Mornings in Florence/The First Morning

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Mornings in Florence by John Ruskin
The First Morning: Santa Croce

If there is one artist, more than another, whose work it is desirable that you should examine in Florence, supposing that you care for old art at all, it is Giotto. You can, indeed, also see work of his at Assisi; but it is not likely you will stop there, to any purpose. At Padua there is much; but only of one period. At Florence, which is his birthplace, you can see pictures by him of every date, and every kind. But you had surely better see, first, what is of his best time and of the best kind. He painted very small pictures and very large—painted from the age of twelve to sixty—painted some subjects carelessly which he had little interest in—some carefully with all his heart. You would surely like, and it would certainly be wise, to see him first in his strong and earnest work,—to see a painting by him, if possible, of large size, and wrought with his full strength, and of a subject pleasing to him. And if it were, also, a subject interesting to yourself,—better still.

Now, if indeed you are interested in old art, you cannot but know the power of the thirteenth century. You know that the character of it was concentrated in, and to the full expressed by, its best king, St. Louis. You know St. Louis was a Franciscan, and that the Franciscans, for whom Giotto was continually painting under Dante's advice, were prouder of him than of any other of their royal brethren or sisters. If Giotto ever would imagine anybody with care and delight, it would be St. Louis, if it chanced that anywhere he had St. Louis to paint.

Also, you know that he was appointed to build the Campanile of the Duomo, because he was then the best master of sculpture, painting, and architecture in Florence, and supposed to be without superior in the world.[1]

And that this commission was given him late in life, (of course he could not have designed the Campanile when he was a boy;) so therefore, if you find any of his figures painted under pure campanile architecture, and the architecture by his hand, you know, without other evidence, that the painting must be of his strongest time.

So if one wanted to find anything of his to begin with, especially, and could choose what it should be, one would say, "A fresco, life size, with campanile architecture behind it, painted in an important place; and if one might choose one's subject, perhaps the most interesting saint of all saints—for him to do for us—would be St. Louis."

Wait then for an entirely bright morning; rise with the sun, and go to Santa Croce, with a good opera-glass in your pocket, with which you shall for once, at any rate, see an opus; and, if you have time, several opera. Walk straight to the chapel on the right of the choir ("k" in your Murray's guide). When you first get into it, you will see nothing but a modern window of glaring glass, with a red-hot cardinal in one pane—which piece of modern manufacture takes away at least seven-eighths of the light (little enough before) by which you might have seen what is worth sight. Wait patiently till you get used to the gloom. Then, guarding your eyes from the accursed modern window as best you may, take your opera-glass and look to the right, at the uppermost of the two figures beside it. It is St. Louis, under campanile architecture, painted by—Giotto? or the last Florentine painter who wanted a job—over Giotto? That is the first question you have to determine; as you will have henceforward, in every case in which you look at a fresco.

Sometimes there will be no question at all. These two grey frescos at the bottom of the walls on the right and left, for instance, have been entirely got up for your better satisfaction, in the last year or two—over Giotto's half-effaced lines. But that St. Louis? Re-painted or not, it is a lovely thing,—there can be no question about that; and we must look at it, after some preliminary knowledge gained, not inattentively.

Your Murray's Guide tells you that this chapel of the Bardi della Libertà, in which you stand, is covered with frescos by Giotto; that they were whitewashed, and only laid bare in 1853; that they were painted between 1296 and 1304; that they represent scenes in the life of St. Francis; and that on each side of the window are paintings of St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Louis king of France, St. Elizabeth, of Hungary, and St. Claire,—"all much restored and repainted." Under such recommendation, the frescos are not likely to be much sought after; and accordingly, as I was at work in the chapel this morning, Sunday, 6th September, 1874, two nice-looking Englishmen, under guard of their valet de place, passed the chapel without so much as looking in.

You will perhaps stay a little longer in it with me, good reader, and find out gradually where you are. Namely, in the most interesting and perfect little Gothic chapel in all Italy—so far as I know or can hear. There is no other of the great time which has all its frescos in their place. The Arena, though far larger, is of earlier date—not pure Gothic, nor showing Giotto's full force. The lower chapel at Assisi is not Gothic at all, and is still only of Giotto's middle time. You have here, developed Gothic, with Giotto in his consummate strength, and nothing lost, in form, of the complete design.

