In the lectures I am about to deliver on Early Italian Art, I shall not
enter into minute detail, nor shall I attempt a history of _all_ the
painters of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries who deserve mention.
All I can hope to give you is a sort of bird’s-eye view of the various
phases through which the Art of Painting passed from its lowest ebb to
its highest development.

I feel as if you were a party of excursionists about to be personally
conducted across a great art continent, and as if it behooved me, as
your conductor, to perform my duty with judgment and discretion.

We shall have a vast desert to cross, where nothing is found to break
the dull and ugly monotony of the scene. We cannot do better than take
the express train for this part of our journey, and get over the ground
as quickly as possible.

Substituting miles for years, we shall, when we have accomplished
something like a thousand miles, begin to notice signs of a more fertile
soil. These indications will be very faint at first, but after a time
the objects of interest will become more frequent, and we shall leave
our train and take to riding or driving so as to get a better view of
what we are passing. After a drive of a hundred miles the country will
become so interesting that we shall buckle on our knapsacks and perform
the rest of the journey on foot.

To continue the parallel, I would remind you that you are only
excursionists, and not leisurely travellers desirous of becoming
thoroughly acquainted with the products of the country they are about to

To acquire a thorough knowledge of the decay and revival of art, it
would be necessary to consult the numerous and learned treatises on the
subject, and to study the political and social state of Italy during the
Middle Ages.

Such a study, though doubtless very instructive, would be rather a dry
subject for a lecture, even if I were equal to the task. I shall,
therefore, attempt nothing of the kind, and having always had a tender
feeling for those whose attendance here is compulsory, and admiration
for those who come of their own free will, I shall endeavor to be as
little tedious as possible, whilst imparting to you a sort of _résumé_
of mediæval painting and the early Italian schools.

The designs and paintings which have been discovered in the catacombs
are commonly held to be the earliest specimens we possess of Christian
art; and if by Christian art we mean the representation of Biblical and
New Testament subjects, they undoubtedly _are_ the earliest. If,
however, by Christian art we mean the peculiar style which grew up and
was fostered by the early Church, we must look elsewhere, for these
paintings are essentially pagan in style.

In common with the paintings of the Constantine baths, and with the
numerous decorative designs discovered in the pagan catacombs of the
period, they are clearly derived direct from classical sources.

They vary in merit according to the skill of the artist who executed
them, and also according to the epoch of their production, those of the
second century being infinitely superior to those of the third and
fourth. In the earliest of these paintings, the Good Shepherd replaces
Orpheus, Elias replaces Apollo, and so on, but the style is in no way
distinguishable from contemporary Roman wall-paintings. The arabesque
ornamentation of the panels is exactly similar, and although the
subjects are such as Moses striking the rock, Jonah swallowed by the
whale, Daniel in the lions’ den, and various Christian miracles, these
interesting works cannot be considered in any other light than specimens
of late Roman art adapted to the illustration of Scriptural subjects.

These catacomb paintings look to me more like copies of better things
than original paintings. They appear to have been done by decorative
artists, who would naturally be more at home with the ornamental
borders and arabesques than with the figures. We may often notice this
kind of inequality of work in modern houses.

The skilled workmen employed by the professional decorator will execute
with consummate neatness all the ornamental parts, but if any figure is
introduced into the panels it will be a coarse replica of some Pompeii
muse, nymph, or cupid, possibly quite good enough for the purpose, but
hardly indicative of the state of art of the period.

In the paintings of the third and fourth centuries there is a very
noticeable decline in the drawing and execution, but there is still a
reminiscence of a classical style. The draperies are still disposed with
something like taste, and the heads, though very rude and clumsy, have
not the barbaric hideousness of a later period. The last flicker of the
antique lamp is to be found in those catacomb paintings of the fourth
and fifth centuries.

When I say that they are not Christian in style, I mean that they are
not ecclesiastical. Speaking strictly, from a common-sense rather than
from an art point of view, it appears to me that the simple garments and
the un-nimbi’d heads of the personages are more in keeping with the
spirit of the New Testament than the gold and the gorgeous ornamentation
of a later period. However that may be, viewed simply as works of art,
they are the natural sequence to Pompeii and the later forms of Roman
mural painting.

