Jacques Maritain Center : Greatest of Centuries


At the commencement of the Thirteenth Century the movement of emancipation in every phase of thought and life in Italy went on apace with an extraordinary ardor. After a very serious struggle the Italian republics were on the point of forcing the German Empire to recognize them. Everywhere in the first enthusiasm of their independence which had been achieved by valiant deeds and aspirations after liberty as lofty as any in modern times, the cities, though united in confederations they were acting as independent rivals, brought to all enterprises, lay or religious foundations, commercial or educational institutions, a wonderful youthful activity and enterprise. The papacy allied with them favored this movement in its political as well as its educational aspects and strengthened the art movement of the time. Christianity under their guidance, by the powerful religious exhaltation which it inspired in the hearts of all men, became a potent factor in all forms of art. From Pope Innocent III to Boniface VIII probably no other series of Popes have been so misunderstood and so misrepresented by subsequent generations, as certainly the Popes of no other century did so much to awaken the enthusiasm of Christians for all modes of religious development, and be it said though credit for this is only too often refused them, also for educational, charitable and social betterment.

The two great church institutions of the time that were destined to act upon the people more than any others were the Franciscan and Dominican orders -- the preachers and the friars minor, who were within a short time after their formation to have such deep and widespread influence on all strata of society. Both of these orders from their very birth showed themselves not only ready but anxious to employ the arts as a means of religious education and for the encouragement of piety. Their position in this matter had an enormous influence on art and on the painters of the time. The Dominicans, as became their more ambitious intellectual training and their purpose as preachers of the word, demanded encyclopedic and learned compositions; the Franciscans asked for loving familiar scenes such as would touch the hearts of the common people. Both aided greatly in helping the artist to break away from the old fashioned formalism which was no longer sufficient to satisfy the new ardors of men's souls. In this way they prepared the Italian imagination for the double revolution which was to come.

It was the great body of legends which grew up about St. Francis particularly, all of them bound up with supreme charity for one's neighbor, with love for all living creatures even the lowliest, with the tenderest feelings for every aspect of external nature, which appealed to the painters as a veritable light in the darkness of the times. It was especially in the churches founded by the disciples of "the poor little man of Assisi,"that the world saw burst forth before the end of the century, the first grand flowers of that renewal of art which was to prove the beginning of modern art history. It is hard to understand what would have happened to the painters of the time without the spirit that was brought into the world by St. Francis' beautifully simple love for all and every phase of nature around him. This it was above all that encouraged the return to nature that soon supplanted Oriental formalism. It was but due compensation that the greatest works of the early modern painters should have been done in St. Francis' honor. Besides this the most important factor in art was the revival of the thirst for knowledge, which arose among the more intellectual portions of the communities and developed an enthusiasm for antiquity which was only a little later to become a veritable passion.

The most important phase of Italian art during the Thirteenth Century is that which developed at Florence. It is with this that the world is most familiar. It began with Cimabue, who commenced painter, in the quaint old English phrase, not long before the middle of the century and whose great work occupies the second half of it. There. are not wanting some interesting traditions of certain other Florentine painters before his time as Marchisello, of the early part of the century, Lapo who painted, in 1261, the facade of the Cathedral at Pistoia, and Fino di Tibaldi who painted a vast picture on the walls of the Municipal Palace about the middle of the century, but they are so much in the shadow of the later masters' work as to be scarcely known. Everywhere Nature began to reassert herself. The workers in Mosaic even, who were occupied in the famous baptistry at Florence about the middle of the century, though they followed the Byzantine rules of their art, introduced certain innovations which brought the composition and the subsects closer to nature. These are enough to show that there was a school of painting and decoration at Florence quite sufficient to account for Cimabue's development, without the necessity of appealing to the influence over him of wandering Greek artists as has sometimes been done.

Though he was not the absolute inventor of all the new art modes as he is sometimes supposed to be, Cimabue was undoubtedly a great original genius. Like so many others who have been acclaimed as the very first in a particular line of thought or effort, his was only the culminating intelligence which grasped all that had been done before, assimilated it and made it his own. As a distinct exception to the usual history of such great initiators, this father of Italian painting was rich, born of a noble family, but of a character that was eager for work and with ambition to succeed in his chosen art as the mainspring of life. At his death, as the result of his influence, artists had acquired a much better social position than had been theirs before, and one that it was comparatively easy for his successors to maintain. His famous Madonna which was subsequently borne in triumph from his studio to the Church of Santa Maria Novella, placed the seal of popular approval on the new art, and the enthusiasm it evoked raised the artist for all time from the plane of a mere worker in colors to that of a member of a liberal profession. Even before this triumph his great picture had been deemed worthy of a visit by Charles of Anjou, the French King, who was on a visit to Florence and according to tradition ever afterwards the portion of the city in which it had been painted and through which it was carried in procession, bore by reason of these happy events the name Borgo Allegri -- Ward of Joy.

