Renaissance Painting

Selection copyright © 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. This edition may not be reproduced or redistributed to third parties without permission of the author.

[From Renaissance in Italy. Vol 3: The Fine Arts, 1877. The massive seven-volume Kulturgeschichte develops a sweeping history with the piling up of numerous details, from which it is not easy to lift self-contained selections. The following two excerpts illustrate Symonds's key argument about the triumph of paganism over Christianity in the Italian Renaissance, particularly as exemplified in the work of one of its powerful personalities, Luca Signorelli. This selection shows how Symonds's theory of Renaissance art was really a theory of sexual liberation, "the inalienable rights of natural desire". One may go even further, and see that Symonds is proposing that natural homosexual desire lay at the root of art and the modern spirit. When he says he is going to cite "a single illustration" to his argument about the incompatibility of art and piety, it is not surprising that he seizes upon a painting of Saint Sebastian. The celebration of the male nude is the sub-theme that runs throughout all of Symonds's art criticism.]

Painting . . . was the art demanded by the modern intellect upon its emergence from the stillness of the Middle Ages. The problem, however, even for the art of painting was not simple. The painters, following the masters of mosaic, began by setting forth the history, mythology, and legends of the Christian Church in imagery freer and more beautiful than lay within the scope of treatment by Romanesque or Byzantine art. So far their task was comparatively easy; for the idyllic grace of maternal love in the Madonna, the pathetic incidents of martyrdom, the courage of confessors, the ecstasies of celestial joy in redeemed souls, the loveliness of a pure life in modest virgins, and the dramatic episodes of sacred story, furnish a multitude of motives admirably pictorial. There was, therefore, no great obstacle upon the threshold, so long as artists gave their willing service to the Church. Yet, looking back upon this phase of painting, we are able to perceive that already the adaptation of art to Christian dogma entailed concessions on both sides. Much, on the one hand, had to be omitted from the programme offered to artistic treatment, for the reason that the fine arts could not deal with it at all. Much, on the other hand, had to be expressed by means which painting in a state of perfect freedom would repudiate. Allegorical symbols, like Prudence with two faces, and painful episodes of agony and anguish marred her work of beauty. There was consequently a double compromise, involving a double sacrifice of something precious. The faith suffered by having its mysteries brought into the light of day, incarnated in form, and humanised. Art suffered by being forced to render intellectual abstractions to the eye through figures symbols.

As technical skill increased, and as beauty, the proper end of art, became more rightly understood, the painters found that their craft was worthy of being made an end in itself, and that the actualities of life observed around them had claims upon their genius no less weighty than dogmatic mysteries. The subjects they had striven at first to realise with all simplicity, now became the vehicles for the display of sensuous beauty, science, and mundane pageantry. The human body received separate and independent study, as a thing in itself incomparably beautiful, commanding more powerful emotions by its magic than aught else that sways the soul. At the same time the external world, with all its wealth of animal and vegetable life, together with the works of human ingenuity in costly clothing and superb buildings, was seen to be in every detail worthy of most patient imitation. Anatomy and perspective taxed the understanding of the artist, whose whole force was no longer devoted to the task of bringing religious ideas within the limits of the representable. Next, when the classical revival came into play, the arts, in obedience to the spirit of the age, left the sphere of sacred subjects, and employed their full-grown faculties in the domain of myths and Pagan fancies. In this way painting may truly be said to have opened the new era of culture, and to have first manifested the freedom of the modern mind. When Luca Signorelli drew naked young men for a background to his picture of Madonna and the infant Christ, he created for the student a symbol of the attitude assumed by fine art in its liberty of outlook over the whole range of human interests. Standing before this picture in the Uffizzi, we feel that the Church, while hoping to adorn her cherished dogmas with aesthetic beauty, had encouraged a power antagonistic to her own, a power that liberated the spirit she sought to enthral, restoring to mankind the earthly paradise from which monasticism had expelled it.