The case is very different with the large Roman and Ravenna mosaics of
the fourth and fifth centuries, but before proceeding to criticise these
productions, I should wish to say a few words about antique mosaic work.

The art of depicting objects by means of small cubes of marble, stone,
or terra-cotta was invented about 300 years before the Christian era.

From a very simple beginning it gradually developed itself, until under
the first emperors we find the most complicated ornaments, and even
large historical compositions, executed in mosaic. The use of mosaic for
the floors of temples and dwelling-houses was universal wherever the
Romans spread. It was not confined to Imperial Rome or to luxurious
Pompeii, but is invariably found wherever a wealthy Roman planted his
villa, whether in the vicinity of the great Sahara Desert, or in the
less savage neighborhood of the Isle of Wight. As your average modern
Briton cannot do without his carpets, so the ancient Roman could not be
happy without his tessellated pavement. In spite, however, of this
widespread fashion, we do not find mosaic used as a means of wall
decoration; it was almost exclusively employed for floors and tables.
Some of these small cabinet pieces are beautifully inlaid, and, as works
of art, are by no means contemptible. In a very few which have been
preserved to us, we find specimens of the “opus sectile” of the Romans.
This differed from ordinary mosaic by the tesseræ being cut into the
form of the object to be depicted, and then accurately put together like
a puzzle map. The well-known four pigeons perched on a tazza, discovered
at Tivoli, is, I believe, the most beautiful specimen extant of the
ordinary Roman cabinet mosaic.

The examples of Roman tessellated work applied to perpendicular surfaces
are so rare and so unimportant that we cannot consider them as
prototypes of the subsequent gigantic mosaic wall-pictures. The
intermediate links are at any rate wanting. There is one, and only one,
mosaic, that of St. Costanza, near Rome, which might be viewed as the
missing link. It is supposed to have been executed toward the end of the
fourth century, and belongs essentially to the decorative school of
ancient pagan art. Indeed, so numerous are the little cupids and genii,
and so prodigal has the artist been of vine tendrils, that the building
containing it was formerly supposed to have been a temple of Bacchus. It
is now, however, known that this, the earliest specimen of wall mosaic,
was executed not in honor of Bacchus, but as a monument to the Christian
Emperor Constantine’s two daughters.

Not until the fifth century do we get to those colossal figures, those
blue and gold backgrounds, those richly ornamented draperies, which
constitute the true starting-point of ecclesiastical art. We often hear
that Cimabue is the father of modern art, but the only reason for
making him a kind of art Adam is because his name has been handed down
to us. The real fathers of modern Christian art are the nameless authors
of these gorgeous though somewhat grim mosaics.

Most art historians have included these splendid works in the later
Roman period. They cannot certainly be called truly Byzantine, although
they have a decided Byzantine flavor about them, and it is probable that
many of them were executed by Greek or Byzantine artists; but, on the
other hand, they are so strikingly dissimilar to late Roman work that
they ought to be classed in a school by themselves. The forms of the
figures are of course stiff and lifeless, if compared to the antique or
to sixteenth-century art; but they are quite graceful and animated when
compared with the dead ugliness of the real Byzantine work. There is a
certain grandeur, _sui generis_, about them (particularly in the
Justinian and Theodora mosaics of Ravenna) quite independent of their
size and gorgeous ornamentation, which we never find in later Byzantine

The mosaics of the sixth century are in no way different in style from
those of the fifth. The finest specimens of this period are the
well-known mosaics of SS. Cosmo and Damiano in Rome. The head and figure
of the gigantic Christ, which forms the centre, has been much eulogized
by critics; but I confess I was disappointed when I last saw this
mosaic. Size, and perhaps antiquity, have a good deal to do with the
awe-inspiring qualities attributed to this work.

If the art displayed in this figure were really of a high quality, some
of its beauty would be retained in a reproduction on a small scale.
However much the panels of the Sistine Chapel may be reduced, they
always retain their original grandeur, whereas this over-praised figure
appears to me to lose all its imposing appearance when copied or
engraved on a small scale.

