The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry
Walter Horatio Pater

Part 2 out of 4

disappear, and only what is formed by the spirit of man remains
behind"; and he quotes a few slight words from a letter of his to
Vasari as the single expression in all he has left of a feeling for
nature. He has traced no flowers, like those with which Leonardo
stars [75] over his gloomiest rocks; nothing like the fret-work of
wings and flames in which Blake frames his most startling
conceptions. No forest-scenery like Titian's fills his
backgrounds, but only blank ranges of rock, and dim vegetable
forms as blank as they, as in a world before the creation of the
first five days.

Of the whole story of the creation he has painted only the
creation of the first man and woman, and, for him at least, feebly,
the creation of light. It belongs to the quality of his genius thus
to concern itself almost exclusively with the making of man. For
him it is not, as in the story itself, the last and crowning act of a
series of developments, but the first and unique act, the creation
of life itself in its supreme form, off-hand and immediately, in the
cold and lifeless stone. With him the beginning of life has all the
characteristics of resurrection; it is like the recovery of suspended
health or animation, with its gratitude, its effusion, and
eloquence. Fair as the young men of the Elgin marbles, the
Adam of the Sistine Chapel is unlike them in a total absence of
that balance and completeness which express so well the
sentiment of a self-contained, independent life. In that languid
figure there is something rude and satyr-like, something akin to
the rugged hillside on which it lies. His whole form is gathered
into an expression of mere expectancy and reception; he has
hardly strength enough to lift his finger [76] to touch the finger of
the creator; yet a touch of the finger-tips will suffice.

This creation of life--life coming always as relief or recovery,
and always in strong contrast with the rough-hewn mass in which
it is kindled--is in various ways the motive of all his work,
whether its immediate subject be Pagan or Christian, legend or
allegory; and this, although at least one-half of his work was
designed for the adornment of tombs--the tomb of Julius, the
tombs of the Medici. Not the Judgment but the Resurrection is
the real subject of his last work in the Sistine Chapel; and his
favourite Pagan subject is the legend of Leda, the delight of the
world breaking from the egg of a bird. As I have already pointed
out, he secures that ideality of expression which in Greek
sculpture depends on a delicate system of abstraction, and in
early Italian sculpture on lowness of relief, by an incompleteness,
which is surely not always undesigned, and which, as I think, no
one regrets, and trusts to the spectator to complete the half-
emergent form. And as his persons have something of the
unwrought stone about them, so, as if to realise the expression by
which the old Florentine records describe a sculptor--master of
live stone--with him the very rocks seem to have life. They have
but to cast away the dust and scurf that they may rise and stand
on their feet. He loved the very quarries of Carrara, those strange
grey peaks which even at mid-day [77] convey into any scene
from which they are visible something of the solemnity and
stillness of evening, sometimes wandering among them month
after month, till at last their pale ashen colours seem to have
passed into his painting; and on the crown of the head of the
David there still remains a morsel of uncut stone, as if by one
touch to maintain its connexion with the place from which it was

And it is in this penetrative suggestion of life that the secret of
that sweetness of his is to be found. He gives us indeed no lovely
natural objects like Leonardo or Titian, but only the coldest, most
elementary shadowing of rock or tree; no lovely draperies and
comely gestures of life, but only the austere truths of human
nature; "simple persons"--as he replied in his rough way to the
querulous criticism of Julius the Second, that there was no gold
on the figures of the Sistine Chapel--"simple persons, who wore
no gold on their garments"; but he penetrates us with a feeling of
that power which we associate with all the warmth and fulness of
the world, the sense of which brings into one's thoughts a swarm
of birds and flowers and insects. The brooding spirit of life itself
is there; and the summer may burst out in a moment.

He was born in an interval of a rapid mid-night journey in March,
at a place in the neighbourhood of Arezzo, the thin, clear air of
which was then thought to be favourable to the [78] birth of
children of great parts. He came of a race of grave and dignified
men, who, claiming kinship with the family of Canossa, and
some colour of imperial blood in their veins, had, generation after
generation, received honourable employment under the
government of Florence. His mother, a girl of nineteen years, put
him out to nurse at a country house among the hills of Settignano,
where every other inhabitant is a worker in the marble quarries,
and the child early became familiar with that strange first stage in
the sculptor's art. To this succeeded the influence of the sweetest
and most placid master Florence had yet seen, Domenico
Ghirlandajo. At fifteen he was at work among the curiosities of
the garden of the Medici, copying and restoring antiques,
winning the condescending notice of the great Lorenzo. He knew
too how to excite strong hatreds; and it was at this time that in a
quarrel with a fellow-student he received a blow on the face
which deprived him for ever of the comeliness of outward form.

It was through an accident that he came to study those works of
the early Italian sculptors which suggested much of his own
grandest work, and impressed it with so deep a sweetness. He
believed in dreams and omens. One of his friends dreamed twice
that Lorenzo, then lately dead, appeared to him in grey and dusty
apparel. To Michelangelo this dream seemed to portend the
troubles which afterwards really came, and with [79] the
suddenness which was characteristic of all his movements, he left
Florence. Having occasion to pass through Bologna, he
neglected to procure the little seal of red wax which the stranger
entering Bologna must carry on the thumb of his right hand. He
had no money to pay the fine, and would have been thrown into
prison had not one of the magistrates interposed. He remained in
this man's house a whole year, rewarding his hospitality by
readings from the Italian poets whom he loved. Bologna, with its
endless colonnades and fantastic leaning towers, can never have
been one of the lovelier cities of Italy. But about the portals of its
vast unfinished churches and its dark shrines, half hidden by
votive flowers and candles, lie some of the sweetest works of the
early Tuscan sculptors, Giovanni da Pisa and Jacopo della
Quercia, things as winsome as flowers; and the year which
Michelangelo spent in copying these works was not a lost year.
It was now, on returning to Florence, that he put forth that unique
presentment of Bacchus, which expresses, not the mirthfulness of
the god of wine, but his sleepy seriousness, his enthusiasm, his
capacity for profound dreaming. No one ever expressed more
truly than Michelangelo the notion of inspired sleep, of faces
charged with dreams. A vast fragment of marble had long lain
below the Loggia of Orcagna, and many a sculptor had had his
thoughts of a design which should just fill this famous block of
[80] stone, cutting the diamond, as it were, without loss. Under
Michelangelo's hand it became the David which stood till lately
on the steps of the Palazzo Vecchio, when it was replaced below
the Loggia. Michelangelo was now thirty years old, and his
reputation was established. Three great works fill the remainder
of his life--three works often interrupted, carried on through a
thousand hesitations, a thousand disappointments, quarrels with
his patrons, quarrels with his family, quarrels perhaps most of all
with himself--the Sistine Chapel, the Mausoleum of Julius the
Second, and the Sacristy of San Lorenzo.

In the story of Michelangelo's life the strength, often turning to
bitterness, is not far to seek. A discordant note sounds
throughout it which almost spoils the music. He "treats the Pope
as the King of France himself would not dare to treat him": he
goes along the streets of Rome "like an executioner," Raphael
says of him. Once he seems to have shut himself up with the
intention of starving himself to death. As we come, in reading
his life, on its harsh, untempered incidents, the thought again and
again arises that he is one of those who incur the judgment of
Dante, as having "wilfully lived in sadness." Even his tenderness
and pity are embittered by their strength. What passionate
weeping in that mysterious figure which, in the Creation of
Adam, crouches below the image of the Almighty, as he comes
with the forms of things to be, woman [81] and her progeny, in
the fold of his garment! What a sense of wrong in those two
captive youths, who feel the chains like scalding water on their
proud and delicate flesh! The idealist who became a reformer
with Savonarola, and a republican superintending the fortification
of Florence--the nest where he was born, il nido ove naqqu'io, as
he calls it once, in a sudden throb of affection--in its last struggle
for liberty, yet believed always that he had imperial blood in his
veins and was of the kindred of the great Matilda, had within the
depths of his nature some secret spring of indignation or sorrow.
We know little of his youth, but all tends to make one believe in
the vehemence of its passions. Beneath the Platonic calm of the
sonnets there is latent a deep delight in carnal form and colour.
There, and still more in the madrigals, he often falls into the
language of less tranquil affections; while some of them have the
colour of penitence, as from a wanderer returning home. He who
spoke so decisively of the supremacy in the imaginative world of
the unveiled human form had not been always, we may think, a
mere Platonic lover. Vague and wayward his loves may have
been; but they partook of the strength of his nature, and
sometimes, it may be, would by no means become music, so that
the comely order of his days was quite put out: par che amaro
ogni mio dolce io senta.

But his genius is in harmony with itself; and [82] just as in the
products of his art we find resources of sweetness within their
exceeding strength, so in his own story also, bitter as the ordinary
sense of it may be, there are select pages shut in among the rest--
pages one might easily turn over too lightly, but which yet
sweeten the whole volume. The interest of Michelangelo's
poems is that they make us spectators of this struggle; the
struggle of a strong nature to adorn and attune itself; the struggle
of a desolating passion, which yearns to be resigned and sweet
and pensive, as Dante's was. It is a consequence of the
occasional and informal character of his poetry, that it brings us
nearer to himself, his own mind and temper, than any work done
only to support a literary reputation could possibly do. His letters
tell us little that is worth knowing about him--a few poor quarrels
about money and commissions. But it is quite otherwise with
these songs and sonnets, written down at odd moments,
sometimes on the margins of his sketches, themselves often
unfinished sketches, arresting some salient feeling or
unpremeditated idea as it passed. And it happens that a true
study of these has become within the last few years for the first
time possible. A few of the sonnets circulated widely in
manuscript, and became almost within Michelangelo's own
lifetime a subject of academical discourses. But they were first
collected in a volume in 1623 by the great-nephew of
Michelangelo, Michelangelo Buonarroti the younger. He omitted
[83] much, re-wrote the sonnets in part, and sometimes
compressed two or more compositions into one, always losing
something of the force and incisiveness of the original. So the
book remained, neglected even by Italians themselves in the last
century, through the influence of that French taste which despised
all compositions of the kind, as it despised and neglected Dante.
"His reputation will ever be on the increase, because he is so little
read," says Voltaire of Dante.-- But in 1858 the last of the
Buonarroti bequeathed to the municipality of Florence the
curiosities of his family. Among them was a precious volume
containing the autograph of the sonnets. A learned Italian, Signor
Cesare Guasti, undertook to collate this autograph with other
manuscripts at the Vatican and elsewhere, and in 1863 published
a true version of Michelangelo's poems, with dissertations and a

People have often spoken of these poems as if they were a
mere cry of distress, a lover's complaint over the obduracy of
Vittoria Colonna. But those who speak thus forget that though it
is quite possible that Michelangelo had seen Vittoria, that
somewhat shadowy figure, as early as 1537, yet their closer
intimacy did not begin till about the year 1542, when
Michelangelo was nearly seventy years old. Vittoria herself, an
ardent neo-catholic, vowed to perpetual widowhood since the
news [84] had reached her, seventeen years before, that her
husband, the youthful and princely Marquess of Pescara, lay dead
of the wounds he had received in the battle of Pavia, was then no
longer an object of great passion. In a dialogue written by the
painter, Francesco d' Ollanda, we catch a glimpse of them
together in an empty church at Rome, one Sunday afternoon,
discussing indeed the characteristics of various schools of art, but
still more the writings of Saint Paul, already following the ways
and tasting the sunless pleasures of weary people, whose care for
external things is slackening. In a letter still extant he regrets that
when he visited her after death he had kissed her hands only. He
made, or set to work to make, a crucifix for her use, and two
drawings, perhaps in preparation for it, are now in Oxford. From
allusions in the sonnets, we may divine that when they first
approached each other he had debated much with himself
whether this last passion would be the most unsoftening, the most
desolating of all--un dolce amaro, un sì e no mi muovi. Is it
carnal affection, or, del suo prestino stato (of Plato's ante-natal
state) il raggio ardente? The older, conventional criticism,
dealing with the text of 1623, had lightly assumed that all or
nearly all the sonnets were actually addressed to Vittoria herself;
but Signor Guasti finds only four, or at most five, which can be
so attributed on genuine authority. Still, there are reasons which
make him assign the majority of them to [85] the period between
1542 and 1547, and we may regard the volume as a record of this
resting-place in Michelangelo's story. We know how Goethe
escaped from the stress of sentiments too strong for him by
making a book about them; and for Michelangelo, to write down
his passionate thoughts at all, to express them in a sonnet, was
already in some measure to command, and have his way with

La vita del mia amor non è il cor mio,
Ch' amor, di quel ch' io t' amo, è senza core.

