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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

VOL. I. - DECEMBER, 1857. - NO. II.


FLORENTINE MOSAICS.

[Concluded.]


VI.

THE CARMINE.

The only part of this ancient church which escaped destruction by fire
in 1771 was, most fortunately, the famous Brancacci chapel. Here are
the frescos by Masolino da Panicale, who died in the early part of the
fifteenth century, - the Preaching of Saint Peter, and the Healing of
the Sick. His scholar, Masaccio, (1402-1443,) continued the series,
the completion of which was entrusted to Filippino Lippi, son of Fra
Filippo.

No one can doubt that the hearty determination evinced by Masolino and
Masaccio to deal with actual life, to grapple to their souls the
visible forms of humanity, and to reproduce the types afterwards in
new, vivid, breathing combinations of dignity and intelligent action,
must have had an immense effect upon the course of Art. To judge by
the few and somewhat injured specimens of these masters which are
accessible, it is obvious that they had much more to do in forming the
great schools of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, than a painter
of such delicate, but limited genius as that of Fra Angelico could
possibly have. Certainly, the courage and accuracy exhibited in the
nude forms of Adam and Eve expelled from paradise, and the expressive
grace in the group of Saint Paul conversing with Saint Peter in
prison, where so much knowledge and power of action are combined with
so much beauty, all show an immense advance over the best works of the
preceding three quarters of a century.

Besides the great intrinsic merits of these paintings, the Brancacci
chapel is especially interesting from the direct and unquestionable
effect which it is known to have had upon younger painters. Here
Raphael and Michel Angelo, in their youth, and Benvenuto Cellini
passed many hours, copying and recopying what were then the first
masterpieces of painting, the traces of which study are distinctly
visible in their later productions; and here, too, according to
Cellini, the famous punch in the nose befell Buonarotti, by which his
well-known physiognomy acquired its marked peculiarity. Torregiani,
painter and sculptor of secondary importance, but a bully of the first
class, - a man who was in the habit of knocking about the artists whom
he could not equal, and of breaking both their models and their
heads, - had been accustomed to copy in the Brancacci chapel, among the
rest. He had been much annoyed, according to his own account, by
Michel Angelo's habit of laughing at the efforts of artists inferior
in skill to himself, and had determined to punish him. One day,
Buonarotti came into the chapel as usual, and whistled and sneered at
a copy which Torregiani was making. The aggrieved artist, a man of
large proportions, very truculent of aspect, with a loud voice and a
savage frown, sprang upon his critic, and dealt him such a blow upon
the nose, that the bone and cartilage yielded under his hand,
according to his own account, as if they had been made of
dough, - _"come se fosse stato un cialdone."_ This was when both
were very young men; but Torregiani, when relating the story many
years afterwards, always congratulated himself that Buonarotti would
bear the mark of the blow all his life. It may be added, that the
bully met a hard fate afterwards. Having executed a statue in Spain
for a grandee, he was very much outraged by receiving only thirty
scudi as his reward, and accordingly smashed the statue to pieces with
a sledge-hammer. In revenge, the Spaniard accused him of heresy, so
that the unlucky artist was condemned to the flames by the
Inquisition, and only escaped that horrible death by starving himself
in prison before the execution.


VII.

SANTA TRINITÀ.

In the chapel of the Sassetti, in this church, is a good set of
frescos by Dominic Ghirlandaio, representing passages from the life of
Saint Francis. They are not so masterly as his compositions in the
Santa Maria Novella. Moreover, they are badly placed, badly lighted,
and badly injured. They are in a northwestern corner, where light
never comes that comes to all. The dramatic power and Flemish skill in
portraiture of the man are, however, very visible, even in the
darkness. No painter of his century approached him in animated
grouping and powerful physiognomizing. Dignified, noble, powerful, and
natural, he is the exact counterpart of Fra Angelico, among the
_Quattrocentisti_. Two great, distinct systems, - the shallow,
shrinking, timid, but rapturously devotional, piously sentimental
school, of which Beato Angelico was _facile princeps_, painfully
adventuring out of the close atmosphere of the _miniatori_ into
the broader light and more gairish colors of the actual, and falling
back, hesitating and distrustful; and the hardy, healthy, audacious
naturalists, wreaking strong and warm human emotions upon vigorous
expression and confident attitude; - these two widely separated streams
of Art, remote from each other in origin, and fed by various rills, in
their course through the century, were to meet in one ocean at its
close. This was then the fulness of perfection, the age of Angelo and
Raphael, Leonardo and Correggio.


