The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry
Walter Horatio Pater

Part 1 out of 4

Scanned and proofed by Alfred J. Drake (


London: 1910. (The Library Edition.)


Notes: The 1910 Library Edition employs footnotes, a
style inconvenient in an electronic edition. I have therefore
placed an asterisk immediately after each of Pater's footnotes
and a + sign after my own notes, and have listed each chapter's
notes at that chapter's end.

Pagination and Paragraphing: To avoid an unwieldy electronic copy,
I have transferred original pagination to brackets. A bracketed
numeral such as [22] indicates that the material immediately
following the number marks the beginning of the relevant page. I
have preserved paragraph structure except for first-line indentation.

Hyphenation: I have not preserved original hyphenation since an
e-text does not require line-end or page-end hyphenation.

Greek typeface: For this full-text edition, I have transliterated
Pater's Greek quotations. If there is a need for the original Greek, it
can be viewed at my site,, a Victorianist
archive that contains the complete works of Walter Pater and many other
nineteenth-century texts, mostly in first editions.



Preface: vii-xv

Two Early French Stories: 1 -29

Pico della Mirandola: 30-49

Sandro Botticelli: 50-62

Luca della Robbia: 63-72

The Poetry of Michelangelo: 73-97

Leonardo da Vinci: 98-129

The School of Giorgione: 130-154

Joachim du Bellay: 155-176

Winckelmann: 177-232

Conclusion: 233-end


To C.L.S
February 1873


[vii] Many attempts have been made by writers on art and poetry to
define beauty in the abstract, to express it in the most general
terms, to find some universal formula for it. The value of these
attempts has most often been in the suggestive and penetrating
things said by the way. Such discussions help us very little to
enjoy what has been well done in art or poetry, to discriminate
between what is more and what is less excellent in them, or to use
words like beauty, excellence, art, poetry, with a more precise
meaning than they would otherwise have. Beauty, like all other
qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the
definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to
its abstractness. To define beauty, not in the most abstract but in
the most concrete terms possible, to find not its universal
formula, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or
that [viii] special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true student
of aesthetics.

"To see the object as in itself it really is," has been justly said to
be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in aesthetic
criticism the first step towards seeing one's object as it really is,
is to know one's own impression as it really is, to discriminate it,
to realise it distinctly. The objects with which aesthetic criticism
deals--music, poetry, artistic and accomplished forms of human
life--are indeed receptacles of so many powers or forces: they
possess, like the products of nature, so many virtues or qualities.
What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented
in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on
me? Does it give me pleasure? and if so, what sort or degree of
pleasure? How is my nature modified by its presence, and under
its influence? The answers to these questions are the original
facts with which the aesthetic critic has to do; and, as in the study
of light, of morals, of number, one must realise such primary data
for one's self, or not at all. And he who experiences these
impressions strongly, and drives directly at the discrimination
and analysis of them, has no need to trouble himself with the
abstract question what beauty is in itself, or what its exact
relation to truth or [ix] experience--metaphysical questions, as
unprofitable as metaphysical questions elsewhere. He may pass
them all by as being, answerable or not, of no interest to him.

The aesthetic critic, then, regards all the objects with which he
has to do, all works of art, and the fairer forms of nature and
human life, as powers or forces producing pleasurable sensations,
each of a more or less peculiar or unique kind. This influence he
feels, and wishes to explain, by analysing and reducing it to its
elements. To him, the picture, the landscape, the engaging
personality in life or in a book, La Gioconda, the hills of Carrara,
Pico of Mirandola, are valuable for their virtues, as we say, in
speaking of a herb, a wine, a gem; for the property each has of
affecting one with a special, a unique, impression of pleasure.
Our education becomes complete in proportion as our
susceptibility to these impressions increases in depth and variety.
And the function of the aesthetic critic is to distinguish, to
analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a
picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book,
produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate
what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions
it is experienced. His end is reached when he has disengaged that
[x] virtue, and noted it, as a chemist notes some natural element,
for himself and others; and the rule for those who would reach
this end is stated with great exactness in the words of a recent
critic of Sainte-Beuve:--De se borner à connaître de près les
belles choses, et à s'en nourrir en exquis amateurs, en
humanistes accomplis.

What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a
correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain
kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the
presence of beautiful objects. He will remember always that
beauty exists in many forms. To him all periods, types, schools
of taste, are in themselves equal. In all ages there have been
some excellent workmen, and some excellent work done. The
question he asks is always:--In whom did the stir, the genius, the
sentiment of the period find itself? where was the receptacle of
its refinement, its elevation, its taste? "The ages are all equal,"
says William Blake, "but genius is always above its age."

Often it will require great nicety to disengage this virtue from the
commoner elements with which it may be found in combination.
Few artists, not Goethe or Byron even, work quite cleanly,
casting off all débris, and leaving us only what the heat of their
imagination has wholly [xi] fused and transformed. Take, for
instance, the writings of Wordsworth. The heat of his genius,
entering into the substance of his work, has crystallised a part,
but only a part, of it; and in that great mass of verse there is much
which might well be forgotten. But scattered up and down it,
sometimes fusing and transforming entire compositions, like the
Stanzas on Resolution and Independence, or the Ode on the
Recollections of Childhood, sometimes, as if at random,
depositing a fine crystal here or there, in a matter it does not
wholly search through and transmute, we trace the action of his
unique, incommunicable faculty, that strange, mystical sense of a
life in natural things, and of man's life as a part of nature,
drawing strength and colour and character from local influences,
from the hills and streams, and from natural sights and sounds.
Well! that is the virtue, the active principle in Wordsworth's
poetry; and then the function of the critic of Wordsworth is to
follow up that active principle, to disengage it, to mark the degree
in which it penetrates his verse.

The subjects of the following studies are taken from the history
of the Renaissance, and touch what I think the chief points in that
complex, many-sided movement. I have explained in the first of
them what I understand by the word, [xii] giving it a much wider
scope than was intended by those who originally used it to denote
that revival of classical antiquity in the fifteenth century which
was only one of many results of a general excitement and
enlightening of the human mind, but of which the great aim and
achievements of what, as Christian art, is often falsely opposed to
the Renaissance, were another result. This outbreak of the human
spirit may be traced far into the middle age itself, with its motives
already clearly pronounced, the care for physical beauty, the
worship of the body, the breaking down of those limits which the
religious system of the middle age imposed on the heart and the
imagination. I have taken as an example of this movement, this
earlier Renaissance within the middle age itself, and as an
expression of its qualities, two little compositions in early
French; not because they constitute the best possible expression
of them, but because they help the unity of my series, inasmuch
as the Renaissance ends also in France, in French poetry, in a
phase of which the writings of Joachim du Bellay are in many
ways the most perfect illustration. The Renaissance, in truth, put
forth in France an aftermath, a wonderful later growth, the
products of which have to the full that subtle and delicate
sweetness which belongs to a refined and comely [xiii]
decadence, just as its earliest phases have the freshness which
belongs to all periods of growth in art, the charm of ascêsis, of
the austere and serious girding of the loins in youth.

But it is in Italy, in the fifteenth century, that the interest of the
Renaissance mainly lies,--in that solemn fifteenth century which
can hardly be studied too much, not merely for its positive results
in the things of the intellect and the imagination, its concrete
works of art, its special and prominent personalities, with their
profound aesthetic charm, but for its general spirit and character,
for the ethical qualities of which it is a consummate type.

The various forms of intellectual activity which together make
up the culture of an age, move for the most part from different
starting-points, and by unconnected roads. As products of the
same generation they partake indeed of a common character, and
unconsciously illustrate each other; but of the producers
themselves, each group is solitary, gaining what advantage or
disadvantage there may be in intellectual isolation. Art and
poetry, philosophy and the religious life, and that other life of
refined pleasure and action in the conspicuous places of the
world, are each of them confined to its own circle of ideas, and
those who prosecute either of them are generally little [xiv]
curious of the thoughts of others. There come, however, from
time to time, eras of more favourable conditions, in which the
thoughts of men draw nearer together than is their wont, and the
many interests of the intellectual world combine in one complete
type of general culture. The fifteenth century in Italy is one of
these happier eras, and what is sometimes said of the age of
Pericles is true of that of Lorenzo:--it is an age productive in
personalities, many-sided, centralised, complete. Here, artists
and philosophers and those whom the action of the world has
elevated and made keen, do not live in isolation, but breathe a
common air, and catch light and heat from each other's thoughts.
There is a spirit of general elevation and enlightenment in which
all alike communicate. The unity of this spirit gives unity to all
the various products of the Renaissance; and it is to this intimate
alliance with the mind, this participation in the best thoughts
which that age produced, that the art of Italy in the fifteenth
century owes much of its grave dignity and influence.

I have added an essay on Winckelmann, as not incongruous with
the studies which precede it, because Winckelmann, coming in
the eighteenth century, really belongs in spirit to an earlier age.
By his enthusiasm for the things of the intellect [xv] and the
imagination for their own sake, by his Hellenism, his life-long
struggle to attain the Greek spirit, he is in sympathy with the
humanists of a previous century. He is the last fruit of the
Renaissance, and explains in a striking way its motive and



Yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove.

[1] THE history of the Renaissance ends in France, and carries us
away from Italy to the beautiful cities of the country of the Loire.
But it was in France also, in a very important sense, that the
Renaissance had begun. French writers, who are fond of
connecting the creations of Italian genius with a French origin,
who tell us how Saint Francis of Assisi took not his name only,
but all those notions of chivalry and romantic love which so
deeply penetrated his thoughts, from a French source, how
Boccaccio borrowed the outlines of his stories from the old
French fabliaux, and how Dante himself expressly connects the
origin of the art of miniature-painting with the city of Paris, have
often dwelt on this notion of a Renaissance in the end of the
twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century, a Renaissance
within the limits of the middle age itself--a brilliant, but in part
abortive effort to do for human life and the human mind what
was afterwards done in the fifteenth. The word Renaissance,
indeed, is now generally used to denote not [2] merely the revival
of classical antiquity which took place in the fifteenth century,
and to which the word was first applied, but a whole complex
movement, of which that revival of classical antiquity was but
one element or symptom. For us the Renaissance is the name of
a many-sided but yet united movement, in which the love of the
things of the intellect and the imagination for their own sake, the
desire for a more liberal and comely way of conceiving life, make
themselves felt, urging those who experience this desire to search
out first one and then another means of intellectual or imaginative
enjoyment, and directing them not only to the discovery of old
and forgotten sources of this enjoyment, but to the divination of
fresh sources thereof--new experiences, new subjects of poetry,
new forms of art. Of such feeling there was a great outbreak in
the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the following century.
Here and there, under rare and happy conditions, in Pointed
architecture, in the doctrines of romantic love, in the poetry of
Provence, the rude strength of the middle age turns to sweetness;
and the taste for sweetness generated there becomes the seed of
the classical revival in it, prompting it constantly to seek after the
springs of perfect sweetness in the Hellenic world. And coming
after a long period in which this instinct had been crushed, that
true "dark age," in which so many sources of intellectual and
imaginative enjoyment had [3] actually disappeared, this
outbreak is rightly called a Renaissance, a revival.