Of historical or Biblical compositions, properly so-called, there are
none extant of this period. The cause of this is partly no doubt owing
to the nature of the materials then in use. Mosaic is certainly not
suitable for figures in action, nor for complicated compositions; but
there is also another reason for the absence of subject-pictures during
the whole of the long interval between the early Roman emperors and
Giotto, and that is, they were not wanted.

There were no wealthy patricians in those dark ages who required their
villas decorated, no Mæcenas to give a helping hand to struggling
genius. The Church was the only patron the poor artists of the period
had, and a very hard and narrow-minded patron she was, reducing men who
(for aught we know) may have had some talent, to the level of mere
workmen and artificers, strictly limiting the range of their subjects
and fettering them with traditional rules.

We are now fast approaching the true Byzantine period of art. Historians
tell us that Byzantine or Greek Christian art was the offspring of the
Eastern Church, influenced originally by ancient Greek art. It seems
hard to believe that these hideous deformities should have descended
from ancient Greek sculpture. It is a kind of Darwinian theory turned
upside down, but still it may be true.

Ancient Greek does not necessarily mean the art of Phidias and
Praxiteles. It may mean the barbaric sculpture which preceded the advent
of these great masters, and I confess there is something in the odious
grimace and the stiff draperies of Byzantine figures which reminds me of
certain very early Greek work.

The introduction of the Byzantine style into Italy seems to have been
very gradual. The school existed at Constantinople certainly in the
fifth century, and possibly much earlier.

Its influence may be traced in the large Italian mosaics of the sixth
century, but it was not till near the year 700, when Constantinople was
fairly established as the capital of the world, that it became in all
its ugliness the dominant school in Italy.

The Church of the fifth and sixth centuries, with all its
narrow-mindedness in the choice of subjects, gave the artist a certain
amount of liberty in his drawing and flesh-painting, but about the year
700 even this liberty was denied him.

Certain types were invented by monkish painters, that is, by men who
were violently opposed to every thing that made life agreeable. These
men, it is needless to say, were quite untrained artists, but in their
uncouth way they endeavored to substitute their own ideal of humanity
for the real thing, and they succeeded only too well. The ghastly type
being once firmly established, all subsequent artists of this school
were obliged to conform to it. In the second Nicene Council, A.D. 787,
it was decreed that:

“It is not the invention of the painter which creates the picture, but
an inviolable law, a tradition of the Church. It is not the painters,
but the holy fathers, who have to invent and to dictate.

“To them manifestly belongs the composition, to the painter only the

As I have already stated, there is good reason for believing that the
holy fathers not only dictated the composition, but interfered pretty
considerably with the execution, insisting as they did on ascetic,
cadaverous heads and an indiscriminate use of gold.

There may have been another cause besides morbid asceticism which in the
ninth century caused the Church to adopt such an unearthly type of
humanity; namely, the fear of the Jews and Mahometans, who were very
numerous at Constantinople.

It was natural that the growing sanctity of the grim mosaics should be
associated in the minds both of Jew and Mahometan with idol-worship,
and accordingly we find that the Emperor Leo the Isaurian wished to
conciliate his non-Christian subjects by the prohibition of all
representation of the human form.

This, however, did not suit the monks. A synod was called, and
ultimately it was agreed that sculpture alone should be interdicted; but
may we not suppose that a kind of compromise was made about painting,
and that it was settled that any near approach to the human form should
be tabooed, that art in short was to be of the nature of that which
graced the Auld Brig of Ayr?–

“Forms like some bedlam statuary’s dream,
The crazed creations of misguided whim,
Forms might be worshipped on the bended knee,
And still the second dread command be free,
Their likeness is not found on earth, in air, or sea.”

Kugler’s description of these Byzantine heads is so good that I cannot
refrain from giving it. He says:

“The large ill-shaped eyes stare straight forward; a deep unhappy line,
in which ill-humor seems to have taken up its permanent abode, extends
from brow to brow beneath the bald and heavily-wrinkled forehead. The
nose has the broad ridge of the antique still left above, but is narrow
and pinched below, the anxious nostrils corresponding with the deep
lines on each side of them.