This picture is still in its place in the Rucellai chapel and is of course the subject of devoted attention on the part of visitors. Lafenestre says of it, that this monument of Florentine art quite justifies the enthusiasm of contemporaries if we compare it with the expressionless Madonnas that preceded it, There is an air of beneficent dignity on the features quite unlike the rigidity of preceding art, and there is besides an attractive suppleness about the attitude of the body which is far better proportioned than those of its predecessors. Above all there is a certain roseate freshness about the colors of the flesh which are pleasant substitutes for the pale and greenish tints of the Byzantines. It did not require more than this to exalt the imaginations of the people delivered from their old-time conventional painting. It was only a ray of the dawn after a dark night, but it announced a glorious sunrise of art and the confident anticipations of the wondrous day to come, aroused the depths of feeling in the peoples' hearts. Life and nature went back into art once more; no wonder their re-apparition was saluted with so much delight.

Two other Madonnas painted by him, one at Florence in the Academy, the other in Paris in the Louvre, besides his great Mosaic in the apse of the Cathedral at Pisa, serve to show with what prudence Cimabue introduced naturalistic qualities into art, while always respecting the tradition of the older art and preserving the solemn graces and the majestic style of monumental painting. The old frescoes of the upper church at Assisi which represent episodes in the life of St. Francis have also been attributed to Cimabue, but evidently were done by a number of artists probably under his direction. It is easy to see from them what an important role the Florentine artist played in directing the gropings of his assistant artists.

After Cimabue the most important name at Florentine in the Thirteenth Century is that of his friend, Gaddo Gaddi, whose years of life correspond almost exactly with those of his great contemporary. His famous Coronation of the Virgin at Santa Maria de Fiore in Florence shows that he was greatly influenced by the new ideas that had come into art. Greater than either of these well-known predecessors however, was Giotto the friend of Dante, whose work is still considered worthy of study by artists because of certain qualities in which it never has been surpassed nor quite outgrown. From Giotto, however, we shall turn aside for a moment to say something of the development of art in other cities of Italy, for it must not be thought that Florence was the only one to take up the new art methods which developed so marvelously during the Thirteenth Century.

Even before the phenomenal rise of modern art in Florence, at Pisa, at Lucca and especially at Siena, the new wind of the spirit was felt blowing and some fine inspirations were realized in spite of hampering difficulties of all kinds. The Madonna of Guido in the Church of St. Dominic at Siena is the proof of his emancipation. Besides him Ugolino, Segna and Duccio make up the Siena school and enable this other Tuscan city to dispute even with Florence the priority of the new influence in art. At Lucca Bonaventure Berlinghieri flourished and there is a famous St. Francis by him only recently found, which proves his right to a place among the great founders of modern art. Giunta of Pisa was one of those called to Assisi to paint some of the frescoes in the upper church. He is noted as having striven to make his figures more exact and his colors more natural. He did much to help his generation away from the conventional expressions of the preceding time and he must for this reason be counted among the great original geniuses in the history of art.

The greatest name in the art of the Thirteenth Century is of course that of Giotto. What Dante did for poetry and Villani for history, their compatriot and friend did for painting. Ambrogio de Bondone familiarly called Ambrogiotto (and with the abbreviating habit that the Italians have always had for the names of all those of whom they thought much shortened to Giotto, as indeed Dante's name had been shortened from Durante) was born just at the beginning of the last quarter of the Thirteenth Century. According to a well-known legend he was guarding the sheep of his father one day and passing his time sketching a lamb upon a smooth stone with a soft pebble when Cimabue happened to be passing. The painter struck by the -- signs of genius in the work took the boy with him to Florence, where he made rapid progress in art and soon surpassed even his master. The wonderful precocity of his genius may be best realized from the fact that at the age of twenty he was given the commission of finishing the decorations of the upper Church at Assisi, and in fulfilling it broke so completely with the Byzantine formalism of the preceding millenium, that he must be considered the liberator of art and its deliverer from the chains of conventionalism into the freedom of nature.

