Sunday, 18 May 2014
LEIGHTON ON RENAISSANCE ART
On two former occasions Sir Frederick Leighton had taken a survey of the evolution of art in Egypt, in Assyria, and in Greece, and of its development in Etruria and in Rome. Italy is again the land to which he calls attention, but it is now the Italy which, rose out of the ashes of the empire of the Caesars. It was in that peninsula that the torpor of the Dark Ages was first shaken off, and the dawn appeared of a wider and more free intellectual life. Sir Frederick Leighton seeks to trace the relations between art and this great movement. But the field is so wide that the president is constrained to limit his remarks to Tuscan art, in criticising Tuscan art to confine his attention to what was as characteristically the expression of the genius of Italy as sculpture had been of the genius of Greece—viz., painting, In such a survey it is impossible not to take account of the human material on which this intellectual evolution worked. The fifth century saw the collapse of Imperial Rome, and from the fall of the Empire of the West wave after wave of foreign hosts rolled over the face of Italy. The complexion of the Italian race was more or less modified, and this racial revolution could not be without effect on the future of Italian art. But no revolution of race could com pare as a formative influence with the great spiritual revolution which so completely severs the ancient and modern worlds—the triumph of the Christian faith. Nowhere is the antagonism between Paganism and Christianity more conspicuous than in art. The spirit of Greek religion was " a joyous and an exulting spirit, full of the pulse of life, shunning the thought of death, little concerned with the pale Beyond." It worshipped material beauty of form, regarding a god as simply a man of ideal physical perfection. To this Christianity opposed an entirely contrary view. The faith of the Christian, tried by all sorts of persecutions, had taught its follower to look beyond the grave for his home of rest and happiness, to regard the present as but a temporary scene of trial and preparation, and to regard the physical body as an enemy at constant war with the soul in its struggles and aspirations. Hence it exalted a spirit of asceticism which did not fall to impress itself on the beginnings of Christian art. The gods were banished from Olympus, and all the fairy mythology from the studio. Bodily perfection was no longer the mirror of the perfect human spirit. The depravity of the flesh was henceforth to be preached by gaunt ungainliness of form. But in time a truer balance and a clearer insight were restored. The spirit of antiquity was to be recalled, but not to undisputed possession of the field. The leaven of Christianity had worked too long and too powerfully to surrender art entirely to the unleavened spirit of antiquity. The great intellectual movement known as the Renaissance was due mainly to two currents of force. The intellectual revolt against scholastic theology, and that ascetic spirit which saw in the flesh the counterpart of the devil and the field for all his works, was one force. The rekindled consciousness among the Italians of their past historic greatness was another. The dignity of man was restored, and the intellectual treasures of the past were brought to the surface once more. Art received an impulse to study man and to study nature. The life of the Italian republics tended to individual development, and hence the study of the individual forced itself upon the artist. The scientific spirit which the Renaissance had breathed life into and fostered, took possession of the arts, and the mechanism, structure, and anatomy of the human form were keenly studied. The revival of classical learning co-operated also in creating a love and admiration for nature, and landscape and natural scenery entered into the region of art. In this development the religious and didactic phase grew fainter and fainter, but never wholly disappeared. The graver spirit of the Christian religion was not without its influence on the youth of Raphael, while it found expression in the sonnets of Michael Angelo. It is in Lionardo and Raphael that we see the Renaissance fully developed, though in distinct forms. The scientific spirit asserted itself in the one, in the other we see the absorption of what was best in the classic spirit. But on Michael Angelo, as an artist, the old world had no hold or influence. He remains the highest type of a mediaeval artist, yet one who, without the Renaissance, could not have been. He was the spiritual son of Dante—a Tuscan, a Christian, an immortal artist. When we turn from art to literature it is impossible to abstain from contrasting the difference in the influence of the Renaissance. The seeds of mischief which it contained were ultimately to germinate in the field of literature. The worship of classicism led to a loosening of Christian belief and a disintegration of moral nature. Even a Machiavelli can complain—" We have become void of religion and are bad." The profession of the humanists, as they were called, became a synonym for corruption, and contact with them a taint. But the Renaissance never tended to the ethic degradation of art. Whatever was highest and purest in the Tuscan people found a faithful image and expression in Tuscan art. Sir Frederick Leighton's closing words are an appeal which may fitly be applied to students of literature as well as to students of art—" Let it be our care that one speaking at some future time of this our English art may say a like thing with equal truth."
The South Australian Advertiser 25 January 1888,
The South Australian Advertiser 25 January 1888,