"Guido Reni's 'Aurora' is worth journeying to Rome to see."
"The 'Aurora' is the most perfect painting in the last two hundred years."
Guido Reni and the Decline of Italian Painting
No individual, however sunny tempered he may be, can long remain in a state of exalted joy or rapture. From the very intensity of the feeling he must soon assume his usual composed serene manner, and often in his decline to the quiet state he goes to the other extreme and becomes as depressed as he has been ecstatic. What is true of the individual in this regard is emphatically true of great movements in literature and art. In these there is the steady rise to well-nigh perfect work, then a short period of wonderful production—the climax of all that has gone before—and then, alas! there is the decline, sure and steady as was the rise to perfect things.
In the records of mankind there has never been a finer illustration of this principle than in the history of Italian painting. With Giotto, Angelico, Masaccio and a host of others, the art of painting steadily perfected itself until, in that fruitful time, the last of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries, Angelo, Raphael, Correggio and Titian burst upon the world, and in longer or shorter lives gave us the very flower of Italian painting, indeed, we are quite safe in saying, the flower of all painting thus far in the history of the world.
Such supreme inspiration as these men showed, from its very intensity, could not last long and so the next generation of painters were nothing but feeble imitators of the great artists. The great masters had appealed to the loftiest feelings of the human soul. These men of the decline thought to hold men's minds by appealing to the emotions.
When inspiration, the subtle thing that makes artists paint pictures and carve statues that hold the world as their worshippers forever, seemed dead,—and artists, looking back at the works of the great masters, despaired of doing anything original, two influential schools of art arose. That is, painters gathered themselves into two groups, each one thinking that it had discovered the true secret of once more making great pictures.
In one, called the Eclectic, they paid great deference to the masters of the grand age, believing that they themselves could bring back the golden age of painting if they selected from the greatest masters their individual strong points and combined them in their own work. They looked "to the antique as a model of design, to Michael Angelo for grandeur, to Raphael for composition, to the Venetians for color and to Correggio for grace." The founders of this school were the Carracci, an uncle and two nephews who established an art academy at Bologna, which city was destined to be the art center of Italy until the divine art died out altogether.
The other group of men prided themselves on going still further back than did the Eclectics. They copied Nature so strenuously that no subject was too wild or coarse for them to use if only they could find such in Nature. Although the movement started in the north of Italy it traveled far to the south to Naples before it became thoroughly fixed as a school of art.
Caravaggio, a wild roisterer, was its founder and to the list of his bullying school the names of Salvator Rosa, and the cruel Ribera, known as "Lo Spagnoletto," from his Spanish origin, were early added. They allowed no painter who was not of their school to work in Naples and so the art, which had hitherto been the peaceful ornament of warlike times or the sweet outgrowth of peace, became itself dependent on red-handed personal warfare, for we shall learn that these fierce naturalists of the south did not hesitate even to take the life of an artist not of their own coterie.
Although the Eclectic school is represented by men greatly inferior to the greatest masters of Italian painting, several "world's pictures" have been given to us by men who professed, at least, to follow the principles of that school. Of this school we shall note but four artists, all of whom did beautiful work, and one of whom ranks, through three great pictures, as one of the world's favorites among artists, Guido Reni, the creator of "The Aurora," "Beatrice Cenci," and "St. Michael and the Dragon."
Domenichino can boast more strength but not a tithe of the beauty. Guercino, speaking through another "Aurora" and through a beautiful "St. Cecilia," and Albani, with a troop of sporting Cupids copied from the smiling, rollicking children of his own hearth, are favorites, but still in the hearts of picture lovers they rank on a lower plane than does Guido. Let us study together the pictures which have given an unworthy man a large place in our hearts.
Guido Reni's "Aurora" stands out in the mind of everyone who has visited the Eternal City. It is painted on the ceiling of the garden house, or casino, of the Rospigliosi Palace. Though painted so long ago, yet it is as fresh in coloring as if its sportive creator had dipped his brush in yesterday morning's sunlight, clear and bright, or in the barred purple and red and yellow of its gorgeous sunset. Certainly no other fresco of that now far-away time remains so perfectly preserved.
Phœbus, our lordly sun, sits in his car full of gold, urging on his prancing horses, who daily make this trip across the heavens. They follow close in Aurora's pathway of colored light,—colored it must be, for in her hands are the very flames which she scatters along the horizon to give that roseate golden hue, through which Phœbus will dazzle the world. Soon he will be here, for already Lucifer, the torch-bearer, the morning-star, is but a step in advance of him, whose servant he is.
