THE gondola plunges northwards into the deserted lanes. The reflections in the water tremble in the concave arches of the bridges like a rose, white and green branched drapery of silk. We leave the city; it is noon and the sky is of a burning whiteness. Stranded rafts extend their wet and shining logs over the plain of motionless water. Facing us is an island surrounded by walls, the cemetery, that overpowers the fiery whiteness with its own crude whites. Further on, two or three sails flit into the channels; on the horizon, the vaporous chain of mountains traces its fringe of snow on the sky. The toothed prow rises out of the water like a strange fish swimming tail foremost, and its black form pierces and presses on and on through innumerable scintillations of little gilded waves amid the deep silence.
On an open square rises the equestrian statue of Colleoni, the second one that was cast in Italy, a true portrait like that of Gattamelata in Padua, a real portrait of a condottiere sitting on his stout war-horse, in his cuirass, with legs wide apart, the bust too short, a coarse face of a soldier who commands and shouts, not at all embellished but taken from life, and full of energy. In front is San Giovanni e Paolo, a Gothic church, Italo-Gothic, and consequently gay. The round pillars, the wide and expansive arches and the almost white windows do away with all the funereal and mystic ideas that are suggested by the cathedrals of the North. Like the Campo Santo at Pisa, and Santa Croce at Florence, this church is peopled with tombs : add to them those in the Frari, and you have the mausoleum of the Republic. The majority date from the Fifteenth, or the early part of the Sixteenth Century, the brilliant age of the city, the days when the great men and great actions that had passed away were still of sufficiently recent date for the new rising art to catch their image and express its sincerity. Others show the dawn of that great light; and still others show its decline; and thus, through a row of sepulchres, we can follow the history of human genius from its blossoming, through its virility to its decadence.
In the monument of Doge Morosini, who died in 1382, the pure Gothic style flowers in all its elegance. A flowered arcade festoons its lacework above the dead. On either side rises a charming little turret supported by a small column ornamented with trefoils, embroidered with little figures, bristling with steeples and bell-turrets, a kind of delicate vegetation in which the marble bristles and unfolds like a spiky plant that puts forth its prickles and flowers both together. The Doge sleeps with his hands crossed upon his breast. Here we have real mortuary monuments: an alcove sometimes with its canopy or curtain; a marble bed carved and ornamented like the wooden frame on which the ancient limbs of the man reposed at night when alive; and inside, the man in his ordinary robes, calm in sleep, confident and pious because he acquitted himself well in life; a true effigy without over emphasis or anguish, one that leaves with the survivors the grave and peaceful image that their memories should retain.
That is the seriousness of the Middle Ages. However, beneath the religious severity we already see the dawn of the feeling for living corporeal forms that is to be the special discovery of the following century. In the mausoleum of the Doge Marco Corner, between the five ogival arcades with trefoil carved work topped with delicate spires, the Virtues, joyous long robed angels, look at us with spontaneous and striking expressiveness. In this dawn of discovery the artist naively risked airs and physiognomies that Iater masters rejected for the sake of dignity and obedience to rules. In this respect, the Renaissance, which reduced Art to Classic nobility, really lessened it, just as the purists of our Seventeenth Century impoverished the rich language of the Sixteenth.
As we advance, we see some feature of the new art constantly unfolding. In the tomb of Doge Antonio Vernier (d. 1400), the paganism of the Renaissance shows itself in one detail of the ornamentation, the shell niches. All the rest is still angular, flowey delicately chiselled and gothic, the sculpture as well as the architecture. The heads, however, are somewhat heavy and awkward, too short and sometimes carried by a wry neck. Artists copy the real: they have not yet made a final choice of proportions, they do not know the canon of Greek statuaries, they are still plunged in observation and in the imitation of life; but their mistakes are delightful. The Madonna whose neck is bent too much clasps her son with such lively tenderness! There is so much goodness and candour in those rather too round maidens’ heads. The Five Virgins in their shell niches have such a penetrating youthful freshness and truth! Nothing touches me so much as these sculptures which mark the close of Mediaeval art.
