Norton's Mediæval Church-Building

WHATEVER cataclysms may await the present civilization of the world, it is certain that it cannot be blotted out, as was that of ancient Rome, by obstreperous barbarism. It is all-pervasive, such as it is. There are no dark corners for Gog and Magog to lurk in, and burst forth, at the fitting moment of decadence, and sweep all before them. In that time innumerable tribes, almost nameless, pressed upon by one another at home, driven by hunger, or lured by vague rumors, swarmed down upon a wonderfully perfected society, and, having neither appreciation nor pity, left, as it seemed, hardly a vestige of it after their blind fury. But the refinement they overthrew cast its spell upon them in a thousand subtile ways. They succumbed to ideas of religion, morality, civil law, and artistic beauty. They rested from their forays, reflected, originated, prospered in all the arts, and then had decadences of their own. An investigator last year at Rome, as appears from his letter to a London paper, discovered a circumstance which is really fascinating in its extraordinary novelty and the field it opens to reflection, — that they built foundation walls, in the early days, with lovely statuary. It is an excellent epitome of the situation from the point of view of art. With a seed of lovely statues in the foundation trenches, it could not but be that a superstructure should flower above, in time, in a manner worthy of them.

It would be difficult to find a better statement of this great change (extensive as the bibliography of the subject is) —a statement more compact and uninvolved, while just and complete, of this change, and of the causes combining to produce the extraordinary interest, at its acme, in church-building and the connected arts — than is contained in Professor Norton’s preliminary chapter. He places before us broadly the condition of the world from the fall of the Roman Empire to the rise of the Renaissance period in Christendom; and this background, definite but not obtrusive, palpitating with its peculiar, richly agitated life, forms an integral part of the effect when he approaches closer and presents, with his discriminating and appreciative touch, the three notable monuments he has chosen for examination in detail. To generalize and not to generalize too much, to deal sufficiently with great causes and leading aspects of things without becoming merely anatomical and arid, requires a high order of skill, of which Professor Norton shows himself master. He makes us comprehend easily the moral unity that had been established among the onceheterogeneous tribes by the prevalence of Christianity ; by the effort to found civil institutions; the equality in ignorance, where all alike were groping in the collection of scattered materials; and the rise of commerce, — whereas before there had been, with all else diverse, only the bond of a subjection to a common tyranny. It was natural, then, that any principal product, as architecture, should not be confined to a single point, but should be universally prevalent, of the same general essence, and presenting in the different lands only minor and not radical differences. The remains of classic antiquity were the starting-point, but Christian architecture was not the less a new and original creation, just as the offspring of the pulverized speech of the empire was new and independent tongues, and not merely a corrupt Latinity.

1 Historical Studies of Church-Building in the Middle Ages. Venice, Siena, Florence. By CHARLES ELIOT NORTON. New York: Harper and Brothers. 1880.

It is with philosophic considerations of this kind that the author precedes and accompanies lightly his study of three of the architectural masterpieces of Italy. It need not be feared that he is too philosophic. He sets limits to each of his departments with a self-command not at all common. His interest in the moral unity of Europe does not interfere with his very genial pleasure in small personal traits, a costume, the spirited aspect of a civic procession or a line of battle, or a proper estimate of the forms and proportions of the monuments which are more particularly his theme. Nor is he in the least technical. Such description of the arrangement of his buildings as is called for is expressed in terms easily intelligible to the layman, and is of a happily lucid character; which, to be sure, as the text is unaccompanied by plans or cuts of any kind, it ought to be, but which it easily might not have been. Professor Norton is a layman moved by pure impulse of culture to subjects — so far as the basis is concerned — usually treated only by technical writers, and at the same time so thoroughly intelligent and at home on his ground as to preclude the possibility of carping at his knowledge by the fastidious. His account of the rise of concentric instead of single arches, and the clustered column, of which Lübke makes something tolerably abstruse in his History of Art, is an instance of this kind; and the statement of the Italian system of incrusted, as compared with the Northern constructive, ornament and building is another. The volume is one to claim attention for its charm of style as well as for its matter, and is not one of those — alas that they should be so numerous, and strange that they should be possible in the delightful domain of the fine arts, where the native sweetness of the subject might be thought to leaven any dreariness!—to be persevered in only from sense of duty and for strict purpose of improvement.

The volume does not aim to exhaust a large field, nor is each part of it again a complete monograph. It is rather three exceedingly entertaining essays on three delightful masterpieces, bound together with an explanatory essay on the state of Europe. The author has presented a series of historical happenings and pictures of society, on the basis of the great monumental piles which saw so many fermentations of human affairs and have so outlasted them. The action is by preference in the church, — some scene of special note or magnificence which has taken place there, or under its shadow and apropos of it. The several incidents, in each case, might be called Episodes in the Life of a Cathedral.

It is in this that the novelty of the work, so far as the plan is concerned, consists. The matter, too, is of a freshness which could hardly have been anticipated in a field so very liberally treated of already. As he has not felt compelled to be wearisomely exhaustive, the author has been at liberty to recall, as a traveler of impressible and independent temper might, some of the less instead of the better known doings witnessed by the pile under whose ægis he strolls in a leisurely reflective mood. His task at Venice must have been more difficult than elsewhere, owing to the extraordinarily full and brilliant expositions of Ruskin, and he has apparently recognized such a preëmption in making his study of St. Mark’s much the shortest of the articles. There is no collision with Ruskin. The temperance of the tone, the absolute avoidance of everything like “ word-painting,” at this part gives even an effect of coldness. On the other hand, his theories are based upon convincing logic, and are not those wild flyings-in-the-face of common sense with which that erratic genius twists all history and existing things to the support of his whim of the moment.