About Phœbus' car dance seven of the hours in living rhythmic grace, excelling Apollo even in beauty. There are presumably ten in all of these lovely creatures, the other three probably hidden by the chariot and its occupant. Study as we may the other parts of this picture, ever and anon we return to these matchless figures with their varied faces, forms and features, ever circling about the chariot of him whose hand-maidens they are and in whose service there is constant delight.
From the joyousness of early morning, typified by the foremost figure in light, bounding with the fresh life of dawning day, there is a gradual, acceptable subduing of robust vigor, culminating in the noon-day and declining in the afternoon until the last hour on the other side of the chariot looks back to Phœbus, as if pleading with him to end this ceaseless round of weary time. So the torch of Day goes out while Night, with all her charm of entertainment, of possible evil, of coveted rest, holds sway over men. On the morrow, we know that again Aurora will usher in the refulgent sun, with all his gorgeous train, and so on forever. All this is the cloud-drama, the poem of the upper air. Below sleeps the world—its land, its sea, its walled cities, its fortified castle-towns.
In such wise did Guido represent time which, with space, makes the existence of terrestrial things possible. The idea has been attractive to men of all ages. Old Cronos antedates all the other gods of man's creating. With his bound sheaves by his side, with his hour-glass and his relentless sickle in his hand, Father Time has always brooded over the world and always will.
Astrologers and astronomers have allowed no end of legends to cluster about our intervals of time as they pass until our months and days stand merely as super-structures on foundations of myth and symbol. Poets write of autumn as the time when "The retreating sun the sign of the Scorpion enters," or of early spring when "The young sun hath in the Ram his half course run." We all know that Saturday is Saturn's day and Sunday, Phœbus' very own.
Raphael also delighted in the pictorial representation of the flight of time. His "Hours of the Day and Night," though known now only through engravings, are one more worthy manifestation of his soul, immured in a sea of beauty.
And so Guido, in his great fresco, but took a subject which has long been a favorite, and illuminated it by the fire of his genius. So happily has he done this, so deeply has he touched men by his work, that "The Aurora" stands as one of that line of twelve pictures that most move and delight the world. Rare privilege it is for one man to contribute two to this immortal list, and yet such has been the verdict of posterity concerning Guido, for critics have also selected as another of the so-called world's pictures, his "Beatrice Cenci," that unaccountable, indescribable picture, whose motive foils the critic the more he tries to analyze it.
There has always been a great interest in this picture on account of the sad story of the young girl it represents. We are told that she was the daughter of a rich but most inhuman nobleman. He used his children so cruelly that Beatrice and her brothers, in order to save themselves from his wickedness, caused him to be killed.
Another story says that Beatrice and her brothers had nothing to do with their father's death, but that they were falsely implicated in order that their great wealth might be confiscated, which was always true of the estate of one who suffered capital punishment. At all events, the beautiful girl was executed and her story is one of the saddest to be found in romance or history. Guido in his picture of her makes us feel a great sorrow and a great mystery in this young soul.
Had Hawthorne been one to make up the list of world's pictures, it seems more than possible that he would have added a third one of Guido's paintings, "The Archangel Michael," in his deadly struggle with a monster representing all evil, all sin under the sun. This picture is in the old church of the Capuchin monks, which Hawthorne visited often when he was in Rome gathering material for his "Marble Faun." After each visit we catch some new note of praise for the "St. Michael."
Here are some of the things he says of it: "There is no other painter (referring to Guido) who seems to achieve things so magically, so inscrutably as he does . . . I appreciate him so far as to see that his Michael, for instance, is perfectly beautiful." "This is one of the most beautiful things in the world, one of the human conceptions that are imbued most deeply with the celestial." When Guido sent the picture to the Capuchins he wrote thus regarding it: "I wish I had the wings of an angel to have ascended into Paradise, and there to have beholden the forms of those beatified spirits from which I might have copied my archangel; but not being able to mount so high, it was in vain for me to search for his resemblance here below; so I was forced to make introspection into my own mind, or into that idea of beauty which I have formed in my imagination."
Fortunately for the world the works of this painter far transcend his life. Born in Bologna, in 1575, and early trained to be a musician, he soon gave up the art of playing on the flute for the more tangible one of wielding the brush. At the time of his birth Bologna was the home of the then new school of painting, the Eclectics.