It is no wonder that critics and literary men have been so unstinted in his praise. Here is an example:

"In the Decamerone it is said of him 'that he was so great a genius that there was nothing in nature he had not so reproduced that it was not only like the thing, but seemed to be the thing itself.' Eulogies of this tenor on works of art are, it is quite true, common to all periods alike, to the most accomplished of classical antiquity as well as to the most primitive of the Middle Age; and they must only be accepted relatively, according to the notion entertained by each period of what constitutes truth and naturalness. And from the point of view of his age, Giotto's advance towards nature, considered relatively to his predecessors, was in truth enormous. What he sought was not merely the external truth of sense, but also the inward truth of the spirit. Instead of solemn images of devotion, he painted pictures in which the spectator beheld the likeness of human beings in the exercise of activity and intelligence. His merit lies, as has been well said, in 'an entirely new conception of character and facts.'"{2}

Lafenestre, in his history of Italian painting for the BeauxArts of Paris already referred to, says that what has survived of Giotto's work justifies the enthusiasm of his contemporaries. None of his predecessors accomplished anything like the revolution that he worked. He fixed the destinies of art in Italy at the moment when Dante fixed those of literature. The stiff, confused figures of the mosaics and manuscripts grew supple under his fingers and the confusion disappeared. He simplified the gestures, varied the expression, rectified the proportions. Perhaps the best example of his work is that of the upper Church of Assisi, all accomplished before he was thirty. What he had to represent were scenes of life almost contemporary yet already raised to the realm of poetry by popular admiration. He interpreted the beautiful legend of the life of the Saint preserved by St. Bonaventure, and like the subject of his sketches turned to nature at every step of his work. If his figures are compared with those of the artists of the preceding generations, their truth to life and natural expressions easily explain the surprise and the rapture of his contemporaries.

Beautiful as are the pictures of the Upper Church, however, ten years after their completion Giotto's genius can be seen to have taken a still higher flight by the study of the pictures on the vast ceilings of the Lower Church. The four compartments contain the Triumph of Chastity, the Triumph of Poverty, the Triumph of Obedience, and the Glorification of St. Francis. The ideal and the real figures in these compositions are mingled and grouped with admirable clearness and inventive force. To be appreciated properly they must be seen and studied in situ. Many an artist has made the pilgrimage to Assisi and none has come away disappointed. Never before had an artist dared to introduce so many and such numerous figures, yet all were done with a variety and an ease of movement that is eminently pleasing and even now are thoroughly satisfying to the artistic mind. After his work at Assisi some of the best of Giotto's pictures are to be found in the Chapel of the Arena at Padua. Here there was a magnificent opportunity and Giotto took full advantage of it. The whole story of Christ's life is told in the fourteen episodes of the life of his Mother which were painted here by Giotto. For their sake Padua as well as Assisi has been a favorite place of pilgrimage for artists ever since and never more so than in our own time.

No greater tribute to the century in which he lived could possibly be given than to say that his genius was recognized at once, and he was sought from one end of Italy to another by Popes and Kings, Republics and Princes, Convents and Municipalities, all of which competed for the privilege of having this genius work for them with ever increasing enthusiasm. It is easy to think and to say that it is no wonder that such a transcendent genius was recognized and appreciated and received his due reward. Such has not usually been the case in history, however. On the contrary, the more imposing the genius of an artist, or a scientist, or any other great innovator in things human, the more surely has he been the subject of neglect and even of misunderstanding and persecution. The very fact that Giotto lifted art out of the routine of formalism in which it was sunk might seem to be enough to assure failure of appreciation. Men do not suddenly turn round to like even great innovations, when they have long been satisfied with something less and when their principles of criticism have been formed by their experience with the old.

We need not go farther back than our own supposedly illuminated Nineteenth Century to find some striking examples of this. Turner, the great English landscapist, failed of appreciation for long years and had to wait till the end of his life to obtain even a small meed of reward. The famous Barbizon School of French Painters is a still more striking example. They went back to nature from the classic formalism of the early Nineteenth Century painters just as Giotto went back to nature from Byzantine conventionalism. The immediate rewards in the two cases were very different and the attitude of contemporaries strikingly contrasted. Poor Millet did his magnificent work in spite of the fact that his family nearly starved. Only that Madame Millet was satisfied to take more than a fair share of hardships for herself and the family in order that her husband might have the opportunity to develop his genius after his own way, we might not have had the magnificent pictures which Millet sold for a few paltry francs that barely kept the wolf from the door, and for which the next generation has been paying almost fabulous sums.

All through the Thirteenth Century this characteristic will be found that genius did not as a rule lack appreciation. The greater the revolution a genuinely progressive thinker and worker tried to accomplish in human progress, the more sure was he to obtain not only a ready audience, but an enthusiastic and encouraging following. This is the greatest compliment that could be paid to the enlightenment of the age. Men's minds were open and they were ready and willing to see things differently from what they had been accustomed to before. This constitutes after all the best possible guarantee of progress. It is, however, very probably the last thing that we would think of attributing to these generations of the Thirteenth Century, who are usually said very frankly to have been wrapped up in their own notions, to have been only too ready to accept things on authority rather than by their own powers of observation and judgment, and to have been clingers to the past rather than lookers to the present and the future. Giotto's life shows better than any other how much this prejudiced view of the Thirteenth Century and perforce of the Middle Age needs to be corrected.