Theories which bring into connexion with each other modes of
thought and feeling, periods of taste, forms of art and poetry,
which the narrowness of men's minds constantly tends to oppose
to each other, have a great stimulus for the intellect, and are
almost always worth understanding. It is so with this theory of a
Renaissance within the middle age, which seeks to establish a
continuity between the most characteristic work of that period,
the sculpture of Chartres, the windows of Le Mans, and the work
of the later Renaissance, the work of Jean Cousin and Germain
Pilon, thus healing that rupture between the middle age and the
Renaissance which has so often been exaggerated. But it is not
so much the ecclesiastical art of the middle age, its sculpture and
painting--work certainly done in a great measure for pleasure's
sake, in which even a secular, a rebellious spirit often betrays
itself--but rather its profane poetry, the poetry of Provence, and
the magnificent after-growth of that poetry in Italy and France,
which those French writers have in view when they speak of this
medieval Renaissance. In that poetry, earthly passion, with its
intimacy, its freedom, its variety--the liberty of the heart--makes
itself felt; and the name of Abelard, the great scholar and the
great lover, connects the expression of this liberty of heart with
the free [4] play of human intelligence around all subjects
presented to it, with the liberty of the intellect, as that age
understood it.

Every one knows the legend of Abelard, a legend hardly less
passionate, certainly not less characteristic of the middle age,
than the legend of Tannhäuser; how the famous and comely
clerk, in whom Wisdom herself, self-possessed, pleasant, and
discreet, seemed to sit enthroned, came to live in the house of a
canon of the church of Notre-Dame, where dwelt a girl, Heloïse,
believed to be the old priest's orphan niece; how the old priest
had testified his love for her by giving her an education then
unrivalled, so that rumour asserted that, through the knowledge
of languages, enabling her to penetrate into the mysteries of the
older world, she had become a sorceress, like the Celtic
druidesses; and how as Abelard and Heloïse sat together at home
there, to refine a little further on the nature of abstract ideas,
"Love made himself of the party with them." You conceive the
temptations of the scholar, who, in such dreamy tranquillity, amid
the bright and busy spectacle of the "Island," lived in a world of
something like shadows; and that for one who knew so well how
to assign its exact value to every abstract thought, those restraints
which lie on the consciences of other men had been relaxed. It
appears that he composed many verses in the vulgar tongue:
already the young men sang them on the quay below the house.
Those songs, says M. de Rémusat, [5] were probably in the taste
of the Trouvères, "of whom he was one of the first in date, or, so
to speak, the predecessor." It is the same spirit which has
moulded the famous "letters," written in the quaint Latin of the
middle age.

At the foot of that early Gothic tower, which the next generation
raised to grace the precincts of Abelard's school, on the
"Mountain of Saint Geneviève," the historian Michelet sees in
thought "a terrible assembly; not the hearers of Abelard alone,
fifty bishops, twenty cardinals, two popes, the whole body of
scholastic philosophy; not only the learned Heloïse, the teaching
of languages, and the Renaissance; but Arnold of Brescia--that is
to say, the revolution." And so from the rooms of this shadowy
house by the Seine side we see that spirit going abroad, with its
qualities already well defined, its intimacy, its languid sweetness,
its rebellion, its subtle skill in dividing the elements of human
passion, its care for physical beauty, its worship of the body,
which penetrated the early literature of Italy, and finds an echo
even in Dante.

That Abelard is not mentioned in the Divine Comedy may appear
a singular omission to the reader of Dante, who seems to have
inwoven into the texture of his work whatever had impressed him
as either effective in colour or spiritually significant among the
recorded incidents of actual life. Nowhere in his great poem do
we find the name, nor so much as an allusion to the story of [6]
one who had left so deep a mark on the philosophy of which
Dante was an eager student, of whom in the Latin Quarter, and
from the lips of scholar or teacher in the University of Paris,
during his sojourn among them, he can hardly have failed to hear.
We can only suppose that he had indeed considered the story and
the man, and abstained from passing judgment as to his place in
the scheme of "eternal justice."

In the famous legend of Tannhäuser, the erring knight makes his
way to Rome, to seek absolution at the centre of Christian
religion. "So soon," thought and said the Pope, "as the staff in
his hand should bud and blossom, so soon might the soul of
Tannhäuser be saved, and no sooner"; and it came to pass not
long after that the dry wood of a staff which the Pope had carried
in his hand was covered with leaves and flowers. So, in the
cloister of Godstow, a petrified tree was shown of which the nuns
told that the fair Rosamond, who had died among them, had
declared that, the tree being then alive and green, it would be
changed into stone at the hour of her salvation. When Abelard
died, like Tannhäuser, he was on his way to Rome. What might
have happened had he reached his journey's end is uncertain; and
it is in this uncertain twilight that his relation to the general
beliefs of his age has always remained. In this, as in other things,
he prefigures the character of the Renaissance, that movement in
[7] which, in various ways, the human mind wins for itself a new
kingdom of feeling and sensation and thought, not opposed to but
only beyond and independent of the spiritual system then actually
realised. The opposition into which Abelard is thrown, which
gives its colour to his career, which breaks his soul to pieces, is a
no less subtle opposition than that between the merely
professional, official, hireling ministers of that system, with their
ignorant worship of system for its own sake, and the true child of
light, the humanist, with reason and heart and senses quick, while
theirs were almost dead. He reaches out towards, he attains,
modes of ideal living, beyond the prescribed limits of that
system, though in essential germ, it may be, contained within it.
As always happens, the adherents of the poorer and narrower
culture had no sympathy with, because no understanding of, a
culture richer and more ample than their own. After the
discovery of wheat they would still live upon acorns--après
l'invention du blé ils voulaient encore vivre du gland; and would
hear of no service to the higher needs of humanity with
instruments not of their forging.

But the human spirit, bold through those needs, was too strong
for them. Abelard and Heloïse write their letters--letters with a
wonderful outpouring of soul--in medieval Latin; and Abelard,
though he composes songs in the vulgar tongue, writes also in
Latin those [8] treatises in which he tries to find a ground of
reality below the abstractions of philosophy, as one bent on
trying all things by their congruity with human experience, who
had felt the hand of Heloïse, and looked into her eyes, and tested
the resources of humanity in her great and energetic nature. Yet
it is only a little later, early in the thirteenth century, that French
prose romance begins; and in one of the pretty volumes of the
Bibliothèque Elzevirienne some of the most striking fragments of
it may be found, edited with much intelligence. In one of these
thirteenth-century stories, Li Amitiez de Ami et Amile, that free
play of human affection, of the claims of which Abelard's story is
an assertion, makes itself felt in the incidents of a great
friendship, a friendship pure and generous, pushed to a sort of
passionate exaltation, and more than faithful unto death. Such
comradeship, though instances of it are to be found everywhere,
is still especially a classical motive; Chaucer expressing the
sentiment of it so strongly in an antique tale, that one knows not
whether the love of both Palamon and Arcite for Emelya, or of
those two for each other, is the chiefer subject of the Knight's

He cast his eyen upon Emelya,
And therewithal he bleynte and cried, ah!
As that he stongen were unto the herte.

What reader does not refer something of the [9] bitterness of that
cry to the spoiling, already foreseen, of the fair friendship, which
had made the prison of the two lads sweet hitherto with its daily

The friendship of Amis and Amile is deepened by the romantic
circumstance of an entire personal resemblance between the two
heroes, through which they pass for each other again and again,
and thereby into many strange adventures; that curious interest of
the Doppelgänger, which begins among the stars with the
Dioscuri, being entwined in and out through all the incidents of
the story, like an outward token of the inward similitude of their
souls. With this, again, is connected, like a second reflection of
that inward similitude, the conceit of two marvellously beautiful
cups, also exactly like each other--children's cups, of wood, but
adorned with gold and precious stones. These two cups, which
by their resemblance help to bring the friends together at critical
moments, were given to them by the Pope, when he baptized
them at Rome, whither the parents had taken them for that
purpose, in gratitude for their birth. They cross and recross very
strangely in the narrative, serving the two heroes almost like
living things, and with that well-known effect of a beautiful
object, kept constantly before the eye in a story or poem, of
keeping sensation well awake, and giving a certain air of
refinement to all the scenes into which it enters. That sense of
fate, which [10] hangs so much of the shaping of human life on
trivial objects, like Othello's strawberry handkerchief, is thereby
heightened, while witness is borne to the enjoyment of beautiful
handiwork by primitive people, their simple wonder at it, so that
they give it an oddly significant place among the factors of a
human history.

Amis and Amile, then, are true to their comradeship through all
trials; and in the end it comes to pass that at a moment of great
need Amis takes the place of Amile in a tournament for life or
death. "After this it happened that a leprosy fell upon Amis, so
that his wife would not approach him, and wrought to strangle
him. He departed therefore from his home, and at last prayed his
servants to carry him to the house of Amile"; and it is in what
follows that the curious strength of the piece shows itself:--

"His servants, willing to do as he commanded, carried him to the
place where Amile was; and they began to sound their rattles
before the court of Amile's house, as lepers are accustomed to
do. And when Amile heard the noise he commanded one of his
servants to carry meat and bread to the sick man, and the cup
which was given to him at Rome filled with good wine. And
when the servant had done as he was commanded, he returned
and said, Sir, if I had not thy cup in my hand, I should believe
that the cup which the sick man has was thine, for they are alike,
the [11] one to the other, in height and fashion. And Amile said,
Go quickly and bring him to me. And when Amis stood before
his comrade Amile demanded of him who he was, and how he
had gotten that cup. I am of Briquain le Chastel, answered Amis,
and the cup was given to me by the Bishop of Rome, who
baptized me. And when Amile heard that, he knew that it was his
comrade Amis, who had delivered him from death, and won for
him the daughter of the King of France to be his wife. And
straightway he fell upon him, and began weeping greatly, and
kissed him. And when his wife heard that, she ran out with her
hair in disarray, weeping and distressed exceedingly, for she
remembered that it was he who had slain the false Ardres. And
thereupon they placed him in a fair bed, and said to him, Abide
with us until God's will be accomplished in thee, for all we have
is at thy service. So he and the two servants abode with them.

"And it came to pass one night, when Amis and Amile lay in one
chamber without other companions, that God sent His angel
Raphael to Amis, who said to him, Amis, art thou asleep? And
he, supposing that Amile had called him, answered and said, I am
not asleep, fair comrade! And the angel said to him, Thou hast
answered well, for thou art the comrade of the heavenly citizens.-
-I am Raphael, the angel of our Lord, and am come to tell thee
how thou mayest be [12] healed; for thy prayers are heard. Thou
shalt bid Amile, thy comrade, that he slay his two children and
wash thee in their blood, and so thy body shall be made whole.
And Amis said to him, Let not this thing be, that my comrade
should become a murderer for my sake. But the angel said, It is
convenient that he do this. And thereupon the angel departed.

