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The life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order online

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compares their enthusiasm to a delirium. They threw
themselves into the ranks of the order like volunteers
flocking to a patriot band ; and, indeed, at that time the
purification of art and of literature was regarded as a kind


of patriotism. On the one hand were those who usurped
a despotism over Florence, and sought to govern her hy
her degradation ; on the other side was the cause of
the republic ; and, as Savonarola would fain have had it
thought, that cause was indissolubly tied up with social
reform, and the restoration of Christian purity in morals,
letters and education. It was a tremendous struggle, and
we well know how it ended. Yet, ere the bloood of

the great victim flowed, he had achieved a triumph, the
memory of which was not to be effaced even by the fury of
the Arrabbiati.

Not to dwell too long on the details of a period whose
interest insensibly carries us beyond our limits, we must
just give the account left us by Burlamacchi, of one of
the reformed carnival festivities. A year or two before,
these hoildays had been ovations to vice : they were now
made the solemn inauguration of restored Christianity.

" At the beginning of the carnival, 1497, the father
ordered that there should be a very solemn procession,
full of mysteries ; and he caused to be erected in the
Piazza dei Signori, a large cabin, within which were
collected all vain and abominable objects which the
children had gathered from all parts of the city. The
joiners had constructed a pyramid, and in its hollow
placed a great quantity of brushwood and gunpowder.
On its steps were laid and arranged all the various offen-
sive objects. On the first step, most precious tapestries,
whereon indecent figures had been worked ; above them
figures and portraits of the fairest damsels of Florence;
on another step, cards, dice, and such like diabolical inven-
tions ; on another, musical instruments of all kinds.
Then came the adornments of women : false hair, mirrors,
perfumes, cyprus-powder, and similar varieties. Then
masks, beards, and other carnival trumpery. Then the
works of the Latin and modern poets, Boccaccio, Petrarch,
and the like. Then many most beautiful works of the
chisel and the pencil, with some ivory and alabaster chess-
men for which a certain Venetian merchant had offered
20,000 crowns ; but, instead of letting him have them,
they painted him to the life, enthroned him at the


top as the king of all these vanities. Then the whole
was set on fire, the flames mounted up to heaven, and all
these vanities were consumed."

Some of our readers may think this indiscriminate
destruction of the chefs oVauvres of the Florentine artists
a strange instance to cite in illustration of the services
rendered by Savonarola to the cause of art ; and coupling
such a fact with the circumstance of his oppposition having
been directed against works of the pagan or classical
school, they may receive an impression that the question
was a mere rivalry of styles, and that the zeal shown by
the Dominican friar was but a development of that
bigoted medievalism which would limit Christian art to
one form of expression, and would resist the renaissance
of the 15th century simply as being a departure from the
antique ecclesiastical type. To hold up such a principle
as worthy of veneration and imitation would not only be
a mistake, but even a dangerous one, calculated to foster
that insidious error so inseparable from an heretical
spirit, the inclination, namely, to petrify truth into some
particular form arbitrarily chosen, denying to the Church
her power of adopting every variety of style and system,
and bending them to her purpose ; and above all it would
be to encourage that disposition to exalt antiquity over the
Church's living authority, which, even when it does not
extend to an actaul revolt against her teaching, argues
but a cold sympathy with her in matters of feeling, and has
been the Jansenism of every age.

For it cannot be forgotten that, whatever be each one's
taste in such matters, there could plainly be no question
of orthodoxy involved in the struggle between mediaeval
art and the cinque cento. Even if there were a secret
danger lurking in the revival of a style closely associated
with paganism, the Church had power to annul the evil by
consecrating those classic forms to Christian purposes;
and that she has done so, and in the centre of Chris-
tendom has permitted the modern taste to prevail
over the Mediaeval style, ought not to be without its
significance to those amongst ourselves who would pin
down Catholicism in art and architecture to the taste of


