Rome and the School (part IV)

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Works of this stature are made for the distant future. Their shadow is fatal; it stifles everything that grows around them. Italy no longer had the strength and the faith which would have been necessary to endure the truths that were offered her by the last of the Italians. Had she comprehended the meaning of the symbol of the Sistine and consented still to suffer in order to understand, she would have succumbed none the less. She had expended too much passion in the struggle, and, in consequence, was annihilated. Never had any world, in coming to its maturity, known the despair which inheres in the force of Michael Angelo, nor the kind of surrender to lassitude which one often feels arising in that of Raphael. For four centuries, one, the same as the other, was to create innumerable victims, all those who could not extract from the vigor of a growing people a sentiment sufficiently virile to resist their formal instructions. When we know too many things, we can no longer discover anything. The School, indeed, begins to be organized during the lifetime of Michael Angelo, with his pupils and those of Raphael: Giulio Romano, Giovanni da Udine, and Daniele da Volterra. The Accademia di San Luca is founded less than fifty years after his death. Italy was to teach those unable to understand that in order to create masterpieces it was necessary to include families of wrestlers in the "composition" of a canvas.

It was Italy, to be sure, who revealed "composition" to the world and who, first through Giotto, then through the masters of Rome and Venice, used it with the greatest ease, power, and authority. Without her we should have had neither Rubens nor Rembrandt nor Poussin, who are great composers. "Composition" is the introduction of intellectual order into the chaos of sensations. Composition is necessary. But composition is personal. It belongs only to that artist who is capable, through his own power, of discovering in nature a few essential directions which reveal to him the law of her general movement. If composition does not express a living unity of forms, of colors, and of sentiments, it is a worn-out garment that covers nothing. A fruit, a glass, any bit of life, or anything, two tones set beside each other harmoniously, take on an eternal value in contrast with the "well-composed" large picture which expresses no intimacy between him who conceived it and the still inexhaustible world of sensations and of ideas.

The School does not kill life, for it appears only during the death struggle of the races. But it acts as a brake on the effort of those who go toward life; it crushes their last struggles or compromises the first revolts that occur at the dawn of new societies. It sows ruin round about it by counseling men to forget the heroic hours when they lived in innocence. Outside of its incessant attacks on sensibility—which I should call negligible if, in the blotting out of a single sensibility amid such isolation, its loss would not react upon all the others—outside the question of the men whom the School has led astray, its greatest crime is, that for three centuries it intervened between our love and the influence of the primitives and permitted the vandalism of academic aesthetes to trample upon so many flowers. The primitives were not acquainted with anatomy and did not know how to compose. Their form was empty of muscles, but it was full of life. An irresistible sentiment impressed its rhythm upon their ensembles, a profound sentiment which leaves our emotion free spontaneously to establish the missing connections through an automatic operation of the senses. Later on, through reaction, it was only the primitives who were loved, and in the name of the primitives men condemned, not the School, but those from whom the School sprang. And that is not the least of its offenses. When the power of primitive feeling, which is almost always obscure and scattered among many men, is concentrated in a single one and is illumined by contact with a supreme intelligence, the great mystery is fulfilled. We reach one of the summits of those waves of harmony which are traced in the memory of generations by the energy of living races.

Venice, although she had felt, through Tintoretto, the influence of Michael Angelo, possessed so much personal force that for more than half a century she still resisted the current. But outside of her, all Italy, which had culminated in Rome, had to submit to the power of Rome. Baccio Bandinelli, Benvenuto, Vasari, and Giovanni da Bologna introduced to Florence Michael Angelo—him in whom she recognized too much of herself not to abandon herself to him. Her natural violence was less reconcilable with Raphael, from whom the local Roman School derived,—Bologna soon following Michael Angelo also. As to da Vinci, who had left but a few rare works there, she had no memory of him. The influence of that strange man had spread more especially in northern Italy, where it combined for a time with that of the Roman masters, through whom much of it was very quickly destroyed. The Milanese School, which it revived, remained almost a local manifestation and practically died with the delicate frescoes of Bernardino Luini, who treated the form, inherited from his master, with more abandon, and transported it into the blond and gentle atmosphere of Borgognone and the Lombard painters. If Ghirlandajo had known how to attain a sense of depth in the construction of his form, it is with that accent that he would have spoken of the familiar and intimate life of the Italians. And if da Vinci had been attracted by that life, he would have told its story no more vividly than did Luini. This painter summarizes and expresses, with the greatest amount of force and nobility, an aspect of the Italian soul, and the most unexpected one. It is an Italy without affectation, apparently knowing no anguish, a solid country engrossed in its work like a land of the north. But it is peopled with young gods who would do the work of men. No one has loved Italian adolescence with greater pride—its easy and charming gestures, the vast crowds on whose faces the same smile wanders, as if the spirit of da Vinci were still lighting up the mouths that have grown more sensual and the eyes that have softened. In ashen landscapes, beside brooks and springs, plump young girls come to sit, with hesitating neck and shoulders, their massive arms and legs nevertheless elegant, round, tepid, and made as if they were composed of packed snow. It is strangely real: the women take off their stockings and fill their baskets, the men work the soil, both are simply Lombard peasants; but the noble spirit of the idyll, a singular heroism, and a proud and lively delicacy intervene to ennoble the whole art. There is nothing gentler or more mysterious. An undulating grace, a subtle charm, something indefinite, almost immaterial, floats through the work; it is like strong writing which we yet find difficult to grasp; the exquisite soul of the artist seems to hover around it, his voice discreetly insinuating, the charmingly pouting faces of his people hesitating between irony and tenderness, and never quite coming to a decision. Rome could not touch this man who rarely left his province and who, born the same year as Michael Angelo, died a third of a century before him. Moreover, research work in formal architecture was more attractive to those solid Italians of the north—soldiers and husbandmen—than the dramatic dynamism that was the constant demand of the Romans.