"And Amile also, as if in sleep, heard those words; and he awoke
and said, Who is it, my comrade, that hath spoken with thee?
And Amis answered, No man; only I have prayed to our Lord, as
I am accustomed. And Amile said, Not so! but some one hath
spoken with thee. Then he arose and went to the door of the
chamber; and finding it shut he said, Tell me, my brother, who it
was said those words to thee to-night. And Amis began to weep
greatly, and told him that it was Raphael, the angel of the Lord,
who had said to him, Amis, our Lord commands thee that thou
bid Amile slay his two children, and wash thee in their blood, and
so thou shalt be healed of thy leprosy. And Amile was greatly
disturbed at those words, and said, I would have given to thee my
man-servants and my maid-servants and all my goods, and thou
feignest that an angel hath spoken to thee that I should slay my
two children. And immediately Amis began to weep, and said, I
know that I have spoken to thee a terrible thing, but constrained
thereto; I pray thee cast me not away [13] from the shelter of thy
house. And Amile answered that what he had covenanted with
him, that he would perform, unto the hour of his death: But I
conjure thee, said he, by the faith which there is between me and
thee, and by our comradeship, and by the baptism we received
together at Rome, that thou tell me whether it was man or angel
said that to thee. And Amis answered again, So truly as an angel
hath spoken to me this night, so may God deliver me from my

"Then Amile began to weep in secret, and thought within
himself: If this man was ready to die before the king for me, shall
I not for him slay my children? Shall I not keep faith with him
who was faithful to me even unto death? And Amile tarried no
longer, but departed to the chamber of his wife, and bade her go
hear the Sacred Office. And he took a sword, and went to the bed
where the children were lying, and found them asleep. And he
lay down over them and began to weep bitterly and said, Hath
any man yet heard of a father who of his own will slew his
children? Alas, my children! I am no longer your father, but
your cruel murderer.

"And the children awoke at the tears of their father, which fell
upon them; and they looked up into his face and began to laugh.
And as they were of the age of about three years, he said, Your
laughing will be turned into tears, for your innocent blood must
now be shed, [14] and therewith he cut off their heads. Then he
laid them back in the bed, and put the heads upon the bodies, and
covered them as though they slept: and with the blood which he
had taken he washed his comrade, and said, Lord Jesus Christ!
who hast commanded men to keep faith on earth, and didst heal
the leper by Thy word! cleanse now my comrade, for whose love
I have shed the blood of my children.

"Then Amis was cleansed of his leprosy. And Amile clothed his
companion in his best robes; and as they went to the church to
give thanks, the bells, by the will of God, rang of their own
accord. And when the people of the city heard that, they ran
together to see the marvel. And the wife of Amile, when she saw
Amis and Amile coming, asked which of the twain was her
husband, and said, I know well the vesture of them both, but I
know not which of them is Amile. And Amile said to her, I am
Amile, and my companion is Amis, who is healed of his sickness.
And she was full of wonder, and desired to know in what manner
he was healed. Give thanks to our Lord, answered Amile, but
trouble not thyself as to the manner of the healing.

"Now neither the father nor the mother had yet entered where the
children were; but the father sighed heavily, because they were
dead, and the mother asked for them, that they might rejoice
together; but Amile said, Dame! let [15] the children sleep. And
it was already the hour of Tierce. And going in alone to the
children to weep over them, he found them at play in the bed;
only, in the place of the sword-cuts about their throats was as it
were a thread of crimson. And he took them in his arms and
carried them to his wife and said, Rejoice greatly, for thy children
whom I had slain by the commandment of the angel are alive,
and by their blood is Amis healed."

There, as I said, is the strength of the old French story. For the
Renaissance has not only the sweetness which it derives from the
classical world, but also that curious strength of which there are
great resources in the true middle age. And as I have illustrated
the early strength of the Renaissance by the story of Amis and
Amile, a story which comes from the North, in which a certain
racy Teutonic flavour is perceptible, so I shall illustrate that other
element, its early sweetness, a languid excess of sweetness even,
by another story printed in the same volume of the Bibliothèque
Elzevirienne, and of about the same date, a story which comes,
characteristically, from the South, and connects itself with the
literature of Provence.

The central love-poetry of Provence, the poetry of the Tenson and
the Aubade, of Bernard de Ventadour and Pierre Vidal, is poetry
for the few, for the elect and peculiar people of the [16] kingdom
of sentiment. But below this intenser poetry there was probably a
wide range of literature, less serious and elevated, reaching, by
lightness of form and comparative homeliness of interest, an
audience which the concentrated passion of those higher lyrics
left untouched. This literature has long since perished, or lives
only in later French or Italian versions. One such version, the
only representative of its species, M. Fauriel thought he detected
in the story of Aucassin and Nicolette, written in the French of
the latter half of the thirteenth century, and preserved in a unique
manuscript, in the national library of Paris; and there were
reasons which made him divine for it a still more ancient
ancestry, traces in it of an Arabian origin, as in a leaf lost out of
some early Arabian Nights.* The little book loses none of its
interest through the criticism which finds in it only a traditional
subject, handed on by one people to another; for after passing
thus from hand to hand, its outline is still clear, its surface
untarnished; and, like many other stories, books, literary and
artistic conceptions of the middle age, it has come to [17] have in
this way a sort of personal history, almost as full of risk and
adventure as that of its own heroes. The writer himself calls the
piece a cantefable, a tale told in prose, but with its incidents and
sentiment helped forward by songs, inserted at irregular intervals.
In the junctions of the story itself there are signs of roughness and
want of skill, which make one suspect that the prose was only put
together to connect a series of songs--a series of songs so moving
and attractive that people wished to heighten and dignify their
effect by a regular framework or setting. Yet the songs
themselves are of the simplest kind, not rhymed even, but only
imperfectly assonant, stanzas of twenty or thirty lines apiece, all
ending with a similar vowel sound. And here, as elsewhere in
that early poetry, much of the interest lies in the spectacle of the
formation of a new artistic sense. A novel art is arising, the
music of rhymed poetry, and in the songs of Aucassin and
Nicolette, which seem always on the point of passing into true
rhyme, but which halt somehow, and can never quite take flight,
you see people just growing aware of the elements of a new
music in their possession, and anticipating how pleasant such
music might become.

The piece was probably intended to be recited by a company of
trained performers, many of whom, at least for the lesser parts,
were probably children. The songs are introduced by the rubric,
[18] Or se cante (ici on chante); and each division of prose by
the rubric, Or dient et content et fabloient (ici on conte). The
musical notes of a portion of the songs have been preserved; and
some of the details are so descriptive that they suggested to M.
Fauriel the notion that the words had been accompanied
throughout by dramatic action. That mixture of simplicity and
refinement which he was surprised to find in a composition of the
thirteenth century, is shown sometimes in the turn given to some
passing expression or remark; thus, "the Count de Garins was old
and frail, his time was over"--Li quens Garins de Beaucaire
estoit vix et frales; si avoit son tans trespassè. And then, all is so
realised! One sees the ancient forest, with its disused roads
grown deep with grass, and the place where seven roads meet--u
a forkeut set cemin qui s'en vont par le païs; we hear the light-
hearted country people calling each other by their rustic names,
and putting forward, as their spokesman, one among them who is
more eloquent and ready than the rest--li un qui plus fu enparlés
des autres; for the little book has its burlesque element also, so
that one hears the faint, far-off laughter still. Rough as it is, the
piece certainly possesses this high quality of poetry, that it aims
at a purely artistic effect. Its subject is a great sorrow, yet it
claims to be a thing of joy and refreshment, to be entertained not
for its matter only, but chiefly for its manner, it is cortois, it tells
us, et bien assis.

[19] For the student of manners, and of the old French language
and literature, it has much interest of a purely antiquarian order.
To say of an ancient literary composition that it has an
antiquarian interest, often means that it has no distinct aesthetic
interest for the reader of to-day. Antiquarianism, by a purely
historical effort, by putting its object in perspective, and setting
the reader in a certain point of view, from which what gave
pleasure to the past is pleasurable for him also, may often add
greatly to the charm we receive from ancient literature. But the
first condition of such aid must be a real, direct, aesthetic charm
in the thing itself. Unless it has that charm, unless some purely
artistic quality went to its original making, no merely antiquarian
effort can ever give it an aesthetic value, or make it a proper
subject of aesthetic criticism. This quality, wherever it exists, it
is always pleasant to define, and discriminate from the sort of
borrowed interest which an old play, or an old story, may very
likely acquire through a true antiquarianism. The story of
Aucassin and Nicolette has something of this quality. Aucassin,
the only son of Count Garins of Beaucaire, is passionately in love
with Nicolette, a beautiful girl of unknown parentage, bought of
the Saracens, whom his father will not permit him to marry. The
story turns on the adventures of these two lovers, until at the end
of the piece their mutual fidelity is rewarded. These [20]
adventures are of the simplest sort, adventures which seem to be
chosen for the happy occasion they afford of keeping the eye of
the fancy, perhaps the outward eye, fixed on pleasant objects, a
garden, a ruined tower, the little hut of flowers which Nicolette
constructs in the forest whither she escapes from her enemies, as
a token to Aucassin that she has passed that way. All the charm
of the piece is in its details, in a turn of peculiar lightness and
grace given to the situations and traits of sentiment, especially in
its quaint fragments of early French prose.

All through it one feels the influence of that faint air of
overwrought delicacy, almost of wantonness, which was so
strong a characteristic of the poetry of the Troubadours. The
Troubadours themselves were often men of great rank; they
wrote for an exclusive audience, people of much leisure and great
refinement, and they came to value a type of personal beauty
which has in it but little of the influence of the open air and
sunshine. There is a languid Eastern deliciousness in the very
scenery of the story, the full-blown roses, the chamber painted in
some mysterious manner where Nicolette is imprisoned, the cool
brown marble, the almost nameless colours, the odour of plucked
grass and flowers. Nicolette herself well becomes this scenery,
and is the best illustration of the quality I mean--the beautiful,
weird, foreign girl, whom the [21] shepherds take for a fay, who
has the knowledge of simples, the healing and beautifying
qualities of leaves and flowers, whose skilful touch heals
Aucassin's sprained shoulder, so that he suddenly leaps from the
ground; the mere sight of whose white flesh, as she passed the
place where he lay, healed a pilgrim stricken with sore disease, so
that he rose up, and returned to his own country. With this girl
Aucassin is so deeply in love that he forgets all knightly duties.
At last Nicolette is shut up to get her out of his way, and perhaps
the prettiest passage in the whole piece is the fragment of prose
which describes her escape:--

"Aucassin was put in prison, as you have heard, and Nicolette
remained shut up in her chamber. It was summer-time, in the
month of May, when the days are warm and long and clear, and
the nights coy and serene.

"One night Nicolette, lying on her bed, saw the moon shine clear
through the little window, and heard the nightingale sing in the
garden, and then came the memory of Aucassin, whom she so
much loved. She thought of the Count Garins of Beaucaire, who
mortally hated her, and, to be rid of her, might at any moment
cause her to be burned or drowned. She perceived that the old
woman who kept her company was asleep; she rose and put on
the fairest gown she had; she took the bed-clothes [22] and the
towels, and knotted them together like a cord, as far as they
would go. Then she tied the end to a pillar of the window, and let
herself slip down quite softly into the garden, and passed straight
across it, to reach the town.

"Her hair was yellow in small curls, her smiling eyes blue-green,
her face clear and feat, the little lips very red, the teeth small and
white; and the daisies which she crushed in passing, holding her
skirt high behind and before, looked dark against her feet; the girl
was so white!

