CHAPTER XXVIII

THE HIGH RENAISSANCE (1499-1521)

We are now at liberty to return to the great intellectual and artistic movement that lifted Italy to the primacy in Europe, and reached its zenith in the period of time to which the last two chapters have been devoted. This is the culminating period, in which the greatest masters did their work, and separates the earlier and more experimental stage that preceded it from the later stage of exaggeration and decadence which followed. The movement swept all the arts along with it. It produced the greatest men in literature since Petrarch, the greatest architects since the Gothic masters of the Ile de France, the greatest sculptors since Praxiteles, the greatest painters that ever were.

Italian literature cannot compare with English literature or French in compass, variety, richness, or delicacy. Indeed, except for Dante, it would have rather a thin and tinkling sound. Nevertheless, in the High Renaissance it roused itself brilliantly. Niccolo Machiavelli was the ablest writer on the policy of government between Aristotle and Burke. Guicciardini was the first modern historian. Count Baldassare Castiglione's "Book of the Courtier" is as singularly excellent in its way as Boswell's "Life of Johnson." Of this book, which portrays fashionable society at the elegant court of Urbino, Tasso says: "So long as there shall be princes and courts, so long as ladies and gentlemen shall meet in society, so long as virtue and courtesy shall abide in our hearts, the name of Castiglione will be held in honour." The book purports to be a series of conversations between the duchess and her guests concerning the proper qualities of a perfect gentleman. This society, no doubt, is a little affected, stilted, and conceited, but it is dignified, well-behaved, and high-minded. These people discuss deportment, athletics, propriety of speech, whether one must keep within the Tuscan vocabulary of Petrarch and Boccaccio or may make use of the vernacular spoken elsewhere, whether painting or sculpture is the nobler art, what a gentleman's dress should be, and so on. The discussion proceeds to the proper behaviour of a lady, and by natural steps to love. Bembo, a famous litterateur, here takes the floor, plunges into Platonic ideas, and argues that the higher love, governed by reason, is better than lower love, and will lead to contemplation of universal beauty; but that even this stage of love is imperfect, and the lover must mount higher still, until his soul, purified by philosophy and spiritual life, sees the light of angelic beauty and, ravished by the splendour of that light, becomes intoxicated and beside itself from passion to lose itself in the light. "Let us, then, direct all the thoughts and forces of our soul to this most sacred light, which shows us the way that leads to heaven; and following after it, let us lay aside the passions wherewith we were clothed at our fall, and by the stairway that bears the shadow of sensual beauty on its lowest step, let us mount to the lofty mansion where dwells the heavenly, lovely, and true beauty, which lies hidden in the inmost secret recesses of God, so that profane eyes cannot behold it,"[21] etc. This may savour somewhat too much of Platonic rhetoric, but such feelings were genuine, emotionally genuine, even if they proved evanescent in practice; they were familiar to Lorenzo dei Medici and his friends, and to the nobler spirits throughout Italy, and are as characteristic of the period as its cruelty, treachery, or sensuality. The effect of such cultivated circles upon art must have been great; they gave artists encouragement, sympathy, employment, and by the union of fashion and intelligence helped educate the taste of a larger public. It must be remembered that both Bramante and Raphael came from Urbino.