VIII.

SAN MARCO.

Fra Beato Angelico, who was a brother of this Dominican house, has
filled nearly the whole monastery with the works of his
hand. Considering the date of his birth, 1387, and his conventual
life, he was hardly less wonderful than his wonderful epoch. Here is
the same convent, the same city; while instead merely of the works of
Cimabue, Giotto, and Orgagna, there are masterpieces by all the
painters who ever lived to study; - yet imagine the snuffy old monk who
will show you about the edifice, or any of his brethren, coming out
with a series of masterpieces! One might as well expect a new
Savonarola, who was likewise a friar in this establishment, to preach
against Pio Nono, and to get himself burned in the Piazza for his
pains.

In the old chapter-house is a very large, and for the angelic Frater a
very hazardous performance, - a Crucifixion. The heads here are full
of feeling and feebleness, except those of Mary Mother and Mary
Magdalen, which are both very touching and tender. There is, however,
an absolute impotence to reproduce the actual, to deal with groups of
humanity upon a liberal scale. There is his usual want of
discrimination, too, in physiognomy; for if the seraphic and
intellectual head of the penitent thief were transferred to the
shoulders of the Saviour in exchange for his own, no one could dispute
that it would be an improvement.

Up stairs is a very sweet Annunciation. The subdued, demure, somewhat
astonished joy of the Virgin is poetically rendered, both in face and
attitude, and the figure of the angel has much grace. A small, but
beautiful composition, the Coronation of the Virgin, is perhaps the
most impressive of the whole series.

Below is a series of frescos by a very second-rate artist,
Poccetti. Among them is a portrait of Savonarola; but as the reformer
was burned half a century before Poccetti was born, it has not even
the merit of authenticity. It was from this house that Savonarola was
taken to be imprisoned and executed in 1498. There seems something
unsatisfactory about Savonarola. One naturally sympathizes with the
bold denouncer of Alexander VI.; but there was a lack of benevolence
in his head and his heart. Without that anterior depression of the
sinciput, he could hardly have permitted two friends to walk into the
fire in his stead, as they were about to do in the stupendous and
horrible farce enacted in the Piazza Gran Duca. There was no lack of
self-esteem either in the man or his head. Without it, he would
scarcely have thought so highly of his rather washy scheme for
reorganizing the democratic government, and so very humbly of the
genius of Dante, Petrarch, and others, whose works he condemned to the
flames. A fraternal regard, too, for such great artists as Fra
Angelico and Fra Bartolommeo, - both members of his own convent, and
the latter a personal friend, - might have prevented his organizing
that famous holocaust of paintings, that wretched iconoclasm, by which
he signalized his brief period of popularity and power. In weighing,
gauging, and measuring such a man, one ought to remember, that if he
could have had his way and carried out all his schemes, he would have
abolished Borgianism certainly, and perhaps the papacy, but that he
would have substituted the rhapsodical reign of a single demagogue,
perpetually seeing visions and dreaming dreams for the direction of
his fellow-citizens, who were all to be governed by the hallucinations
of this puritan Mahomet.


IX.

THE MEDICI CHAPEL.

The famous cemetery of the Medici, the Sagrestia Nuova, is a ponderous
and dismal toy. It is a huge mass of expensive, solemn, and insipid
magnificence, erected over the carcasses of as contemptible a family
as ever rioted above the earth, or rotted under it. The only man of
the race, Cosmo il Vecchio, who deserves any healthy admiration,
although he was the real assassin of Florentine and Italian freedom,
and has thus earned the nickname of _Pater Patriae,_ is not buried
here. The series of mighty dead begins with the infamous Cosmo, first
grand duke, the contemporary of Philip II. of Spain, and his
counterpart in character and crime. Then there is Ferdinando I., whose
most signal achievement was not eating the poisoned pie prepared by
the fair hands of Bianca Capello. There are other Ferdinandos, and
other Cosmos, - all grand-ducal and _pater-patrial,_ as Medici
should be.

