Mornings in Florence/The Third Morning

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Mornings in Florence by John Ruskin
The Third Morning: Before the Soldan


I promised some note of Sandro's Fortitude, before whom I asked you to sit and read the end of my last letter; and I've lost my own notes about her, and forget, now, whether she has a sword, or a mace;—it does not matter. What is chiefly notable in her is—that you would not, if you had to guess who she was, take her for Fortitude at all. Everybody else's Fortitudes announce themselves clearly and proudly. They have tower-like shields, and lion-like helmets—and stand firm astride on their legs,—and are confidently ready for all comers. Yes;—that is your common Fortitude. Very grand, though common. But not the highest, by any means.

Ready for all comers, and a match for them,—thinks the universal Fortitude;—no thanks to her for standing so steady, then!

But Botticelli's Fortitude is no match, it may be, for any that are coming. Worn, somewhat; and not a little weary, instead of standing ready for all comers, she is sitting,—apparently in reverie, her fingers playing restlessly and idly—nay, I think—even nervously, about the hilt of her sword.

For her battle is not to begin to-day; nor did it begin yesterday. Many a morn and eve have passed since it began—and now—is this to be the ending day of it? And if this—by what manner of end?

That is what Sandro's Fortitude is thinking. And the playing fingers about the sword-hilt would fain let it fall, if it might be: and yet, how swiftly and gladly will they close on it, when the far-off trumpet blows, which she will hear through all her reverie!

There is yet another picture of Sandro's here, which you must look at before going back to Giotto: the small Judith in the room next the Tribune, as you return from this outer one. It is just under Lionardo's Medusa. She is returning to the camp of her Israel, followed by her maid carrying the head of Holofernes. And she walks in one of Botticelli's light dancing actions, her drapery all on flutter, and her hand, like Fortitude's, light on the sword-hilt, but daintily—not nervously, the little finger laid over the cross of it.

And at the first glance—you will think the figure merely a piece of fifteenth-century affectation. 'Judith, indeed!—say rather the daughter of Herodias, at her mincingest.'

Well, yes—Botticelli is affected, in the way that all men in that century necessarily were. Much euphuism, much studied grace of manner, much formal assertion of scholarship, mingling with his force of imagination. And he likes twisting the fingers of hands about, just as Correggio does. But he never does it like Correggio, without cause.

Look at Judith again,—at her face, not her drapery,—and remember that when a man is base at the heart, he blights his virtues into weaknesses; but when he is true at the heart, he sanctifies his weaknesses into virtues. It is a weakness of Botticelli's, this love of dancing motion and waved drapery; but why has he given it full flight here?

Do you happen to know anything about Judith yourself, except that she cut off Holofernes' head; and has been made the high light of about a million of vile pictures ever since, in which the painters thought they could surely attract the public to the double show of an execution, and a pretty woman,—especially with the added pleasure of hinting at previously ignoble sin?

When you go home to-day, take the pains to write out for yourself, in the connection I here place them, the verses underneath numbered from the book of Judith; you will probably think of their meaning more carefully as you write.

Begin thus:

"Now at that time, Judith heard thereof, which was the daughter of Merari, ... the son of Simeon, the son of Israel." And then write out, consecutively, these pieces—

Chapter viii., verses 2 to 8. (Always inclusive,) and read the whole chapter.

Chapter ix., verses 1 and 5 to 7, beginning this piece with the previous sentence, "Oh God, oh my God, hear me also, a widow."

Chapter ix., verses 11 to 14.
Chapter x., verses 1 to 5.
Chapter xiii., verses 6 to 10.
Chapter xv., verses 11 to 13.
Chapter xvi., verses 1 to 6.
Chapter xvi., verses 11 to 15.
Chapter xvi., verses 18 and 19.
Chapter xvi., verses 23 to 25.

Now, as in many other cases of noble history, apocryphal and other, I do not in the least care how far the literal facts are true. The conception of facts, and the idea of Jewish womanhood, are there, grand and real as a marble statue,—possession for all ages. And you will feel, after you have read this piece of history, or epic poetry, with honourable care, that there is somewhat more to be thought of and pictured in Judith, than painters have mostly found it in them to show you; that she is not merely the Jewish Delilah to the Assyrian Samson; but the mightiest, purest, brightest type of high passion in severe womanhood offered to our human memory. Sandro's picture is but slight; but it is true to her, and the only one I know that is; and after writing out these verses, you will see why he gives her that swift, peaceful motion, while you read in her face, only sweet solemnity of dreaming thought. "My people delivered, and by my hand; and God has been gracious to His handmaid!" The triumph of Miriam over a fallen host, the fire of exulting mortal life in an immortal hour, the purity and severity of a guardian angel—all are here; and as her servant follows, carrying indeed the head, but invisible—(a mere thing to be carried—no more to be so much as thought of)—she looks only at her mistress, with intense, servile, watchful love. Faithful, not in these days of fear only, but hitherto in all her life, and afterwards forever.

After you have seen it enough, look also for a little while at Angelico's Marriage and Death of the Virgin, in the same room; you may afterwards associate the three pictures always together in your mind. And, looking at nothing else to-day in the Uffizi, let us go back to Giotto's chapel.

We must begin with this work on our left hand, the Death of St. Francis; for it is the key to all the rest. Let us hear first what Mr. Crowe directs us to think of it. "In the composition of this scene, Giotto produced a masterpiece, which served as a model but too often feebly imitated by his successors. Good arrangement, variety of character and expression in the heads, unity and harmony in the whole, make this an exceptional work of its kind. As a composition, worthy of the fourteenth century, Ghirlandajo and Benedetto da Majano both imitated, without being able to improve it. No painter ever produced its equal except Raphael; nor could a better be created except in so far as regards improvement in the mere rendering of form."

