Rome and the School (part II)

View the scanned original illustrations

He summarized, as Giotto did, an imperishable moment. It is he who was that equilibrium for which Italy had been seeking with so much anguish, and which the passionate clash of sensibility and intelligence prevented the crowd from realizing. One cannot help placing these two minds alongside of each other. Undoubtedly, Raphael is, with Giotto, the only one in the history of painting who invades all our faculties of reason and feeling with that profound gentleness. To tell the truth, it is his science that dominates; he has not the direct force that gives to the decorator of Padua and of Assisi a more virile tone, a more joyous candor, a more peaceful faith in that which he recounts upon the walls. But one does not know, when one looks at the sibyls or the frescoes of the Vatican, whether it is heroes or saints that one has before one's eyes, martyrs or philosophers, Virgins or Venuses, Jewish gods or pagan gods; one feels that the forms harmonize with and penetrate one another, that colors call and answer one another; an undulation of harmonies that seems to have no beginning and no ending runs through one without meeting the least resistance and leaves one only the strength to hearken to the prolongation in oneself of the echo aroused by their memory.

What does he mean, and where has he seen such a union of everything that is matter and everything that is thought, everything that is feminine tenderness and everything that is male strength, everything that is the certitude of the races which have felt much and that is the wavering faith of the centuries which desire knowledge? He studied, inattentively perhaps, what had been done before him and what was being done around him; he seemed scarcely to look at the infinitely profound and multiple world of movements, colors, and forms; he gave ear to the sounds about him and breathed in the perfume of flowers and of women with that indifferent fervor that belongs only to a being who sees harmony springing from his very footsteps and love approaching him without his having summoned it; all of this he united in himself as in a sonorous center, without too closely investigating its source; and the whole of it, after having melted unresistingly at the hearth of his sentiment, came forth from him in waves as full, as calm, and as difficult to resist as the mysterious rhythm that governs the beating of hearts; that causes the seasons to be born, to die, and to be reborn; that causes the sun to burst forth and sink each morning and each evening. Long after the death of Raphael, Michael Angelo, even though he had not loved him, was perhaps thinking of the younger man more than of himself when he said : "Beautiful painting is religious in itself, for the soul is lifted up by the effort that it has to make to attain perfection and to mingle with God: beautiful painting is an effect of that divine perfection, a shadow from the brush of God; it is a music, a melody. Very lofty intelligences alone can grasp it."

Raphael is one of the most calumniated men in history, and calumniated by those who have been loudest in their praise. The inexhaustible youth that shines from him has been ascribed to the fact that he died young, but it is accentuated in one work after another; and if he had lived to be very old it would not have ceased to renew itself, because it had existed before him and was to survive him, even as the spring-times and the autumns, which continue to produce despite the winters heaped up upon them. The ease with which he seizes upon a thousand objects, a thousand scattered facts of life, of nature, of history, of art, which he did not in himself produce, for the purpose of organizing them into harmonious images where nothing of the objects and of the original facts subsists save the lofty emotion which they called forth—all has given rise to the charge of an almost shocking propensity to assimilate and to imitate his work. And because one must follow his work step by step and make an effort oneself in order to appreciate the meaning of the effort which he had to expend in order to raise Perugian "piety pictures" to the level of the generalizations of the Vatican and the Farnesine, people have wondered, in a dull way, at his skill. Copious tears have been shed over the hundred Virgins, that are often so sugary—and for the most part unauthentic—that issued from his studio, so that one almost forgets the twenty portraits which make him, with Titian, the greatest Italian painter of character and which cause us to feel, rising from the senses to the mind of this all-powerful youth, a force of construction in depth which would have made him an Italian Rembrandt had he lived thirty years longer.

There was in this painter, molded in his very flesh which yet never ceased its adoration, a little of the bronze of the armor which the fighters of that time left off to don the habits of the court. He sculptured the long bony hands with the golden bands of their rings and the pure dense planes of the faces with the polished skeleton covered by their muscles. "Julius II, " "Bindo Altoviti," "Inghirami," "Leo X," and "Maddalena Doni" are of those absolute forms which dwell wholly in the memory, as if, throughout their entire surface, they reach the inner walls of the skull. Their mind is made of the same metal as themselves; it escapes neither through the eyes nor through the gestures, but is enclosed within the block they make, calm in the depth of the dull magnificence which the movement of the reds gives to the bare background, to the arm chairs, to the carpets, to the robes, to the air itself, and to the reflections on the clean-shaven faces. The blacks are so pure that they seem to light up the red shadow. He has tones that are opaque, blacks and reds, and these stand almost alone, abandoned to themselves, like a mineral which has become quite solidified at the bottom of a stone crucible. And yet these tones penetrate one another; they have their profound harmonies, and are full and compact like the forms which they create. There is no power in art that surpasses the power of these portraits, red cardinals on white mules harnessed with red, great bodies dressed in green or in black which kneel gravely, figures of authority or of violence, figures of youth also, of pride, of enthusiasm, isolated in their strength or bursting forth here and there in the vast compositions like wide-opened flowers on the surface of water that ebbs and flows.