It was just because Vittoria raised no great passion that the space
in his life where she reigns has such peculiar suavity; and the
spirit of the sonnets is lost if we once take them out of that
dreamy atmosphere in which men have things as they will,
because the hold of all outward things upon them is faint and
uncertain. Their prevailing tone is a calm and meditative
sweetness. The cry of distress is indeed there, but as a mere
residue, a trace of bracing chalybeate salt, just discernible in the
song which rises like a clear, sweet spring from a charmed space
in his life.

This charmed and temperate space in Michelangelo's life,
without which its excessive strength would have been so
imperfect, which saves him from the judgment of Dante on those
who "wilfully lived in sadness," is then a well-defined period
there, reaching from the year 1542 to the year 1547, the year of
Vittoria's death. In [86] it the lifelong effort to tranquillise his
vehement emotions by withdrawing them into the region of ideal
sentiment, becomes successful; and the significance of Vittoria is,
that she realises for him a type of affection which even in
disappointment may charm and sweeten his spirit.

In this effort to tranquillise and sweeten life by idealising its
vehement sentiments, there were two great traditional types,
either of which an Italian of the sixteenth century might have
followed. There was Dante, whose little book of the Vita Nuova
had early become a pattern of imaginative love, maintained
somewhat feebly by the later followers of Petrarch; and, since
Plato had become something more than a name in Italy by the
publication of the Latin translation of his works by Marsilio
Ficino, there was the Platonic tradition also. Dante's belief in the
resurrection of the body, through which, even in heaven, Beatrice
loses for him no tinge of flesh-colour, or fold of raiment even;
and the Platonic dream of the passage of the soul through one
form of life after another, with its passionate haste to escape from
the burden of bodily form altogether; are, for all effects of art or
poetry, principles diametrically opposite. Now it is the Platonic
tradition rather than Dante's that has moulded Michelangelo's
verse. In many ways no sentiment could have been less like
Dante's love for Beatrice than Michelangelo's for Vittoria
Colonna. Dante's comes in early youth: Beatrice [87] is a child,
with the wistful, ambiguous vision of a child, with a character
still unaccentuated by the influence of outward circumstances,
almost expressionless. Vittoria, on the other hand, is a woman
already weary, in advanced age, of grave intellectual qualities.
Dante's story is a piece of figured work, inlaid with lovely
incidents. In Michelangelo's poems, frost and fire are almost the
only images--the refining fire of the goldsmith; once or twice the
phoenix; ice melting at the fire; fire struck from the rock which it
afterwards consumes. Except one doubtful allusion to a journey,
there are almost no incidents. But there is much of the bright,
sharp, unerring skill, with which in boyhood he gave the look of
age to the head of a faun by chipping a tooth from its jaw with a
single stroke of the hammer. For Dante, the amiable and devout
materialism of the middle age sanctifies all that is presented by
hand and eye; while Michelangelo is always pressing forward
from the outward beauty--il bel del fuor che agli occhi piace, to
apprehend the unseen beauty; trascenda nella forma universale--
that abstract form of beauty, about which the Platonists reason.
And this gives the impression in him of something flitting and
unfixed, of the houseless and complaining spirit, almost
clairvoyant through the frail and yielding flesh. He accounts for
love at first sight by a previous state of existence--la dove io t'
amai prima.

And yet there are many points in which he [88] is really like
Dante, and comes very near to the original image, beyond those
later and feebler followers in the wake of Petrarch. He learns
from Dante rather than from Plato, that for lovers, the surfeiting
of desire--ove gran desir gran copia affrena, is a state less happy
than poverty with abundance of hope--una miseria di speranza
piena. He recalls him in the repetition of the words gentile and
cortesia, in the personification of Amor, in the tendency to dwell
minutely on the physical effects of the presence of a beloved
object on the pulses and the heart. Above all, he resembles Dante
in the warmth and intensity of his political utterances, for the lady
of one of his noblest sonnets was from the first understood to be
the city of Florence; and he avers that all must be asleep in
heaven, if she, who was created "of angelic form," for a thousand
lovers, is appropriated by one alone, some Piero, or Alessandro
de' Medici. Once and again he introduces Love and Death, who
dispute concerning him. For, like Dante and all the nobler souls
of Italy, he is much occupied with thoughts of the grave, and his
true mistress is death,--death at first as the worst of all sorrows
and disgraces, with a clod of the field for its brain; afterwards,
death in its high distinction, its detachment from vulgar needs,
the angry stains of life and action escaping fast.

Some of those whom the gods love die young. This man,
because the gods loved him, lingered [89] on to be of immense,
patriarchal age, till the sweetness it had taken so long to secrete
in him was found at last. Out of the strong came forth sweetness,
ex forti dulcedo. The world had changed around him. The "new
catholicism" had taken the place of the Renaissance. The spirit
of the Roman Church had changed: in the vast world's cathedral
which his skill had helped to raise for it, it looked stronger than
ever. Some of the first members of the Oratory were among his
intimate associates. They were of a spirit as unlike as possible
from that of Lorenzo, or Savonarola even. The opposition of the
Reformation to art has been often enlarged upon; far greater was
that of the Catholic revival. But in thus fixing itself in a frozen
orthodoxy, the Roman Church had passed beyond him, and he
was a stranger to it. In earlier days, when its beliefs had been in a
fluid state, he too might have been drawn into the controversy.
He might have been for spiritualising the papal sovereignty, like
Savonarola; or for adjusting the dreams of Plato and Homer with
the words of Christ, like Pico of Mirandola. But things had
moved onward, and such adjustments were no longer possible.
For himself, he had long since fallen back on that divine ideal,
which above the wear and tear of creeds has been forming itself
for ages as the possession of nobler souls. And now he began to
feel the soothing influence which since that time the Roman [90]
Church has often exerted over spirits too independent to be its
subjects, yet brought within the neighbourhood of its action;
consoled and tranquillised, as a traveller might be, resting for one
evening in a strange city, by its stately aspect and the sentiment
of its many fortunes, just because with those fortunes he has
nothing to do. So he lingers on; a revenant, as the French say, a
ghost out of another age, in a world too coarse to touch his faint
sensibilities very closely; dreaming, in a worn-out society,
theatrical in its life, theatrical in its art, theatrical even in its
devotion, on the morning of the world's history, on the primitive
form of man, on the images under which that primitive world had
conceived of spiritual forces.

I have dwelt on the thought of Michelangelo as thus lingering
beyond his time in a world not his own, because, if one is to
distinguish the peculiar savour of his work, he must be
approached, not through his followers, but through his
predecessors; not through the marbles of Saint Peter's, but
through the work of the sculptors of the fifteenth century over the
tombs and altars of Tuscany. He is the last of the Florentines, of
those on whom the peculiar sentiment of the Florence of Dante
and Giotto descended: he is the consummate representative of the
form that sentiment took in the fifteenth century with men like
Luca Signorelli and Mino [91] da Fiesole. Up to him the
tradition of sentiment is unbroken, the progress towards surer and
more mature methods of expressing that sentiment continuous.
But his professed disciples did not share this temper; they are in
love with his strength only, and seem not to feel his grave and
temperate sweetness. Theatricality is their chief characteristic;
and that is a quality as little attributable to Michelangelo as to
Mino or Luca Signorelli. With him, as with them, all is serious,
passionate, impulsive.

This discipleship of Michelangelo, this dependence of his on the
tradition of the Florentine schools, is nowhere seen more clearly
than in his treatment of the Creation. The Creation of Man had
haunted the mind of the middle age like a dream; and weaving it
into a hundred carved ornaments of capital or doorway, the
Italian sculptors had early impressed upon it that pregnancy of
expression which seems to give it many veiled meanings. As
with other artistic conceptions of the middle age, its treatment
became almost conventional, handed on from artist to artist, with
slight changes, till it came to have almost an independent and
abstract existence of its own. It was characteristic of the
medieval mind thus to give an independent traditional existence
to a special pictorial conception, or to a legend, like that of
Tristram or Tannhäuser, or even to the very thoughts and
substance of a book, like the Imitation, so that no single workman
could [92] claim it as his own, and the book, the image, the
legend, had itself a legend, and its fortunes, and a personal
history; and it is a sign of the medievalism of Michelangelo, that
he thus receives from tradition his central conception, and does
but add the last touches, in transferring it to the frescoes of the
Sistine Chapel.

But there was another tradition of those earlier, more serious
Florentines, of which Michelangelo is the inheritor, to which he
gives the final expression, and which centres in the sacristy of
San Lorenzo, as the tradition of the Creation centres in the
Sistine Chapel. It has been said that all the great Florentines
were preoccupied with death. Outre-tombe! Outre-tombe!--is
the burden of their thoughts, from Dante to Savonarola. Even the
gay and licentious Boccaccio gives a keener edge to his stories by
putting them in the mouths of a party of people who had taken
refuge in a country-house from the danger of death by plague. It
was to this inherited sentiment, this practical decision that to be
preoccupied with the thought of death was in itself dignifying,
and a note of high quality, that the seriousness of the great
Florentines of the fifteenth century was partly due; and it was
reinforced in them by the actual sorrows of their times. How
often, and in what various ways, had they seen life stricken down,
in their streets and houses La bella Simonetta dies in early youth,
and is borne to the grave with uncovered face. The [93] young
Cardinal Jacopo di Portogallo dies on a visit to Florence--insignis
forma fui et mirabili modestia--his epitaph dares to say. Antonio
Rossellino carves his tomb in the church of San Miniato, with
care for the shapely hands and feet, and sacred attire; Luca della
Robbia puts his skyiest works there; and the tomb of the youthful
and princely prelate became the strangest and most beautiful
thing in that strange and beautiful place. After the execution of
the Pazzi conspirators, Botticelli is employed to paint their
portraits. This preoccupation with serious thoughts and sad
images might easily have resulted, as it did, for instance, in the
gloomy villages of the Rhine, or in the overcrowded parts of
medieval Paris, as it still does in many a village of the Alps, in
something merely morbid or grotesque, in the Danse Macabre of
many French and German painters, or the grim inventions of
Dürer. From such a result the Florentine masters of the fifteenth
century were saved by the nobility of their Italian culture, and
still more by their tender pity for the thing itself. They must
often have leaned over the lifeless body, when all was at length
quiet and smoothed out. After death, it is said, the traces of
slighter and more superficial dispositions disappear; the lines
become more simple and dignified; only the abstract lines
remain, in a great indifference. They came thus to see death in its
distinction. Then following it perhaps one [94] stage further,
dwelling for a moment on the point where all this transitory
dignity must break up, and discerning with no clearness a new
body, they paused just in time, and abstained, with a sentiment of
profound pity.

