Littell's Living Age/Volume 125/Issue 1615/A Monastery among the Apennines

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
From The Saturday Review.


Half a day's journey pleasantly divided between the railway and an open carriage takes the traveller from Siena to the famous Benedictine monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The difficulty of access in former days may account for the otherwise almost culpable omission by Mrs. Jameson of any mention in her volumes on sacred and monastic art of this rich repository of fresco-painting. Within the vast structure, more like a defiant fortress in its unassailable position and strong outworks than the abode of peace and piety, the enlightened pope Pius II. was a visitor, and the all-potent emperor Charles V., accompanied by 2,500 soldiers and attendants, found lodgings and hospitality. In more recent days a copyist employed by the Arundel Society obtained board and lodging there for a year; and it has likewise welcomed two skilful photographers from Siena and Florence, to whom the public is indebted for faithful transcripts from the famous wall-paintings in the cloister. This wealthy and picturesque monastery was founded in the fourteenth century by a Sienese noble and doctor of law; subsequently it received ample endowments from the Piccolomini and other families, and it was long looked up to reverently as the parent stock whence sprang all Olivetan monasteries, which, like that which overlooks the banks of the Arno, we have found usually planted on wooded eminences rising above valleys and plains, as the Mount of Olives commands from a height the city of Jerusalem. The other day, as the carriage toiled up perilous mountain paths, we not unnaturally recurred to the oft-repeated question: — Why did the monks of old choose for their dwelling these inaccessible and inhospitable spots? Was it indeed that they thought to establish as it were a half-way house to heaven? or was it that, from singleness of faith in the ascetic life, they sought through seclusion to cut themselves off from access to the lower world? or could it be that the beauties of nature proved to be precious as a solace and an aid — beauties which here, as in other like sanctuaries, find response in the accumulated treasures of a beauty-loving art? It is scarcely unreasonable to suppose that the good old monks may have been as divided in motive as modern travellers are in mind. Some may have turned with horror from precipices down which pilgrims are known to have been pitched headlong, while others will have rested fondly on the vision of the founder who saw in a dream, on the very site of this sky-soaring monastery, a silver staircase reaching from earth to heaven.

Monte Oliveto Maggiore has shared a common fate; the monastery was despoiled by the French, fine tarsia work was torn from the refectory and the library and used for firewood, the books have been dispersed, and the church, which was once covered with early frescoes, has been modernized in the worst style. Some slight signs of these pictures can still be traced; likewise in a passage between the church and the cloister there are remains of figures which, though of no great merit, show, as is often the case, successive strata of pictures. In the refectory, too, are small fragments of a Last Supper; also round the door leading to the church have been discovered beneath whitewash mutilated portions of a wall-painting. In fact, the whole monastery was at one time a museum rich in treasures of art, and the preservation of what remains is greatly due to the enlightened superior, who kindly conducts strangers through his domains. The last misfortune that has befallen Monte Oliveto is its secularization, with the consequent appropriation of the lands by the State and the dispersion of the monks. Here, as at the great convent at Assisi, only a small clerical staff is retained, whose duties consist in the saying of mass, the education of about a dozen youths, the administration under the government of the estates, and lastly, the entertainment of travellers, ladies included, at a small fixed charge. The scholarly and gentlemanly superior remarked, in a melancholy voice, "We were formerly masters; we are now servants." Utilitarian considerations have, as usual, proved fatal to picturesque effects; the three remaining monks have, by command of the government, exchanged the white raiment of their order for the black gown of parish priests; the artist's eye is no longer delighted by groups of grey friars seated beneath the green olives, or wending their steps at eventide in lines of light among paths of dark cypress-trees.