This endless ebb and flow, which Giotto had understood, and which proceeds from the pediments of the temples of Greece and Sicily to the paintings of Raphael by way of the combinations of lines of the Arab decorators, is the whole Mediterranean ideal. Italy had been seeking it ever since Masaccio, because it was he who wrote into the surface of his frescoes the intelligence of the world, that sense of continuity which the succession of planes imposes on our instinct, but which does not suffice to reveal its nature to our mind, eager for clearly stated reasons and for exact demonstration. It is the arabesque, the rational expression of the living form, that the straight line, which is death, could not translate and from which the too metaphysical absolute of the circular line would exclude all possibility of renewal and of movement; only curved lines, undulating and continuous, can describe the living form in its flux and reflux, its flights and its downfalls, its repose and its effort, still leaving to each of the elements that it unites in a common life its personality and its function. It was through the arabesque that Raphael defined and realized the intellectual and sensual ideal which the Renaissance demanded, when the means for the social ideal which the Middle Ages had embodied in their life was exhausted. With Raphael, the passage from form to form is as subtle as it is from color to color, in the case of the Venetians or even Velasquez, Consider, in the "Heliodorus," the huddled group of terrified mothers, their children in their arms. Consider, in the "Parnassus," the concatenation of the musical rhythm, the intertwining groups of the women, the union, as if in a marriage, their graces which blend, their gentle heads inclined toward each other as they look over the rounded shoulders from which their bare arms flow with a single movement. Consider, above all, the fresco of the "Sibyls" or that of the "Jurisprudence," where the forms are so well adapted to the surfaces to be decorated that they seem to give birth to those surfaces through their volumes and their directions. Consider how one gesture explains another and compels a reply; how tresses, heads, arms, and shoulders affirm, in the effortless combination of the curves of their attitudes, that there is in nature not a single inert or living form that is not bound up with all the others; consider how the mind is led without a halt from one end of life to the other. With Raphael, the line of the Florentines, which was born and kept alive with so much difficulty, frees itself, and defines on the surface and realizes in depth the succession of the planes and the continuity of the modeling; and, in a harmony where the grays and the reds, the greens, the blacks, the lilacs, and the silver-whites yield themselves to the humble substance of the walls which fixes them forever, the unity of expression of line, mass, and color is affirmed for the first time.

It is in this that we seek the reason for the power which Raphael has exercised over all the painters of modern Europe, even when they had seen him only through copies or engravings, even when they did not love him. Upon the mind of men, for whom the world of forms is the revealer of the world of ideas, he imprints a mark sinuous and precise whose significance one must know if one is to follow it without peril. If he had brought into painting no more than an attempt to return to the ideal of the antique, as in the pagan figures of the Farnesine, where the beautiful nude divinities, framed by heavy garlands of foliage, of fruits, and pot-herbs, recall the abundant strength of the decorators of Pompeii, which in turn offer such a wealth of other lessons besides, he would not be Raphael. He would be, with Michael Angelo and before Sodoma, only the most brilliant initiator of that plastic rhetoric which misled Italy and from which all of Europe was to suffer. But his glory was to affirm that individualism could not live in the desert, that, for the greater harmony of the spirit, it must find some way of demonstrating the need that men have to define the relationship among the universal forms when the conditions of their existence have not permitted them to find that relationship in the social bond itself. The arabesque is the translation into plastics of the highest individualism.

