Florence (part III)

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The whole great century of Florence, which no longer believed, suffered because it did not know whether the faith it had abandoned was still vouchsafed to it or whether it must seek the elements of another faith in the knowledge of the old world and of living nature toward which its instinct drew it. Hungering and thirsting for knowledge, it saw great flashes of joy against a background of despair. It was violent, but full of pity; criminal, but ascetic; anarchic, but creative. It sought in vain, between its new sense of life and the vacillating reason which the death of the mediaeval spirit had liberated in it, a harmony only half conceived among certain men, but which was to perfect itself later, outside of itself, and away from the places that had seen the struggle between its memories and its presentiments.

And this was not all. When tragedy broke forth in the depth of the soul, its echoes were heard in the answering voices of sensibility and action. Why should one not taste life to its full when life is so quickly spent, when poison and the knife lie in wait for it at every turn, when meditation is in danger at every moment of being cut short by the ax and the sword of the executioner, when all may well ask themselves in the morning whether they will be there in the evening. The whole history of the birth and the death of the Italian republics explains the terrible works in which Florence evoked them. Man is always in a state of defense; each individual stands alone, facing the other. The time owes its ardor, its curiosity, its pitiless energy to each one of the dramatic moments in which every mind was part of the living succession. It was in this fire, in which Italy consumed herself, that she tempered the modern soul. Everything that we know emanates from this as straight as the sunbeam that brings us warmth. We have maintained ourselves by this fire for a long time; the lesson is immortal. There is nothing great but has its source in sorrow and strife.

The whole drama is so real in the work of Donatello that one would think he had no precursor and no successor in Florence. When one has meditated before his tense figures, one forgets that the wise goldsmith Ghiberti had already chiseled the doors of the Baptistery into elegant groups wherein the overdeveloped sentiment of form and of decorative life seems to open a beautiful book of images above the bloody pavements to captivate the eye of the hard children who pass by, and to turn them from their path. But close at hand, Donatello is working. The warfare of the streets rumbles under his window, its clamor pierces his flesh, and his will to be calm lifts the marble and the bronze into motionless attitudes in which the steel springs of his mind are stretched to the breaking point. The blade burns in its scabbard. The fury of the city boils in the stoic heart of this son of an agitator expelled from Florence after the riot of the Ciompi. The metal obeys him just as clay does. He twists it, stretches it, and drapes it according to the direction of the fierce impulses of his logical mind, impulses which he still manages to keep within the inflexible lines of a harmony as sure and as sharp as the edge of his chisel. The more one feels his dignity and simplicity, the more his firm spirit seems bent upon forgetting the hatreds and temptations of life, and the more the storm of life, working from within outward, carves his implacable figures. They do not make a gesture, they do not move, but the inner being, revealed by the stiff legs, the enervated hands, and the faces molded by passion, bursts forth with immeasurable energy. The wrecked figures of the prophets whose brows hang over the city, the half-naked old men whose skulls and arms are withered and hard as the ground of the desert, are not the only ones who bear the weight of his anger. Those violent women, saber in hand, whose feet are tense in the blood they have spilled, are convulsed with his passion. He contracts the faces of men—warriors, thinkers, merchants—whose savage appetites have tightened their muscles, twisted their mouths, deepened their eye sockets, broadened their jaws, and forced the planes of the bones to sustain the pressure of their soul, as the crust of the earth yields to the fire at its center. He stifles his young men in their steel armor—they are rigid, thin, and of "a terrible pride " [Vasari]; he leans heavily upon those children whose faces wear their fixed expression of laughter, or who wave garlands of flowers as they dance their round. From the cradle tossed about on the roads of exile to the tomb hollowed out by the lance, everywhere the conflict of the new feelings and the ancient certitudes attains its most tragic moment. We see the trace of it in those great equestrian statues in which military force itself weighs down and resounds on the pavement, in those fierce visages which he hollowed out to the very heart, in all those bodies of flame and of nerves and in the clearly seen bone structures and the convulsive masks. The sculptor knows too much or not enough.

