Back to the Index Page

 
 
 

The Art and the Country by Vernon Lee

 

TUSCAN NOTES.

     ”... all these are inhabitants of truly mountain cities, Florence
     being as completely among the hills as Innsbruck is, only the
     hills have softer outlines.”—Modern Painters, iv., chap. xx.

I.

Sitting in the January sunshine on the side of this Fiesole hill, overlooking the opposite quarries (a few long-stalked daisies at my feet in the gravel, still soft from the night's frost), my thoughts took the colour and breath of the place. They circled, as these paths circle round the hill, about those ancient Greek and old Italian cities, where the cyclopean walls, the carefully-terraced olives, followed the tracks made first by the shepherd's and the goat's foot, even as we see them now on the stony hills all round. What civilisations were those, thus sowed on the rock like the wild mint and grey myrrh-scented herbs, and grown under the scorch of sun upon stone, and the eddy of winds down the valleys! They are gone, disappeared, and their existence would be impossible in our days. But they have left us their art, the essence they distilled from their surroundings. And that is as good for our souls as the sunshine and the wind, as the aromatic scent of the herbs of their mountains.

II.

I am tempted to think that the worst place for getting to know, getting to feel, any school of painting, is the gallery, and the best, perhaps, the fields: the fields (or in the case of the Venetians, largely the waters), to which, with their qualities of air, of light, their whole train of sensations and moods, the artistic temperament, and the special artistic temperament of a local school, can very probably be traced.

For to appreciate any kind of art means, after all, not to understand its relations with other kinds of art, but to feel its relations with ourselves. It is a matter of living, thanks to that art, according to the spiritual and organic modes of which it is an expression. Now, to go from room to room of a gallery, allowing oneself to be played upon by very various kinds of art, is to prevent the formation of any definite mood, and to set up what is most hostile to all mood, to all unity of being: comparison, analysis, classification. You may know quite exactly the difference between Giotto and Simon Martini, between a Ferrarese and a Venetian, between Praxiteles and Scopas; and yet be ignorant of the meaning which any of these might have in your life, and unconscious of the changes they might work in your being. And this, I fear, is often the case with connoisseurs and archæologists, accounting for the latent suspicion of the ignoramus and the good philistine, that such persons are somehow none the better for their intercourse with art.

All art which is organic, short of which it cannot be efficient, depends upon tradition. To say so sounds a truism, because we rarely realise all that tradition implies: on the side of the artist, what to do, and on the side of his public, how to feel: a habit, an expectation which accumulates the results of individual creative genius and individual appreciative sensibility, giving to each its greatest efficacy. When one remembers, in individual instances—Kant, Darwin, Michel Angelo, Mozart—how very little which is absolutely new, how slight a variation, how inevitable a combination, marks, after all, the greatest strokes of genius in all things, it seems quite laughable to expect the mediocre person, mere looker-on or listener, far from creative, to reach at once, without a similar sequence of initiation, a corresponding state of understanding and enjoyment. But, as a rule, this thought does not occur to us; and, while we expatiate on the creative originality of artists and poets, we dully take for granted the instant appreciation of their creation; forgetting, or not understanding, in both cases, the wonderful efficacy of tradition.

As regards us moderns, for whom the tradition of, say, Tuscan art has so long been broken off or crossed by various other and very different ones—as regards ourselves, I am inclined to think that we can best recover it by sympathetic attention to those forms of art, humbler or more public, which must originally have prepared and kept up the interest of the people for whom the Tuscan craftsmen worked.