Not to diverge at this point, and to entertain the difficult problem of the relation of the fine arts to Christianity, would be to shrink from the most thorny question offered to the understanding by the history of the Renaissance. On the very threshold of the matter I am bound to affirm my conviction that the spiritual purists of all ages — the Jews, the iconoclasts of Byzantium, Savanarola, and our Puritan ancestors — were justified in their mistrust of plastic art. The spirit of Christianity and the spirit of figurative art are opposed, not because such art is immoral, but because it cannot free itself from sensuous associations. It is always bringing us back to the dear life of earth, from which the faith would sever us. It is always reminding us of the body which piety bids us to forget. Painters and sculptors glorify that which saints and ascetics have mortified. The masterpieces of Titian and Correggio, for example, lead the soul away from compunction, away from penitence, away from worship even, to dwell on the delight of youthful faces, blooming colour, graceful movement, delicate emotion. Nor is this all: religious motives may be misused for what is worse than merely sensuous suggestiveness. The masterpieces of the Bolognese and Neapolitan painters, while they pretend to quicken compassion for martyrs in their agony, pander to a bestial blood-lust lurking in the darkest chambers of the soul. Therefore it is that piety, whether the piety of monastic Italy or of Puritan England, turns from these aesthetic triumphs as from something alien to itself. When the worshipper would fain ascend on wings of ecstasy to God, the infinite, ineffable, unrealised, how can he endure the contact of those splendid forms, in which the lust of the eye and the pride of life, professing to subserve devotion, remind him rudely of the goodliness of sensual existence? Art, by magnifying human beauty, contradicts these Pauline maxims: "For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain"; "Set your affections on things above, not on things on earth"; "Your life is hid with Christ in God". The sublimity and elevation it gives to carnal loveliness are themselves hostile to the spirit that holds no truce or compromise of traffic with the flesh. As displayed in its most perfect phases, in Greek sculpture and Venetian painting, art dignifies the actual mundane life of man; but Christ, in the language of uncompromising piety, means everything most alien to this mundane life — self-denial, abstinence from fleshly pleasure, the waiting for true bliss beyond the grave, seclusion even from social and domestic ties. "He that loveth father and mother more than me, is not worthy of me." "He that taketh not his cross and followeth me, is not worthy of me." It is needful to insist upon these extremest sentences of the New Testament, because upon them was based the religious practice of the Middle Ages, more sincere in their determination to fulfil the letter and embrace the spirit of the Gospel than any succeeding age has been.

If, then, there really exists this antagonism between fine art glorifying human life and piety contemning it, how came it, we may ask, that even in the Middle Ages the Church hailed art as her co-adjutor? The answer lies in this, that the Church has always compromised. When the conflict of the first few centuries of Christianity had ended in her triumph, she began to mediate between asceticism and the world. Intent on absorbing all existent elements of life and power, she conformed her system to the Roman type, established her service in basilicas and Pagan temples, adopted portions of the antique ritual, and converted local genii into saints. At the same time she utilised the spiritual forces of monasticism, and turned the mystic impulse of ecstatics to account. The Orders of the Preachers and the Begging Friars became her militia and police; the mystery of Christ's presence in the Eucharist was made an engine of the priesthood; the dreams of Paradise and Purgatory gave value to her pardons, interdictions, jubilees, indulgences, and curses. In the Church the spirit of the cloister and the spirit of the world found neutral ground, and to the practical accommodation between these hostile elements she owed her wide supremacy. The Christianity she formed and propagated was different from that of the New Testament, inasmuch as it had taken up into itself a mass of mythological anthropomorphic elements. Thus transmuted and materialised, thus accepted by the vivid faith of an unquestioning populace, Christianity offered a proper medium for artistic activity. The whole first period of Italian painting was occupied with the endeavour to set forth in form and colour the popular conceptions of a faith at once unphilosophical and unspiritual, beautiful and fit for art by reason of the human elements it had assumed into its substance. It was natural, therefore, that the Church should show herself indulgent to the arts, which were effecting in their own sphere what she had previously accomplished, though purists and ascetics, holding fast by the original spirit of their creed, might remain irreconcilably antagonistic to their influence. The Reformation, on the contrary, rejecting the whole mass of compromises sanctioned by the Church, and returning to the elemental principles of the faith, was no less naturally opposed to fine arts, which, after giving sensuous form to Catholic mythology, had recently attained to liberty and brought again the gods of Greece.