It is in this respect, far more than through the subtleties of the craft or the formulas of the studio, that all his pupils resemble Donatello. A harp of iron seems to be playing of itself somewhere in space, and all listen to it with their eyes closed and their fists clenched, so that they may convey to the bronze or the marble the throb of the rhythms by which it makes their pulses beat. The whole of the Donatellian cycle is wrung with anguish. That taut energy and that hard style do not come from the master: they were there before his work was begun, they surround him and survive him like the devouring city in which the frenzy of life burns through the generations. This is surely the work of Florence. Lucca is not far away, and yet its sculptor, Matteo Civitali—who certainly knew the work of Donatello, since he was the contemporary of his youngest pupils—recalls the unknown Roman, who sculptured the "Great Vestal," by his plenitude, his calm, his robust and settled accent. Nowhere else had such a dramatic conception of maternity been seen: these clutching hands, this furious tenderness of the mothers, the savagery, the brutality, and the violence of the children. One sees clearly that an idea is arising, with the wild love of the world as the fruit of its brain. All—the della Robbias, Desiderio da Settignano, Mino da Fiesole, Michelozzo, Antonio Rosselino, and Benedetto da Majano—are consumed by the desire to express more than they are able and uncompromisingly to affirm moral realities which are not yet quite matured in them. With Desiderio—a living fire—the children themselves suffer, are grave, interrogate life, and ask themselves why they were born. With the gentle Mino da Fiesole, their very laugh is forced. When Luca della Robbia makes them dance, sing, or play music, they dance, sing, or play with a kind of sadness. The rhythmic beating of their feet and their hands seems to have a nervous jerkiness. Andrea della Robbia nails them up over the door of a hospital, with their little arms stretched stiffly and their little fists clasped, calling for the protection of the passer-by. And both artists find that bronze and marble do not suffice to translate their unbridled idealism. And so we get raw greens, loud blues and reds, and varnished terra-cottas of atrocious and seductive taste. . . A people of diseased thinkers, of madmen and martyrs.

The unity of life, as one of the strong beliefs of the Middle Ages, had weakened. It had not yet penetrated the hopes of the new times. The path which Masaccio had traced was arduous and dangerous. Italy hesitates to love form for itself, not knowing whether in it she would again find the spirit, although Francis of Assisi, a century before, had told her with so much eloquence that she would. Whither should she turn to appease her fever? Religions and philosophies are a pretext for expending our energy. Life asks only a compass in which to expand at its ease. Where shall it be found? The condition here was somewhat similar to that which arose twelve or fifteen hundred years earlier, at the moment when the pagan world and the Christian world met in conflict at Alexandria. Only the evolution took the opposite course. Donatello, because he felt the analysis gnawing him and kept midway between the lost equilibrium and the equilibrium foreseen, lived over again the ardent, fanatical, and disillusioned humanity of that time. In painted statues he described the frightful ascetics who left the cities, hiding their dishonored bodies under their matted hair, and seeming to live only in their eyes, that flamed with fever. A pure symbol and, without doubt, unconscious. Yet in these images he expressed the deeper aspect of the Florentine soul more closely even than Verrochio, who set up his harsh condottiere of iron on a high pedestal, or modeled with nerveless fingers his lean David, the boy who conquers through the strength of his soul—and who is sad at having conquered.

It is in the great violent work of Donatello that the sharp intellectualism of Florentine art is affirmed for the first time. By means of the mind he will try to adapt men to the reasoning world that was taking the ascendant. His is to be the tragic destiny of dying before his work is concluded, but by his death he will pave the way for a victorious conclusion. How did it come about that he did not reach his goal sooner amid the intense life that presented itself to his sight? One must seek the answer in the civic upheaval that incessantly broke and dispersed the movement which he created; one must see it in the debilitating influence of the upper classes who were too rapidly and too artificially cultivated; and again it derives from the meticulous character of the work in which his art originated, the trades of the goldsmith and the carver, and beyond this in the special aspects of the locality that saw his birth and youth.

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