“The mouth is small, but the somewhat protruding lower lip is in
character with the melancholy of the whole picture. As long as such
representations are confined to gray-headed saints and ecclesiastics
they may be tolerated, but when the introduction of a kind of smirk is
intended to convey the idea of a youthful countenance this type becomes
intolerable. Even the Madonna, to whose countenance the meagreness of
asceticism was hardly applicable, here assumes a thoroughly peevish
expression, and was certainly never represented under so unattractive an

I have given you this quotation from Kugler, in order to show you the
opinion of a learned and liberal-minded writer, who certainly cannot be
called a severe critic.

He goes on to compare Byzantine with Chinese art, which is, I think,
rather hard upon the poor Celestials.

Both styles of figure-painting are equally conventional, and equally
untrue to nature, but Chinese figures are far more cheerful and
decorative than the unhappy Byzantine.

A room decorated by a Chinese artist would be a pleasant place to live
in; but who except a long-distance walker, a forty days’ faster, or one
of our modern votaries of self-inflicted martyrdom, would care about
inhabiting a house hung with Byzantine pictures?

In these pictures the draperies gradually became more and more wooden,
until at last they got to be thoroughly in keeping with the heads. There
was a traditional arrangement of folds derived from the late Roman
works, but this arrangement, though originally founded on sound
principles, became in the hands of Byzantine artificers most untrue and
stupid. The folds used to be indicated by a number of unmeaning straight
lines, regardless of the form underneath.

The one redeeming feature in the art of Byzantium was the treatment of
ornament. Founded partly on the late Roman as existing in numerous
temples of Asia Minor during the reign of the Cæsars, and partly on the
Persian style as seen at Persepolis, Palmyra, and elsewhere, Byzantine
ornamentation is both rich and graceful. The Arabs and Moors carried the
intricacies of Byzantine tracery still further, until the _ne plus
ultra_ was reached at the Alhambra; but to my taste the original
Byzantine style of ornamentation is bolder and more effective than the
elaborate Mauresque.

There is no want of taste or invention betrayed here. Indeed there is
far more variety than in the somewhat overloaded Roman style of
ornamentation, as may be seen at once by comparing Byzantine capitals
with the debased Corinthian of the Romans. This excellence (not only in
architectural detail but in every department of ornamental art) shows
clearly that when the artists had free play they where not deficient in
taste, and that we must ascribe the utter badness of Byzantine
figure-painting to the proper cause; namely, to the veto the Church
seems to have set on the study of the human form.

The principal difference between the Byzantine and Romanesque
ornamentation is the more frequent occurrence in the latter of
geometrical patterns, formed principally by squares and equilateral
triangles intersecting each other. The walls and pavements of the
Romanesque churches of Italy abound with examples of this geometric
decoration. In Romanesque ornament again, gold and mosaic are not so
universally used as in Byzantine; but the transition between the two
styles was so gradual, and they were so closely connected, that it is
almost impossible to draw the line between them.

Italy was in a very miserable and disturbed state during the dark
centuries of the Middle Ages, being overrun by barbarous invaders and
often afflicted by internecine wars, so that even without the leaden
hand of the Church stifling all original talent, it is very improbable
that any improvement in art could have been made.

For art to thrive, it is absolutely necessary that a country should be
undisturbed and tolerably prosperous; although it by no means follows
that a prosperous country _must_ produce great artists. Take, for
instance, the Republic of Venice during the Middle Ages, which, whilst
Italy was being vexed with endless invasions and civil war, enjoyed
great prosperity; and yet not a single attempt was made by her artists
to emancipate themselves from the dead level of Byzantine rules. On the
contrary, the famous early mosaics of St. Mark’s are amongst the most
characteristic specimens of Byzantine art which have been preserved to

Of their original splendor (as far as gold and workmanship could
contribute to it) there can be no doubt, but of legitimate art there is
no trace. Like all the work of this school, whether mosaic or fresco,
the figures are done by routine, and are as lifeless and mean in
character as the worst Byzantine types. Of course I am speaking of the
series of _early_ mosaics in St. Mark’s. The later ones executed in the
twelfth century, although very Byzantine in character, partake largely
of the general improvement which was noticeable at that time.

