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Art Faddism and Art Heresy 27/02/2011

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c. 1910

Florence is the favorite haunt of the faddist. And the art faddist is the most freakish of them all. There are art amateurs there – the genuine and the sham. And many of those who talk most glibly about the Cinquecento and that sort of thing strike me as being sham. As for the Cinquecento, no one can deny the leadership of the Florentines in the Renaissance movement. Among the Florentine artists of that epoch are some of the greatest names in Italy. But they do not leaven the whole lump. There were inferior men among them, and many mediocrities. But the faddists will not admit that. They insist that the whole Cinquecento is flawless; that every stone-cutter was a Michael Angelo and every dauber a Raphael. This fifteenth-century faddishness strikes me as being nineteenth-century nonsense. My sense of humor is often aroused by hearing long disquisitions on art from ingenuous maidens who have spent a fortnight in Florence. After much talk about the Pitti and Uffizi galleries, they invariably get around to Botticelli.

In Florence it is a curious study to stand before some famous Botticelli and note the crowd of adoring Uffizi-gallery, greenery-yallery maidens clustered at the master’s shrine. They are limp and they cling. They sigh ecstatically. They exchange humid glances from tear-wet eyes for a moment, and hastily look back at the magic canvas. If one can secure an iconoclastic artist with whom to shock such a circle, it is a keen delight to pitch into Botticelli. And how amusing to note the expressions on the faces around! First of contempt, as implying: ‘These men are Yahoos’. Then of disgust, as meaning: ‘They are only barbarians’. Then of pain, as concluding: ‘They are heretics’. And finally of horror and of fear, as who should say: ‘They talk the talkytalky of the inner circle! They have been of the soul-soulful! They were once Botticellians! They must be backsliders!’ And they turn and flee.

The art patter, the studio slang, the faddist’s jargon are easily picked up. An adroit use of it will impress the listener with the belief that the speaker knows what he is talking about. But what matters it whether he does or not? The faddists have a right to their opinion. I have a right to mine. I dislike the work of Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Fra Lippo Lippi, and their imitators. The Florentine faddists like it. Why, I do not know. But I know quite well why I do not like it. It strikes me as being false, flat, untrue to nature, and ridiculous.

There is a famous picture by Fra Lippo Lippi representing the Virgin and Child. It is an interior, in which there are a number of other figures. The perspective is so crude that a woman in the background looks as if she were stepping on the Virgin’s shoulder. The figures in the foreground, middle distance, and background have so absurd a perspective that they look like paper dolls of different sizes, cut out with scissors and gummed upon a background. The drawing is so extraordinary that it suggests a Chinese screen. As for the chief figures, the Madonna is grotesque and the infant Jesus preposterous. He has the face of a fat and flabby middle-aged man; the right hand is near the nose, with the fingers crooked in the gesture of benediction; he inevitably suggests an elderly person taking snuff. The picture, as a whole, always reminds me of Hogarth’s cartoon of false perspective.

Another side-splitting picture which the Botticellans love is ‘Calumny’. This also is an interior. The two leading figures, a lady and gentleman with nothing on, are before a seated Rhadamanthus. Into the judge’s ears busy tongues pour calumnies. Between the erect figure of the naked lady and the recumbent figure of the naked gentleman – who occupies a most ungraceful semi-seated posture on the floor, hairhauled to the judge’s feet – there stands a figure like the Witch of Endor. The naked lady is shaped like the letter S. It is difficult to gaze upon this extraordinary composition without roaring with laughter. Its perspective, like Fra Lippo Lippi’s, is childish, is Chinese, is aboriginal.

I am aware that the retort of the Botticelli faddist would be something like this: that in Botticelli’s day painting followed the rules of basso-relievo; that, therefore, perspective did not count; that he was a great colorist; and that I don’t know what I am talking about. To which I would reply that a painter who could not paint perspective ought, instead of painting pictures, to have painted signs; that as for basso-relievo, Lorenzo Ghiberti wrought with a chisel in bronze, and in that stubborn metal accomplished distance-effects, depth, and almost an atmospheric perspective which would put Botticelli to shame.

