« PreviousContinue »
power of design, a minute and ostentatious knowledge of muscular action, and have benefited students by contributing immensely to the common stock of elementary studies; but they are destitute of all that can interest the eye and the heart, and they fail entirely in the noblest aim and ultimate object of art, which is to refine the taste, to elevate the feelings, and to expand the intellect of all mankind.
“I have hitherto sought only to maintain by argument, that Michael Angelo was deficient in sound taste and judgment, and that he was unworthy of the name of painter. I will now unanswerably demonstrate, that he was mean and illiberal as a man, and I dare his Tuscan idolaters to disprove that conclusive evidence of a little mind, which appeared in his persecution of the mild and heavenly Raphael. Conscious of his hopeless inferiority as a colourist, and fearful that the rising reputation of his unassuming rival would eclipse his own, he secretly exerted all his skill and science in sketching designs for Bastian del Piombo. The rich colouring of the Venetian was to poison the shaft, and these mongrel productions were intended to dim the splendid achievements of the unconscious painter of the Vatican.
“How beautifully contrasted with this degrading malice, was the pure and lofty integrity, the angelic forbearance, of the singlehearted and enthusiastic Raphael! Incapable of envy, aiming only at the perfection of art, and prompted by an engaging deference to the feelings of his irritable rival, he studied and made his own all that was really valuable in Michael Angelo. And herein consists the essential difference between these extraordinary men. Raphael could avail himself of the knowledge and skill of Buonarotti; but that which made Raphael the unrivalled king of painters, could neither be imparted nor acquired. It was the celestial spark—the radiance within the wondrous instinct, so deep, so certain, and so true, which is the noblest gift of Heaven.
“Finally, while I concede to Michael Angelo an exalted station amongst the master spirits, who compose the base and the gradations of the great pyramid of art; I maintain, and I glory in the conviction, that Raphael alone has reached the crowning point. There he sits enthroned, and soars above all other artists at an elevation which it is impossible to surpass or to attain ! ”
Although a Tuscan, and a friend of Vasari, I was so rapturously excited by the impassioned eloquence of this young Demosthenes, and by the poetical beauty of his climax, that I could not refrain from a burst of applause. I regretted, however, the indulgence of this impulse, when I beheld the mute consternation, the Delphic horror of my young countryman. Although habitually fluent, he was so astonished and overwhelmed by the fiery philippic of his beardless antagonist, that I expected every moment to see him retreat, like Cicero, before the rebellious and handsome Clodius ; and when I observed that he vainly attempted to recal his scattered senses, I roused my own in defence of him and Michael Angelo, and thus replied to the youthful worshipper of Raphael :
“I am no exclusive idolater of Michael Angelo, and I admit the force and truth of many of your assertions, but I cannot assent to your sweeping conclusion that he was a mere professor of drawing ; nor can I believe that you, who possess so much poetry of nien and language, such fervour and such eloquence, are incapable of appreciating that awful power in his conception which strikes the intellectual beholder like the sound of the last trumpet. Certainly his God the Father resembles nothing in nature, and a sounder judgment would have prompted him to substitute a radiant shekinah, but modern art has produced no form of greater sublimity. His Prophets and Sybils are mighty personifications of more than human zeal, enthusiasm, and fire, and ought therefore to exhibit somewhat of an unearthly character. In his Last Judgment there is an appropriate grandeur of expression in the God-like severity of Jesus, who, with extended hand, menaces the souls of the Wicked, while his tender mother meekly folds her arms across her breast; and bids the souls of the righteous ascend into the regions of the Blessed. I admit that the lower portion of this immense design abounds with revolting absurdities, that the figures of the damned are merely multiplied versions of the Torso of Apollonius, and that the single figures are utterly destitute of that expression which ought to characterize their awful situation ; and yet you cannot but acknowledge that the groupings of the numerous figures are original and masterly, and that no one but Michael Angelo couli, with such amazing truth and certainty, have delineated the human form in every conceivable variety of position.
“ It has always been asserted by the admirers of this great man, that he would not condescend to paint in oil, and by his enemies and crities that lie wanted the ability. Believe it not! His ruling foible was a painful consciousness of his incompetence in colouring; he affected to regard oil-painting with contempt, and the Michael Angelo of the public painted only in fresco. But that in his hours of seclusion and privacy he attempted to accomplish oil-paintings, is a fact verified by the existence of pictures which could have been executed by no other hand. The colouring of these is common-place or inefficient; but in drawing, in design, and in anatomical precision, they hear a stamp of power, of passion, and of science, which cannot for a moment be mistaken, and which precludes the possibility of their being copies. I have recently seen in Rome one of these paintings, of small dimensions, but full of poetry and feeling, and representing the Crucifixion.
