Florence (part II)

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Now, in fresco the moment of passion was prolonged even as the vibration of a string which continues after the fingers have ceased to touch it, and recommences at a new touch just when the vibration is about to die away. From her long Christian education Florence had to liberate the desire that she felt within herself as she beheld the statues that had been unearthed, as she read the ancient poets and philosophers, as she lifted her wild eyes to the rim of the mountains. The problem was to find the passage between the social ideal vainly sought by the Italy of the Middle Ages and the intellectual ideal toward which the Renaissance was tending. And that was the glory and the pain of the painting of the Tuscans.

For them this great century began with an indecision that lasted until the end. Of the strong and healthy joy of Giotto, cradling in his great undulating line the lofty certitudes on which all of mediaeval society lived, nothing much remained. In the cloister, to be sure, away from the world, the belief in them persisted, but it took on the appearance of an illusion voluntarily accepted. The monk, Angelico, a vigorous builder, indeed, and who transmits to the great classics—in addition to the deviations and the weaknesses of the last primitives and the hesitations of the precursors of Raphael—the grand structural logic of Giotto, the monk, Angelico, never dreamed that he was celebrating Christianity somewhat as one illuminates a legend in the margin of an old book. This legend softened him, without doubt, and even amused him. The most terrible stories unrolled like a child's tale, and it was nearly always the gentlest of them that he selected. As he believed in hell, and as hell rumbled at the gates of his cloister, his inexhaustible imagination knew full well how to mingle and oppose dramatic crowds, how to cloud the heavens with arrows and lances, how to crush the feet and hands of the Saviour on the great cross around which suppliant forms were prostrated. But he was far more attracted by the visions of Paradise, with its lyres, violins and trumpets of gold, by the angels winged with multicolored plumes in the pure striated landscapes of black cypress trees. His was a charming nature, happy in loving, happy in living, happy that there were flowers in the fields so that he might spread them under the feet of the young saints. Even the blood of the martyrs made white daisies grow in the reddened grass. He never failed to associate with his enchantment the springtime and the summertime of the Florentine countryside. He was too candid to perceive that he was enjoying painting for its own sake and that he loved the mother of Jesus with a love so delightful only because she had the exquisite countenance of a timid little virgin, because she wore a beautiful dress all of white and had an aureole of gold. He was not the first, certainly, to recount the Annunciation. The Sienese returned to it at every opportunity. Only, among those greatest mystics, inclosed within a declining religion, the marvelous story seemed to come from a dead world, it had the odor of a withering flower and of the last breath of the incense. With Fra Angelico, on the contrary, a fresh and chaste humanity was entering into it gently. He was immersed to the shoulders in his century, but he saw hardly anything of it, for his two eyes were turned away from its violent visions and saw little else but flowering meadows, blond hair, embroidered robes, and the heavens resplendent with stars; he heard scarcely anything of his century, for he knew how to close his ears against its tumult in order to listen to the harps and the pretty voices of the singers. It was a most delicate bride whose hand he took to lead her to the new world. As she awaited the burning embrace of the heroes who were approaching, it was from him that she recovered the innocence so necessary to her. Italy had been struggling for two centuries to wash her clean of the original sin. The purifiers of the world had been outraging her for so long that at the hour when life overflowed in men's hearts, those among them who were to recreate woman for the future turned to her with their terrible adoration. For two thousand years she had been forgotten or besmirched! They asked pardon of her with frenzied sobs, on their knees, lifting their hands toward her and not daring to lift their eyes. All his life Dante remained faithful to a dead woman. All his life Petrarch loved a living woman whom he had no desire to possess. Giotto spoke of women with so much tenderness that it is in the arms, in the hands, and in the bended knees of the mothers and wives that he detected the parting of all the animate curves which attached the forms to the center of the human drama. When the monk half opened the door of his cloister to observe women as they passed, the crystal voice of the Florentine bells entered with the breath of the roses, and both the monk and the women were purified. Truly their love was an innocent one. They wondered at everything, at themselves, at the things that were told them, at the pink-and-white houses, at the terraced hills, and at the idea that there could be tears and tragedies when nature was so delightful and when the miracle proclaimed was so simple and so touching. The poets of the Middle Ages had effaced from their hearts the memory of the ancient evils, and as both of them were ignorant of love, they did not know that they were to suffer again. And yet, only a few steps away from the Beato Angelico, life's experience was beginning again. While in the light and the silence of which his pale harmonies were, so to speak, the perfume, he was painting the lawns full of flowers and the little virgins who always kept their hands crossed on their bosoms, Masaccio was working, in a dark church, to cover an almost invisible wall with the drama of conscience which defines in advance the activity of the critical centuries opened by the Florentines.