"She came to the garden-gate and opened it, and walked through
the streets of Beaucaire, keeping on the dark side of the way to be
out of the light of the moon, which shone quietly in the sky. She
walked as fast as she could, until she came to the tower where
Aucassin was. The tower was set about with pillars, here and
there. She pressed herself against one of the pillars, wrapped
herself closely in her mantle, and putting her face to a chink of
the tower, which was old and ruined, she heard Aucassin crying
bitterly within, and when she had listened awhile she began to

But scattered up and down through this lighter matter, always
tinged with humour and often passing into burlesque, which
makes up the general substance of the piece, there are morsels of
a different quality, touches of some intenser sentiment, coming it
would seem from [23] the profound and energetic spirit of the
Provençal poetry itself, to which the inspiration of the book has
been referred. Let me gather up these morsels of deeper colour,
these expressions of the ideal intensity of love, the motive which
really unites together the fragments of the little composition.
Dante, the perfect flower of ideal love, has recorded how the
tyranny of that "Lord of terrible aspect" became actually
physical, blinding his senses, and suspending his bodily forces.
In this, Dante is but the central expression and type of
experiences known well enough to the initiated, in that passionate
age. Aucassin represents this ideal intensity of passion--

Aucassin, le biax, li blons,
Li gentix, li amorous;--

the slim, tall, debonair, dansellon, as the singers call him, with
his curled yellow hair, and eyes of vair, who faints with love, as
Dante fainted, who rides all day through the forest in search of
Nicolette, while the thorns tear his flesh, so that one might have
traced him by the blood upon the grass, and who weeps at
eventide because he has not found her, who has the malady of his
love, and neglects all knightly duties. Once he is induced to put
himself at the head of his people, that they, seeing him before
them, might have more heart to defend themselves; then a song
relates how the sweet, grave figure goes forth to battle, in dainty,
tight-laced [24] armour. It is the very image of the Provençal
love-god, no longer a child, but grown to pensive youth, as Pierre
Vidal met him, riding on a white horse, fair as the morning, his
vestment embroidered with flowers. He rode on through the
gates into the open plain beyond. But as he went, that great
malady of his love came upon him. The bridle fell from his
hands; and like one who sleeps walking, he was carried on into
the midst of his enemies, and heard them talking together how
they might most conveniently kill him.

One of the strongest characteristics of that outbreak of the reason
and the imagination, of that assertion of the liberty of the heart, in
the middle age, which I have termed a medieval Renaissance,
was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt against
the moral and religious ideas of the time. In their search after the
pleasures of the senses and the imagination, in their care for
beauty, in their worship of the body, people were impelled
beyond the bounds of the Christian ideal; and their love became
sometimes a strange idolatry, a strange rival religion. It was the
return of that ancient Venus, not dead, but only hidden for a time
in the caves of the Venusberg, of those old pagan gods still going
to and fro on the earth, under all sorts of disguises. And this
element in the middle age, for the most part ignored by those
writers who have treated it pre-eminently as the [25] "Age of
Faith"--this rebellious and antinomian element, the recognition of
which has made the delineation of the middle age by the writers
of the Romantic school in France, by Victor Hugo for instance in
Notre-Dame de Paris, so suggestive and exciting--is found alike
in the history of Abelard and the legend of Tannhäuser. More
and more, as we come to mark changes and distinctions of temper
in what is often in one all-embracing confusion called the middle
age, that rebellion, that sinister claim for liberty of heart and
thought, comes to the surface. The Albigensian movement,
connected so strangely with the history of Provençal poetry, is
deeply tinged with it. A touch of it makes the Franciscan order,
with its poetry, its mysticism, its "illumination," from the point of
view of religious authority, justly suspect. It influences the
thoughts of those obscure prophetical writers, like Joachim of
Flora, strange dreamers in a world of flowery rhetoric of that
third and final dispensation of a "spirit of freedom," in which law
shall have passed away. Of this spirit Aucassin and Nicolette
contains perhaps the most famous expression: it is the answer
Aucassin gives when he is threatened with the pains of hell, if he
makes Nicolette his mistress. A creature wholly of affection and
the senses, he sees on the way to paradise only a feeble and worn-
out company of aged priests, "clinging day and night to the
chapel altars," barefoot or [26] in patched sandals. With or even
without Nicolette, "his sweet mistress whom he so much loves,"
he, for his part, is ready to start on the way to hell, along with
"the good scholars," as he says, and the actors, and the fine
horsemen dead in battle, and the men of fashion,* and "the fair
courteous ladies who had two or three chevaliers apiece beside
their own true lords," all gay with music, in their gold, and silver,
and beautiful furs--"the vair and the grey."

But in the House Beautiful the saints too have their place; and the
student of the Renaissance has this advantage over the student of
the emancipation of the human mind in the Reformation, or the
French Revolution, that in tracing the footsteps of humanity to
higher levels, he is not beset at every turn by the inflexibilities
and antagonisms of some well-recognised controversy, with
rigidly defined opposites, exhausting the intelligence and limiting
one's sympathies. The opposition of the professional defenders
of a mere system to that more sincere and generous play of the
forces of human mind and character, which I have noted as the
secret of Abelard's struggle, is indeed always powerful. But the
incompatibility with one another of souls really "fair" is not
essential; and within the enchanted region of the Renaissance,
one needs not be for ever on [27] one's guard. Here there are no
fixed parties, no exclusions: all breathes of that unity of culture in
which whatsoever things are comely" are reconciled, for the
elevation and adorning of our spirits. And just in proportion as
those who took part in the Renaissance become centrally
representative of it, just so much the more is this condition
realised in them. The wicked popes, and the loveless tyrants,
who from time to time became its patrons, or mere speculators in
its fortunes, lend themselves easily to disputations, and, from this
side or that, the spirit of controversy lays just hold upon them.
But the painter of the Last Supper, with his kindred, lives in a
land where controversy has no breathing-place. They refuse to
be classified. In the story of Aucassin and Nicolette, in the
literature which it represents, the note of defiance, of the
opposition of one system to another, is sometimes harsh. Let me
conclude then with a morsel from Amis and Amile, in which the
harmony of human interests is still entire. For the story of the
great traditional friendship, in which, as I said, the liberty of the
heart makes itself felt, seems, as we have it, to have been written
by a monk--La vie des saints martyrs Amis et Amile. It was not
till the end of the seventeenth century that their names were
finally excluded from the martyrology; and their story ends with
this monkish miracle of earthly comradeship, more than faithful
unto death:--

[28] "For, as God had united them in their lives in one accord, so
they were not divided in their death, falling together side by side,
with a host of other brave men, in battle for King Charles at
Mortara, so called from that great slaughter. And the bishops
gave counsel to the king and queen that they should bury the
dead, and build a church in that place; and their counsel pleased
the king greatly. And there were built two churches, the one by
commandment of the king in honour of Saint Oseige, and the
other by commandment of the queen in honour of Saint Peter.

"And the king caused the two chests of stone to be brought in the
which the bodies of Amis and Amile lay; and Amile was carried
to the church of Saint Peter, and Amis to the church of Saint
Oseige; and the other corpses were buried, some in one place and
some in the other. But lo! next morning, the body of Amile in his
coffin was found lying in the church of Saint Oseige, beside the
coffin of Amis his comrade. Behold then this wondrous amity,
which by death could not be dissevered!

"This miracle God did, who gave to His disciples power to
remove mountains. And by reason of this miracle the king and
queen remained in that place for a space of thirty days, and
performed the offices of the dead who were slain, and honoured
the said churches with great [29] gifts. And the bishop ordained
many clerks to serve in the church of Saint Oseige, and
commanded them that they should guard duly, with great
devotion, the bodies of the two companions, Amis and Amile."



16. *Recently, Aucassin and Nicolette has been edited and
translated into English, with much graceful scholarship, by Mr. F.
W. Bourdillon. Still more recently we have had a translation--a
poet's translation--from the ingenious and versatile pen of Mr.
Andrew Lang. The reader should consult also the chapter on
"The Out-door Poetry," in Vernon Lee's most interesting
Euphorion; being Studies of the Antique and Mediaeval in the
Renaissance, a work abounding in knowledge and insight on the
subjects of which it treats.

26. *Parage, peerage:--which came to signify all that ambitious
youth affected most on the outside of life, in that old world of the
Troubadours, with whom this term is of frequent recurrence.


[30] NO account of the Renaissance can be complete without
some notice of the attempt made by certain Italian scholars of the
fifteenth century to reconcile Christianity with the religion of
ancient Greece. To reconcile forms of sentiment which at first
sight seem incompatible, to adjust the various products of the
human mind to one another in one many-sided type of intellectual
culture, to give humanity, for heart and imagination to feed upon,
as much as it could possibly receive, belonged to the generous
instincts of that age. An earlier and simpler generation had seen
in the gods of Greece so many malignant spirits, the defeated but
still living centres of the religion of darkness, struggling, not
always in vain, against the kingdom of light. Little by little, as
the natural charm of pagan story reasserted itself over minds
emerging out of barbarism, the religious significance which had
once belonged to it was lost sight of, and it came to be regarded
as the subject of a purely artistic or poetical treatment. But it was
inevitable that from time to time minds should [31] arise, deeply
enough impressed by its beauty and power to ask themselves
whether the religion of Greece was indeed a rival of the religion
of Christ; for the older gods had rehabilitated themselves, and
men's allegiance was divided. And the fifteenth century was an
impassioned age, so ardent and serious in its pursuit of art that it
consecrated everything with which art had to do as a religious
object. The restored Greek literature had made it familiar, at
least in Plato, with a style of expression concerning the earlier
gods, which had about it something of the warmth and unction of
a Christian hymn. It was too familiar with such language to
regard mythology as a mere story; and it was too serious to play
with a religion.

"Let me briefly remind the reader"--says Heine, in the Gods in
Exile, an essay full of that strange blending of sentiment which is
characteristic of the traditions of the middle age concerning the
pagan religions--"how the gods of the older world, at the time of
the definite triumph of Christianity, that is, in the third century,
fell into painful embarrassments, which greatly resembled certain
tragical situations of their earlier life. They now found
themselves beset by the same troublesome necessities to which
they had once before been exposed during the primitive ages, in
that revolutionary epoch when the Titans broke out of the custody
of Orcus, and, piling Pelion on Ossa, scaled [32] Olympus.
Unfortunate gods! They had then to take flight ignominiously,
and hide themselves among us here on earth, under all sorts of
disguises. The larger number betook themselves to Egypt, where
for greater security they assumed the forms of animals, as is
generally known. Just in the same way, they had to take flight
again, and seek entertainment in remote hiding-places, when
those iconoclastic zealots, the black brood of monks, broke down
all the temples, and pursued the gods with fire and curses. Many
of these unfortunate emigrants, now entirely deprived of shelter
and ambrosia, must needs take to vulgar handicrafts, as a means
of earning their bread. Under these circumstances, many whose
sacred groves had been confiscated, let themselves out for hire as
wood-cutters in Germany, and were forced to drink beer instead
of nectar. Apollo seems to have been content to take service
under graziers, and as he had once kept the cows of Admetus, so
he lived now as a shepherd in Lower Austria. Here, however,
having become suspected on account of his beautiful singing, he
was recognised by a learned monk as one of the old pagan gods,
and handed over to the spiritual tribunal. On the rack he
confessed that he was the god Apollo; and before his execution
he begged that he might be suffered to play once more upon the
lyre, and to sing a song. And he played so touchingly, and sang
with such magic, and was withal so [33] beautiful in form and
feature, that all the women wept, and many of them were so
deeply impressed that they shortly afterwards fell sick. Some
time afterwards the people wished to drag him from the grave
again, that a stake might be driven through his body, in the belief
that he had been a vampire, and that the sick women would by
this means recover. But they found the grave empty."