During forty years Giotto responded to every demand, and made himself suffice for every call, worked in nearly every important city of Italy, enkindling everywhere he went the new light of art. Before the end of the century he completed a cartoon for the famous picture of the Boat of Peter which was to adorn the Facade of St. Peter's. He was in Rome in 1300, the first jubilee year, arranging the decorations at St. John Lateran. The next year he was at Florence, working in the Palace of the Podesta. And so it went for full two score years. He was at Pisa, at Lucca, at Arezzo, at Padua, at Milan, then he went South to Urbino, to Rome and then even to Naples. Unfortunately the strain of all this work proved too much for him and he was carried away at the comparatively early age of sixty in the midst of his artistic vigor and glory.

The art of the Middle Ages and especially at the time of the beginnings of modern art in the Thirteenth Century, is commonly supposed to be inextricably bound up with certain influences which place it beyond the pale of imitation for modern life. It has frequently been said, that this art besides being too deeply mystical and pietistic, is so remote from ordinary human feelings as to preclude a proper understanding of it by the men of our time and certainly prevent any deep sympathy. The pagan element in art which entered at the time of the Renaissance and which emphasized the joy of life itself and the pleasure of mere living for its own sake, is supposed to have modified this sadder aspect of things in the earlier art, so that now no one would care to go back to the pre-Renaissance day. There has been so much writing of this kind that has carried weight, that it is no wonder that the impression has been deeply made. It is founded almost entirely on a misunderstanding, however. Reinach whom we have quoted before completelv overturns this false notion in some paragraphs which bring out better than any others that we know something of the true significance of the Thirteenth Century art in this particular.

Those who think that Gothic art was mainly gloomy in character, or if not absolutely sad at heart that it always expressed the sadder portion of religious feelings, who consider that the ascetic side of life was always in the ascendant and the brighter side of things seldom chosen, for pictorial purposes, should recall that the Gothic Cathedrals themselves are the most cheery and lightsome buildings, that indeed they owe their character as creations of a new idea in architecture to the determined purpose of their builders to get admission for all possible light in the dreary Northern climates. The contradiction of the idea that Gothic art in its essence was gloomy will at once be manifest from this. Quite apart from this, however, if Gothic art be studied for itself and in its subjects, that of the Thirteenth Century particularly will be found far distant from anything that would justify the criticism of over sadness. Reinach (in his Story of Art Throughout the Middle Ages) has stated this so clearly that we prefer simply to quote the passage which is at once authoritative and informing:

"It has also been said that Gothic art bears the impress of ardent piety and emotional mysticism, that it dwells on the suffering of Jesus, of the Virgin, and of the martyrs with harrowing persistency. Those who believe this have never studied Gothic art. It is so far from the truth that, as a fact, the Gothic art of the best period, the Thirteenth Century, never represented any sufferings save those of the damned. The Virgins are smiling and gracious, never grief stricken. There is not a single Gothic rendering of the Virgin weeping at the foot of the cross. The words and music of the Stabat Mater, which are sometimes instanced as the highest expression of the religion of the Middle Ages, date from the end of the Thirteenth Century at the very earliest, and did not become popular till the Fifteenth Century. Jesus himself is not represented as suffering, but with a serene and majestic expression. The famous statue known as the Beau Dien d'Amiens may be instanced as typical."

{1} Most of this chapter is taken from the work on Italian painting (La Peinture Italienne depuis les origines jusqu'a la fin du xv Siecle, par Georges Lafenestre, Paris Ancienne Maison Quantin Libraries-Imprimeries Reunies, May & Motteroz, Directeurs, rue Saint-Benoit. Nouvelle Edition), which forms one of the series of text books for instruction in art at L'Ecole Des Beaux-Arts -- the famous French Government Art School in Paris. It may be said that this collection of art manuals is recognized as an authority on all matters treated of, having been crowned by the Academie Des Beaux-Arts with the prize Bordin. There is no better source of information with regard to the development of the arts and none which can be more readily consulted nor with more assurance as to the facts and opinions exposed.

{2} History of Ancient, Early Christian and Medieval Painting from the German of the late Dr. Alfred Woltmaun, Professor at the Imperial University of Strasburg, and karl Woertmann, Professor at the Royal Academy of Arts, Dusselford. Edited by Sidney Colvin, M. A., Dodd, Mead & Co., N. Y., 1894.

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