Of all this sentiment Michelangelo is the achievement; and, first
of all, of pity. Pietà, pity, the pity of the Virgin Mother over the
dead body of Christ, expanded into the pity of all mothers over
all dead sons, the entombment, with its cruel "hard stones":--this
is the subject of his predilection. He has left it in many forms,
sketches, half-finished designs, finished and unfinished groups of
sculpture; but always as a hopeless, rayless, almost heathen
sorrow--no divine sorrow, but mere pity and awe at the stiff limbs
and colourless lips. There is a drawing of his at Oxford, in which
the dead body has sunk to the earth between the mother's feet,
with the arms extended over her knees. The tombs in the sacristy
of San Lorenzo are memorials, not of any of the nobler and
greater Medici, but of Giuliano, and Lorenzo the younger,
noticeable chiefly for their somewhat early death. It is mere
human nature therefore which has prompted the sentiment here.
The titles assigned traditionally to the four symbolical figures,
Night and Day, The Twilight and The Dawn, are far too definite
for them; for these figures come much nearer to the mind and
spirit of their author, and are a more direct expression [95] of his
thoughts, than any merely symbolical conceptions could possibly
have been. They concentrate and express, less by way of definite
conceptions than by the touches, the promptings of a piece of
music, all those vague fancies, misgivings, presentiments, which
shift and mix and are defined and fade again, whenever the
thoughts try to fix themselves with sincerity on the conditions
and surroundings of the disembodied spirit. I suppose no one
would come to the sacristy of San Lorenzo for consolation; for
seriousness, for solemnity, for dignity of impression, perhaps, but
not for consolation. It is a place neither of consoling nor of
terrible thoughts, but of vague and wistful speculation. Here,
again, Michelangelo is the disciple not so much of Dante as of
the Platonists. Dante's belief in immortality is formal, precise
and firm, almost as much so as that of a child, who thinks the
dead will hear if you cry loud enough. But in Michelangelo you
have maturity, the mind of the grown man, dealing cautiously and
dispassionately with serious things; and what hope he has is
based on the consciousness of ignorance--ignorance of man,
ignorance of the nature of the mind, its origin and capacities.
Michelangelo is so ignorant of the spiritual world, of the new
body and its laws, that he does not surely know whether the
consecrated Host may not be the body of Christ. And of all that
range of sentiment he is the poet, a poet still alive, and in [96]
possession of our inmost thoughts--dumb inquiry over the relapse
after death into the formlessness which preceded life, the change,
the revolt from that change, then the correcting, hallowing,
consoling rush of pity; at last, far off, thin and vague, yet not
more vague than the most definite thoughts men have had
through three centuries on a matter that has been so near their
hearts, the new body--a passing light, a mere intangible, external
effect, over those too rigid, or too formless faces; a dream that
lingers a moment, retreating in the dawn, incomplete, aimless,
helpless; a thing with faint hearing, faint memory, faint power of
touch; a breath, a flame in the doorway, a feather in the wind.

The qualities of the great masters in art or literature, the
combination of those qualities, the laws by which they moderate,
support, relieve each other, are not peculiar to them; but most
often typical standards, or revealing instances of the laws by
which certain aesthetic effects are produced. The old masters
indeed are simpler; their characteristics are written larger, and are
easier to read, than the analogues of them in all the mixed,
confused productions of the modern mind. But when once we
have succeeded in defining for ourselves those characteristics,
and the law of their combination, we have acquired a standard or
measure which helps us to put in its right place many a vagrant
genius, many an unclassified talent, many precious though
imperfect [97] products of art. It is so with the components of the
true character of Michelangelo. That strange interfusion of
sweetness and strength is not to be found in those who claimed to
be his followers; but it is found in many of those who worked
before him, and in many others down to our own time, in William
Blake, for instance, and Victor Hugo, who, though not of his
school, and unaware, are his true sons, and help us to understand
him, as he in turn interprets and justifies them. Perhaps this is the
chief use in studying old masters.




[98] IN Vasari's life of Leonardo da Vinci as we now read it there are
some variations from the first edition. There, the painter who has
fixed the outward type of Christ for succeeding centuries was a
bold speculator, holding lightly by other men's beliefs, setting
philosophy above Christianity. Words of his, trenchant enough
to justify this impression, are not recorded, and would have been
out of keeping with a genius of which one characteristic is the
tendency to lose itself in a refined and graceful mystery. The
suspicion was but the time-honoured mode in which the world
stamps its appreciation of one who has thoughts for himself
alone, his high indifference, his intolerance of the common forms
of things; and in the second edition the image was changed into
something fainter and more conventional. But it is still by a
certain mystery in his work, and something enigmatical beyond
the usual measure of great men, that he fascinates, or perhaps half
repels. His life is one of sudden [99] revolts, with intervals in
which he works not at all, or apart from the main scope of his
work. By a strange fortune the pictures on which his more
popular fame rested disappeared early from the world, like the
Battle of the Standard; or are mixed obscurely with the product
of meaner hands, like the Last Supper. His type of beauty is so
exotic that it fascinates a larger number than it delights, and
seems more than that of any other artist to reflect ideas and views
and some scheme of the world within; so that he seemed to his
contemporaries to be the possessor of some unsanctified and
secret wisdom; as to Michelet and others to have anticipated
modern ideas. He trifles with his genius, and crowds all his chief
work into a few tormented years of later life; yet he is so
possessed by his genius that he passes unmoved through the most
tragic events, overwhelming his country and friends, like one
who comes across them by chance on some secret errand.

His legend, as the French say, with the anecdotes which every
one remembers, is one of the most brilliant chapters of Vasari.
Later writers merely copied it, until, in 1804, Carlo Amoretti
applied to it a criticism which left hardly a date fixed, and not one
of those anecdotes untouched. The various questions thus raised
have since that time become, one after another, subjects of
special study, and mere antiquarianism has in this direction little
more to do. For others remain the editing of [100] the thirteen
books of his manuscripts, and the separation by technical
criticism of what in his reputed works is really his, from what is
only half his, or the work of his pupils. But a lover of strange
souls may still analyse for himself the impression made on him
by those works, and try to reach through it a definition of the
chief elements of Leonardo's genius. The legend, as corrected
and enlarged by its critics, may now and then intervene to support
the results of this analysis.

His life has three divisions--thirty years at Florence, nearly
twenty years at Milan, then nineteen years of wandering, till he
sinks to rest under the protection of Francis the First at the
Château de Clou. The dishonour of illegitimacy hangs over his
birth. Piero Antonio, his father, was of a noble Florentine house,
of Vinci in the Val d'Arno, and Leonardo, brought up delicately
among the true children of that house, was the love-child of his
youth, with the keen, puissant nature such children often have.
We see him in his boyhood fascinating all men by his beauty,
improvising music and songs, buying the caged birds and setting
them free, as he walked the streets of Florence, fond of odd bright
dresses and spirited horses.

From his earliest years he designed many objects, and
constructed models in relief, of which Vasari mentions some of
women smiling. His father, pondering over this promise in the
[101] child, took him to the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio,
then the most famous artist in Florence. Beautiful objects lay
about there--reliquaries, pyxes, silver images for the pope's
chapel at Rome, strange fancy-work of the middle age, keeping
odd company with fragments of antiquity, then but lately
discovered. Another student Leonardo may have seen there--a
lad into whose soul the level light and aërial illusions of Italian
sunsets had passed, in after days famous as Perugino. Verrocchio
was an artist of the earlier Florentine type, carver, painter, and
worker in metals, in one; designer, not of pictures only, but of all
things for sacred or household use, drinking-vessels, ambries,
instruments of music, making them all fair to look upon, filling
the common ways of life with the reflexion of some far-off
brightness; and years of patience had refined his hand till his
work was now sought after from distant places.

It happened that Verrocchio was employed by the brethren of
Vallombrosa to paint the Baptism of Christ, and Leonardo was
allowed to finish an angel in the left-hand corner. It was one of
those moments in which the progress of a great thing--here, that
of the art of Italy--presses hard on the happiness of an individual,
through whose discouragement and decrease, humanity, in more
fortunate persons, comes a step nearer to its final success.

For beneath the cheerful exterior of the mere [102] well-paid
craftsman, chasing brooches for the copes of Santa Maria
Novella, or twisting metal screens for the tombs of the Medici,
lay the ambitious desire to expand the destiny of Italian art by a
larger knowledge and insight into things, a purpose in art not
unlike Leonardo's still unconscious purpose; and often, in the
modelling of drapery, or of a lifted arm, or of hair cast back from
the face, there came to him something of the freer manner and
richer humanity of a later age. But in this Baptism the pupil had
surpassed the master; and Verrocchio turned away as one
stunned, and as if his sweet earlier work must thereafter be
distasteful to him, from the bright animated angel of Leonardo's

The angel may still be seen in Florence, a space of sunlight in the
cold, laboured old picture; but the legend is true only in
sentiment, for painting had always been the art by which
Verrocchio set least store. And as in a sense he anticipates
Leonardo, so to the last Leonardo recalls the studio of
Verrocchio, in the love of beautiful toys, such as the vessel of
water for a mirror, and lovely needle-work about the implicated
hands in the Modesty and Vanity, and of reliefs, like those
cameos which in the Virgin of the Balances hang all round the
girdle of Saint Michael, and of bright variegated stones, such as
the agates in the Saint Anne, and in a hieratic preciseness and
grace, as of a sanctuary swept and [103] garnished. Amid all the
cunning and intricacy of his Lombard manner this never left him.
Much of it there must have been in that lost picture of Paradise,
which he prepared as a cartoon for tapestry, to be woven in the
looms of Flanders. It was the perfection of the older Florentine
style of miniature-painting, with patient putting of each leaf upon
the trees and each flower in the grass, where the first man and
woman were standing.

And because it was the perfection of that style, it awoke in
Leonardo some seed of discontent which lay in the secret places
of his nature. For the way to perfection is through a series of
disgusts; and this picture--all that he had done so far in his life at
Florence--was after all in the old slight manner. His art, if it was
to be something in the world, must be weighted with more of the
meaning of nature and purpose of humanity. Nature was "the
true mistress of higher intelligences." He plunged, then, into the
study of nature. And in doing this he followed the manner of the
older students; he brooded over the hidden virtues of plants and
crystals, the lines traced by the stars as they moved in the sky,
over the correspondences which exist between the different
orders of living things, through which, to eyes opened, they
interpret each other; and for years he seemed to those about him
as one listening to a voice, silent for other men.

[104] He learned here the art of going deep, of tracking the
sources of expression to their subtlest retreats, the power of an
intimate presence in the things he handled. He did not at once or
entirely desert his art; only he was no longer the cheerful,
objective painter, through whose soul, as through clear glass, the
bright figures of Florentine life, only made a little mellower and
more pensive by the transit, passed on to the white wall. He
wasted many days in curious tricks of design, seeming to lose
himself in the spinning of intricate devices of line and colour. He
was smitten with a love of the impossible--the perforation of
mountains, changing the course of rivers, raising great buildings,
such as the church of San Giovanni, in the air; all those feats for
the performance of which natural magic professed to have the
key. Later writers, indeed, see in these efforts an anticipation of
modern mechanics; in him they were rather dreams, thrown off
by the overwrought and labouring brain. Two ideas were
especially confirmed in him, as reflexes of things that had
touched his brain in childhood beyond the depth of other
impressions--the smiling of women and the motion of great

And in such studies some interfusion of the extremes of beauty
and terror shaped itself, as an image that might be seen and
touched, in the mind of this gracious youth, so fixed that for the
rest of his life it never left him. As if catching [105] glimpses of
it in the strange eyes or hair of chance people, he would follow
such about the streets of Florence till the sun went down, of
whom many sketches of his remain. Some of these are full of a
curious beauty, that remote beauty which may be apprehended
only by those who have sought it carefully; who, starting with
acknowledged types of beauty, have refined as far upon these, as
these refine upon the world of common forms. But mingled
inextricably with this there is an element of mockery also; so that,
whether in sorrow or scorn, he caricatures Dante even. Legions
of grotesques sweep under his hand; for has not nature too her
grotesques--the rent rock, the distorting lights of evening on
lonely roads, the unveiled structure of man in the embryo, or the

All these swarming fancies unite in the Medusa of the Uffizii.
Vasari's story of an earlier Medusa, painted on a wooden shield,
is perhaps an invention; and yet, properly told, has more of the air
of truth about it than anything else in the whole legend. For its
real subject is not the serious work of a man, but the experiment
of a child. The lizards and glow-worms and other strange small
creatures which haunt an Italian vineyard bring before one the
whole picture of a child's life in a Tuscan dwelling--half castle,
half farm--and are as true to nature as the pretended
astonishment [106] of the father for whom the boy has prepared
a surprise. It was not in play that he painted that other Medusa,
the one great picture which he left behind him in Florence. The
subject has been treated in various ways; Leonardo alone cuts to
its centre; he alone realises it as the head of a corpse, exercising
its powers through all the circumstances of death. What may be
called the fascination of corruption penetrates in every touch its
exquisitely finished beauty. About the dainty lines of the cheek
the bat flits unheeded. The delicate snakes seem literally
strangling each other in terrified struggle to escape from the
Medusa brain. The hue which violent death always brings with it
is in the features; features singularly massive and grand, as we
catch them inverted, in a dexterous foreshortening, crown
foremost, like a great calm stone against which the wave of
serpents breaks.