The Renaissance of the fifteenth century was, in many things,
great rather by what it designed than by what it achieved. Much
which it aspired to do, and did but imperfectly or mistakenly, was
accomplished in what is called the éclaircissement of the
eighteenth century, or in our own generation; and what really
belongs to the revival of the fifteenth century is but the leading
instinct, the curiosity, the initiatory idea. It is so with this very
question of the reconciliation of the religion of antiquity with the
religion of Christ. A modern scholar occupied by this problem
might observe that all religions may be regarded as natural
products, that, at least in their origin, their growth, and decay,
they have common laws, and are not to be isolated from the other
movements of the human mind in the periods in which they
respectively prevailed; that they arise spontaneously out of the
human mind, as expressions of the varying phases of its
sentiment concerning the unseen world; that every intellectual
product must be judged from the point of [34] view of the age
and the people in which it was produced. He might go on to
observe that each has contributed something to the development
of the religious sense, and ranging them as so many stages in the
gradual education of the human mind, justify the existence of
each. The basis of the reconciliation of the religions of the world
would thus be the inexhaustible activity and creativeness of the
human mind itself, in which all religions alike have their root,
and in which all alike are reconciled; just as the fancies of
childhood and the thoughts of old age meet and are laid to rest, in
the experience of the individual.

Far different was the method followed by the scholars of the
fifteenth century. They lacked the very rudiments of the historic
sense, which, by an imaginative act, throws itself back into a
world unlike one's own, and estimates every intellectual creation
in its connexion with the age from which it proceeded. They had
no idea of development, of the differences of ages, of the process
by which our race has been "educated." In their attempts to
reconcile the religions of the world, they were thus thrown back
upon the quicksand of allegorical interpretation. The religions of
the world were to be reconciled, not as successive stages in a
regular development of the religious sense, but as subsisting side
by side, and substantially in agreement with one another. And
here the first necessity was to misrepresent the language, the
conceptions, the sentiments, it was [35] proposed to compare and
reconcile. Plato and Homer must be made to speak agreeably to
Moses. Set side by side, the mere surfaces could never unite in
any harmony of design. Therefore one must go below the
surface, and bring up the supposed secondary, or still more
remote meaning,--that diviner signification held in reserve, in
recessu divinius aliquid, latent in some stray touch of Homer, or
figure of speech in the books of Moses.

And yet as a curiosity of the human mind, a "madhouse-cell," if
you will, into which we may peep for a moment, and see it at
work weaving strange fancies, the allegorical interpretation of the
fifteenth century has its interest. With its strange web of
imagery, its quaint conceits, its unexpected combinations and
subtle moralising, it is an element in the local colour of a great
age. It illustrates also the faith of that age in all oracles, its desire
to hear all voices, its generous belief that nothing which had ever
interested the human mind could wholly lose its vitality. It is the
counterpart, though certainly the feebler counterpart, of that
practical truce and reconciliation of the gods of Greece with the
Christian religion, which is seen in the art of the time. And it is
for his share in this work, and because his own story is a sort of
analogue or visible equivalent to the expression of this purpose in
his writings, that something of a general interest still belongs to
the name of Pico della Mirandola, [36] whose life, written by his
nephew Francis, seemed worthy, for some touch of sweetness in
it, to be translated out of the original Latin by Sir Thomas More,
that great lover of Italian culture, among whose works the life of
Pico, Earl of Mirandola, and a great lord of Italy, as he calls
him, may still be read, in its quaint, antiquated English.

Marsilio Ficino has told us how Pico came to Florence. It was
the very day--some day probably in the year 1482--on which
Ficino had finished his famous translation of Plato into Latin, the
work to which he had been dedicated from childhood by Cosmo
de' Medici, in furtherance of his desire to resuscitate the
knowledge of Plato among his fellow-citizens. Florence indeed,
as M. Renan has pointed out, had always had an affinity for the
mystic and dreamy philosophy of Plato, while the colder and
more practical philosophy of Aristotle had flourished in Padua,
and other cities of the north; and the Florentines, though they
knew perhaps very little about him, had had the name of the
great idealist often on their lips. To increase this knowledge,
Cosmo had founded the Platonic academy, with periodical
discussions at the Villa Careggi. The fall of Constantinople in
1453, and the council in 1438 for the reconciliation of the Greek
and Latin Churches, had brought to Florence many a needy
Greek scholar. And now the work was completed, the door of the
mystical temple lay open to all who could construe Latin, and the
[37] scholar rested from his labour; when there was introduced
into his study, where a lamp burned continually before the bust of
Plato, as other men burned lamps before their favourite saints, a
young man fresh from a journey, "of feature and shape seemly
and beauteous, of stature goodly and high, of flesh tender and
soft, his visage lovely and fair, his colour white, intermingled
with comely reds, his eyes grey, and quick of look, his teeth
white and even, his hair yellow and abundant," and trimmed with
more than the usual artifice of the time.

It is thus that Sir Thomas More translates the words of the
biographer of Pico, who, even in outward form and appearance,
seems an image of that inward harmony and completeness, of
which he is so perfect an example. The word mystic has been
usually derived from a Greek word which signifies to shut, as if
one shut one's lips brooding on what cannot be uttered; but the
Platonists themselves derive it rather from the act of shutting the
eyes, that one may see the more, inwardly. Perhaps the eyes of
the mystic Ficino, now long past the midway of life, had come to
be thus half-closed; but when a young man, not unlike the
archangel Raphael, as the Florentines of that age depicted him in
his wonderful walk with Tobit, or Mercury, as he might have
appeared in a painting by Sandro Botticelli or Piero di Cosimo,
entered his chamber, he seems to have thought there was
something not wholly earthly about [38] him; at least, he ever
afterwards believed that it was not without the co-operation of the
stars that the stranger had arrived on that day. For it happened
that they fell into a conversation, deeper and more intimate than
men usually fall into at first sight. During this conversation
Ficino formed the design of devoting his remaining years to the
translation of Plotinus, that new Plato, in whom the mystical
element in the Platonic philosophy had been worked out to the
utmost limit of vision and ecstasy; and it is in dedicating this
translation to Lorenzo de' Medici that Ficino has recorded these

It was after many wanderings, wanderings of the intellect as well
as physical journeys, that Pico came to rest at Florence. Born in
1463, he was then about twenty years old. He was called
Giovanni at baptism, Pico, like all his ancestors, from Picus,
nephew of the Emperor Constantine, from whom they claimed to
be descended, and Mirandola from the place of his birth, a little
town afterwards part of the duchy of Modena, of which small
territory his family had long been the feudal lords. Pico was the
youngest of the family, and his mother, delighting in his
wonderful memory, sent him at the age of fourteen to the famous
school of law at Bologna. From the first, indeed, she seems to
have had some presentiment of his future fame, for, with a faith
in omens characteristic of her time, she believed [39] that a
strange circumstance had happened at the time of Pico's birth--
the appearance of a circular flame which suddenly vanished
away, on the wall of the chamber where she lay. He remained
two years at Bologna; and then, with an inexhaustible, unrivalled
thirst for knowledge, the strange, confused, uncritical learning of
that age, passed through the principal schools of Italy and France,
penetrating, as he thought, into the secrets of all ancient
philosophies, and many Eastern languages. And with this flood
of erudition came the generous hope, so often disabused, of
reconciling the philosophers with one another, and all alike with
the Church. At last he came to Rome. There, like some knight-
errant of philosophy, he offered to defend nine hundred bold
paradoxes, drawn from the most opposite sources, against all
comers. But the pontifical court was led to suspect the orthodoxy
of some of these propositions, and even the reading of the book
which contained them was forbidden by the Pope. It was not
until 1493 that Pico was finally absolved, by a brief of Alexander
the Sixth. Ten years before that date he had arrived at Florence;
an early instance of those who, after following the vain hope of
an impossible reconciliation from system to system, have at last
fallen back unsatisfied on the simplicities of their childhood's

The oration which Pico composed for the opening of this
philosophical tournament still [40] remains; its subject is the
dignity of human nature, the greatness of man. In common with
nearly all medieval speculation, much of Pico's writing has this
for its drift; and in common also with it, Pico's theory of that
dignity is founded on a misconception of the place in nature both
of the earth and of man. For Pico the earth is the centre of the
universe: and around it, as a fixed and motionless point, the sun
and moon and stars revolve, like diligent servants or ministers.
And in the midst of all is placed man, nodus et vinculum mundi,
the bond or copula of the world, and the "interpreter of nature":
that famous expression of Bacon's really belongs to Pico. Tritum
est in scholis, he says, esse hominem minorem mundum, in quo
mixtum ex elementis corpus et spiritus coelestis et plantarum
anima vegetalis et brutorum sensus et ratio et angelica mens et
Dei similitudo conspicitur:--"It is a commonplace of the schools
that man is a little world, in which we may discern a body
mingled of earthy elements, and ethereal breath, and the
vegetable life of plants, and the senses of the lower animals, and
reason, and the intelligence of angels, and a likeness to God."

A commonplace of the schools! But perhaps it had some new
significance and authority, when men heard one like Pico
reiterate it; and, false as its basis was, the theory had its use. For
this high dignity of man, thus bringing the dust under his feet into
sensible communion with the [41] thoughts and affections of the
angels, was supposed to belong to him, not as renewed by a
religious system, but by his own natural right. The proclamation
of it was a counterpoise to the increasing tendency of medieval
religion to depreciate man's nature, to sacrifice this or that
element in it, to make it ashamed of itself, to keep the degrading
or painful accidents of it always in view. It helped man onward
to that reassertion of himself, that rehabilitation of human nature,
the body, the senses, the heart, the intelligence, which the
Renaissance fulfils. And yet to read a page of one of Pico's
forgotten books is like a glance into one of those ancient
sepulchres, upon which the wanderer in classical lands has
sometimes stumbled, with the old disused ornaments and
furniture of a world wholly unlike ours still fresh in them. That
whole conception of nature is so different from our own. For
Pico the world is a limited place, bounded by actual crystal walls,
and a material firmament; it is like a painted toy, like that map or
system of the world, held, as a great target or shield, in the hands
of the creative Logos, by whom the Father made all things, in one
of the earlier frescoes of the Campo Santo at Pisa. How different
from this childish dream is our own conception of nature, with its
unlimited space, its innumerable suns, and the earth but a mote in
the beam; how different the strange new awe, or superstition,
with which it fills our minds! "The silence of those infinite
spaces," [42] says Pascal, contemplating a starlight night, the
silence of those infinite spaces terrifies me":-- Le silence éternel de
ces espaces infinis m'effraie.

He was already almost wearied out when he came to Florence.
He had loved much and been beloved by women, "wandering
over the crooked hills of delicious pleasure"; but their reign over
him was over, and long before Savonarola's famous "bonfire of
vanities," he had destroyed those love-songs in the vulgar tongue,
which would have been so great a relief to us, after the scholastic
prolixity of his Latin writings. It was in another spirit that he
composed a Platonic commentary, the only work of his in Italian
which has come down to us, on the "Song of Divine Love"--
secondo la mente ed opinione dei Platonici--"according to the
mind and opinion of the Platonists," by his friend Hieronymo
Beniveni, in which, with an ambitious array of every sort of
learning, and a profusion of imagery borrowed indifferently from
the astrologers, the Cabala, and Homer, and Scripture, and
Dionysius the Areopagite, he attempts to define the stages by
which the soul passes from the earthly to the unseen beauty. A
change indeed had passed over him, as if the chilling touch of the
abstract and disembodied beauty Platonists profess to long for
were already upon him. Some sense of this, perhaps, coupled
with that over-brightness which in the popular imagination
always betokens an early [43] death, made Camilla Rucellai, one
of those prophetic women whom the preaching of Savonarola had
raised up in Florence, declare, seeing him for the first time, that
he would depart in the time of lilies--prematurely, that is, like the
field-flowers which are withered by the scorching sun almost as
soon as they are sprung up. He now wrote down those thoughts
on the religious life which Sir Thomas More turned into English,
and which another English translator thought worthy to be added
to the books of the Imitation. "It is not hard to know God,
provided one will not force oneself to define Him":--has been
thought a great saying of Joubert's. "Love God," Pico writes to
Angelo Politian, "we rather may, than either know Him, or by
speech utter Him. And yet had men liefer by knowledge never
find that which they seek, than by love possess that thing, which
also without love were in vain found."

