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The work of Fra Angelico da Fiesole reproduced in three hundred and twenty-seven illustrations online

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FRA ANGELICO



DA FIESOLE



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Bildnisse der Fra Angelico und Luca Signorelli

(Aussclinitt aus Signorellis „Sturz des Antichrist")



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reproduced in

Three Hundred and Twenty-seven

Illustrations



WITH A BIOGRAPHICAL INTRODUCTION^



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NEW YORK
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THE WORK OF

FRA ANGELICO ^
DA FIESOLE ,






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Copyright, IQIJ, by Brentano's



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FRA GIOVANNI ANGELICO

FIESOLE

HIS LIFE AND WORK

Evolution has taught us that each new development is not a
fresh creation, but is the outcome of the fruits of previous realiza-
tions. This is true of art as it is of all natural things. A so-called
Golden Age in Art is the result of prior ages less rich in achieve-
ments, and a declining age may be the forerunner of another Golden
Age, contributing necessary elements, even though it seems to have
been a period of failure. The age of Giotto or of Giovanni Pisano
was followed by a declining period, but in the decline came Don-
atello and Masaccio. After these again came a seeming retrogres-
sion In the second half of the early Renaissance ; but the retrogression
resolved itself into a progression in that it assisted to bring about
the age of Michel Angelo and Raffael. Another phenomenon to
be noted in the evolution of art is that along with the new there is
often found a single complete flowering of the old, as if the old had
put forth its last energies before it died out altogether. This is what
we find in the age of Masaccio, Donatello and Brunelleschi, when
Ghiberti and Era Angelico are the final expressions of the older
traditions. Both these men were undoubtedly influenced by tiie new
naturalistic movement, and Angelico, in his late works, actually dis-
carded the Gothic line in the dress of his figures; yet the mainspring
of their art took its source in the old traditions, and their charac-
teristics are harmony and noble rhythm rather than a faithful re-
production of nature. Era Angelico remained Gothic, and in this
sense, he may be said to be the final blossoming of the dying flower
of the Middle Ages.

Era Anr '*co was better known in his own day by the cognomen
of Eiesole, w i.ic monastery in which as a young man he entered
and chose aS his life home. He was born in 1387, at Vicchio, a

5



Florentine settlement of the fourteenth century directed against the
powerful Counts of Guidi. In his early years he was known as Guido
di Vicchio. Vasari gives 1390 as the date of his birth, but to-day
the earlier year is more generally accepted. Of his family we know
no more than that his father was named Pietro, and that he had a
brother named Giovanni, who entered the monastery with him and
took the name of Benedetto. We are in complete ignorance as to
who his teachers were. It is probable that he had already learned
to paint before he came to the Dominicans. The first picture of
which the date (1433) is positively established, he painted when he
was forty-six years old, and he died at the age of sixty-eight. The
bulk of his work was done in these twenty years, and only of this
period do we possess anything like precise information as to his life
and work.

Of Donatello (who was a year older than Angelito) and the
sculptors who were contemporary with him, the records tell us much ;
but of the painters of this same period — Bicci di Lorenzo, Jacopo
di Roselli Franchi, and Giovanni da Ponte — the men with whom
Guido di Vicchio grew up, of these the records tell us next to nothing.
Recent investigation has concerned itself more intimately wath these
" umili pittori," and though it has uncovered important facts con-
cerning most of them, it has left us still in the dark regarding the
subject of this biography. All that it has enabled us to do is to place
Fra Angelico in his historical position.

It would be unjust to compare Fra Angelico with Masaccio,
who was fourteen years his junior. He should more properly be
judged with such men as Roselli Franchi, Masolino, and Giovanni
da Ponte. At the same time w^e must not forget that the Dominican
was more influenced by Umbrian art than were these painters. All
of them learned from Gentile da Fabriano's t\vo famous master-
pieces for S. Trinita and S. Niccolo; but prior to the completion
of these paintings Angelico had spent the first twenty years of his
life — always an important period for an artist — almost entirely in
Umbria, in Cortona and in Foligno.