The painter’s apologists plead for his flatness the rules of another art. But a master of that art accomplished with his chisel what Botticelli failed to accomplish with his brush. It may be said that the Botticelli faddists have as much right to their belief as I to mine.

Granted. I do not quarrel with them because they think him great, but they quarrel with me because I think him funny. In the Louvre there is a famous nameless Botticelli. It is a picture of a long, lank lady in a reclining posture. She might be called ‘the telescopic lady’, because she looks as if her lower limbs had been elongated by the cherub at her feet. I respect honest convictions, but I very much doubt at times the sincerity of the Botticellians. Many of them are young women with half-formed ideas, and most of their ideas seem to me to be second-hand. Their ideas are other people’s ideas. They think other people’s thoughts. They admire to order. They read Ruskin and rave Ruskinese. From my attempts to read Ruskin I always believed that his mind was affected. My belief was verified when, some years ago, he went crazy and remained so till his death.

The crude realism of artists of this school seems to me almost like Indian picture-writing. In the monastery of San Marco in Florence there are a number of wall-pictures by Fra Angelico. In one cell there is a picture of the scene in the stable in Bethlehem. The Virgin and two saints are kneeling in an adoring attitude, gazing at the infant Jesus lying on the ground. The figures are all ridiculous, and that of the infant Jesus is the most ridiculous of all. But as if to give the finishing touch to this study of the religio-ludicrous, the heads of an intelligent ox and of an intelligent ass are protruded from a box-stall at the back of the stable.

Fra Angelico was doubtless a pious and ladylike monk, but he was no Bonheur. His study of animals’ heads must make animal-painters mourn. How gross and earthy is this monkish mediaeval art! It is so crude that it is within the scope of the most humble wielders of the brush. I once saw on the ceiling of a California Mission chapel a picture of the scene from Revelation, where God upon his great white throne is surrounded by four-and-twenty elders crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’, night and day. Some unskilled monk with his crude pigments had painted the picture for the simple Indian neophytes of Spanish California. So naive was its realism that, in addition to depicting the Creator as an elderly man with a long white beard, the artist had painted scrolls issuing from the mouths of the four-and-twenty elders on which was the legend ‘Santo, Santo, Santo’.

The effect of the mediaeval realism of Beato Angelico and his school upon our Florentine faddists of today is very much like the effect produced by the monkish Mission artist on the minds of the simple aborigines dwelling on California’s hills. If any Florentine faddist should fall foul of me for these remarks and accuse me of ignorance of the canons of art criticism, I will admit it. I will go further, and will admit that I am ignorant that there are any canons of art criticism. There may be canons of art – there are no canons of art criticism. This fact is proved every day. That Ruskin for a third of a century poured forth a stream of art-gabble; that he was believed by the faddists to be an art prophet; that he was regarded as one inspired; and that, finally, it was discovered that the man was moon-blind and mad, and probably had been mad for many decades of moons – is not this a biting commentary on the value of art criticism? What is art criticism? What are its canons?

It changes with the advent of a new sovereign, and it varies with the passing of a Pope. A Borghese Pope would drive out the art-followers of a Medicean Pope as Christ drove out the money-changers from the temple. Art criticism changes like the fashions of skirts and bonnets, coats and trousers.

A century ago Bernini was considered great. Now he is called rococo. Even Michael Angelo’s fame seems in this our day to be dimmed, for sculptors claim that the head of his famous Moses is entirely out of proportion to torso and limbs. They also say that in his still more famous ‘Pieta’, the dead Christ is a pigmy and the mother is a giantess. Furthermore, they prove these charges by rule and line. So absurd are the so-called canons of art criticism that scarcely a year passes without a change in the labels on the pictures in the European art galleries. One year a picture will be labeled painted by Raphael. Newspaper art critics attack its pedigree. The gallery art critics defend it. But they yield, and the label is changed to ‘school of Raphael’. After another year it becomes ‘manner of Raphael’. In the fourth or fifth years Raphael’s name disappears, and that of some obscure contemporary artist is substituted.