To these inspiring observations by the rapturous Crowe, more cautious Cavalcasella[1] appends a refrigerating note, saying, "The St. Francis in the glory is new, but the angels are in part preserved. The rest has all been more or less retouched; and no judgment can be given as to the colour of this—or any other (!)—of these works."

You are, therefore—instructed reader—called upon to admire a piece of art which no painter ever produced the equal of except Raphael; but it is unhappily deficient, according to Crowe, in the "mere rendering of form"; and, according to Signor Cavalcasella, "no opinion can be given as to its colour."

Warned thus of the extensive places where the ice is dangerous, and forbidden to look here either for form or colour, you are to admire "the variety of character and expression in the heads." I do not myself know how these are to be given without form or colour; but there appears to me, in my innocence, to be only one head in the whole picture, drawn up and down in different positions.

The "unity and harmony" of the whole—which make this an exceptional work of its kind—mean, I suppose, its general look of having been painted out of a scavenger's cart; and so we are reduced to the last article of our creed according to Crowe,—

"In the composition of this scene Giotto produced a masterpiece."

Well, possibly. The question is, What you mean by 'composition.' Which, putting modern criticism now out of our way, I will ask the reader to think, in front of this wreck of Giotto, with some care.

Was it, in the first place, to Giotto, think you, the, "composition of a scene," or the conception of a fact? You probably, if a fashionable person, have seen the apotheosis of Margaret in Faust? You know what care is taken, nightly, in the composition of that scene,—how the draperies are arranged for it; the lights turned off, and on; the fiddlestrings taxed for their utmost tenderness; the bassoons exhorted to a grievous solemnity.

You don't believe, however, that any real soul of a Margaret ever appeared to any mortal in that manner?

Here is an apotheosis also. Composed!—yes; figures high on the right and left, low in the middle, etc., etc., etc.

But the important questions seem to me, Was there ever a St. Francis?— did he ever receive stigmata?—didhis soul go up to heaven—did any monk see it rising—and did Giotto mean to tell us so? If you will be good enough to settle these few small points in your mind first, the "composition" will take a wholly different aspect to you, according to your answer.

Nor does it seem doubtful to me what your answer, after investigation made, must be.

There assuredly was a St. Francis, whose life and works you had better study than either to-day's Galignani, or whatever, this year, may supply the place of the Tichborne case, in public interest.

His reception of the stigmata is, perhaps, a marvellous instance of the power of imagination over physical conditions; perhaps an equally marvellous instance of the swift change of metaphor into tradition; but assuredly, and beyond dispute, one of the most influential, significant, and instructive traditions possessed by the Church of Christ. And, that, if ever soul rose to heaven from the dead body, his soul did so rise, is equally sure.

And, finally, Giotto believed that all he was called on to represent, concerning St. Francis, really had taken place, just as surely as you, if you are a Christian, believe that Christ died and rose again; and he represents it with all fidelity and passion: but, as I just now said, he is a man of supreme common sense;—has as much humour and clearness of sight as Chaucer, and as much dislike of falsehood in clergy, or in professedly pious people: and in his gravest moments he will still see and say truly that what is fat, is fat—and what is lean, lean—and what is hollow, empty.

His great point, however, in this fresco, is the assertion of the reality of the stigmata against all question. There is not only one St. Thomas to be convinced; there are five;—one to each wound. Of these, four are intent only on satisfying their curiosity, and are peering or probing; one only kisses the hand he has lifted. The rest of the picture never was much more than a grey drawing of a noble burial service; of all concerned in which, one monk, only, is worthy to see the soul taken up to heaven; and he is evidently just the monk whom nobody in the convent thought anything of. (His face is all repainted; but one can gather this much, or little, out of it, yet.)

Of the composition, or "unity and harmony of the whole," as a burial service, we may better judge after we have looked at the brighter picture of St. Francis's Birth—birth spiritual, that is to say, to his native heaven; the uppermost, namely, of the three subjects on this side of the chapel. It is entirely characteristic of Giotto; much of it by his hand—all of it beautiful. All important matters to be known of Giotto you may know from this fresco.

'But we can't see it, even with our opera-glasses, but all foreshortened and spoiled. What is the use of lecturing us on this?'

That is precisely the first point which is essentially Giottesque in it; its being so out of the way! It is this which makes it a perfect specimen of the master. I will tell you next something about a work of his which you can see perfectly, just behind you on the opposite side of the wall; but that you have half to break your neck to look at this one, is the very first thing I want you to feel.

It is a characteristic—(as far as I know, quite a universal one)—of the greatest masters, that they never expect you to look at them; seem always rather surprised if you want to; and not overpleased. Tell them you are going to hang their picture at the upper end of the table at the next great City dinner, and that Mr. So and So will make a speech about it; you produce no impression upon them whatever, or an unfavourable one. The chances are ten to one they send you the most rubbishy thing they can find in their lumber-room. But send for one of them in a hurry, and tell him the rats have gnawed a nasty hole behind the parlor door, and you want it plastered and painted over;—and he does you a masterpiece which the world will peep behind your door to look at for ever.

I have no time to tell you why this is so; nor do I know why, altogether; but so it is.