The student of art, as well indeed as the general traveller, is attracted to this monastery among the mountains by the thirty frescoes which cover the whole of the four walls of the great cloister. These pictures were begun by Luca Signorelli at the close of the fifteenth century, and continued and completed by Bazzi (otherwise Razzi or Sodoma) in the commencement of the sixteenth century. The series comprises the life of St. Benedict, a theme which found favour among painters. The pictorial narrative here before us, in common with others elsewhere more or less complete, gives prominence to the visit of Totila to the saint; here, also, are illustrated many true or apocryphal incidents in his career, such as the overthrow of the heathen temple at Monte Cassino, sundry adventures with the devil, the visit of a company of fair damsels to tempt the monks, with the addition of various legendary miracles. Yet these compositions can scarcely be deemed religious in spirit, at least in the sense in which the word attaches to the severe and devotional pictures of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Indeed the two painters here employed — Signorelli and his successor Buzi — belong to that period of transition when sacred art was passing into secular, and ideal forms became pronounced with the individual traits of naturalism. Signorelli stands conspicuous as the pupil of Piero della Francesca; he was, too, the contemporary of Melozzo da Forli; he belonged to the company of artists who, following in the steps of Paolo Uccello, reduced drawing to the accuracy of a science, and brought perspective and the principle of foreshortening under strict geometric law. These frescoes also stand as early examples of aerial perspective; neutral and atmospheric tones appear almost for the first time, the fundamental principles of surrender and relation being in great degree due to that marvellous yet mysterious genius, Piero della Francesca. All the more interest attaches to these frescoes because of their transitional and tentative character. We here tread on the frontiers which divide classic, medieval, and modern styles; we are in the hands of a man who by the force of his will moulded elements so conflicting, that his compositions have been aptly compared, by reason of the angularity of their forms and the harshness of their colours, to a peal of bells ringing out of tune.

These master-works by Signorelli are turning-points in the history of art; we here find difficulties which had long impeded progress overcome. The drawing of the human form is based on the knowledge of anatomy; the draperies, whether symmetrical or disturbed by accident, fall naturally by the law of gravity; they show too the articulations of the form beneath — always a proof of knowledge and power; they are moreover valuable as trustworthy records of the military, monastic, and domestic costume of the time and place. These frescoes, indeed, have all the more value from the distinctive local character they bear. An oil or easel picture can be painted anywhere, and afterwards may be carried hither and thither; but these frescoes from first to last have inhered to the freehold and inheritance; the artist dwelt on the spot; when he rose in the morning to work he found models ready to hand; the monk with whom he had walked and talked at the vesper hour was ready at sunrise to lend his head and figure for pictorial uses. Signorelli had a piercing, wide-sweeping vision; his eye was open to the world on all sides. These frescoes, as we have said, show a keen insight into local character. Here are monks aged and meditative, others young and not quite subjected to spiritualism; here, too, occurs again and again the conjectural but apposite figure of St. Benedict — a venerable old man with white and flowing beard. Another representative character in these times is the knight or warrior as seen in the retinue of Totila. Perhaps the spirit of chivalry came more within the sphere of Signorelli than the spirit of Christianity; and yet the warrior is sometimes subdued by sentiment, as in a young knight of drooping head and melancholy mien which reminds the spectator of the famous figure in Orcagna's "Triumph of Death" in the Campo Santo at Pisa. Yet on the whole we are impressed with the fact that the time had come for the dying-out of types; instead of traditional forms we are offered actual portraits, painted, as we have said, on the spot. Here too among these semi-secular legends we encounter almost for the first time a simply domestic art. Take, for example, two monks caught by the saint in the act of feasting contrary to rule in a private house, each guest being served at table by a young and charming damsel. This scandal, emblazoned on the wall of a cloister, fills the spectator with amazement. At a period when artists had devoted themselves to Madonnas and saints, in a place of special sanctity lying on the confines of Siena and of Umbria, each identified with express spiritual phases of art, we come upon a picture which stings as a satire and tickles as a joke. Signorelli left his work when not half finished; the traveller on his way to Rome next meets this bold and original master in Orvieto; in Monte Oliveto we have made acquaintance with the man in his every-day mood; here among the mountain's he gathered strength for the sublime conceptions which stand in the rank of pictorial epics as the precursors to the "Last Judgment" of Michael Angelo. No painter will better repay study than Luca Signorelli; the world of art has not known enough of him.

