Rome and the School

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WHEN the popes, at the end of the fourteenth century, returned from Avignon, Rome was a dead city. Some thousands of miserable people camped amid the circuses that had been invaded by briars and nettles, amid the shattered aqueducts and the gutted baths. Life round about was at work in the free cities. But here, nothing lived. Certain popes, touched by the spirit of Humanism, tried to create a center of attraction through which a few wandering artists, not one of whom becomes the founder of a line, will consent to pass. It is Florence and Umbria that furnish the court of Rome with the architects and painters whom it calls in to build and decorate its churches: Gentile da Fabriano, Bernardino Rossellino, Piero della Francesca, Benozzo Gozzoli, Melozzo da Forli, and Bramante. The inner activity of Rome will never be sufficient to supply her needs. When artists are born in Rome, we shall find that they are men of diffuse and empty mind, such as are demanded by idle societies to amuse them in their laziness and to flatter their vanity.

But it is the only shelter open to the Italian soul as it is about to ripen. At the moment when Florence succumbs, when Charles VIII, disguised as the champion of order, descends into Italy, da Vinci fertilizes Milan and is about to reveal to France the already exploded profundity of Tuscan passion. Giorgione, in a form that has attained almost its complete expansion, ushers in the whole of Venice, where Titian is appearing. The old land of Umbria is being animated anew and is looking toward Rome. The Italian artist is seeking to free himself from formulas and to spread his liberty about him. When Julius II, the warrior and artist-pope, addresses himself to the architect Bramante, who is soon to summon his young relative Raphael, and calls Michael Angelo from Florence less than two years afterward, it is the spirit of the period that inspires him. Amid the general anarchy which delivers the Italian communes over to the foreigner, and confronted by Venice's policy of protection, Rome is indeed the only place where Italy can sum up her desires.

Rome has such strength through the sadness of her horizon, her isolation at the center of a desert of reeds and grasses, her vast ruins, and the weight of her history, that she did not permit the masters who had spent their youth in distant places to bring Italy to her without first compelling them to accept that disciplining of the will by means of which she could, after so many storms, still dominate the world. She obliged Bramante to recognize this force; she infused it into the fragile Raphael; she made it the habitual food of Michael Angelo. Like Brunelleschi, a hundred years earlier, Bramante lived in the ruins, compass in hand. It was there that he recovered the laws of Roman architecture and of all architecture, the subordination of the organ to the function, which the despotic and fantastic mind of Michael Angelo—when he himself succeeded to the direction of the building of Saint Peter's—could not apply to the problems of construction, but which, in the voluntary and rigorous inelasticity of his powerful intellect, he found again when he came to design the façade and the court of the Palazzo Farnese, a theorem of stone in which the tragic spirit of the world appears in Italy for the last time. Raphael and Michael Angelo could study the mutilated statues which were daily torn from the earth by the excavators, and the possession of which was contested by the Pope and the Roman princes. This hourly contact with the Rome of antiquity could not fail to react upon sensibilities which, like these, summarized two centuries of waiting and working.

But neither could it pervert them. They came from the heart of the race with too great an outburst and through too great a necessity for them to deviate from the path that it laid out for them. The intellectual idealism of Florence, the sentimentalism of the Umbrian painters, and the sensuality of Venice, which Sebastiano del Piombo brought to Rome, were spontaneously amalgamated with the will of the masons and the statue makers of the Empire who built the aqueducts, the thermae, and the circuses, and who carved upon the arches of triumph the rude bas-reliefs upon which the Roman genius had stamped its imprint. For a moment, the whole Italian soul found its realization. Never had a passion equal to this one, wherein violence and gentleness, voluptuousness and asceticism, science and enthusiasm, clashed and merged in turn, accepted a similar frame without being crushed by so severe a discipline.

The Renaissance brought back form, full, sculptural, and athletic—not at all the Greek form, but rather the Roman in the predominance given to the projections of the muscles as a means of expression—but a form lifted up by such ardor that it remained wholly Italian while opening up new epochs. Never had so much matter and spirit been welded together to recreate life in its highest unity.