The crowds of the north have no need of it; the Gothic men scarcely suspected its existence. To understand this one must have tasted of the spectacle of the worshipers in a cathedral of the north and in an Italian basilica. The northern crowd is united by a single sentiment; whether it is sincere or factitious is of no importance. It stands up, sits down, and kneels at the same moments and with the same gestures, the men on one side, the women on the other. All the heads are on the same level, all the faces look toward the same point. The bond is invisible, but present. Feeling is what makes these people respond all at once to the sentimental appeal which comes from the priest, from the singing, or from the organ. In Italy, the men and the women mingle. Some remain standing, others are seated, some look at the altar, others turn their backs to it, groups form and melt away again, people walk about the church, and conversations arise or are interrupted. Each one is there for himself, each one is hearkening only to the passion that brought him here, the mystic exaltation, the sorrow, the hatred, the love, the curiosity, or the admiration, and it is that alone which determines his gesture, makes him sit down or arise, walk about or remain motionless, which carries him to his knees, with a child erect in his arms, or makes him prostrate himself upon the pavement, against which he strikes his forehead. There is no people in Europe less Christian than this one, which is why the Church had to be organized here in order to maintain an appearance of solidarity, as opposed to the individual. Italian Catholicism is a social arabesque.

That is the reason, also, why the plastic arabesque was born of the meditation of the painters of this country. Since our nature requires a harmony so powerful that in order to satisfy it we are willing to pass through sorrow, and since we did not find the desired harmony in the sentiment of the multitudes, it was indeed necessary for us to unite the separate beings —erect, kneeling, or laid low by the wind of warring passions—in a single line, sinuous, firm, and uninterrupted, a line that should not permit a single one among them to escape from the living harmony which was divined by the senses of the artists and which was created by their will.

Moreover, when one surveys Italy, as one comes out from the Tuscan hills, from the Roman circus, from the Lombard plains, and as one goes from one height to another, one sees that the whole country undulates like the sea. Whether seen from above and from afar, when one forgets the convulsions of the earth and the tempests of passion in the souls of men, everything in Italy shows the necessity for her returning to herself: the outlines of the mountains, the ramparts of the high hills which lead the cities built upon them down to the plains by the winding roads; the cities themselves tell the same tale with their steeply sloping streets that separate like a river, pass under the cradle of the old vaults, and seem to caress the walls with the ebbing of their bare pavements; and we see this character of Italy again in its language, a golden liquid flowing over iron sands, and we see it in the history of the country, in the even light, that emanates from it although it has passed, almost without transition, during thirty centuries, from the proudest summits to the most barren depths. . . And there is something of all of this in the genius of Raphael Sanzio of Urbino.

And yet something is lacking. The decorative compositions do not always respond to the central principle of art, which is to bear witness to life regardless of the pretext for it and of the fate which is reserved for it; Raphael does not seem to suffer from having all his acts prescribed for him and from depending on the caprice of an old man who may die any day. And whatever the liberty given him to express himself as he thinks best, one sees a little too clearly that he is not his own master, and that he is not galled by the fact. It is the art of a man who is too happy. We feel a certain lack of emotion in ourselves when we are before his frescoes. The work of those who have suffered is a stronger wine for us. His arabesque is often apart from himself and, despite the plenitude of the form, its direction is not always determined by the sentiment that animates it, and a decorative mask covers the human face. It is only just to say that he died at the age when the majority of superior men begin to catch a glimpse of the idea that the beauty of gesture always responds to the requirements of the intimate movements which it interprets. There are, in some of his last paintings, the "Sistine Madonna" and the "Heliodorus" especially, complete envelopments of arms and of breasts, and a drama of lives closely interwoven, which show an immense and continuous expansion of his heart. In the "Miraculous Draught of Fishes" and in the "Fire in the Borgo," the strength and the splendor of the gestures, which compel us to view the human beings as statues come to life, attest his discovery of the nobility of his mind—a nobility which the "Farnesine" attests, thanks to the fidelity of his pupils, with an august, virile, and majestic splendor. For a decisive realization, he would have needed ten or fifteen years more and a greater amount of will-power to resist his tendency to squander himself through his power of love. Doubtless, Michael Angelo would not have ceased to hate him, since, even in Raphael's last works, in which he renders homage to the power of his rival by yielding to his influence, Michael Angelo found a pretext for despising him. But the unfailing esteem, in which man through his moral ascendency holds those who are strong, would probably have given him, in his jealousy, an opportunity to wring from Raphael even greater pride and unity, in order to complete his subjugation. As the static art of Raphael developed and borrowed from the universe an increasing number of elements, to be organized into increasingly complex compositions, Michael Angelo continued to project his dynamism farther and farther into the forms in movement, which the formidable weight of Italian thought was precipitating into his spirit from the depths of four centuries.

No comments: