"Tracing the history of Italian painting is like pursuing a journey down an ever-broadening river, whose affluents are Giotto, and Masaccio, Ghirlandajo, Signorelli and Mantegna. We have to turn aside and land upon the shore, in order to visit the heaven-reflecting lakelet, self encompassed and secluded, called Angelico."
The Beginning of Realism in Italian Painting
In our study of Fra Angelico we found an artist who possessed the power to make beautiful pictures, but the beauty lay largely in the spirit of devotion which made itself felt from out the soul of those works. Analyzed according to the science of perspective and form, his most beautiful works fall far short, and yet, for the holy ideal they represent, they will ever be precious to the human race.
In the hands of a less devout worker these glaring mechanical defects of Angelico's work would be the very opposite of pleasing, so it was a fortunate turn that Italian painting took in this artist's later years. Men began to think more of correctness of representing real things, and hence they are spoken of as Realists.
The early realists in their zeal for correct form, often lost sight of the spirit which had made Angelico so beloved, but their work was of a good sort, for it was hastening the time when Italian art would be able to express the most sanctified thoughts in the most perfect forms.
When an art passes from one style to another it does not do so suddenly. The natural way is gradually, step by step, and the tendency to change is usually first seen in men who mix the old that has been with the new that is to be. Such was the case in the period we are about to study and out from under the instruction of Fra Angelico, the chief of the idealists, came a man who is, more than any other, a connecting link between the old and the new.
This was Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico's favorite pupil. The angels he has given us rival his master's for beauty and ideal spirit, but he looked about him and, seeing the world beautiful, he introduced landscape backgrounds for his ideal subjects and occasionally there are portraits of real persons among those of his mind's creating.
He spent sixteen years decorating the Campo Santo at Pisa, representing there scenes from the Old Testament so satisfactorily that the Pisans voted that the artist should, on his death, have a grave within its sacred precincts. Men looked upon his strange mingling of the real and the ideal and wondered at it, but, strange to say, they liked it, too. The next generation of artists made it their chief aim to please their patrons in this matter of representing things as they really were.
The pioneer of pure realism was Masaccio, an artist of great power, one whose untimely death, at the age of twenty-seven, seems more pathetic than that of Raphael, for the latter had achieved what it usually takes ages to accomplish, while the former just showed his promise and then, like a blighted bud, it was seen no more, leaving us through all the years since merely to guess what he would have done had more years yet been given him.
He was born in 1402 in a town in the Arno Valley, near Florence. His rightful name was Guido Tommaso, but his slovenly appearance gave him the name we know him by to-day. Short though his life was, he left a series of works that made the most important school for the artists of Florence for centuries after his death. These were his frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in the Church of the Carmine in Florence. They represented the chief events in the life of St. Peter and the workmanship excelled in correct proportions, fine action, accurate perspective and pleasing color.
"The Tribute Money" from this series is here reproduced, and we have but to compare it with former works to see at once its superiority in the points enumerated above. Masaccio's death, in 1429, left these frescoes incomplete. Years afterwards, they were finished by Filippino Lippi.
Filippo Lippi, the father of this Filippino, is an interesting figure in our art story just here. He was a monk in the Carmelite monastery where Masaccio had painted his wonderful frescoes. By nature he was an artist and he loved to study the work which Masaccio had left. He was, however, fond of pleasure and impatient of restraint, so we are not surprised that he ran away from his convent. His life is romantic enough to please the most exacting of readers. At one time he was captured by some African pirates and sold as a slave in Barbary. Here he remained for a year and a half.
Instead of languishing on account of his unhappy situation, he was cheerful, and on one occasion he drew with a piece of charcoal his master's portrait on the wall. It was so exact a likeness that he was at once given his liberty and allowed to depart bearing presents from his captors.
At Naples and Rome he gained renown with his pencil, and his brush. At Florence the Medici patronized him, giving him important work to do.
At one time he was employed to paint a Madonna for a convent at Prato. A young nun sat to him as a model and as he painted, he won her heart and consent to flee with him from the convent. They were married, though he was sixty and she a mere girl. With such a record it is hard to reconcile the fact that he gave us some truly beautiful religious pictures. As is often the case, he probably had a heart purer than his actions seemed to indicate. His lovely Lucretia is over and over again painted into his exquisite Madonna pictures.
Filippo carried on the reforms inaugurated by Masaccio and added improvements in the way of grouping and lighting that were afterwards perfected by Andrea del Sarto. His holy personages often lack the elevation of expression which we of purer ideals demand, but it is only another proof that the life that deflects from right must in its work be more or less short, even though that life belong to a genius.