any particular century chosen by themselves. We are
aware that the advocates of the modern classical renais-
sance go even further, and not only marvel how the
grotesque forms of the middle ages can be preferred to
the truer delineation of nature, and bolder design of the
school of artists who sprang up during the age of the
Medici, but assert that the genius of the great men of
the fifteenth century has created a new era in Christian
aesthetics, and that the result has been not merely the
adaptation of the classical forms to the warmer and more
joyous spirit which characterizes the modern Church,
but the creation of a style by which that spirit must be
almost exclusively expressed. Nor is it wonderful that
they who have drunk in Catholic devotional feeling under
the wonderful dome of Michael Angelo, or before the
unscreened altars of modern Rome, and who find in the
Madonnas of Rafaele and his contemporaries their highest
ideals of human beauty, should corae to associate Grecian
architecture and the productions of a school of painting
which avowedly drew its inspiration from life and nature,
with their own tenderest impressions of Catholic worship ;
and that, overlooking with an indulgent partiality the
sensualism which too often mingles with the beauty,
they should claim the pre-eminence in Christian art for
that style which is identified in their minds with modern

We have no wish to impose the severer rules of
ancient taste on those with whose devotion it has ceased
to harmonize ; doubtless, what spiritual writers afiinn
of the individual soul is true of the world at large,
and to adopt the expression of S. Catherine, " the heart
cannot always abide in one mode of receiving the
Divine visitation, as though God were not able to act
through other means and in other ways."* Nor would
we overlook the fact that one secret of the Church's
strength lies in her power of absorbing into herself all
popular emotions, and pressing them into the service
of the faith. As she seized on the military enthusiasm
of a semi-barbarous age, raising out of it the beautiful
«• Dialogo, cap. 71.


fabric of Christian chivalry, and at a later period over-
powered the relationship of the schools by adapting their
system into her own scheme of Christian philosophy,
■ — and as in each succeeding age she has kept her mastery
over the world less by crushing than by directing those
varying forms of popular enthusiasm which in bodies
separated from her guidance have resulted in wild and
fanatic excess, — so there cannot be a doubt that she did
well and wisely in receiving the classical renaissance into
her bosom, and robbing its beauties of their paganism
by identifying them with the associations of Christian

Against this principle Savonarola's zeal was in no
way directed : his crusade was against sensualism in
art, wherever it might be found existing; but we can
nowhere find any condemnation pronounced by him of
one style rather than of another. So far from wishing
to stifle the study and imitation of nature under due
restrictions, or from attempting to stiffen Christian art
into any given shape no longer in harmony with the
popular taste and feeling, we know that the disciples
whom he formed on his own principles did not any of
them follow the mediaeval models, and that the greatest
of them all, and he who certainly was most profoundly
imbued with his master's teaching, Fra Bartolomeo, is
thought in his boldness of conception and design to
follow closely on the steps of Michael Angelo, whom he
is often said to resemble. No doubt the eagle eye of the
Dominican friar saw the weak point of the rising school,
and was forewarned of the inevitable consequence of taking
any standard of human beauty for the ideals of divine
forms. If, when he denounced in such tremendous terms
the "gross materialism" which was taking the place of the
purely spiritual creations of elder days, and so often set
before his hearers, in discourses whose sublimity has never
been surpassed, the idea of Jesus as the type of regener-
ated humanity, he showed little mercy on genius when
defaced by what he deemed the evil stamp of a licentious
character, this was no mediaeval bigotry ; although we
may fancy his half-prophetic soul looking on through the


senturieg that followed, beholding the naturalizing of art
resulting in little else than its degradation. Surely,
without risk of being thought to advocate the imposition
of any peculiar views as a rule of taste, we may ask
ourselves whether Christian art may not have suffered
something when it consented to take its inspiration from
no higher source than that which moved the genius
of pagan artists in the delineation of pagan divinities,
when nature was made the standard of ideals that
were above nature; when human beauty was thought
enough to constitute a model for the Immaculate Mother,
whatever were its character, and the artist's studio
not only lost its almost religious character, but came
to be looked on as a dangerous school for morals.
Nor can we be otherwise than struck with one singular
and significant fact in connection with this subject.
Whatever may be said of the undoubted superiority
of the modern school of painters, considered simply as
artists, the religious heart of Christendom has refused
them its homage. Their exquisite works are to be
oftener found in our galleries and dining-halls than in
our churches ; of all the incarnations of grace and beauty
which Rafaele has given us in his Madonnas we know
not of one which has ever become the object of popular
religious veneration j* and the multitude, so true in the