The tremendous rapidity with which Byzantine frescoes used to be
executed is no excuse for their badness. Had the artists given ten times
the labor they would have done no better. All original design was
prohibited; every thing was done from tracings of previous works. These
tracings were reproduced on the wall to be painted, and the flesh tints
were filled in with a uniform flat color, sometimes of a brick-dust and
sometimes of a green hue. The draperies were done in the same way,
first a flat tint and then a few unmeaning black lines to represent
folds. This process was entirely mechanical, the lines having no respect
whatever for the limbs underneath.

To give you a better idea of the rapidity with which whole churches can
be decorated in the Byzantine style, I will give Didron’s description of
Oriental fresco-painting. He was at Mount Athos about forty years ago,
and had the opportunity of seeing a monk and his five assistants at
work. Mount Athos has for the last thirteen centuries been the
headquarters and principal laboratory of Byzantine art, and a countless
number of pictures on wood are to this day exported thence as articles
of commerce to the Russian Empire. M. Didron says: “One pupil spread the
mortar on the wall; the master drew the outline, without either cartoon
or tracings; another pupil laid on the colors; a third gilt the nimbi,
painted the ornaments, and wrote the inscriptions, which the master
dictated to him from memory; and lastly, two boys were fully occupied in
grinding and mixing the colors.”

The subject was a Christ and eleven apostles (life size), and the time
taken to complete the work was under an hour!

I am not quite sure but what a couple of months’ experience in the Mount
Athos workshops might not be of advantage to some of our students in the
antique school.

Our traveller adds (I think quite unnecessarily) that the work seemed to
him very rude and coarse–but it can be easily understood that at this
rate a whole church could be covered with frescoes in a few days. “C’est
magnifique, mais ce n’est pas de l’art.”

From what I have said, you will understand the unchangeable nature of
Byzantine art. Pictures painted in this style may be more or less neatly
executed, but their artistic merit varies very little, whether they be
of the seventh or the nineteenth centuries, whether they decorate St.
Mark’s at Venice or an obscure monastery on Mount Athos. As an
illustration of this, note a picture in the National Gallery, by a Greek
artist of the name of Emmanuel. The date of this work is 1650. It was
therefore painted long after Titian, Raffaelle, P. Veronese, and all the
great masters had departed this life, and yet with all their glorious
works before his eyes what does this primeval artist produce? All I can
say is, “Go and see for yourselves.” Other schools have their ups and
downs. The Italian, the Flemish, the French, and the English schools
have all had, and will continue to have, their periods of elevation and
depression; but Byzantine painting always maintains its dead level, and
will continue to do so as long as the Greek Church lasts.

Pictures of this school are often associated with ideas of sanctity,
not only in holy Russia but in Western Europe. Almost all
miracle-working pictures belong to this class. The Calabrian peasant, or
the Andalusian muleteer, who would probably be unmoved by the Madonna di
S. Sisto, is wrought up to a high pitch of religious fervor at the
shrine of some olive Byzantine Virgin, with her pinched peevish face and
wooden shoulders.

That this class of pictures has at all times been held to be peculiarly
sacred, is proved from the fact that at Venice (even in the time of
Titian) the cultivation of the stiff Byzantine style, for popular
devotion, was maintained in juxtaposition with that of the most
perfectly developed form of painting.

We may smile at the Venetian religious world, but I am not sure that at
the present day an analogous tendency could not be imputed to some of

Is there not to some æsthetic nostrils a kind of odor of sanctity about
mediæval perspective and composition? It is true that our revivalists do
not wish to go back to the Byzantine period for our religious art; the
Romanesque or at any rate the Quattro Cento style is the correct thing.
But why go back at all? I can quite understand that in restoring an old
cathedral it would be desirable to do so; but in a modern building
(whether gothic or not) to reproduce forms which we know to be
incorrect, and to introduce perspective which we know to be absurd,
seems to me to be carrying our reverence for the past a little too far.

A letter appeared in the _Times_ last summer which is so much to the
purpose that I really must read it to you:–

“_To the Editor of the ‘Times.’_”

June 30th.