The chapel is a vast lump of Florentine mosaic, octagonal, a hundred
feet or so in diameter, and about twice as high. The cupola has some
brand-new frescos, by Benvenuto. "Anthropophagi, whose heads do grow
beneath their shoulders," may enjoy these pictures upon domes. For
common mortals it is not agreeable to remain very long upside down,
even to contemplate masterpieces, which these certainly are not.

The walls of the chapel are all incrusted with gorgeous marbles and
precious stones, from malachite, porphyry, lapis-lazuli, chalcedony,
agate, to all the finer and more expensive gems which shone in Aaron's
ephod. When one considers that an ear-ring or a brooch, half an inch
long, of Florentine mosaic work, costs five or six dollars, and that
here is a great church of the same material and workmanship as a
breastpin, one may imagine it to have been somewhat expensive.

The Sagrestia Nuova was built by Michel Angelo, to hold his monuments
to Lorenzo de' Medici, duke of Urbino, and grandson of Lorenzo the
Magnificent, and to Julian de' Medici, son of Lorenzo Magnifico.

It is not edifying to think of the creative soul and plastic hands of
Buonarotti employed in rendering worship to such creatures. This
Lorenzo is chiefly known as having married Madeleine de Boulogne, and
as having died, as well as his wife, of a nameless disorder,
immediately after they had engendered the renowned Catharine de'
Medici, whose hideous life was worthy of its corrupt and poisoned
source.

Did Michel Angelo look upon his subject as a purely imaginary one?
Surely he must have had some definite form before his mental vision;
for although sculpture cannot, like painting, tell an elaborate story,
still each figure must have a moral and a meaning, must show cause for
its existence, and indicate a possible function, or the mind of the
spectator is left empty and craving.

Here, at the tomb of Lorenzo, are three masterly figures. An heroic,
martial, deeply contemplative figure sits in grand repose. A
statesman, a sage, a patriot, a warrior, with countenance immersed in
solemn thought, and head supported and partly hidden by his hand, is
brooding over great recollections and mighty deeds. Was this Lorenzo,
the husband of Madeleine, the father of Catharine? Certainly the mind
at once dethrones him from his supremacy upon his own tomb, and
substitutes an Epaminondas, a Cromwell, a Washington, - what it
wills. 'Tis a godlike apparition, and need be called by no mortal
name. We feel unwilling to invade the repose of that majestic reverie
by vulgar invocation. The hero, nameless as he must ever remain, sits
there in no questionable shape, nor can we penetrate the sanctuary of
that marble soul. Till we can summon Michel, with his chisel, to add
the finishing strokes to the grave, silent face of the naked figure
reclining below the tomb, or to supply the lacking left hand to the
colossal form of female beauty sitting upon the opposite sepulchre, we
must continue to burst in ignorance. Sooner shall the ponderous
marble jaws of the tomb open, that Lorenzo may come forth to claim his
right to the trophy, than any admirer of human genius will doubt that
the shade of some real hero was present to the mind's eye of the
sculptor, when he tore these stately forms out of the enclosing rock.

A colossal hero sits, serene and solemn, upon a sepulchre. Beneath him
recline two vast mourning figures, one of each sex. One longs to
challenge converse with the male figure, with the unfinished
Sphinx-like face, who is stretched there at his harmonious length,
like an ancient river-god without his urn. There is nothing appalling
or chilling in his expression, nor does he seem to mourn without
hope. 'Tis a stately recumbent figure, of wonderful anatomy, without
any exaggeration of muscle, and, accordingly, his name is - - Twilight!

Why Twilight should grieve at the tomb of Lorenzo, grandson of Lorenzo
Magnifico, any more than the grandfather would have done, does not
seem very clear, even to Twilight himself, who seems, after all, in a
very crepuscular state upon the subject. The mistiness is much aided
by the glimmering expression of his half-finished features.

But if Twilight should be pensive at the demise of Lorenzo, is there
any reason why Aurora should weep outright upon the same occasion?
This Aurora, however, weeping and stately, all nobleness and all
tears, is a magnificent creation, fashioned with the audacious
accuracy which has been granted to few modern sculptors. The figure
and face are most beautiful, and rise above all puny criticism; and as
one looks upon that sublime and wailing form, that noble and nameless
child of a divine genius, the flippant question dies on the lip, and
we seek not to disturb that passionate and beautiful image of woman's
grief by idle curiosity or useless speculation.