Giotto, then, is sent for, to paint this high chapel: I am not sure if he chose his own subjects from the life of St. Francis: I think so,—but of course can't reason on the guess securely. At all events, he would have much of his own way in the matter.

Now you must observe that painting a Gothic chapel rightly is just the same thing as painting a Greek vase rightly. The chapel is merely the vase turned upside-down, and outside-in. The principles of decoration are exactly the same. Your decoration is to be proportioned to the size of your vase; to be together delightful when you look at the cup, or chapel, as a whole; to be various and entertaining when you turn the cup round; (you turn yourself round in the chapel;) and to bend its heads and necks of figures about, as it best can, over the hollows, and ins and outs, so that anyhow, whether too long or too short-possible or impossible—they may be living, and full of grace. You will also please take it on my word today—in another morning walk you shall have proof of it—that Giotto was a pure Etruscan-Greek of the thirteenth century: converted indeed to worship St. Francis instead of Heracles; but as far as vase-painting goes, precisely the Etruscan he was before. This is nothing else than a large, beautiful, coloured Etruscan vase you have got, inverted over your heads like a diving-bell.'[2]

Accordingly, after the quatrefoil ornamentation of the top of the bell, you get two spaces at the sides under arches, very difficult to cramp one's picture into, if it is to be a picture only; but entirely provocative of our old Etruscan instinct of ornament. And, spurred by the difficulty, and pleased by the national character of it, we put our best work into these arches, utterly neglectful of the public below,—who will see the white and red and blue spaces, at any rate, which is all they will want to see, thinks Giotto, if he ever looks down from his scaffold.

Take the highest compartment, then, on the left, looking towards the window. It was wholly impossible to get the arch filled with figures, unless they stood on each other's heads; so Giotto ekes it out with a piece of fine architecture. Raphael, in the Sposalizio, does the same, for pleasure.

Then he puts two dainty little white figures, bending, on each flank, to stop up his corners. But he puts the taller inside on the right, and outside on the left. And he puts his Greek chorus of observant and moralizing persons on each side of his main action.

Then he puts one Choragus—or leader of chorus, supporting the main action—on each side. Then he puts the main action in the middle—which is a quarrel about that white bone of contention in the centre. Choragus on the right, who sees that the bishop is going to have the best of it, backs him serenely. Choragus on the left, who sees that his impetuous friend is going to get the worst of it, is pulling him back, and trying to keep him quiet. The subject of the picture, which, after you are quite sure it is good as a decoration, but not till then, you may be allowed to understand, is the following. One of St. Francis's three great virtues being Obedience, he begins his spiritual life by quarreling with his father. He, I suppose in modern terms I should say, commercially invests some of his father's goods in charity. His father objects to that investment; on which St. Francis runs away, taking what he can find about the house along with him. His father follows to claim his property, but finds it is all gone, already; and that St. Francis has made friends with the Bishop of Assisi. His father flies into an indecent passion, and declares he will disinherit him; on which St. Francis then and there takes all his clothes off, throws them frantically in his father's face, and says he has nothing more to do with clothes or father. The good Bishop, in tears of admiration, embraces St. Francis, and covers him with his own mantle.

I have read the picture to you as, if Mr. Spurgeon knew anything about art, Mr. Spurgeon would read it,—that is to say, from the plain, common sense, Protestant side. If you are content with that view of it, you may leave the chapel, and, as far as any study of history is concerned, Florence also; for you can never know anything either about Giotto, or her.

Yet do not be afraid of my re-reading it to you from the mystic, nonsensical, and Papistical side. I am going to read it to you—if after many and many a year of thought, I am able—as Giotto meant it; Giotto being, as far as we know, then the man of strongest brain and hand in Florence; the best friend of the best religious poet of the world; and widely differing, as his friend did also, in his views of the world, from either Mr. Spurgeon, or Pius IX.

The first duty of a child is to obey its father and mother; as the first duty of a citizen to obey the laws of his state. And this duty is so strict that I believe the only limits to it are those fixed by Isaac and Iphigenia. On the other hand, the father and mother have also a fixed duty to the child—not to provoke it to wrath. I have never heard this text explained to fathers and mothers from the pulpit, which is curious. For it appears to me that God will expect the parents to understand their duty to their children, better even than children can be expected to know their duty to their parents.

But farther. A child's duty is to obey its parents. It is never said anywhere in the Bible, and never was yet said in any good or wise book, that a man's, or woman's, is. When, precisely, a child becomes a man or a woman, it can no more be said, than when it should first stand on its legs. But a time assuredly comes when it should. In great states, children are always trying to remain children, and the parents wanting to make men and women of them. In vile states, the children are always wanting to be men and women, and the parents to keep them children. It may be—and happy the house in which it is so—that the father's at least equal intellect, and older experience, may remain to the end of his life a law to his children, not of force, but of perfect guidance, with perfect love. Rarely it is so; not often possible. It is as natural for the old to be prejudiced as for the young to be presumptuous; and, in the change of centuries, each generation has something to judge of for itself.

But this scene, on which Giotto has dwelt with so great force, represents, not the child's assertion of his independence, but his adoption of another Father.

You must not confuse the desire of this boy of Assisi to obey God rather than man, with the desire of your young cockney Hopeful to have a latch-key, and a separate allowance.

No point of duty has been more miserably warped and perverted by false priests, in all churches, than this duty of the young to choose whom they will serve. But the duty itself does not the less exist; and if there be any truth in Christianity at all, there will come, for all true disciples, a time when they have to take that saying to heart, "He that loveth father or mother more than me, is not worthy of me."

