Florence (part VI)

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It was doubtless too late or too soon for Florence to reach conclusions. The Republic, distracted by civil war, rendered anaemic by tyranny, enervated by intellectualism, by murder and love, had been passing through unexpected crises from a spirited atheism,to a febrile mysticism, with merely an almost exhausted energy to offer to the Italian soul. At the end of her history Florence still retained her primitive language, and that primitive language was already dull because it had been used to express too many sensations, and worn out, because it had served too many Intelligences. The last of her great painters vainly fled the harsh city in his attempt to break the diamond matrix in which she imprisoned all hearts. Although he was ahead of his time, although he was, by the extent and penetration of his analysis, the first of modern minds, he remains a primitive at base, an old primitive very learned and disenchanted, something like a germ of life already savoring of the cadaver.

The Florentine line, that abstract and almost arbitrary line which da Vinci now contrives to unite with volume until, as it merges into contour, it is confused with the diminution of the light and the beginning of shadow—this line is always felt to be present, pressing like a ring of metal upon skulls, faces, shoulders, arms, and hands, forcing the form to bend under its embrace so as to describe it in depth. One feels that, unlike Masaccio, who looked on life in the mass and who sculptured it on his canvas with the force of his lights and shadows, Leonardo took a section of life, followed it in its accidents, its relations with surrounding life, and its course through space, and never lost sight of the line that described the projections, the hollows, and the undulations which were born of his pursuit of that line. One feels—and this is why he remains a primitive despite his incalculable power—one feels that it is through knowledge that he succeeds in surrounding his sculptured masses with air and in sending back to a distance, in plane after plane, the blue backgrounds of shattered rocks, of mountains, of sinuous roads, and slender trees that live with an artificial life, like a theorem clinging to an emotion, Gozzoli and Ghirlandajo, intuitively, through their sense of exact values, sent their landscapes back to the horizon with more success than da Vinci did, immersed as he was in perspective and mathematics. It is in his mind that the relationships of the world live, even more so than in his senses, and much more than in his heart.

With this astounding man who founded or foresaw all the future sciences together, to whom the arts of sculpture and painting seem to be no more than human applications of the abstract ideas which he had drawn from the study of geometry, perspective, mechanics, alchemy, geology, hydraulics, anatomy, and botany, experimentation was of equal importance with the intuition that he possessed to the highest degree; his intuition was of the kind that creates life, the intuition that is inherent in every great artist, is sovereign to such a degree that it first instigates and then halts the infinite number of conscious or unconscious researches that prepared its explosion. He is perhaps the only man in whom science and art were merged through their means of expressing thought, since they tend to unite, in their common need, to establish the continuity of the laws of nature in the domain of the mind.

Look at his drawings of machines, his anatomical drawings, his drawings of muscles and of flowers. They are the exact and minute representation of the machine, of the muscles, of the flowers. They have also that mysterious tremor, that radiant and secret expression which one sees in his strange, charming, or hard faces that may mean so many things under the rain of the hair that curls to the bare shoulders and to the bare breasts where the artist's line, with each succeeding stroke, draws forth from beneath the skin the silent movement of the inner life. The Italian artists of the fifteenth century had done well to explore the nature of the cadaver, to study the course of the tendons, the projections of the bones, the infinite flow of the nerves, the veins, and the arteries. Even at the cost of a certain confusion, even at the cost of certain conflicts between enthusiasm which creates and observation which disillusions, it was necessary for humanity little by little, to draw from analysis the consciousness of unity; it had to learn how to discover that the flame which glows in the depths of human eyes sleeps in the heart of all forms, that it causes the trees to tremble to the tips of their leaves, that it is in the wings of the birds, the elytra of the insects, in the living muscles and in the dead bones, that it passes from the vibrations of the atmosphere into the murmuring of the brooks and even into the life of stones. On the day when Cellini uttered his artist's admiration for the vertebrae and the bones of the pelvis, he spoke in the name of two centuries which lived to demonstrate to us that all the forms of knowledge may show us how to master and to increase the growth of our mind. "The more one knows," said Leonardo, "the more one loves."

He knew. In his eyes the form was no more than the symbol of a higher intellectual reality whose fleeting direction and infinite character were translated by the smile on a face or the gesture of a hand. It is a conception which, in order to remain plastic, needs to be supported upon a formidable, narrow, and implacably objective knowledge of the material of which life is made. It seems as if he had understood everything. His "Bacchus" is the father of his "Saint John the Baptist." The old dogmas and the new sentiments were, with him, no longer in conflict. He accepted the world. He divined great things. In the "Leda," where the wing of the swan followed with its embrace the line like that of a lyre, which starts from the living arm, from the warm, round breast to descend to the bare feet, there is, in the grass, a broken egg from which children have just come forth and are picking flowers. He perceived the common source and the eternal circle of things. He descended to the profoundest depths of nature, with only his senses as the intermediary between the outer universe regarding which they gradually reported to him and the inner universe which controlled their agitation. And when he raised his eyes to corroborate, from the faces and attitudes of men, the results of his own meditation, he observed that their faces and their attitudes were a result of the contact of their living mind with the living mind of the things that surrounded them.