“SIR,–I have before me a design for a window which it is proposed
to place in a village church in Lincolnshire, as one of a group
memorial of the late vicar, his widow, and two sons, clergymen, one
of them a missionary of the Church Missionary Society who died in
India. May I be allowed to describe the design? The window is of
two lights. The dexter represents a cardinal in red hat and
stockings, red robe with blue lining, and a nimbus round his head
of a color resembling olive-green. The sinister light has an
archbishop with mitre, pall, polychromatic vestments, and a blue
nimbus round his head; in his left hand a pastoral staff, and in
his right the Sacred Heart, crimson, with gold flames issuing from
the top. The drawing is signed by an eminent London firm, and is
submitted by the present vicar as a suitable memorial of his
predecessor, who was an Evangelical of the old school, and of his
widow, a lady whose dread of ‘Popery’ was almost morbid.”

Writers on art are fond of asserting that in spite of the repulsive
ugliness of the Byzantine types, we ought to be grateful to the school
for keeping the lamp of art alive during seven or eight centuries; but I
think that the history of the great revival does not bear out this
assertion. We find Giotto and his followers hampered with the old
traditions. We find Byzantine work rampant in Venice down to the time of
the Bellinis, impeding and indeed excluding all the various forms of
progress which were spreading over Northern Italy; and it may be noticed
that all the faults and weaknesses of the early Italian painters are
traceable to Byzantine sources. I question very much whether the revival
of art would not have been more rapid and complete had the Byzantine
school never existed.

The early reformers, Cimabue, Giotto, and Duccio, would have had the
great mosaics of the fifth century, and such remnants of ancient pagan
art as were then known, to inspire them. They would have been unfettered
by Byzantine tradition, and I think it probable that their works would
have been better in every respect.

Every one with any experience knows that it is easier to instil sound
principles of art into one who is totally uninstructed, than into one
who has already contracted a bad style of drawing; and as it is with
individuals, so also is it with schools and phases of art.

Then again it must be remembered that although the Byzantine school was
the dominant one during the Middle Ages, there were, in Italy, France,
and Germany, artists who had no connection with it, and whose
compositions, as seen in manuscripts and missals, will bear favorable
comparison with similar work by Greek artists of the same period.

I must refer you again to d’Agincourt’s book, where you will find a
great number of outlines from these miniatures.

In judging these works you must not, however, form your opinion as to
their merits entirely by d’Agincourt’s illustrations. They give a very
fair idea of the drawing and composition, but the charm of these small
paintings lies in their color and execution, which are sometimes very

The Bayeux tapestry, for instance, though charming in the original,
becomes very uninteresting and ugly when translated into black and

The transition from Byzantine to Romanesque art was so gradual that it
is very difficult to decide when the change took place. Byzantine rules
and traditions had taken such firm root, that it was not till the end of
the fourteenth century that its influence was finally overcome.

We are, however, approaching the time of Guido da Siena and Guinto da
Pisa, and it is pleasant at last to know (or to suppose we know) the
names of two artists after centuries of anonymous work. The fact of
these names having been preserved shows at any rate that their bearers
were not mere workmen bound to execute the morbid fancies of the Church,
but painters of some repute, whose creations, though still very cramped
and stiff, show better modelling and a more intelligent execution than
are to be found in the works of their predecessors.

Every one has heard of Cimabue, but comparatively few have seen his
frescoes. I imagine that his best work is in the Church of St. Francis
at Assisi. I once spent six weeks at Assisi, and devoted a good deal of
time to the wall-paintings of the church.

The frescoes of Cimabue seemed to me infinitely better than his panel
pictures, but they were (even then) in such a state of decay that it was
difficult to form an opinion of them. This was twenty-two years ago, and
since that time I believe that the progress of decay has been very rapid
indeed. The Arundel Society had some admirable _fac-simile_ drawings of
these works executed five years ago.

It is curious how much more rapidly all the old frescoes are decaying
now than formerly.

I attribute this accelerated rate of ruin to the presence of gas in the
towns. At Pisa the Campo Santo frescoes are deteriorating much more
rapidly than before the introduction of gas into the town. I don’t know
whether Assisi is now blessed with a gasometer, but if it is, poor old
Cimabue’s work is doomed.

His famous Madonna, which was carried in triumphant procession through
the streets of Florence, is painted quite in the Greek style. The flesh
is better modelled, and the draperies of the surrounding angels are much
better drawn, than in any previous example of Byzantine work, but I
cannot understand the enthusiasm of the Florentines.

The specimen we have in the National Gallery appears to me to have been
much re-painted; the heads especially (although ugly enough to be early
work) are of a later character, and are painted in the fumbling,
uncertain way which is characteristic of restorers.

There are other artists of this period whose works show a great
improvement on the old Byzantine. These are Toriti, who executed some
fine mosaics in Rome; the brothers Cosmati, also of Rome; and Gaddo
Gaddi, the Florentine. The mosaics of the last named in the dome of the
baptistery at Florence are very highly commended, but they appear to me
rather improved Byzantine than true Romanesque. Indeed, with the single
exception of Cimabue’s frescoes at Assisi, I don’t know of any work of
the thirteenth century which has a true Romanesque character at all.
Giotto was (as every one knows) the pupil of Cimabue, and I believe that
the truth of the old story about Cimabue finding him when a shepherd boy
occupied in drawing a sheep, and taking him back to Florence as an
apprentice, has not yet been doubted. We can easily imagine the respect
and awe which this shepherd lad would feel for the greatest painter of
the capital, and can readily believe that the work of his early youth
would be founded entirely on that of his master. It is more than
probable that he served his apprenticeship at the great sanctuary of
piety and art which arose after the death of St. Francis at Assisi. At
any rate it is there that his earliest known, and to my mind his best,
works are to be found. The series of frescoes illustrative of the life
of the saint, may be considered as the starting-point of historical
painting in Italy. Compare the figures in these frescoes with the best
work of Cimabue, and notice what an enormous advance has been made. Here
we have natural, if somewhat timid, action, well-proportioned figures,
and skilful arrangement of drapery. I confess I was surprised to hear
that these works were anterior to his larger frescoes in the lower
church, which represent the glorification of St. Francis, and which
appeared to me to indicate a step backward toward Cimabue. It is
probable that in these last-named frescoes, which adorn the compartments
under the high altar, Giotto did not venture to depart much from the
traditional arrangement of his predecessors, and accordingly we find the
poor, meagre composition and the horizontal lines of heads cherished by
the thirteenth century painters.

Giotto would require a whole lecture to himself, were I to attempt an
account of what he did at Padua, Florence, Rome, and Naples. His
_chefs-d’œuvre_ are said to be in Florence, at the Church of St.
Croce. No less than four chapels in this church were decorated by him;
but, alas! there is very little left. Time, whitewash, and the
restorers, have done their work pretty effectually. Still, the mere
outlines of many of the groups show that these works may very well have
been the finest that the master ever produced.

I have seen the Arena Chapel at Padua, which is literally covered with
Giotto’s frescoes. It is many years since I was there, and very
possibly, were I to revisit the chapel, I might form a different
opinion, but at the time I was disappointed with the paintings, which
appeared to me weak in design and feeble in execution.

When we recollect that Giotto had the customs and prejudices of eight
centuries to contend against, no antiques at hand to guide and purify
his taste, no great predecessors to imitate, we cannot help paying
homage to the genius of the man who produced the St. Francis series of
frescoes at Assisi, and numberless other works, both at Florence and
elsewhere. I think that the true explanation of his wonderful success is
to be found in the old sheep-drawing anecdote. It shows that even as a
shepherd boy he felt that nature was the foundation of art. Instead of
working by mere routine, like the Byzantine painters, or, like his
master Cimabue, endeavoring to improve in the same direction, he went
direct to nature both for his compositions, his action, and his drapery.

To us it may appear the simplest thing in the world to make studies from
nature for our pictures, but in the time of Giotto such a course would
be unusual, and would be placed in the category of happy thoughts.

It may be argued that if he had lived in the tenth or eleventh century
instead of the fourteenth, he would never have been allowed by his
patrons to attempt such daring innovations. He must have remained in the
old beaten track. This is no doubt true enough, and there may have been
during the dark ages a dozen embryo Giottos whose genius had been
strangled by ecclesiastical leading-strings; but we are none the less
indebted to the man who gave the death-blow to the barbarous mechanical
craft which for long centuries had usurped the place of art.