A single illustration might be selected from the annals of Italian painting to prove how difficult even the holiest-minded and most earnest painter found it to effect the proper junction between plastic beauty and pious feeling. Fra Bartolommeo, the disciple of Savonarola, painted a Sebastian in the cloister of S. Marco, where it remained until the Dominican confessors became aware, through the avowals of female penitents, that this picture was a stumbling-block and snare to souls. It was then removed, and what became of it we do not know for certain. Fra Bartolommeo undoubtedly intended this ideal portrait of the martyr to be edifying. S. Sebastian was to stand before the world as the young man, strong and beautiful, who endured to the end and wont he crown of martyrdom. No other ideas but those of heroism, constancy, or faith were meant to be expressed; but the painter's art demanded that their expression should be eminently beautiful, and the beautiful body of the young man distracted attention from his spiritual virtues to his physical perfections. A similar maladjustment of the means of plastic art to the purposes of religion would have been impossible in Hellas, where the temples of Eros and of Phoebus stood side by side; but in Christian Florence the craftsman's skill sowed seeds of discord in the souls of the devout.

This story is but a coarse instance of the separation between piety and plastic art. In truth, the difficulty of uniting them in such a way that the latter shall enforce the former, lies far deeper than its powers of illustration reach. Religion has its proper end in contemplation and in conduct. Art aims at presenting sensuous embodiment of thoughts and feelings with a view to intellectual enjoyment. Now, many thoughts are incapable of sensuous embodiment; they appear as abstractions to the philosophical intellect or as dogmas to the theological understanding. To effect an alliance between art and philosophy or art and theology in the specific region of either religion or speculation is, therefore, an impossibility. In like manner there are many feelings which cannot properly assume a sensuous form; and these are precisely religious feelings, in which the soul abandons sense, and leaves the actual world behind, to seek her freedom in a spiritual region.Yet, while we recognise the truth of this reasoning, it would be unscientific to maintain that, until they are brought into close and inconvenient contact, there is direct hostility between religion and the arts. The sphere of the two is separate; their aims are distinct; they must be allowed to perfect themselves, each after its own fashion. In the large philosophy of human nature, represented by Goethe's famous motto, there is room for both, because those who embrace it bend their natures neither wholly to the pietism of the cloister nor to the sensuality of art. . . .

The Church imagined art would help her; and within a certain sphere of subjects, by vividly depicting Scripture histories and the lives of saints, by creating new types of serene beauty and pure joy, by giving form to angelic beings, by interpreting Mariolatry in all its charm and pathos, and by rousing deep sympathy with our Lord in His Passion, painting lent efficient aid to piety. Yet painting had to omit the very pith and kernel of Christianity as conceived by devout, uncompromising purists. Nor did it do what the Church would have desired. Instead of riveting the fetters of ecclesiastical authority, instead of enforcing mysticism and asceticism, it really restored to humanity the sense of its own dignity and beauty, and helped to prove the untenability of the mediaeval standpoint; for art is essentially and uncontrollably free, and, what is more, is free precisely in that real of sensuous delightfulness from which cloistral religion turns aside to seek her own ecstatic liberty of contemplation.

The first step in the emancipation of the modern mind was taken thus by art, proclaiming to men the glad tidings of their goodliness and greatness in a world of manifold enjoyment created for their use. Whatever painting touched, became by that touch human; piety, at the lure of art, folded her soaring wings and rested on the genial earth. This the Church had not foreseen. Because the freedom of the human spirit expressed itself in painting only under visible images, and not, like heresy, in abstract sentences; because this art sufficed for Mariolatry and confirmed the cult of local saints; because its sensuousness was not at variance with a creed that had been deeply sensualised — the painters were allowed to run their course unchecked. Then came a second stage in their development of art. By placing the end of their endeavour in technical excellence and anatomical accuracy, they began to make representation an object in itself, independently of its spiritual significance. Next, under the influence of the classical revival, they brought home again the old powers of the earth — Aphrodite and Galatea and the Loves, Adonis and Narcissus and the Graces, Phoebus and Daphne and Aurora, Pan and the Fauns, and the Nymphs of the woods and the waves.

