Florence (part IV)

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When one has crossed the Apennines to descend from the planes of the Po into Tuscany, the impression of Bolognese grandiloquence and of Venetian sensuality is suddenly effaced like an interrupted dream. One enters those narrow rings of breasted hills, striped by the horizontal lines of the houses and terraces that seem to have been drawn with the point of a steel blade, while vertical lines are drawn by the clear-cut trunks of the cypresses and the pines that dominate the rows of white arcades. Against the pallor of the olive trees the cypresses and pines cut an almost black silhouette. The foliage of the oaks has a metallic look; the laurels have leaves of iron; and, against the sky, the cypresses take on the contours of spears. The whole has a stiff and aggressive grace which the sharp north winds from the mountains, playing on the nerves of the inhabitants, make crisper still.

Where the plain is open, the sun colors the mist and the dust that envelops the distance. Facing the valley, the hills rise to the gates of the city and close the horizon. When one climbs the highest terraces, the further reaches of the landscape are sometimes clearer than the first ridge beneath which the sun has already sunk. Whether one considers the lines of Cronaca's palaces or Brunelleschi's, the mauve-colored houses with the green shutters, the river as blue as a knife or the cold violet of the heights against the green mother-of-pearl of the sky, there is nothing so transparent as the daylight of that country, there is nothing so hard as its evening. One sees clear-cut lines, lights, and shadows outlined with a fine thin edge and none of those curves that gently lead the eye from one form to another. The harmonies are limpid and somber, and diamonds appear to be interposed in great numbers between the eye and the landscape. Plastic generalizations do not fall within one's vision, and however keen and subtle the artist may be, he is in danger of limiting himself to expressive or psychological line at the expense of that broad co-ordinated ensemble which, in other countries, will assure to the work of art the movement, the materiality, and the inner force of life.

A passionate draftsman, living—so to speak—in that expressive line which he drove like a weapon into the interstices of the muscles to carve them out under the skin, master of a dry orchestration in his severe fresco wherein the planes are merged no more than those he sees around him, using the hard colors which his graded hills so clearly outlined against the sky, the Florentine never acquired the sense of volume and of the passage in depth that gives birth to the sculptor-peoples and leads the painters, little by little, to express form and space as in a globe. From Masaccio, who had passed his childhood in a part of Tuscany where the setting sun sculptures the mountains with planes of shadow, he inherited only the dramatic sentiment of a world which had reached life midway between dying ideas and ideas not yet fully matured.

It was that passion for line which prevented him from extricating himself completely, even when da Vinci arrived, from a sort of intellectual primitivism, which for a moment he nearly escaped with Gozzoli, and more especially with Ghirlandajo, but into which he was thrown back by the influence of the Platonists and by, the morbid genius of Sandro Botticelli. To oppose his need for demonstrating and for abstracting, he would have had to abandon himself to the inclination of his instinct, to have built upon the fiery realism which was the basis of his nature in order naturally to work out the plastic idealism that is foretold in the work of Masaccio. But he was devoured by such a passion for knowing, for discovering and comprehending, that his mind outstripped his senses, and he wore himself out in too often seeking the secret of life outside of the madly intense feeling that he had for it.