If gross blunders are perpetrated by professional art critics and curators of galleries, what shall the layman do? If he will take my advice, he will do what he pleases and admire that which pleases him. There is no canon of art criticism which will make me admire things to order or affect to admire that which in reality leaves me unmoved. I have a great contempt for sham, and for the sham art amateur most of all. The kind of creature who professes to admire immensely a picture by Raphael; who modifies his or her judgment when told that it is by one of Raphael’s pupils; who turns in indifference from the picture when told later that it is a ‘forgery’ – what kind of a thinking creature is that? If the picture was a beautiful one before the discovery, why is it not a beautiful one after the discovery?

Some years ago a Swiss-Italian art critic, one Morelli, wrote a series of letters in German reviews over the signature ‘Ivan Lerminoff’, attacking the ‘authenticity’’ of famous pictures in the Italian galleries. The letters caused a sensation. Morelli’s identity was at last revealed, and he was bitterly assailed. But his attacks resulted in a great changing of labels. For example, there is in the Doria gallery in Rome a beautiful portrait of Queen Joan of Aragon. It was believed to be a copy of Raphael’s portrait made by Leonardo da Vinci. But the attacks on its pedigree showed that it was not by Da Vinci, but by an obscure Dutch artist. A few years ago you would find crowds ever around the portrait of Queen Joan. Now there is none so poor to do it reverence. Why? Is it any the less a fine picture than it was before Morelli wrote? These candid remarks are not to be understood as meaning that I do not admire ‘old masters’, for I do – some of them, that is. But I refuse to aflfect to admire old masters or any other masters unless I genuinely feel an admiration for their work. I am not particularly fond of holy families. But I can not gaze upon Raphael’s or Murillo’s Madonnas without being impressed by their womanly dignity, their purity, their super-humanism; and I am always moved by the gigantic genius of Michael Angelo.

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Savonarola Leads a Procession 31/01/2011

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The procession took place in 1496 and is reported here from Burlamacchi’s Life of Savonarola

First having heard Mass, all communicated, and with palms in their hands went to the sermon in the cathedral, at which the children assembled in such multitudes that they occupied that morning all the four parts of the galleries (round the walls). When it was over they all went to the church of the Annunziata, from there they set out and went to the door of the first cloister of St. Mark’s; entering through the cloister they came to the church, where they gave to each a red cross. Leaving St. Mark’s, they went by the Via Larga to St. John’s, where they went in, in pairs, grouped according to their quarters in the town. The procession was followed humbly and devotedly by the bearers of the tabernacle, whereon was painted the Saviour, seated on the ass and surrounded by many people, who strewed their garments on the ground, and it seemed as if they sang in a loud voice, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’. Facing it there was a painting of a Virgin of marvellous beauty with the crown which was presented to her by the Father [Savonarola] when he went as ambassador [to the King of France], and the crown was borne up by angels.

After the tabernacle came many pairs of children in the guise of most beautiful angels, who seemed to have come out of Paradise. There were eight thousand of them, and it was a marvellous thing, taking into account their order, the distance they walked, their silence. Thus they marched, singing psalms with great fervour and spirit and saying the office. Many of them carried dishes in their hands in which to receive alms for the Monte de Pietà (Public Loan Offices).

After the children walked in order the monks, and then the clergy, followed by a large number of men (seculars), with the red crosses and an olive-branch in their hands. Then came the girls dressed in white with garlands on their heads, and at the end all the women. So great was the zeal that day that not only children and women, but even grave and noble men, full of wisdom and prudence, forgetting this worldly wisdom, robed themselves in white like the children, and danced and sang before the tabernacle of the Saviour as did David before the Ark. Despising the world’s pomps, they held the olive-branches and red crosses in their hands, and they shouted ceaselessly, in high voices like the children, ‘Long live Christ, our King’. And there was such joy in their hearts that it seemed as if the glory of Paradise had descended to earth; and many tears of joy and devotion were shed.