Yet he who had this fine touch for spiritual things did not--and in
this is the enduring interest of his story--even after his
conversion, forget the old gods. He is one of the last who
seriously and sincerely entertained the claim on men's faith of the
pagan religions; he is anxious to ascertain the true significance of
the obscurest legend, the lightest tradition concerning them.
With many thoughts and many influences which led him in that
direction, [44] he did not become a monk; only he became
gentle and patient in disputation; retaining "somewhat of the old
plenty, in dainty viand and silver vessel," he gave over the
greater part of his property to his friend, the mystical poet
Beniveni, to be spent by him in works of charity, chiefly in the
sweet charity of providing marriage-dowries for the peasant girls
of Florence. His end came in 1494, when, amid the prayers and
sacraments of Savonarola, he died of fever, on the very day on
which Charles the Eighth entered Florence, the seventeenth of
November, yet in the time of lilies--the lilies of the shield of
France, as the people now said, remembering Camilla's
prophecy. He was buried in the conventual church of Saint
Mark, in the hood and white frock of the Dominican order.

It is because the life of Pico, thus lying down to rest in the
Dominican habit, yet amid thoughts of the older gods, himself
like one of those comely divinities, reconciled indeed to the new
religion, but still with a tenderness for the earlier life, and
desirous literally to "bind the ages each to each by natural piety"-
-it is because this life is so perfect a parallel to the attempt made
in his writings to reconcile Christianity with the ideas of
paganism, that Pico, in spite of the scholastic character of those
writings, is really interesting. Thus, in the Heptaplus, or
Discourse on the Seven Days of the Creation, he endeavours to
reconcile the [45] accounts which pagan philosophy had given of
the origin of the world with the account given in the books of
Moses--the Timaeus of Plato with the book of Genesis. The
Heptaplus is dedicated to Lorenzo the Magnificent, whose
interest, the preface tells us, in the secret wisdom of Moses is
well known. If Moses seems in his writings simple and even
popular, rather than either a philosopher or a theologian, that is
because it was an institution with the ancient philosophers, either
not to speak of divine things at all, or to speak of them
dissemblingly: hence their doctrines were called mysteries.
Taught by them, Pythagoras became so great a "master of
silence," and wrote almost nothing, thus hiding the words of God
in his heart, and speaking wisdom only among the perfect. In
explaining the harmony between Plato and Moses, Pico lays hold
on every sort of figure and analogy, on the double meanings of
words, the symbols of the Jewish ritual, the secondary meanings
of obscure stories in the later Greek mythologists. Everywhere
there is an unbroken system of correspondences. Every object in
the terrestrial world is an analogue, a symbol or counterpart, of
some higher reality in the starry heavens, and this again of some
law of the angelic life in the world beyond the stars. There is the
element of fire in the material world; the sun is the fire of heaven;
and in the super-celestial world there is the fire of [46] the
seraphic intelligence. "But behold how they differ! The
elementary fire burns, the heavenly fire vivifies, the super-
celestial fire loves." In this way, every natural object, every
combination of natural forces, every accident in the lives of men,
is filled with higher meanings. Omens, prophecies, supernatural
coincidences, accompany Pico himself all through life. There are
oracles in every tree and mountain-top, and a significance in
every accidental combination of the events of life.

This constant tendency to symbolism and imagery gives Pico's
work a figured style, by which it has some real resemblance to
Plato's, and he differs from other mystical writers of his time by
a genuine desire to know his authorities at first hand. He reads
Plato in Greek, Moses in Hebrew, and by this his work really
belongs to the higher culture. Above all, we have a constant
sense in reading him, that his thoughts, however little their
positive value may be, are connected with springs beneath them
of deep and passionate emotion; and when he explains the grades
or steps by which the soul passes from the love of a physical
object to the love of unseen beauty, and unfolds the analogies
between this process and other movements upward of human
thought, there is a glow and vehemence in his words which
remind one of the manner in which his own brief existence
flamed itself away.

I said that the Renaissance of the fifteenth [47] century was, in
many things, great rather by what it designed or aspired to do,
than by what it actually achieved. It remained for a later age to
conceive the true method of effecting a scientific reconciliation
of Christian sentiment with the imagery, the legends, the theories
about the world, of pagan poetry and philosophy. For that age
the only possible reconciliation was an imaginative one, and
resulted from the efforts of artists, trained in Christian schools, to
handle pagan subjects; and of this artistic reconciliation work like
Pico's was but the feebler counterpart. Whatever philosophers
had to say on one side or the other, whether they
were successful or not in their attempts to reconcile the old to the
new, and to justify the expenditure of so much care and thought
on the dreams of a dead faith, the imagery of the Greek religion,
the direct charm of its story, were by artists valued and cultivated
for their own sake. Hence a new sort of mythology, with a tone
and qualities of its own. When the ship-load of sacred earth from
the soil of Jerusalem was mingled with the common clay in the
Campo Santo at Pisa, a new flower grew up from it, unlike any
flower men had seen before, the anemone with its concentric
rings of strangely blended colour, still to be found by those who
search long enough for it, in the long grass of the Maremma. Just
such a strange flower was that mythology of the Italian
Renaissance, which grew up from the mixture of two traditions,
two [48] sentiments, the sacred and the profane. Classical story
was regarded as so much imaginative material to be received and
assimilated. It did not come into men's minds to ask curiously of
science, concerning the origin of such story, its primary form and
import, its meaning for those who projected it. The thing sank
into their minds, to issue forth again with all the tangle about it of
medieval sentiment and ideas. In the Doni Madonna in the
Tribune of the Uffizii, Michelangelo actually brings the pagan
religion, and with it the unveiled human form, the sleepy-looking
fauns of a Dionysiac revel, into the presence of the Madonna, as
simpler painters had introduced there other products of the earth,
birds or flowers, while he has given to that Madonna herself
much of the uncouth energy of the older and more primitive
"Mighty Mother."

This picturesque union of contrasts, belonging properly to the art
of the close of the fifteenth century, pervades, in Pico della
Mirandola, an actual person, and that is why the figure of Pico is
so attractive. He will not let one go; he wins one on, in spite of
one's self, to turn again to the pages of his forgotten books,
although we know already that the actual solution proposed in
them will satisfy us as little as perhaps it satisfied him. It is said
that in his eagerness for mysterious learning he once paid a great
sum for a collection of cabalistic manuscripts, which turned out
to be forgeries; and [49] the story might well stand as a parable of
all he ever seemed to gain in the way of actual knowledge. He
had sought knowledge, and passed from system to system, and
hazarded much; but less for the sake of positive knowledge than
because he believed there was a spirit of order and beauty in
knowledge, which would come down and unite what men's
ignorance had divided, and renew what time had made dim. And
so, while his actual work has passed away, yet his own qualities
are still active, and himself remains, as one alive in the grave,
caesiis et vigilibus oculis, as his biographer describes him, and
with that sanguine, clear skin, decenti rubore interspersa, as with
the light of morning upon it; and he has a true place in that group
of great Italians who fill the end of the fifteenth century with their
names, he is a true humanist. For the essence of humanism is
that belief of which he seems never to have doubted, that nothing
which has ever interested living men and women can wholly lose
its vitality--no language they have spoken, nor oracle beside
which they have hushed their voices, no dream which has once
been entertained by actual human minds, nothing about which
they have ever been passionate, or expended time and zeal.



[50] IN Leonardo's treatise on painting only one contemporary is
mentioned by name--Sandro Botticelli. This pre-eminence may
be due to chance only, but to some will rather appear a result of
deliberate judgment; for people have begun to find out the charm
of Botticelli's work, and his name, little known in the last
century, is quietly becoming important. In the middle of the
fifteenth century he had already anticipated much of that
meditative subtlety, which is sometimes supposed peculiar to the
great imaginative workmen of its close. Leaving the simple
religion which had occupied the followers of Giotto for a century,
and the simple naturalism which had grown out of it, a thing of
birds and flowers only, he sought inspiration in what to him were
works of the modern world, the writings of Dante and Boccaccio,
and in new readings of his own of classical stories: or, if he
painted religious incidents, painted them with an under-current of
original sentiment, which touches you as the real matter of the
picture through the veil of its ostensible subject. What [51] is the
peculiar sensation, what is the peculiar quality of pleasure, which
his work has the property of exciting in us, and which we cannot
get elsewhere? For this, especially when he has to speak of a
comparatively unknown artist, is always the chief question which
a critic has to answer.

In an age when the lives of artists were full of adventure, his life
is almost colourless. Criticism indeed has cleared away much of
the gossip which Vasari accumulated, has touched the legend of
Lippo and Lucrezia, and rehabilitated the character of Andrea del
Castagno. But in Botticelli's case there is no legend to dissipate.
He did not even go by his true name: Sandro is a nickname, and
his true name is Filipepi, Botticelli being only the name of the
goldsmith who first taught him art. Only two things happened to
him, two things which he shared with other artists:--he was
invited to Rome to paint in the Sistine Chapel, and he fell in later
life under the influence of Savonarola, passing apparently almost
out of men's sight in a sort of religious melancholy, which lasted
till his death in 1515, according to the received date. Vasari says
that he plunged into the study of Dante, and even wrote a
comment on the Divine Comedy. But it seems strange that he
should have lived on inactive so long; and one almost wishes that
some document might come to light, which, fixing the date of his
death earlier, might relieve one, in thinking of him, of his
dejected old age.

[52] He is before all things a poetical painter, blending the charm
of story and sentiment, the medium of the art of poetry, with the
charm of line and colour, the medium of abstract painting. So he
becomes the illustrator of Dante. In a few rare examples of the
edition of 1481, the blank spaces, left at the beginning of every
canto for the hand of the illuminator, have been filled, as far as
the nineteenth canto of the Inferno, with impressions of engraved
plates, seemingly by way of experiment, for in the copy in the
Bodleian Library, one of the three impressions it contains has
been printed upside down, and much awry, in the midst of the
luxurious printed page. Giotto, and the followers of Giotto, with
their almost childish religious aim, had not learned to put that
weight of meaning into outward things, light, colour, everyday
gesture, which the poetry of the Divine Comedy involves, and
before the fifteenth century Dante could hardly have found an
illustrator. Botticelli's illustrations are crowded with incident,
blending, with a naïve carelessness of pictorial propriety, three
phases of the same scene into one plate. The grotesques, so often
a stumbling-block to painters, who forget that the words of a
poet, which only feebly present an image to the mind, must be
lowered in key when translated into visible form, make one regret
that he has not rather chosen for illustration the more subdued
imagery of the Purgatorio. Yet in the [53] scene of those who
"go down quick into hell," there is an inventive force about the
fire taking hold on the upturned soles of the feet, which proves
that the design is no mere translation of Dante's words, but a true
painter's vision; while the scene of the Centaurs wins one at
once, for, forgetful of the actual circumstances of their
appearance, Botticelli has gone off with delight on the thought of
the Centaurs themselves, bright, small creatures of the woodland,
with arch baby faces and mignon forms, drawing tiny bows.