By restoration—judicious restoration, as Mr. Murray usually calls it—there is no saying how much you have lost, Putting the question of restoration out of your mind, however, for a while, think where you are, and what you have got to look at.

You are in the chapel next the high altar of the great Franciscan church of Florence. A few hundred yards west of you, within ten minutes' walk, is the Baptistery of Florence. And five minutes' walk west of that is the great Dominican church of Florence, Santa Maria Novella.

Get this little bit of geography, and architectural fact, well into your mind. There is the little octagon Baptistery in the middle; here, ten minutes' walk east of it, the Franciscan church of the Holy Cross; there, five minutes walk west of it, the Dominican church of St. Mary.

Now, that little octagon Baptistery stood where it now stands (and was finished, though the roof has been altered since) in the eighth century. It is the central building of Etrurian Christianity,—of European Christianity.

From the day it was finished, Christianity went on doing her best, in Etruria and elsewhere, for four hundred years,—and her best seemed to have come to very little,—when there rose up two men who vowed to God it should come to more. And they made it come to more, forthwith; of which the immediate sign in Florence was that she resolved to have a fine new cross-shaped cathedral instead of her quaint old little octagon one; and a tower beside it that should beat Babel:—which two buildings you have also within sight.

But your business is not at present with them; but with these two earlier churches of Holy Cross and St. Mary. The two men who were the effectual builders of these were the two great religious Powers and Reformers of the thirteenth century;—St. Francis, who taught Christian men how they should behave, and St. Dominic, who taught Christian men what they should think. In brief, one the Apostle of Works; the other of Faith. Each sent his little company of disciples to teach and to preach in Florence: St. Francis in 1212; St. Dominic in 1220.

The little companies were settled—one, ten minutes' walk east of the old Baptistery; the other five minutes' walk west of it. And after they had stayed quietly in such lodgings as were given them, preaching and teaching through most of the century; and had got Florence, as it were, heated through, she burst out into Christian poetry and architecture, of which you have heard much talk:—burst into bloom of Arnolfo, Giotto, Dante, Orcagna, and the like persons, whose works you profess to have come to Florence that you may see and understand.

Florence then, thus heated through, first helped her teachers to build finer churches. The Dominicans, or White Friars the Teachers of Faith, began their church of St. Mary's in 1279. The Franciscans, or Black Friars, the teachers of Works, laid the first stone of this church of the Holy Cross in 1294. And the whole city laid the foundations of its new cathedral in 1298. The Dominicans designed their own building; but for the Franciscans and the town worked the first great master of Gothic art, Arnolfo; with Giotto at his side, and Dante looking on, and whispering sometimes a word to both.

And here you stand beside the high altar of the Franciscans' church, under a vault of Arnolfo's building, with at least some of Giotto's colour on it still fresh; and in front of you, over the little altar, is the only reportedly authentic portrait of St. Francis, taken from life by Giotto's master. Yet I can hardly blame my two English friends for never looking in. Except in the early morning light, not one touch of all this art can be seen. And in any light, unless you understand the relations of Giotto to St. Francis, and of St. Francis to humanity, it will be of little interest.

Observe, then, the special character of Giotto among the great painters of Italy is his being a practical person. Whatever other men dreamed of, he did. He could work in mosaic; he could work in marble; he could paint; and he could build; and all thoroughly: a man of supreme faculty, supreme common sense. Accordingly, he ranges himself at once among the disciples of the Apostle of Works, and spends most of his time in the same apostleship.

Now the gospel of Works, according to St. Francis, lay in three things. You must work without money, and be poor. You must work without pleasure, and be chaste. You must work according to orders, and be obedient.

Those are St. Francis's three articles of Italian opera. By which grew the many pretty things you have come to see here.

And now if you will take your opera-glass and look up to the roof above Arnolfo's building, you will see it is a pretty Gothic cross vault, in four quarters, each with a circular medallion, painted by Giotto. That over the altar has the picture of St. Francis himself. The three others, of his Commanding Angels. In front of him, over the entrance arch, Poverty. On his right hand, Obedience. On his left, Chastity.