Da Vinci, with his insistence on construction, meant more to them. The static art of Luini has admirable power, and the bold ceilings which Correggio painted in the library and in the cathedral of Parma are perhaps of more importance for their structural science, that recurs in all his other pictures, than for their inner movement. The spirit of da Vinci had impressed him all the more forcefully that he found in it an encouragement to accentuate the ambiguous character of a work through which the art program of the Jesuits was to define itself, that program foretold fifty years earlier by the last painters of Umbria who so speedily completed the perversion of Italian genius. A voluptuous painter, hovering about the beautiful, moist forms within the groves drenched by blue mists where mythological heroes stretch out in their indolence, he yields to the influence of Michael Angelo only in so far as it leads him to envelop form in the insinuating caress of a Venetian atmosphere thicker and more unctuous than that which Titian had seen. With his masses of white foam, his swan down, and his spongy but yet firm flesh, over which he would draw a veil, as though he were ashamed of his desire and repented of having loved the flesh so well; and so the ambiguous quality in his work is accentuated and something unhealthy floats about his figures. He is perverse in his melancholy, in his desire for a chastity which he cannot attain—a great artist gone astray and lying to himself. His luscious modeling melts into a warm and transparent shadow, and it has so little frankness that its passages become subtle to the point of disappearance. With Caravaggio, who desires to react, and who does react at times with vigor against the invasion of affectation and insipidity, the shadows become, on the contrary, perfectly opaque, and objects start out from them in a violent relief which obtains the desired effect, but under which scarcely anything remains. Factitious suavity or simulated strength: imposture is everywhere. With the honeyed painting of Barroccio, the soul of Michael Angelo Buonarroti descends to the work of the confessional.

Bologna, the paradoxical city of the leaning towers, the city of megalomania and of monuments which, situated midway between Florence and Venice, seemed to stand condemned to disguise under its pretentious eloquence, the genius of both places—Bologna tried to arrest the fall. It only hastened it by reducing painting to laboratory processes in which the formulas of Titian, of Michael Angelo, of Raphael, and of Correggio were cunningly combined. For a long time the learned city had aspired to this role: Francia had tried to soften the impoverished style of the painters of Ferrara, which Cosimo Tura, Ercole Roberti, and Francesco Cossa had forged under the double influence of the Umbrian and the Paduan masters, and which Lorenzo Costa had brought to Bologna—turning now in the direction of Venice, now in the direction of Umbria.

The spectacle that we now witness is the contrary of the one presented by the decadence of Greece, during which sources of life could be opened up here and there in new countries because the original organism, having developed more slowly and more universally, broke up with less rapidity; but in Italy there was no arresting the descent. The School, step by step, becomes a mere factory. Its principal founder at Bologna, Annibale Carracci, was still, if not a great painter, at least a man of noble will, of grave mind, and of conscience. He adapted intelligently the inventions of others, and ornamented the great melancholy palaces of the Italian princes who had now lost their independence. In his hollow but severely arranged pictures, the pagan divinities bend under his wealth of rhetoric. With Domenichino, the drama becomes completely external, the gestures break up and disperse the overstrained composition, and the mimicry turns into grimacing, though sometimes in a bare arm or in a bit of sky there vibrates the ethereal soul of Venice. The genuine grace of Albani is so sugary and sophisticated that one has difficulty in doing it justice. The bombast of Guido Reni and of Guercino is well-nigh intolerable. What with false sentiment, icy and waxen color, the organization of the picture prescribed by recipe and conventional drawing, the discord that reigns in the art factory of fallen Italy becomes more and more accentuated and develops that gesticulating character which, in the seventeenth century, will culminate in the disjointed and indefatigable grandiloquence of Bernini.