The science of that age was all divination, clairvoyance,
unsubjected to our exact modern formulas, seeking in an instant
of vision to concentrate a thousand experiences. Later writers,
thinking only of the well-ordered treatise on painting which a
Frenchman, Raffaelle du Fresne, a hundred years afterwards,
compiled from Leonardo's bewildered manuscripts, written
strangely, as his manner was, from right to left, have imagined a
rigid order in his inquiries. But this rigid order would have been
little in [107] accordance with the restlessness of his character;
and if we think of him as the mere reasoner who subjects design
to anatomy, and composition to mathematical rules, we shall
hardly have that impression which those around Leonardo
received from him. Poring over his crucibles, making
experiments with colour, trying, by a strange variation of the
alchemist's dream, to discover the secret, not of an elixir to make
man's natural life immortal, but of giving immortality to the
subtlest and most delicate effects of painting, he seemed to them
rather the sorcerer or the magician, possessed of curious secrets
and a hidden knowledge, living in a world of which he alone
possessed the key. What his philosophy seems to have been most
like is that of Paracelsus or Cardan; and much of the spirit of the
older alchemy still hangs about it, with its confidence in short
cuts and odd byways to knowledge. To him philosophy was to
be something giving strange swiftness and double sight, divining
the sources of springs beneath the earth or of expression beneath
the human countenance, clairvoyant of occult gifts in common or
uncommon things, in the reed at the brook-side, or the star which
draws near to us but once in a century. How, in this way, the
clear purpose was overclouded, the fine chaser's hand perplexed,
we but dimly see; the mystery which at no point quite lifts from
Leonardo's life is deepest here. But it is [108] certain that at one
period of his life he had almost ceased to be an artist.

The year 1483--the year of the birth of Raphael and the thirty-
first of Leonardo's life--is fixed as the date of his visit to Milan
by the letter in which he recommends himself to Ludovico
Sforza, and offers to tell him, for a price, strange secrets in the art
of war. It was that Sforza who murdered his young nephew by
slow poison, yet was so susceptible of religious impressions that
he blended mere earthly passion with a sort of religious
sentimentalism, and who took for his device the mulberry-tree--
symbol, in its long delay and sudden yielding of flowers and fruit
together, of a wisdom which economises all forces for an
opportunity of sudden and sure effect. The fame of Leonardo had
gone before him, and he was to model a colossal statue of
Francesco, the first Duke of Milan. As for Leonardo himself, he
came not as an artist at all, or careful of the fame of one; but as a
player on the harp, a strange harp of silver of his own
construction, shaped in some curious likeness to a horse's skull.
The capricious spirit of Ludovico was susceptible also to the
power of music, and Leonardo's nature had a kind of spell in it.
Fascination is always the word descriptive of him. No portrait of
his youth remains; but all tends to make us believe that up to this
time some charm of voice and aspect, strong enough to balance
the disadvantage of his birth, had [109] played about him. His
physical strength was great; it was said that he could bend a
horseshoe like a coil of lead.

The Duomo, work of artists from beyond the Alps, so fantastic to
the eye of a Florentine used to the mellow, unbroken surfaces of
Giotto and Arnolfo, was then in all its freshness; and below, in
the streets of Milan, moved a people as fantastic, changeful, and
dreamlike. To Leonardo least of all men could there be anything
poisonous in the exotic flowers of sentiment which grew there. It
was a life of brilliant sins and exquisite amusements: Leonardo
became a celebrated designer of pageants; and it suited the
quality of his genius, composed, in almost equal parts, of
curiosity and the desire of beauty, to take things as they came.

Curiosity and the desire of beauty--these are the two elementary
forces in Leonardo's genius; curiosity often in conflict with the
desire of beauty, but generating, in union with it, a type of subtle
and curious grace.

The movement of the fifteenth century was twofold; partly the
Renaissance, partly also the coming of what is called the
"modern spirit," with its realism, its appeal to experience. It
comprehended a return to antiquity, and a return to nature.
Raphael represents the return to antiquity, and Leonardo the
return to nature. In this return to nature, he was seeking to satisfy
a boundless curiosity by her perpetual surprises, [110] a
microscopic sense of finish by her finesse, or delicacy of
operation, that subtilitas naturae which Bacon notices. So we
find him often in intimate relations with men of science,--with
Fra Luca Paccioli the mathematician, and the anatomist Marc
Antonio della Torre. His observations and experiments fill
thirteen volumes of manuscript; and those who can judge
describe him as anticipating long before, by rapid intuition, the
later ideas of science. He explained the obscure light of the
unilluminated part of the moon, knew that the sea had once
covered the mountains which contain shells, and of the gathering
of the equatorial waters above the polar.

He who thus penetrated into the most secret parts of nature
preferred always the more to the less remote, what, seeming
exceptional, was an instance of law more refined, the
construction about things of a peculiar atmosphere and mixed
lights. He paints flowers with such curious felicity that different
writers have attributed to him a fondness for particular flowers,
as Clement the cyclamen, and Rio the jasmin; while, at Venice,
there is a stray leaf from his portfolio dotted all over with studies
of violets and the wild rose. In him first appears the taste for
what is bizarre or recherché in landscape; hollow places full of
the green shadow of bituminous rocks, ridged reefs of trap-rock
which cut the water into quaint sheets of light,--their exact
antitype is in our own western seas; all the [111] solemn effects
of moving water. You may follow it springing from its distant
source among the rocks on the heath of the Madonna of the
Balances, passing, as a little fall, into the treacherous calm of the
Madonna of the Lake, as a goodly river next, below the cliffs of
the Madonna of the Rocks, washing the white walls of its distant
villages, stealing out in a network of divided streams in La
Gioconda to the seashore of the Saint Anne--that delicate place,
where the wind passes like the hand of some fine etcher over the
surface, and the untorn shells are lying thick upon the sand, and
the tops of the rocks, to which the waves never rise, are green
with grass, grown fine as hair. It is the landscape, not of dreams
or of fancy, but of places far withdrawn, and hours selected from
a thousand with a miracle of finesse. Through Leonardo's
strange veil of sight things reach him so; in no ordinary night or
day, but as in faint light of eclipse, or in some brief interval of
falling rain at daybreak, or through deep water.

And not into nature only; but he plunged also into human
personality, and became above all a painter of portraits; faces of a
modelling more skilful than has been seen before or since,
embodied with a reality which almost amounts to illusion, on the
dark air. To take a character as it was, and delicately sound its
stops, suited one so curious in observation, curious in invention.
He painted thus the portraits of Ludovico's [112] mistresses,
Lucretia Crivelli and Cecilia Galerani the poetess, of Ludovico
himself, and the Duchess Beatrice. The portrait of Cecilia
Galerani is lost, but that of Lucretia Crivelli has been identified
with La Belle Feronière of the Louvre, and Ludovico's pale,
anxious face still remains in the Ambrosian library. Opposite is
the portrait of Beatrice d'Este, in whom Leonardo seems to have
caught some presentiment of early death, painting her precise and
grave, full of the refinement of the dead, in sad earth-coloured
raiment, set with pale stones.

Sometimes this curiosity came in conflict with the desire of
beauty; it tended to make him go too far below that outside of
things in which art really begins and ends. This struggle between
the reason and its ideas, and the senses, the desire of beauty, is
the key to Leonardo's life at Milan--his restlessness, his endless
re-touchings, his odd experiments with colour. How much must
he leave unfinished, how much recommence! His problem was
the transmutation of ideas into images. What he had attained so
far had been the mastery of that earlier Florentine style, with its
naïve and limited sensuousness. Now he was to entertain in this
narrow medium those divinations of a humanity too wide for it,
that larger vision of the opening world, which is only not too
much for the great, irregular art of Shakespeare; and everywhere
the effort is visible in the work of his hands. This agitation, this
[113] perpetual delay, give him an air of weariness and ennui. To
others he seems to be aiming at an impossible effect, to do
something that art, that painting, can never do. Often the
expression of physical beauty at this or that point seems strained
and marred in the effort, as in those heavy German foreheads--
too heavy and German for perfect beauty.

For there was a touch of Germany in that genius which, as
Goethe said, had "thought itself weary"--müde sich gedacht.
What an anticipation of modern Germany, for instance, in that
debate on the question whether sculpture or painting is the nobler
art!* But there is this difference between him and the German,
that, with all that curious science, the German would have
thought nothing more was needed. The name of Goethe himself
reminds one how great for the artist may be the danger of
overmuch science; how Goethe, who, in the Elective Affinities
and the first part of Faust, does transmute ideas into images, who
wrought many such transmutations, did not invariably find the
spell-word, and in the second part of Faust presents us with a
mass of science which has almost no artistic character at all. But
Leonardo will never work till the happy moment comes--that
moment of bien-être, which to imaginative men is a moment of
invention. On this he waits with [114] a perfect patience; other
moments are but a preparation, or after-taste of it. Few men
distinguish between them as jealously as he. Hence so many
flaws even in the choicest work. But for Leonardo the distinction
is absolute, and, in the moment of bien-être, the alchemy
complete: the idea is stricken into colour and imagery: a cloudy
mysticism is refined to a subdued and graceful mystery, and
painting pleases the eye while it satisfies the soul.

This curious beauty is seen above all in his drawings, and in these
chiefly in the abstract grace of the bounding lines. Let us take
some of these drawings, and pause over them awhile; and, first,
one of those at Florence--the heads of a woman and a little child,
set side by side, but each in its own separate frame. First of all,
there is much pathos in the reappearance, in the fuller curves of
the face of the child, of the sharper, more chastened lines of the
worn and older face, which leaves no doubt that the heads are
those of a little child and its mother. A feeling for maternity is
indeed always characteristic of Leonardo; and this feeling is
further indicated here by the half-humorous pathos of the
diminutive, rounded shoulders of the child. You may note a like
pathetic power in drawings of a young man, seated in a stooping
posture, his face in his hands, as in sorrow; of a slave sitting in an
uneasy inclined attitude, in some brief interval of rest; of a small
Madonna and Child, [115] peeping sideways in half-reassured
terror, as a mighty griffin with batlike wings, one of Leonardo's
finest inventions, descends suddenly from the air to snatch up a
great wild beast wandering near them. But note in these, as that
which especially belongs to art, the contour of the young man's
hair, the poise of the slave's arm above his head, and the curves
of the head of the child, following the little skull within, thin and
fine as some sea-shell worn by the wind.

Take again another head, still more full of sentiment, but of a
different kind, a little drawing in red chalk which every one will
remember who has examined at all carefully the drawings by old
masters at the Louvre. It is a face of doubtful sex, set in the
shadow of its own hair, the cheek-line in high light against it,
with something voluptuous and full in the eye-lids and the lips.
Another drawing might pass for the same face in childhood, with
parched and feverish lips, but much sweetness in the loose, short-
waisted childish dress, with necklace and bulla, and in the
daintily bound hair. We might take the thread of suggestion
which these two drawings offer, when thus set side by side, and,
following it through the drawings at Florence, Venice, and Milan,
construct a sort of series, illustrating better than anything else
Leonardo's type of womanly beauty. Daughters of Herodias,
with their fantastic head-dresses knotted and folded so strangely
to leave the [116] dainty oval of the face disengaged, they are not
of the Christian family, or of Raphael's. They are the
clairvoyants, through whom, as through delicate instruments, one
becomes aware of the subtler forces of nature, and the modes of
their action, all that is magnetic in it, all those finer conditions
wherein material things rise to that subtlety of operation which
constitutes them spiritual, where only the final nerve and the
keener touch can follow. It is as if in certain significant examples
we actually saw those forces at their work on human flesh.
Nervous, electric, faint always with some inexplicable faintness,
these people seem to be subject to exceptional conditions, to feel
powers at work in the common air unfelt by others, to become, as
it were, the receptacle of them, and pass them on to us in a chain
of secret influences.

But among the more youthful heads there is one at Florence
which Love chooses for its own--the head of a young man, which
may well be the likeness of Andrea Salaino, beloved of Leonardo
for his curled and waving hair--belli capelli ricci e inanellati--
and afterwards his favourite pupil and servant. Of all the
interests in living men and women which may have filled his life
at Milan, this attachment alone is recorded. And in return
Salaino identified himself so entirely with Leonardo, that the
picture of Saint Anne, in the Louvre, has been attributed to him.
It illustrates Leonardo's usual choice of pupils, men [117] of
some natural charm of person or intercourse like Salaino, or men
of birth and princely habits of life like Francesco Melzi--men
with just enough genius to be capable of initiation into his secret,
for the sake of which they were ready to efface their own
individuality. Among them, retiring often to the villa of the
Melzi at Canonica al Vaprio, he worked at his fugitive
manuscripts and sketches, working for the present hour, and for a
few only, perhaps chiefly for himself. Other artists have been as
careless of present or future applause, in self-forgetfulness, or
because they set moral or political ends above the ends of art; but
in him this solitary culture of beauty seems to have hung upon a
kind of self-love, and a carelessness in the work of art of all but
art itself. Out of the secret places of a unique temperament he
brought strange blossoms and fruits hitherto unknown; and for
him, the novel impression conveyed, the exquisite effect woven,
counted as an end in itself--a perfect end.

And these pupils of his acquired his manner so thoroughly, that
though the number of Leonardo's authentic works is very small
indeed, there is a multitude of other men's pictures through
which we undoubtedly see him, and come very near to his genius.
Sometimes, as in the little picture of the Madonna of the
Balances, in which, from the bosom of His mother, Christ weighs
the pebbles of the brook against the sins of men, we have a hand,
rough enough by [118] contrast, working upon some fine hint or
sketch of his. Sometimes, as in the subjects of the Daughter of
Herodias and the Head of John the Baptist, the lost originals have
been re-echoed and varied upon again and again by Luini and
others. At other times the original remains, but has been a mere
theme or motive, a type of which the accessories might be
modified or changed; and these variations have but brought out
the more the purpose, or expression of the original. It is so with
the so-called Saint John the Baptist of the Louvre--one of the few
naked figures Leonardo painted--whose delicate brown flesh and
woman's hair no one would go out into the wilderness to seek,
and whose treacherous smile would have us understand
something far beyond the outward gesture or circumstance. But
the long, reedlike cross in the hand, which suggests Saint John
the Baptist, becomes faint in a copy at the Ambrosian Library,
and disappears altogether in another version, in the Palazzo
Rosso at Genoa. Returning from the latter to the original, we are
no longer surprised by Saint John's strange likeness to the
Bacchus which hangs near it, and which set Théophile Gautier
thinking of Heine's notion of decayed gods, who, to maintain
themselves, after the fall of paganism, took employment in the
new religion. We recognise one of those symbolical inventions
in which the ostensible subject is used, not as matter for definite
pictorial realisation, but as the starting-point of a [119] train of
sentiment, subtle and vague as a piece of music. No one ever
ruled over the mere subject in hand more entirely than Leonardo,
or bent it more dexterously to purely artistic ends. And so it
comes to pass that though he handles sacred subjects continually,
he is the most profane of painters; the given person or subject,
Saint John in the Desert, or the Virgin on the knees of Saint
Anne, is often merely the pretext for a kind of work which carries
one altogether beyond the range of its conventional associations.

About the Last Supper, its decay and restorations, a whole
literature has risen up, Goethe's pensive sketch of its sad fortunes
being perhaps the best. The death in childbirth of the Duchess
Beatrice was followed in Ludovico by one of those paroxysms of
religious feeling which in him were constitutional. The low,
gloomy Dominican church of Saint Mary of the Graces had been
the favourite oratory of Beatrice. She had spent her last days
there, full of sinister presentiments; at last it had been almost
necessary to remove her from it by force; and now it was here
that mass was said a hundred times a day for her repose. On the
damp wall of the refectory, oozing with mineral salts, Leonardo
painted the Last Supper. Effective anecdotes were told about it,
his retouchings and delays. They show him refusing to work
except at the moment of invention, scornful of any one who
supposed that art could be a work of mere industry and rule,
[120] often coming the whole length of Milan to give a single
touch. He painted it, not in fresco, where all must be impromptu,
but in oils, the new method which he had been one of the first to
welcome, because it allowed of so many after-thoughts, so
refined a working out of perfection. It turned out that on a
plastered wall no process could have been less durable. Within
fifty years it had fallen into decay. And now we have to turn
back to Leonardo's own studies, above all to one drawing of the
central head at the Brera, which, in a union of tenderness and
severity in the face-lines, reminds one of the monumental work
of Mino da Fiesole, to trace it as it was.

Here was another effort to lift a given subject out of the range of
its traditional associations. Strange, after all the mystic
developments of the middle age, was the effort to see the
Eucharist, not as the pale Host of the altar, but as one taking
leave of his friends. Five years afterwards the young Raphael, at
Florence, painted it with sweet and solemn effect in the refectory
of Saint Onofrio; but still with all the mystical unreality of the
school of Perugino. Vasari pretends that the central head was
never finished. But finished or unfinished, or owing part of its
effect to a mellowing decay, the head of Jesus does but
consummate the sentiment of the whole company--ghosts
through which you see the wall, faint as the shadows of the [121]
leaves upon the wall on autumn afternoons. This figure is but the
faintest, the most spectral of them all.

The Last Supper was finished in 1497; in 1498 the French
entered Milan, and whether or not the Gascon bowmen used it as
a mark for their arrows, the model of Francesco Sforza certainly
did not survive. What, in that age, such work was capable of
being--of what nobility, amid what racy truthfulness to fact--we
may judge from the bronze statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni on
horseback, modelled by Leonardo's master, Verrocchio (he died
of grief, it was said, because, the mould accidentally failing, he
was unable to complete it), still standing in the piazza of Saint
John and Saint Paul at Venice. Some traces of the thing may
remain in certain of Leonardo's drawings, and perhaps also, by a
singular circumstance, in a far-off town of France. For Ludovico
became a prisoner, and ended his days at Loches in Touraine.
After many years of captivity in the dungeons below, where all
seems sick with barbarous feudal memories, he was allowed at
last, it is said, to breathe fresher air for awhile in one of the rooms
of the great tower still shown, its walls covered with strange
painted arabesques, ascribed by tradition to his hand, amused a
little, in this way, through the tedious years. In those vast
helmets and human faces and pieces of armour, among which, in
great letters, the [122] motto Infelix Sum is woven in and out, it is
perhaps not too fanciful to see the fruit of a wistful after-
dreaming over Leonardo's sundry experiments on the armed
figure of the great duke, which had occupied the two so much
during the days of their good fortune at Milan.

The remaining years of Leonardo's life are more or less years of
wandering. From his brilliant life at court he had saved nothing,
and he returned to Florence a poor man. Perhaps necessity kept
his spirit excited: the next four years are one prolonged rapture or
ecstasy of invention. He painted now the pictures of the Louvre,
his most authentic works, which came there straight from the
cabinet of Francis the First, at Fontainebleau. One picture of his,
the Saint Anne--not the Saint Anne of the Louvre, but a simple
cartoon, now in London--revived for a moment a sort of
appreciation more common in an earlier time, when good pictures
had still seemed miraculous. For two days a crowd of people of
all qualities passed in naïve excitement through the chamber
where it hung, and gave Leonardo a taste of the "triumph" of
Cimabue. But his work was less with the saints than with the
living women of Florence. For he lived still in the polished
society that he loved, and in the houses of Florence, left perhaps a
little subject to light thoughts by the death of Savonarola--the
latest gossip (1869) is of an [123] undraped Monna Lisa, found in
some out-of-the-way corner of the late Orleans collection--he
saw Ginevra di Benci, and Lisa, the young third wife of
Francesco del Giocondo. As we have seen him using incidents of
sacred story, not for their own sake, or as mere subjects for
pictorial realisation, but as a cryptic language for fancies all his
own, so now he found a vent for his thought in taking one of
these languid women, and raising her, as Leda or Pomona, as
Modesty or Vanity, to the seventh heaven of symbolical

La Gioconda is, in the truest sense, Leonardo's masterpiece, the
revealing instance of his mode of thought and work. In
suggestiveness, only the Melancholia of Dürer is comparable to
it; and no crude symbolism disturbs the effect of its subdued and
graceful mystery. We all know the face and hands of the figure,
set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some
faint light under sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has
chilled it least.* As often happens with works in which invention
seems to reach its limit, there is an element in it given to, not
invented by, the master. In that inestimable folio of drawings,
once in the possession of Vasari, were certain designs by
Verrocchio, faces of such impressive beauty that Leonardo in his
boyhood copied them [124] many times. It is hard not to connect
with these designs of the elder, by-past master, as with its
germinal principle, the unfathomable smile, always with a touch
of something sinister in it, which plays over all Leonardo's work.
Besides, the picture is a portrait. From childhood we see this
image defining itself on the fabric of his dreams; and but for
express historical testimony, we might fancy that this was but his
ideal lady, embodied and beheld at last. What was the
relationship of a living Florentine to this creature of his thought?
By what strange affinities had the dream and the person grown up
thus apart, and yet so closely together? Present from the first
incorporeally in Leonardo's brain, dimly traced in the designs of
Verrocchio, she is found present at last in Il Giocondo's house.
That there is much of mere portraiture in the picture is attested by
the legend that by artificial means, the presence of mimes and
flute-players, that subtle expression was protracted on the face.
Again, was it in four years and by renewed labour never really
completed, or in four months and as by stroke of magic, that the
image was projected?

The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is
expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come
to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world
are come," and the eyelids are a little [125] weary. It is a beauty
wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by
cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite
passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek
goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they
be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its
maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the
world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of
power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the
animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the
middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the
return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older
than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has
been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and
has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about
her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants;
and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint
Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the
sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with
which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the
eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping
together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern
philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon
by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.
Certainly [126] Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the
old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.

During these years at Florence Leonardo's history is the history
of his art; for himself, he is lost in the bright cloud of it. The
outward history begins again in 1502, with a wild journey
through central Italy, which he makes as the chief engineer of
Caesar Borgia. The biographer, putting together the stray jottings
of his manuscripts, may follow him through every day of it, up
the strange tower of Siena, elastic like a bent bow, down to the
seashore at Piombino, each place appearing as fitfully as in a
fever dream.

