The Vision of Saint Eustace, circa 1438-42 (Egg Tempera on Wood)
12 in. x 9 in.
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Altichiero had scarcely ceased covering wall spaces with the pomp and circumstance of medieval life, when his task was taken up by his betterknown Renaissance follower, Vittorio Pisanello. The larger part of this artist's work, in fact all his decoration of great houses and public palaces, has perished. Even now, after earnest efforts to gather together the strewn limbs of his art, only six or seven paintings of his can be discovered: two frescoes, two sacred subjects, and two or three portraits.
His renown as a painter has therefore been eclipsed by his fame as a medallist. And, in truth, never since the days when Greek craftsmen modelled coins for proud city states, has there been such a moulder of subtle reliefs in miniature. Yet Pisanello himself never signed his name without the addition of the word PICTOR, and it was as a painter that he received the stipends of princes and the adulation of poets.
Although he was much more modern than his ancestor, there was nothing in his paintings to startle princes and poets, or even less distinguished persons, whose education in art consisted then, no doubt, as it does now, in confirming a fondness for the kind of picture to which their eyes had grown accustomed during childhood and youth.
Pisanello, although counting as one of the great geniuses of the Renaissance, by no means broke with the past. He went, it is true, as far beyond Altichiero as Altichiero had gone beyond his immediate precursors, but he betrays no essential difference of intention or spirit. Some advance was inevitable, for the hard-won position of one genius is only the starting-point of the next. Altichiero had observed the appearance of objects,
Pisanello observed more closely; Altichiero could characterize and individualize, Pisanello did the same, but more subtly; Altichiero could render distances fairly well, Pisanello rendered them with even better effect. But far from betraying the clumsy struggles of innovators, he has the refinement, the daintiness of the last scion of a noble lineage. In him, art-evolution produced a painter most happily fitted to hold up an idealizing mirror to a parallel product of social evolution, the sunset of Chivalry. No wonder that he was employed along with the kindred Gentile da Fabriano by the rich and noble, and that he was chosen to continue the courtly Umbrian's tasks.
Of Pisanello's seven paintings, six are distinctly court pictures, and their subjects bear witness to his interest in the courtier's mode of life. The fresco at S. Anastasia in Verona is first and foremost a knightly pageant; the little St. Hubert is the knight as huntsman: and in the other picture in the National Gallery the prominent figure is the cavalier St. George standing in gala costume beside his proud steed. His Leonello d'Este is of course a great gentleman, and the female portraits, if less commanding, are still great ladies. The only work which is not distinctly courtly in tone is an Annunciation, and the time was still far off when Michelangelo's followers so broke loose from tradition as to transform the meek Judean maiden into a haughty princess. But even this composition is crowned by the knightly figures of St. George and St. Michael, the favourite saints of chivalry.
A further examination of his works will reveal how far he was from feeling the inspiration of the real Italian Renaissance. In the S. Fermo fresco that we have just glanced at, the Virgin, with her folded hands resting on her lap, is neither in type nor pose nor silhouette obviously Italian, although nothing could be more in accordance with medieval Italian tradition than the obeisance of the announcing Angel, with the grand sweep of his gathered wings, his streaming hair, and his long trailing robes. The Virgin's chamber, with its elaborate Gothic pendentives, its tapestries and stuffs, recalls the contemporary paintings of far-away Bruges. St. George and St. Michael hark back to Altichiero.
At S. Anastasia the fresco is on both sides of a Gothic arch, at such a height that only figures much above the ordinary size would convey their effect to a spectator on the floor. Not only are the figures themselves much too small for this purpose, but no attempt has been made to divide them into lucid groups, or to detach them clearly from their background. No thought of composition entered the artist's head, no idea of extracting the significance of the noble deed.
What arrangement there is, is due to a desire to introduce stock material, regardless of the requirements of the subject. Nothing in the part on the right (which never had any integral relation to the other part, now almost invisible) betrays that the subject is the story of St. George and the Princess of Trebizond. We see a knight getting ready to mount his horse. Between this beast, seen from the back, in order to display the master's command of foreshortening, and his squire's horse, seen for similar reasons nearly full face, stands a lady in profile, expressionless, immobile, in a dress with a long train. She is there as a stock figure of the great lady, the head being a portrait.
