Fontainebleau, the Loire and the Valois (part II)

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How does the soil, which nourishes the sculptors of the cathedrals, which nourishes Foucquet, which nourishes la Fontaine, and which nourishes the brothers Le Nain, which imposed upon the Clouets, though they were of Flemish stock, the precision and the sobriety of its aspects, after having expressed itself completely in an explosion of love that united a thousand voices of the most homogeneous crowd, the one, perhaps, that is closest to the earth of all that have ever existed—how does it happen that this soil was prevented from reappearing with its own savor, save rarely, during the centuries that followed and in the work of a few isolated men? Its lack of accent, especially in this region of the Loire, is precisely what gives it a charm which was to envelop and hold those who are born and who live there. Nowhere do the hills follow one another so gently as in France; nowhere are things bathed in a calmer light, as distinct from the crudity of the South as it is from the profound brilliance of the North; nowhere are the waters clearer or the air and the soil lighter. The artists are born there in large numbers; few of them recall their surroundings. Too many men are crossing France, situated at the crossroads of the modern world, between Spain, Italy, Germany, the Low Countries, and England, and bathed by the two seas which bring to her the East and the West. Never is she entirely herself, and she is constantly renewing herself. Therein is her weakness—and her strength. There is no hero to take her entirely into his soul, but instead a diffused intelligence which is constantly reborn from her ashes to teach the nations that they all participated in her formation and that she does not cease to act upon their development. It is a people born to be happy, peacefully to live by its own harvests and its own vintages, but condemned to eternal martyrdom because it does not give others time to understand it and because the others do not give it time to realize itself. That is the reason why it was in such haste to build the cathedral. It foresaw that it would no longer, perhaps, be able to bequeath its true image to the future.

Italy breathed into it a flame which was new, at least, and, in its declining strength, it had but little more resistance to otter. But the spirit of Burgundy and of Flanders which, in the past, it had awakened, now impressed it in turn. We see Michel Colombe leave the great nave to enter the colored shadow of a chapel and bend over the great theatrical tomb of the Burgundian princes. His desire was to equal its pompous luxury, but that was impossible. Something thin and enervated, a kind of fiery tension toward the idea of the beauty of form, announces the invasion of Italian idealism and, unhappily, of its formulas as well. The façades of a hundred mansions, of a hundred churches, the rood-lofts, the pulpits, the pews, the grating of the choirs, the stained-glass windows, the carved wood, the forged iron, and the ceramics of the period all bear the same imprint. Seduced by so much grace, France is about to surrender herself.

For a long time Avignon had arrested the transalpine spirit in its course, which preferred to mount through the valley of the Rhone to mingle with Burgundy and with Flanders and so avoid the territories that had been ruined by war. Beginning with the first half of the fourteenth century, with the popes, Italy had made the moral conquest of Provence, already well prepared to receive her through the ancient Greco-Latin memories of the land and the tradition of love that had never ceased to reign there. Giotto barely missed coming to Avignon. In that city Petrarch had demanded the portrait of Laura from the great Simone Martini, who had come to cover with noble frescoes the halls of the palace of the popes. Unknown Frenchmen work there with him and after him. Within the majestic fortress the walls disappeared under the painted forests that were traversed by huntsmen, that were peopled with birds, and tapestried with fresh moss in which one feels the quiver of the springs of living water. Even after the departure of the pontifical court, the city remained the meeting place for the civilization of the South and the civilization of the North. The proximity of the court of Aix where good King Rene, himself an illuminator, surrounded himself with image makers, with painters, with troubadours and minstrels, could not do otherwise than quicken the hearth of spirited culture which a century of peaceful activity had created there. Nicolas Froment, working there with him in the cool shadow of the cloisters and of the heavy castles, is the van Eyck of Avignon, because of his grave portraits which he hollowed out and which have the explosive violence of the South, and because of his dry landscapes which, even so, are burning with light and in which the orange trees grow; and many Burgundian artists, who had lost their employment upon the arrival of the Flemings, left Dijon for the valley of the Rhone. Enguerrand Charonton brought to it, from Laon, with the science and the color which he got from the Flemish painters, the clean workmanship and the health of the men of Champagne. Here, then, was the vibrant crucible of Italian force in which the materiality and the density of the painting of the North came to amalgamate itself with the acuteness of observation and the sobriety of the French! In the silent profundity of its browns, its reds, and its greens that turn almost to black as they undulate against the abstract background all of gold with distant spires and domes, in the tragic swaying of the great bodies that bend over the bare corpse, in this corpse itself, pure and carved out like an idea, the great "Pietà" of Avignon is one of the summits of the harmony. Outside of Italy and of Flanders, where everything, at that hour, was singing like an orchestra in the great silence of France, it is now like the sound of a violoncello arising alone above the tombs.

Whatever the misery of France in the fifteenth century, the hearth from which that work came could not fail to cast some gleams into the imaginations of the artists from its provinces of the North. Even before the Gothic period, moreover, Italy had reacted upon them and the Romanesque was only an application of the essential principle of Roman architecture mingling with Eastern and Northern influences. The image makers, the master builders, and the glass makers of France were traveling about. There was an exchange of manuscripts, of furniture, of armor, and of wrought iron and copper. But these were surface Influences and the powerful life of the people assimilated them without knowing it. It needed the great military expedition of the end of the fifteenth century entirely to burst the dike formed by Avignon. Charles VIII brought back Italy in the train of his armies.

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