Pictures and statues, even in a traditional period, embody a large amount of merely personal peculiarities of individual artists, testifying to many activities—imitation, self-assertion, rivalry—which have no real æsthetic value. And, during the fifteenth century and in Tuscany especially, the flow of traditional æsthetic feeling is grievously altered and adulterated by the merest scientific tendencies: a painter or sculptor being often, in the first instance, a student of anatomy, archæology or perspective. One may, therefore, be familiar for twenty years with Tuscan Renaissance painting or sculpture, and yet remain very faintly conscious of the special æsthetic character, the virtues (in the language of herbals) of Tuscan art. Hence I should almost say, better let alone the pictures and statues until you are sufficiently acquainted with the particular quality lurking therein to recognise, extricate and assimilate it, despite irrelevant ingredients. Learn the quality of Tuscan art from those categories of it which are most impersonal, most traditional, and most organic and also freer from scientific interference, say architecture and decoration; and from architecture rather in its humble, unobtrusive work than in the great exceptional creations which imply, like the cupola of Florence, the assertion of a personality, the surmounting of a difficulty, and even the braving of other folks' opinion. I believe that if one learned, not merely to know, but to feel, to enjoy very completely and very specifically, the quality of distinctness and reserve, slightness of means and greatness of proportions, of the domestic architecture and decoration of the fifteenth century, if one made one's own the mood underlying the special straight lines and curves, the symmetry and hiatus of the colonnades, for instance, inside Florentine houses; of the little bits of carving on escutcheon and fireplace of Tuscan hillside farms; let alone of the plainest sepulchral slabs in Santa Croce, one would be in better case for really appreciating, say, Botticelli or Pier della Francesca than after ever so much comparison of their work with that of other painters. For, through familiarity with that humbler, more purely impersonal and traditional art, a certain mode of being in oneself, which is the special æsthetic mood of the Tuscan's would have become organised and be aroused at the slightest indication of the qualities producing it, so that their presence would never escape one. This, I believe, is the secret of all æsthetic training: the growing accustomed, as it were automatically, to respond to the work of art's bidding; to march or dance to Apollo's harping with the irresistible instinct with which the rats and the children followed the pied piper's pipe. This is the æsthetic training which quite unconsciously and incidentally came to the men of the past through daily habit of artistic forms which existed and varied in the commonest objects just as in the greatest masterpieces. And through it alone was the highest art brought into fruitful contact with even the most everyday persons: the tradition which already existed making inevitable the tradition which followed.

But to return to us moderns, who have to reconstitute deliberately a vanished æsthetic tradition, it seems to me that such familiarity with Tuscan art once initiated, we can learn more, producing and canalising its special moods, from a frosty afternoon like this one on the hillside, with its particular taste of air, its particular line of shelving rock and twisting road and accentuating reed or cypress in the delicate light, than from hours in a room where Signorelli and Lippi, Angelico and Pollaiolo, are all telling one different things in different languages.

III.

These thoughts, and the ones I shall try to make clear as I go on, began to take shape one early winter morning some ten years ago, while I was staying among the vineyards in the little range of hills which separate the valley of the Ombrone from the lower valley of the Arno. Stony hills, stony paths between leafless lilac hedges, stony outlines of crest, fringed with thin rosy bare trees; here and there a few bright green pines; for the rest, olives and sulphur-yellow sere vines among them; the wide valley all a pale blue wash, and Monte Morello opposite wrapped in mists. It was visibly snowing on the great Apennines, and suddenly, though very gently, it began to snow here also, wrapping the blue distance, the yellow vineyards, in thin veils. Brisk cold. At the house, when I returned from my walk, the children were flattened against the window-panes, shouting for joy at the snow. We grown-up folk, did we live wiser lives, might be equally delighted by similar shows.

A very Tuscan, or rather (what I mean when I make use of that word, for geographically Tuscany is very large and various) a very Florentine day. Beauty, exquisiteness, serenity; but not without austerity carried to a distinct bitingness. And this is the quality which we find again in all very characteristic Tuscan art. Such a country as this, scorched in summer, wind-swept in winter, and constantly stony and uphill, a country of eminently dry, clear, moving air, puts us into a braced, active, self-restrained mood; there is in it, as in these frosty days which suit it best, something which gives life and demands it: a quality of happy effort. The art produced by people in whom such a condition of being is frequent, must necessarily reproduce this same condition of being in others.

Therefore the connection between a country and its art must be sought mainly in the fact that all art expresses a given state of being, of emotion, not human necessarily, but vital; that is to say, expresses not whether we love or hate, but rather how we love or hate, how we are. The mountain forms, colour, water, etc., of a country are incorporated into its art less as that art's object of representation, than as the determinant of a given mode of vitality in the artist. Hence music and literature, although never actually reproducing any part of them, may be strongly affected by their character. The Vita Nuova, the really great (not merely historically interesting) passages of the Divine Comedy, and the popular songs of Tigri's collection, are as much the outcome of these Tuscan mountains and hills, as is any picture in which we recognise their outlines and colours. Indeed, it happens that of literal rendering (as distinguished from ever-present reference to quality of air or light, to climbing, to rock and stone as such) there is little in the Commedia, none at all in either the old or the more modern lyrics, and not so much even in painted landscape. The Tuscan backgrounds of the fifteenth century are not these stony places, sun-burnt or wind-swept; they are the green lawns and pastures in vogue with the whole international Middle Ages, but rendered with that braced, selecting, finishing temper which is the product of those stony hills. Similarly the Tuscans must have been influenced by the grace, the sparseness, the serenity of the olive, its inexhaustible vigour and variety; yet how many of them ever painted it? That a people should never paint or describe their landscape may mean that they have not consciously inventoried the items; but it does not mean that they have not æsthetically, so to speak nervously, felt them. Their quality, their virtue, may be translated into that people's way of talking of or painting quite different things: the Tuscan quality is a quality of form, because it is a quality of mood.