They came in this manner to the Piazza di Signoria, where they sang some verses in honour of the day by Girolamo Benevieni, one of which begins: ‘Live long in our hearts, long live Fiorenza’. And from the piazza (square), still singing and rejoicing, they went round the city, coming at last to the cathedral church of St. Mary of the Flowers. They entered and offered to God their hearts and spirits, committing to Him the city, and offering all the alms, which they had received in large quantities for the Monte di Pietà. Not only were the children’s dishes full of money, rings, jewels, and other precious things, but also many other dishes, which were placed on an altar of marvellous grandeur, which stood under the cupola of the church, where there was much valuable clothing and a large quantity of gold and silver. With this money there were established four Monte di Pietà, one for each quarter of the city. This was the means of turning out the Jews who lent money on usury in the city. When these offerings and thanksgiving to God had been made, they returned to the Piazza of St. Mark, where all the monks came out of the convent without hoods and wearing the alb and crowned with garlands. They formed a round dance through the square, singing psalms, thinking nothing of appearances, and the sweetness of their singing caused everyone to dissolve into tears of happiness. And afterwards all went home much edified. It was in truth a wonderful day, full of joy and exultation, during which everyone seemed almost driven mad by love for Christ, and Florence was by this mystery become a new Jerusalem.

Il giro in Florence 15/01/2011

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c. 1880

We have spent two mornings in the Uffizi and Pitti galleries, one in each. The latter is now called the ‘Palatine’. When I was here in 1870 admittance was free as air, whereas now, as in every museum or ancient building, a franc each is the fee. But these galleries are always crowded and, indeed, the sum is very small as compared with prices in America, and considering the richness of the collections. There are pictures in these galleries which I can shut my eyes and see, and which are a great joy to me. This time we have given more attention than ever before to Fra Angelico and Botticelli the latter on account of an article on his works in a late Harper. But your sisters have for some time been reading up for this week, which is, as the theatre people say, their ‘benefit’, and which they richly deserve. I do wish them to get the best of Italy so that in case of their removal to America they may have stored in their memories precious pictures in abundance of this land of art and beauty.

One morning was given to Santa Croce, the Westminster Abbey of Italy, and yesterday morning to San Marco, with the wonderful frescoes of Fra Angelico in the convent there, now a government museum, and the cell from which Savonarola went forth to die. It never seemed so real to me before. An hour was given also to the church of San Lorenzo, with its double-starred new sacristy and Medici chapel. Tomorrow we must go to the Academy of the Belle Arti. Of course, we have given due attention to the Duomo and Giotto’s Tower and the Baptistery. The Duomo is now resplendent in its facade completed only last year. At the Baptistery we witnessed an infant sprinkling (what a contradiction in that place!), and at San Lorenzo witnessed a bridal procession issue as we entered. There was a wealth of lovely bouquets fastened to the doors of the carriages, but the bride seemed neither young nor beautiful. Two afternoons we have sauntered on Lung’ Arno, looking at the pretty bric-a-brac in this capital of brica-bracdom, and one bright clear afternoon we rode in a carriage on the famous and beautiful ride over the hills of San Miniato, enjoying a lovely view of the city, river and encircling hills. This paper was made at Ponte di Lima, about three miles from Cutigliano, where also the government stamp paper is made.

Vasari on Fra Angelico 03/01/2011

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c. 1550

Fra Giovanni Angelico da Fiesole, whose secular name was Guido, deserves to be held in most honourable remembrance, both as an excellent painter and illuminator, and also as a perfect monk. He might have lived comfortably in the world, earning whatever he wished by his art, in which he excelled when still young, but being by nature good and serious, for his satisfaction and quiet, and also principally to save his soul, he entered the order of the Preaching Friars. There are in the convent of San Marco in Florence some choir books illuminated by his hand, which are so beautiful that nothing could be better, and some others like them, which he left at San Domenico of Fiesole, painted with incredible patience. It is true that in these he was aided by an elder brother, who was also an illuminator and skilled in painting. One of the first of this good father’s paintings was in the Certosa of Florence, our Lady with the Child in her arms and angels at her feet singing and playing. He also painted in fresco in Santa Maria Novella.

