1. Ghirlandaio

Verrocchio’s thriving studio was characteristic of Renaissance Florence—it united all the arts in one workshop, sometimes in one man; in the same bottega one artist might be designing a church or a palace, another might be carving or casting a statue, another sketching or painting a picture, another cutting or setting gems, another carving or inlaying ivory or wood, or fusing or beating metal, or fashioning floats and pennons for a festival procession; men like Verrocchio, Leonardo, or Michelangelo could do any of these. Florence had many such studios, and art students went wild in the streets,27 or lived Bohemianly in the tenements, or became rich men honored by popes and princes as inspired spirits beyond price and—like Cellini—above the law. More than any other city except Athens, Florence attached importance to art and artists, talked and fought about them, and told anecdotes about them,28 as we do now of actors and actresses. It was Renaissance Florence that formed the romantic concept of the genius—the man inspired by a divine spirit (the Latin genius) dwelling within him.

It is worthy of note that Verrocchio’s studio left no great sculptor (except one side of Leonardo) to carry on the master’s excellence, but taught two painters of high degree—Leonardo and Perugino—and one of lesser but notable talent, Lorenzo di Credi. Painting was gradually ousting sculpture as the favorite art. Probably it was an advantage that the painters were uninstructed and uninhibited by the lost murals of antiquity. They knew that there had been such men as Apelles and Protogenes, but few of them saw even the Alexandrian or Pompeian remnants of ancient painting. In this art there was no revival of antiquity, and the continuity of the Middle Ages with the Renaissance was most visible: the line was devious but clear from the Byzantines to Duccio to Giotto to Fra Angelico to Leonardo to Raphael to Titian. So the painters, unlike the sculptors, had to forge through trial and error their own technology and style; originality and experiment were forced upon them. They labored over the details of human, animal, and plant anatomy; they tried circular, triangular, or other schemes of composition; they explored the tricks of perspective and the illusions of chiaroscuro to give depth to their backgrounds and body to their figures; they scoured the streets for Apostles and Virgins, and drew from models clothed or nude; they passed from fresco to tempera and back again, and appropriated the new techniques of oil painting introduced into northern Italy by Rogier van der Weyden and Antonio da Messina. As their skill and courage grew, and their lay patrons multiplied, they added to the old religious subjects the stories of classic mythology and the pagan glories of the flesh. They took Nature into the studio, or betook themselves to Nature; nothing human or natural seemed in their view alien to art, no face so ugly but art could reveal its illuminating significance. They recorded the world; and when war and politics had made Italy a prison and a ruin, the painters left behind them the line and color, the life and passion, of the Renaissance.

Formed by such studies, inheriting an ever richer tradition of methods, materials, and ideas, men of talent painted better now than men of genius had painted a century before. Benozzo Gozzoli, says Vasari in an ungracious moment, “was not of great excellence… yet he distanced all the others of his age in his perseverance; for among the multitude of his works some could hardly help but be good.”29 He began as a pupil of Fra Angelico, and followed him to Rome and Orvieto as assistant. Piero the Gouty recalled him to Florence and invited him to portray, on the walls of the chapel in the Medici Palace, the journey of the Magi from the East to Bethlehem. These frescoes are Benozzo’s chef-d’oeuvre: a stately and yet lively procession of kings and knights in gorgeous robes, of squires, pages, angels, hunters, scholars, slaves, horses, leopards, dogs, and half a dozen Medici—and Benozzo himself slyly introduced into the parade—and all against backgrounds and landscapes marvelous and picturesque. Flushed with triumph, Benozzo went to San Gimignano, and decorated the choir of Sant’ Agostino with seventeen scenes from the life of its patron saint. In the Campo Santo at Pisa he labored for sixteen years, covering vast walls with twenty-one Old Testament scenes from Adam to the Queen of Sheba; some, like The Tower of Babel, were among the major frescoes of the Renaissance. Benozzo diluted his excellence through eager haste; he drew carelessly, made many of his figures depressingly uniform, and crowded his pictures with a confusing multitude of persons and details; but he had in him the blood and joy of life, he loved its lusty panorama and the glory of the great; and the imperfections of his line are half forgotten in the splendor of his color and the enthusiasm of his fertility.

