Italian Painting in the XIVth and XVth Centuries

Italian Painting in the XIVth and XVth Centuries

Italian Painting in the XIVth and XVth Centuries

Italian Painting in the XIVth and XVth Centuries

Excerpt

If a historical equivalent of the term » Renaissance « in its true sense is to be sought, it should be applied not to the XVth century, but rather to the XIth and XIIth centuries, the period when, after the long night of the dark ages, a new civilization was born. In the domain of the arts a veritable renascence took place at that time, and reached its climax in the XIIIth century; the Western renascence of plastic values, as defined by the Greeks and then submerged during seven centuries of barbarian and Oriental invasions, developing in the XIIIth century after a slow period of elaboration, which lasted about a hundred years. The principal new values, which appeared progressively in the course of this admirable evolution, which extended from the Royal Portal of Chartres to the sculpture of Rheims Cathedral, are the definite triumph of plasticity over ornament, of the human figure over the chimera, of naturalistic inspiration over the dream, a new consciousness of the three-dimentional world, signifying a return to a realistic sense of space, a new notion of artistic progress consisting of a constant approximation to life in place of the immobility of the Byzantine and pre- Romanesque arts, in which the western conquering instinct manifests itself. Thus it was France who gave the impetus to this movement, which may justly be defined by the term » Renaissance «, and it was only at the moment when this brilliant creative impulse began to decline in France, that it touched Italy. In fact Italy was to accomplish in her own way a similar evolution at the end of the XIIIth century. But while in France it had been a collective effort, the product of the enthusiasm of a whole people, in Italy the individual was to play a much more important part. Many art historians, still following Vasari's estimates, look upon Cimabue as the pioneer of modern Italian art. To us, on the contrary, he appears as the last of the great Byzantines; moreover the whole of Italian painting of the XIIIth century up to Giotto is but a colony of Byzantine art flourishing in two forms: one popular and expressive in the pathetic works of the schools of Lucca and Pisa, based on the naive art born in Syria and developed in Cappadocia; the other leading towards plastic abstraction in the works of the Florentine school inspired by official tradition. The remarkably » Cimabuesque « mosaics of the Xth century, recently discovered by Mr. Whittemore in the narthex of St. Sophia, reveal that the great Cenno di Pepe drew his inspiration, probably through Venice, from the very fountain head of the official tradition, which had remained untouched by foreign contacts on the shores of the Bosphorus. The tendency to treat the figure in terms of pattern, like a playing card, consciously ignoring the third dimension and the reality of space; the deliberate desire to transmute every realistic element into an abstract scheme; to submit in this fashion every individual figure to the dignity of a general concept, susceptible to the widest extension and spiritual acceptance; all this, together with prodigious virtuosity in the treatment of linear arabesque, appears in an almost identical manner in St. Sophia and in the work of Cimabue.

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