* We do not mean to assert that no modern picture bas become
an object of popular veneration, or even been honoured by mira-
culous graces. More instances than one occur to our minds which
would be sufficient to establish the contrary. But we must needs
admit that where this bas been the case the pictures in question
share neither in the artistic merits, nor in the religious demerits of
the great masters. One in particular suggests itself to the writer's
mind, painted but a few years since by a very neophyte in the art
of fresco, innocent of the mysteries of chiaro 'scuro, and as stiff and
unskilful in its design as though copied from an early mosaic ; yet
it has a character of inexpressible purity and sweetness, or, it may
be, the air of the little chapel of the "Mater Admirabilis" is so
redolent with devotion that we involuntarily ascribe something of
sanctity to the character of the painting. It is in the convent of
the Trinita dei Mor.ti at Rome ; and the numberless graces granted
at the little sanctuary are known to all who have ever visited the
Holy City, and not long since procured from the Sovereign Pontiff


long run to religious instincts, keep faithful to those
more ancient representations which, with less of material
beauty, possess the higher qualifications of devotion, and
have been honoured by those miraculous graces which
seem withheld from the highest productions of human
genius. The Madonnas of liafaele will, no doubt, com-
mand the homage of our admiration as long as their canvas
holds together; but they will never draw away the love and
worship of the people from the old sanctuaries where the
images of Mary borrow nothing of their power from the
skill of the painter, and where the supernatural beauty
which is so often discernible in spite of the rudeness of
their design, is as far as possible removed from the stamp
of sensualism ;

Our readers must pardon us if we have in some degree
wandered from our subject, but it seemed necessary, to
avoid misconception on a matter where it is so easy a
thing to write or read as a partisan. Savonarola's name
is so closely associated with the advocacy of Christian
design, and the condemnation of paganism in art and
literature, that it would not be unnatural for a eulogy
of his principles in this matter to be taken as bearing
on some particular questions warmly contested in our
own day, and he might come to be looked on as having
desired to crush rather than to spiritualize art. But we
may remind any who might be inclined thus to interpret
the scene which we have described on the Piazza dei
Signori, that the man who thus encouraged his fellow-
citizens to sacrifice without mercy " all vain and lascivious
things " was the same who, in reviving primitive observance
at S. Mark's, resolved (in the words of Marchese) "to
promote the study of the arts of design which he con-
sidered essential to his grand reform. He determined
that the lay brothers should devote themselves to some
of the arts not likely to distract them, such as sculpture,
painting, mason's work, writing, &c." And no fewer
than nine of the first artists of Florence received the
religious habit from his hand, and were eneouraged by

the grant of a golden crown to the picture, together with man;?
indulgences to those who offer their devotions before the altar.


him not to abandon their art, but to consecrate their
genius within those cloisters rendered already glorious
by the pencil of Angelico. Even in the Dominican con-
vents of women l.iis influence introduced a cultivation of
the arts of design, specially in that of S. Catherine at
Florence, founded by Camilla Ruccellai, where painting
and modelling were studied by the religious at his sugges-
tion, and where a succession of excellent artists continued
to flourish down to the period of the suppression of the
religious orders in the last century. The two sisters
Plautilla and Petronilla Nelli were both members of
this community, the former of whom was a paintress
of no mean celebrity, while the latter devoted herself
to literature, and has left, among other works, a life of
Savonarola still preserved in manuscript. Plautilla Nelli
is compared by Vasari to the celebrated and unfortunate
Properzia de' Rossi, whose skill, he says, was rivalled by
that of the Dominican nun. But if equal in genius,
by how vast a distance are they separated in the story of
their lives ! Properzia died a victim to the world's most
cruel sorrow : Plautilla consecrated her glorious gifts
to God's service, and was yet more admirable for the
prudence and piety with which she governed her mon-
astery, than for those endowments which she valued
only as a means for promoting the honour of her Divine

