Florence (part V)


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This need affected even those who entered most vehemently into the passionate life of Florence. When one knows the story of Filippo Lippi, his work is astonishing, for it seems built up from those elements in life that we may accept unquestioningly. He was one of those surprising and magnificently impulsive men whom their time pardoned for everything because, in considering their life, it recognized its own instinct. They knew no law except their own desire. A hundred years later, Benvenuto, in a dozen of instances, will not hesitate at murder. Herein is the glory and the danger of the Italian soul. It goes its full length at a bound. One might say that it has no resting place between crime and heroism. The anarchy of sentiment that weighed so heavily on a Masaccio and a Donatello drove Filippo Lippi to devour life in every direction—he who remained a monk after having seduced the nuns. For him love was a kind of fury. Between two fiery adventures he worked in a state of exaltation;, the violent modeling and the red accents of his painting caused the sacred story to burst forth from out the darkness of the chapels and to be inducted into Florentine society, tormented and quivering with the drama that was decomposing it. Around the festivals and the banquets in the palaces, whose low-ceilinged halls are paved with squares of white and black, there glide strange blond women who prolong the age of mysticism to the midst of the magnificent orgy wherein the senses and thought were renewed together. Filippo Lippi marks perhaps the most anxious moment in the life of Florence. Although the painters still search the Scriptures for almost every pretext for manifesting their passion, Humanism, whose work is progressing, has penetrated them. The conflict shifts to another field. It is no longer between their ancient beliefs and the rise of that instinct which urges them on to scrutinize the forms so as to extract the spirit. It is between this living instinct itself and the premature influence of philosophic and literary erudition which pretends to have recovered from the thought of antiquity the food for the new needs that Italy is discovering in herself. With Filippo Lippi, Florentine line becomes enervated, exaggerates its curves, and begins to distort bearing and gesture, the inclination of the head and the twist of the neck on the shoulders, the folds of garments, and even the form of flowers. All his pupils and even the sculptors, Agostino di Duccio among others, will follow him in this respect. The Platonist spirit, which the √©lite claims to follow, comes too soon. The Greek soul, with Plato, sustained its generalizations on three hundred years of life that had been lived, felt, and loved for itself, that had developed harmoniously, continuously, in a single direction and without turning back—to reach the climax of its natural ascent in the living idealism of the century of Pericles. Florence bites into a fruit that is too green and that sets her teeth on edge.

And yet it was better for Florence and for Italy to explore the literary ground presented by the Platonists, who were prepared to retrace their steps, than to efface themselves before the works of the past that were offered to them as models. The life of the senses and the passions was, it is true, too strong in them for them to submit to this effacement. In reality there is nothing in Florentine form that recalls the form of the antique, and there is no more relationship between Florentine art and that of the sculptors of Athens or of imperial Italy than there was between the religion and the social rhythm of the Florence of the fifteenth century and Greco-Latin paganism. In the antique the form is as calm and full as Florentine form is sharp and dry and strained. Even when it tries to resemble the art of the dead races, perhaps especially at that moment, Tuscan art remains Tuscan. Whatever the influence of Petrarch and of Humanism—a beneficent influence, since it aroused curiosity, the restlessness of the artists, and a need for analysis which was essential in those times Italian painting owed nothing to ancient art save the desire to find itself. We must not forget that Italy was still Italy, that although twelve centuries had implanted in men a more feverish sensibility, neither its landscapes, nor the products of its soil, nor its climate, had changed, and that it was the genius of their senses which the Italians were obeying when they asked of the ancient world the testimony and the support of a form of intelligence which they felt to be related to their own. Before Petrarch, Dante knew Vergil, for he had asked Vergil to accompany him to the Inferno, and he was on the point of writing his poem in Latin. But life bore him away.

In Italy life conquered everywhere. Italy wrote her poem in a language that responded to her desire. If, after a hundred years of torture, she recovered a form which on its surface recalled the ancient form, it was because the ancient form had been, as the painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was itself, a necessary expression of the Greco-Latin peoples.

For a moment even, in the full tide of Humanism, when Lorenzo de' Medici was organizing and singing his "Triumphs," when the pagan processions were defiling before the Loggia dei Lanzi amid clamors and broils, and when Poliziano was writing his "Stanzas," the Florentine soul seemed to be on the point of arresting in real life, transfigured by a great painter, the evolution that was carrying the Italian genius toward the plastic idealism realized by the artists in the following century. While Botticelli was accentuating what there was of artificiality in the work of Filippo Lippi to the most extreme literary development, Ghirlandajo was singling out from it that part which was most direct and most healthy. We have no image of Florentine life more faithful than that which he left us. And despite his violent drawing, his somewhat confused but powerful orchestrations, despite the accent of his portraits, his nervous bodies, and the bony legs of the thin figures in which concentrated passion produces a grave, sad, rather haggard character, one cannot say as much for Filippo Lippi. All his life he hesitated and was never able to choose between what he had learned through the work of his father and the opposing influences of Ghirlandajo and of Botticelli. As for the rude Verrochio, the only one of the great contemporaries of these three painters who, like them, fell under the dominating influence of Donatello and of Filippo Lippi, the problems of perspective and anatomical dissection occupied almost his entire time. When he worked at sculpture, he attached more importance to the manner of working the material and of casting the bronze of his statues than he did to the statues themselves, their pride, their passion, their overwhelming brutality. When he worked at painting, he set himself to invent a style as hard as metal, upon coming into contact with the undulating forms of the murmuring landscapes.