Loveth—observe. There is no talk of disobeying fathers or mothers whom you do not love, or of running away from a home where you would rather not stay. But to leave the home which is your peace, and to be at enmity with those who are most dear to you,—this, if there be meaning in Christ's words, one day or other will be demanded of His true followers.

And there is meaning in Christ's words. Whatever misuse may have been made of them,—whatever false prophets—and Heaven knows there have been many—have called the young children to them, not to bless, but to curse, the assured fact remains, that if you will obey God, there will come a moment when the voice of man will be raised, with all its holiest natural authority, against you. The friend and the wise adviser—the brother and the sister—the father and the master—the entire voice of your prudent and keen-sighted acquaintance—the entire weight of the scornful stupidity of the vulgar world—for once, they will be against you, all at one. You have to obey God rather than man. The human race, with all its wisdom and love, all its indignation and folly, on one side,—God alone on the other. You have to choose.

That is the meaning of St. Francis's renouncing his inheritance; and it is the beginning of Giotto's gospel of Works. Unless this hardest of deeds be done first,—this inheritance of mammon and the world cast away,—all other deeds are useless. You cannot serve, cannot obey, God and mammon. No charities, no obediences, no self-denials, are of any use, while you are still at heart in conformity with the world. You go to church, because the world goes. You keep Sunday, because your neighbours keep it. But you dress ridiculously, because your neighbours ask it; and you dare not do a rough piece of work, because your neighbours despise it. You must renounce your neighbour, in his riches and pride, and remember him in his distress. That is St. Francis's 'disobedience.'

And now you can understand the relation of subjects throughout the chapel, and Giotto's choice of them.

The roof has the symbols of the three virtues of labour—Poverty, Chastity, Obedience.

A. Highest on the left side, looking to the window. The life of St. Francis begins in his renunciation of the world.

B. Highest on the right side. His new life is approved and ordained by the authority of the church.

C. Central on the left side. He preaches to his own disciples.

D. Central on the right side. He preaches to the heathen.

E. Lowest on the left side. His burial.

F. Lowest on the right side. His power after death.

Besides these six subjects, there are, on the sides of the window, the four great Franciscan saints, St. Louis of France, St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Clare, and St. Elizabeth of Hungary.

So that you have in the whole series this much given you to think of: first, the law of St. Francis's conscience; then, his own adoption of it; then, the ratification of it by the Christian Church; then, his preaching it in life; then, his preaching it in death; and then, the fruits of it in his disciples.

I have only been able myself to examine, or in any right sense to see, of this code of subjects, the first, second, fourth, and the St. Louis and Elizabeth. I will ask you only to look at two more of them, namely, St. Francis before the Soldan, midmost on your right, and St. Louis.

The Soldan, with an ordinary opera-glass, you may see clearly enough; and I think it will be first well to notice some technical points in it.

If the little virgin on the stairs of the temple reminded you of one composition of Titian's, this Soldan should, I think, remind you of all that is greatest in Titian; so forcibly, indeed, that for my own part, if I had been told that a careful early fresco by Titian had been recovered in Santa Croce, I could have believed both report and my own eyes, more quickly than I have been able to admit that this is indeed by Giotto. It is so great that—had its principles been understood-there was in reality nothing more to be taught of art in Italy; nothing to be invented afterwards, except Dutch effects of light.

That there is no 'effect of light' here arrived at, I beg you at once to observe as a most important lesson. The subject is St. Francis challenging the Soldan's Magi,—fire-worshippers—to pass with him through the fire, which is blazing red at his feet. It is so hot that the two Magi on the other side of the throne shield their faces. But it is represented simply as a red mass of writhing forms of flame; and casts no firelight whatever. There is no ruby colour on anybody's nose: there are no black shadows under anybody's chin; there are no Rembrandtesque gradations of gloom, or glitterings of sword-hilt and armour.

Is this ignorance, think you, in Giotto, and pure artlessness? He was now a man in middle life, having passed all his days in painting, and professedly, and almost contentiously, painting things as he saw them. Do you suppose he never saw fire cast firelight?—and he the friend of Dante! who of all poets is the most subtle in his sense of every kind of effect of light—though he has been thought by the public to know that of fire only. Again and again, his ghosts wonder that there is no shadow cast by Dante's body; and is the poet's friend, because a painter, likely, therefore, not to have known that mortal substance casts shadow, and terrestrial flame, light? Nay, the passage in the 'Purgatorio' where the shadows from the morning sunshine make the flames redder, reaches the accuracy of Newtonian science; and does Giotto, think you, all the while, see nothing of the sort?

The fact was, he saw light so intensely that he never for an instant thought of painting it. He knew that to paint the sun was as impossible as to stop it; and he was no trickster, trying to find out ways of seeming to do what he did not. I can paint a rose,—yes; and I will. I can't paint a red-hot coal; and I won't try to, nor seem to. This was just as natural and certain a process of thinking with him, as the honesty of it, and true science, were impossible to the false painters of the sixteenth century.

Nevertheless, what his art can honestly do to make you feel as much as he wants you to feel, about this fire, he will do; and that studiously. That the fire be luminous or not, is no matter just now. But that the fire is hot, he would have you to know. Now, will you notice what colours he has used in the whole picture. First, the blue background, necessary to unite it with the other three subjects, is reduced to the smallest possible space. St. Francis must be in grey, for that is his dress; also the attendant of one of the Magi is in grey; but so warm, that, if you saw it by itself, you would call it brown. The shadow behind the throne, which Giotto knows he can paint, and therefore does, is grey also. The rest of the picture [3] in at least six-sevenths of its area—is either crimson, gold, orange, purple, or white, all as warm as Giotto could paint them; and set off by minute spaces only of intense black,—the Soldan's fillet at the shoulders, his eyes, beard, and the points necessary in the golden pattern behind. And the whole picture is one glow.

