Masaccio's death left Florentine painting in the hands of two men older, and three somewhat younger than himself, all men of great talent, if not of genius, each of whom -- the former to the extent habits already formed would permit, the latter overwhelmingly -- felt his influence. The older, who, but for Masaccio, would themselves have been the sole determining personalities in their art, were Fra Angelico and Paolo Uccello; the younger, Fra Filippo, Domenico Veneziano, and Andrea del Castagno. As these were the men who for a whole generation after Masaccio's death remained at the head of their craft, forming the taste of the public, and communicating their habits and aspirations to their pupils, we at this point can scarcely do better than try to get some notion of each of them and of the general art tendencies they represented.
Fra Angelico we know already as the painter who devoted his life to picturing the departing medieval vision of a heaven upon earth. Nothing could have been farther from the purpose of Uccello and Castagno. Different as these two were from each other, they have this much in common, that in their works which remain to us, dating, it is true, from their years of maturity, there is no touch of medieval sentiment, no note of transition. As artists they belonged entirely to the new era, and they stand at the beginning of the Renaissance as types of two tendencies which were to prevail in Florence throughout the whole of the fifteenth century, partly supplementing and partly undoing the teaching of Masaccio.
Uccello had a sense of tactile values and a feeling for colour, but in so far as he used these gifts at all, it was to illustrate scientific problems. His real passion was perspective, and painting was to him a mere occasion for solving some problem in this science, and displaying his mastery over its difficulties. Accordingly he composed pictures in which he contrived to get as many lines as possible leading the eye inward. Prostrate horses, dead or dying cavaliers, broken lances, ploughed fields, Noah's arks, are used by him, with scarcely an attempt at disguise, to serve his scheme of mathematically converging lines. In his zeal he forgot local colour -- he loved to paint his horses green or pink -- forgot action, forgot composition, and, it need scarcely be added, significance.
Thus in his battle-pieces, instead of adequate action of any sort, we get the feeling of witnessing a show of stuffed figures whose mechanical movements have been suddenly arrested by some clog in their wires; in his fresco of the 'Deluge', he has so covered his space with demonstrations of his cleverness in perspective and foreshortening that, far from bringing home to us the terrors of a cataclysm, he at the utmost suggests the bursting of a mill-dam; and in the neighbouring fresco of the 'Sacrifice of Noah', just as some capitally constructed figures are about to enable us to realize the scene, all possibility of artistic pleasure is destroyed by our seeing an object in the air which, after some difficulty, we decipher as a human being plunging downward from the clouds. Instead of making this figure, which, by the way, is meant to represent God the Father, plunge toward us, Uccello deliberately preferred to make it dash inward, away from us, thereby displaying his great skill in both perspective and foreshortening, but at the same time writing himself down as the founder of two families of painters which have flourished ever since, the artists for dexterity's sake -- mental or manual, it scarcely matters -- and the naturalists. As these two clans increased rapidly in Florence, and, for both good and evil, greatly affected the whole subsequent course of Florentine painting, we must, before going farther, briefly define to ourselves dexterity and naturalism, and their relation to art.
The essential in painting, especially in figure-painting, is, we agreed, the rendering of the tactile values of the forms represented, because by this means, and this alone, can the art make us realize forms better than we do in life. The great painter, then, is, above all, an artist with a great sense of tactile values and great skill in rendering them. Now this sense, though it will increase as the man is revealed to himself, is something which the great painter possesses at the start, so that he is scarcely, if at all, aware of possessing it. His conscious effort is given to the means of rendering. It is of means of rendering, therefore, that he talks to others; and, because his triumphs here are hard-earned and conscious, it is on his skill in rendering that he prides himself.
The greater the painter, the less likely he is to be aware of aught else in his art than problems of rendering -- but all the while he is communicating what the force of his genius makes him feel without his striving for it, almost without his being aware of it, the material and spiritual significance of forms. However -- his intimates hear him talk of nothing but skill; he seems to think of nothing but skill; and naturally they, and the entire public, conclude that his skill is his genius, and that skill is art. This, alas, has at all times been the too prevalent notion of what art is, divergence of opinion existing not on the principle, but on the kind of dexterity to be prized, each generation, each critic, having an individual standard, based always on the several peculiar problems and difficulties that interest them.
At Florence these inverted notions about art were especially prevalent because it was a school of art with a score of men of genius and a thousand mediocrities all egging each other on to exhibitions of dexterity, and in their hot rivalry it was all the great geniuses could do to be faithful to their sense of significance. Even Masaccio was driven to exhibit his mere skill, the much admired and by itself wonderfully realized figure of a naked man trembling with cold being not only without real significance, but positively distracting, in the representation of a baptism. A weaker man like Paolo Uccello almost entirely sacrificed what sense of artistic significance he may have started with, in his eagerness to display his skill and knowledge.
As for the rabble, their work has now the interest of prize exhibitions at local art schools, and their number merely helped to accelerate the momentum with which Florentine art rushed to its end. But out of even mere dexterity a certain benefit to art may come. Men without feeling for the significant may yet perfect a thousand matters which make rendering easier and quicker for the man who comes with something to render, and when Botticelli and Leonardo and Michelangelo appeared, they found their artistic patrimony increased in spite of the fact that since Masaccio there had been no man at all approaching their genius. This increase, however, was due not at all so much to the sons of dexterity, as to the intellectually much nobler, but artistically even inferior race of whom also Uccello was the ancestor -- the Naturalists.
Renaissance Art, Renaissance Painting, Giorgione, Italian Art, Lotto, Giotto, The School of Leonardo, Raphael, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, Velasquez, Longhi, Massacchio, Verocchio, Naturalism, Duccio, Simone Martini, Renaissance Painters, Donatello, Pisanello, Liberale, Boticelli, Melozzo da Forli, Luca Signorelli, Michelangelo, Butinole, Zenalle, Bramante, Bramantino, Correggio, Leoardo da Vinci, Tactile Values, Humanism, The School of Verona, The Umbrian School, The School of Perugia, Domenico Brusasorci, Vincenzo Foppa, Milanese Art, Venetian Art, The School of Piedmont, Florence Art
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