Ghirlandajo was the only one to love painting for itself. He alone had that joy of painting which made the glory of Venice and of the Flemings. He regretted that he had not "the circuit of the walls of Florence to cover with painting" [Vasari].  With Gozzoli—who had arrived thirty years earlier, though he departed a little later—among all the Florentines, he alone could see the landscapes receding among the hills; he alone knew how to give distance to the great halls with their square-flagged pavements, to the terraces, and to the skies against which one sees the clear-cut profile of the campaniles and the towers. If, unlike Masaccio, he does not seem to have understood the essential role of the lights and the shadows, he was the only one who tried to unite the former with the latter through atmosphere, through the balancing of groups, through exact values and the planes that give an appearance of the real to the most daring transpositions of plastic art. Only he, after Masaccio and until da Vinci—and more than da Vinci perhaps—only he tried to emerge from that intellectual primitivism which constituted the originality and the weakness of Florence. He gained and lost thereby. Of the Italians of his period, he is the one who, by his language, is the nearest to the great periods. He is the one, perhaps, who is furthest from them in lyricism and in royalty.

He felt no remorse about transporting Christian mythology into the everyday life of the rich citizens of his country. Sober during a time when the painters were accumulating their figures without order, harmonizing their tones confusedly, and overloading their compositions with flowers and rich stuffs, he yet knew how to paint the beautiful processions as they passed, how to orchestrate with magnificence their oranges and dull reds, and the lilacs and the greens, and to set, in his white spaces, furniture, the ledge of open windows, baskets of fruits, bouquets, sonorous glasses, and peacocks spreading into a fan the precious gems of their tails. He understood the young women of Florence whom Filippo Lippi had loved too furiously for him to look upon them in a wholesome way. They walk in their silver-embroidered dresses, their beautiful hands clasped at the waist. They turn toward him their long fine faces, a little sickly, without beauty, but with a charm so unforeseen, and so grave, with their sad mouth and eyes, the too-slender neck under the weight of the blond tresses which give them the appearance of a flower too heavy for its stem and withering before it has reached full bloom. They chat among themselves, offer their breasts or arms to new-born children, carry linen or baskets, or superintend the affairs of an elegant household. Sometimes they go out upon terraces from which one can see a sober, airy, and precise landscape running back to the horizon, a Tuscan landscape, encumbered with hills, sown with pine trees and tilled fields under a silver sky through which sail the great birds.

There is perhaps no other "intimist" in this passionate Italy whose especial glory is that of having translated the human drama, with the universal drama, into generalizations which were transposed into painting. Like all the Italians, to be sure, Ghirlandajo is a decorator. His style is too tense for him to tell the story of evening peace and the meals in the home. He is restless; drama is afoot. The man who was most in love with silence and the hearth does not escape the genius of his race. From a people that lives in the street or that leans out of the windows when it hears the noise of broils, of songs, of talk, and festivals, that frequently beholds the spectacle of acts of violence or of love, from an expressive and living crowd whose mimicry is another language, that understands everything and causes everything to be understood instantaneously, that is amused and roused to passion simultaneously or successively by the speeches of the orators and the tradesmen of the streets, from such one must not ask that the sources of its emotion and its means of activity be sought in the discreet calm of family life. Passion reveals truth and heroism along paths that are sometimes more painful to follow, but which are as sure as those of meditation.