A single glance round at the other subjects will convince you of the special character in this; but you will recognize also that the four upper subjects, in which St. Francis's life and zeal are shown, are all in comparatively warm colours, while the two lower ones—of the death, and the visions after it—have been kept as definitely sad and cold.

Necessarily, you might think, being full of monks' dresses. Not so. Was there any need for Giotto to have put the priest at the foot of the dead body, with the black banner stooped over it in the shape of a grave? Might he not, had he chosen, in either fresco, have made the celestial visions brighter? Might not St. Francis have appeared in the centre of a celestial glory to the dreaming Pope, or his soul been seen of the poor monk, rising through more radiant clouds? Look, however, how radiant, in the small space allowed out of the blue, they are in reality. You cannot anywhere see a lovelier piece of Giottesque colour, though here, you have to mourn over the smallness of the piece, and its isolation. For the face of St. Francis himself is repainted, and all the blue sky; but the clouds and four sustaining angels are hardly retouched at all, and their iridescent and exquisitely graceful wings are left with really very tender and delicate care by the restorer of the sky. And no one but Giotto or Turner could have painted them.

For in all his use of opalescent and warm colour, Giotto is exactly like Turner, as, in his swift expressional power, he is like Gainsborough. All the other Italian religious painters work out their expression with toil; he only can give it with a touch. All the other great Italian colourists see only the beauty of colour, but Giotto also its brightness. And none of the others, except Tintoret, understood to the full its symbolic power; but with those—Giotto and Tintoret—there is always, not only a colour harmony, but a colour secret. It is not merely to make the picture glow, but to remind you that St. Francis preaches to a fire-worshipping king, that Giotto covers the wall with purple and scarlet;—and above, in the dispute at Assisi, the angry father is dressed in red, varying like passion; and the robe with which his protector embraces St. Francis, blue, symbolizing the peace of Heaven, Of course certain conventional colours were traditionally employed by all painters; but only Giotto and Tintoret invent a symbolism of their own for every picture. Thus in Tintoret's picture of the fall of the manna, the figure of God the Father is entirely robed in white, contrary to all received custom: in that of Moses striking the rock, it is surrounded by a rainbow. Of Giotto's symbolism in colour at Assisi, I have given account elsewhere.[4]

You are not to think, therefore, the difference between the colour of the upper and lower frescos unintentional. The life of St. Francis was always full of joy and triumph. His death, in great suffering, weariness, and extreme humility. The tradition of him reverses that of Elijah; living, he is seen in the chariot of fire; dying, he submits to more than the common sorrow of death.

There is, however, much more than a difference in colour between the upper and lower frescos. There is a difference in manner which I cannot account for; and above all, a very singular difference in skill,—indicating, it seems to me, that the two lower were done long before the others, and afterwards united and harmonized with them. It is of no interest to the general reader to pursue this question; but one point he can notice quickly, that the lower frescos depend much on a mere black or brown outline of the features, while the faces above are evenly and completely painted in the most accomplished Venetian manner:—and another, respecting the management of the draperies, contains much interest for us.

Giotto never succeeded, to the very end of his days, in representing a figure lying down, and at ease. It is one of the most curious points in all his character. Just the thing which he could study from nature without the smallest hindrance, is the thing he never can paint; while subtleties of form and gesture, which depend absolutely on their momentariness, and actions in which no model can stay for an instant, he seizes with infallible accuracy.

Not only has the sleeping Pope, in the right hand lower fresco, his head laid uncomfortably on his pillow, but all the clothes on him are in awkward angles, even Giotto's instinct for lines of drapery failing him altogether when he has to lay it on a reposing figure. But look at the folds of the Soldan's robe over his knees. None could be more beautiful or right; and it is to me wholly inconceivable that the two paintings should be within even twenty years of each other in date—the skill in the upper one is so supremely greater. We shall find, however, more than mere truth in its casts of drapery, if we examine them.

They are so simply right, in the figure of the Soldan, that we do not think of them;—we see him only, not his dress But we see dress first, in the figures of the discomfited Magi. Very fully draped personages these, indeed,—with trains, it appears, four yards long, and bearers of them.

The one nearest the Soldan has done his devoir as bravely as he could; would fain go up to the fire, but cannot; is forced to shield his face, though he has not turned back. Giotto gives him full sweeping breadth of fold; what dignity he can;—a man faithful to his profession, at all events.

The next one has no such courage. Collapsed altogether, he has nothing more to say for himself or his creed. Giotto hangs the cloak upon him, in Ghirlandajo's fashion, as from a peg, but with ludicrous narrowness of fold. Literally, he is a 'shut-up' Magus—closed like a fan. He turns his head away, hopelessly. And the last Magus shows nothing but his back, disappearing through the door.

Opposed to them, in a modern work, you would have had a St. Francis standing as high as he could in his sandals, contemptuous, denunciatory; magnificently showing the Magi the door. No such thing, says Giotto. A somewhat mean man; disappointing enough in presence-even in feature; I do not understand his gesture, pointing to his forehead—perhaps meaning, 'my life, or my head, upon the truth of this.' The attendant monk behind him is terror-struck; but will follow his master. The dark Moorish servants of the Magi show no emotion—will arrange their masters' trains as usual, and decorously sustain their retreat.

