The Mission of Francis of Assisi (part II)

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In contrast with what occurred at the decline of the ancient civilizations, life reappeared in the north of the country. The south had not been so deeply plowed by the successive invasions. The Norman barons, in southern Italy, had had to defend themselves against a climate very different from their own and against a race that had been enervated by an effort reaching back farther into the past than did that of continental Italy. Moreover, they asked the protection of the Pope in repressing the conquered provinces. The whole of the feudal organization was used in breaking down the activity of the native population.

In the north, on the contrary, the cities profited by the struggle between the Pope and the Emperor in order to gain their autonomy and to fortify it by a system of alternative alliances with one or the other of the two powers that were fighting for the domination of Italy. Guelphs and Ghibellines, Blacks and Whites, Pisa, Florence, Lucca, Siena, Parma, Modena, Bergamo, Mantua, Milan, Pavia, and Cremona, took now the one standard and now the other, to live their life of incessant warfare either under the cross of the Church or under the flag of the Empire. They had, indeed, to choose between death—at a moment when the passion for living was rising in floods—and a life which depended for its strength upon active vigilance, unwearying curiosity, and a continuous physical and moral effort. Hence, the energy of the Italian Republic, out of which the modern mind has evolved, whether we like to admit it or not.

If, amid all these rival cities which were ready to fall upon one another on the morrow of their violent reconciliations, the rise of Florence was the most violent—to the point of absorbing Tuscany in two centuries, of playing a mighty role in the life of Europe, and of inscribing herself upon our memory with lines of steel —it was because she was at the crossing of the roads that connect Rome with Germany and that connect the two seas which border the peninsula. The whole commercial, military, and moral life of the Italy of the Middle Ages traversed her. The grace and the vigor of the country that surrounds her were to make of her senses, tense and burnt by fever, the natural mold into which life was poured that it might be cast into well-characterized and clear images. We must remember that Tuscany, when it called itself Etruria, had already played a role in history analogous to this one. Many of the Etruscan painters have the bizarre elegance which will characterize the art of the Tuscans two thousand years later.

Italy received the Gothic from France, at the dawn of the municipal life of her northern cities. She did not understand it. The forest of the cathedral was not made for her sky. In their silent shadows the immense naves extinguished the fever of her spirit. France is a country united by planes and rivers. Italy is a country divided by mountains. From the north to the south her cities of bronze menace one another from the tops of high hills separated by sudden ravines. The Italy of the Middle Ages could not have a religious architecture, because religious architecture, at that moment, received its grandeur from the social desires which created it and because, the soil being too cut up and the sky too clement to make men feel the necessity for aiding men, Italy had greater need for passion and intelligence, the instruments of the individual, than for instinct and faith, the instruments of the race. We must face the fact that, save for the Romanesque churches of the earliest period, with their pride, their warlike power, and their façade with its patina of gold, the Italian cathedrals are ugly. To be sure, they borrow a singular charm from the hard and lusty cities which mount tumultuously like an army rushing to the attack of the campanile that stands as straight as a mast in a hurricane. It is a bewitching, perverse charm and one from which we cannot tear ourselves without making an effort to dominate its superficial sensations. But when the Gothic appears, the cathedrals are overloaded with decoration and become mannered and grandiloquent. The Romans had made the same error in the old days when they emerged from their utilitarian architecture to erect temples to political parvenus. The Italians did not see that the use of ornament is to define the indispensable organs of the architectural body by making them more slender or lighter—heavier or broader, and that this must be done by accenting directly along the lines of their function. When ornament exceeds this role it becomes a source of ugliness. It masks the bone structure of the building whose characteristic projections are the only things that can justify it. There is no monumental architecture without social cohesion. Here the bones come through the skin, there the garments hang loosely. All the architecture of the Italian Renaissance, all the architecture of Europe since that period has been engulfed in a misunderstanding of this fundamental principle. And the misunderstood art of ornament of thirteenth-century France avenged Gothic architecture by invading a school which had no other reason for existence than that of combating its own magnificent precepts.

The municipal palaces were created for precise needs and defined the violent and free personality of the city; the private palaces defined the whole isolated and devouring personality of the lord who lived in them and who brought into the cities, where Italy concenters, the feudal world which had been driven from the countryside. And it is in these palaces that the Italian architect again finds himself, as the Roman architect found himself when his problem was to open roads, to build circuses, thermae, and aqueducts. Here he is at home, and he affirms the fact. Immediately he becomes strong, sober, precise, and definitive. One receives the impression that the great pavement on which people walk and which is reddened by their blood on days of rebellion, has been set up straight toward the sky, perpendicular with the street. The fierce palaces follow one another, almost solid like blocks, without any other ornament than the brass fists that stick out of the walls as hitching posts for the horses. As the palaces start up from the soil their line is a little oblique, it bends backward, like the spine of a bowman. Higher up it becomes vertical. At the top it leans forward, like the square shoulders whose mailed arms are about to send down lead and iron. Thus the whole façade is concave, impossible to scale. And two hermetical walls on each side of the street defy and menace each other, with the sinister melody of stone that has been set in place with a certainty of its practical function, even as a geometrical theorem is inscribed in the logical functioning of the brain. These crenelated cubes dominated by a square tower, these perfectly bare walls pierced by pairs of narrow windows between which stands a colonnette as stiff as an iron bar, and these profiles as hard as axes rise from the paved lanes of Siena, Perugia, Volterra, Florence, and Mantua and never seem more than half open. When the standard bearers unfurl the banner of the unions in the public square, the gates of bronze are closed against the insurrection of the people. Civil war continues. Let there be two different plumes on men's hoods, let a glance be given or a gesture made and the dagger leaps from its sheath. The tocsin sounds, men are ambushed at the cross streets, pursued under the vaults and murdered in the churches while the fortified houses pour down boiling oil and pitch upon the tumult. There is Italy, and nowhere else. When the illustrious Brunelleschi, right in the fifteenth century, built the Pitti Palace, piling two bare floors on almost unhewn blocks, when, after his journey to Rome, he broke with the disfigured architecture of the French to return to the positive art of his ancestors and abandoned the unreal lyrism of the religious architects of his country to set, on its eightfold ribbing of stone, the dome which rises above the roofs of Florence with a sweep so powerful and so firm, he was accomplishing a more radical revolution against the artists of the Italian Gothic than that which the men of the French Gothic had accomplished, three centuries earlier, against the monks who built in the Romanesque style. He rendered to the genius of his race the homage of recognizing that genius in himself.

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