That is the reason why, in his great picture of the "Last Supper," where the inner drama creates its wave of life and twists and sculptures the forms like trees in a hurricane, we find the loftiest work of active psychology in the history of painting. He had the power to penetrate under every surface, to the depths of every human skull, of living through its intimate tragedy, of infusing the tragedy into the gestures which it dictated, and of uniting all the movements of serenity and of revolt, of swift advance and of recoil, of reserve and of abandon into a single movement of the mind. With him it is a psychological arabesque that we get, transcribed by the form.

Da Vinci could seize the same smile in the eyes and on the lips of all the beings that came forth from his mind and insnare the movement of their fingers, outstretched toward the same invisible point, as if to indicate to the future the doubt which he felt within him. His painting, which is without mystery, is the mystery of painting—one of the human mysteries. In him, all the science amassed by the century flowers into poetry, and his science was composed of all the poetry which his precursors have strewn about them. In an epoch when Platonist idealism, which he ceaselessly combated, had misled intelligence, he had the sense of real life which alone leads to the grandest abstractions. He had the gentleness of wisdom and had acquired it at a time when the life of impulse was loosed upon the world. Skeptical and disillusioned at a time when minds susceptible of discontent were rushing back to the beliefs of the old days, he attained, through his lofty reason, to the threshold of that confused sentiment in which new religions are born, when humanity has rejected all the dogmas on which its certitude reposed. And he, who claimed that there is no science save that which may be translated into mathematical symbols, is the man who translates what he knows into almost inscrutable plastic poems in which, perhaps in spite of himself, intuition guides his hand.

There is nothing in the world more vivifying and more discouraged, more ambiguous and more intelligent, more defined and more infinite than his work. It Is the whole of Florence, from Masaccio to Botticelli—its fiery analysis, its hasty synthesis, its line penetrating to the heart and dissecting the brain; it is everything that she suffered, everything that she hoped to give to us; and the whole of it concentrates in this immense and secret soul which never opens to us completely. Da Vinci embodied within him the torment of Florence and he did not consent, any more than she did, to tell us everything that he had learned therefrom.

It was apart from da Vinci, apart from the Florence which he himself had abandoned and at the hour of her decline, that the Renaissance was to find its clearest expression. The historical role of the Italian republics, if one excepts Venice, was finished. Exhausted by their internal struggles and by the unbridled indulgence of the freedom of their passions, they had reached the end of their capacity for effort. Their individualism, having exhausted the individual, delivered them over to tyranny. They had lost the spring and the pride that took the place of social bonds among them; they had lost the idea of the dignity of existence and the sense of living righteousness. Already the prey of the condottieri, they appealed now to Spain, now to France, who, themselves having achieved unity, profited by it to force themselves on Italy, whose people no longer believed in the heroism of her destiny.

And yet, the confused sentiment which had guided the Renaissance demanded consummation. If it had lost its early sweep, it retained the speed that it had acquired. All it sought was favorable ground for its unfolding. At Rome, the Pontificate offered a rather precarious shelter, but the only one that remained in the storm, except Venice, where Italy mingled with the Orient to infuse a magnificent life into the men who had grown up in the wake of her triumphal movement. Florence, where Leonardo had passed no more than his youth, obeyed until the end the singular destiny which renders her such an incomparable focus of intellectual initiation, but where the mind seems to be prohibited—perhaps because of the too-numerous excitements and problems that besiege it—from achieving its accord with the elements of feeling and sense which could bring about a definitive harmony. It was merely to light his flame that Raphael came there; Michael Angelo, who was trained there, returns only during times of crisis—once to defend the city, once to sculpture some tombs. Those who remain Florentines, Albertinelli, Piero di Cosimo, Lorenzo di Credi himself, so tender, so discreet, and so unusual, still belong in the line of the primitives who had been intellectualized too quickly. And those among her last painters who, after Leonardo and thanks to him, attain a larger conception of form, who see it free of its early fetters, full and surrounded by space—the gentle Fra Bartolommeo or the pure. Andrea del Sarto—are precisely the men who have lost that restless ardor which characterized Tuscan art. With them and after them, intelligence still remains the weapon of Florence, but it is an intelligence that has mistaken its role through allowing sentiment to be effaced; it is an intelligence that takes the means for the end and exhausts itself in seeking the form outside of the inner drama that determines its function. The formulas reached by the two masters of Rome have such a masculine power of seduction that Tuscan art must needs attempt to employ them as the frame for its weakening sentiment. The violence of Benvenuto, which he too often expended in outward acts, the proud and sensual elegance of Giovanni da Bologna, and the severity of Bronzino are not the right qualities for their hands, which now handle tools with excessive ease. Florence, subjected and fallen, can do no more than brood over her melancholy passion in the bitter gardens where the shadow of the roses makes the water of the fountains tremble at the foot of San Miniato.

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