Filippo's most distinguished pupil was Sandro Botticelli (1447—1515). He followed Filippo's method, but he was a man of much tenderer feeling than his teacher and he was able to add much to what had already been accomplished in painting.
Like Filippo, Botticelli was a Florentine and patronized by the Medici. In studying his pictures, two things impress us deeply: first, his exquisite feeling for nature—that is, the nature of the fields—and second, that so many of his subjects were taken from mythology. Indeed he was the first of the Italian painters to take up this class of subjects which has ever since been such a fertile field for sculptors and painters to draw from.
Botticelli was likewise fond of allegorical subjects, that is where qualities are personified or dealt with as if they were persons. His pictures of "Calumny," and "Fortitude," both great works, are of this class. His Madonna pictures are fine, although the children and angels in them are invariably old in appearance.
His most famous picture is an allegorical composition called "Spring." It is not easy to explain the meaning of the picture and, so far as I know, no one has been able to give a satisfactory interpretation of it. There are parts of such superior beauty, however, that they alone are enough to hold our attention. The most striking of the figures is perhaps the Flora which is profusely bedecked with a great variety of beautiful flowers. Never were lovelier figures than those three to the left of the composition known as the "Three Graces." In the daintiest of gauzy drapery, with hands joined, they tread the measures of the dance. The foreground of this picture is a real study in the flowers of Tuscany. They are so distinctly painted that it is easy to distinguish the different varieties.
Botticelli's figures seem ever in motion, with a gentle air stirring in the most diaphanous of draperies. He went a step farther than his teacher in developing portraiture. He was the first of Italian painters who seemed willing to paint portraits for their own sake and not merely as parts or accessories of other pictures.
Botticelli showed his gratitude to his old teacher by undertaking the education of his son, the Filippino mentioned above, who grew up to be a good man and a noble painter, worthy to carry forward the work which Masaccio had left unfinished in the Church of the Carmine in Florence.
The list of these early formative painters of Florence would be incomplete indeed were we not to mention Ghirlandajo, the "garland maker," and Signorelli, the courtly painter of Cortona, both of whom added a large element to the then ripening art of painting.
Ghirlandajo was the son of a goldsmith. He early learned the profession of his father, who was very skilful. His name was really Domenico Bigordi, but as he invented the silver wreaths or garlands which the Florentine women of his time wore in their hair, he was called, accordingly, Ghirlandajo. While employed in his father's shop he had surprised everyone by his skill in drawing exact likenesses of whoever happened at the moment to attract his notice. Such skill could not long be concealed behind a goldsmith's counter, and at the age of twenty-five he gave up the profession he had learned and became a painter.
His was a fortunate time, for a strong artist-patronage abounded, and the Renaissance world was the most potent of incentives. His "St. Jerome," though an early work, is a fine illustration of his power to depict facial expression, and the delicacy of the lines shows very well the influence of his early training for the work of a goldsmith.
A nobleman, Francesco Sassetti, gave him a commission to paint a chapel belonging to his family in the Church of the Trinity with events from the life of his favorite saint, St. Francis. His skill in representing faces, and the details of every-day life, together with his uniform good nature, pleased his patrons, and many other commissions awaited him when this was finished.
The most important of these was that for a series of frescoes in the Santa Maria Novella, one of the principal churches of Florence.
Ghirlandajo was a progressive painter. He never did anything which was not better than what he had done just before. He died while he was yet so full of energy and enthusiasm for his art that he wished the citizens of Florence would give him the walls round about the city, on which to paint, that he might fill them with the scenes that thronged his fruitful mind. He died in 1495, at the age of forty-six.
Signorelli was born at about the same time with Ghirlandajo, but he lived to be upwards of eighty years old. He was born into a sumptuous home, of parents of fine artistic taste, who had the means and disposition to encourage their son in the art he afterwards graced. He repaid them by becoming a most sweet-spoken man of kindly heart and disposition, and a great painter. He was the trusted ambassador of his city in negotiations with neighboring towns. In short, he was a fortunate soul, and not the least of his blessings was that he was one of those formative spirits whose work helped toward the perfect developing of painting.
His greatest work is found in the beautiful Cathedral of Orvieto, where Fra Angelico had labored before him. Signorelli's work was not of the mild and gentle sort of the painter of Angels. His subject was "The Last Judgment," and it teemed with mighty figures struggling to avert their doom. It is sufficient praise of his work to recall the fact that it was as a school to Michael Angelo and that from it that mighty master drew much of his inspiration for his own "Last Judgment" in the Sistine Chapel. Whatever could inspire Angelo is certainly worthy of our attention and needs not our poor praise.