The monument, upon the opposite side, to Julian, third son of Lorenzo
Magnifico, is of very much the same character. Here are also two
mourning figures. One is a sleeping and wonderfully beautiful female
shape, colossal, in a position less adapted to repose than to the
display of the sculptor's power and her own perfections. This is
Night. A stupendously sculptured male figure, in a reclining attitude,
and exhibiting, I suppose, as much learning in his _torso_ as
does the famous figure in the Elgin marbles, strikes one as the most
triumphant statue of modern times.

The figure of Julian is not agreeable. The neck, long and twisted,
suggests an heroic ostrich in a Roman breastplate. The attitude, too,
is ungraceful. The hero sits with his knees projecting beyond the
perpendicular, so that his legs seem to be doubling under him, a
position deficient in grace and dignity.

It is superfluous to say that the spectator must invent for himself
the allegory which he may choose to see embodied in this stony
trio. It is not enough to be told the words of the charade, - Julian,
Night, Morning. One can never spell out the meaning by putting
together the group with the aid of such a key. Night is Night,
obviously, because she is asleep. For an equally profound reason, Day
is Day, because he is not asleep; and both, looked at in this vulgar
light, are creations as imaginative as Simon Snug, with his lantern,
representing moonshine. If the figures should arise and walk across
the chapel, changing places with the couple opposite them, as if in a
sepulchral quadrille, would the allegory become more intelligible?
Could not Day or Night move from Julian's monument, and take up the
same position at Lorenzo's tomb, or "Ninny's tomb," or any other tomb?
Was Lorenzo any more to Aurora than Julian, that she should weep for
him only?

Therefore one must invent for one's self the fable of those immortal
groups. Each spectator must pluck out, unaided, the heart of their
mystery. Those matchless colossal forms, which the foolish chroniclers
of the time have baptized Night and Morning, speak an unknown language
to the crowd. They are mute as Sphinx to souls which cannot supply the
music and the poetry which fell from their marble lips upon the ear of
him who created them.


X.

PALAZZO RICCARDI.

The ancient residence of Cosmo Vecchio and his successors is a
magnificent example of that vast and terrible architecture peculiar to
Florence. This has always been a city, not of streets, but of
fortresses. Each block is one house, but a house of the size of a
citadel; while the corridors and apartments are like casemates and
bastions, so gloomy and savage is their expression. Ancient Florence,
the city of the twelfth and beginning of the thirteenth centuries, the
Florence of the nobles, the Florence of the Ghibellines, the Florence
in which nearly every house was a castle, with frowning towers
hundreds of feet high, machicolated battlements, donjon keeps,
oubliettes, and all other appurtenances of a feudal stronghold, exists
no longer. With the expulsion of the imperial faction, and the advent
of the municipal Guelphs, - that proudest, boldest, most successful,
and most unreasonable _bourgeoisie_ which ever assumed organized
life, - the nobles were curtailed of all their privileges. Their city
castles, too, were shorn of their towers, which were limited to just
so many ells, cloth measure, by the haughty shopkeepers who had
displaced the grandees. The first third of the thirteenth century - the
epoch of the memorable Buondelmonti street fight which lasted thirty
years - was the period in which this dreadful architecture was fixed
upon Florence. Then was the time in which the chains, fastened in
those huge rings which still dangle from the grim house-fronts, were
stretched across the street; thus enclosing and fettering a compact
mass of combatants in an iron embrace, while from the rare and narrow
murder-windows in the walls, and from the beetling roofs, descended
the hail of iron and stone and scalding pitch and red-hot coals to
refresh the struggling throng below.

After this epoch, and with the expiration of the imperial house of the
Hohenstaufen, the nobles here, as in Switzerland, sought to popularize
themselves, to become municipal.


Der Adel steigt von seinen alten Burgen,
Und schwört den Städten seinen Bürger-Eid,


said the prophetic old Attinghausen, in his dying moments. The change
was even more extraordinary in Florence. The expulsion of some of the
patrician families was absolute. Others were allowed to participate
with the plebeians in the struggle for civic honors, and for the
wealth earned in commerce, manufactures, and handicraft. It became a
severe and not uncommon punishment to degrade offending individuals or
families into the ranks of nobility, and thus deprive them of their
civil rights. Hundreds of low-born persons have, in a single day, been
declared noble, and thus disfranchised. And the example of Florence
was often followed by other cities.