In Venice we enter St. Mark’s. We see that it is cruciform in shape, with a dome at the intersection, and a smaller dome over each of the arms. We see at the remote eastern end a mosaic, on a gold ground, of a great figure of the Saviour throned in glory, and over the entrance door another, with the Virgin and St. Mark, and the inscription, “ I am the gate of life; enter through me, ye who are mine! ” We have seen that the front without is incrusted with mosaics and hap-hazard ornament brought by Venetian admirals from their conquests, woven into a harmonious whole, and that there is a baptistery, at one side, of severer than the generally pervading lines. Our author regrets the addition of certain elements, in an over-florid taste, at a late date, from which it appears that the Byzantine style had also, like the others, its flamboyant period, and that the great basilica did not always present, as now, to the traveler that appearance of a bristling, gay, and fragile complexity, as if it were the canvas bivouac of a hippodrome, or the booths in which the revels of Vanity Fair were in progress. Then we are put right on the fabrication that the Pope set his foot on the neck of Barbarossa — they did but meet and arrange a treaty, as equal potentates, it seems — on the spot in the vestibule tradition still points out, and we witness the scenes in the church attending the formation of the alliance with the French for the Third Crusade ; and that is all. The largeness of the traits, the unwillingness that distinctness of impression should be marred, is a predominating characteristic throughout. It is the way with the injudicious, in a mass of rich material, not to be able to keep their hands off just one more detail, and one more. Professor Norton deserves almost as much credit for what he has not attempted, in the given space, as for what he has.

The paper on Siena will perhaps be considered the most successful of the three. The ground here is less hackneyed, less open to injurious suspicions of repetition, and at the same time of an extent to be more completely handled. The author has given himself a great deal of pleasure, apparently, in delving in the archives of the decayed hill city, once so arrogant a republic, and has unearthed numbers of curious documents, some of which (as a letter from the Captain of the People, one concerning the mode of election of the board of works, others on the method respecting subsidies and offerings, and the custom of the release of prisoners on certain great festivals) he gives in an appendix,— of wider value, perhaps, had they been translated, or somewhat paraphrased, at least, from the original tongues.

This is a kind of composition which he approaches, when in accord with the scheme, with a definite gusto. There are few passages more entertaining than those in which he has set down a simple rendering of the words of the old chroniclers. The view of the proceedings relating the negotiation for the Third Crusade is through the eyes of the French writer Villehardouin, who was himself the spokesman of the envoys, come to engage galleys and victualing for their force.

“ Of the fair and good words that the Doge spake,” he says, “ I cannot report to you all; but the end of the thing was that they took till the morrow to draw up the papers. . . . And when the papers were drawn up and sealed they were brought to the Doge in the great palace where were the great council and the little. And when the Doge delivered the papers to them he knelt down, and with many tears he swore upon the saints to keep in good faith the agreements that were in the papers; and all his council, which was of forty-six persons, did the like. And the envoys, on their part, swore to hold to their papers, and that the oaths of their lords and their own oaths should be kept in good faith. And know that many a tear of pity was shed there [for that the Holy Land beyond the Sea was in bondage to the Turks, and for the shame of Jesus Christ, as he says elsewhere].

Then the envoys borrowed five thousand marks of silver, and gave them to the Doge to begin the fleet; and then they took leave to return to their own country.”

Again, he relishes the quaint phraseology of the drummer who went up to the top of the tower of the Mariscotti, and beat his drum, and sent down comments— it was all the telegraph and telephone of the time — on the progress of the battle of Montaperti, delivered by the men of the town (who had marched out from under the blessing of their cathedral, and would contribute for its completion a liberal portion of their spoils if victorious) to those of Florence, in sight of the walls. “ When he saw the Sienese host begin to move, he beat his drum and cried aloud to the people who were gathered around the foot of the tower, telling them of the advance, and bidding them pray for victory. When the fight became thick he beat his drum again, and cried, ‘ Now they are at work! Pray God for victory!’ And again, after a while, the drummer shouted, ‘ Pray God for ours, for they seem to give way some little ! Now I see it is the enemy who waver.’ ”

Towards evening he had the satisfaction of beating gayly that the enemy was in flight; and the martial Sienese came back, with their picturesque carrocio, their banner of white and red, mounted on its mast, in a wain drawn by white oxen, triumphant, having utterly cut to pieces a host of thirty thousand men.

One is continually beset by the wonder — which has never been thoroughly explained, and yet remains as a worthy subject for a special study — how these neighboring cities, twenty miles apart, could rend one another thus in all directions, and with their internal dissensions besides could yet attain to the teeming populations and commercial prosperity there is no doubt they enjoyed. It is easy to see how large funds for church-building should have accumulated in the hands of ecclesiastics, as the only peaceable portion of the community in a time of wild turmoil, and in the widely extended sentiment of remorse for deeds of blood, but the part played also by the feeling of local pride in these cities has not usually been so lucidly set forth as here. The hasty student of mediæval history who may have overlooked the point will learn from Professor Norton that the cathedral edifice, the sculptured pulpit of Niccola Pisano, the painted altar-piece of Duccio, were not exclusively an offering to God and a profession of faith, but to a certain extent the walled city’s favored form of gasconade and method of tantalizing its rivals.

One would say, in completing these papers, that a trifle more of color here and there might not have come amiss. The enforced abstinence from whatever the ordinary writer would have permitted himself occasionally borders on the ascetic, — with all the taste and sympathy, the accomplished critical faculty, the fine and polished movement, the perfect fairness of temper, that pervades them.