“ The Saviour has just said to his mother, Woman, behold thy Son! and to the disciple whom he loved, Son, behold thy Mother! The virgin stands on the right of the cross, St. John on the left, and above them two angels appear amidst fiery clouds in a lurid and stormy sky, and minister unto Jesus. The Christ and the Madonna surpass in tragic sublimity every pictured representation of them I ever beheld. His countenance is that of a dying Tiberius Gracchus, ennobled by a super-human and blended expression of suffering, of resignation, and of grandeur. The Virgin Mary is another Cornelia, whose tine features are characterized by greatness of soul and intensity of grief. How poor, how common-place, in comparison, are all other Madonnas, even those of Raphael, whom I venerate and love as another Apelles. She is represented of lofty stature, of matured and matronly, but undiminished beauty; and her mien is that of self-possession and majesty. Her countenance is finely and eloquently expressive of deep anguish, blended with lofty indignation at the cruel death inflicted upon her son, and a consoling sense of his divine origin, and of his high aud sacred office. To a superficial observer, this unrivalled Madonna displays only the pathetic grandeur of a Niobe; but to the more searching and serious eye, it unfolds the sublime character of a Christian mother, supported in her hour of need by resignation to the will of God, and by the knowledge of a future and a better existence.
“ The form and features of the crucified Jesus exhibit that vigorous pencil, and that unrivalled knowledge of the human frame, which at once identify the artist. The countenance beams with a divine expression of benevolence and of resignation to the tortures inflicted by the multitude he came to save and to reform. The forehead, pale and contracted with suffering, the mild and uncomplaining eye, and the racking position of the body and limbs upon the cross, are painted with startling and dreadful accuracy. The swollen arteries, the collapsed and exhausted muscles, the agonizing tension of the bones and sinews, and the combined expression of anguish and vitality diffused over the whole figure, have no parallel in art, and are drawn with a degree of science, freedom, and boldness, far beyond the reach of a copyist.
“ Vasari was a man of strong prejudices, and was betrayed by an overweening attachment to his native country and her school of painting, into positive injustive towards the three great apostles of art, Raphael, Titian, and Correggio ; but I could not gaze upon the painting I have described without acknowledging the general justice of his eloquent and impassioned praises of Michael Angelo, whom he once described to me, in allusion to a larger design on this subject, as a powerful and heaven-created genius, who descended from the skies to teach all other artists how to delineate that most sublime and pathetic of sacred subjects, the Crucifixion of the Saviour.”
Tuscan now accosted me, and, with glowing cheeks, expressed his lively sense of the ready kindness with which I had advocated his cause. “You must not, however,” he said, “do me the injustice to suppose that I am unconscious of the extraordinary powers of Raphael. In confidence," he added in a lower tone, “the bitter and hostile jealousy existing amongst the Roman artists, renders it impossible to glean any practical knowledge from them, until they are roused into communication by an angry impulse. It is therefore my practice, when associating with painters of talent, to make a preconcerted attack upon their favourite opinions and prejudices, that, in the fiery collision of argument, I may seize and appropriate the sparks of genius which are thus elicited. I am well acquainted,” he continued aloud, “with the admirable little picture of Michael Angelo. How many attempts have been made to copy it, and how uniformly poor the result! His minute and accurate display of human anatomy is the envy and despair of all existing painters. I regret, however, that the figures in this painting are not larger; and that Michael Angelo should have descended from his high ground, to paint on that diminutive scale which has always been the refuge of mediocrity. It is a vicious style of painting, and is perpetuated only by the encouragement of women, and of superficial amateurs, who prefer finish and detail to the more spirited and noble effect of full-sized figures."
I assented to the general truth of his remarks; but observed, that genuine talent and fine drawing would emit lustre from the paunel of APRIL, 1827.
a miniature; and that Michael Angelo had redeemed himself from any suspicion of a preference for the diminutive, by those children of Enoch, his Sybils and Prophets. After some comments upon the various and conflicting opinions entertained of Buonarotti, I proceeded to infer from his deficiency in colouring, that an artist might rise above all other men in power of intellect and sublimity of conception, and yet fail essentially as a painter.
“And I contend," said a deep and rolling voice, “ that an artist of moderate intellect may become not only a successful, but a celebrated painter.”
I looked around for the speaker, and saw a man of middle age and majestic person rising from a chair, where he had been partially concealed by the group before him. He extended his right arm as he advanced, and his falling mantle revealed his manly chest and finely formed shoulder. His garb was plain, rustic, and threadbare; his teeth of dazzling whiteness glittered as he spoke, through a black beard of singular magnificence, while his classical features, and eyes of lustrous black, betrayed another Greek; and, if I might judge from his amplitude of brow, and from the powerful and sarcastic expression of his lips, an antagonist more formidable than the brilliant youth I had already encountered.