When we go as far back as the currents which lead to Raphael, it is only to his education in Rome that we can attribute the rise in him of that force of which he would probably have remained ignorant had he not left Urbino or had he continued to live at Perugia or even in Florence. For in that tender and almost feminine nature which his apologists have exalted in a way that brings despair to the hearts of those who love him best, there was a masculine power which doubtless helped to arouse Michael Angelo, and which unfolded with the ease, the authority, and the amplitude of things that mature naturally. Never did any man unite so many scattered and almost antagonistic elements, assimilating them with his inmost substance and giving them forth again in his work—living and spreading out freely and high above its sources while retaining all their freshness.

Beginning with the end of the fourteenth century, Umbria, from which we must consider that he came—for his sixteenth year was probably not yet passed when he entered the studio of Perugino—Umbria had grafted upon the old Sienese school a very living branch, even though it is apt to escape our attention because of the splendor shed by the great fire of Florence. With its back to the mountains, but descending with all its cities toward the gentle plain, Umbria had a soul whose piety is the greater because the proximity of Rome so frequently exposed it to invasion. It was in the heart of Umbria, in sight of Perugia, that Francis of Assisi was born; it was Umbria that first followed him. In an attenuated form, the light of that spirit still floated over its valleys.

Florence, and even Siena, were sufficient to themselves. Perugia was too distant from the great centers of the elaboration and of the influence of Italian energy to retain the artists that expressed it. It was toward Rome that almost all of them gravitated, bringing with them something of Siena, which had first instructed them, something of Florence whither, in general, they went to be initiated; and, by way of Urbino, Bologna, and Ferrara, bringing with them a little of Padua and Venice. Pisanello, the Veronese, after having received in Florence the lessons of Andrea del Castagno, collaborated, in Rome, with Gentile da Fabriano, the Umbrian, whose art had been formed by the Sienese. Gentile preserved their memory of the Byzantine mosaics and their blond faces with the slanting eyes; but in Rome, and more especially in Venice, he had seen the passing of the processions made splendid by the brilliance of the costumes. Of an abounding imagination, he had more curiosity than the masters of Siena, and, with a sense of movement and a love of the picturesque which they, in their gravity, could not have endured, he possessed the expansive piety of Umbria, so different from their jealous mysticism. Benozzo Gozzoli, when he worked at Rome, as he had worked practically in every part of Italy, suddenly became acquainted with this work and gained from it, in part, his taste for the exotic and his Oriental perfume.

In Rome he doubtless saw also the work of Piero della Francesca. That great painter, a nomadic artist, like all those who came to Rome at that period, was but little older than himself. His schematic landscapes certainly lived on in the memory of Gozzoli, when he covered the walls of the Campo Santo of Pisa with the red paintings in which the delicate countrysides, traversed by the Florentines, sink into its horizons. But the nature of Gozzoli is as fantastic as that of Piero is severe and homogeneous. Moreover, though he came from a region which borders on Umbria, one more mountainous and wild, it is true, his contrast with the masters of that province is one of the astounding things which characterize Italy from Dante and Giotto to Michael Angelo and Raphael, and which contrast Machiavelli with Francis of Assisi. Piero painted sharp profiles that seem hollowed out in copper, robes embroidered with flowers as pointed as thorns, and great austere figures isolated by a pure line. Horizontal clouds were gathered in a sky where the divine dove stretched out rigid wings. A terrible majesty lifted the children of his mind above the brows of other men. His angelic musicians seemed like caryatids made to uphold the sonorous vault that invisibly extended over the gloomy highway. The deep tones of their violins were carried over into his harmonies. When he painted war, he was as hard as war; when he painted the night, one saw nothing of it save a cuirass, the point of a lance, and the faces of the sleepers. His mind was such as would be formed by the methodical and tenacious study of all the exact sciences then known. He wrote treatises on perspective. He tried to subordinate nature to the geometrical principles that had formed his mind. Thus the fusion of the living element which our sensibility reveals to us, and of the mathematical element into which our intelligence leads us, came about in his work—the strongest expression of the fierce insistence with which the Italians sought the absolute agreement between science and art; with him, the manner of seeking this accord is stricter than with Paolo Uccello, less factitious than with da Vinci. The figures in his frescoes are built one above the other like houses, with an architecture so powerful that the torsos and the shoulders, the arms, and the heads dominating the necks seem to be determined by exact calculation. Cylindrical torsos, broad shoulders, round arms, necks like columns, and spherical heads whose eyes look straight before them. One thinks of his personages almost as statues walking or kneeling, and the energy that erects them pours into their full form with the weight of brass. It is as pure and strong as the antique. Not one among the noble Italians, not Giotto, nor della Quercia, nor Masaccio, nor Michael Angelo expresses what is proudest in our unique adventure of life with greater heroism than that of Piero. He is perhaps the greatest among those invincible men who, through all the storms, oppressed by passion, resorting to murder if necessary, and accepting life like an every-day drama, went onward, their eyes fixed on something higher and more tragic that lay eternally ahead of them, something which they felt in their resolute and desperate hearts. He goes through the world in company with the heroes of his frescoes, pitiless, pure as force, and inaccessible to resignation. The trunk of the tree is bare, the leaves are motionless, but something is rising and diffusing itself everywhere, a burning central sap that holds them erect and makes them hard. The somber earth itself seems to be formed of curves which the subterranean fire has fitted one into the other, as if to obey some rational power which co-ordinates its efforts. There is no more sublime work in Italy. And it is a decisive moment. Rome and Tuscany meet in Piero della Francesca, and his two principal pupils, Luca Signorelli and Melozzo da Forli, announce, one, the approach of Michael Angelo; the other, that of Raphael.