Savonarola's whole design seems to have been the
substitution of Christian ideas, as objects of literature
and art, for those which were in themselves essentially
pagan. He was never foremost in that popularization of
devotion by means of songs and pictures, which has done
such admirable service to religion in the struggle she has
waged with modern heresy. His " Laude," or Divine
Songs, were written to take the place of those very
Carnival verses of a licentious character which he had
so summarily destroyed; and we can confidently affirm
that none who read those exquisite verses, " Jesus to the

* See the interesting chapter in Marchese's work on the '' Domi-
nican Artists," which is devoted to the female painters and authors
of the order.



soul," and others of equal merit recently translated and
given to the public in his biography by Dr. Madden, can
refuse to acknowledge his claims to true poetic feeling,
even though he placed the works of Petrarch among the
" vanities" of his bonfire. The fact that S. Philip Neri,
closely identified as he was in after years with what we
may call the modern popular school, passed his youth
and formed his first religious impressions in the cloisters
of S. Mark, where the spirit and principles of Savonarola
were still warmly cherished and preserved, would be
enough to show that those principles must have been
wholly distinct from the mere purism of antiquarian

The political career of Savonarola, and his subsequent
condemnation by the Holy See, are foreign, to the pur-
pose with which we have introduced his name into our
present sketch, which has been solely as an illustration
of the part always taken by the Dominican order in the
cause of Christian art. His story has continued to furnish
matter of warm and often of bitter controversy even
down to our own day, and it is not the least singular
fact in connection with the great republican friar, that,
after the lapse of four centuries, his name is still able to
rouse the enthusiasm both of friends and enemies, so that
it is hard for either to reason save as partisans. Doubtless,
the purity of the cause to which he first devoted his noble
energies, and the heroic constancy with which he struggled
single-handed to stem the corruption of the age, must
command the sympathy of every generous heart ; and
if, during his closing years, the excitement of political
agitation absorbed those powers which should have
been spent on worthier things, and, gradually warping
his judgment, and (it may be) marring the perfect
equilibrium of his mind, led him into the fatal error of
assuming a position of hostility to the supreme authority
of the Church, it is scarcely surprising that the sufferings
by which he expiated his fault, and the character of his
persecutors, should have induced many to forget and
almost to palliate the fault itself. It is, however, one
of those cases in which an indulgence of our sympathies


would lead us astray; the fact remains uncontroverted,
that not only did Savonarola resist that supreme authority,
submission to which is the primary law of Christian
obedience, but justified his resistance in words* which
bear unmistakeable evidence of an appeal to interior
inspiration against the claims of obedience. Such a pre-
tence has been the groundwork of all heresy and unbelief;
and, feeling this, we shrink from the popular canonization
of the great Florentine, as we should from all attempts
to substitute sentiment in the room of principle. His
career and his misfortunes, if they are a problem in
history, afford at least a profound lesson in morals, and
one suited to no age better than to our own. For in him
we see a soul far on the track of sanctity, endowed with
the highest gifts of genius, and the most keen and exqui-
site perceptions of truth, ever soaring to the highest
standard, and content with nothing short of the beauty
or the truth of God, thrown out of its course, and wrecked
at last, when it came to identify a political creed with
the cause of Christianity, and when the love of truth
became insidiously and imperceptibly blended with the
fatal love of self.

