vigorously in a life-and-death-struggle with the wolves of heresy. In the centre of the composition are introduced various portraits. These were thought for a long time to represent Cimabue (in a white night-cap), Petrarch (in long petticoats), Laura (in short ones), and various other celebrities. Vasari is the original authority for this opinion, which has ceased to be entertained by cognoscenti. It is also no longer believed that the pictures are the work of Taddeo. Gaddi and Simon Memmi. The custode clings to both delusions, — the portraits and the painters. Whether red Murray, and that devoted band of English and Americans who follow his flag, patronize the Vasari theory or more modern ones, we are at this moment unable to state.
By what subtile threads are international hearts bound together! Two great nations have wrangled for a century; but they have a common property in Shakspeare and Tupper, — and—most precious of all joint-possessions—in the hand-books of Murray. We feel with one throb upon all æsthetic subjects. We admire the same great works of art. We drop a tear upon exactly the same spots, hallowed in ancient or modern history. The fraternity is absolute.
In the Strozzi chapel are an altar-piece and several wall-pictures by Andrew Orgagna. They are not so grandly conceived as that wondrous composition of his, the Triumph of Death, in the Pisan Campo Santo; but they are additional proofs of his intense and Dante-like genius. No doubt Dante influenced him deeply, as he did all his contemporaries, whose minds were fertile enough to ripen such seed. The large picture on the left—a view of paradise—is full of energetic and beautiful figures, combined with much dramatic effect and great technical skill. The opposite pictures, representing hell, were not by Andrew, but by Bernard Orgagna, a man of far inferior calibre. They have, moreover, been entirely revamped.
In the choir are the renowned frescos of Dominic Ghirlandaio, — scenes from the lives of John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. These, however, are but names and frames. The great merit of these paintings is that they were the first, or among the first, to introduce the actual into the world of conventional and conventual art. They form a series of full-length portraits, — sometimes of celebrated contemporaries, as Politian, Marsilio Ficino, and others, — but always of flesh-and-blood people, living, moving, and having a being. That group of Platonists, with their looks of profound wisdom and dogmatic eloquence, are lifting their fore-fingers, pricking up their ears, opening their mouths, (each obviously interrupting the flow of the others’ rhetoric,) in most lifelike fashion. One almost catches the winged syllogisms as they fly from lip to lip. We are almost drawn into the dispute ourselves, and are disposed to ventilate a score of outrageous paradoxes, for the mere satisfaction of contradicting such wiseacres. These heads are painted with a vivacity and an energy worthy of the Dutch great masters of the seventeenth century. In fact, there is something caught, no doubt, from the early schools of Flanders; for Dominic was the con- temporary of the glorious masters protected by Philip the Good of Burgundy, — the only good thing he ever did in his life, — the man who opened the road for that long triumphant procession which for two centuries was to march through the Netherlands, Germany, and Italy. There is no want, however, of historical dignity in these compositions. Each one has a stately rhythm, an harmonious grandeur of conception and execution, which, in connection with the lifelike fidelity and unaffected beauty of the heads, stamp their creator as a dramatic genius of a higher order than any of his contemporaries.
The Madonna of Cimabue, which hangs at the end of the south transept, resembles the one in the Academy. In place of the powerful saints’ heads, is a group of angels of much grace and purity, supporting a shrine. This picture is considered a bolder and more untrammelled composition than the other. It is the world-renowned masterpiece of the thirteenth century, which all Florence turned out in procession to honor when it left the painters’ hands; and which even Charles of Anjou, dripping in blood, and stalking through the scenes of that great tragedy whose catastrophe was the Sicilian vespers, paused on his way to admire.
V. San Spirito
In this church, which the admirers of Brunelleschi must study, are two small, but most exquisite masterpieces of Lippo Lippi. All the works of this most profligate of friars are tender and holy beyond description. They have also that distinguishing charm of the Florentine school of the fifteenth century, naiveté, — a fresh, gentle, and loving appreciation of the beautiful and the natural. It is evident that the Fra went through the world with his eyes open, looking for beauty wherever it was visible; and in his works, at least, there is no lingering trace of Byzantinism. A scholar of Masaccio, of a far inferior mind both to Masaccio and Masolino, and without the force of hand of either, he is still, more than both together, the founder of the natural school of Florence.
One of his pictures is in this church, — a Madonna with the child on her lap. The Christ is leaning forward and playing with a cross which the infant Saint John holds in his hand. Nothing can be more suggestive or touching than this prophetic infantile movement. Although the color of the picture is rather feeble and washy, as frequently may be observed of Lippo’s paintings, the whole expression is bathed in purity and piety. Yet the Fra was such an incorrigible mauvais sujet, that when he was employed to decorate the palazzo of Cosmo Vecchio, the Pater Patriœ was obliged to lock up his artist in the chamber which he was painting. The holy man was not easily impounded, however; for he cut his bedclothes into strips, let himself into the street from an upper-story window, and departed on his usual adventures; so that it was weeks before Cosmo could hear of his painter again.
This is part one in a two-part series. Read part two here.
- “per evitare la confusion creata per la edificazione della torre di Babel,” etc. ↩