IV.

This Tuscan, and more than Attic, quality—for there is something akin to it in certain Greek archaic sculpture—is to be found, already perfect and most essential, in the façades of the early mediæval churches of Pistoia. Is to be found; because this quality, tense and restrained and distributed with harmonious evenness, reveals itself only to a certain fineness and carefulness of looking. The little churches (there are four or five of them) belong to the style called Pisan-Romanesque; and their fronts, carved arches, capitals, lintels, and doorposts, are identical in plan, in all that the mind rapidly inventories, with the fronts of the numerous contemporary churches of Lucca. But a comparison with these will bring out most vividly the special quality of the Pistoia churches. The Lucchese ones (of some of which, before their restoration, Mr. Ruskin has left some marvellous coloured drawings at Oxford) run to picturesqueness and even something more; they do better in the picture than in the reality, and weathering and defacement has done much for them. Whereas the little churches at Pistoia, with less projection, less carving in the round, few or no animal or clearly floral forms, and, as a rule, pilasters or half-pillars instead of columns, must have been as perfect the day they were finished; the subtle balancings and tensions of lines and curves, the delicate fretting and inlaying of flat surface pattern, having gained only, perhaps, in being drawn more clearly by dust and damp upon a softer colour of marble. I have mentioned these first, because their apparent insignificance—tiny flat façades, with very little decoration—makes it in a way easier to grasp the special delicate austerity of their beauty. But they are humble offshoots, naturally, of two great and complex masterpieces, and very modest sisters of a masterpiece only a degree less marvellous: Pisa Cathedral, the Baptistery of Florence and San Miniato. The wonderful nature of the most perfect of these three buildings (and yet I hesitate to call it so, remembering the apse and lateral gables of Pisa) can be the better understood that, standing before the Baptistery of Florence, one has by its side Giotto's very beautiful belfry. Looking at them turn about, one finds that the Gothic boldness of light and shade of the Campanile makes the windows, pillars and cornices of the Baptistery seem at first very flat and uninteresting. But after the first time, and once that sense of flatness overcome, it is impossible to revert to the belfry with the same satisfaction. The eye and mind return to the greater perfection of the Baptistery; by an odd paradox there is deeper feeling in those apparently so slight and superficial carvings, those lintels and fluted columns of green marble which scarcely cast a shadow on their ivory-tinted wall. The Tuscan quality of these buildings is the better appreciated when we take in the fact that their architectural items had long existed, not merely in the Romanesque, but in the Byzantine and late Roman. The series of temple-shaped windows on the outside of the Florence Baptistery and of San Miniato, has, for instance, its original in the Baptistery of Ravenna and the arch at Verona. What the Tuscans have done is to perfect the inner and subtler proportions, to restrain and accentuate, to phrase (in musical language) every detail of execution. By an accident of artistic evolution, this style of architecture, rather dully elaborated by a worn-out civilisation, has had to wait six centuries for life to be put into it by a finer-strung people at a chaster and more braced period of history. Nor should we be satisfied with such loose phrases as this, leading one to think, in a slovenly fashion (quite unsuitable to Tuscan artistic lucidity), that the difference lay in some vague metaphysical entity called spirit: the spirit of the Tuscan stonemasons of the early Middle Ages altered the actual tangible forms in their proportions and details: this spiritual quality affects us in their carved and inlaid marbles, their fluted pilasters and undercut capitals, as a result of actual work of eye and of chisel: they altered the expression by altering the stone, even as the frosts and August suns and trickling water had determined the expression, by altering the actual surface, of their lovely austere hills.

V.