Another consideration which should weigh with us in our judg-
ment of Angelico's work is that his life was spent within monastic
walls. The life of silence and prayer, with its obedience to the strict
rules of the Dominican Order, must have had no little effect on
the man and his point of view. This life and the landscape of his
home, of Umbria and Fiesole and later that of Rome, are to be seen
everywhere reflected in his works. Angelico was called to Rome

6



by Pope Eugenius IV, who was closely allied with the Dominicans,
and it was probably due to this that Angelico, then a sexageaarian,
became, for the first time, known to the world outside the narrow
confines of the Order and his native district.

He entered the monastery in 1407, when he was twenty years
of age. His early paintings (none of which has been preserved)
were probably similar to the early works of Giovanni da Ponte, who
was of an age with Angelico. Da Ponte's early work may be seen
in the frescoes of San Michele, from which it is evident he fol-
lowed the traditions of the old school.

Some critics suggest that Spinelli Aretino taught both Da Ponte
and the friar; others state that Angelico's teacher was Stamina, the
teacher of Masolino. Be this as it may, the oldest of the paintings
by Angelico known to us emanate from the Umbrian period, and
show but slight marks of the later Trecento art.

Of the paintings Angelico executed for his monastery but a
small part remains to-day. It is most likely that his earliest work
was destroyed or whitewashed over when the building was recon-
structed in 1627. His great " Crucifixion " in the Chapter Hall was,
only a few years ago, discovered behind a coating of whitewash.
It is one of the friar's most powerful creations. While in compo-
sition and expression it resembles Donatello's austere work in S.
Croce, the effect is entirely different from that created by the sculp-
tor's " Crucifixion." It is symbolic and not realistic, as is Donatello's
work. Angelico returned to this subject in his later years, but he
never attained to such austere dignity and majestic beauty as this
" Crucifixion " possesses. A fresco of an oval Madonna, smaller in
size than the " Crucifixion," was also discovered in the monastery.
Unfortunately, faulty restoration has left it in a sad condition. It
was enlarged and painted over, in 1501, by Lorenzo di Credi, a pupil
of Verrocchio. In the original painting the saints were placed in a
single row on a gold background. The figures differed very little
from those in other examples of the late Trecento period.

Two frescoes from Fiesole, both much painted over, and prob-
ably of the artist's later years, are now in St. Petersburg and Paris.
One represents Mary and the Child between St. Dominic and
Thomas Aquinas, and the other Christ on the Cross, lamented by
Mary, John and St. Dominic. Only a small part of the second fresco
seems to be by the Fra himself. But the Louvre contains another
work from Fiesole, which is of much greater value. This is an
altarpiece of " The Coronation of Mary," with scenes illustrating

7



Dominican legends in the ornamentation of the slanting side pic-
tures.- The painting is of an austere splendor, but, unfortunately,
time has dealt severely with it, and much of the richness of the orig-
inal coloring is lost. The painting shows distinct influences of
Masaccio, Brunelleschi and Donatello, especially in the treatment
of details.

To an earlier period than that to which this altarpiece belongs
must be ascribed a few paintings, more modest in size, especially the
miniature-like Madonnas. The series begins with the Madonnas
now at Parma and the Staedel Institute. Both of these evince re-
lations with older art, more particularly with the work of Lorenzo
Monaco. Angel ico's own style is to be seen in those Gothic
reliquaries which he painted for the Church of S. Maria Novella,
and in the beautiful Madonna in the Vatican. This Madonna is a
replica of the centre-group in the Fiesole altarpiece. As in most
of Angelico's paintings of this subject the throne of the Madonna
is covered with gold brocade, and gives the appearance of a rich
Oriental rug which serves as a background. Of these gold Reli-
quaries three are known: one is in the Monastery of San Marco, one
is in the possession of Mrs. Jack Gardner, of Boston, and one
is in the house of Count Stroganofif in Rome. These Madonnas are
characterized by the adoring angels peculiar to the art of this " an-
gelic " painter. In the Stroganofif picture the Madonna is in pro-
file, an unusual treatment for this artist. It is possible that Angelico
found his model for this painting in the popular marble relief, now
in Berlin.