Born in the home of this great school of art, it was but natural, after he had shown his bent towards painting, that he should be trained in the art academy of his native place. Here Domenichino and Albani, who were afterwards his rivals, were his companions and friends. He studied here the Niobe as a favorite model, and became thoroughly imbued with the principles of his school and one of its most characteristic exponents.
He boasted that he had two hundred different ways of casting the eyes to Heaven, hence, perhaps, his great throng of upward-gazing women. The story is related that being questioned closely by a nobleman as to his model for some of his fine women's heads, he called in a greasy, vicious looking fellow, his color-grinder, and commanding him to sit, assuming a certain upward gaze, the artist drew off-hand a head of great beauty. Then, turning to the nobleman, he said, "My dear Count, the beautiful and pure idea must be in the head, and then it is no matter what the model is."
For twenty years Guido resided in Rome, where he became very popular and where he executed his very best works. He then returned to Bologna and established an art school of his own. Here he died in 1642.
After an initial period in which his art was marked by the strong broad treatment that promises so much for a painter, came the full blossoming time of his genius, when his creations revealed themselves through rich and splendid coloring. Following this came the epoch of his decline, the pictures of which time are thin and silvery in tone, bearing the very evident traces of haste and careless treatment.
It is interesting and bears with it a salutary lesson, that this period of his decline was exactly co-incident with his downward moral course. His prosperity in Rome had spoiled him, and he yielded to gaming the subtle power which else might have gladdened the world with other monuments like "The Aurora," or "Beatrice."
To our sorrow, we find him painting with furious speed to pay his gambling debts, sometimes his evil creditors standing at his elbow dictating the artist's strokes. It is owing to the unwholesome productiveness of this period that many galleries abound in weak paintings by the hand of Guido, and the artist's name, that otherwise might have ranked with the immortals, has become hopelessly associated with the death of the painter's art in Italy. It is an unfortunate fact that in estimating public characters we often forget the roses they gave us in their springtime because later they gave us the sharded thistle, bereft of its color, and pierced us with the cutting blast of unproductive winter. Such has been Guido's fate in the judgment that posterity has passed on his life.
Domenichino, born six years later than Guido, was at once his friend and rival. To him the critics give the honor of being the strongest member of the Eclectic School. Like Guido he was born at Bologna. Like him, also, he attended the school of Carracci, but only after a struggle with Calvart, his first art teacher, who gave strict orders that he should not draw after the manner of the Carracci. He was so dull and heavy among his fellow students that they made fun of him and called him Ox. The masters, however, soon saw that the Ox had genius beyond all the others in the studio and told them so. The spirit that seemed so heavy to his fellows was capable of great feelings and deep enthusiasm.
One day, while painting by himself a picture of the "Scourging of St. Andrew", his subject became so real to him that he threatened the man who wielded the scourge and even lifted his hand as if to strike the offender. His teacher, Carracci, happened to come in suddenly upon him. He was so pleased with the picture, and the hold it had taken upon its inventor, that he embraced him fondly and said, "To-day, my Domenichino, thou art teaching me."
Domenichino spent several years painting in Rome, and then, disturbed by jealousy, he returned to his home in Bologna. Meanwhile his fame had reached to Naples, and he was sent for by the Viceroy to do some important work in one of the great churches of the city. It was then that the Naturalists showed their wicked spirit. They were determined that no stranger should paint in their city, and so they did everything that they could to make Domenichino's life miserable. They spoiled his colors by mixing with them injurious chemicals; they broke into his studio and stole or mutilated his sketches; they jeered at him upon the streets, and did not hesitate to lay hostile hands upon him. He was harrassed to such a point that he fled the city.
His patron, however, recalled him, promising him more perfect protection, and so he set to work again, but he suddenly sickened and died, as it seemed, from poison, and his great work was left incomplete.
The picture that ranks as his masterpiece and, indeed, as the second greatest altar-piece in the world is "The Last Communion of St. Jerome." It now hangs in the Vatican opposite Raphael's "Transfiguration," the world's greatest altar-piece. Though a wonderful picture, it is not one that we should always like to see before us. We know that death is inevitable, but to look into the face of a dying man is an inexpressibly sad and moving thing, and that is what we must do in this great picture, for there the very centre of the canvas is the emaciated figure of the illustrious Jerome in the last agonies of his conscious death. A stately but benign priest presents the bread of communion, while all beholders look on in sympathy for his sufferings, in sorrow for earth's loss.