The Tuscan quality in architecture must not be sought for during the hundred years of Gothic—that is to say, of foreign—supremacy and interregnum. The stonemasons of Pisa and of Florence did indeed apply their wholly classic instincts to the detail and ornament of this alien style; and one is struck by the delicacy and self-restraint of, say, the Tuscan ones among the Scaliger tombs compared with the more picturesque looseness of genuine Veronese and Venetian Gothic sculpture. But the constructive, and, so to speak, space enclosing, principles of the great art of mediæval France were even less understood by the Tuscan than by any other Italian builders; and, as the finest work of Tuscan façade architecture was given before the Gothic interregnum, so also its most noble work, as actual spatial arrangement, must be sought for after the return to the round arch, the cupola and the entablature of genuine Southern building. And then, by a fortunate coincidence (perhaps because this style affords no real unity to vast naves and transepts), the architectural masterpieces of the fifteenth century are all of them (excepting, naturally, Brunelleschi's dome) very small buildings: the Sacristies of S. Lorenzo and S. Spirito, the chapel of the Pazzi, and the late, but exquisite, small church of the Carceri at Prato. The smallness of these places is fortunate, because it leaves no doubt that the sense of spaciousness—of our being, as it were, enclosed with a great part of world and sky around us—is an artistic illusion got by co-ordination of detail, greatness of proportions, and, most of all, perhaps, by quite marvellous distribution of light. These small squares, or octagons, most often with a square embrasure for the altar, seem ample habitations for the greatest things; one would wish to use them for Palestrina's music, or Bach's, or Handel's; and then one recognises that their actual dimensions in yards would not accommodate the band and singers and the organ! Such music must remain in our soul, where, in reality, the genius of those Florentine architects has contrived the satisfying ampleness of their buildings.

That they invented nothing in the way of architectural ornament, nay, took their capitals, flutings, cornices, and so forth, most mechanically from the worst antique, should be no real drawback to this architecture; it was, most likely, a matter of negative instinct. For these meagre details leave the mind free, nay, force it rather, to soar at once into the vaultings, into the serene middle space opposite the windows, and up into the enclosed heaven of the cupolas.

VI.

The Tuscan sculpture of this period stands, I think, midway between the serene perfection of the buildings (being itself sprung from the architecture of the Gothic time), and the splendid but fragmentary accomplishment of the paintings, many of whose disturbing problems, of anatomy and anatomic movement, it shared to its confusion. It is not for beautiful bodily structure or gesture, such as we find even in poor antiques, that we should go to the Florentine sculptors, save, perhaps, the two Robbias. It is the almost architectural distribution of space and light, the treatment of masses, which makes the immeasurable greatness of Donatello, and gives dignity to his greatest contemporary, Jacopo della Quercia. And it is again an architectural quality, though in the sense of the carved portals of Pistoia, the flutings and fretwork and surface pattern of the Baptistery and S. Miniato, which gives such poignant pleasure in the work of a very different, but very great, sculptor, Desiderio. The marvel (for it is a marvel) of his great monument in Santa Croce, depends not on anatomic forms, but on the exquisite variety and vivacity of surface arrangement; the word symphony (so often misapplied) fitting exactly this complex structure of minute melodies and harmonies of rhythms and accents in stone.

But the quality of Tuscan sculpture exists in humbler, often anonymous and infinitely pathetic work. I mean those effigies of knights and burghers, coats of arms and mere inscriptions, which constitute so large a portion of what we walk upon in Santa Croce. Things not much thought of, maybe, and ruthlessly defaced by all posterity. But the masses, the main lines, were originally noble, and defacement has only made their nobleness and tenderness more evident and poignant: they have come to partake of the special solemnity of stone worn by frost and sunshine.

VII.