The reliquary in the Museum at San Marco is richer in
coloring and decoration. It also represents the Annunciation of
Mary and the Adoration of the Three Kings in the centre, and is
most expressive. There is to be noted in it some attention to per-
spective. Here again the background is composed of a splendidly
colored rug. The reliquary in the possession of Mrs. Jack Gardner
is unquestionably a masterpiece. In the lower part of the paint-
ing is a dense mass of figures, and above, the Virgin, surrounded
by a corona of horizontally placed angels, seems to be slowly and
gently ascending to heaven. The picture bears witness, as do few
of Angelico's works, to the mastery of the man's beautiful art. It is
Gothic in style and not Renaissance, but what Gothic! If we com-
pare this reliquary with Donatello's relief of the " Ascension " in
Naples, the difference between these two periods of art will be most
distinctly realized. In Angelico's painting there is not a suspicion

8



of real movement; in Donatello's sculpture the very flesh and muscles
breathe the energy of the body in its upward flight.

Further examples of this, which may be called " the art of
line," are " The Last Judgment," in the Academy of Florence, " The
Coronation of Mary," in the Uffizi, and "The Last Judgment," of
a later period, now in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum at Berlin. The
Florence "Judgment'' is most charming in its arrangement and in
the beautiful corona of angels. The composition is certainly An-
gelico's, even if much of the actual painting was done by his pupils
and assistants. The " Coronation " has much in common with the
larger " Coronation " in Paris, chiefly noticeable in the gradation
of the strongly plastic figures and in the arrangement of the rows,
one above the other, of the attendant people. The Uffizi painting,
however, gives a delightful impression of heavenly splendor by
means of luminous colors against a gold background. The groups
in the foreground are more realistic in treatment, even though these
also float in bluish clouds. One speculates whether Angelico had
here, in a vague way, felt the problems which, later, Titian, Tin-
toretto and Rubens solved.

Angelico's smaller paintings of this period arc much finer in
execution than are his large altarpieces. It would appear as if he had
not yet mastered the technique of his art. Charming indeed is the
harmony of the light coloring with the gold backgrounds of these
small pieces; but the early Madonna altarpiece at S. Domenico and
the one for the Anna-Lena Monastery in the Academy are alike
primitive by comparison. This must also be said of the very large
work he executed for the Wool-Carders' Guild, and now in the Uflizi,
for which Ghiberti designed the stone frame. The figures, in this
painting especially, are larger than life-size and are exceedingly
stifif. The treatment of the Virgin and Child, while rich and im-
pressive, is yet severe. The Madonna herself, however, is of the
soft, oval type, evidently derived from Lorenzo Monaco, and the
model for Angelico's later Madonnas. The Wool-Carders' picture
is the first of the artist's works to which an accurate date can be
assigned, ^t was ordered by the Guild in 1433, while Angelico was
still living at San Domenico, a fact which would seem to indicate
that his fame had traveled to Florence. Probably it was shortly
after this date that he painted another picture for Florence, namely,
the large " Descent from the Cross," which is now in the Florence
Academy. It was ordered for the Church of S. Trinita, where hung
Gentile da Fabriano's " Three Wise Men." For many years both

9



these paintings were shown together, to the detriment of Angelico's
work, which never was as fine as Fabriano's altarpiece in coloring.
The latter far excelled Angelico, especially in the realization of the
play of light on field and sky, and this superiority is very marked
when these two pictures are seen together, side by side. To-day
Angelico's " Descent " is in a sad state. It was painted over in such
execrable taste that the original painting has almost been entirely
destroyed.

Perhaps only an Italian can feel sympathetically and appre-
ciate the simplicity and the naivete of Angelico's paintings. To the
sterner Northerner the sentiment borders dangerously near to sen-
timentality and even silly affectation; but we can well believe that
to a native the Descent from the Cross on to a flowered lawn, with
the hills of Fiesole in the far distance, must have appealed poignantly
like a parting from a beloved birthplace and home. This sense of
leave-taking suggests the possibility that Angelico was here express-
ing his own feelings, since at the time he painted the picture nego-
tiations were in progress for the removal of the Reformed Domin-
icans to Florence — first to the Monastery of San Giorgio, and later
to that of San Marco.