Botticelli lived in a generation of naturalists, and he might have
been a mere naturalist among them. There are traces enough in
his work of that alert sense of outward things, which, in the
pictures of that period, fills the lawns with delicate living
creatures, and the hillsides with pools of water, and the pools of
water with flowering reeds. But this was not enough for him; he
is a visionary painter, and in his visionariness he resembles
Dante. Giotto, the tried companion of Dante, Masaccio,
Ghirlandajo even, do but transcribe, with more or less refining,
the outward image; they are dramatic, not visionary painters; they
are almost impassive spectators of the action before them. But
the genius of which Botticelli is the type usurps the data before it
as the exponent of ideas, moods, visions of its own; in this
interest it plays fast and loose with those data, rejecting some and
[54] isolating others, and always combining them anew. To him,
as to Dante, the scene, the colour, the outward image or gesture,
comes with all its incisive and importunate reality; but awakes in
him, moreover, by some subtle law of his own structure, a mood
which it awakes in no one else, of which it is the double or
repetition, and which it clothes, that all may share it, with visible

But he is far enough from accepting the conventional orthodoxy
of Dante which, referring all human action to the simple formula
of purgatory, heaven and hell, leaves an insoluble element of
prose in the depths of Dante's poetry. One picture of his, with
the portrait of the donor, Matteo Palmieri, below, had the credit
or discredit of attracting some shadow of ecclesiastical censure.
This Matteo Palmieri, (two dim figures move under that name in
contemporary history,) was the reputed author of a poem, still
unedited, La Città Divina, which represented the human race as
an incarnation of those angels who, in the revolt of Lucifer, were
neither for Jehovah nor for His enemies, a fantasy of that earlier
Alexandrian philosophy about which the Florentine intellect in
that century was so curious. Botticelli's picture may have been
only one of those familiar compositions in which religious
reverie has recorded its impressions of the various forms of
beatified existence--Glorias, as they were called, like that [55] in
which Giotto painted the portrait of Dante; but somehow it was
suspected of embodying in a picture the wayward dream of
Palmieri, and the chapel where it hung was closed. Artists so
entire as Botticelli are usually careless about philosophical
theories, even when the philosopher is a Florentine of the
fifteenth century, and his work a poem in terza rima. But
Botticelli, who wrote a commentary on Dante, and became the
disciple of Savonarola, may well have let such theories come and
go across him. True or false, the story interprets much of the
peculiar sentiment with which he infuses his profane and sacred
persons, comely, and in a certain sense like angels, but with a
sense of displacement or loss about them--the wistfulness of
exiles, conscious of a passion and energy greater than any known
issue of them explains, which runs through all his varied work
with a sentiment of ineffable melancholy.

So just what Dante scorns as unworthy alike of heaven and hell,
Botticelli accepts, that middle world in which men take no side in
great conflicts, and decide no great causes, and make great
refusals. He thus sets for himself the limits within which art,
undisturbed by any moral ambition, does its most sincere and
surest work. His interest is neither in the untempered goodness
of Angelico's saints, nor the untempered evil of Orcagna's
Inferno; but with men and women, in their mixed and uncertain
condition, always [56] attractive, clothed sometimes by passion
with a character of loveliness and energy, but saddened
perpetually by the shadow upon them of the great things from
which they shrink. His morality is all sympathy; and it is this
sympathy, conveying into his work somewhat more than is usual
of the true complexion of humanity, which makes him, visionary
as he is, so forcible a realist.

It is this which gives to his Madonnas their unique expression
and charm. He has worked out in them a distinct and peculiar
type, definite enough in his own mind, for he has painted it over
and over again, sometimes one might think almost mechanically,
as a pastime during that dark period when his thoughts were so
heavy upon him. Hardly any collection of note is without one of
these circular pictures, into which the attendant angels depress
their heads so naïvely. Perhaps you have sometimes wondered
why those peevish-looking Madonnas, conformed to no
acknowledged or obvious type of beauty, attract you more and
more, and often come back to you when the Sistine Madonna and
the Virgins of Fra Angelico are forgotten. At first, contrasting
them with those, you may have thought that there was something
in them mean or abject even, for the abstract lines of the face
have little nobleness, and the colour is wan. For with Botticelli
she too, though she holds in her hands the "Desire of all nations,"
is one of those who [57] are neither for Jehovah nor for His
enemies; and her choice is on her face. The white light on it is
cast up hard and cheerless from below, as when snow lies upon
the ground, and the children look up with surprise at the strange
whiteness of the ceiling. Her trouble is in the very caress of the
mysterious child, whose gaze is always far from her, and who has
already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been
able altogether to love, and which still makes the born saint an
object almost of suspicion to his earthly brethren. Once, indeed,
he guides her hand to transcribe in a book the words of her
exaltation, the Ave, and the Magnificat, and the Gaude Maria,
and the young angels, glad to rouse her for a moment from her
dejection, are eager to hold the inkhorn and to support the book.
But the pen almost drops from her hand, and the high cold words
have no meaning for her, and her true children are those others,
among whom, in her rude home, the intolerable honour came to
her, with that look of wistful inquiry on their irregular faces
which you see in startled animals--gipsy children, such as those
who, in Apennine villages, still hold out their long brown arms to
beg of you, but on Sundays become enfants du choeur, with their
thick black hair nicely combed, and fair white linen on their
sunburnt throats.

What is strangest is that he carries this sentiment into classical
subjects, its most complete [58] expression being a picture in the
Uffizii, of Venus rising from the sea, in which the grotesque
emblems of the middle age, and a landscape full of its peculiar
feeling, and even its strange draperies, powdered all over in
the Gothic manner with a quaint conceit of daisies, frame a figure
that reminds you of the faultless nude studies of Ingres. At first,
perhaps, you are attracted only by a quaintness of design, which
seems to recall all at once whatever you have read of Florence in
the fifteenth century; afterwards you may think that this
quaintness must be incongruous with the subject, and that the
colour is cadaverous or at least cold. And yet, the more you
come to understand what imaginative colouring really is, that all
colour is no mere delightful quality of natural things, but a spirit
upon them by which they become expressive to the spirit, the
better you will like this peculiar quality of colour; and you will
find that quaint design of Botticelli's a more direct inlet into the
Greek temper than the works of the Greeks themselves even of
the finest period. Of the Greeks as they really were, of their
difference from ourselves, of the aspects of their outward life, we
know far more than Botticelli, or his most learned
contemporaries; but for us long familiarity has taken off the edge
of the lesson, and we are hardly conscious of what we owe to the
Hellenic spirit. But in pictures like this of Botticelli's you have a
record of the first impression made [59] by it on minds
turned back towards it, in almost painful aspiration, from a world
in which it had been ignored so long; and in the passion, the
energy, the industry of realisation, with which Botticelli carries
out his intention, is the exact measure of the legitimate influence
over the human mind of the imaginative system of which this is
perhaps the central myth. The light is indeed cold--mere sunless
dawn; but a later painter would have cloyed you with sunshine;
and you can see the better for that quietness in the morning air
each long promontory, as it slopes down to the water's edge.
Men go forth to their labours until the evening; but she is awake
before them, and you might think that the sorrow in her face was
at the thought of the whole long day of love yet to come. An
emblematical figure of the wind blows hard across the grey
water, moving forward the dainty-lipped shell on which she sails,
the sea "showing his teeth," as it moves, in thin lines of foam,
and sucking in, one by one, the falling roses, each severe in
outline, plucked off short at the stalk, but embrowned a little, as
Botticelli's flowers always are. Botticelli meant all this imagery
to be altogether pleasurable; and it was partly an incompleteness
of resources, inseparable from the art of that time, that subdued
and chilled it. But this predilection for minor tones counts also;
and what is unmistakable is the sadness with which he has
conceived the goddess [60] of pleasure, as the depositary of a
great power over the lives of men.

I have said that the peculiar character of Botticelli is the result of
a blending in him of a sympathy for humanity in its uncertain
condition, its attractiveness, its investiture at rarer moments in a
character of loveliness and energy, with his consciousness of the
shadow upon it of the great things from which it shrinks, and that
this conveys into his work somewhat more than painting usually
attains of the true complexion of humanity. He paints the story
of the goddess of pleasure in other episodes besides that of her
birth from the sea, but never without some shadow of death in the
grey flesh and wan flowers. He paints Madonnas, but they shrink
from the pressure of the divine child, and plead in unmistakable
undertones for a warmer, lower humanity. The same figure--
tradition connects it with Simonetta, the Mistress of Giuliano de'
Medici--appears again as Judith, returning home across the hill
country, when the great deed is over, and the moment of
revulsion come, when the olive branch in her hand is becoming a
burthen; as Justice, sitting on a throne, but with a fixed look of
self-hatred which makes the sword in her hand seem that of a
suicide; and again as Veritas, in the allegorical picture of
Calumnia, where one may note in passing the suggestiveness of
an accident which identifies the image of Truth with the person
of Venus. [61] We might trace the same sentiment through his
engravings; but his share in them is doubtful, and the object of
this brief study has been attained, if I have defined aright the
temper in which he worked.

But, after all, it may be asked, is a painter like Botticelli--a
secondary painter, a proper subject for general criticism? There
are a few great painters, like Michelangelo or Leonardo, whose
work has become a force in general culture, partly for this very
reason that they have absorbed into themselves all such workmen
as Sandro Botticelli; and, over and above mere technical or
antiquarian criticism, general criticism may be very well
employed in that sort of interpretation which adjusts the position
of these men to general culture, whereas smaller men can be the
proper subjects only of technical or antiquarian treatment. But,
besides those great men, there is a certain number of artists who
have a distinct faculty of their own by which they convey to us a
peculiar quality of pleasure which we cannot get elsewhere; and
these too have their place in general culture, and must be
interpreted to it by those who have felt their charm strongly, and
are often the object of a special diligence and a consideration
wholly affectionate, just because there is not about them the
stress of a great name and authority. Of this select number
Botticelli is one. He has the freshness, the uncertain and diffident
promise, [62] which belong to the earlier Renaissance itself, and
make it perhaps the most interesting period in the history of the
mind. In studying his work one begins to understand to how
great a place in human culture the art of Italy had been called.





[63] THE Italian sculptors of the earlier half of the fifteenth
century are more than mere forerunners of the great masters of its
close, and often reach perfection, within the narrow limits which
they chose to impose on their work. Their sculpture shares with
the paintings of Botticelli and the churches of Brunelleschi that
profound expressiveness, that intimate impress of an indwelling
soul, which is the peculiar fascination of the art of Italy in that
century. Their works have been much neglected, and often
almost hidden away amid the frippery of modern decoration, and
we come with some surprise on the places where their fire still
smoulders. One longs to penetrate into the lives of the men who
have given expression to so much power and sweetness. But it is
part of the reserve, the austere dignity and simplicity of their
existence, that their histories are for the most part lost, or told but
briefly. From their lives, as from their work, all tumult of sound
and colour has passed away. Mino, the Raphael of sculpture,
Maso del Rodario, whose works add a further grace to [64] the
church of Como, Donatello even,--one asks in vain for more than
a shadowy outline of their actual days.