There are a great many items which go to make up Tuscany and the specially Tuscan mood. The country is at once hilly and mountainous, but rich in alluvial river valleys, as flat and as wide, very often, as plains; and the chains which divide and which bound it are as various as can be: the crystalline crags of Carrara, the washed away cones and escarpments of the high Apennines, repeating themselves in counter forts and foothills, and the low, closely packed ridges of the hills between Florence and Siena. Hence there is always a view, definite and yet very complex, made up of every variety of line, but always of clearest perspective: perfect horizontals at one's feet, perfect perpendiculars opposite the eye, a constant alternation of looking up and looking down, a never-failing possibility of looking beyond, an outlet everywhere for the eye, and for the breath; and endless intricacy of projecting spur and engulfed ravine, of valley above valley, and ridge beyond ridge; and all of it, whether definitely modelled by stormy lights or windy dryness, or washed to mere outline by sunshine or mist, always massed into intelligible, harmonious, and ever-changing groups. Ever changing as you move, hills rising or sinking as you mount or descend, furling or unfurling as you go to the right or to the left, valleys and ravines opening or closing up, the whole country altering, so to speak, its attitude and gesture as quickly almost, and with quite as perfect consecutiveness, as does a great cathedral when you walk round it. And, for this reason, never letting you rest; keeping you also in movement, feet, eyes and fancy. Add to all this a particular topographical feeling, very strong and delightful, which I can only describe as that of seeing all the kingdoms of the earth. In the high places close to Florence (and with that especial lie of the land everything is a high place) a view is not only of foregrounds and backgrounds, river troughs and mountain lines of great variety, but of whole districts, or at least indications of districts—distant peaks making you feel the places at their feet—which you know to be extremely various: think of the Carraras with their Mediterranean seaboard, the high Apennines with Lombardy and the Adriatic behind them, the Siena and Volterra hills leading to the Maremma, and the great range of the Falterona, with the Tiber issuing from it, leading the mind through Umbria to Rome!

The imagination is as active among these Florentine hills as is the eye, or as the feet and lungs have been, pleasantly tired, delighting in the moment's rest, after climbing those steep places among the pines or the myrtles, under the scorch of the wholesome summer sun, or in the face of the pure, snowy wind. The wind, so rarely at rest, has helped to make the Tuscan spirit, calling for a certain resoluteness to resist it, but, in return, taking all sense of weight away, making the body merge, so to speak, into eye and mind, and turning one, for a little while, into part of the merely visible and audible. The frequent possibility of such views as I have tried to define, of such moments of fulness of life, has given, methinks, the quality of definiteness and harmony, of active, participated in, greatness, to the art of Tuscany.

VIII.

It is a pity that, as regards painting, this Tuscan feeling (for Giottesque painting had the cosmopolitan, as distinguished from local, quality of the Middle Ages and of the Franciscan movement) should have been at its strongest just in the century when mere scientific interest was uppermost. Nay, one is tempted to think that matters were made worse by that very love of the strenuous, the definite, the lucid, which is part of the Tuscan spirit. So that we have to pick out, in men like Donatello, Uccello, Pollaiolo and Verrocchio, nay, even in Lippi and Botticelli, the fragments which correspond to what we get quite unmixed and perfect in the Romanesque churches of Pisa, Florence, and Pistoia, in the sacristies and chapels of Brunelleschi, Alberti, and Sangallo, and in a hundred exquisite cloisters and loggias of unnoticed town houses and remote farms. But perhaps there is added a zest (by no means out of keeping with the Tuscan feeling) to our enjoyment by the slight effort which is thus imposed upon us: Tuscan art does not give its exquisiteness for nothing.

Be this as it may, the beauty of Florentine Renaissance painting must be sought, very often, not in the object which the picture represents, but in the mode in which that object is represented. Our habits of thought are so slovenly in these matters, and our vocabulary so poor and confused, that I find it difficult to make my exact meaning clear without some insistence. I am not referring to the mere moral qualities of care, decision, or respectfulness, though the recognition thereof adds undoubtedly to the noble pleasure of a work of art; still less to the technical or scientific lucidity which the picture exhibits. The beauty of fifteenth-century painting is a visible quality, a quality of the distribution of masses, the arrangement of space; above all, of the lines of a picture. But it is independent of the fact of the object represented being or not what in real life we should judge beautiful; and it is, in large works, unfortunately even more separate from such arrangement as will render a complicated composition intelligible to the mind or even to the eye. The problems of anatomy, relief, muscular action, and perspective which engrossed and in many cases harassed the Florentines of the Renaissance, turned their attention away from the habit of beautiful general composition which had become traditional even in the dullest and most effete of their Giottesque predecessors, and left them neither time nor inclination for wonderful new invention in figure distribution like that of their contemporary Umbrians. Save in easel pictures, therefore, there is often a distressing confusion, a sort of dreary random packing, in the works of men like Uccello, Lippi, Pollaiolo, Filippino, Ghirlandaio, and even Botticelli. And even in the more simply and often charmingly arranged easel pictures, the men and women represented, even the angels and children, are often very far from being what in real life would be deemed beautiful, or remarkable by any special beauty of attitude and gesture. They are, in truth, studies, anatomical or otherwise, although studies in nearly every case dignified by the habit of a very serious and tender devoutness: rarely soulless or insolent studio drudgery or swagger such as came when art ceased to be truly popular and religious. Studies, however, with little or no selection of the reality studied, and less thought even for the place or manner in which they were to be used.