To be exact, Masaccio was not the first of his line. It was in Siena, the mystic land, the focus of the most pronounced discord between the evolution of the world and the traditions of faith, that the sculptor Jacopo della Quercia had uttered the cry of alarm which Masaccio himself certainly heard. The work seems of a singular maturity when one knows it to be the very first, before that of Angelico, before that of Masaccio, before that of Donatello, and before that of Masolino da Panicale, the painter who so disturbs us by the pictures he left in Masaccio's chapel some years before the time of the latter artist. Jacopo's work is about contemporaneous with the extraordinary effort of Ghiberti in decorating the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence. It is even broader, and were it not for its august ruggedness one would think that it had come a hundred years after Angelico. Thanks to Giovanni Pisano, sculpture had taken a great lead and could express its drama more forcibly than the painters who were still encumbered with imagery and with Byzantinism, and who were incapable of rising above school formulas and traditional prejudices, as Giotto had done. One might think this work a powerful sketch for the tragedy of the Sistine and the Tomb of the Medici. Whether Jacopo was decorating the fountain on the Piazza del Municipio, whether he was carving on the façade of San Petronio at Bologna the figure of Adam digging in the ground or Eve driven from Paradise after the innocent and formidable drama of the first love, we already get violent figures with frowning brows, heads borne by necks as a weapon is borne by an arm, contracted and muscular hands clasping an indomitable child, and the spirited movement of torsos and flanks and breasts created to shield and to nourish all the joys and all the ills of the world—the cry of an angry prophet. The highest human symbolism was uniting the soul with the form. The eternal subject, the one that the Jewish poets wrested from the anecdote to install it until the end of time in the very mechanism of our minds, the unchanging story of man as he opens his eyes to life, as he wills to interrogate life, as he is wounded by life and condemned to interrogate it more deeply so as to dress that wound even while he inflicts others on himself—the eternal subject blossomed from the stone. The spirit of the artist and the spirit of the stone itself fused in the flash of the great lyric intuition through which the motionless laws of universal harmony accord with the most ingenuous and the most egoistic sentiment of our sorrows, of our cares, and of our daily work. Jacopo della Quercia did not dream that the monotonous tragedy, which we are led to accept as a cruel need when we question it continuously and deeply, could cause silly tears to flow and draw forth moralizing protests against the implacable destiny that we bear in our hearts from the day of our birth. Tie accepted the human drama, and the human drama accepted brought him his recompense. A terrible force dwelt in his sculptured stones, the profound sentiment of primitive men expressed itself by the full form that the world assumes in its periods of expansion, thus increasing its majesty tenfold. He was already master of his great soul. His expressive surfaces sensed the long silences; beside him Donatello seems contracted with pain and Michael Angelo convulsed by fury and disgust. When he lays a dead person on the slab of a funerary statue, he knows how to bring to the forehead the appearance of positive peace, and the work takes on tragic grandeur because one feels that passion has been arrested by the planes of the marble at every leap of the heart and of the hand. And withal, he had already leaped over the gate of hell, had left all hope behind. He outstripped his whole century to arrive, with a single bound, at the conclusion of Michael Angelo, and no one understood him.

Masaccio, on the contrary, immersed in a milieu more alive and more mobile, seizing hold, from the first, of that tool, painting, by which Italian genius best expresses itself, and dying, a mystery, at twenty-seven, was destined by his very hesitations to act much more directly upon the mind of his time. That which he defended, that which he venerated, that which he wanted to believe, all attached him to the Middle Ages. But through the sensation and the disquietude and the new faith that rose in him despite himself, he was already defining the new century in its most grievous conflict. On the old wall of Santa Maria del Carmine he had already painted Man and Woman driven forth by the angel from Eden; but he took their hands to guide them, beyond their misfortune, to the Paradise within their reach. He gave birth to the Renaissance, and it was because he lived that it sought, by its earnest study of form, to renew the lost rhythms of life.

He invented painting. It was in the dark chapel decorated by Masaccio that Raphael, da Vinci, Signorelli, and Michael Angelo came to seek their initiation. As we are to-day, so they were seized by those crowds that are reborn in the shadows, emerging slowly but irresistibly from their uniform atmosphere, like great larvae of the renewed spirit and heart of men coming forth from the confused energy of primitive matter. Masaccio, at the age of twenty-five, knew what the greatest discovered only at the approach of old age—that painting is the passage, the modeling sought for, the shadow that turns around the forms, enveloping them with silence, uniting them with the forms that are near them and behind them, and sculpturing the picture into its receding planes, as a sculptor hollows out the marble to its depths. He had discovered that what nature reveals to us is the continuity of its aspects. Not more than five or six men, if as many after him, have possessed completely that sense which has given them the power to imprint the unity and the movement of life on the world issuing from their hearts. Florence understood him well, but it was not able to follow him, and even da Vinci failed at the task.

This conquest of unity by an intelligence marked the end of the Middle Ages. In France, it had achieved its unity of instinct socially, each brain and each hand bringing a stone to the edifice without knowing how and why the edifice should be living. In Italy, Giotto had realized in himself the moral unity of his race, but the world was not mature enough to allow him at the same time to take possession of the plastic language wherein the shaded surfaces reach a vanishing point in depth and whereby the individual is defined in his baffling complexity. When Masaccio, in his "Baptism," saw those great bare forms emerging from the crowd in which dramatic figures detach from the russet shadow like denser masses in a fiery mist, he must have felt descending upon his mind that sadness of the evenings to which the presentiment of the expected daylight gives the added anguish of hope. A sublime soul ! It was not necessary for him to express the imperishable tragedy of man exiled from happiness for having willed to be man, of man reviled by God and cooling the burn of his remorse in the water of absolution: it was within him that the imperishable tragedy dwelt. When he indicated to the world that the living form which it commissioned him to study would offer it a refuge, he closed its path to new symbols until it should have learned to know nature again; he threw it back upon analysis—that is to say, upon sadness.

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