Poverty, in a red patched dress, with grey wings, and a square nimbus of glory above her head, is flying from a black hound, whose head is seen at the corner of the medallion.

Chastity, veiled, is imprisoned in a tower, while angels watch her.

Obedience bears a yoke on her shoulders, and lays her hand on a book.

Now, this same quatrefoil, of St. Francis and his three Commanding Angels, was also painted, but much more elaborately, by Giotto, on the cross vault of the lower church of Assisi, and it is a question of interest which of the two roofs was painted first.

Your Murray's Guide tells you the frescos in this chapel were painted between 1296 and 1304. But as they represent, among other personages, St. Louis of Toulouse, who was not canonized till 1317, that statement is not altogether tenable. Also, as the first stone of the church was only laid in 1294, when Giotto was a youth of eighteen, it is little likely that either it would have been ready to be painted, or he ready with his scheme of practical divinity, two years later.

Farther, Arnolfo, the builder of the main body of the church, died in 1310. And as St. Louis of Toulouse was not a saint till seven years afterwards, and the frescos therefore beside the window not painted in Arnolfo's day, it becomes another question whether Arnolfo left the chapels or the church at all, in their present form.

On which point—now that I have shown you where Giotto's St. Louis is—I will ask you to think awhile, until you are interested; and then I will try to satisfy your curiosity. There fore, please leave the little chapel for the moment, and walk down the nave, till you come to two sepulchral slabs near the west end, and then look about you and see what sort of a church Santa Croce is.

Without looking about you at all, you may find, in your Murray, the useful information that it is a church which "consists of a very wide nave and lateral aisles, separated by seven fine pointed arches." And as you will be—under ordinary conditions of tourist hurry—glad to learn so much, without looking, it is little likely to occur to you that this nave and two rich aisles required also, for your complete present comfort, walls at both ends, and a roof on the top. It is just possible, indeed, you may have been struck, on entering, by the curious disposition of painted glass at the east end;—more remotely possible that, in returning down the nave, you may this moment have noticed the extremely small circular window at the west end; but the chances are a thousand to one that, after being pulled from tomb to tomb round the aisles and chapels, you should take so extraordinary an additional amount of pains as to look up at the roof,—unless you do it now, quietly. It will have had its effect upon you, even if you don't, without your knowledge. You will return home with a general impression that Santa Croce is, somehow, the ugliest Gothic church you ever were in. Well, that is really so; and now, will you take the pains to see why?

There are two features, on which, more than on any others, the grace and delight of a fine Gothic building depends; one is the springing of its vaultings, the other the proportion and fantasy of its traceries. This church of Santa Croce has no vaultings at all, but the roof of a farm-house barn. And its windows are all of the same pattern,—the exceedingly prosaic one of two pointed arches, with a round hole above, between them.

And to make the simplicity of the roof more conspicuous, the aisles are successive sheds, built at every arch. In the aisles of the Campo Santo of Pisco, the unbroken flat roof leaves the eye free to look to the traceries; but here, a succession of up-and-down sloping beam and lath gives the impression of a line of stabling rather than a church aisle. And lastly, while, in fine Gothic buildings, the entire perspective concludes itself gloriously in the high and distant apse, here the nave is cut across sharply by a line of ten chapels, the apse being only a tall recess in the midst of them, so that, strictly speaking, the church is not of the form of a cross, but of a letter T.

Can this clumsy and ungraceful arrangement be indeed the design of the renowned Arnolfo?

Yes, this is purest Arnolfo-Gothic; not beautiful by any means; but deserving, nevertheless, our thoughtfullest examination. We will trace its complete character another day; just now we are only concerned with this pre-Christian form of the letter T, insisted upon in the lines of chapels.

Respecting which you are to observe, that the first Christian churches in the catacombs took the form of a blunt cross naturally; a square chamber having a vaulted recess on each side; then the Byzantine churches were structurally built in the form of an equal cross; while the heraldic and other ornamental equal-armed crosses are partly signs of glory and victory, partly of light, and divine spiritual presence. [2]

But the Franciscans and Dominicans saw in the cross no sign of triumph, but of trial.[3] The wounds of their Master were to be their inheritance. So their first aim was to make what image to the cross their church might present, distinctly that of the actual instrument of death.