Poetry, with the delightful spontaneity and capriciousness of Italian genius, chose Ferrara, the home of the House of Este, to hang its laurels in. There Matteo Boiardo wrote the "Orlando Innamorato" (Roland in Love). This poem is an epic of chivalry concerning Charlemagne's court, and deals seriously, and yet at times ironically, with the subject of Roland's love for the beautiful Angelica. It was left unfinished, and Lodovico Ariosto (1474-1533) picked up the thread and carried it on, far more brilliantly and far more ironically, under the title "Orlando Furioso" (Roland Crazed). Ariosto's poem, which was immensely popular, was intended to entertain, and it succeeded; its variety, wit, irony, sarcasm, and levity make it entertaining even now. Inferior in moral and sensuous beauty to Spenser's "Faerie Queene," it is far easier to read. Its interest for us lies in the light it sheds on the intellectual state of educated Italians of the Renaissance, especially in regard to religion. Biblical allusions, sacred north of the Alps, are lugged in to give a touch of humour, as, for instance, where one of the knights, Astolfo, goes on a search for Roland's lost wits and meets St. John the Evangelist, who drives him to the moon in Elijah's chariot; or where, in another passage, St. Michael finds that the goddess of Discord has not obeyed his commands, "the angel seized her by the hair, kicked and pounded her incessantly, broke a cross over her head, till Discord embraced the knees of the divine envoy and howled for mercy." Ariosto, himself, conformed to the rites of the Church. Like most educated Italians he accepted them as conventional forms, tinged possibly with supernatural power, and kept ecclesiastical ideas wholly separate from moral ideas. His sceptical, ironical, Epicurean attitude towards non-material things is characteristic of the decadence of this period in which mental activity had outgrown morality.

Ariosto was a gentleman of birth and position. He spent most of his life in the service of his princes, the House of Este. In later life he withdrew from their employment, and lived in his own house, parva sed apta (small but suitable), to which the literary pious still make pilgrimages. He wrote the "Orlando Furioso" between 1505 and 1515, and thereafter devoted most of his leisure to improving and polishing it. Basking in the sunshine of fashionable admiration, he little suspected that another man, who had spent his life in mighty feats of architecture, painting, and sculpture, would in his old age write sonnets that should be read and reread like a breviary by serious men and women who passed his own luxurious rhetoric unheeded. Michelangelo's sonnets (some of which were written to Vittoria Colonna) are the noblest embodiment of those high ideas of love which came down from Plato to the philosophers of the Palazzo Medici in Florence and the courtiers at the ducal palace in Urbino. They are crammed to bursting with passionate intensity, and in that respect have no equals, even in English.

In the fine arts the High Renaissance has a score of famous men. Among them three or four stand head and shoulders above their fellows. Each is marked by extraordinary individuality of talents, character, and disposition: Michelangelo by passionate fury--terribilita; Raphael by sweet serenity; Bramante by his even commingling of poise and ardour; Leonardo by his noble curiosity.

Of Leonardo, Vasari says: "Sometimes according to the course of nature, sometimes beyond and above it, the greatest gifts rain down from heavenly influences upon the bodies of men, and crowd into one individual beauty, grace, and excellence in such superabundance that to whatever that man shall turn, his very act is so divine, that, surpassing the work of all other men, it makes manifest that it is by the special gift of God, and not by human art. This was true of Leonardo da Vinci; who, beside a physical beauty beyond all praise, put an infinite grace into whatever he did, and such was his excellence, that to whatever difficult things his mind turned he easily solved them." Leonardo (1452-1519) was a Florentine. He was trained by the subtle Verrocchio, from whom he learned the smile, if it be a smile, on the faces of his portraits of women. After leaving Verrocchio's workshop he went to Lombardy, where he spent sixteen years at the court of Milan. There he did a hundred different things: he modelled a great equestrian statue of Francesco Sforza (since destroyed), painted portraits, drew architectural designs,--for a cupola, a staircase, a bathroom, a triumphal arch, etc.,--executed hydraulic works, studied the cultivation of the grape, and played on his silver lyre. In the refectory of a Dominican monastery he painted his fresco of The Last Supper. One of the novices, who watched this handsome young painter at work, says that sometimes he would dash up the scaffold, brush in hand, put a few touches and hurry down; sometimes he would paint from sunrise to sunset without stopping even to eat; sometimes he would stand for hours contemplating the different figures. After Sforza's fall, Leonardo left Milan, and for a time took service with Caesar Borgia as military engineer and architect. He subsequently returned to Florence, and finally went to France, where he died.