The Umbrian current, which will touch Raphael, is accelerated with Melozzo, born like himself in that other trans-Appenine Umbria from which Gentile also came and which the Bolognese Francia was to connect with Venice. Florentine intellectualism is too difficult of approach for simple souls, and the mystic reaction to which it gave birth is too severe to enable them to find in it the easy piety that satisfies them and that cannot frighten the court of Rome, which has no love for mystics. With Melozzo da Forli, one seems to hear the passing of the slightest breeze, the fingers of great blond angels touch their celestial harps and draw from them an undefined and distant music which is not to be confused with the storm of the trumpets of the Last Judgment. With Perugino, pious Umbria will be merely bigoted Umbria. The strong capital is misunderstood by its painters, and the square palaces, the hillside streets, and the whole heap of cubes and towers inspire Bonfigli alone with those stone landscapes in which repose his doubtful Virgins and his too elegant angels. He who translates its needs is a man who believes in nothing, who drinks and curses and takes up religious work in order to get rich [Vasari]. Such is the revenge of art when bigots attempt to take possession of it.

Perugino was the first to manufacture pictures of a merely ecclesiastical utility. It was not that he was without grace, a mannered grace which gives a somewhat irritating quality to his pretty Umbrian faces—blond, full, pink, and fresh, where the smile of Leonardo, now become insipid and a trifle silly, gives a curl to the flowerlike lips. Into the art of painting he introduced symmetry, which is the opposite of equilibrium, and he banished movement from space by the hardness of his sugared blues, greens, and reds, which he sets down raw and with scarcely more than a haphazard orchestration. His rounded vigor, his equivocal but robust elegance, his sharp precision in the drawing of backgrounds, slender trees, and the undulating lines of the valleys and the hills, the energy of his straight figures in which a monotonous rhythm gives a twist to the hips, places the foot on the earth, and gives to all the attitudes a strange appearance of dancing, all this explains sufficiently, nevertheless, the influence that he exercised on Raphael, who, after his departure from Urbino, spent his most impressionable years in Perugino's workshop. He felt the vigor of the rhythms—precise, very personal, very complete, and conceived almost like a motionless ballet—which Perugino stamped upon his forms in movement. It was extremely difficult for him to free himself from his master, and he died too soon ever to forget him entirely. At the end of his short and miraculous journey, he still retained, from the painter of Perugia, the countenance of the Umbrian Virgin, which we shall scarcely find again, to tell the truth, save in his pictures of the saints—and which represent so small a part of the man! The countenance almost disappears from his last frescoes, remaining as only a faint memory in his portraits of women; they are pictures as pure, as solid, as opaque and dense as a blond marble.