The benign influence of Fra Angelico passed down to Alesso Baldovinetti and Cosimo Roselli, and through Alesso to one of the major painters of the Renaissance—Domenico Ghirlandaio. Domenico’s father was a goldsmith who had received the nickname of Ghirlandaio from the gold and silver garlands that he had fashioned for the pretty heads of Florence. Under this father and Baldovinetti Domenico studied with zest and zeal; spent many hours before the frescoes of Masaccio in the Carmine; learned by indefatigable practice the arts of perspective, foreshortening, modeling, and composition; “he would draw everyone who passed the shop,” says Vasari, “making extraordinary likenesses” after a fleeting view. He was barely twenty-one when he was charged to paint the story of Santa Fina in her chapel in the cathedral at San Gimignano. At thirty-one (1480) he earned the title of master by four frescoes in the church and refectory of the Ognissanti in Florence—a St. Jerome, a Descent From the Cross, a Madonna della Misericordia (which included a portrait of the donor, Amerigo Vespucci), and a Last Supper that gave some hints to Leonardo.

Summoned to Rome by Sixtus IV, he painted in the Sistine Chapel Christ Calling Peter and Andrew from Their Nets— especially beautiful in its background of mountains, sea, and sky. During this stay in Rome he studied and drew the arches, baths, columns, aqueducts, and amphitheaters of the ancient city, and with so practiced an eye that he was able to seize at once, without rule or compass, the just proportions of each part. A Florentine merchant in Rome, Francesco Tornabuoni, mourning his dead wife, employed Ghirlandaio to paint frescoes for her memorial in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, and Domenico succeeded so well that Tornabuoni sent him back to Florence armed with florins and a letter attesting his excellence. The Signory soon entrusted to him the decoration of the Sala del Orologio in their palace. In the next four years (1481–5) he painted scenes from the life of St. Francis in the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinità. All the progress of the painter’s art, except the use of oil, was embodied in these frescoes: harmonious composition, accurate line, gradations of light, perspective fidelity, realistic portraiture (of Lorenzo, Politian, Pulci, Palla Strozzi, Francesco Sassetti), and at the same time the Angelesque tradition of ideality and piety. From the near-perfection of the altarpiece—theAdoration of the Shepherds—there would be but a step of deeper imagination and subtler grace to Leonardo and Raphael.

In 1485 Giovanni Tornabuoni, chief of the Medici bank in Rome, offered Ghirlandaio twelve hundred ducats ($30,000) to paint a chapel in Santa Maria Novella, and promised him two hundred more if the work should prove fully satisfactory. Aided by several pupils, including Michelangelo, Ghirlandaio gave most of the following five years to this high moment of his career. On the ceiling he painted the four Evangelists; on the walls St. Francis, Peter Martyr, John the Baptist, and scenes from the lives of Mary and Christ, from an Annunciation to a magnificent Coronation of the Virgin. Here again he delighted in contemporary portraits: the stately Lodovica Tornabuoni, fit to be a queen, the saucy beauty of Ginevra de’ Benci, the scholars Ficino, Politian, and Landino, the painters Baldovinetti, Mainardi, and Ghirlandaio himself. When, in 1490, the chapel was opened to the public, all the dignitaries and literati of Florence flocked to examine the paintings; the realistic portraits were the talk of the town; and Tornabuoni expressed himself as completely satisfied. Financially pressed at the time, he begged Domenico to forgive him the extra two hundred ducats; the artist replied that the satisfaction of his patron was more precious to him than any gold.

He was a lovable character, so adored by his brothers that one of them, David, almost slew an abbot with an aged loaf of bread for bringing to Domenico and his aides food that David held unworthy of his brother’s genius. Ghirlandaio opened his studio to all who cared to work or study there, making it a veritable school of art. He accepted all commissions, great or small, saying that none should be denied; he left the care of his household and finances to David, saying that he would not be content till he had painted the whole circuit of Florence’s wall. He produced many mediocre paintings, and yet some incidental pieces of great charm, like the Louvre’s delightful Grandfather with the bulbous nose, and the lovely Portrait of a Woman in the Morgan Collection in New York—pictures full of the character that year by year records itself upon the human face. Great critics of unquestionable learning and repute yield him only a minor rank;30 and it is true that he excelled rather in line than in color, that he painted too rapidly, and crowded his pictures with irrelevant detail, and took a step backward, perhaps, in preferring tempera after Baldovinetti’s experiments with oil. Even so, he brought the accumulated technology of his art to the highest point that it would reach in his country and his century; and he bequeathed to Florence and the world such treasures that criticism hangs its head in gratitude.