Lastly, for the Soldan himself. In a modern work, you would assuredly have had him staring at St. Francis with his eyebrows up, or frowning thunderously at his Magi, with them bent as far down as they would go. Neither of these aspects does he bear, according to Giotto. A perfect gentleman and king, he looks on his Magi with quiet eyes of decision; he is much the noblest person in the room—though an infidel, the true hero of the scene, far more than St. Francis. It is evidently the Soldan whom Giotto wants you to think of mainly, in this picture of Christian missionary work.

He does not altogether take the view of the Heathen which you would get in an Exeter Hall meeting. Does not expatiate on their ignorance, their blackness, or their nakedness. Does not at all think of the Florentine Islington and Pentonville, as inhabited by persons in every respect superior to the kings of the East; nor does he imagine every other religion but his own to be log-worship. Probably the people who really worship logs—whether in Persia or Pentonville—will be left to worship logs to their hearts' content, thinks Giotto. But to those who worship God, and who have obeyed the laws of heaven written in their hearts, and numbered the stars of it visible to them,—to these, a nearer star may rise; and a higher God be revealed.

You are to note, therefore, that Giotto's Soldan is the type of all noblest religion and law, in countries where the name of Christ has not been preached. There was no doubt what king or people should be chosen: the country of the three Magi had already been indicated by the miracle of Bethlehem; and the religion and morality of Zoroaster were the purest, and in spirit the oldest, in the heathen world. Therefore, when Dante, in the nineteenth and twentieth books of the Paradise, gives his final interpretation of the law of human and divine justice in relation to the gospel of Christ—the lower and enslaved body of the heathen being represented by St. Philip's convert, ("Christians like these the Ethiop shall condemn")—the noblest state of heathenism is at once chosen, as by Giotto: "What may the Persians say unto your kings?" Compare also Milton,—

                      "At the Soldan's chair,
                Defied the best of Paynim chivalry."

And now, the time is come for you to look at Giotto's St. Louis, who is the type of a Christian king.

You would, I suppose, never have seen it at all, unless I had dragged you here on purpose. It was enough in the dark originally—is trebly darkened by the modern painted glass—and dismissed to its oblivion contentedly by Mr. Murray's "Four saints, all much restored and repainted," and Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcasella's serene "The St. Louis is quite new."

Now, I am the last person to call any restoration whatever, judicious. Of all destructive manias, that of restoration is the frightfullest and foolishest. Nevertheless, what good, in its miserable way, it can bring, the poor art scholar must now apply his common sense to take; there is no use, because a great work has been restored, in now passing it by altogether, not even looking for what instruction we still may find in its design, which will be more intelligible, if the restorer has had any conscience at all, to the ordinary spectator, than it would have been in the faded work. When, indeed, Mr. Murray's Guide tells you that a building has been 'magnificently restored,' you may pass the building by in resigned despair; for that means that every bit of the old sculpture has been destroyed, and modern vulgar copies put up in its place. But a restored picture or fresco will often be, to you, more useful than a pure one; and in all probability—if an important piece of art—it will have been spared in many places, cautiously completed in others, and still assert itself in a mysterious way—as Leonardo's Cenacolo does—through every phase of reproduction. [5]

But I can assure you, in the first place, that St. Louis is by no means altogether new. I have been up at it, and found most lovely and true colour left in many parts: the crown, which you will find, after our mornings at the Spanish chapel, is of importance, nearly untouched; the lines of the features and hair, though all more or less reproduced, still of definite and notable character; and the junction throughout of added colour so careful, that the harmony of the whole, if not delicate with its old tenderness, is at least, in its coarser way, solemn and unbroken. Such as the figure remains, it still possesses extreme beauty—profoundest interest. And, as you can see it from below with your glass, it leaves little to be desired, and may be dwelt upon with more profit than nine out of ten of the renowned pictures of the Tribune or the Pitti. You will enter into the spirit of it better if I first translate for you a little piece from the Fioretti di San Francesco.

"How St. Louis, King of France, went personally in the guise of a pilgrim, to Perugia, to visit the holy Brother Giles.—St. Louis, King of France, went on pilgrimage to visit the sanctuaries of the world; and hearing the most great fame of the holiness of Brother Giles, who had been among the first companions of St. Francis, put it in his heart, and determined assuredly that he would visit him personally; wherefore he came to Perugia, where was then staying the said brother. And coming to the gate of the place of the Brothers, with few companions, and being unknown, he asked with great earnestness for Brother Giles, telling nothing to the porter who he was that asked. The porter, therefore, goes to Brother Giles, and says that there is a pilgrim asking for him at the gate. And by God it was inspired in him and revealed that it was the King of France; whereupon quickly with great fervour he left his cell and ran to the gate, and without any question asked, or ever having seen each other before, kneeling down together with greatest devotion, they embraced and kissed each other with as much familiarity as if for a long time they had held great friendship; but all the while neither the one nor the other spoke, but stayed, so embraced, with such signs of charitable love, in silence. And so having remained for a great while, they parted from one another, and St. Louis went on his way, and Brother Giles returned to his cell. And the King being gone, one of the brethren asked of his companion who he was, who answered that he was the King of France. Of which the other brothers being told, were in the greatest melancholy because Brother Giles had never said a word to him; and murmuring at it, they said, 'Oh, Brother Giles, wherefore hadst thou so country manners that to so holy a king, who had come from France to see thee and hear from thee some good word, thou hast spoken nothing?'