When he left Umbria, he passed through Siena, where, for a time, he was given work by Bernardino Pinturricchio, who, like himself, had come from the workshop of Perugia and who was returning from Rome, where he had painted the apartments of the Borgias. At Siena he met Sodoma, his elder by a few years, who was stifling in the holy city, haunted as he was by da Vinci, foreseeing Venice, and fashioned, besides, in the school of Luca Signorelli, whose robust frescoes of Monte Oliveto he had completed. He was a singular being, a poor fakir, who was believed to have practiced the most unmentionable vices, but whose art, nevertheless, reveals the ingenuousness of a young god fallen from the cool peaks of Olympus into a century fermenting with knowledge and with pleasure. He is a kind of reversed Masaccio, not having preserved, like the Florentine hero, his original purity in his terrible thirst for knowledge; indeed, he is quite the contrary of Masaccio, as he bitterly seeks to recover his original purity through the satisfaction of that very thirst. And yet he resembles Masaccio in being destined to open a new path upon which he himself will hardly more than set foot. Quite often one can see both Michael Angelo and Raphael in him. At such times he possesses a strength and a grace which are both heroic, and the touch of corruption and of enervation which he mingles with them serves only to render more touching his nostalgic passion and the magnificence of the lyricism through which we feel his anguish. It is in this way that the most profound Platonists of Florence might have painted at the most sensual moment of the Venetian maturity. The "Wedding of Alexander and Roxana" is, in this sense, a work that is unique in the world, through the sublime accent of its masculine and disenchanted poetry which makes clear to us, under the transparence of the veils and in the soft penumbra, the irresistible and fatal voluptuousness. The nude figures—male and female—have an indescribable character that partakes at once of Eden and of Greece and that Christianity would have animated with an ecstasy of feverish, restless love. Sodoma is a strange spirit, full of youthful strength through which the mystic perfume of the old masters of his country mounts to the restless faces. The forms hesitate in their affirmation of his science, and their athletic power grows noble in a melancholy ardor which cannot quite reveal itself. He is intoxicated with the caress of hard bosoms, slim waists, and the knees of women, in which he sees a special beauty; his wayward spirit feels the needs of men and he hesitates. All his life he hesitates. Later on, at Rome, Raphael refused to efface his decorations. He had well observed Sodoma's haughty grace, and the carriage of a conqueror enslaved by an incurable adolescence. . . He remembered it forever; perhaps he took from it the strongest elements of that magnificent handwriting by means of which he was to express all his pride of youth and his gratitude to nature for having made him what he was.

Even the sharp and charming Pinturricchio could not retard the impulsiveness with which he cast himself upon antique form, that hymn to the nude body which was rising everywhere, breaking the yoke of Florence, bursting forth at this very hour in Venice in the mature work of Giovanni Bellini, swelling still more in the nascent work of Giorgione and of Titian, and which was to take on, with the voice of Michael Angelo, the tragic power of a new creation. He was very far, to be sure, from Pinturricchio, the meticulous technician whose bad taste, perverse and free, led to the spreading out of so much metal and so many transparent stones on the frescoes which he worked in relief. Nevertheless, in his rapid excursion through the bizarre exoticism of that singular artist, he noted the cold, delicate landscapes engraved as if on a pane of glass by means of a diamond, and the slender grace of the silhouettes that cleft the motley crowds with gestures like those of dancers. Pinturricchio developed in central Italy that spirit of the mirage and of far-away adventure, that fairy fancy which Gentile de Fabriano had diffused in the peninsula, with which Gozzoli had amused austere Florence, and which Carpaccio, among the Venetians, was at that moment carrying to its most astounding limits of fantasy and lyricism. The oceans opened up in the distance, the stars rained upon the earth, the poetry of imagined worlds charmed those precocious children who knew too much and who profited by the new sensations flowing in upon them from every side to renew in them their somewhat wearied inventiveness. It was from Pinturricchio, perhaps, and from the spirit of central Italy, brought to him by Perugino, that Raphael learned the enchantment of penetrating beyond the immediate vision and the subject imposed; he learned something of it even from Francia, whose vigorous but discordant and dry painting must soon have wearied him. After that he had only to seek in Florence, in the work of da Vinci and of Fra Bartolommeo, and especially in that of Masaccio, the sense of modeling and the need for architecture in a canvas; later on, he had only to watch his friend Sebastiano del Piombo painting in Rome and revealing the nascent desire of Venice, to sweep into a symphony, becoming more complex as he grew older, all the confused voices in which, for a century, the enthusiasm, the pain, the fever, and the will of Italy had been mounting.

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