2. Botticelli

Only one Florentine surpassed him in his generation. Sandro Botticelli was as different from Ghirlandaio as ethereal fancy from physical fact. Alessandro’s father, Mariano Filipepi, unable to persuade the boy that life would be impossible without reading, writing, and arithmetic, apprenticed him to the goldsmith Botticelli, whose name, through the affection of the pupil or the whim of history, became permanently attached to Sandro’s own. From this bottega the lad passed at sixteen to that of Fra Filippo Lippi, who came to love the restless and impetuous youth. Filippo’s Filippino later painted Sandro as a sullen fellow with deep-set eyes, salient nose, sensual fleshy mouth, flowing locks, purple cap, red mantle, and green hose;31 who would have guessed such a man from the delicate fantasies that Botticelli has left to the museums? Perhaps every artist must be a sensualist before he can paint ideally; he must know and love the body as the ultimate source and standard of the esthetic sense. Vasari describes Sandro as “a merry fellow,” who played pranks upon fellow artists and obtuse citizens. Doubtless, like all of us, he was many men, turned on one or another of his selves as occasion required, and kept his real self a frightened secret from the world.

About 1465 Botticelli set up his own studio, and soon received commissions from the Medici. It was apparently for Lorenzo’s mother, Lucrezia Tornabuoni, that he painted Judith; and for Piero Gottoso, her husband, he made his Madonna of the Magnificat and his Adoration of the Magi-hymns in color to three Medici generations. In the Madonna Botticelli pictured Lorenzo and Giuliano as boys of sixteen and twelve, holding a book upon which the Virgin—borrowed from Fra Lippo—writes her noble song of praise; in theAdoration Cosimo kneels at Mary’s feet, Piero kneels at a lower level before them, and Lorenzo, now seventeen, holds a sword in his hand as a sign that he has reached the age of legitimate killing.

Lorenzo and Giuliano carried on Piero’s patronage of Botticelli. His finest portraits are of Giuliano and Giuliano’s beloved Simonetta Vespucci. He still painted religious pictures, like the powerful St. Augustine in the church of the Ognissanti; but in this period, perhaps under the influence of Lorenzo’s circle, he turned more and more to pagan subjects, usually from classical mythology, and favoring the nude. Vasari reports that “in many houses Botticelli painted… plenty of naked women,” and accuses him of “serious disorders in his living”;32 the humanists, and animal spirits, had won Sandro for a time to an epicurean philosophy. It was apparently for Lorenzo and Giuliano that he painted (1480) The Birth of Venus. A demure nude rises from a golden shell in the sea, using her long blonde tresses as the only fig leaf at hand; on her right winged zephyrs blow her to the shore; on her left a pretty maid (Simonetta?), clad in a gown of flowered white, offers the goddess a mantle to enhance her loveliness. The painting is a masterpiece of grace, in which design and composition are everything, color is subordinate, realism is ignored, and everything is directed to evoking an ethereal fancy through the flowing rhythm of the line. Botticelli had taken the theme from a passage in Politian’s La giostra. From a description, in the same poem, of Giuliano’s victories in jousts and love the artist took his second pagan picture, Mars and Venus; here Venus is clothed, and may again be Simonetta; Mars lies exhausted and asleep, no rude warrior but a youth of unblemished flesh, who might almost be mistaken for another Aphrodite. Finally, in his Spring (Primavera) Botticelli expressed the mood of Lorenzo’s hymn to Bacchus (“Who would be happy, let him be!”): the auxiliary lady of the Birth reappears with her flowing robe and pretty feet; at the left Giuliano (?) plucks an apple from a tree to give to one of the three graces standing half nude beside him; on the right a lusty male seizes a maiden dressed in a little mist; Simonetta presides modestly over the scene; and in the air above her Cupid shoots his quite superfluous darts. These three pictures symbolized many things, for Botticelli loved to allegorize; but perhaps without his realizing it they represented also the victory of the humanists in art. The Church would now for half a century (1480–1534) struggle to regain her dominance over pictorial themes.

As if to meet the issue squarely, Sixtus IV called Botticelli to Rome (1481), and commissioned him to paint three frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. They are not among his masterpieces; he was in no mood for piety. But when he returned to Florence (1485) he found the city astir with Savonarola’s sermons, and went to hear him. He was deeply moved. He had always harbored a strain of austerity, and whatever skepticism he might have caught from Lorenzo, Pulci, and Politian had been lost in the secret well of his youthful faith. Now the fiery preacher at San Marco’s pressed upon him and Florence the awful implications of that faith: God had allowed Himself to be insulted, scourged, and crucified to redeem mankind from the guilt of Adam and Eve’s sin; only a life of virtue or sincere repentance could win some grace from that sacrifice of God to God, and so escape eternal hell. It was about this time that Botticelli illustrated Dante’s Divine Comedy. He turned his art again to the service of religion, and told once more the marvelous story of Mary and Christ. For the church of St. Barnabas he painted a masterly group of the Virgin enthroned, with divers saints; she was still the tender and lovely maiden whom he had drawn in Fra Lippo’s studio. Soon afterward he painted theMadonna of the Pomegranate—the Virgin surrounded by singing cherubim, the Child holding in His hand the fruit whose innumerable seeds symbolized the dissemination of the Christian faith. In 1490 he recapitulated the epic of the Divine Mother in two pictures: the Annunciation and theCoronation. But he was aging now, and had lost the fresh clarity and grace of his art.