But these studies are executed, however scientific their intention, under the guidance of a sense and a habit of beauty, subtle and imperious in proportion, almost, as it is self-unconscious. These figures, sometimes ungainly, occasionally ill-made, and these features, frequently homely or marred by some conspicuous ugliness, are made up of lines as enchantingly beautiful, as seriously satisfying, as those which surrounded the Tuscans in their landscape. And it is in the extracting of such beauty of lines out of the bewildering confusion of huge frescoes, it is in the seeing as arrangements of such lines the sometimes unattractive men and women and children painted (and for that matter, often also sculptured) by the great Florentines of the fifteenth century, that consists the true appreciation and habitual enjoyment of Tuscan Renaissance painting. The outline of an ear and muscle of the neck by Lippi; the throw of drapery by Ghirlandaio; the wide and smoke-like rings of heavy hair by Botticelli; the intenser, more ardent spiral curls of Verrocchio or the young Leonardo; all that is flower-like, flame-like, that has the swirl of mountain rivers, the ripple of rocky brooks, the solemn and poignant long curves and sudden crests of hills, all this exists in the paintings of the Florentines; and it is its intrinsic nobility and exquisiteness, its reminiscence and suggestion of all that is loveliest and most solemn in nature, its analogy to all that is strongest and most delicate in human emotion, which we should seek for and cherish in their works.

IX.

The hour of low lights, which the painters of the past almost exclusively reproduced, is naturally that in which we recognise easiest, not only the identity of mood awakened by the art and by the country, but the closer resemblance between the things which art was able to do, and the things which the country had already done. Even more, immediately after sunset. The hills, becoming uniform masses, assert their movement, strike deep into the valley, draw themselves strongly up towards the sky. The valleys also, with their purple darkness, rising like smoke out of them, assert themselves in their turn. And the sky, the more diaphanous for all this dark solidity against it, becomes sky more decisively; takes, moreover, colour which only fluid things can have; turns into washes of pale gold, of palest tea-rose pink and beryl green. Against this sky the cypresses are delicately finished off in fine black lacework, even as in the background of Botticelli's Spring, and Leonardo's or Verrocchio's Annuniciation. One understands that those passionate lovers of line loved the moment of sunset apart even from colour. The ridges of pines and cypresses soon remain the only distinguishable thing in the valleys, pulling themselves (as one feels it) rapidly up, like great prehistoric shapes of Saurians. Soon the sky only and mountains will exist. Then begins the time, before the starlit night comes to say its say, when everything grows drowsy, a little vague, and the blurred mountains go to sleep in the smoke of dusk. Then only, due west, the great Carrara peaks stand out against the sanguine sky, long pointed curves and flame-shaped sudden crests, clear and keen beyond the power of mortal hand to draw.

X.