The monks of St. Sylvester had owned this larger estate of
San Marco since 1299. The Order had, however, declined to so
low a condition that the number of monks remaining in the monastery
amounted to but twelve. For this reason, and on the advice of
Cosimo de' Medici, Pope Eugenius IV ordered the Sylvestrians,
in 1436, to exchange their place of residence with the Dominicans,
giving to these the larger San Marco and taking to themselves the
smaller San Giorgio. The Dominicans, however, on taking pos-
session of their new home, quickly discovered that the place was
in a very bad state of repair and almost unfit for habitation. Sick-
ness broke out among the monks and several of the brethren died.
Happily, Cosimo de' Medici came to their help. He contributed
money and sent his architect, Michelozzo, to rebuild the monastery
buildings. The upper story, the choir and tribune of the chapel, all
were rebuilt, as also were the library and cloisters, and '-n 145 1 the
Monastery of San Marco had risen up anew. Almost all the rooms
of his new monastery were decorated with frescoes by Fra Angelico
and his pupils and assistants, so that even to this day San Marco is
a veritable art gallery devoted to this artist's genius. In addition
to the exquisite paintings of Angelico and his records of his holy
visions, the place is perfumed with the memory of Fra Girolamo

10



Savonarola, who fought so strenuously for the Lord and who died
fighting.

In rebuilding their monastery, Michelozzo kept faith with the
severe rules of the Dominicans; he avoided all undue ornamenta-
tion. The cells are small and low, and the rafters are visible in
all the corridors; doors and windows are rounded above, and the
light is reflected from whitewashed walls. Angelico painted his
frescoes on the comparatively dark walls of the windows. Each
fresco in each cell was intended to serve as an altarpicce for the
occupier of the cell. Each fresco, like each window, is rounded
above, and all, practically, are in the same light. This great series
of paintings forms one of the most important chapters in the his-
tory of Angelico's life-work. When we remember that the time he
spent on this work could not have been very long, we must conclude
that the artist employed many assistants. The building itself was
finished in 145 1, but in 1445 Angelico went to Rome and only re-
turned to Florence in 1450. Furthermore, he had accepted com-
missions from other places, and we know also that he took a short
trip to Umbria.

The altarpieces at Cortona and Perugia were formerly ascribed
to the early period of Angelico's life, to the time he spent in Umbria;
but though the Cortona Madonna, from its Gothic frame, would
indicate an early date, yet the figures of the saints, especially that
of Mary Magdalen, point to the same pupil who helped him with
the later '' Lamentation," and some of the San Marco frescoes. The
predella, to-day in the Baptismal Church of Jesus at Cortona, is
entirely the work of assistants, and mainly copied from the Domin-
ican predella at the Louvre. The Madonna herself is much more
finished than the one done for the Guild of the Wool-Carders, and
appears to be a study for the one at Perugia. The " Annunciation "
— also at Cortona — belongs, probably, to Angelico's last years at
Fiesole. The altar painting at Perugia, on the other hand, reveals
distinct relationship with later art. Only parts of it remain to-day,
but there is no doubt that its Gothic structure was very like that of
the Cortona Madonna. The figures to the left, those of Dominic
and Nicholas, are probably by Angelico himself, and show him in
a new stage of development. Hitherto his heads were unfinished
and flat; here they are remarkably plastic.

The order, in time, of the building of San Marco is, probably,
the order in date of the painting of Angelico's frescoes for it. The
upper story was the first to be built, and the cells in this story were