When these dead deities rose from their sepulchres to sway the hearts of men in the new age, it was found that something had been taken from their ancient bloom of innocence, something had been added of emotional intensity. Italian art recognised their claim to stand beside Madonna and the Saints in the Pantheon of humane culture; but the painters remade them in accordance with the modern spirit. This slight touch of transformation proved that they preserved a vital meaning for an altered age. Having personified for the antique world qualities which, though suppressed and ignored by militant and mediaeval Christianity, were strictly human, the Hellenic deities still signified those qualities for modern Europe, now at length re-fortified by contact with the ancient mind. For the Renaissance was a return in all sincerity and faith to the glory and gladness of nature, whether in the world without or in the soul of man. To apprehend that glory and that gladness with the pure and primitive perceptions of the early mythopoets, was not given to the men of the new world. Yet they did what in them lay, with senses sophisticated by many centuries of subtlest warping, to replace the first free joy of kinship with primeval things. For the painters, far more than for the poets of the sixteenth century, it was possible to reproduce a thousand forms of beauty, each attesting to the delightfulness of physical existence, to the inalienable rights of natural desire, and to the participation of mankind in pleasures held in common by us with the powers of earth and sea and air.

It is wonderful to watch the blending of elder and of younger forces in this process. The old gods lent a portion of their charm even to Christian mythology, and showered their beauty-bloom on saints who died renouncing them. Sodoma's sebastian is but Hyacinth or Hylas, transpierced with arrows, so that pain and martyrdom add pathos to his poetry of youthfulness. Lionardo's S. John is a Faun of the forest, ivy-crowned and laughing, on whose lips the word "Repent" would be a gleeful paradox. For the painters of the full Renaissance, Roman martyrs and Olympian deities — the heroes of the Acta Sanctorum, and the heroes of Greek romance — were alike burghers of one spiritual city, the city of the beautiful and human. What exquisite and evanescent fragrance was educed from these apparently diverse blossoms by their interminglement and fusion — how the high-wrought sensibilities of the Christian were added to the clear and radiant fancies of the Greek, and how the frank sensuousness of the Pagan gave body and fullness to the floating wraiths of an ascetic faith — remains a miracle for those who, like our master Lionardo, love to scrutinise the secrets of twin natures and of double graces. There are not a few for whom the mystery is repellent, who shrink from it as from Hermaphroditus. These will almost find something to pain them in the art of the Renaissance.

* * *

Of a different temperament, yet now wholly unlike Mantegna in a certain iron strength of artistic character, was Luca Signorelli, born about 1441 at Cortona. The supreme quality of Mantegna was studied purity of outline, severe and heightened style. As Landor is distinguished by concentration above all the English poets who have made trial of the classic Muse, so Mantegna holds a place apart among Italian painters because of his stern Roman self- control. Signorelli, on the contrary, made his mark by boldness, pushing experiment almost beyond the verge of truth, and approaching Michael Angelo in the hardihood of his endeavour t outdo nature. Vasari says of him, that "even Michael Angelo imitated the manner of Luca, as every one can see"; and indeed Signorelli anticipated the greatest master of the sixteenth century, not only i his profound study of human anatomy, but also in his resolution to express high thought and tragic passion by pure form, discarding all the minor charms of painting. Trained in the severe school of Piero della Francesca, he early learned to draw from the nude with boldness and accuracy; and to this point, too much neglected by his predecessors, he devoted the full powers of his maturity. Anatomy he practised, according to the custom of those days, in the graveyard or beneath the gibbet. There is a drawing by him in the Louvre of a stalwart man carrying upon his back the corpse of a youth. Both are naked. The motive seems to have been taken from some lazar-house. Lifelong study of perspective in its application to the drawing of the figure, made the difficulties of foreshortening and the delineation of brusque attitude mere child's play to this audacious genius. The most rapid movement, the most perilous contortion of bodies falling through the air or flying, he depicted with hard, firmly-traced, unerring outline. If we dare to criticise the productions of a master so original and so accomplished, all we can say is that signorelli revelled almost too wantonly in the display of hazardous posture, and that he sacrificed the passion of his theme to the display of science. Yet his genius comprehended great and tragic subjects, and to him belongs the credit in an age of ornament and pedantry of having made the human body a language for the utterance of all that is most weighty in the thought of man.