The quality of such sights as these, as I have more than once repeated, requires to be diligently sought for, and extricated from many things which overlay or mar it, throughout nearly the whole of Florentine Renaissance painting. But by good luck there is one painter in whom we can enjoy it as subtle, but also as simple, as in the hills and mountains outlined by sunset or gathered into diaphanous folds by the subduing radiance of winter moon. I am speaking, of course, of Pier della Francesca; although an over literal school of criticism stickles at classing him with the other great Florentines. Nay, by a happy irony of things, the reasons for this exclusion are probably those to which we owe the very purity and perfection of this man's Tuscan quality. For the remoteness of his home on the southernmost border of Tuscany, and in a river valley—that of the Upper Tiber—leading away from Florence and into Umbria, may have kept him safe from that scientific rivalry, that worry and vexation of professional problems, which told so badly on so many Florentine craftsmen. And, on the other hand, the north Italian origin of one of his masters, the mysterious Domenico Veneziano, seems to have given him, instead of the colouring, always random and often coarse, of contemporary Florence, a harmonious scheme of perfectly delicate, clear, and flower-like colour. These two advantages are so distinctive that, by breaking through the habits one necessarily gets into with his Florentine contemporaries, they have resulted in setting apart, and almost outside the pale of Tuscan painting, the purest of all Tuscan artists. For with him there is no need for making allowances or disentangling essentials. The vivid organic line need not be sought in details nor, so to speak, abstracted: it bounds his figures, forms them quite naturally and simply, and is therefore not thought about apart from them. And the colour, integral as it is, and perfectly harmonious, masses the figures into balanced groups, bossiness and bulk, detail and depth, all unified, co-ordinated, satisfying as in the sun-merged mountains and shelving valleys of his country; and with the immediate charm of whiteness as of rocky water, pale blue of washed skies, and that ineffable lilac, russet, rose, which makes the basis of all southern loveliness. One thinks of him, therefore, as something rather apart, a sort of school in himself, or at most with Domenico, his master, and his follower, della Gatta. But more careful looking will show that his greatest qualities, so balanced and so clear in him, are shared—though often masked by the ungainlinesses of hurried artistic growth—by Pollaiolo, Baldovinetti, Pesellino, let alone Uccello, Castagno, and Masaccio; are, in a word, Tuscan, Florentine. But more than by such studies, the kinship and nationality of Pier della Francesca is proved by reference to the other branches of Tuscan art: his peculiarities correspond to the treatment of line and projection by those early stonemasons of the Baptistery and the Pistoia churches, to the treatment of enclosed spaces and manipulated light in those fifteenth-century sacristies and chapels, to the treatment of mass and boundary in the finest reliefs of Donatello and Donatello's great decorative follower Desiderio. To persons, however, who are ready to think with me that we may be trained to art in fields and on hillsides, the essential Tuscan character of Pier della Francesca is brought home quite as strongly by the particular satisfaction with which we recognise his pictures in some unlikely place, say a Northern gallery. For it is a satisfaction, sui generis and with its own emotional flavour, like that which we experience on return to Tuscany, on seeing from the train the white houses on the slopes, the cypresses at the cross roads, the subtler, lower lines of hills, the blue of distant peaks, on realising once more our depth of tranquil love for this austere and gentle country.

XI.

Save in the lushness of early summer, Tuscany is, on the whole, pale; a country where the loveliness of colour is that of its luminousness, and where light is paramount. From this arises, perhaps, the austerity of its true summer—summer when fields are bare, grass burnt to delicate cinnamon and russet, and the hills, with their sere herbs and bushes, seem modelled out of pale rosy or amethyst light; an austerity for the eye corresponding to a sense of healthfulness given by steady, intense heat, purged of all damp, pure like the scents of dry leaves, of warm, cypress resin and of burnt thyme and myrrh of the stony ravines and stubbly fields. On such August days the plain and the more distant mountains will sometimes be obliterated, leaving only the inexpressible suavity of the hills on the same side as the sun, made of the texture of the sky, lying against it like transparent and still luminous shadows. All pictures of such effects of climate are false, even Perugino's and Claude's, because even in these the eye is not sufficiently attracted and absorbed away from the foreground, from the earth to the luminous sky. That effect is the most powerful, sweetest, and most restorative in all nature perhaps; a bath for the soul in pure light and air. That is the incomparable buoyancy and radiance of deepest Tuscan summer. But the winter is, perhaps, even more Tuscan and more austerely beautiful. I am not even speaking of the fact that the mountains, with their near snows and brooding blue storms and ever contending currents of wind and battles and migrations of great clouds, necessarily make much of winter very serious and solemn, as it sweeps down their ravines and across their ridges. I am thinking of the serene winter days of mist and sun, with ranges of hills made of a luminous bluish smoke, and sky only a more luminous and liquid kind, and the olives but a more solid specimen, of the mysterious silvery substance of the world. The marvellous part of it all, and quite impossible to convey, is that such days are not pensive, but effulgent, that the lines of the landscape are not blurred, but exquisitely selected and worked.

XII.