"Answered Brother Giles: 'Dearest brothers, wonder not ye at this, that neither I to him, nor he to me, could speak a word; for so soon as we had embraced, the light of the divine wisdom revealed and manifested, to me, his heart, and to him, mine; and so by divine operation we looked each in the other's heart on what we would have said to one another, and knew it better far than if we had spoken with the mouth, and with more consolation, because of the defect of the human tongue, which cannot clearly express the secrets of God, and would have been for discomfort rather than comfort. And know, therefore, that the King parted from me marvellously content, and comforted in his mind.'"

Of all which story, not a word, of course, is credible by any rational person.

Certainly not: the spirit, nevertheless, which created the story, is an entirely indisputable fact in the history of Italy and of mankind. Whether St. Louis and Brother Giles ever knelt together in the street of Perugia matters not a whit. That a king and a poor monk could be conceived to have thoughts of each other which no words could speak; and that indeed the King's tenderness and humility made such a tale credible to the people,—this is what you have to meditate on here.

Nor is there any better spot in the world,—whencesoever your pilgrim feet may have journeyed to it, wherein to make up so much mind as you have in you for the making, concerning the nature of Kinghood and Princedom generally; and of the forgeries and mockeries of both which are too often manifested in their room. For it happens that this Christian and this Persian King are better painted here by Giotto than elsewhere by any one, so as to give you the best attainable conception of the Christian and Heathen powers which have both received, in the book which Christians profess to reverence, the same epithet as the King of the Jews Himself; anointed, or Christos:—and as the most perfect Christian Kinghood was exhibited in the life, partly real, partly traditional, of St. Louis, so the most perfect Heathen Kinghood was exemplified in the life, partly real, partly traditional, of Cyrus of Persia, and in the laws for human government and education which had chief force in his dynasty. And before the images of these two Kings I think therefore it will be well that you should read the charge to Cyrus, written by Isaiah. The second clause of it, if not all, will here become memorable to you—literally illustrating, as it does, the very manner of the defeat of the Zoroastrian Magi, on which Giotto founds his Triumph of Faith. I write the leading sentences continuously; what I omit is only their amplification, which you can easily refer to at home. (Isaiah xliv. 24, to xlv. 13.)

"Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, and he that formed thee from the womb. I the Lord that maketh all; that stretcheth forth the heavens, alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth, alone; that turneth wise men backward, and maketh their knowledge, foolish; that confirmeth the word of his Servant, and fulfilleth the counsel of his messengers: that saith of Cyrus, He is my Shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, 'thou shalt be built,' and to the temple, 'thy foundations shall be laid."

"Thus saith the Lord to his Christ;—to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden, to subdue nations before him, and I will loose the loins of Kings.

"I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight; I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron; and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I the Lord, which call thee by thy name, am the God of Israel.

"For Jacob my servant's sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name; I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me.

"I am the Lord, and there is none else; there is no God beside me. I girded thee, though thou hast not known me. That they may know, from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me; I am the Lord and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil. I the Lord do all these things.

"I have raised him up in Righteousness, and will direct all his ways; he shall build my city, and let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the Lord of Nations."

To this last verse, add the ordinance of Cyrus in fulfilling it, that you may understand what is meant by a King's being "raised up in Righteousness," and notice, with respect to the picture under which you stand, the Persian King's thought of the Jewish temple.

"In the first year of the reign of Cyrus,[6] King Cyrus commanded that the house of the Lord at Jerusalem should be built again, where they do service with perpetual fire; (the italicized sentence is Darius's, quoting Cyrus's decree—the decree itself worded thus), Thus saith Cyrus, King of Persia: [7] The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem.

"Who is there among you of all his people?—his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem which is in Judah, and let the men of his place help him with silver and with gold, and with goods and with beasts."

Between which "bringing the prisoners out of captivity" and modern liberty, free trade, and anti-slavery eloquence, there is no small interval.

To these two ideals of Kinghood, then, the boy has reached, since the day he was drawing the lamb on the stone, as Cimabue passed by. You will not find two other such, that I know of, in the west of Europe; and yet there has been many a try at the painting of crowned heads,—and King George III and Queen Charlotte, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, are very fine, no doubt. Also your black-muzzled kings of Velasquez, and Vandyke's long-haired and white-handed ones; and Rubens' riders—in those handsome boots. Pass such shadows of them as you can summon, rapidly before your memory—then look at this St. Louis.

His face—gentle, resolute, glacial-pure, thin-cheeked; so sharp at the chin that the entire head is almost of the form of a knight's shield—the hair short on the forehead, falling on each side in the old Greek-Etruscan curves of simplest line, to the neck; I don't know if you can see without being nearer, the difference in the arrangement of it on the two sides-the mass of it on the right shoulder bending inwards, while that on the left falls straight. It is one of the pretty changes which a modern workman would never dream of—and which assures me the restorer has followed the old lines rightly.

He wears a crown formed by an hexagonal pyramid, beaded with pearls on the edges: and walled round, above the brow, with a vertical fortress-parapet, as it were, rising into sharp pointed spines at the angles: it is chasing of gold with pearl—beautiful in the remaining work of it; the Soldan wears a crown of the same general form; the hexagonal outline signifying all order, strength, and royal economy. We shall see farther symbolism of this kind, soon, by Simon Memmi, in the Spanish chapel.