A story is told by vasari which brings Signorelli very close to our sympathy, and enables us to understand the fascination of pure form he felt so deeply. "It is related of Luca that he had a son killed at Cortona, a youth of singular beauty in face and person, whom he had tenderly loved. In his grief the father caused the boy to be stripped naked, and with extraordinary constancy of soul, uttering no complaint and shedding no tear, he painted the portrait of his dead son, to the end that he might still be able, through the work of his own hand, to contemplate that which nature had given him, but which an adverse fortune had taken away." So passionate and ardent, so convinced of this indissoluble bond between the soul he loved in life and its dead tenement of clay, and withal so iron-nerved and stout of will, it behoved that man to be, who undertook in the plenitude of his power, at the age of sixty, to paint upon the walls of the chapel of St. Brizio at Orvieto the images of Doomsday, Resurrection, Heaven, and Hell.

It is in a gloomy chapel in the Gothic cathedral of that forlorn Papal city — gloomy by reason of bad lighting, but more so because of the terrible shapes with which Signorelli has filled it. In no other work of the Italian Renaissance, except in the Sistine Chapel, has so much thought, engaged upon the most momentous subjects, been expressed with greater force by means more simple and with effect more overwhelming. Architecture, landscape, and decorative accessories of every kind, the usual padding of quattrocento pictures, have been discarded from the main compositions. The painter has relied solely upon his power of imagining and delineating the human form in every attitude, and under the most various conditions. Darting like hawks or swallows through the air, huddling together to shun the outpoured vials of the wrath of God, writing with demons on the floor of Hell, struggling into new life from the clinging clay, standing beneath the footstool of the Judge, floating with lute and viol or the winds of Paradise, kneeling in prayer, or clasping "inseparable hands with joy and bliss in over- measure for ever" — these multitudes of living beings, angelic, diabolic, bestial, human, crowd the huge spaces of the chapel walls. What makes the impression of controlling doom the more appalling, is that we comprehend the drama in its several scenes, while the chief actor, the divine Judge, at whose bidding the cherubs sound their clarions, and the dead arise, and weal and woe are portioned to the saved and damned, is himself unrepresented. We breathe in the presence of embodied consciences, submitting, like our own, to an unseen inevitable will.

It would be doing Signorelli injustice at Orvieto to study only these great panels. The details with which he has filled all the vacant spaces above the chapel stalls and round the doorway, throw new light upon his power. The ostensible motive for this elaborate ornamentation is contained in the portraits of six poets, who are probably Homer, Virgil, Lucan, Horace, Ovid, and Dante, Il sesto tra cotanto scuno. But the portraits themselves, though vigorously conceived and remarkable for bold foreshortening, are the least part of the whole design. Its originality consists in the arabesques, medallions, and chiaroscuro bas-reliefs, where the human form, treated as absolutely plastic, supplies the sold decorative element. The pilasters by the doorway, for example, are composed, after the usual type of Italian grotteschi, in imitation of antique candelabra, with numerous stages for the exhibition of the artist's fancies. Unlike the work of Raphael in the Loggie, these pilasters of Signorelli show no birds or beasts, no flowers or foliage, fruits or fauns, no masks or sphinxes. They are crowded with naked men — drinking, dancing, leaning forward, twisting themselves into strange attitudes, and adapting their bodies to the several degrees of the framework. The same may be said of the arabesques around the portraits of the poets, where men, women, and children, some complete, some ending in foliage or in fish-tails, are lavished with a wild and terrible profusion. Hippogriffs and centaurs, sirens and dolphins, are here used as adjuncts to humanity. Amid this fantastic labyrinth of twisted forms we find medallions painted in chiaroscuro with subjects taken chiefly from Ovidian and Dantesque mythology. Here every attitude of men in combat and in motion has been studied from the nude, and multitudes of figures draped and undraped are compressed into the briefest compass. All but the human form is sternly eliminated; and the body itself is treated with a mastery and a boldness that prove Signorelli to have held its varied capabilities firmly in his brain. He could not have worked out all those postures from the living model. He played freely with his immense stores of knowledge; but his play was the pastime of a Prometheus. Each pose, however hazardous, carries conviction with it of sincerity and truth; the life and liberty of nature reign throughout. From the whole maze of interlaced and wrestling figures the terrible nature of the artist's genius shines forth. They are almost all strong men in the prime or past the prime of life, chosen for their salient display of vital structure. Signorelli was the first, and, with the exception of Michael Angelo, the last painter thus to use the body, without sentiment, without voluptuousness, without any second intention whatsoever, as the supreme decorative principle. In his absolute sincerity he made, as it were, a parade of hard and rugged types, scorning to introduce an element of beauty, whether sensuous or ideal, that should distract him from the study of the body in and for itself. This distinguishes him in the arabesques at Orvieto alike from Mantegna and Michael Angelo, from Correggio and Raphael, from Titian and Paolo Veronese.