All these works are inventive, national, sometimes even bourgeoises if you like, but they have an incomparable vitality. The dazzling and overwhelming domination of Classical beauty had by no means come to discipline the enthusiasm of original genuises; there were provincial schools of art that were accommodated to the climate, the country and the whole condition of affairs about them, free as yet from academies and capitals. Nothing in the world comes up to the real originality, the intimate and full sentiment and the entire soul imprinted on a work : then the work is as individual and as rich in shadings as the soul itself. One believes in it; the marble becomes a sort of journal in which are put all the confidences of a human life.
If we take a few steps forward in the course of the age, we notice a gradual diminution in this simplicity and naivete in art. The mortuary monument changes into one of heroic pomp. Round arcades extend their noble span above the dead. Arabesques gaily run around the polished borders.
Columns stand in rows with blooming acanthus capitals; sometimes they rise in stages one above another, and the Four Orders of architecture reveal their variety for the delight of the eyes. The tomb then becomes a colossal triumphal arch; some tombs have twenty statues of almost life size. The idea of death disappears; the defunct no longer lies awaiting the resurrection and the last day, he sits and looks ; he ” lives again ” in the marble, as one epitaph ambitiously says. Similarly, statues that adorn his memorial are gradually trans-formed. In the middle of the Fifteenth Century, they are still very frequently stiff and constrained; the legs of the youthful warriors are somewhat slender, like those of Perugino’s archangels; they are covered with lion-head boots and leggings in which are mingled reminiscences of feudal armour and admiration of antique costume. Both bodies and heads border on the real; the excellence of the faces consists in their involuntary seriousness, their intense and simple expression, the force of their attitude and their fixed and profound gaze. On the approach of the Sixteenth Century, ease and movement come to them. The draperies twine and fall grandly around robust bodies. The muscles rise and display themselves. The young knights of the Middle Ages are now athletes. The virgins, motionless and hooded in their severe mantles, begin to smile and grow animated. Their Greek robes, creased and falling, leave bare their breasts and the slender form of their charming feet. Leaning forwards, half turned backwards, bending from one hip, standing proudly erect and thoughtful, they reveal beneath their winding draperies the diversities of the living form; and the eyes follow the harmonious curves of the beautiful human animal that in repose, in motion, and in every attitude has only to live in order to be happy and perfect.
Nowhere are they more beautiful than on the tomb of Doge Vendramini (d. 1470). There art is still simple and in its first blossom; the old gravity still exists in its entirety; but the taste for poetry and the picturesque which is just dawning already suffuses it with its richness and splendour. Under arcades with golden flowers, and in the spaces of a Corinthian colonnade, warriors and women draped after the antique gaze or weep. They are not restless, they do not at-tempt to attract attention; and their restrained expression is all the stronger for it. It is their entire body, it is their type and their structure, it is their vigorous necks, their ample and magnificent hair, and their direct faces that speak. One woman sadly raises her eyes to Heaven; another, half turning away, utters a cry. You would say they were by Giovanni Bellini. They belong to that strong and limited age when the model, like the artist, reduced to five or six energetic feelings, conveys them through his intact sensibility, and in one effort concentrates complete faculties which later will be deadened by indulgence and wasted on details.