One other great work was left for him to do, a work all trace of
which soon vanished, The Battle of the Standard, in which he had
Michelangelo for his rival. The citizens of Florence, desiring to
decorate the walls of the great council-chamber, had offered the
work for competition, and any subject might be chosen from the
Florentine wars of the fifteenth century. Michelangelo chose for
his cartoon an incident of the war with Pisa, in which the
Florentine soldiers, bathing in the Arno, are surprised by the
sound of trumpets, and run to arms. His design has reached us
only in an old engraving, which helps us less perhaps than our
remembrance of the background of his Holy Family in the Uffizii
to imagine in what superhuman form, [127] such as might have
beguiled the heart of an earlier world, those figures ascended out
of the water. Leonardo chose an incident from the battle of
Anghiari, in which two parties of soldiers fight for a standard.
Like Michelangelo's, his cartoon is lost, and has come to us only
in sketches, and in a fragment of Rubens. Through the accounts
given we may discern some lust of terrible things in it, so that
even the horses tore each other with their teeth. And yet one
fragment of it, in a drawing of his at Florence, is far different--a
waving field of lovely armour, the chased edgings running like
lines of sunlight from side to side. Michelangelo was twenty-
seven years old; Leonardo more than fifty; and Raphael, then
nineteen years of age, visiting Florence for the first time, came
and watched them as they worked.

We catch a glimpse of Leonardo again, at Rome in 1514,
surrounded by his mirrors and vials and furnaces, making strange
toys that seemed alive of wax and quicksilver. The hesitation
which had haunted him all through life, and made him like one
under a spell, was upon him now with double force. No one had
ever carried political indifferentism farther; it had always been
his philosophy to "fly before the storm"; he is for the Sforzas, or
against them, as the tide of their fortune turns. Yet now, in the
political society of Rome, he came [128] to be suspected of secret
French sympathies. It paralysed him to find himself among
enemies; and he turned wholly to France, which had long courted

France was about to become an Italy more Italian than Italy itself.
Francis the First, like Lewis the Twelfth before him, was
attracted by the finesse of Leonardo's work; La Gioconda was
already in his cabinet, and he offered Leonardo the little Château
de Clou, with its vineyards and meadows, in the pleasant valley
of the Masse, just outside the walls of the town of Amboise,
where, especially in the hunting season, the court then frequently
resided. A Monsieur Lyonard, peinteur du Roy pour Amboyse--
so the letter of Francis the First is headed. It opens a prospect,
one of the most interesting in the history of art, where, in a
peculiarly blent atmosphere, Italian art dies away as a French

Two questions remain, after much busy antiquarianism,
concerning Leonardo's death--the question of the exact form of
his religion, and the question whether Francis the First was
present at the time. They are of about equally little importance in
the estimate of Leonardo's genius. The directions in his will
concerning the thirty masses and the great candles for the church
of Saint Florentin are things of course, their real purpose being
immediate and practical; and on no theory of religion could these
hurried offices be of much consequence. We forget them in
speculating [129] how one who had been always so desirous of
beauty, but desired it always in such precise and definite forms,
as hands or flowers or hair, looked forward now into the vague
land, and experienced the last curiosity.



113. *How princely, how characteristic of Leonardo, the answer,
Quanto più, un' arte porta seco fatica di corpo, tanto più è vile!

123. *Yet for Vasari there was some further magic of crimson in
the lips and cheeks, lost for us.

125. +"[. . .] with Eastern merchants:" is the punctuation used in
the 1901 Macmillan edition. Macmillan's 1910 Library edition
erroneously uses a space followed only by a period. The Norton
Anthology editors emend the text to contain a comma after
"merchants" rather than a colon, but I have chosen to follow the
unusual, but seemingly correct, 1901 punctuation.


[130] IT is the mistake of much popular criticism to regard
poetry, music, and painting--all the various products of art--as but
translations into different languages of one and the same fixed
quantity of imaginative thought, supplemented by certain
technical qualities of colour, in painting; of sound, in music; of
rhythmical words, in poetry. In this way, the sensuous element in
art, and with it almost everything in art that is essentially artistic,
is made a matter of indifference; and a clear apprehension of the
opposite principle--that the sensuous material of each art brings
with it a special phase or quality of beauty, untranslatable into the
forms of any other, an order of impressions distinct in kind--is the
beginning of all true aesthetic criticism. For, as art addresses not
pure sense, still less the pure intellect, but the "imaginative
reason" through the senses, there are differences of kind in
aesthetic beauty, corresponding to the differences in kind of the
gifts of sense themselves. Each art, therefore, having its own
peculiar and untranslatable sensuous charm, has its own [131]
special mode of reaching the imagination, its own special
responsibilities to its material. One of the functions of aesthetic
criticism is to define these limitations; to estimate the degree in
which a given work of art fulfils its responsibilities to its special
material; to note in a picture that true pictorial charm, which is
neither a mere poetical thought or sentiment, on the one hand, nor
a mere result of communicable technical skill in colour or design,
on the other; to define in a poem that true poetical quality, which
is neither descriptive nor meditative merely, but comes of an
inventive handling of rhythmical language, the element of song in
the singing; to note in music the musical charm, that essential
music, which presents no words, no matter of sentiment or
thought, separable from the special form in which it is conveyed
to us.

To such a philosophy of the variations of the beautiful, Lessing's
analysis of the spheres of sculpture and poetry, in the Laocoon,
was an important contribution. But a true appreciation of these
things is possible only in the light of a whole system of such art-
casuistries. Now painting is the art in the criticism of which this
truth most needs enforcing, for it is in popular judgments on
pictures that the false generalisation of all art into forms of poetry
is most prevalent. To suppose that all is mere technical
acquirement in delineation or touch, working through [132] and
addressing itself to the intelligence, on the one side, or a merely
poetical, or what may be called literary interest, addressed also to
the pure intelligence, on the other:--this is the way of most
spectators, and of many critics, who have never caught sight all
the time of that true pictorial quality which lies between, unique
pledge, as it is, of the possession of the pictorial gift, that
inventive or creative handling of pure line and colour, which, as
almost always in Dutch painting, as often also in the works of
Titian or Veronese, is quite independent of anything definitely
poetical in the subject it accompanies. It is the drawing--the
design projected from that peculiar pictorial temperament or
constitution, in which, while it may possibly be ignorant of true
anatomical proportions, all things whatever, all poetry, all ideas
however abstract or obscure, float up as visible scene or image: it
is the colouring--that weaving of light, as of just perceptible gold
threads, through the dress, the flesh, the atmosphere, in Titian's
Lace-girl, that staining of the whole fabric of the thing with a
new, delightful physical quality. This drawing, then--the
arabesque traced in the air by Tintoret's flying figures, by
Titian's forest branches; this colouring--the magic conditions of
light and hue in the atmosphere of Titian's Lace-girl, or Rubens's
Descent from the Cross:--these essential pictorial qualities must
first of all delight the sense, delight it as [133] directly and
sensuously as a fragment of Venetian glass; and through this
delight alone become the vehicle of whatever poetry or science
may lie beyond them in the intention of the composer. In its
primary aspect, a great picture has no more definite message for
us than an accidental play of sunlight and shadow for a few
moments on the wall or floor: is itself, in truth, a space of such
fallen light, caught as the colours are in an Eastern carpet, but
refined upon, and dealt with more subtly and exquisitely than by
nature itself. And this primary and essential condition fulfilled,
we may trace the coming of poetry into painting, by fine
gradations upwards; from Japanese fan-painting, for instance,
where we get, first, only abstract colour; then, just a little
interfused sense of the poetry of flowers; then, sometimes,
perfect flower-painting; and so, onwards, until in Titian we have,
as his poetry in the Ariadne, so actually a touch of true childlike
humour in the diminutive, quaint figure with its silk gown, which
ascends the temple stairs, in his picture of the Presentation of the
Virgin, at Venice.

But although each art has thus its own specific order of
impressions, and an untranslatable charm, while a just
apprehension of the ultimate differences of the arts is the
beginning of aesthetic criticism; yet it is noticeable that, in its
special mode of handling its given material, each art may be
observed to pass into the [134] condition of some other art, by
what German critics term an Anders-streben--a partial alienation
from its own limitations, through which the arts are able, not
indeed to supply the place of each other, but reciprocally to lend
each other new forces.

Thus some of the most delightful music seems to be always
approaching to figure, to pictorial definition. Architecture, again,
though it has its own laws--laws esoteric enough, as the true
architect knows only too well--yet sometimes aims at fulfilling
the conditions of a picture, as in the Arena chapel; or of
sculpture, as in the flawless unity of Giotto's tower at Florence;
and often finds a true poetry, as in those strangely twisted
staircases of the châteaux of the country of the Loire, as if it were
intended that among their odd turnings the actors in a theatrical
mode of life might pass each other unseen; there being a poetry
also of memory and of the mere effect of time, by which
architecture often profits greatly. Thus, again, sculpture aspires
out of the hard limitation of pure form towards colour, or its
equivalent; poetry also, in many ways, finding guidance from the
other arts, the analogy between a Greek tragedy and a work of
Greek sculpture, between a sonnet and a relief, of French poetry
generally with the art of engraving, being more than mere figures
of speech; and all the arts in common aspiring towards the
principle of music; music being the typical, or ideally
consummate [135] art, the object of the great Anders-streben of
all art, of all that is artistic, or partakes of artistic qualities.

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For
while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the
matter from the form, and the understanding can always make
this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.
That the mere matter of a poem, for instance, its subject, namely,
its given incidents or situation--that the mere matter of a picture,
the actual circumstances of an event, the actual topography of a
landscape--should be nothing without the form, the spirit, of the
handling, that this form, this mode of handling, should become an
end in itself, should penetrate every part of the matter: this is
what all art constantly strives after, and achieves in different

This abstract language becomes clear enough, if we think of
actual examples. In an actual landscape we see a long white
road, lost suddenly on the hill-verge. That is the matter of one of
the etchings of M. Alphonse Legros: only, in this etching, it is
informed by an indwelling solemnity of expression, seen upon it
or half-seen, within the limits of an exceptional moment, or
caught from his own mood perhaps, but which he maintains as
the very essence of the thing, throughout his work. Sometimes a
momentary tint of stormy light may invest a homely or too
familiar scene with a character which might well have been [136]
drawn from the deep places of the imagination.

Then we might say that this particular effect of light, this sudden
inweaving of gold thread through the texture of the haystack, and
the poplars, and the grass, gives the scene artistic qualities, that it
is like a picture. And such tricks of circumstance are commonest
in landscape which has little salient character of its own; because,
in such scenery, all the material details are so easily absorbed by
that informing expression of passing light, and elevated,
throughout their whole extent, to a new and delightful effect by
it. And hence the superiority, for most conditions of the
picturesque, of a river-side in France to a Swiss valley, because,
on the French river-side, mere topography, the simple material,
counts for so little, and, all being very pure, untouched, and
tranquil in itself, mere light and shade have such easy work in
modulating it to one dominant tone. The Venetian landscape, on
the other hand, has in its material conditions much which is hard,
or harshly definite; but the masters of the Venetian school have
shown themselves little burdened by them. Of its Alpine
background they retain certain abstracted elements only, of cool
colour and tranquillising line; and they use its actual details, the
brown windy turrets, the straw-coloured fields, the forest
arabesques, but as the notes of a music which duly accompanies
the presence of their men and women, presenting us with the
[137] spirit or essence only of a certain sort of landscape--a
country of the pure reason or half-imaginative memory.