And they did this most effectually by using the form of the letter T, that of the Furca or Gibbet,—not the sign of peace.

Also, their churches were meant for use; not show, nor self-glorification, nor town-glorification. They wanted places for preaching, prayer, sacrifice, burial; and had no intention of showing how high they could build towers, or how widely they could arch vaults. Strong walls, and the roof of a barn,—these your Franciscan asks of his Arnolfo. These Arnolfo gives,—thoroughly and wisely built; the successions of gable roof being a new device for strength, much praised in its day.

This stern humor did not last long. Arnolfo himself had other notions; much more Cimabue and Giotto; most of all, Nature and Heaven. Something else had to be taught about Christ than that He was wounded to death. Nevertheless, look how grand this stern form would be, restored to its simplicity. It is not the old church which is in itself unimpressive. It is the old church defaced by Vasari, by Michael Angelo, and by modern Florence. See those huge tombs on your right hand and left, at the sides of the aisles, with their alternate gable and round tops, and their paltriest of all possible sculpture, trying to be grand by bigness, and pathetic by expense. Tear them all down in your imagination; fancy the vast hall with its massive pillars,—not painted calomel-pill colour, as now, but of their native stone, with a rough, true wood for roof,—and a people praying beneath them, strong in abiding, and pure in life, as their rocks and olive forests That was Arnolfo's Santa Croce. Nor did his work remain long without grace.

That very line of chapels in which we found our St. Louis shows signs of change in temper. They have no pent-house roofs, but true Gothic vaults: we found our four-square type of Franciscan Law on one of them.

It is probable, then, that these chapels may be later than the rest—even in their stonework. In their decoration, they are so, assuredly; belonging already to the time when the story of St. Francis was becoming a passionate tradition, told and painted everywhere with delight.

And that high recess, taking the place of apse, in the centre,—see how noble it is in the coloured shade surrounding and joining the glow of its windows, though their form be so simple. You are not to be amused here by patterns in balanced stone, as a French or English architect would amuse you, says Arnolfo. "You are to read and think, under these severe walls of mine; immortal hands will write upon them." We will go back, therefore, into this line of manuscript chapels presently; but first, look at the two sepulchral slabs by which you are standing. That farther of the two from the west end is one of the most beautiful pieces of fourteenth century sculpture in this world; and it contains simple elements of excellence, by your understanding of which you may test your power of understanding the more difficult ones you will have to deal with presently.

It represents an old man, in the high deeply-folded cap worn by scholars and gentlemen in Florence from 1300—1500, lying dead, with a book in his breast, over which his hands are folded. At his feet is this inscription: "Temporibus hic suis phylosophye atq. medicine culmen fuit Galileus de Galileis olim Bonajutis qui etiam summo in magistratu miro quodam modo rempublicam dilexit, cujus sancte memorie bene acte vite pie benedictus filius hunc tumulum patri sibi suisq. posteris edidit."

Mr. Murray tells you that the effigies "in low relief" (alas, yes, low enough now—worn mostly into flat stones, with a trace only of the deeper lines left, but originally in very bold relief,) with which the floor of Santa Croce is inlaid, of which this by which you stand is characteristic, are "interesting from the costume," but that, "except in the case of John Ketterick, Bishop of St. David's, few of the other names have any interest beyond the walls of Florence." As, however, you are at present within the walls of Florence, you may perhaps condescend to take some interest in this ancestor or relation of the Galileo whom Florence indeed left to be externally interesting, and would not allow to enter in her walls.[4]

I am not sure if I rightly place or construe the phrase in the above inscription, "cujus sancte memorie bene acte;" but, in main purport, the legend runs thus: "This Galileo of the Galilei was, in his times, the head of philosophy and medicine; who also in the highest magistracy loved the republic marvellously; whose son, blessed in inheritance of his holy memory and well-passed and pious life, appointed this tomb for his father, for himself, and for his posterity."

There is no date; but the slab immediately behind it, nearer the western door, is of the same style, but of later and inferior work, and bears date—I forget now of what early year in the fifteenth century.