He was so beloved by Cosimo de’ Medici that when the church and convent of St Marco were built, he caused him to paint in it all the Passion of Jesus Christ, with many of the Saints. They say that for the figure of St. Cosimo Fra Giovanni drew from life his friend the sculptor, Nanni d’Antonio di Banco. Below he painted St. Domenic at the foot of a tree, and in medallions among the branches all the popes, cardinals, bishops, saints, and doctors who had belonged to the order of the Preaching Friars. In these the friars aided him by sending to different places and obtaining portraits from life. He also painted a picture for the high altar of San Domenico of Fiesole, but this has been retouched by other masters and injured; but other pictures there by him have been better preserved, and there are a number of little figures in celestial glory, which are so beautiful that they seem really in Paradise, and no one who sees them can ever weary of looking at them.

But beyond all that Fra Giovanni ever did is a painting in the same church of the Coronation of the Virgin in the midst of a choir of angels and an infinite number of saints, which it gives one a wonderful pleasure to look at, for it seems as if blessed spirits could look no otherwise in heaven, at least if they had bodies, and they are all so lifelike and so sweet; and the whole colouring also of the work seems to be from the hand of a saint or an angel, so that it was with good reason that he was always called Fra Giovanni Angelico.

By so many works the name of Fra Giovanni became famous in all Italy, and Pope Nicholas V sent for him, and made him paint the chapel of the palace where the Pope hears mass, and also illuminate some books, which are most beautiful. And because Fra Giovanni seemed to the Pope, as he was indeed, a man of most holy life, quiet and modest, when the archbishopric of Florence fell vacant he adjudged him worthy of the rank; but the friar, hearing of it, prayed his Holiness to give it to another, because he did not feel himself apt at governing men, and said that his order had another friar, loving to the poor, learned, skilled in government, and God-fearing, whom the dignity would much better become than it would him. The Pope hearing this, and perceiving that what he said was true, granted him the favour, and so Fra Antonino, of the order of Preaching Friars, was made Archbishop of Florence, a man of such holiness that he was canonised by Adrian VI. in our days. And this great goodness of Fra Giovanni was in truth a rare thing, thus to give up a dignity and honour offered him to one whom in sincerity of heart he judged more worthy of it than himself. And would to God that all religious men would spend their time as this truly angelical father did, in the service of God and to the benefit of the world and their neighbours.

Fra Giovanni was a simple man and most holy in his habits, and one day when Pope Nicholas V desired him to dine with him, he had scruples of conscience about eating meat without his prior’s leave, not considering the Pope’s authority.

He would not follow the ways of the world, but lived purely and holily, and was a great friend of the poor. He painted constantly, and would never represent anything but the saints. He might have been rich, but did not care about it, saying that true riches are nothing else than being content with little. He might have governed many, and would not, saying it was less troublesome to obey, and one was less liable to err in obeying. It was in his power to hold dignities among the friars and elsewhere, but he did not esteem them, affirming that he sought no other dignity than to escape hell and attain to Paradise. He was most kind and sober, keeping himself free from all worldly ties, often saying that he who practised art had need of quiet and to be able to live without cares, and that he who represents the things of Christ should always live with Christ. He was never seen in anger by the friars, which is a great thing, and seems to me almost impossible to believe; and he had a way of admonishing his friends with smiles. To those who sought his works he would answer, that they must content the prior, and then he would not fail. To sum up, this father, who can never be enough praised, was in all his works and words most humble and modest, and in his paintings facile and devout; and the saints whom he painted have more the air and likeness of saints than those of any one else. It was his habit never to retouch or alter any of his paintings, but to leave them as they came the first time, believing, as he said, that such was the will of God. Some say he would never take up his pencil until he had first made supplication, and he never made a crucifix but he was bathed in tears.