Poetry, again, works with words addressed in the first instance to
the pure intelligence; and it deals, most often, with a definite
subject or situation. Sometimes it may find a noble and quite
legitimate function in the conveyance of moral or political
aspiration, as often in the poetry of Victor Hugo. In such
instances it is easy enough for the understanding to distinguish
between the matter and the form, however much the matter, the
subject, the element which is addressed to the mere intelligence,
has been penetrated by the informing, artistic spirit. But the ideal
types of poetry are those in which this distinction is reduced to its
minimum; so that lyrical poetry, precisely because in it we are
least able to detach the matter from the form, without a deduction
of something from that matter itself, is, at least artistically, the
highest and most complete form of poetry. And the very
perfection of such poetry often appears to depend, in part, on a
certain suppression or vagueness of mere subject, so that the
meaning reaches us through ways not distinctly traceable by the
understanding, as in some of the most imaginative compositions
of William Blake, and often in Shakespeare's songs, as pre-
eminently in that song of Mariana's page in Measure for
Measure, in which the kindling force and poetry of the whole
[138] play seems to pass for a moment into an actual strain of

And this principle holds good of all things that partake in any
degree of artistic qualities, of the furniture of our houses, and of
dress, for instance, of life itself, of gesture and speech, and the
details of daily intercourse; these also, for the wise, being
susceptible of a suavity and charm, caught from the way in which
they are done, which gives them a worth in themselves. Herein,
again, lies what is valuable and justly attractive, in what is called
the fashion of a time, which elevates the trivialities of speech,
and manner, and dress, into "ends in themselves," and gives them
a mysterious grace and attractiveness in the doing of them.

Art, then, is thus always striving to be independent of the mere
intelligence, to become a matter of pure perception, to get rid of
its responsibilities to its subject or material; the ideal examples of
poetry and painting being those in which the constituent elements
of the composition are so welded together, that the material or
subject no longer strikes the intellect only; nor the form, the eye
or the ear only; but form and matter, in their union or identity,
present one single effect to the "imaginative reason," that
complex faculty for which every thought and feeling is twin-born
with its sensible analogue or symbol.

It is the art of music which most completely [139] realises this
artistic ideal, this perfect identification of matter and form. In its
consummate moments, the end is not distinct from the means, the
form from the matter, the subject from the expression; they
inhere in and completely saturate each other; and to it, therefore,
to the condition of its perfect moments, all the arts may be
supposed constantly to tend and aspire. In music, then, rather
than in poetry, is to be found the true type or measure of
perfected art. Therefore, although each art has its
incommunicable element, its untranslatable order of impressions,
its unique mode of reaching the "imaginative reason," yet the arts
may be represented as continually struggling after the law or
principle of music, to a condition which music alone completely
realises; and one of the chief functions of aesthetic criticism,
dealing with the products of art, new or old, is to estimate the
degree in which each of those products approaches, in this sense,
to musical law.

By no school of painters have the necessary limitations of the art
of painting been so unerringly though instinctively apprehended,
and the essence of what is pictorial in a picture so justly
conceived, as by the school of Venice; and the train of thought
suggested in what has been now said is, perhaps, a not unfitting
introduction to a few pages about Giorgione, who, though much
has been taken by recent criticism from [140] what was reputed
to be his work, yet, more entirely than any other painter, sums up,
in what we know of himself and his art, the spirit of the Venetian

The beginnings of Venetian painting link themselves to the last,
stiff, half-barbaric splendours of Byzantine decoration, and are
but the introduction into the crust of marble and gold on the walls
of the Duomo of Murano, or of Saint Mark's, of a little more of
human expression. And throughout the course of its later
development, always subordinate to architectural effect, the work
of the Venetian school never escaped from the influence of its
beginnings. Unassisted, and therefore unperplexed, by
naturalism, religious mysticism, philosophical theories, it had no
Giotto, no Angelico, no Botticelli. Exempt from the stress of
thought and sentiment, which taxed so severely the resources of
the generations of Florentine artists, those earlier Venetian
painters, down to Carpaccio and the Bellini, seem never for a
moment to have been so much as tempted to lose sight of the
scope of their art in its strictness, or to forget that painting must
be before all things decorative, a thing for the eye, a space of
colour on the wall, only more dexterously blent than the marking
of its precious stone or the chance interchange of sun and shade
upon it:--this, to begin and end with; whatever higher matter of
thought, or poetry, or religious reverie might play its part therein,
[141] between. At last, with final mastery of all the technical
secrets of his art, and with somewhat more than "a spark of the
divine fire" to his share, comes Giorgione. He is the inventor of
genre, of those easily movable pictures which serve neither for
uses of devotion, nor of allegorical or historic teaching--little
groups of real men and women, amid congruous furniture or
landscape--morsels of actual life, conversation or music or play,
but refined upon or idealised, till they come to seem like glimpses
of life from afar. Those spaces of more cunningly blent colour,
obediently filling their places, hitherto, in a mere architectural
scheme, Giorgione detaches from the wall. He frames them by
the hands of some skilful carver, so that people may move them
readily and take with them where they go, as one might a poem in
manuscript, or a musical instrument, to be used, at will, as a
means of self-education, stimulus or solace, coming like an
animated presence, into one's cabinet, to enrich the air as with
some choice aroma, and, like persons, live with us, for a day or a
lifetime. Of all art such as this, art which has played so large a
part in men's culture since that time, Giorgione is the initiator.
Yet in him too that old Venetian clearness or justice, in the
apprehension of the essential limitations of the pictorial art, is
still undisturbed. While he interfuses his painted work with a
high-strung sort of poetry, caught directly from a singularly rich
and high-strung [142] sort of life, yet in his selection of subject,
or phase of subject, in the subordination of mere subject to
pictorial design, to the main purpose of a picture, he is typical of
that aspiration of all the arts towards music, which I have
endeavoured to explain,--towards the perfect identification of
matter and form.

Born so near to Titian, though a little before him, that these two
companion pupils of the aged Giovanni Bellini may almost be
called contemporaries, Giorgione stands to Titian in something
like the relationship of Sordello to Dante, in Browning's poem.
Titian, when he leaves Bellini, becomes, in turn, the pupil of
Giorgione. He lives in constant labour more than sixty years
after Giorgione is in his grave; and with such fruit, that hardly
one of the greater towns of Europe is without some fragment of
his work. But the slightly older man, with his so limited actual
product (what remains to us of it seeming, when narrowly
explained, to reduce itself to almost one picture, like Sordello's
one fragment of lovely verse), yet expresses, in elementary
motive and principle, that spirit--itself the final acquisition of all
the long endeavours of Venetian art--which Titian spreads over
his whole life's activity.

And, as we might expect, something fabulous and illusive has
always mingled itself in the brilliancy of Giorgione's fame. The
exact relationship to him of many works--drawings, [143]
portraits, painted idylls--often fascinating enough, which in
various collections went by his name, was from the first
uncertain. Still, six or eight famous pictures at Dresden, Florence
and the Louvre, were with no doubt attributed to him, and in
these, if anywhere, something of the splendour of the old
Venetian humanity seemed to have been preserved. But of those
six or eight famous pictures it is now known that only one is
certainly from Giorgione's hand. The accomplished science of
the subject has come at last, and, as in other instances, has not
made the past more real for us, but assured us only that we
possess less of it than we seemed to possess. Much of the work
on which Giorgione's immediate fame depended, work done for
instantaneous effect, in all probability passed away almost within
his own age, like the frescoes on the façade of the fondaco dei
Tedeschi at Venice, some crimson traces of which, however, still
give a strange additional touch of splendour to the scene of the
Rialto. And then there is a barrier or borderland, a period about
the middle of the sixteenth century, in passing through which the
tradition miscarries, and the true outlines of Giorgione's work
and person are obscured. It became fashionable for wealthy
lovers of art, with no critical standard of authenticity, to collect
so-called works of Giorgione, and a multitude of imitations came
into circulation. And now, in the "new [144] Vasari,"* the great
traditional reputation, woven with so profuse demand on men's
admiration, has been scrutinised thread by thread; and what
remains of the most vivid and stimulating of Venetian masters, a
live flame, as it seemed, in those old shadowy times, has been
reduced almost to a name by his most recent critics.

Yet enough remains to explain why the legend grew up above the
name, why the name attached itself, in many instances, to the
bravest work of other men. The Concert in the Pitti Palace, in
which a monk, with cowl and tonsure, touches the keys of a
harpsichord, while a clerk, placed behind him, grasps the handle
of the viol, and a third, with cap and plume, seems to wait upon
the true interval for beginning to sing, is undoubtedly
Giorgione's. The outline of the lifted finger, the trace of the
plume, the very threads of the fine linen, which fasten themselves
on the memory, in the moment before they are lost altogether in
that calm unearthly glow, the skill which has caught the waves of
wandering sound, and fixed them for ever on the lips and hands--
these are indeed the master's own; and the criticism which, while
dismissing so much hitherto believed to be Giorgione's, has
established the claims of this one picture, has left it among the
most precious things in the world of art.

It is noticeable that the "distinction" of this [145] Concert, its
sustained evenness of perfection, alike in design, in execution,
and in choice of personal type, becomes for the "new Vasari" the
standard of Giorgione's genuine work. Finding here sufficient to
explain his influence, and the true seal of mastery, its authors
assign to Pellegrino da San Daniele the Holy Family in the
Louvre, in consideration of certain points where it comes short of
this standard. Such shortcoming, however, will hardly diminish
the spectator's enjoyment of a singular charm of liquid air, with
which the whole picture seems instinct, filling the eyes and lips,
the very garments, of its sacred personages, with some wind-
searched brightness and energy; of which fine air the blue peak,
clearly defined in the distance, is, as it were, the visible pledge.
Similarly, another favourite picture in the Louvre, the subject of a
delightful sonnet by a poet* whose own painted work often comes
to mind as one ponders over these precious things--the Fête
Champêtre, is assigned to an imitator of Sebastian del Piombo;
and the Tempest, in the Academy at Venice, to Paris Bordone, or
perhaps to "some advanced craftsman of the sixteenth century."
From the gallery at Dresden, the Knight embracing a Lady, where
the knight's broken gauntlets seem to mark some well-known
pause in a story we would willingly hear the rest of, is conceded
to "a Brescian hand," and Jacob meeting Rachel to [146] a pupil
of Palma. And then, whatever their charm, we are called on to
give up the Ordeal, and the Finding of Moses with its jewel-like
pools of water, perhaps to Bellini.

Nor has the criticism, which thus so freely diminishes the number
of his authentic works, added anything important to the well-
known outline of the life and personality of the man: only, it has
fixed one or two dates, one or two circumstances, a little more
exactly. Giorgione was born before the year 1477, and spent his
childhood at Castelfranco, where the last crags of the Venetian
Alps break down romantically, with something of parklike grace,
to the plain. A natural child of the family of the Barbarelli by a
peasant-girl of Vedelago, he finds his way early into the circle of
notable persons--people of courtesy. He is initiated into those
differences of personal type, manner, and even of dress, which
are best understood there--that "distinction" of the Concert of the
Pitti Palace. Not far from his home lives Catherine of Cornara,
formerly Queen of Cyprus; and, up in the towers which still
remain, Tuzio Costanzo, the famous condottiere--a picturesque
remnant of medieval manners, amid a civilisation rapidly
changing. Giorgione paints their portraits; and when Tuzio's son,
Matteo, dies in early youth, adorns in his memory a chapel in the
church of Castelfranco, painting on this occasion, perhaps, the
altar-piece, foremost among his authentic [147] works, still to be
seen there, with the figure of the warrior-saint, Liberale, of which
the original little study in oil, with the delicately gleaming, silver-
grey armour, is one of the greater treasures of the National
Gallery. In that figure, as in some other knightly personages
attributed to him, people have supposed the likeness of the
painter's own presumably gracious presence. Thither, at last, he
is himself brought home from Venice, early dead, but celebrated.
It happened, about his thirty-fourth year, that in one of those
parties at which he entertained his friends with music, he met a
certain lady of whom he became greatly enamoured, and "they
rejoiced greatly," says Vasari, "the one and the other, in their
loves." And two quite different legends concerning it agree in
this, that it was through this lady he came by his death; Ridolfi
relating that, being robbed of her by one of his pupils, he died of
grief at the double treason; Vasari, that she being secretly
stricken of the plague, and he making his visits to her as usual,
Giorgione took the sickness from her mortally, along with her
kisses, and so briefly departed.