1 1



the first to be decorated. Later, came the rooms of the first corridor,
opposite to and alongside of the library. Of the three frescoes in
the corridors, which, probably, were done at the end of the Florence
period, the Madonna with the Saints as well as the Crucifixion are
not entirely Angelico's work; but the large " Annunciation " seems
unquestionably to be the work of the master's hand. The decora-
tion of the cells along the corridor was, probably, finished in later
years, after Angelico had left for Rome. Or, he may have designed
them between the years 1450 and 1452, when he was once more in
Tuscany. The last cell in this row is the one that Savonarola occu-
pied. It was decorated much later by Fra Bartollomeo della Porta.
Of the frescoes in the lower story those in the cloister were, probably,
painted first, and then came the large " Crucifixion " in the Chapter
Hall. This last painting remained unfinished when Angelico was
called to Rome. The subject chosen for the frescoes of the Cloister
and the Chapter Hall was Christ and His Martyrdom, as being the
heart of the Christian faith. Round this subject the saintly breth-
ren of the Order of the Dominicans were represented as Confes-
sors of the Faith. For the cells the main subjects for treatment
were taken from the lives of Christ and the Virgin. The " Cruci-
fixion " is often represented, but never repeated in the same fashion.
Portraits of St. Dominic, St. Peter Martyr, St. Thomas Aquinas,
and even St. Francis, the founder of the Order, are freely introduced
in the paintings. The landscape is not Tuscan, but is filled with
the simple motives of Renaissance architecture; especially rows of
slender columns similar to those of the Cloister of San Marco itself
occupy the artist's fancy. In these there is much less of accessory
decoration than there is in the larger paintings. Exceptions to this
are the " Christ in the Garden," " The Temptation in the Desert,"
" The Garden of Gethsemane." The Savior speaks His *' Noli me
tangere " in a most beautifully laid out garden. In the " Tempta-
tion," though the painting is in a sad state of decay, there are still
to be seen the bright river-valley and the surrounding hills, very
unlike a desert. The Gethsemane picture shows Christ kneeling in
a landscape lit up by the moon shining through trees.

But the artistic value of all these paintings lies not in their de-
tails but in their composition and in their simple color harmonies.
The composition is always perfectly distinct and almost always re-
tains the noble rhythm inherited from the Gothic. The Passion of
the Savioi is never realistically treated, though a somewhat stronger
accent is given to Mary's grief, and the lamentations of the disciples.

12



But the praying of the founder of the Order is true passion. Angel-
ico repeats this one theme over and over again, varying its treatment
from quiet meditation to agonizing suffering and self-castigation,
until the Dominican is seen overcome with grief and stretched prone
on the floor lying with outstretched arms in the shadow of the Cross.

Of the other frescoes in the first corridor, the " Transfiguration
on Mount Tabor," " Christ mocked before Pontius Pilate " and
"The Coronation of Mary" deserve special study. By their har-
mony of line and finish of form they are seen at once to be by the
master's own hand. In " The Transfiguration " the visionary ele-
ment is expressed, less by the shining nimbus, as it is by means of
the exaggeration of the size of the Savior's figure in comparison
with the small and cowering^ figures of the disciples and prophets
below\ The outstretched arms into the clouds recall Diirer's concep-
tion of God throned between two lights. The apparently quiet pose
produces an astonishing impression of greatness. In the neighboring
cell the Passion is pictured, but the efifect realized is very poor. In
"The Coronation" Angelico placed the Virgin, as he formerly did
in his gold background paintings in the Uffizi, in the heavens. In
this painting, however, she is somewhat more realistically repre-
sented. The white clothing of the Mother and Son on a yellowish
background is in strong contrast with the brown and blue-gray cas-
socks of the monks. The harmeny of line and the grace of movement
give to this painting a quality which few of Angelico's other works
possess.

Most of the paintings in the first corridor lack Angelico's purity
of spirit and telling beauty, w^hich are so manifest in "The Mock-
ing of Christ" and in "The Annunciation." Probably they were
done by his pupils and assistants. It may also be that they are the
beginning of the master's later style which came to full expression in
the Roman frescoes. There is much more of realism in them tlian
there is in the other paintings.

The problems Angelico had to solve for the decoration of the
Cloister and Chapter Hall were different from and much more diffi-
cult than those set by the upper story of the Monastery. In the upper
story each whitewashed cell was decorated with a single fresco; in
the Cloister only part of the walls was to be treated, leaving the
rest empty. Above the doorways were pointed lunettes, and these
were filled WMth paintings inculcating obedience, silence and medi-
tation. For this purpose Angelico employed the figures of the dis-
tinguished members of the Order— St. Dominic, Peter Martyr and

13



Thomas Aquinas. Over another door rises from his coffin the form
of the suffering Savior, a composition of noble rhythm, treated sim-


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Online LibraryFrida ScottmüllerThe work of Fra Angelico da Fiesole reproduced in three hundred and twenty-seven illustrations → online text (page 1 of 5)