With the Sixteenth Century, all the great passions come to an end. Tombs become great operatic machines. That of Doge Pesaro (d. 1669), is nothing but a gigantic court decoration rearing its emphatic pile of luxury. Four negroes clothed in white and kneeling on cushions support the second tier and their black faces grin above their porters’ bodies; between them, as a gross contrast, parades a skeleton. As for the Doge, he throws himself back with the importance of a great lord reproving clowns. Chimeras crouch at his feet, a canopy is over his head, and on both sides groups of statues stand in declamatory or sentimental attitudes. Elsewhere, in the tomb of Doge Valier (d. 1656), we see art abandon bombast for mere prettiness. The mortuary alcove envelops itself in a vast yellow marble curtain figured with flowers and held up by a number of little nude angels as playful as Cupids. The Doge has the dignity of a magistrate; and his wife, frizzled, wrinkled and dressed in flowing materials, delicately holds up her left hand with the air of a dowager. Lower down, a pier-glass Victory crowns the good old man who looks related to Belisarius; and, all around, bas-reliefs show groups of gracious and delicate women with drawing-room manners.
All this is spoiled art, but still it is art; I mean that the sculptor and his contemporaries have a real and individual taste, that they love certain things in their world and their life, that they imitated and embellished them, that their preferences are not an academy affair, a work of education, a bookish pedantry, nor a conventional preference. There is nothing else in our century. By its coldness, insipidity and laboriousness, Canova’s tomb, executed according to his own plans, is ridiculous: a great pyramid of white marble occupies the entire field of vision; the door is open, there it is that he desires to rest, like a Pharaoh in his sepulchre. Towards the door advances a procession of sentimental figures. Atlas, Eudoras and Cymodoceas, a nude sleeping genius extinguishing his torch, another one sighing with head tenderly bent like Bitaube’s young Joseph. A winged lion weeps despairingly with his snout on his paws and his paws on a book: it would take a college professor twenty minutes to comment on this allegorical drama. Close by, poor Titian has had inflicted upon him a tomb like a portico, scraped and shining like an Empire clock, adorned with four pretty, pensive, spiritualistic women, two poor expressive old men with sharp and salient muscles, and two young winged heads wearing crowns. One would say that these artists are void of any proper impression, that they have nothing to say for themselves, that the human body speaks to them no longer, that they have been reduced to hunt in their portfolios for the assistance of lines, and that their whole talent consists in making up an interesting charade according to the last symbolic and aesthetic text-book. Death is something, however, and it seems well that one should be able to have something of one’s own to say about it without a book; but I begin to think that we no longer have any ideas about it any more than we have of any other important matter. We drive it out of our minds as though it were an unwelcome guest: when we follow a funeral, it is only for decency’s sake, and we pass the time talking to our neighbour about business or literature. Art lives on great determinations, just as criticism lives on nice distinctions, that is why we are not artists but critics.
The same idea recurs when we look at the paintings. There are some admirable ones in a chapel of the church dedicated to the Holy Rosary. One by Titian is the Martyrdom of St. Peter of Verona. Domenichino has repeated the same subject at Bologna; but an ignoble fear disfigures his personages. Titian’s are grand, like fighters. What struck him was not grimacing or suffering expression of a convulsed visage but the strong action of a murder, the stretch of a striking arm, the agitated draperies of a running fugitive, the magnificent spring of trees stretching out their sombre branches above blood and armour. Still more vehement is a crucifixion by Tintoret. In this all is movement and disorder; the poetry of light and shadow fills the air with dazzling and lugubrious contrasts. A shaft of yellow light falls across the nude Christ who looks like a glorified corpse. Above him, heads of holy women float in a stream of splendid atmosphere, and the body of the impenitent thief, savage and writhing embosses the sky with its ruddy muscular frame. In that tempest of troubled and intense light, it seems as if the crosses are swaying and the executed men are about to fall ; as a climax to the poignant emotion and grandiose disorder, in the background we see under a luminous cloud a heap of resuscitated bodies. The whole of the walls is covered with similar paintings by the same hand. Christ rises to Heaven and around Him great nude angels darting through space are furiously sounding their trumpets. The Virgin is carried off by an impetuous throng of little angels whilst below her the apostles are crying and falling down. On every side and in every picture light vibrates; there is not an atom of air that does not palpitate, and life is so over-flowing that it breathes and swarms in the trees, stones, ground and clouds, in every colour and every form, in the universal fever of inanimate nature.