The lion crouching at Jerome's feet has lost his fierceness and, to a certain extent, shares the feelings of the human beings about. Sorrow reigns on earth, but there is joy in heaven over the transition of this great soul, for in the air above are four superb angels, one in the attitude of adoration, and the others with smiles of welcome on their celestial faces. Beyond, through the open arch, is a beautiful landscape, which gives no sign that St. Jerome is about to exchange the vales of earth for the golden streets of heaven. The whole idea is wonderfully conceived and most skilfully executed.
What an interesting saint this Jerome was! One worthy of our enthusiasm even in an age when men interest us more than saints. He was the devotee of learning, the man whose hard fight with Hebrew gave us the Vulgate, that is, the Latin translation of the Scriptures. Imagine him, a man who loved men and what they had accomplished through the ages, out there in the desert of Colchis, his constant companion the lion from whose paw he had fearlessly extracted the pain-producing thorn! For a while he returned to Rome, where, in earlier days, he had been a brilliant scholar and lawyer, but the monastery which he had founded in the desert drew him back to its soltitude and he returned thither.
Here he died in the chapel into which he had requested to be carried. It is this last scene that Domenichino has represented so graphically in his great picture. In considering St. Jerome in art we can never forget him, matchless in his aged vigor, as Raphael pictures him in the "Madonna of the Fish," where, in beautiful contrast, he stands over against the seraphic youthfulness of the angel Raphael.
Domenichino's "Cumæan Sibyl," though not so strong a picture as "St. Jerome," is unmarred in its beauty, from the rich head-dress and draperies to the searching, far-away look in her eyes and the delicacy of her lady-hands, as she holds the music scroll above the opened book.
To Guercino, another master of the Bolognese Eclectic school, at least three great pictures must be attributed. His "Aurora," although it lacks the grand unity of Guido Reni's treatment of the same subject, merits a large place among the beautiful pictures of the world. There are the same fine horses that we see in Guido's picture and the chariot, but the Apollo is like a woman, and the Hours, instead of circling about the sun's car in rhythmic tread, are few in number and separated from him who gives them being and to the wheels of whose chariot it is their privilege to be chained. The flowers, that in Guido's will fall to redden the sunrise sky, are in Guercino's flung about in mid heaven and the poetry of the thought is lost.
The same artist has given us a "St. Cecilia." She is richly clad, with eyes uplifted, as if to see the angel choir whose music is present in her ears. Most gracefully she draws a bow across the strings of a bass viol, while her delicate fingers stray along the strings above. There is something almost humorous in the zeal with which the little angel holds up the music book in spite of the abstracted air of the enraptured saint. Altogether she is an admirable creation and lovely enough to stand beside Raphael's picture of the same subject.
At about the same time that this "St. Cecilia" was given to the world in Florence, a quiet, softly smiling artist, with pencil dipped in rainbow colors, was giving us another "St. Cecilia" even more popular than Guercino's. Everyone knows Carlo Dolci's picture of this subject. That exquisite head bent in contemplation of the music that her own fingers call forth from the organ, the instrument of her invention, is almost as familiar to us as the picture of mother or sister. What is the charm of that head? Perhaps we cannot tell but we know we would not change it—the stray lock upon the forehead, the downcast eyes, the gauzy drapery about her shoulders or the jewel that quivers on her saintly breast. Though weakness usually marks this artist's work his "St. Cecilia" will never grow less to us. It is an ideal head, not to be given up by the world.
If we return to Guercino it is but to call attention to one more of his pictures, "Hagar and Ishmael," as they are sent forth into the wilderness, the one hoping against fearful odds, the other weeping bitterly as was natural to a boy leaving his father's house for the desert.
Albani has been called the Anacreon of the Eclectic School—that is to say, the sweet singer who held up to view in his pictures Cupids and Venuses of great delicacy and beauty. A beautiful wife and twelve lovely children furnished him with models for his pictures. While Guido, who in early years had been the companion and friend of Albani, lost manhood and the very genius God had blessed him with at the gaming table, the simple Albani posed his wife and children for his pictures and his art knew not the blight that showed itself in Guido's later work.
A list of the attractive painters of the Decline of Italian art would be quite incomplete without a word concerning Parmigiano and Allori. The former is named for his birthplace, Parma, the city which Correggio glorified in the grand days of Italian painting. Parmigiano had assisted the great master on the ceiling of Parma Cathedral so that he was almost a generation older than the Eclectic proper. But even so early we may almost say that Parmigiano gave an example to the Eclectics of imitating the great masters, for he loved Correggio's smiling angels and Madonnas, his mystic lights and shadows, so much that he devoted his whole genius to studying and copying that painter's style, and this, long before the Carracci had founded the Eclectic School at Bologna.