Little remains of all that Leonardo planned. A half-destroyed fresco, a few easel pictures, some incomparable drawings, some treatises on his arts, some apothegms, are enough, however, to justify his fame. One of his apothegms, Tu, o Iddio, tutto ci vendi a prezzo di fatica (Thou, O God, sellest us everything at the price of hard work), is but poorly borne out by his own prodigal portion of genius, which rather supports Vasari's view that God makes special gifts. Very rarely has any man received the native endowment of Leonardo da Vinci.

The greatest architect of the High Renaissance was Bramante of Urbino. He, like Leonardo, worked in Milan during the resplendent reign of Lodovico Sforza. There he did much charming work and imposed his personality on Lombard architecture; but his great reputation was made in Rome, whither he went, drawn by the great Romeward flow of art, when the French invasion drove the fine arts from Milan. In Rome, Bramante became the papal architect. He shares with Raphael and Michelangelo the honour of making St. Peter's basilica and the Vatican palace what they are. He also built a little building, whose historical importance is ludicrously out of proportion to its size, it being as little as St. Peter's is big. It is a tiny circular temple in the court of a church on the Janiculum hill across the Tiber. On the ground floor a Doric colonnade encircles the temple, on the second story a balustrade. A dome, capped by a lantern, covers the whole. It is the first building which fully reproduced the style and spirit of antiquity. It set the fashion for the architecture of the sixteenth century, and determined, among other indirect and not altogether happy results, the plan of St. Paul's Cathedral in London and the Capitol in Washington.

It was not chance which took Bramante, Raphael, and Michelangelo to Rome. They went because the papal court, pursuing its policy of maintaining the Papacy at the head of Christendom by means of culture, summoned them to come. Rome never produced great artists. She never was artistic, any more than she had been spiritual. But just as in earlier times she had drawn spiritual forces to herself and used them, so now she attracted to herself and used the artistic forces of Italy. She had been making ready for years; step by step as she had become more secular, she had also become more artistic, more intellectual. For seventy years every Pope contributed to this end. Eugenius IV employed distinguished humanists as his secretaries, and invited the most notable painters and sculptors to Rome. Nicholas V conceived the splendid scheme of making Rome the mistress of the world's culture. Pius II, AEneas Sylvius Piccolomini, was the most eminent man of letters of his age. Paul II was a virtuoso in objects of art and increased the grandeur of the papal court. Sixtus IV improved the city, built the Sistine Chapel, and employed Botticelli, Perugino, Signorelli, Ghirlandaio, and Rosselli to decorate it. Innocent VIII brought Mantegna from Padua and Pinturicchio from Perugia to embellish the Vatican palace. Pope Borgia made Pinturicchio his court painter; and that charming master decorated the papal apartments in the Vatican with the great bull of the Borgia crest, and with portraits of the Pope's children and (so Vasari says) of the lovely Giulia Farnese as the Virgin with the Pope worshipping her.

Popes and cardinals felt the great movement and many strove to lead it, but the master figure of the Renaissance at Rome was the fiery Julius II, whose plans in the arts were even more grandiose than in politics. He was the centre of this period, as Cosimo and Lorenzo had been in their generations. Less astute than Cosimo, far less subtle and accomplished than Lorenzo, he was a much more heroic leader than either. His hardy, weather-beaten face in Raphael's portrait, with its strong, well-shaped features, shows his imperious, arrogant, irascible, and yet noble, nature. This Pontiff brought to Rome the greatest genius of the Renaissance, Michelangelo, bade him build for him a monumental tomb, more splendid than any tomb ever built, twelve yards high and proportionately wide and deep, and decked with two or three score statues. Such a gigantic monument could not have found room in the old basilica of St. Peter's, and therefore, as St. Peter's was the proper place for it, it became necessary to proceed with the larger plans of Nicholas V. Piecing and patching did not suit Julius. He discussed plans with his architects Bramante and Giuliano da San Gallo, and then resolved to pull down the old basilica, founded by Constantine and Silvester, despite its thousand years of sacred associations, and build a new church in its place. Bramante's fiery enthusiasm for great designs matched the Pope's. Satire suggested that in heaven he would say to St. Peter, "I'll pull down this Paradise of yours and build another, a much finer and pleasanter place for the blessed saints to live in." He designed the new church in the form of a Greek cross with a cupola, proposing, as it were, to lift the dome of the Pantheon on the basilica of Constantine, an enormous ruin in the Roman Forum. This gigantic plan befitted the new papal scheme of making Rome the head of Europe and the Papacy the head of culture. The corner-stone was laid on April 18, 1506, and the old building was demolished piecemeal, the choir first, the nave last; and in its place, as demolition proceeded bit by bit, the cathedral now standing rose, slowly lifting its great bulk in the air, and finally reached completion and consecration in 1626. The greatest architects of Italy succeeded one another as masters of the works, Bramante, Giuliano da San Gallo from Florence, Fra Giocondo from Verona, Raphael, Antonio da San Gallo the younger, Baldassare Peruzzi from Siena, and Michelangelo, who, when an old man, took charge and designed the dome.