The result was twofold upon the aristocracy. Those who municipalized
themselves became more enlightened, more lettered, more refined, and,
at the same time, less chivalrous and less martial than their
ancestors. The characters of buccaneer, land-pirate, knight-errant
could not be conveniently united with those of banker, exchange
broker, dealer in dry goods, and general commission agents.

The consequence was that the fighting business became a specialty, and
fell into the hands of private companies. Florence, like Venice, and
other Italian republics, jobbed her wars. The work was done by the
Hawkwoods, the Sforzas, the Bracciones, and other chiefs of the
celebrated free companies, black bands, lance societies, who
understood no other profession, but who were as accomplished in the
arts of their own guild as were any of the five major and seven minor
crafts into which the Florentine burgesses were divided.

This proved a bad thing for the liberties of Florence in the end. The
chieftains of these military clubs, usually from the lowest ranks,
with no capacity but for bloodshed, and no revenue but rapine, often
ended their career by obtaining the seigniory of some petty republic,
a small town, or a handful of hamlets, whose liberty they crushed with
their own iron, and with the gold obtained, in exchange for their
blood, from the city bankers. In the course of time such seigniories
often rolled together, and assumed a menacing shape to all who valued
municipal liberty. Sforza - whose peasant father threw his axe into a
tree, resolving, if it fell, to join, as a common soldier, the roving
band which had just invited him; if it adhered to the wood, to remain
at home a laboring hind - becomes Duke of Milan, and is encouraged in
his usurpation by Cosmo Vecchio, who still gives himself the airs of
first-citizen of Florence.

The serpent, the well-known cognizance of the Visconti, had already
coiled itself around all those fair and clustering cities which were
once the Lombard republics, and had poisoned their vigorous life. The
Ezzelinos, Carraras, Gonzagas, Scalas, had crushed the spirit of
liberty in the neighborhood of Venice. All this had been accomplished
by means of mercenary adventurers, guided only by the love of plunder;
while those two luxurious and stately republics - the one an oligarchy,
the other a democracy - looked on from their marble palaces, enjoying
the refreshing bloodshowers in which their own golden harvests were so
rapidly ripening.

Meanwhile a gigantic despotism was maturing, which was eventually to
crush the power, glory, wealth, and freedom of Italy.

This _palazzo_ of Cosmo the Elder is a good type of Florentine
architecture at its ultimate epoch, just as Cosmo himself was the
largest expression of the Florentine citizen in the last and over-ripe
stage.

The Medici family, unheard of in the thirteenth century, obscure and
plebeian in the middle of the fourteenth, and wealthy bankers and
leaders of the democratic party at its close, culminated in the early
part of the fifteenth in the person of Cosmo. The _Pater
Patriae,_ - so called, because, having at last absorbed all the
authority, he could afford to affect some of the benignity of a
parent, and to treat his fellow-citizens, not as men, but as little
children, - the Father of his Country had acquired, by means of his
great fortune and large financial connections, an immense control over
the destinies of Florence and Italy. But he was still a private
citizen in externals. There was, at least, elevation of taste,
refinement of sentiment in Cosmo's conception of a great citizen. His
habits of life were elegant, but frugal. He built churches, palaces,
villas. He employed all the great architects of the age. He adorned
these edifices with masterpieces from the pencils and chisels of the
wonderful _Quattrocentisti_, whose productions alone would have
given Florence an immortal name in Art history. Yet he preserved a
perfect simplicity of equipage and apparel. In this regard, faithful
to the traditions of the republic, which his family had really changed
from a democracy to a ploutarchy, he had the good taste to scorn the
vulgar pomp of kings, - "the horses led, and grooms besmeared with
gold," - all the theatrical paraphernalia and plebeian tinsel "which
dazzle the crowd and set them all agape"; but his expenditures were
those of an intellectual and accomplished oligarch. He was worthy, in
many respects, to be the chief of those haughty merchants and
manufacturers, who wielded more power, through the length of their
purses and the cultivation of their brains, than did all the
contemporaneous and illiterate barons of the rest of Christendom, by
dint of castle-storming and cattle-stealing.

In an age when other nobles were proud of being unable to write their
own names, or to read them when others wrote them, the great princes
and citizens of Florence protected and cultivated art, science, and
letters. Every citizen received a liberal education. Poets and
philosophers sat in the councils of the republic. Philosophy,


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