This point is so important for its bearing on Renaissance art that I may be permitted to dilate at greater length on Signorelli's choice of types and treatment of form in general. Having a special predilection for the human body, he by no means confined himself to monotony in its presentation. On the contrary, we can trace many distinct grades of corporeal expression. first comes the abstract nude, illustrated by the Resurrection and the arabesques at Orvieto. Contemporary life, with all its pomp of costume and insolence of ruffling youth, is depicted in the Fulminati at Orvieto and in the Soldiers of Totila at Monte Oliveto. These transcripts from the courts of princes and camps of condottieri are invaluable as portraits of the lawless young men who filled Italy with the noise of their feuds and the violence of their adventures. They illustrate Matarazzo's Perugian chronicle better than any other Renaissance pictures; for in frescoes like those of Pinturicchio at Siena the same qualities are softened to suit the painter's predetermined harmony, whereas Signorelli rejoices in their pure untempered character. These, then, form a second stage. Third in degree we find the type of highly idealised adolescence reserved by Signorelli for his angels. All his science and his sympathy with real life are here subordinated to poetic feeling. It is a mistake to say that these angels are the young men of Umbria whom he loved to paint in their striped jackets, with the addition of wings to their shoulders. The radiant beings who tune their citherns on the clouds of Paradise, or scatter roses for elect souls, could not live and breathe in the fiery atmosphere of sensuous passions to which the Baglioni were habituated. A grave and solemn sense of beauty animates these fair male beings, clothed in voluminous drapery, with youthful faces and still earnest eyes. They melody, like that of Milton, is severe. Nor are Signorelli's angelic beings of one uniform type like the angels of Fra Angelico. The athletic cherubs of the Resurrection, breathing their whole strength into the trumpets that awake the dead; the mailed and winged warriors, keeping guard above the pit of Hell, that none may break their prison-bars among the damned; the lute-players of Paradise, with their almost feminine sobriety of movement; the flame-breathing seraphs of the day of doom; the Gabriel of Volterra, in whom strength is translated into swiftness — these are the heralds, sentinels, musicians, executioners, and messengers of the celestial court; and each class is distinguished by appropriate physical characteristics. At the other end of the scale, forming a fourth grade, we mention the depraved types of humanity chosen for his demons — those greenish, reddish, ochreish fiends of the Inferno, whom Signorelli created by exaggerating the more grotesque qualities of the nude developed in his arabesques. We thus obtain four several degrees of form: the demoniac, the abstract nude, the adolescent beauty of young men copied from choice models, and the angelic.

Except in his angels, Signorelli was comparatively indifferent to what is commonly considered beauty. He was not careful to select his models, or to idealise their type. The naked human body, apart from facial distinction or refinement of form, contented him. Violent contrasts of light and shadow, accentuating the anatomical structure with rough and angular decision, give the effect of illustrative diagrams to his studies. Harmony of proportion and the magic of expression are sacrificed to energy emergent in a powerful physique. Redundant life, in sinewy limbs, in the proud carriage of the head upon the neck, in the sway of the trunk backward from the reins, the firmly planted calves and brawny thighs, the thick hair, broad shoulders, spare flanks, and massive gluteal muscles of a man of twenty-two or upwards, whose growth has been confined to the development of animal force, was what delighted him. Yet there is no coarseness or animalism properly so called in his style. He was attracted by the marvellous mechanism of the human frame — its goodliness regarded as the most highly organised of animate existences.

Owing, perhaps, to this exclusive predilection for organic life, Signorelli was not great as a colourist. His patches of blues and reds in the frescoes of Monte Oliveto are oppressively distinct; his use of dull brown for the shading of flesh imparts a disagreeable heaviness to his best modelled forms; nor did he often attain in his oil pictures to that grave harmony we admire in his Last Supper at Cortona. The world of light and colour was to him a comparatively untravelled land. It remained for other artists to raise these elements of pictorial expression to the height reached by Signorelli in his treatment of the nude.

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