A man of great refinement, he gives us out of his own cultivated soul some of the loveliest women and children of Italian art. He was called to Rome by Clement VII., the unfortunate Medicean Pope, whose unhappy fate it was to look out from prison windows upon Rome the prey of Constable de Bourbon and his ruthless soldiers, in the terrible "Sack of Rome" that marks the year 1527. Even the gentle artist, Parmigiano, was disturbed in his studio by a band of Constable's marauding soldiers. But when they beheld the wondrous picture he was painting, "The Vision of St. Jerome," they were over-awed, rough soldiers though they were, and they withdrew, leaving the painter to finish his vision in peace.
Allori's name we associate with Carlo Dolci's and with Florence. He remains in our minds for a single picture, but that very beautiful and an illustration of a great legend, "Judith with the Head of Holofernes." This superlatively beautiful woman bearing her ghastly trophy, with her waiting woman just in sight, may at first repel us but when we realize that the head she carries is that of the chief general of the Assyrians and that his death saves her people from captivity or death, from hunger and thirst, we rather glory in her beauty and in her courage. She has used them both to save her people and now she goes back to live among them a long life of humility and good works. Allori's picture lives, then, not only for the excellence of the artist's work, but quite as much for the legend it illustrates.
From the Eclectics of Bologna, with their suffering saints, their ecstatic Madonnas and their penitent Magdalens, let us turn to those fierce artists of Naples who, if they could not themselves paint, would allow no one else to do so, even if they had to resort to poison and the dagger to rid their city of their unfortunate rivals. We have referred above to the wild life of Caravaggio, the founder of the school of the Naturalists. The nature they studied was that of the alley, the rocky fastnesses where bandits hid, the room where gaming robbed men at once of money and of manhood. That Caravaggio's best know picture is "The Cheating Card Players" is fair proof of the style of this group of painters.
The life of Salvator Rosa, a prominent member of the Naturalist School, reads like a romantic story of doubtful moral quality. He was born near Naples in 1616. His father died while the boy was still very young and on his shoulders fell the care of a large family. He became frightfully poor in his effort to care for so many. One account states that he joined a party of bandits in the mountains of a neighboring country and in an unlawful way made the living which he had so far failed to gain by lawful means.
Whether the story is true or not, the wild figures and stormy landscapes in which he sets them in his pictures seem very much like the bandits and their rocky haunts among which he is reputed to have lived for a time. We reproduce one of the best known of his pictures, "John the Baptist Preaching in the Wilderness," in which one could easily imagine the Prophet to be the leader of some savage band of robbers, delivering to his fellows the laws of the lawless.
He later went to Rome where the fame of his school had gone before him. Here the wild strength of his works attracted so many patrons that he returned to Naples a rich man. He was a poet and musician as well as a painter, but his poetry took the form largely of scurrilous ballads and satires on the contemporary painters who happened to be more popular than himself. How so wild and impetuous a character could have been a devotee of music, pre-eminently the refining and softening art, we cannot explain, but such was the fact regarding Salvator Rosa.
Of all the cruel and lawless members of the Naturalistic school, Ribera was the worst and yet he was gifted to an unusual degree in the use of color and of light and shade. He was a Spaniard, but he had early taken up his abode in Naples where he at once put himself at the head of every lawless and cruel enterprise in which the native painters were engaged. They could devise no scheme of persecution that he could not add thereto a degree of brutality or cruelty.
The Pope called him to Rome and lodged and clothed him luxuriously, but the young painter ran away from all this elegance and joined his rowdy companions again. When he was reclaimed by the Pope and questioned regarding his running away, he explained that he needed poverty and rough exposure to spur him on to his best work, that he found himself growing inactive when he was surrounded by comfort, and so he went back to his career of lawlessness. He continued, however, to paint wonderful sea and battle pieces, and occasionally he produced a gipsy Madonna or a robber saint.
With such men as these the art that had risen to eminence through the piety of a Giotto and a Fra Angelico, that had shown full flower under the genial influence of a Raphael and a Correggio, sunk lower and lower until no light at all showed itself in Italy, the land of great painters. The music had ceased, and only blackness and inaction reigned, where two centuries before all had been light and activity.