But, although the number of Giorgione's extant works has been
thus limited by recent criticism, all is not done when the real and
the traditional elements in what concerns him have been
discriminated; for, in what is connected with a great name, much
that is not real is often very stimulating. For the aesthetic
philosopher, [148] therefore, over and above the real Giorgione
and his authentic extant works, there remains the Giorgionesque
also--an influence, a spirit or type in art, active in men so
different as those to whom many of his supposed works are really
assignable. A veritable school, in fact, grew together out of all
those fascinating works rightly or wrongly attributed to him; out
of many copies from, or variations on him, by unknown or
uncertain workmen, whose drawings and designs were, for
various reasons, prized as his; out of the immediate impression he
made upon his contemporaries, and with which he continued in
men's minds; out of many traditions of subject and treatment,
which really descend from him to our own time, and by retracing
which we fill out the original image. Giorgione thus becomes a
sort of impersonation of Venice itself, its projected reflex or
ideal, all that was intense or desirable in it crystallising about the
memory of this wonderful young man.

And now, finally, let me illustrate some of the characteristics of
this School of Giorgione, as we may call it, which, for most of us,
notwithstanding all that negative criticism of the "new Vasari,"
will still identify itself with those famous pictures at Florence, at
Dresden and Paris. A certain artistic ideal is there defined for us-
-the conception of a peculiar aim and procedure in art, which we
may understand as the Giorgionesque, [149] wherever we find it,
whether in Venetian work generally, or in work of our own time.
Of this the Concert, that undoubted work of Giorgione in the Pitti
Palace, is the typical instance, and a pledge authenticating the
connexion of the school, and the spirit of the school, with the

I have spoken of a certain interpenetration of the matter or
subject of a work of art with the form of it, a condition realised
absolutely only in music, as the condition to which every form of
art is perpetually aspiring. In the art of painting, the attainment
of this ideal condition, this perfect interpenetration of the subject
with the elements of colour and design, depends, of course, in
great measure, on dexterous choice of that subject, or phase of
subject; and such choice is one of the secrets of Giorgione's
school. It is the school of genre, and employs itself mainly with
"painted idylls," but, in the production of this pictorial poetry,
exercises a wonderful tact in the selecting of such matter as lends
itself most readily and entirely to pictorial form, to complete
expression by drawing and colour. For although its productions
are painted poems, they belong to a sort of poetry which tells
itself without an articulated story. The master is pre-eminent for
the resolution, the ease and quickness, with which he reproduces
instantaneous motion--the lacing-on of armour, with the head
bent back so stately--the fainting lady--the embrace, rapid as the
kiss, caught with death itself from dying [150] lips--some
momentary conjunction of mirrors and polished armour and still
water, by which all the sides of a solid image are exhibited at
once, solving that casuistical question whether painting can
present an object as completely as sculpture. The sudden act, the
rapid transition of thought, the passing expression--this he arrests
with that vivacity which Vasari has attributed to him, il fuoco
Giorgionesco, as he terms it. Now it is part of the ideality of the
highest sort of dramatic poetry, that it presents us with a kind of
profoundly significant and animated instants, a mere gesture, a
look, a smile, perhaps--some brief and wholly concrete moment--
into which, however, all the motives, all the interests and effects
of a long history, have condensed themselves, and which seem to
absorb past and future in an intense consciousness of the present.
Such ideal instants the school of Giorgione selects, with its
admirable tact, from that feverish, tumultuously coloured world
of the old citizens of Venice--exquisite pauses in time, in which,
arrested thus, we seem to be spectators of all the fulness of
existence, and which are like some consummate extract or
quintessence of life.

It is to the law or condition of music, as I said, that all art like this
is really aspiring; and, in the school of Giorgione, the perfect
moments of music itself, the making or hearing of music, song or
its accompaniment, are themselves prominent as subjects. On
that background [151] of the silence of Venice, so impressive to
the modern visitor, the world of Italian music was then forming.
In choice of subject, as in all besides, the Concert of the Pitti
Palace is typical of everything that Giorgione, himself an
admirable musician, touched with his influence. In sketch or
finished picture, in various collections, we may follow it through
many intricate variations--men fainting at music; music at the
pool-side while people fish, or mingled with the sound of the
pitcher in the well, or heard across running water, or among the
flocks; the tuning of instruments; people with intent faces, as if
listening, like those described by Plato in an ingenious passage of
the Republic, to detect the smallest interval of musical sound, the
smallest undulation in the air, or feeling for music in thought on a
stringless instrument, ear and finger refining themselves
infinitely, in the appetite for sweet sound; a momentary touch of
an instrument in the twilight, as one passes through some
unfamiliar room, in a chance company.

In these then, the favourite incidents of Giorgione's school,
music or the musical intervals in our existence, life itself is
conceived as a sort of listening--listening to music, to the reading
of Bandello's novels, to the sound of water, to time as it flies.
Often such moments are really our moments of play, and we are
surprised at the unexpected blessedness of what may seem our
[152] least important part of time; not merely because play is in
many instances that to which people really apply their own best
powers, but also because at such times, the stress of our servile,
everyday attentiveness being relaxed, the happier powers in
things without are permitted free passage, and have their way
with us. And so, from music, the school of Giorgione passes
often to the play which is like music; to those masques in which
men avowedly do but play at real life, like children "dressing
up," disguised in the strange old Italian dresses, parti-coloured, or
fantastic with embroidery and furs, of which the master was so
curious a designer, and which, above all the spotless white linen
at wrist and throat, he painted so dexterously.

But when people are happy in this thirsty land water will not be
far off; and in the school of Giorgione, the presence of water--the
well, or marble-rimmed pool, the drawing or pouring of water, as
the woman pours it from a pitcher with her jewelled hand in the
Fête Champêtre, listening, perhaps, to the cool sound as it falls,
blent with the music of the pipes--is as characteristic, and almost
as suggestive, as that of music itself. And the landscape feels,
and is glad of it also--a landscape full of clearness, of the effects
of water, of fresh rain newly passed through the air, and collected
into the grassy channels. The air, moreover, in the school of
Giorgione, seems as vivid as the people who breathe [153] it, and
literally empyrean, all impurities being burnt out of it, and no
taint, no floating particle of anything but its own proper elements
allowed to subsist within it.

Its scenery is such as in England we call "park scenery," with
some elusive refinement felt about the rustic buildings, the choice
grass, the grouped trees, the undulations deftly economised for
graceful effect. Only, in Italy all natural things are as it were
woven through and through with gold thread, even the cypress
revealing it among the folds of its blackness. And it is with gold
dust, or gold thread, that these Venetian painters seem to work,
spinning its fine filaments, through the solemn human flesh,
away into the white plastered walls of the thatched huts. The
harsher details of the mountains recede to a harmonious distance,
the one peak of rich blue above the horizon remaining but as the
sensible warrant of that due coolness which is all we need ask
here of the Alps, with their dark rains and streams. Yet what real,
airy space, as the eye passes from level to level, through the long-
drawn valley in which Jacob embraces Rachel among the flocks!
Nowhere is there a truer instance of that balance, that modulated
unison of landscape and persons--of the human image and its
accessories--already noticed as characteristic of the Venetian
school, so that, in it, neither personage nor scenery is ever a mere
pretext for the other.

[154] Something like this seems to me to be the vraie vérité about
Giorgione, if I may adopt a serviceable expression, by which the
French recognise those more liberal and durable impressions
which, in respect of any really considerable person or subject,
anything that has at all intricately occupied men's attention, lie
beyond, and must supplement, the narrower range of the strictly
ascertained facts about it. In this, Giorgione is but an illustration
of a valuable general caution we may abide by in all criticism.
As regards Giorgione himself, we have indeed to take note of all
those negations and exceptions, by which, at first sight, a "new
Vasari" seems merely to have confused our apprehension of a
delightful object, to have explained away in our inheritance from
past time what seemed of high value there. Yet it is not with a
full understanding even of those exceptions that one can leave off
just at this point. Properly qualified, such exceptions are but a
salt of genuineness in our knowledge; and beyond all those
strictly ascertained facts, we must take note of that indirect
influence by which one like Giorgione, for instance, enlarges his
permanent efficacy and really makes himself felt in our culture.
In a just impression of that, is the essential truth, the vraie vérité,
concerning him.



144. *Crowe and Cavalcaselle; History of Painting in North Italy.

145. *Dante Gabriel Rossetti.


[155] IN the middle of the sixteenth century, when the spirit of
the Renaissance was everywhere, and people had begun to look
back with distaste on the works of the middle age, the old Gothic
manner had still one chance more, in borrowing something from
the rival which was about to supplant it. In this way there was
produced, chiefly in France, a new and peculiar phase of taste
with qualities and a charm of its own, blending the somewhat
attenuated grace of Italian ornament with the general outlines of
Northern design. It created the Château de Gaillon, as you may
still see it in the delicate engravings of Isräel Silvestre--a Gothic
donjon veiled faintly by a surface of dainty Italian traceries--
Chenonceaux, Blois, Chambord, and the church of Brou. In
painting, there came from Italy workmen like Maître Roux and
the masters of the school of Fontainebleau, to have their later
Italian voluptuousness attempered by the naïve and silvery
qualities of the native style; and it was characteristic of these
painters that they were most successful in painting on glass, an
art so [156] essentially medieval. Taking it up where the middle
age had left it, they found their whole work among the last
subtleties of colour and line; and keeping within the true limits of
their material, they got quite a new order of effects from it, and
felt their way to refinements on colour never dreamed of by those
older workmen, the glass-painters of Chartres or Le Mans. What
is called the Renaissance in France is thus not so much the
introduction of a wholly new taste ready-made from Italy, but
rather the finest and subtlest phase of the middle age itself, its last
fleeting splendour and temperate Saint Martin's summer. In
poetry, the Gothic spirit in France had produced a thousand
songs; so in the Renaissance, French poetry too did but borrow
something to blend with a native growth, and the poems of
Ronsard, with their ingenuity, their delicately figured surfaces,
their slightness, their fanciful combinations of rhyme, are the
correlative of the traceries of the house of Jacques Coeur at
Bourges, or the Maison de Justice at Rouen.

There was indeed something in the native French taste naturally
akin to that Italian finesse. The characteristic of French work had
always been a certain nicety, a remarkable daintiness of hand,
une netteté remarquable d'exécution. In the paintings of
François Clouet, for example, or rather of the Clouets--for there
was a whole family of them--painters remarkable for [157] their
resistance to Italian influences, there is a silveriness of colour and
a clearness of expression which distinguish them very definitely
from their Flemish neighbours, Hemling or the Van Eycks. And
this nicety is not less characteristic of old French poetry. A light,
aërial delicacy, a simple elegance--une netteté remarquable
d'exécution: these are essential characteristics alike of Villon's
poetry, and of the Hours of Anne of Brittany. They are
characteristic too of a hundred French Gothic carvings and
traceries. Alike in the old Gothic cathedrals, and in their
counterpart, the old Gothic chansons de geste, the rough and
ponderous mass becomes, as if by passing for a moment into
happier conditions, or through a more gracious stratum of air,
graceful and refined, like the carved ferneries on the granite
church at Folgoat, or the lines which describe the fair priestly
hands of Archbishop Turpin, in the song of Roland; although
below both alike there is a fund of mere Gothic strength, or

Now Villon's songs and Clouet's painting are like these. It is the
higher touch making itself felt here and there, betraying itself,
like nobler blood in a lower stock, by a fine line or gesture or
expression, the turn of a wrist, the tapering of a finger. In
Ronsard's time that rougher [158] element seemed likely to
predominate. No one can turn over the pages of Rabelais without
feeling how much need there was of softening, of castigation. To
effect this softening is the object of the revolution in poetry
which is connected with Ronsard's name. Casting about for the
means of thus refining upon and saving the character of French
literature, he accepted that influx of Renaissance taste, which,
leaving the buildings, the language, the art, the poetry of France,
at bottom, what they were, old French Gothic still, gilds their


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