And now, for the present at all events, we can cease from abstractions and definitions, and turn in earnest to the Central Italian Painters. They were, as we agreed at the outset, not always enchanting in colour, and seldom great in form, yet one or another branch of their school has ever retained the attention, I will not say of the most artistic, but certainly of the most cultivated public. We shall now understand the reason.
The Central Italian Painters were not only among the profoundest and grandest, but among the most pleasing and winning Illustrators that we Europeans ever have had. They saw and reproduced visions which have embodied the aspirations, the ideals, of two distinct epochs. Of these epochs, the first, the Middle Age, is so far behind us that to most of us its desires and ideals are no longer comprehensible, and the art which embodies them, losing for all but a few whatever glamour and spell it once had as Illustration, has faded into the dullness of documents recording dead things. But in the other epoch we are living still, and the forms which first expressed its cravings and aspirations answer as well today as when they were conceived in the mind of Raphael, four hundred years ago.
We shall begin with that school of Central Italian painting which illustrates the Middle Ages. The practice in Italy of the graphic arts had probably never been interrupted since the early days of their origin, and it would be a tedious task to pursue their course throughout its whole length, now stagnating, then dwindling, and finally almost disappearing, until they gushed forth again, fed by vigorous unsearched springs.
Was it Etrurian genius reviving? Was it wafted overseas from Byzantium, or did it come from over the mountains, from the smiling fields of France? Let historians find answers to these fascinating questions. For our interest lies not in the origin, but in the enjoyment, of the work of art, and for enjoyment it is enough to know that painting as an art was flowering toward the end of the thirteenth century within the walls of 'soft Siena', then, as always, sorceress and queen among Italian cities.
The first flower of this new growth, the flower from whose seed all Sienese art sprang, was Duccio di Buoninsegna. For this reason, and because he was so typical of his time and school, and anticipated so much that was characteristic of all Central Italian Painters -- for all these considerations, we must dwell on him at some length.
All that the medieval mind demanded of a painter, Duccio perfectly fulfilled. It was the chief business of the medieval artist to re-write the stories of the Saviour, and of His immaculate Mother, in pictographs so elaborate that even the most unlettered could read them. At the same time these pictographs were intended to be offered up as a sacrifice, along with all the rest of the furnishing and actual decoration of God's holy house, and for this they were to be as resplendent as gold and skill could make them. In the hands of a man of genius the pictograph could transform itself into great Illustration, and the sacrifice into great Decoration. Did they suffer this change at the hands of Duccio?
Let us look for answer at the paintings on the reredos that once enclosed with splendour the altar of as proud a temple as Christendom could show. Now it moulders away in the museum outside the Cathedral of Siena, without interest for men, and consequently no longer a fit sacrifice to God. Their metallic lustre, the green and gold, give to these panels such an aspect of subdued sumptuousness as we expect not from paintings, but from bronze reliefs -- from Ghiberti's 'Gates of Paradise'
For the person who approaches them with all his theories safely put to sleep, and his mind on the alert for the distinguishing notes in what he is about to perceive, there is a glamour compounded of sensuous appeal and spiritual association in the first flash of this mysterious work. It is like the binding of some priceless illuminated manuscript, inlaid with ivory, adorned with gold, and set with precious stones.
As you look closer, it is as if you had turned the covers of a book wherein you behold a series of splendid Illustrations. The long-familiar stories are here retold with a simplicity, a clearness, and a completeness that, alongside of the blurred images these tales usually evoked, must have seemed to most of Duccio's contemporaries like the buoyant sparkle of the morning after groping dark. And not this alone: Duccio did not merely furnish the best attainable pictographs. He gave the stories he told all the value that he, as a man of genius, felt in them; he lifted his spectators to his own level of perception.
Let us glance at a few of these scenes. In a palace, at the end of two rows of pondering thought-vexed greybeards, sits a majestic boy. On the left a woman and an old man entering lift up their hands in amazement and reproach. Never has the story of 'Christ among the Doctors' found a fitter illustration. Not a figure too much; nothing trivial, yet not a touch to lift it beyond human sympathy. Attitude, gesture, and expression can do no more for the theme.
Another scene: Christ addresses His disciples before He bends to wash their feet. He sits facing them, hieratic, majestic, and they look as if, though they have known Him long, for the first time He is now revealed to them. Fervour of ecstatic credence, the pathetic yearning to lift one's self up, to comprehend, to make one's own the good manifested for too brief a moment, have perhaps never again been so convincingly rendered. Expression -- and, be it noted, individual expression, for here are different ages and different temperaments -has never been a more obedient handmaid of the gift for sublime interpretation.
In the next panel we see the disciples looking on while Christ washes Peter's feet. Consternation, almost horror, is on their faces, and incredulity withal, as if they cannot believe the evidence of their eyes. Christ is all pity and humility. Peter holds his hand to his head as if to make sure of his own identity.
It would be easy to fill the rest of this little book with descriptions of the scarcely surpassable triumphs of interpretation and expression to be met with in this one reredos of Duccio's. But one or two instances more must suffice. We see Christ, resplendent now in robes all gold, leaping through the gates of hell to deliver from limbo the patriarchs and prophets. They troop up to the mouth of the black cavern, majestic greybeards, with the yearning expectancy of thousands of years lingering on their faces.
Then, on earth, it is Easter Day, and as the light is breaking over the jagged rocks, the three Marys approach the tomb, and start back as they behold its lid swung open and upon it a white-stoled angel, radiant and glorious. I know no more impressive rendering of this most marvellous of all subjects. To the drama of expression and gesture, Duccio adds the drama of light, with all its transfiguring magic. A bronzed purple glow flashes through the thin air, and we feel the vivifying cool of the dayspring.
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