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The Blue Madonna under Scrutiny 27/01/2011

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c. 1905

One May evening, in the great Dominican Church of Santa Maria Novella, I saw a striking instance of the two points of view from which she is regarded in modern days. Vespers were over; the congregation had dispersed, but a few still knelt before the altar of the Virgin, where the tapers were being put out. The light in the nave was growing a little dim, but the level sunbeams shot, arrowlike, through the jewelled windows of the clerestory, and painted their saints and angels in gold and crimson upon the stone of the opposite wall. In the raised chapel of the south transept six great candles burned before Cimabue’s majestic Blue Madonna, casting a soft radiance upon the solemn face, the stately form, the gold of background and frame. It was a good opportunity for studying a picture of which the light, and its own sombre tone, seldom permit a good view, and I sat down in a quiet corner to look and think. It is a noble picture; the work of an artist who, if not yet free from the restraining bands of Byzantine tradition, was yet striving towards movement, freedom of conception, and truth of expression; who softened by a touch of nature the stiffness which convention demanded in religious art, and whose Madonna, despite her gaunt face and almond eyes, shows a tiny hint of sweetness and tenderness, as when the brown, scented buds of the callycanthus burst through the hard branches with the first breath of spring.

Down in the nave the twilight deepened; a few lights gleamed from distant altars; a few dark figures went by to the confessionals; a few Dominicans moved to and fro in their picturesque black-and-white dress. An open door gave a glimpse of the green cloister, where the sunset glow still lingered on the turf and pink roses, and where a bird sang divinely in its safe retreat. From a chapel out of sight came the voice of a priest in monotonous chant, and again and again the people’s answering cry, ‘Ora pro nobis’. From time to time a burst of organ music filled the church. A step upon the stone stairs recalled me abruptly from vague musings over the past to the realities of the present, and the ruddy face and robust, black-coated form of an English curate were presented to my ungratified eyes. He carried a flaming Baedeker, which he now consulted, and, prompted by what it told him, turned his attention to the picture above the altar. As a painting it made little impression upon him; the consideration which he gave it was too superficial to produce emotion; it probably, at this cursory glance, struck him as remarkably ugly; but, having been informed by his guide-book that it was valuable, he had entered the chapel; he would then go away and say that he had ‘seen’ Cimabue’s Blue Madonna, always supposing it to be by Cimabue and not by Duccio or somebody else.

For my part, I love the story of the Merry Suburb, the jubilant city, the triumphant painter, the glad procession which streamed into the great church, too well to resign the old tradition, which is true in spirit if not in fact, and characteristic of the century if not conclusively certain of the man. When Charles of Anjou paid his visit to the artist’s bottega, when the people blew their trumpets and hung garlands across the street and strewed the way with flowers, they were welcoming, not merely a new altar-piece for the Dominicans, but the forerunner of the Renaissance, and rejoiced because the ‘Desire of Nations’, the Beautiful, was born once more of dreams and vision and much patience, before the eyes of men. The Borgo Allegri stands to this day; and if some choose to call my Cimabue Duccio or Margaritone, it troubles me not a whit. Shakespeare or Bacon, Duccio or Cimabue, what matter? The souls of men live in their works, and it is their souls and works which concern me, far more than the knowledge that one particular name belonged to a tenantless body, long since returned to dust in some Campo Santo or ancient church. ‘Cache ta vie et repand ton esprit’, wrote Victor Hugo, and this was what the majority of these old painters, voluntarily or involuntarily, did. They went through life known by chance titles, taken from the masters under whom they worked, from their native villages, or their personal qualities or defects; of humble birth, most of them, and rich only in genius and in dreams. But their works yet witness for them, and though names be blown away like leaves on the wind of time, a high title, and more enduring, awaits those who add to the sum of the world’s beauty, for ‘they shall be named priests of the Lord; men shall call them the ministers of our GOD’.

To return, however, to my curate. At the Divine Mother herself, he looked a little distrustfully though without hostility; but the candles burning in her honour outraged his orthodoxy to a grievous extent. In the galleries he could look at such pictures with the same composure as at any other domestic scene. No one, of course, denied that the Saviour of the World was born of a woman; indeed, he frankly admitted as much daily in the Apostles’  Creed; but that men should burn candles before her, that an altar should be set below her image for the encouragement of idolatry, No, these things he could not countenance! His disapproval was written large upon his ingenuous red face; he cast a final hostile glance at the tapers, pursed up his lips, shut his guide-book with a snap, and clattered down the stone steps. I breathed a sigh of relief. He was doubtless an excellent young man, and I do not deny that his disapproval was entirely orthodox, but in those surroundings he was an offence to me, and I was very glad that he had gone away.

There was silence for a few minutes; and then another step upon the stair. A girl this time, probably a dressmaker or servant, for she was bareheaded, and carried a large bundle under her arm. Laying this down, she kneeled upon the altar step, and gazed up at the picture, her lips moving. The candlelight fell upon the upturned, oval face, a little pinched and pale; upon the waves of black hair and the great dark eyes, which were in harmony with the wistful droop of the mouth. Why had she sought out this old, stiff Madonna in the dark chapel, instead of one of the pink-faced, prettilydressed figures in the church below, whose popularity was evidenced by the profusion of their flowers and lights and silver hearts? Was the black dress a sign of bereavement, and was that the story she was pouring out to the pitiful Mother of GOD? Or was it that she found herself far from home, alone in a great city, and wanted her mother; and, if not her own, some other mother’s tenderness, counsel and care? Or was she, young as she was, to know all the joy and suffering of women, the burden and the triumph, and was that why she appealed to the woman’s heart, which had known, also, the awe and gladness of a baby at her breast? Perhaps it was a sadder story; I cannot say. I only know that the dress was dark, the white, pleading face very earnest, and that more than one large tear splashed down upon the dusty floor. She rose at last, crossed herself, laid a bunch of violets below the picture, and, leaning forward, kissed the frame. Then took up her bundle, and, with one last look, went away down the steps.