The dogs in the foreground are not inappropriate, but the presence of a ram in an equally conspicuous position can only be explained on the ground that Pisanello yielded to an irresistible desire to show how well he could paint him. A low knoll in the middle distance half hides the stone lacework of a group of wedding-cake Gothic palaces, such as even the Venetians of that time might have hesitated to erect along their canals. From the gate issues a procession of knights on horseback, one of whom, in profile, is manifestly a portrait, while the others are, like the architecture and the head of St. George, but Altichiero's inventions brought up to date. Over these horsemen, on a high gallows-tree, swing two rogues, and beyond rises a tall cliff, beneath the shelter of which a ship under full sail is running to shore.
A piece of water bounded by a hilly coast stretches across the pointed arch over which the fresco is painted. In the foreground on the other side of the arch lies a dead dragon in the midst of a multitude of creeping things. Now almost wholly effaced, and never visible to the normal eye from the floor below, these creatures are yet painted with the exactness of a naturalist, and with the detailed care of the miniaturist. Indeed, this wonderful fresco is a miniaturist's work, executed with no thought of the spectator on the floor of the church, but as an illuminator might cover the page of a missal.
We shall find the same advanced medieval traits in Pisanello's two works in the National Gallery, both, as it happens, little more than miniatures in size. In the one, St. Hubert, nobly clad and mounted on a richly caparisoned hunter, in the midst of his dogs and hounds, encounters a stag, who stands still displaying between his antlers the image of our Lord on His Cross. The merry huntsman lifts his hand, but betrays no other sign of emotion: there is more appropriate expression in the eye of the stag.
Around and about them spreads a marvellous scene, rocks and trees, every flower and every beast of the field, every bird of the air and stream, each and all painted with the naturalist's accuracy of observation and the miniaturist's daintiness of touch. The beauty of detail is infinite, the form and structure of each individual bird or beast being rendered only less admirably than its characteristic movements. The eye could dwell on them for ever, captivated by the artist's feeling that his one 'vocation was endless imitation'. If that were indeed the whole of art, this were supreme art.
The other picture in the National Gallery represents the Madonna appearing against the sun in the midst of a radiance of glory, over a darkling wood, before which stand St. George and St. Anthony Abbot. The effect, which is noble and inspiring, is produced by the extreme simplicity of the composition and by the light; but here, once more, our attention is chiefly directed to the silver armour of the knight, to the amazing detail and texture of his straw hat, and to the fierce energy of the boar and the heraldic coils of the dragon.
Pisanello's portraits tell no different tale. No doubt the 'Leonello' of the Morelli Collection at Bergamo and the 'Este Princess' of the Louvre are ably and adequately characterized, one as born and bred to command, and the other as an amiable maiden of high lineage; but in both panels the patterns on the dresses and the texture and tissue of the flowers that decorate the backgrounds were evidently of prime import to the artist.
Of intellectuality, of spiritual significance, of the greatest qualities of the illustrator, Pisanello had even less than Altichiero, but in the rendering of single objects, whether in the animal kingdom or in nature, he was perhaps not inferior to any of his own contemporaries the world over. Indeed, he painted birds as only the Japanese have painted them, and his dogs and hounds and stags have not been surpassed by the Van Eycks themselves.
Yet his place is somewhere between the late medieval Franco-Flemish miniaturists, such as the Limburgs, on the one hand and the Van Eycks on the other -- much nearer to the first than to the second -- rather than with Masaccio, Uccello, or even Fra Angelico. He draws more accurately, he paints more delightfully than his Florentine contemporaries. Why then are they yet actually greater as artists, and the forerunners of a new movement, the begetters of artists as great as themselves, or even greater, while he remains essentially medieval, a little master, and his art dies with him?
The proper answer to this question would require for its adequate development many times more space than is allotted for the whole of this small book, and would involve important problems of aesthetics as well as of history. The detailed answer is not to be thought of here; but I may venture to hint at it, warning the reader that my suggestions will be of little avail if he has not read the previous books in this volume.
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