The Vatican was altered according to Bramante's plans in order to make it a fit abode for the head of cultured Christendom: Michelangelo painted his frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12); and Raphael began to paint the stanza della segnatura. Raphael, the most charming figure in the world of art, was equally charming in life. Vasari says: "Among his exceptional gifts I take notice of one of such rare excellence that I marvel within myself. Heaven gave him power in our art to produce an effect most contrary to the humours of us painters, and it is this: the artists and artisans (I do not refer only to those of meaner sort, but to those who are ambitious to be great--and art produces many of this complexion) who worked in his atelier were so united and had such mutual good-will, that all jealousy and crossness were extinguished on seeing him, and every mean and spiteful thought vanished from their minds. Such unity was never seen before. And this was because they were overcome both by his courtesy and his art, but more by the genius of his good nature, which was so full of kindness and overflowing with charity, that not only men, but even the beasts almost worshipped him."

At this time, too, classic art, owing to the discovery of antique statues, had its fullest effect. The Nile, now in the Vatican, had been found in a Roman garden, the Apollo Belvedere in a vineyard near the city, and the Laocoon and many others here and there. Of the discovery of the Laocoon a record remains. "I was at the time a boy in Rome," wrote Francesco, son of Giuliano da San Gallo, the architect, "when one day it was announced to the Pope that some excellent statues had been dug up out of the ground in a grape-patch near the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. The Pope immediately sent a groom to Giuliano da San Gallo to tell him to go directly and see what it was. Michelangelo Buonarroti was often at our house, and at the moment chanced to be there; accordingly my father invited him to accompany us. I rode behind my father on his horse, and thus we went over to the place designated. We had scarcely dismounted and glanced at the figures, when my father cried out, 'It is the Laocoon of which Pliny speaks!' The labourers immediately began digging to get the statue out; after having looked at them very carefully, we went home to supper, talking all the way of antiquity."[22]

Thus these various forces--the discovery of antique statues, the passion for art, the eager Italian intellect, the conception of Rome as the mistress of culture, the character of Julius II and the genius of Bramante, Michelangelo, and Raphael--worked together to cover the Papacy with a pagan glory in its time of religious need. On the other hand, as these monumental works required vast sums of money, the sale of indulgences and the exaction of tribute buzzed on more rapidly than ever.

Leo X (1513-21) has given his name to this age of papal culture, but he was not entitled to the honour; he had the inborn Medicean interest and enjoyment in intellectual matters, a nice taste, and some delicacy of perception, but it needs no more than a look at his fat jowl in Raphael's portrait to see that he could not have been a motive force in a great period. He stands on an historic eminence as the last Pope to wield the Italian sceptre over all Europe, the last to send his tax-collectors from Sicily to England, from Spain to Norway, the last to enjoy the full heritage of Imperial Rome.

FOOTNOTES:

[21] Book of the Courtier, p. 305, translated by L. E. Opdycke.

[22] Rome and the Renaissance, from the French of Julian Klaczko, p. 93.