Be that as it may, Ghirlandajo carried the nervous line of Filippo Lippi back into Florentine life, and almost reached the point of incorporating it with the volumes in his paintings and with space. It is an astonishing effort for that moment, when Botticelli, on the contrary, was trying to extricate that line from living matter so as to give a factitious animation to the literary abstractions of Florentine intellectualism. We know that Ghirlandajo had nine children, of whom several were painters and his pupils, that he worked ceaselessly; and Vasari tells us that he possessed "an invincible courage." When one compares this life with the perpetual restlessness, the painful incoherence, and the agitation of Botticelli's life, which was lived "each day for itself" [Vasari], one understands the contrast better. On the one hand, a great workman, a certain bourgeois heaviness, not much lyricism, but a great deal of strength and of knowledge; on the other hand, "a brain fashioned in the alembic of an alchemist," [Vasari] a wild desire, continually shattered by life, to surpass and to forget life. With Botticelli the quivering line of Donatello and of Lippi follows only the complicated, abstract, and—in reality—thoroughly obscure direction of a sensibility that feeds on rotting food. It intensifies its curves and its angles; with each new work it exaggerates the twist of limbs and of heads and seems to seek in the bare bodies of the young men and young women of Florence the marks of a decline, that is smiting the energy of the city. Antonio Pollaiuolo, at about the same hour, with the same intellectual perversity and the same nervous acuteness, but with less imagination, was making strange researches into color, mingling precious and rare tones to give an effect like that of the mottling of stagnant waters. Italian passion was whirling out of its orbit. Humanism, gathering from the work of Plato the almost withered flower of the soul of antiquity, had destroyed its perfume. The Florentine intellectual, because he had desired to begin at the place where Greece left off, found himself obliged to transport himself to an artificial sphere from which the vibrant and living element furnished by our inexhaustible world was banished. The natural symbolism of the poets of the Middle Ages lived again as a hothouse plant, unknown and miserable and doomed to die at its first contact with the burning atmosphere from out-of-doors.

There is not an artist who expresses this intellectual tragedy with more distress than does Sandro Botticelli, though he does not know it himself; his was a voluptuous imagination, but an unhealthy one also, and it tortured itself until the end because it did not find itself in accord with the living universe, which it desired without knowing how to do so. He discovered the mystery of the woods and the meadows, the fecundity of the sea, and the wildness of the wind. His desire for naked beauty was so feverish that even before looking at it, he twisted and burned it in the flames of his desire. He loved flowers so much that he caused them to rain from the sky when he found none on the earth. But they exhaled the mortuary odor of dead flowers. It was in vain that he wove them into crowns and garlands, that he loaded roses and pinks, hyacinths, and bluebells upon the black trees, upon the lawns, the breezes, the gauzy dresses, and the flying hair of the slender androgynes by means of which he attempted to bring back to his canvases the springtime of the past; the forsaken Venuses, all the goddesses of forests and springs in whom he no longer believed, the fruits, the flowers, and the accumulation of nude forms only accentuated his impotence to restore to life its blending force. An artificial work, undecided, painful, and abortive, the saddest in the history of painting.

And yet one of the most noble. The intense restlessness that one feels in it does no more than accentuate the aspiration toward an intellectual harmony which a less literary and more plastic culture would have permitted him to achieve. If the man's mind is poisoned by it, his instinct is ever pure and grave, and amid this culture the artist seems crucified by his continued vain effort to wrest his ever-living faith from the complications ever ready to arise in his ill-balanced intelligence. The walk and the dance, the passing processions, the urge toward love and our love of childhood, all that transforms the fairest impulses of the heart into gesture, all of that preserves, nevertheless, a spiritual majesty in his work, which the strangest movement and the most bizarre composition are not sufficient to mask. Botticelli is the victim of the aesthetes of his time, and of our time, too. The former perverted him. The latter misunderstood him. His destiny remains tragic. His posthumous glory wills it so, as did his art itself and his life and his death.

This great imaginative spirit, who lacked nothing of the great man save simple humanity, ended his life, sick and corrupted, in religious orders. This is the usual fate of men whose sensibility is too acute for them to submit to the discipline of their weak intelligence. He was among the first and earliest of the Renaissance painters to mingle Aphrodites and Virgins—the pagan gods, in whom he believed only through literary, dilletantism, with the Christian gods to whom he returned in a spirit of discouraged mysticism—and he suffered for doing so. Even in this he found no rest. He illustrated the Inferno of Dante with convulsive drawings that make one think of a dance of madmen in the nave of a cathedral. In desperation he followed Savonarola who was arousing Florence against the spirit of moral disintegration and of elegant corruption brought about by the coming of tyranny and the reign of analysis—of which his work had clearly been the manifestation. Standing beside the terrible monk he must, doubtless, have burned the books, slashed the pictures, and have brought certain of his own works to be thrown into the flames. Savonarola, who insisted that the painters return to the aesthetics of Fra Angelico, surely did not dream that the work of the good friar was one of the sources of the necessary evil which he swore to extirpate. He knew well that the form is conquered by the spirit whenever they conflict, but he had no idea that the spirit is conquered by the form when it demands that form express it; he knew that divine truth resides nowhere else but in the equilibrium between the form and the spirit, the equilibrium always aimed at, always approximated, always destroyed, and always hoped for when it is destroyed again. His love for Angelico was again, as ever, that idolatry through which, three centuries earlier, Francis of Assisi had delivered Italy.

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