With the contortions of his statues, with the battles and the romantic landscapes of Salvator Rosa, with the dregs of painting that we reach with the prestidigitation of Luca Giordano, the easy and questionable life of Naples invaded Italy and merged its troubled waters with the exhausted currents of the north. It contributed, at least, as much as was necessary to the Jesuit propaganda to mislead the tragic and passionate soul of Italy toward that baroque style in which passion turned to intrigue and tragedy to melodrama. We cannot deny that the style was lacking in abundance and in brilliancy. It had too much. Something of a Hindu exuberance puffed up the buildings and the pictures, and gave to the statues their convulsive appearance. But, within, there was none of the burning sap of India. Instead, there is a heavy look of vanity that inflates the forms with a desire to look well, to please, and to astonish. Under the dominion of bigoted and corrupt political organizations, the great Italian cities, from the sixteenth century onward, pay homage to their own wealth in extravagant churches, amiable and gilded, and in palaces ornamented, like the churches, with profuse decoration. Excepting Venice, where the atmosphere saves everything, this passion for building, for decorating, and for dazzling gave to certain of the cities, to Genoa, to Bologna, and especially to Rome, a character of obstinate power which approaches a kind of beauty; Genoa, however, is insolent, and Bologna pretentious. Rome, with her ruins overgrown with verdure, her red palaces whose reflection turns the fountains to blood, her enormous volumes of water—Rome haunts our memory with a monotonous heaviness. Through twenty centuries she has remained what she was, the place where nature, more than anywhere else in the world, has consented, with unwearying indifference, to take on the form of the will. Besides, in the eighteenth century, she, like Venice, has a moment of semiawakening and lifts her stone shell to permit the entrance among her ruins of beautiful and princely villas surrounded by parks rich in sentiment. We cannot be sure as to the explanation of this, but it doubtless lies in the philosophic revolt that was taking place everywhere. Piranesi constructs his great staircases and dreams his terrible prisons; it is the last, deep sigh of Michael Angelo, a fantastic gleam in the shadow, the tragic spirit of Italy stifling under the crumbling walls and hidden behind the cellar bars, the violent and mysterious bound of her great heart which cannot be stilled. Rome is strange. Ugly when one comes to analyze it, the city preserves in its ensemble an artificial splendor which is garbed in living splendor by the people and the gardens.

In Italy, in England, and in France, as in the Orient, the garden is the only artistic expression that belongs to the aristocracies. It adapts itself to the most imperious needs of those beings who have been robbed of self-possession through idleness and wealth. It throws around them the solitude which they cannot seek within themselves. It is made to surround them with murmurs, with coolness and shade, the possession of which, amid the freedom of the earth, is the recompense of the poor. Even when it is amassed, shaped, and broken in, nature is never ugly. The trees remain the trees; the water remains the water; the flowers remain the flowers; and whatever artist arranges them, space and light retain the power of softening the contrasts, of organizing the values, and of orchestrating the colors.

The villas of the Roman princes have a tragic majesty. The terraces rise by stages toward the rectangular palaces; the somber vegetation which covers them fills the air with bitter perfumes and outlines the tall shadows in the basins of water almost black. The waters there are almost motionless under the cypresses that shoot upward; and the marble steps descend from circular balustrades that are green with moss. The silence of the lawns under the umbrella-shaped pines gives a funereal note to the prearranged order of the gardens. One thinks of death, of absolute forgetfulness.

And so the gardens of the villas surrounding Rome can provide the city with a mortuary crown of boxwood and laurel. Her decline begins on the day when the duels between the great monarchies are staged. And the moral force which the Papacy lent to her, being no longer the expression of the crowd, survives only as an appearance. In reality, Rome's collapse began when Italy, crying out in her pain, gave birth to what was called the modern spirit, which extends even to the new intuitions which press upon us to-day. For da Vinci, the unknown never ceases to retreat before us, and we shall know nothing of the reality of things. For Michael Angelo, we shall continue to suffer until we have seized a moment of harmony, and when that moment has passed our pain will return. Raphael offers us the example of one of those fugitive and immortal victories. Italy, through these three minds, has freed humanity from dogma, has authorized all the audacities of investigation and thought, has reconciled in a possible unity all the currents of idealism, and has freed from its bonds the form which expresses it.

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