“ The assertion may be startling to professional ears," he continued, “but I contend that a man destitute of original conceptions, of inventive faculties of mind, or whatever you term that light within which raises the individual above the species, will, in painting more easily than in any other of the arts, obtain the applause of the multitude, if, with a good eye, he combines that mechanical readiness and finish which application will bestow upon any one; and judgment enough to devote himself to those subjects only which are most acceptable to the opulent collectors of his time. He must beware of attempting what is termed “the Sublime' in art, and be contented with a close adherence to nature, and to the Beautiful' in nature, which he may accomplish. And he must take high ground, and boldly maintain that the copyist of nature is the only genuine painter, and that all pictorial flights of imagination originate in eccentric or insane perceptions. And he must ask his opponents, as I now ask you, what is the Sublime ?'
So absolute was my new opponent's command of feature, that I could not immediately determine whether this attack was made in seriousness, in jest, or in petulance; but it roused in me a spirit of antagonism, which struck out an immediate reply.
“ The Sublime?" I exclaimed. “Is it not that which strikes the mind as thunder strikes the ear; and which flashes out, like a spirit, from every thing which rises above the powers and conceptions of man? Does it not radiate from the lineaments, the form, the bearing, the language, and the actions, of great and extraordinary men? Does it not glow in the Iliad of Homer-in the Prometheus of Eschylus—in the god-like statues of the Greek sculptors—and in that wondrous work of yesterday, the Moses of Michael Angelo? Does it not burst upon us in the battle-call of the trumpet—in the howling whistle of the blast-in the roar of the mountain storm—in the plunge everlasting of the cataract—in the surging thunder of the ocean? Does it not thrill and almost suspend our faculties in the silent march of pestilence-in
the deep low muttering which precedes the earthquake—in the magnificence of universal nature—and in the awful mystery which invests the Deity?"
“We shall not arrive at any conclusion," he coolly replied, “until we have clearly defined the nature and limits of each of the arts. more convenient season I shall rejoice to meet such a gladiator in the arena, and to try whether our differences are reconcilable by argument. But we must not forget that the sun is setting in splendour, and that we assembled here for a festal purpose. In Rome, the month of October is ever sacred to social enjoyment; and I propose that we abandon the endless labyrinth of argument to follow the joyous mazes of the dance.".
This proposal being warmly seconded by the more youthful of the assembled artists, we descended into the sheltered garden, where we found numerous groups of happy Romans, and amongst them the fair wives and mistresses of several of our party. Our arrival was hailed as a signal to renew the dance, and the handsome youth who had so fiercely assailed Michael Angelo, singled out the loveliest of the assembled fair ones. She was a noble specimen of the full and majestic style of beauty peculiar to the Roman women, and which would betray too much of Gothic ancestry, were it not redeemed by the dark lustre of their eyes, and the superlative and classic grandeur of their profiles. The dance was of that lively, bounding, dramatic character, in which the Italians delight; full of imagination and sentiment, and imparting life and eloquence to every limb and every feature. The flying grace of the young Greek, and the slender symmetry of his perfect form, were beautifully contrasted with the imposing air, the Juno stature, the more measured and stately movements of his partner, and every eye was fixed upon them in admiration. In the classical and perfect beauty of their forms and attitudes, they resembled two antique statues just descended from their pedestals, and enjoying their new existence in the circling dance. I could have imagined him a nymph of Diana in male attire, and her the Greek Apollo in the garb of woman; and I was no longer at a loss to explain his antipathy to the skeleton school of Michael Angelo, when I saw the fiery flash of his dark eye subdued into Ionian softness as he gazed upon the Titianesque grace and voluptuous contours of his fair companion.
I discovered, on inquiry from our Sicilian host, that the elder of the two Greeks was named Odysseus ; that he was a native of the isle of Scio, and was pensioned and patronised by the Giustiniani family, in consideration of certain literary services. He was employed also by the learned in Italy, and other parts of Europe, to collate and to copy the Greek manuscripts in the Vatican library. The young Apollo, Tolomeo, was his nephew, and under his superintendance while studying the art of painting, to which he was professionally devoted.
As I had declined dancing, I occupied myself in observing the grand and regular features of Odysseus, as he gazed in contemplative enjoyment upon the group of dancers. Viewed more at leisure, his noble exterior lost none of its power over my imagination; and, notwithstanding his evident disposition to depreciate the art and the professors of painting, I felt myself strongly attracted by many indications of a mind of the highest order, and by something indescribably different from all other men which I discerned in him. Nature had be