Bazzi, who came and lived in the monastery to carry out the pictorial scheme which had broken down half way, soon showed himself as the antithesis to his predecessor Signorelli. He was a man who played with his art; he had little feeling of responsibility, no belief in a mission; in short, he scamped his work. Forsaking study, he took refuge in sentiment; his drawing is careless and infirm, his execution hasty and slight. But he received a timely reprimand from his employers, which so far put him on his mettle that some few of these compositions do no injustice to his acknowledged ability. How pure and noble the art of this painter might have been, and occasionally was, may be judged from the composition, specially commended by Vasari for its unaccustomed care,

"St. Mauro and St. Placido brought to St. Benedict as children and dedicated by their parents to God." Some of the heads are ennobled under the influence of Da Vinci, others confess to consanguinity with Perugino, Pinturicchio, and even with Raffaelle. The infirmity of the master seems to have been that he slided too easily into eclecticism; like the mocking-bird in his notorious menagerie, he simulated the notes he heard floating in the air around him, so that his own voice became merged and lost. Yet had he a fine sense of beauty, especially in the female form; his manner was ever bland and gracious; his pencil is peculiarly persuasive; such a painter could not fail of popularity. Bazzi, in common with his contemporary Luini, is fitted every way for the art of fresco; he was so facile that he painted impromptu; his inventions had off-hand readiness even to a fault; his brush was so rapid that it ran ahead of guiding intention. The life of this wayward genius within the monastery was to say the least of it, eccentric; ugly stories are rife which for the honour of art we are glad to discredit, but at all events he brought with him for his retinue a motley crew of birds and animals, so that his abode became, according to Vasari, "like the very ark of Noah;" this way of going on grew so extraordinary that the monks gave him the nickname of "Mattaccio" or "the arch-fool." And the scandal obtains currency that Bazzi here painted in the simple nude the women who are said to have come to tempt St. Benedict and his brethren; and the story is in some measure borne out by the fresco itself; the superior insisted that draperies should be added for the sake of decency, and some of the clothing seems as if it might have been an afterthought. The artist has written his character unmistakably in his own portrait painted on these walls, with his raven, baboon, and other brute companions around; the head might pass for that of a ferocious bandit, yet it is not without a certain wild force. Bazzi, although he made himself at home within the monastery, was not altogether comfortable. It is not pleasant to think of the bickerings over payments which marred the friendly relations between the artist and the ecclesiastics. Bazzi, like Signorelli, was ill paid; accordingly he slighted his work, and in a fit of temper exclaimed that his pencil danced only in tune with the chick of the coins. The monks have not shown themselves wise even according to their generation; they first of all screwed down the artist, and then did their utmost to ruin his works. These frescoes have suffered cruel injury; the surfaces are scratched and scrawled over, and there is actually now to be seen a wall-painting in the upper part of the monastery which was rescued from beneath nine coats of whitewash.

The scenery and the accompanying stratification of Monte Oliveto have exceptional attractions for the artist and the geologist. In the midst of that light alluvial deposit which gives the fertility as of a garden to the hills and the valleys of the Apennines are here thrust barren deposits of marl, arid as lava-streams, which make inroad on vineyards and olive-groves. These clayey tracts, forming the high promontory whereon the monastery is planted, are subjected in the rainy season to an annually recurring deluge that ploughs the surface with torrents which rush wildly as water down a house-roof, breaking away roads, undermining woods, and devastating the fields whereon scanty harvests are reaped and stunted trees obtain precarious footing. The path to the monastery itself is subject to disintegration and disaster; it may be compared to the backbone of some antediluvian monster of rugged vertebrae, with a bare skeleton of ribs outstretching on either side. The whole scene is eminently Dantesque; here Gustave Doré might have made his sketches for the horrors of "L'Inferno" or for the exploits of the "Wandering Jew;" here, too, our own Martin could have caught ideas for the illustration of "Paradise Lost;" the scene indeed is as of a paradise into which demons have entered. Such were the waste places which the Benedictines loved to colonize — "places," to quote the words of the late Mr. Mailland, "chosen because they were waste and solitary, and such as could be reclaimed only by the incessant labour of those who were willing to work hard and live hard." The present superior points to plots barren within his memory now brought under cultivation; the vine mantles the rock, the cypress crowns the precipice, and golden corn adds colour to the grey shadowy landscape. So true are the words of M. Guizot, that "wherever the Benedictines carried the cross they also carried the plough; wherever they placed a book they painted a picture. Here we see the last survivors of the reformed order at the place of its birth; let us hope that the good which these men have done may live after them, and that only the evil will be buried with their bones.