I cannot tell you anything definite of the two other frescos—for I can only examine one or two pictures in a day; and never begin with one till I have done with another; and I had to leave Florence without looking at these—even so far as to be quite sure of their subjects. The central one on the left is either the twelfth subject of Assisi—St. Francis in Ecstacy;[8] or the eighteenth, the Apparition of St. Francis at Arles;[9] while the lowest on the right may admit choice between two subjects in each half of it: my own reading of them would be—that they are the twenty-first and twenty-fifth subjects of Assisi, the Dying Friar[10] and Vision of Pope Gregory IX.;[11] but Crowe and Cavalcasella may be right in their different interpretation;[12] in any case, the meaning of the entire system of work remains unchanged, as I have given it above.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. I venture to attribute the wiser note to Signor Cavalcasella because I have every reason to put real confidence in his judgment. But it was impossible for any man, engaged as he is, to go over all the ground covered by so extensive a piece of critical work as these three volumes contain, with effective attention.
  2. I observe that recent criticism is engaged in proving all Etruscan vases to be of late manufacture, in imitation of archaic Greek. And I therefore must briefly anticipate a statement which I shall have to enforce in following letters. Etruscan art remains in its own Italian valleys, of the Arno and upper Tiber, in one unbroken series of work, from the seventh century before Christ, to this hour, when the country whitewasher still scratches his plaster in Etruscan patterns. All Florentine work of the finest kind—Luca della Robbia's, Ghiberti's, Donatello's, Filippo Lippi's, Botticelli's, Fra Angelico's—is absolutely pure Etruscan, merely changing its subjects, and representing the Virgin instead of Athena, and Christ instead of Jupiter. Every line of the Florentine chisel in the fifteenth century is based on national principles of art which existed in the seventh century before Christ; and Angelico, in his convent of St. Dominic, at the foot of the hill of Fésole, is as true an Etruscan as the builder who laid the rude stones of the wall along its crest—of which modern civilization has used the only arch that remained for cheap building stone. Luckily, I sketched it in 1845. but alas, too carelessly,—never conceiving of the brutalities of modem Italy as possible.
  3. The floor has been repainted; but though its grey is now heavy and cold, it cannot kill the splendour of the rest.
  4. 'Fors Clavigera' for September, 1874.
  5. For a test of your feeling in the matter, having looked well at these two lower frescos in this chapel, walk round into the next, and examine the lower one on your left hand as you enter that. You will find in your Murray that the frescos in this chapel "were also till lately, (1862) covered with whitewash"; but I happen to have a long critique of this particular picture written in the year 1845, and I see no change in it since then. Mr. Murray's critic also tells you to observe in it that "the daughter of Herodias playing on a violin is not unlike Perugino's treatment of similar subjects." By which Mr. Murray's critic means that the male musician playing on a violin, whom, without looking either at his dress, or at the rest of the fresco, he took for the daughter of Herodias, has a broad face. Allowing you the full benefit of this criticism—there is still a point or two more to be observed. This is the only fresco near the ground in which Giotto's work is untouched, at least, by the modern restorer. So felicitously safe it is, that you may learn from it at once and for ever, what good fresco painting is—how quiet—how delicately clear—how little coarsely or vulgarly attractive—how capable of the most tender light and shade, and of the most exquisite and enduring colour. In this latter respect, this fresco stands almost alone among the works of Giotto; the striped curtain behind the table being wrought with a variety and fantasy of playing colour which Paul Veronese could not better at his best. You will find, without difficulty, in spite of the faint tints, the daughter of Herodias in the middle of the picture—-slowly moving, not dancing, to the violin music—she herself playing on a lyre. In the farther corner of the picture, she gives St. John's head to her mother; the face of Herodias is almost entirely faded, which may be a farther guarantee to you of the safety of the rest. The subject of the Apocalypse, highest on the right, is one of the most interesting mythic pictures in Florence; nor do I know any other so completely rendering the meaning of the scene between the woman in the wilderness, and the Dragon enemy. But it cannot be seen from the floor level: and I have no power of showing its beauty in words.
  6. 1st Esdras vi. 24.
  7. Ezra i. 3, and 2nd Esdras ii. 3.
  8. "Represented" (next to St. Francis before the Soldan, at Assisi) "as seen one night by the brethren, praying, elevated from the ground, his hands extended like the cross, and surrounded by a shining cloud."—Lord Lindsay.
  9. "St. Anthony of Padua was preaching at a general chapter of the order, held at Arles, in 1224, when St. Francis appeared in the midst, his arms extended, and in an attitude of benediction."—Lord Lindsay.
  10. "A brother of the order, lying on his deathbed, saw the spirit of St. Francis rising to heaven, and springing forward, cried, 'Tarry, Father, I come with thee!' and fell back dead."—Lord Lindsay.
  11. "He hesitated, before canonizing St. Francis; doubting the celestial infliction of the stigmata. St. Francis appeared to him in a vision, and with a severe countenance reproving his unbelief, opened his robe, and, exposing the wound in his side, filled a vial with the blood that flowed from it, and gave it to the Pope, who awoke and found it in his hand."—Lord Lindsay.
  12. "As St. Francis was carried on his bed of sickness to St. Maria degli Angeli, he stopped at an hospital on the roadside, and ordering his attendants to turn his head in the direction of Assisi, he rose in his litter and said, 'Blessed be thou amongst cities! may the blessing of God cling to thee, oh holy place, for by thee shall many souls be saved;' and, having said this, he lay down and was carried on to St. Maria degli Angeli. On the evening of the 4th of October his death was revealed at the very hour to the bishop of Assisi on Mount Sarzana."—Crowe and Cavalcasella.