But Florence was still in her pride; and you may observe, in this epitaph, on what it was based. That her philosophy was studied together with useful arts, and as a part of them; that the masters in these became naturally the masters in public affairs; that in such magistracy, they loved the State, and neither cringed to it nor robbed it; that the sons honoured their fathers, and received their fathers' honour as the most blessed inheritance. Remember the phrase "vite pie bene dictus filius," to be compared with the "nos nequiores" of the declining days of all states,—chiefly now in Florence, France and England.

Thus much for the local interest of name. Next for the universal interest of the art of this tomb.

It is the crowning virtue of all great art that, however little is left of it by the injuries of time, that little will be lovely. As long as you can see anything, you can see—almost all;—so much the hand of the master will suggest of his soul.

And here you are well quit, for once, of restoration. No one cares for this sculpture; and if Florence would only thus put all her old sculpture and painting under her feet, and simply use them for gravestones and oilcloth, she would be more merciful to them than she is now. Here, at least, what little is left is true.

And, if you look long, you will find it is not so little. That worn face is still a perfect portrait of the old man, though like one struck out at a venture, with a few rough touches of a master's chisel. And that falling drapery of his cap is, in its few lines, faultless, and subtle beyond description.

And now, here is a simple but most useful test of your capacity for understanding Florentine sculpture or painting. If you can see that the lines of that cap are both right, and lovely; that the choice of the folds is exquisite in its ornamental relations of line; and that the softness and ease of them is complete,—though only sketched with a few dark touches,—then you can understand Giotto's drawing, and Botticelli's;—Donatello's carving and Luca's. But if you see nothing in this sculpture, you will see nothing in theirs, of theirs. Where they choose to imitate flesh, or silk, or to play any vulgar modern trick with marble—(and they often do)—whatever, in a word, is French, or American, or Cockney, in their work, you can see; but what is Florentine, and for ever great—unless you can see also the beauty of this old man in his citizen's cap,—you will see never.

There is more in this sculpture, however, than its simple portraiture and noble drapery. The old man lies on a piece of embroidered carpet; and, protected by the higher relief, many of the finer lines of this are almost uninjured; in particular, its exquisitely-wrought fringe and tassels are nearly perfect. And if you will kneel down and look long at the tassels of the cushion under the head, and the way they fill the angles of the stone, you will,—or may—know, from this example alone, what noble decorative sculpture is, and was, and must be, from the days of earliest Greece to those of latest Italy.

"Exquisitely sculptured fringe!" and you have just been abusing sculptors who play tricks with marble! Yes, and you cannot find a better example, in all the museums of Europe, of the work of a man who does not play tricks with it—than this tomb. Try to understand the difference: it is a point of quite cardinal importance to all your future study of sculpture.

I told you, observe, that the old Galileo was lying on a piece of embroidered carpet. I don't think, if I had not told you, that you would have found it out for yourself. It is not so like a carpet as all that comes to.

But had it been a modern trick-sculpture, the moment you came to the tomb you would have said, "Dear me! how wonderfully that carpet is done,—it doesn't look like stone in the least—one longs to take it up and beat it, to get the dust off."

Now whenever you feel inclined to speak so of a sculptured drapery, be assured, without more ado, the sculpture is base, and bad. You will merely waste your time and corrupt your taste by looking at it. Nothing is so easy as to imitate drapery in marble. You may cast a piece any day; and carve it with such subtlety that the marble shall be an absolute image of the folds. But that is not sculpture. That is mechanical manufacture.

No great sculptor, from the beginning of art to the end of it, has ever carved, or ever will, a deceptive drapery. He has neither time nor will to do it. His mason's lad may do that if he likes. A man who can carve a limb or a face never finishes inferior parts, but either with a hasty and scornful chisel, or with such grave and strict selection of their lines as you know at once to be imaginative, not imitative.