We hold it for something more than a probability, that
the highly wrought and excitable temperament of Savon-
arola had before his death contracted the first seeds of
mental disease. And this appears in a certain vein of
fanaticism, and extravagance, and an assumed tone of
authority, only comprehensible in one of his greatness of
understanding under the supposition that his mind was
overstrained. We know that such aberrations of genius
and imagination are not rare; yet it would not be too
bold to say that, although such a supposition must

* "I act in coming here in obedience to authority. To whom?
To the Signoria ? You wish not to believe me, because, as you
say, I am not bound to obey them. It is, then, you will say, t>)
obey your prelates, your superiors. But nothing of the kind has
been directed me by my superiors. Know, then, that I have
ascended the pulpit this day to obey Him, who is the Jh'date of
all prelates, the Supreme Pontiff of all popes, and who makes
known to me what is contrary to His will, and in nature opposed
to it, &c



extenuate much in his conduct which otherwise appears
indefensible, it of itself presupposes a defective humility,
for without the admission into the soul of some such
error in principle, or the yielding to some interior temp-
tation, enthusiasm can never gain such mastery over a
mind as to throw it off its balance. Yet, be the case how
it may, the name of Jerome Savonarola will always be
held as one of the greatest in his order, and the memory
of his errors is well-nigh consumed in the flames of his
expiatory sacrifice. When the mob of the Arrabbiati
stormed the convent of S. Mark on the 9th of April,
1498, and the partisans of Savonarola prepared for
defence, and the short struggle was terminated by the
voluntary surrender of the great victim into the hands of
his enemies, — there were none on whom the catastrophe,
which closed the drama of his life, fell with so over-
whelming a power as on those artists of Florence who had
adopted the principles of his reform. Many paid for their
devotion to his cause with their life. " Others," says
Marchese, " when the terrible tragedy was ended, aban-
doned the cultivation of those arts which had formed
their delight during the lifetime of Fra Girolamo. "
Among these was Baccio della Porta, who during the
attack on S. Mark's had made a vow that should Grod
spare his life, he would take the habit of S. Dominic, and
end his days in the cloister. He kept his word, and
when the dreadful scene of the 23rd of May was over,
and Florence (so true in her likeness to Athens) had
scattered the ashes of her greatest citizen on the waters
of the Arno, he surrendered all his patrimony to his
brother, and, renouncing the world, and as he thought,
the arts also, for ever, he took the religious vows in the
convent of Prato. But the genius of Baccio della Porta
was to revive in a more splendid form in Fra Bartolomeo,
a name destined in the chronicles of Dominican art to be
second only in celebrity to that of the great Angelico.
At first, indeed, the bitterness of his grief rendered the
very thought of resuming his pencil odious to him. But
on his return to Florence he was thrown in company
with Sanctes Pagninus, then a member of the community


of Si Mark's, and himself a disciple and admirer of
Savonarola. This celebrated man, of whose extraordinary-
learning we shall have occasion to speak in another place,
being elected prior of the convent, was the means of
inducing Fra Bartolomeo to resume the study of his art,
and eventually Pagninus became to Porta what S.
Antoninus had been to Angelico. He soon attained a
reputation which justifies Rosini in calling him u the star
of the Florentine school." And when, in 1506, the
young Rafaele d'Urbino arrived at Florence to study the
works of Michael Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, he
placed himself under the tuition of the Dominican painter,
as the nearest to them in his knowledge of colouring,
while Fra Bartolomeo at the same time learnt from his
illustrious pupil a more perfect theory of perspective. The
friendship between these two great masters forms one of
the most refreshing incidents in the history of art ; it was
free from the least shadow of a professional jealousy,
and more than one picture exists on which their pencils
have worked together, and in which Rafaele, even when at
the summit of his glory, did not disdain to finish subjects
commenced by Delia Porta.

His after career found him competing for renown by
the side of Buonarotti, whom perhaps he most re-
sembled in the grand and majestic character of his
designs ; and living as he did, at the period when art
had reached its highest glory, and the rival schools of
Venice, Florence, and Borne, were producing the greatest
artist3 the world has ever known, his name ranks among
the most illustrious of them all. Nevertheless, we should
err did we seek to convey the idea that he revived the
supernatural school of painting which had found its
matchless representative in Angelico. He never, indeed,
departed from those principles which he had learned
from his first master Savonarola, and art was never

Online LibraryR. S AlemanyThe life of St. Dominic and a sketch of the Dominican Order → online text (page 28 of 37)