The real life of Florence, dramatic and decorative, might have been an inexhaustible source of emotion for the artists if they had turned directly toward that life. The dissociation was barely noticeable in the popular sentiment, whose need for passion was fed by brawls and spectacles. The ideas of the theorists did not touch all the painters, even if all, down to the rudest and simplest, received the burning imprint of the city and of its anguish. The majority of them began by hard work in the goldsmiths' shops of the Ponte Vecchio and in the workrooms of the manufacturers of altar pictures, where gold dust was always flying in the air. They carried their workmen's roughness with them into the circle of the Platonists—and it was their salvation. There was nothing of the litterateur about the murderer Andrea del Castagno, a man with a mind as sharp as an ax, who painted his Christ upon the walls as a butcher hangs a piece of meat, who, in the portraits of the soldiers and the poets of Florence, painted forms as tense as his heart, as genuine as his pride, as gigantic as his energy; his cuirasses, his swords, and his black laurels offer us a world of iron, and an implacable hymn of asceticism, vengeance, and love. There was nothing, of the pedant about Paolo Uccello, who, with his pure intensity, painted the great red pictures of the tournaments, where companies of knights, their pennants bristling amid the lances, hurled themselves together with a clang of armor and the clash of cavalry. With all the disciplined tumult, the heavy and regular surge of the squadrons, the parallelism of the lances, the great peace of the dark forests in which a hunt is shown, the galloping, the neighing, and the clamor, whether of war or of the chase, the image was a theorem notwithstanding, through its massive rhythm and its dark, dull harmony. One of the workmen of art, and a very learned one, he spent his days and nights in resolving problems of perspective, and a geometrical order still characterized his pictures even when he bowed his head to observe childhood (never loved more fervently than in Florence) and which he gravely considered. The tragedy of sentiment would not yield to expression otherwise than by the rigorous play of the lines that dominate the form in movement. He paints haunting pictures, apparitions of living shadows against backgrounds that are almost abstract, where the severity of the straight lines—a mechanism that sends the drama back into space or spreads it out—intensifies its nervous force and its pathetic beauty. The powerful dynamics of Uccello will animate the noble age of Italy, through Piero della Francesca and Signorelli first of all, and will continue until the end of Michael Angelo's career. The universal character of the artist of Florence prevented him, doubtless, from expanding fully. If he had followed his instinct to the end, he would probably have come sooner upon the creative emotion divested of all preoccupation as to the technique to be employed, because the emotion would have absorbed, digested, assimilated that technique by giving it a function in the intelligence and the heart. But because of this pitiless research, the following century gained a force and a grandeur that were to influence all of Europe. The rigorous discipline that the Florentine mind imposed upon itself postponed a realization which in turn it knew it could not hope to achieve by itself. And this discipline excited the curiosity, revealed innumerable energies, and illuminated as to their own value minds which did not know, in the chaotic state of knowledge, where the instrument of liberation was to be found. Leon Battista Alberti was at once architect, painter, geometer, engineer, dramatist, poet, Latinist, and theologian. Brunelleschi, determining the all-powerful action of his immediate disciples, Donatello, Masaccio, and Uccello, really created linear perspective, which permitted his successors to introduce among the geometrical planes the illusion of life unfurling in depth. Cennino Cennini, L. B. Alberti, Ghiberti, Paolo Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo da Vinci, Cellini, and Vasari had written, were writing, or were to write didactic treatises on architecture, perspective, sculpture, painting, the goldsmith's art, or even the exact or natural sciences, geometry, hydraulics, anatomy, and geology. The artists opened cadavers to become acquainted with the mechanism of matter in movement. Before permitting itself, with Raphael, with Titian, with Michael Angelo, to demand of form its dynamism, to cause it to move in every direction by reason of the necessity for expression, and ever in obedience to its law of continuity, the Italian intelligence had to fix the architectural form, had to try to inscribe its images in the triangle and the circle, and to establish its harmony with receding space and the succession of the planes. It was from the triple effort of the geometers, Uccello, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, and da Vinci; of the literary painters, Filippo Lippi, Pollaiuolo, and Botticelli; and of the prophets, della Quercia, Masaccio, and Donatello, that Italian art came forth.

The picturesque element, which served only as a pretext, came from Venice and from the nomadic painters, who followed the roads on foot or on horseback, were present at the battles that occurred each day in every mountain pass where the condottieri led their bands, stopped in the cities to decorate a baptistery, and started off again to seek their bread. Those were the best ones. Their names were Giotto, Taddeo Gaddi, Angelico, Benozzo Gozzoli, Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi, Gentile da Fabriano, Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli, and Bernardino Pinturrichio. They went from Florence to Pisa, from Pisa to Siena, from Siena to San Gimignano, from San Gimignano to Urbino, from Urbino to Arezzo, from Arezzo to San Sepolcro, from San Sepolcro to Perugia, to Assisi, to Orvieto, to Spoleto, and from Spoleto to Rome. They were workmen; they worked together, transmitting their secrets from one to another; each one painted his wall, another taking up the work of him who was called by death; the palaces, the temples, the municipal buildings, the monasteries, and the cemeteries were covered with paintings ; the very façades were decorated; a wonderful hope made all the cities blossom. In Lombardy, in Venetia, and especially in Tuscany and Umbria, there are frescoes everywhere; tiny villages have a church or a chapel with paintings; the workers left the studio where they got their training to stay a few months and then remained until their death at the place whither they had gone. At other times, when they got better pay by going to some other place, they did not finish their work. As they believed in themselves, as they had an immense strength, they were not afraid to leave a little of their lives at every stone on the road; the desire for future work was their aim. They were almost all jealous of one another, but it was not because of the money. Each one believed that he had within him the most beautiful work of all, and from effort to effort rose to conquer. What an opening on life, in those times when life was always a menace, they found in this comradeship of the trade, these rivalries of the intelligence, and also in these adventures of the road unknown to the inhabitants of cities and to painters with fixed positions! Every day they had to yield to or resist the lure of the landscape through which they were passing, the broils which they witnessed, the princely trains they would meet at the crossroads, and the beautiful creatures in whom a look, a laugh, a gesture of the two arms, or a twist of the hips contained more of eternity than all the systems of aesthetics that clash in the minds of the intellectuals.