But if, as in this case, he wants to oppose the simplicity of his central subject with a rich background,—a labyrinth of ornamental lines to relieve the severity of expressive ones,—he will carve you a carpet, or a tree, or a rose thicket, with their fringes and leaves and thorns, elaborated as richly as natural ones; but always for the sake of the ornamental form, never of the imitation; yet, seizing the natural character in the lines he gives, with twenty times the precision and clearness of sight that the mere imitator has. Examine the tassels of the cushion, and the way they blend with the fringe, thoroughly; you cannot possibly see finer ornamental sculpture. Then, look at the same tassels in the same place of the slab next the west end of the church, and you will see a scholar's rude imitation of a master's hand, though in a fine school. (Notice, however, the folds of the drapery at the feet of this figure: they are cut so as to show the hem of the robe within as well as without, and are fine.) Then, as you go back to Giotto's chapel, keep to the left, and just beyond the north door in the aisle is the much celebrated tomb of C. Marsuppini, by Desiderio of Settignano. It is very fine of its kind; but there the drapery is chiefly done to cheat you, and chased delicately to show how finely the sculptor could chisel it. It is wholly vulgar and mean in cast of fold. Under your feet, as you look at it, you will tread another tomb of the fine time, which, looking last at, you will recognize the difference between the false and true art, as far as there is capacity in you at present to do so. And if you really and honestly like the low-lying stones, and see more beauty in them, you have also the power of enjoying Giotto, into whose chapel we will return to-morrow;—not to-day, for the light must have left it by this time; and now that you have been looking at these sculptures on the floor you had better traverse nave and aisle across and across; and get some idea of that sacred field of stone. In the north transept you will find a beautiful knight, the finest in chiselling of all these tombs, except one by the same hand in the south aisle just where it enters the south transept.

Examine the lines of the Gothic niches traced above them; and what is left of arabesque on their armour. They are far more beautiful and tender in chivalric conception than Donatello's St. George, which is merely a piece of vigorous naturalism founded on these older tombs. If you will drive in the evening to the Chartreuse in Val d'Ema, you may see there an uninjured example of this slab-tomb by Donatello himself; very beautiful; but not so perfect as the earlier ones on which it is founded. And you may see some fading light and shade of monastic life, among which if you stay till the fireflies come out in the twilight, and thus get to sleep when you come home, you will be better prepared for to-morrow morning's walk—if you will take another with me—than if you go to a party, to talk sentiment about Italy, and hear the last news from London and New York.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. "Cum in universe orbe non reperiri dicatur quenquam qui sufficientior sit in his et aliis multis artibus magistro Giotto Bondonis de Florentia, pictore, et accipiendus sit in patriâ, velut magnus magister."—(Decree of his appointment, quoted by Lord Lindsay, vol. ii., p. 247.)
  2. See, on this subject generally, Mr. R. St. J. Tyrwhitt's "Art-Teaching of the Primitive Church." S. P. B. K., 1874.
  3. I have never obtained time for any right study of early Christian church-discipline,—nor am I sure to how many other causes, the choice of the form of the basilica may be occasionally attributed, or by what other communities it may be made. Symbolism, for instance, has most power with the Franciscans, and convenience for preaching with the Dominicans; but in all cases, and in all places, the transition from the close tribune to the brightly-lighted apse, indicates the change in Christian feeling between regarding a church as a place for public judgment or teaching, or a place for private prayer and congregational praise. The following passage from the Dean of Westminster's perfect history of his Abbey ought to be read also in the Florentine church:—"The nearest approach to Westminster Abbey in this aspect is the church of Santa Croce at Florence. There, as here, the present destination of the building was no part of the original design, but was the result of various converging causes. As the church of one of the two great preaching orders, it had a nave large beyond all proportion to its choir. That order being the Franciscan, bound by vows of poverty, the simplicity of the worship preserved the whole space clear from any adventitious ornaments. The popularity of the Franciscans, especially in a convent hallowed by a visit from St. Francis himself, drew to it not only the chief civic festivals, but also the numerous families who gave alms to the friars, and whose connection with their church was, for this reason, in turn encouraged by them. In those graves, piled with standards und achievements of the noble families of Florence, were successively interred—not because of their eminence, but as members or friends of those families—some of the most illustrious personages of the fifteenth century. Thus it came to pass, as if by accident, that in the vault of the Buonarotti was laid Michael Angelo; in the vault of the Viviani the preceptor of one of their house, Galileo. From those two burials the church gradually be same the recognized shrine of Italian genius."
  4. "Seven years a prisoner at the city gate,
    Let in but his grave-clothes."
    Rogers' "Italy."