Something more remains of Luca della Robbia; something more
of a history, of outward changes and fortunes, is expressed
through his work. I suppose nothing brings the real air of a
Tuscan town so vividly to mind as those pieces of pale blue and
white earthenware, by which he is best known, like fragments of
the milky sky itself, fallen into the cool streets, and breaking into
the darkened churches. And no work is less imitable: like Tuscan
wine, it loses its savour when moved from its birthplace, from the
crumbling walls where it was first placed. Part of the charm of
this work, its grace and purity and finish of expression, is
common to all the Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth century; for
Luca was first of all a worker in marble, and his works in terra
cotta only transfer to a different material the principles of his

These Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth century worked for the
most part in low relief, giving even to their monumental effigies
something of its depression of surface, getting into them by this
means a pathetic suggestion of the wasting and etherealisation of
death. They are haters of all heaviness and emphasis, of
strongly-opposed light and shade, and seek their means of
delineation among those last refinements of shadow, which are
almost invisible except in a strong [65] light, and which the finest
pencil can hardly follow. The whole essence of their work is
expression, the passing of a smile over the face of a child, the
ripple of the air on a still day over the curtain of a window ajar.

What is the precise value of this system of sculpture, this low
relief? Luca della Robbia, and the other sculptors of the school
to which he belongs, have before them the universal problem of
their art; and this system of low relief is the means by which they
meet and overcome the special limitation of sculpture.

That limitation results from the material and other necessary
conditions of all sculptured work, and consists in the tendency of
such work to a hard realism, a one-sided presentment of mere
form, that solid material frame which only motion can relieve, a
thing of heavy shadows, and an individuality of expression
pushed to caricature. Against this tendency to the hard
presentment of mere form trying vainly to compete with the
reality of nature itself, all noble sculpture constantly struggles;
each great system of sculpture resisting it in its own way,
etherealising, spiritualising, relieving its stiffness, its heaviness,
and death. The use of colour in sculpture is but an unskilful
contrivance to effect, by borrowing from another art, what the
nobler sculpture effects by strictly appropriate means.

To get not colour, but the equivalent of colour; to secure the
expression and the play of life; to [66] expand the too firmly
fixed individuality of pure, unrelieved, uncoloured form:--this is
the problem which the three great styles in sculpture have solved
in three different ways.

Allgemeinheit--breadth, generality, universality,--is the word
chosen by Winckelmann, and after him by Goethe and many
German critics, to express that law of the most excellent Greek
sculptors, of Pheidias and his pupils, which prompted them
constantly to seek the type in the individual, to abstract and
express only what is structural and permanent, to purge from the
individual all that belongs only to him, all the accidents, the
feelings and actions of the special moment, all that (because in its
own nature it endures but for a moment) is apt to look like a
frozen thing if one arrests it.

In this way their works came to be like some subtle extract or
essence, or almost like pure thoughts or ideas: and hence the
breadth of humanity in them, that detachment from the conditions
of a particular place or people, which has carried their influence
far beyond the age which produced them, and insured them
universal acceptance.

That was the Greek way of relieving the hardness and
unspirituality of pure form. But it involved to a certain degree
the sacrifice of what we call expression; and a system of
abstraction which aimed always at the broad and general type, at
the purging away from the [67] individual of what belonged only
to him, and of the mere accidents of a particular time and place,
imposed upon the range of effects open to the Greek sculptor
limits somewhat narrowly defined. When Michelangelo came,
therefore, with a genius spiritualised by the reverie of the middle
age, penetrated by its spirit of inwardness and introspection,
living not a mere outward life like the Greek, but a life full of
intimate experiences, sorrows, consolations, a system which
sacrificed so much of what was inward and unseen could not
satisfy him. To him, lover and student of Greek sculpture as he
was, work which did not bring what was inward to the surface,
which was not concerned with individual expression, with
individual character and feeling, the special history of the special
soul, was not worth doing at all.

And so, in a way quite personal and peculiar to himself, which
often is, and always seems, the effect of accident, he secured for
his work individuality and intensity of expression, while he
avoided a too heavy realism, that tendency to harden into
caricature which the representation of feeling in sculpture is apt
to display. What time and accident, its centuries of darkness
under the furrows of the "little Melian farm," have done with
singular felicity of touch for the Venus of Melos, fraying its
surface and softening its lines, so that some spirit in the thing
seems always on the point of breaking out, as though [68] in it
classical sculpture had advanced already one step into the
mystical Christian age, its expression being in the whole range of
ancient work most like that of Michelangelo's own:--this effect
Michelangelo gains by leaving nearly all his sculpture in a
puzzling sort of incompleteness, which suggests rather than
realises actual form. Something of the wasting of that snow-
image which he moulded at the command of Piero de' Medici,
when the snow lay one night in the court of the Pitti palace,
almost always lurks about it, as if he had determined to make the
quality of a task, exacted from him half in derision, the pride of
all his work. Many have wondered at that incompleteness,
suspecting, however, that Michelangelo himself loved and was
loath to change it, and feeling at the same time that they too
would lose something if the half-realised form ever quite
emerged from the stone, so rough-hewn here, so delicately
finished there; and they have wished to fathom the charm of this
incompleteness. Well! That incompleteness is Michelangelo's
equivalent for colour in sculpture; it is his way of etherealising
pure form, of relieving its stiff realism, and communicating to it
breath, pulsation, the effect of life. It was a characteristic too
which fell in with his peculiar temper and mode of living, his
disappointments and hesitations. And it was in reality perfect
finish. In this way he combines the utmost amount of passion
and intensity with [69] the sense of a yielding and flexible life: he
gets not vitality merely, but a wonderful force of expression.

Midway between these two systems--the system of the Greek
sculptors and the system of Michelangelo--comes the system of
Luca della Robbia and the other Tuscan sculptors of the fifteenth
century, partaking both of the Allgemeinheit of the Greeks, their
way of extracting certain select elements only of pure form and
sacrificing all the rest, and the studied incompleteness of
Michelangelo, relieving that sense of intensity, passion, energy,
which might otherwise have stiffened into caricature. Like
Michelangelo, these sculptors fill their works with intense and
individualised expression. Their noblest works are the careful
sepulchral portraits of particular persons--the monument of Conte
Ugo in the Badía of Florence, of the youthful Medea Colleoni,
with the wonderful, long throat, in the chapel on the cool north
side of the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore at Bergamo--
monuments such as abound in the churches of Rome,
inexhaustible in suggestions of repose, of a subdued Sabbatic joy,
a kind of sacred grace and refinement. And these elements of
tranquillity, of repose, they unite to an intense and individual
expression by a system of conventionalism as skilful and subtle
as that of the Greeks, repressing all such curves as indicate solid
form, and throwing the whole into low relief.

[70] The life of Luca, a life of labour and frugality, with no
adventure and no excitement except what belongs to the trial of
new artistic processes, the struggle with new artistic difficulties,
the solution of purely artistic problems, fills the first seventy
years of the fifteenth century. After producing many works in
marble for the Duomo and the Campanile of Florence, which
place him among the foremost masters of the sculpture of his age,
he became desirous to realise the spirit and manner of that
sculpture, in a humbler material, to unite its science, its exquisite
and expressive system of low relief, to the homely art of pottery,
to introduce those high qualities into common things, to adorn
and cultivate daily household life. In this he is profoundly
characteristic of the Florence of that century, of that in it which
lay below its superficial vanity and caprice, a certain old-world
modesty and seriousness and simplicity. People had not yet
begun to think that what was good art for churches was not so
good, or less fitted, for their own houses. Luca's new work was
in plain white earthenware at first, a mere rough
imitation of the costly, laboriously wrought marble, finished in a
few hours. But on this humble path he found his way to a fresh
success, to another artistic grace. The fame of the oriental
pottery, with its strange, bright colours--colours of art, colours
not to be attained in the natural stone--mingled with the tradition
of the old Roman [71] pottery of the neighbourhood. The little
red, coral-like jars of Arezzo, dug up in that district from time to
time, are much prized. These colours haunted Luca's fancy. "He
still continued seeking something more," his biographer says of
him; "and instead of making his figures of baked earth simply
white, he added the further invention of giving them colour, to
the astonishment and delight of all who beheld them"--Cosa
singolare, e multo utile per la state!--a curious thing, and very
useful for summer-time, full of coolness and repose for hand and
eye. Luca loved the form of various fruits, and wrought them
into all sorts of marvellous frames and garlands, giving them
their natural colours, only subdued a little, a little paler than

I said that the art of Luca della Robbia possessed in an unusual
measure that special characteristic which belongs to all the work-
men of his school, a characteristic which, even in the absence of
much positive information about their actual history, seems to
bring those work-men themselves very near to us. They bear the
impress of a personal quality, a profound+ expressiveness, what
the French call intimité, by which is meant some subtler sense of
originality--the seal on a man's work of what is most inward and
peculiar in his moods, and manner of apprehension: it is what we
call expression, carried to its highest intensity of degree. That
characteristic is rare in poetry, rarer still [72] in art, rarest of all in
the abstract art of sculpture; yet essentially, perhaps, it is the
quality which alone makes work in the imaginative order really
worth having at all. It is because the works of the artists of the
fifteenth century possess this quality in an unmistakable way that
one is anxious to know all that can be known about them and
explain to one's self the secret of their charm.



71. +The Macmillan edition's misprint "profund" is here
corrected to "profound," the spelling of the 1901 edition.


[73] CRITICS of Michelangelo have sometimes spoken as if the
only characteristic of his genius were a wonderful strength,
verging, as in the things of the imagination great strength always
does, on what is singular or strange. A certain strangeness,
something of the blossoming of the aloe, is indeed an element in
all true works of art: that they shall excite or surprise us is
indispensable. But that they shall give pleasure and exert a
charm over us is indispensable too; and this strangeness must be
sweet also--a lovely strangeness. And to the true admirers of
Michelangelo this is the true type of the Michelangelesque--
sweetness and strength, pleasure with surprise, an energy of
conception which seems at every moment about to break through
all the conditions of comely form, recovering, touch by touch, a
loveliness found usually only in the simplest natural things--ex
forti dulcedo.

In this way he sums up for them the whole character of medieval
art itself in that which distinguishes it most clearly from classical
work, the presence of a convulsive energy in it, becoming [74]
in lower hands merely monstrous or forbidding, and felt, even in
its most graceful products, as a subdued quaintness or grotesque.
Yet those who feel this grace or sweetness in Michelangelo might
at the first moment be puzzled if they were asked wherein
precisely such quality resided. Men of inventive temperament--
Victor Hugo, for instance, in whom, as in Michelangelo, people
have for the most part been attracted or repelled by the strength,
while few have understood his sweetness--have sometimes
relieved conceptions of merely moral or spiritual greatness, but
with little aesthetic charm of their own, by lovely accidents or
accessories, like the butterfly which alights on the blood-stained
barricade in Les Misérables, or those sea-birds for whom the
monstrous Gilliatt comes to be as some wild natural thing, so that
they are no longer afraid of him, in Les Travailleurs de la Mer.
But the austere genius of Michelangelo will not depend for its
sweetness on any mere accessories like these. The world of
natural things has almost no existence for him; "When one speaks
of him," says Grimm, "woods, clouds, seas, and mountains


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