Ah, Madonna, you had indeed varied visitors at your shrine that evening! What diverse impressions and feelings must the two have carried away. And how much happier are you, with your candles and flowers in your dim chapel, than your many sisters, torn from their seclusion, and set in rows in the great bright galleries, where only the critical eyes of strangers rest upon them, and where no one burns candles in their honour, nor lays violets at their shrine. There is an intense fascination about these old, stiff Madonnas, with their sloping eyes, and grave faces and side-long gaze; not because they are beautiful, but because they were born of faith and vision, and have been consecrated by centuries of prayer. To condemn them as ugly is no less crude a judgment than to praise them as fair. They are neither the one nor the other, but they have a value and poetry of their own, and to form any just conception of their merit they should be seen in special surroundings, or at least considered from a special point of view.

Bored in the Uffizi 08/01/2011

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c. 1910

Another class of tourists there is whom I watch, I own, in amazement, wondering why they come to Italy, since the tastes they manifest would find more gratification at Brighton, if not on Hampstead Heath when Bank Holiday comes round. They hasten through galleries and churches, ruled by their watches, dictated to by the guide-books in their hands. Their methods are so sketchy (from choice and not necessity), that few cities have sufficient attractions to detain them many hours, and one of them has been known to ask if three days was too much to give to Rome! Such come to Florence, sometimes even spend long times here, but never, I venture to say, do they see her as she is. It was lately my fortune (or misfortune?) to follow such a couple round the Uffizi. They were obviously bride and bridegroom, their appearance proved them of the rich and leisured class. They paused before a martyrdom of St. Laurence, and the husband sought information of his wife, who was quick to supply it. ‘You want to know what this is? Why, that poor chap, what’s-his-name? one of those old saints, who was martyred, put on a gridiron like a mutton chop!’ So they disposed of St. Laurence, and, wandering on, stopped again before Piero di Cosimo’s strange, whimsical dream of Perseus, where it was the bride who trusted for enlightenment to the classical learning supposed to be got in public schools. It was, however, but a broken reed to which she trusted, for all the response was, ‘Oh, I forget that old yarn, it’s nothing much anyway. Come along, aren’t we nearly at the end?’ And as they passed on, I heard his question, ‘Do you really like these old daubs?’ and the candid answer, ‘Well, honestly, now I am getting used to them I don’t mind them as much as I did at first!’

Irreverent about the Uffizi 06/01/2011

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c. 1900

There is one other thing which, taken with this, makes gallery-visiting like a dream of havoc. It is that they fight among themselves, the distraught pictures; that, not content with abiding their own deaths, they are to kill one another. The Uffizi, then, may be considered as one vast shambles, where 2000 Madonnas and 2000 Bimbi are strangling each other. Thus stated, the position will not bear thinking of; thus stated, a great picture-gallery of devotional and votive pictures may become an offence to decency and self-respect which no honest man can afford himself. None of this touches the dilettante and his dry light of research; but I am by no means the only man who has been touched by it. In it is to be found, by him who cares to inquire, the reason why, in this book, my little say about Tuscan pictures at large has been mostly confined to those which are still growing in the corners where they were planted.

Bowing before Ruskin at Santa Croce 04/12/2010

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c. 1910

These remind those of us who read Ruskin of a certain passage in his Mornings in Florence, concerning one particular fourteenth-century tomb, greatly admired by him, appreciation of which he insists upon as being an infallible test of the intelligence and taste of the modern traveller. Stroll into Santa Croce some spring morning, and you may witness the not unusual spectacle of a group of Anglo-Saxon tourists gathered about the effigy of old Galileo Galilei, an ancestor of the famous astronomer, examining it with eager interest, and turning from time to time to the text-book in their hands. This is the passage they are studying: ‘’If you can see that the lines of that cap are both right and lovely, that the choice of the folds is exquisite in its ornamental relations of line, and that the softness and ease of them is complete, though only sketched with a few dark touches, then you can understand Giotto’s drawings and Botticelli’s, Donatello’s carving and Luca’s. But if you see nothing in this sculpture, you will see nothing in theirs, of theirs. Where they chose to imitate flesh, or silk, or to play any vulgar, modern trick with marble (and they often do) – whatever, in a word, is French, or American, or Cockney in their work, you can see, but what is Florentine and for ever great – unless you can see also the beauty of this old man in his citizen’s cap – you will never see.’ Poor tourists! What a rock to make shipwreck on! Little did the pious Galilei think, when he caused this stone to be carved for his father, that hordes of barbarians from those mysterious lands over the seas, of which, perchance, he had heard from some adventurous traveller, would come in later times to gaze at that sculptured effigy, with no murmured prayer for the repose of the soul of the learned doctor, but with the desperate intention of applying Ruskin’s test to their own inexperienced souls, as a guide among the shoals and shallows of Florentine Art.