In 1498 Savonarola was hanged and burned. Botticelli was horrified at this most distinguished murder of the Renaissance. Perhaps it was shortly after that tragedy that he painted his complex symbolism, Calumny. Against a background of classic archways and distant sea three women-Fraud, Deception, Calumny—led by a ragged male (Envy), drag a nude victim by the hair to a tribunal where a judge with the long ears of an ass, advised by females personifying Suspicion and Ignorance, prepares to yield to the fury and bloodthirst of the crowd and condemn the fallen man; while at the left Remorse, garbed in black, looks in sorrow upon naked Truth—Botticelli’s Venus once more, clad in the same reptilian hair. Was the victim intended to represent Savonarola? Perhaps, though the nudes might have startled the monk.

The Nativity in the National Gallery at London is Botticelli’s final masterpiece, confused but colorful, and capturing for the last time his rhythmic grace. Here all seems to breathe a heavenly happiness; the ladies of the Spring return as winged angels, hailing the miraculous and saving birth, and dancing precariously on a bough suspended in space. But on the picture Botticelli wrote in Greek these words, savoring of Savonarola, and recalling the Middle Ages in the height of the Renaissance:

This picture I, Alessandro, painted at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy… during the fulfillment of the Eleventh [Chapter] of St. John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, in the loosing of the Devil for three years and a half. Later he shall be chained, according to the Twelfth of St. John, and we shall see him trodden down as in this picture.

After 1500 we have no paintings from his hand. He was only fifty-six, and might have had some art left in him; but he yielded place to Leonardo and Michelangelo, and lapsed into a morose poverty. The Medici who had been his mainstay gave him charity, but they themselves were in a fallen state. He died alone and infirm, aged sixty-six, while the forgetful world hurried on.

Among his pupils was his teacher’s son, Filippino Lippi. This “love child”* was loved by all who knew him: a man gentle, affable, modest, courteous, whose “excellence was such,” says Vasari, “that he obliterated the stain of his birth, if any there be.” Under his father’s tutelage and Sandro’s he learned the painter’s art so rapidly that already at twenty-three he produced in The Vision of St. Bernard a portrait that in Vasari’s judgment “lacked only speech.” When the Carmelite monks decided to complete the frescoes begun in their Brancacci Chapel sixty years before, they awarded the commission to Filippino, still but twenty-seven. The result did not equal Masaccio, but in St. Paul Addressing St. Peter in Prison Filippino achieved a memorable figure of simple dignity and quiet power.

In 1489, at Lorenzo’s suggestion, Cardinal Caraffa called him to Rome to decorate a chapel in Santa Maria sopra Minerva with scenes from the life of St. Thomas Aquinas. In the main fresco the artist, perhaps recalling a similar picture by Andrea da Firenze a century before, showed the philosopher in triumph, with Arius, Averroes, and other heretics at his feet; meanwhile, in the universities of Bologna and Padua, the doctrines of Averroes were gaining ground over the orthodox faith. Back in Florence, in the chapel of Filippo Strozzi in Santa Maria Novella, Filippino recorded the careers of the Apostles Philip and John in frescoes so realistic that legend told how a boy tried to hide a secret treasure in a hole that Filippino had represented in a pictured wall. Interrupting this series for a time, and replacing the dilatory Leonardo, he painted an altarpiece for the monks of Scopeto; he chose the old subject of the Magi adoring the Child, but enlivened it with Moors, Indians, and many Medici; one of these last, serving as an astrologer with a quadrant in his hands, is among the most human and humorous portraits of the Renaissance. Finally (1498), as if to say that his father’s sins had been forgiven, Filippino was invited to Prato to paint a Madonna; Vasari praised it, the Second World War destroyed it. He settled down to marriage at forty, and knew for a few years the joys and tribulations of parentage. Suddenly, at forty-seven, he died of so simple an ailment as quinsy sore throat (1505).

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