Benozzo Gozzoli was able to escape the influence of the writers and the patrons only because he was accustomed to lead that life. When he worked at Pisa or at San Gimignano, he was almost as far from Florence as his master, Angelico, isolated behind the four walls of a cloister, where he strewed with flowers the azure paths of the dream through which the divine white bride was to pass. His mind flowered like a meadow. He gave peacock wings to the angels mounted on his red clouds or those that gather blood-red roses in his black gardens; and it was not to express their celestial nature, but to render them more beautiful. He admired. He stretched out shining cavalcades across the Florentine countryside, and in it he placed biblical stories, which told how the vintage was made, how war, and what were the feasts and the working days in the time of Cosimo or Lorenzo de’ Medici. In his delight he roamed the plains covered with vineyards and bathed by winding rivers that disappear amid the sharp hills; he followed the ribbon of the roads that are bordered by red houses under clusters of overhanging pines and yew trees; the country is somber and glows like a mirror of green bronze, through which trails the purple of the skies. And when he flooded the fresco with shining colors in which the gold, the green, and the black punctuated the flow of the carmine, it was because he held in his hand an open pomegranate and because, in the morning, to climb to a group of cypresses from which one saw afar off the blue line of the mountains, he had crossed one of those Tuscan fields of scarlet clover amid which the poppies seem pale. Whether he was under the shade of the trellises where the big, densely clustering grapes overflowed the cane baskets, or whether on the terraces of the villas, he followed the thin shadow of the lemon trees that border the marble balustrade where the peacocks spread their tails, or whether he placed bread and wine and fruit on a white tablecloth, the world never seemed to him completely to respond to the symphonies whose splendor filled his enchanted eyes. He was a rich spirit, indeed, tenderly ironical in his wonder at legends and at the sight of labor—but he was, first of all, a painter. Not only was he the colorist of Florence, but perhaps also the first, among all the modern painters of Europe, to venture upon a radical transposition of the colors of nature. The lyrical note in painting results when a logical universe is created from imaginary elements whose intricate relationships lead the eye back to the intuitive laws that have dictated our idea of harmony.

Had Gozzoli been acquainted with Persian illuminations, one might believe that he had enlarged them to the dimensions of the walls, adding to them a sense of distance and saturating them with the essences of the growing fields that throw upon the earth those same greenish shadows which the sun leaves as it sinks. Whereas Giotto, in his rapid discovery of the great school of decorative painting, inclosed the essential spaces in a few linear rhythms so simple that they became part of the scheme of the architecture; Tuscan art, from the time of Fra Angelico, returned to the painting of the missal, a thing related to enameled color, to the character of the landscape, and to the characteristic Tuscan need for analysis. Everything that is meticulous and petty in the practice of this craft disappears in the radiance that shone from the heart and the eyes of an Angelico or a Gozzoli. But among those men whom Florence held in her power, men who could not flee her or master her; the double current of miniature painting and of literature misled their native passion. Aureoled angels with the plumage of birds of the Orient bearing long-stemmed lilies are shown against backgrounds strewn with flowers; they walk with jerky, nervous, and bizarre steps toward the complicated Paradises of the Florentine aesthetes. The fashionable painters cut short their investigation and resort to primitive formulas imperfectly assimilated, through which they may more quickly follow the ideas of the writers.

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