A quality like that of Tuscan art is, as I have once before remarked, in some measure, abstract; a general character, like that of a composite photograph, selected and compounded by the repetition of the more general and the exclusion of more individual features. In so far, therefore, it is something rather tended towards in reality than thoroughly accomplished; and its accomplishment, to whatever extent, is naturally due to a tradition, a certain habit among artists and public, which neutralises the refractory tendencies of individuals (the personal morbidness evident, for instance, in Botticelli) and makes the most of what the majority may have in common—that dominant interest, let us say, in line and mass. Such being the case, this Tuscan quality comes to an end with the local art of the middle ages, and can no longer be found, or only imperfect, after the breaking up and fusion of the various schools, and the arising of eclectic personalities in the earliest sixteenth century. After the painters born between 1450 and 1460, there are no more genuine Tuscans. Leonardo, once independent of Verrocchio and settled in Lombardy, is barely one of them; and Michel Angelo never at all—Michel Angelo with his moods all of Rome or the great mountains, full of trouble, always, and tragedy. These great personalities, and the other eclectics, Raphael foremost, bring qualities to art which it had lacked before, and are required to make its appeal legitimately universal. I should shrink from judging their importance, compared with the older and more local and traditional men. Still further from me is it to prefer this Tuscan art to that, as local and traditional in its way, of Umbria or Venetia, which stands to this as the most poignant lyric or the richest romance stands, let us say, to the characteristic quality, sober yet subtle, of Dante's greatest passages. There is, thank heaven, wholesome art various enough to appeal to many various healthy temperaments; and perhaps for each single temperament more than one kind of art is needful. My object in the foregoing pages has not been to put forward reasons for preferring the art of the Tuscans any more than the climate and landscape of Tuscany; but merely to bring home what the especial charm and power of Tuscan art and Tuscan nature seem to me to be. More can be gained by knowing any art lovingly in itself than by knowing twenty arts from each other through dry comparison.

I have tried to suggest rather than to explain in what way the art of a country may answer to its natural character, by inducing recurrent moods of a given kind. I would not have it thought, however, that such moods need be dominant, or even exist at all, in all the inhabitants of that country. Art, wide as its appeal may be, is no more a product of the great mass of persons than is abstract thought or special invention, however largely these may be put to profit by the generality. The bulk of the inhabitants help to make the art by furnishing the occasional exceptionally endowed creature called an artist, by determining his education and surroundings, in so far as he is a mere citizen; and finally by bringing to bear on him the stored-up habit of acquiescence in whatever art has been accepted by that public from the artists of the immediate past. In fact, the majority affects the artist mainly as itself has been affected by his predecessors. If, therefore, the scenery and climate call forth moods in a whole people definite enough to influence the art, this will be due, I think, to some especially gifted individual having, at one time or another, brought home those moods to them.

Therefore we need feel no surprise if any individual, peasant or man of business or abstract thinker, reveal a lack, even a total lack, of such impressions as I am speaking of; nor even if among those who love art a great proportion be still incapable of identifying those vague contemplative emotions from which all art is sprung. It is not merely the special endowment of eye, ear, hand, not merely what we call artistic talent, which is exceptional and vested in individuals only. It takes a surplus of sensitiveness and energy to be determined in one's moods by natural surroundings instead of solely by one's own wants or circumstances or business. Now art is born of just this surplus sensitiveness and energy; it is the response not to the impressions made by our private ways and means, but to the impressions made by the ways and means of the visible, sensible universe.

But once produced, art is received, and more or less assimilated, by the rest of mankind, to whom it gives, in greater or less degree, more of such sensitiveness and energy than it could otherwise have had. Art thus calls forth contemplative emotions, otherwise dormant, and creates in the routine and scramble of individual wants and habits a sanctuary where the soul stops elbowing and trampling, and being elbowed and trampled; nay, rather, a holy hill, neither ploughed nor hunted over, a free high place, in which we can see clearly, breathe widely, and, for awhile, live harmlessly, serenely, fully.

XIII.

Thinking these thoughts for the hundredth time, feeling them in a way as I feel the landscape, I walk home by the dear rock path girdling Fiesole, within sound of the chisels of the quarries. Blackthorn is now mixed in the bare purple hedgerows, and almond blossom, here and there, whitens the sere oak, and the black rocks above. These are the heights from which, as tradition has it, Florence descended, the people of which Dante said—

     “Che discese da Fiesole ab antico,
      E tiene ancor del monte e del macigno,”

meaning it in anger. But it is true, and truer, in the good sense also. Mountain and rock! the art of Tuscany is sprung from it, from its arduous fruitfulness, with the clear stony stream, and the sparse gentle olive, and the cypress, unshaken by the wind, unscorched by the sun, and shooting inflexibly upwards.

 
 
 

Back to the Index Page