The room we are looking upon is the third from the entrance and is called the Sala di Marte, and the gem of all the art treasure it possesses is that painting to the left of the doorway, Raphael’s Madonna della Sedia (or Seggiola).
This picture was painted about 1516 during Raphael’s Roman days. In it there are a purity and a simplicity which belong to the earlier period of the artist’s career. The face is not Florentine but Roman, and the whole work breathes a serene and holy happiness, a tender and loving reverence.
The story is told that late one summer afternoon the artist was returning to Rome from one of those long excursions into the surrounding country which he loved to take. Passing through a little village, he encountered a band of strolling musicians playing in the one street about which clustered’ the houses of the little hamlet. Already the soft, dreamy gold dust, which sifts through the air and settles at the close of an Italian summer day, was enveloping fields and houses and the distant hills ; and wayfarers returning to the city, and laborers coming home from their work in the fields, stopped to listen to the sweet and joyous strains. Outside of the little stone houses were gathered the women and children, for when the burst of music of a well-conducted band fills the air and most Italians are good musicians – all who hear must stop and listen. So Raphael lingered by the roadside and, as was his wont, watched the faces of the little company, when suddenly his eyes rested upon one of the loveliest and purest faces he had ever seen, belonging to a young Italian mother who was seated on a doorstep holding her baby boy, while be-side her stood her little daughter listening to the music. Instantly Raphael determined to paint her as a Madonna, but looked in vain for something upon which to make a sketch. At last he discovered an old barrel head lying in the dust of the road, and, cleaning it off as best he could, he sketched the mother and her children, using the little girl as the figure of St. John (the Baptist). When he reached his studio, the thought came to him to retain the shape of the barrel head and make the painting circular, which he did.
The Madonna, as you will observe, is seated upon a low chair holding the child in her arms. At her side stands the little St. John, his hands clasped in prayer. Over the shoulders of the Madonna is a brightly colored shawl, and a handkerchief of brilliant hues is tied about her head. The Madonna, the perfection of womanly beauty and modesty, is a young woman with a deep maternal love streaming out from her dark, expressive eyes ; while the child, strong and winning, nestles in his mother’s protecting arms. There is about the figures of the Virgin and child a warmth of coloring and a gladness of soul which are perfectly charming, while the earnest yet childlike worship of St. John is no less appropriate. The entire picture is painted with great freedom and power, and no other work of art in the world is so popular. At least fifty engravers have tried their skill upon it, and photographic copies have been sold by the thousands.
You notice that in front of this masterpiece is an easel on which is seen a canvas upon which some present day artist is making a copy of the original painting. Permission to copy this celebrated work can only be obtained from the director of the gallery, and applications must be presented to him. The privilege is granted to but one at a time and never to any but proficient artists, the copyist being allowed to retain his position in front of the canvas for two months, never longer. There are now about one hundred applications on file at the gallery, so you can see how great is the demand for this picture, and how few real copies of it can be in existence when only six are produced in twelve months. Many of the copies we see are reproductions of copies.
Strange to say, there is less patronage for artists in Florence than in Rome, and, frequently there is an amount of suffering among the large colony of artists who are always to be found here, of which the world little dreams. Years ago there came to the city a young American painter who haunted the galleries and palaces, making sketches here and there, and with an insight and penetration which were marvelous. Ofttimes he would stand by the hour in front of this Madonna della Sedia and unfold its inner beauty and power to his American fellow artists, who readily acknowledged that his interpretation of this and other great paintings was most wonderful. It was as though, while the artist talked, the canvas became luminous to them, as if its forms were their everyday friends and as though the passions and longings of their own souls were reflected in the painting before them. He was always talking of how he intended to reproduce this masterpiece whenever his turn should come to copy it. But as the days wore on, his artist friends noticed that his clothes grew shabbier, his face more pale and drawn, and his form more bent. Knowing him to be very poor, and since they could not find that he ever sold a picture, they prevailed upon him to take dinner with them as often as they could without betraying their sympathy. But one day he was missing from the galleries, and for a week he was not seen in his favorite haunts. They sought him in the Uffizi, the Pitti and the Gallery of Fine Arts, but he was not to be found. At last, two American artists sought him out, climbing the long rickety stairs to the top of an old palace by the Arno, and found his card nailed to the door of a little room just under the roof. The door was locked, but they broke it open and there, in a studio miserably furnished, on a straw mattress laid upon the floor, they discovered the artist dead. By the window on an easel stood his masterpiece covered with a sheet to exclude the dust. Stepping up to it they lifted the covering with sad but expectant hearts and there they saw-nothing but a white can-vas with a charcoal circle drawn upon it. It had always been the desire of the dead man to paint this Madonna della Sedia, but his name was so far down on the list that the opportunity had not come to him, and, fearing it might never come, as he felt his life day by day ebbing away, he had, at last, resolved to paint it from rough sketches he had made, here in his own room. But so exalted and perfect and glorious did it all appear to him, that he had not the courage, nor the power, to reproduce this bit of Heaven’s glory out of sight of the great Master’s canvas; and thus he died with only the shining vision of what he meant to be and do.
As we turn away from this immortal painting and the richly decorated room which contains it, let me call your attention to the exquisitely colored marble casing of the doorway, to the sheen of the marble floor, and to the marble wainscoting that extends around the rooms. The beautiful piece of statuary seen through the open door in front of us, recalls to mind the curious and interesting fact that Powers, the American sculptor in Florence, imported all the clay he used in modeling from Alabama in the United States. He said it was superior to European clay because it remained moist a greater length of time. You may not have been aware of Alabama’s proud distinction in the world of art, a supremacy that is recognized even in Florence.
We leave Florence with deep regret, such as one feels in departing from no other Italian city, realizing the full significance of the poet’s words :
“Of all the fairest cities of the earth None is so fair as Florence. ‘Tis a gem Of purest ray; and what a light broke forth When it emerged from darkness ! Search within, Without, all is enchantment ! ‘Tis the Past Contending with the Present; and in turn Each has the mastery.”
As the splendors of this fair and fascinating city fade from our view and the summit of the Vecchio tower and cathedral dome disappear like vanishing islands in a sea of floral glory, we come in sight of an interesting work of art and some types of that monastic life which has played such a prominent part in Florentine life for centuries.