The Mission of Francis of Assisi (part IV)

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In itself, then, this work is a social monument wherein radiant painting groups sculptural volumes in an architectural rhythm. When the man had disappeared, it crumbled rapidly. Those who came after him could do no more than gather up the debris for the building of isolated edifices which, in the anarchy of the century, were only provisional sanctuaries, frail and exposed to all storms. The disquieted and disunited soul of Italy could no longer find in them more than a shadow of the heroic certitude wherein the great spirits of the Middle Ages had imagined her hope. It was after Giotto that the veritable primitives appeared, but primitives who had lost the great impulse—the end of an epoch. That dull dawn that illumined from within the great serious faces of the virgins of Cimabue, with their great eyes to whose depths we can never look, any more than we can those of the figures painted on the sarcophagi of Egypt, on the cupolas of Constantinople, and on the walls of Pompeii, that nascent force that was beginning to sculpture the flat skulls of the Byzantine idols, to lift up, in confused animation, the choir of the saved, to the accompanying tones of the harps of heaven, all of that obscure flame of life which, in the flash of the mind that we call Giotto, suddenly revealed man to himself, sank to earth together at the same time, and its light diminished till nothing was left but a few hesitating gleams that went out in smoke. As the Italian artists could not re-create the magnificent equilibrium of soul which had covered the walls of Assisi and Padua with those austere lines through which the order of the universe inscribed itself for a moment, and as they saw only two divine works behind them, they sought their refuge in the more despairing one, the only one, indeed, that gave them the liberty to speak as they pleased. Giotto being inaccessible to them, the Dantesque cycle opens at the moment when the plague in Tuscany justified the visions of the poet. In Florence, Orcagna, the man of severe imagination, the painter who shows us visages ennobled by meditation or contracted by grief, saw all about him the gathering of crowds who raised their eyes to heaven and who bowed their great forms in prayer. Taddeo Gaddi, in the gentleness of his despair, nailed the Christ on all the walls. The Spanish chapel was covered with painting over whose fervency passed a wind of terror, where the cripple and the sick man crept out of their hovels to stretch forth their hands. At Pisa, abandoned to the terrible Dominicans in its political decadence, it was now only the walls of the cemetery that were decorated, and then with rotting corpses, with worms, with demons and tortures—we witness a veritable furor of remorse. . . Siena obstinately allowed herself to sink deeper and deeper into a sickly resolve to die without a struggle.

Of all the Italian cities she had always been the most violent, the one that had known the greatest suffering in civil war and had been most frequently devastated by the military conflicts of the north and south, between which she was caught. She retained the hardness of the age of iron in Italy. Her artists saw Giotto, but touched him no deeper than his skin, and allowed him to penetrate no deeper than theirs. Duccio played the same role among the painters of Siena as Giotto did among the Florentines. They were of the same age, but doubtless they knew little of each other. In any case, far more than Giotto, he remains engulfed in the Byzantium which, be it said, he animates with an expressiveness of great power and charm. He has, to the highest degree, the gift of giving life and movement to his crowds. They are active and busy, without great actions, but with a movement in the ensemble that clearly reveals the meaning of the scene at our first glance. He has but the slightest intuition of that sublime ''composition" which, with the great Florentine, is no other than a perfect balance between the moral element and the descriptive element. But he goes straight to his goal of relating the emotion aroused in him by the life and death of the Lord, and he expresses his ideas in living forms; his speech is marked by nobility, tenderness, verve, and archness, even when he is impassioned, and in these qualities he has scarcely a superior throughout the whole of Italian painting, save Giotto himself. His immediate successors, Barna, for example, make a melodramatic travesty, though an ardent and highly colored one, of this power for passion which would suffice to define, outside of the genius of Giotto, the genius of Italy itself. All her heroes have possessed this dramatic soul, and for five centuries all her false artists have shamelessly used it to calumniate, before the eyes of men, the ideal that she has poured forth so generously. Barna and Spinello Aretino disfigure the death struggle of the Middle Ages of the Latin world, as the Bolognese school was later on to disfigure the death struggle of the Latin Renaissance by turning into theatrical declamation the spiritual realities that had been wrested from the unknown by Masaccio, Da Vinci, Michael Angelo, Raphael, and Titian.

And yet in this retrograde city which, amid the disorder and the anxiety of all minds, was possessed by the desire to protect its gods under its armor, the slow fading of the last flower of the Gothic had a penetrating perfume. We meet with something here that has a certain resemblance to the end of French architecture. . . It is like the dying poetry of the stained glass with which a sick people irritates its fever, after the living poetry that had resounded in stone and bronze with the voices of strong men. Siena goes to her death in the burning shadow of the marble cathedral whose black and white campanile mounts from the rock under the pitiless sky. She sinks in the mystic fervor of the pure blues and the golds brought to her painters by the Byzantine mosaicists. Simone Martini withdraws his gaze from the military cavalcades and the high crenelated towers that arise and threaten one another over the wave of the roofs, only that he may listen the better to the vibrating of the celestial harps in the space that no eye can penetrate, but from which comes the wind that sways the lilies he paints. With him all the walls of the palaces and the churches tremble with profound voices, as if the pale virgins who cover them from top to bottom and who, amid the gold and the palms, raising the great oblique eyes in their long pure faces, were together making audible, in the poignant accents of chanted suffering and gentleness, the noble protest of the consoling legends against the noble effort of the time. In the heart of the fifteenth century, when round them a renewed ideal is tormenting Tuscany, Bartolo di Fredi, Sano di Pietro, and Lorenzo di Pietro are still obstinately listening to distant voices which for the other Italians are lost in silence. Only Ambrogio Lorenzetti, the powerful decorator whose frescoes sing, vibrate, weep, and become calm again and swell like the tone of the choir of violoncellos, only Ambrogio has heard the confused murmur that rises from the streets and the countryside and from the little hills covered with vineyards and pine trees—the murmur that announces a new awakening; and at the same time his brother Pietro imprints a new unity upon the plastic splendor that he discovers in the drama of the Cross. A marvelous animation peoples his august landscapes, where the labors of the husbandmen and scenes of war cover the serried hills and cut into the hollow valleys. It is a vast poem, epic and intimate, teeming with imagination, as if a world foreseen were fermenting in the furrows of the plow, in the seed, and in harvests. And then, more profoundly than any one of the Florentines of his time, Ambrogio scrutinizes and characterizes faces. His great effigies, as firm and pure as the portraits of the Chinese, seem graven in the wall, seem outlined and cemented with stone. Slowly and powerfully their eyes awaken and look out from the hard faces, they do not move, but are terrible in their severity, their concentration, and their silence. Their drawing is so concise and so completely a result of the will of the artist, the expressive lines and curves are so closely linked that we already behold a first and almost complete realization of the desire to determine by geometrical means the least abstract characteristics of life when it moves us most; and later on, it will be in an art conceived in this manner that we shall find the meeting place of the heroes of the following century, Paolo Uccello, Andrea del Castagno, Piero della Francesca, Luca Signorelli. But even so, Ambrogio, almost as truly as his brother Pietro, remains a man of the Middle Ages in the strength of his moral philosophy—already quite strained, it is true, and too voluntary, through his uncompromising and precise sense of the just and the unjust expressed in the beautiful dark harmonies, red and black, in which there resounds, with a painful sharpness, the supreme appeal of the past. Siena dies of her desire to maintain, in the face of new needs, the worn-out principle that had caused her to live. While she is shutting herself up in her narrow independence, Florence absorbs Tuscany, and subjects it to her spirit. 

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