Although anxious to do full justice to Giotto as a great art reformer, I
must admit that he had some very unpleasant peculiarities which were
blindly adopted, and, indeed, exaggerated, by many of his followers. The
most repulsive of these peculiarities is the sameness and meanness of
his heads. In the only specimen we have of his in the National Gallery
this fault is not conspicuous, but it is very noticeable in the pictures
of his school. Indeed, the family likeness which pervades all the heads
in the large Orcagna is almost ludicrous. In Giottesque heads the eyes
are a great deal too close together and never fairly open. The nose is
thin and pinched, and the jaws weak and shapeless. The type, in short,
is diametrically the opposite of the antique, and is (it must be
confessed) a very ignoble one.

The constant recurrence of this mean type is more apparent in his later
than in his early works, and it is probable that many of these
stereotyped heads were executed by his assistants, but nevertheless
Giotto is answerable for them.

Italian sculpture, as well as Italian painting, is greatly indebted to
Giotto, for it was he who designed the reliefs for the bronze gates of
the baptistery at Florence. These designs were executed in masterly
style by Andrea Pisano, and may be looked upon as the starting-point of
Italian sculpture. In fact, it is as the father of modern art rather
than as a perfect painter that the name of Giotto ought to be held in
reverence. Many of his successors of the next century, whom I shall
mention in the course of my lectures, approached much nearer to
perfection than did Giotto. The composition of their pictures is less
archaic, the heads have more individual character and are much better
drawn; but we ought always to bear in mind, that had Giotto never lived,
we should never have had a Masaccio, a Filippo Lippi, or a Beato
Angelico, and probably neither a Leonardo nor a Raffaelle.

Louis Quatorze is reported to have said: “L’etat c’est moi”; and Giotto
might with equal truth have declared: “L’art Romanesque c’est moi,” so
all-pervading was his influence. Besides the works of his immediate
followers, such as Taddeo Gaddi and Orcagna, Italy abounds with
Giottesque frescoes, whose authors are unknown, or at least doubtful.

The most important of these nameless works are the large frescoes which
cover the walls of the Capella degli Spagnuoli, in Sta. Maria Novella at
Florence. When I first saw these frescoes they were ascribed to Taddeo
Gaddi and Simone Memmi of Siena; but modern critics have justly, I
think, pronounced against this authorship. They appeared to me to be of
a later date, but I may have been misled by the disgraceful way in which
they have been retouched.

This retouching, or rather repainting, has been the ruin of many of the
early frescoes, and it is most extraordinary that in Italy (of all
places in the world) such barbarous mangling should ever have been
allowed. The real culprits are not the obscure bunglers who did the
work, but the ignorant monks or town councillors who employed them.

These Sta. Maria Novella frescoes are very characteristic of the
allegorical mania of the Romanesque period. One of them, we are told, is
meant to represent the “Wisdom of the Church,” but the allegory is so
obscure and the component parts so heterogeneous, that with the best
intentions it is all but impossible to understand the painter’s meaning.
Why should Grammar have a globe in her hand? and why should Logic have a
serpent under her veil? What has Abraham done that he should be
associated with arithmetic? and why should John of Damascus (who, for
some occult reason, typifies Hope) be mending his pen? If the strange
jumble in this fresco is bewildering, what shall we say to the
companion fresco which represents “the activity of the Church”? A dozen
or more different centres of activity are in full play simultaneously.
The faithful are portrayed in one part of the fresco as men and women,
and in another part as a flock of sheep. The Dominicanes, or Dominicans,
are playfully represented as black and white dogs, who are defending the
sheep against wolves. St. Dominic himself is preaching against heretics,
who are entreating pardon and burning their books; but it is hopeless to
give an idea of the confusion of imagery, of the blending of piety with
punning in this extraordinary fresco. If I again refer in the course of
my lectures to the Romanesque allegories, it is not that I am fascinated
by them, but because they are so numerous and so typical of the period
that it is impossible to ignore them.

It would, of course, be unjust to blame the artists for these
allegories, or for the numerous “Inferno” pictures. They probably had to
execute and make the best of the subjects that were given them. Dante
may very likely be answerable for much of the questionable taste of the
fourteenth century.

I shall endeavor, in my next lecture, to steer a middle course between
the modern blind adoration of the fifteenth century work, and the
cynical Philistinism which can discover nothing worthy of notice in this
interesting period.