Giotto: The Peruzzi Chapel
Vitale da Bologna and Bolognese Painting in the Fourteenth Century
Italian Primitives: Panel Painting of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries
Until a short while ago we knew where we were with the luxury art book; with rare exceptions it was a glossy, highly-colored picture-book that was not serious—in the sense that it was very unlikely to have a serious text. The four books to be reviewed here illustrate rather well an interesting new development. To put the point simply, we can no longer tell from the glossiness of its cover or the number and brilliance of its color plates whether a book is or is not worth reading. It may be a little early to assess this new phenomenon, but there are some likely explanations. The production of art books becomes ever more expensive, as author and buyer expect more and more illustrations, and one solution to the problem is to aim the product at the greatest number of buyers. One logical approach is international cooperation, whereby the same plates can b circulated with a reprinted, translated text, and this has proved so successful, from the business point of view, that it has led the luxury volume to a larger share of the total product of art publishing (which is itself, by the same process, assuming a larger proportion of book production as a whole). This is all obvious. But as the breed multiplies, it has also to perform not only its original function, which, at a certain level, was educational, life-enhancing, and high-minded, but also the functions of other kinds of art books aimed at higher levels of commitment on the part of the reader. I suspect that this is partly the result of foresight and a sense of responsibility on the part of the publishers involved; and partly it is a result of compromise by those authors who have something that they need to get off their chests and can find no other outlet that is not economically crippling to themselves or a limitation upon the scale and scope of the book. No reasonable man can deplore these developments, especially while there is no evidence that the “pure” scholarly art book is in danger. Potentially, at least, every kind of author and reader stands to gain. The books reviewed here illustrate this potential very well. At the same time they suggest, independently from their own qualities and limitations, some gaps between potential and performance. These can best be seen after we have dealt with the books individually.
THE most courageous publishing venture here is unquestionably Giotto: The Peruzzi Chapel by Eve Borsook and Leonetto Tintori. In 1958 Professor Ugo Procacci, soprintendente of Monuments in Florence, achieved a long-standing ambition; he was able to initiate a campaign of restoration—to last, in the event, three years—of the second and greater of the sole surviving fresco-cycles by Giotto in Florence, in the Peruzzi Chapel in Santa Croce. The executant was Tintori, the most gifted, sensitive, and self-disciplined restorer of frescoes the world has yet seen. Although it was not then forseeable that this campaign would produce dramatic and unique results, it was decided that a careful record should be kept day by day by an art historian, Miss Borsook, the author of a much-admired work, The Mural Painters of Tuscany. The restorer’s problem was not in the first instance—as so many are—one of conservation, but literally of recovery. Giotto’s frescoes had suffered from a long history of neglect, repairs, physical damage, and partial destruction, followed by total whitewashing, rediscovery and finally complete repainting according to the notions of Giotto’s style and primitivism generally that were current in the middle of the last century. We had been forced to assess Giotto’s late style—that is to say, the phase of his work that was historically the most significant for subsequent Florentine painting—from an unhistorical, distorted travesty. It was like reading a corrupt text. It is to Professor Tintori’s credit that we now have a text that is almost pure, even if it is a fragment; to Miss Borsook goes the credit for the presentation and interpretation of this text and of its recovery, and to Professor Procacci we owe the idea of having it at all. Behind this team there stood a fourth member, the late Professor Offner, to whom the book is so appropriately dedicated. It was his unshakably logical philosophy of the treatment of damaged works of art—the presentation of the fragment in its greatest possible purity without any attempt at integration, necessarily subjective—that inspired the principles on which the work was done. It was, then, a matter of international cooperation (chiefly Italo-American) from the start, and this was how it continued; the technical resources of American laboratories were frequently tapped.
What happened surprised everybody, and upset many comfortable assumptions about wall-painting. It appeared that very little of this fresco-cycle was painted in buon fresco, that is, painting directly onto fresh sections of wet plaster. Only the uppermost parts were done in this way, and it was discovered that while the painters were at work on the still-fresh plaster of the vault, the walls beneath were already being coated. When the painters worked down to these levels the walls were dry, and their paint was applied a secco, with a technique resembling tempera painting more than fresco. Wall painting a secco is far from durable, and the body of the pigment cannot long survive; it is worn away, or simply drops off, leaving little more than a stain on the plaster surface. It was this ghost, therefore, that had been continually reinforced, obliterated, rediscovered and reinforced again—and it is this ghost that we now see once more, with the exception of those parts that were totally lost and those other parts at the top that had been executed in the normal and still substantial buon fresco. The visitor to the chapel now may with reason be shocked, for he sees what is frankly a ruin, but if he reflects he cannot doubt that he and Giotto are richer for the restoration: because a sluggish, clumsy, and arbitrarily-distorted totality has been exchanged for a fragment of breath-taking beauty; and also because what we now see is, even though a fragment, closer to Giotto’s intentions, and an unambiguous basis for understanding his style, even though it needs interpretation. Successive restorers up to the nineteenth century had, rather revealingly, a much less sure grip of reality than Giotto and his assistants; to give examples, a logical foreshortening of the table in the Feast of Herod has now been regained, and for the first time we can understand what actually is represented in the architecture of the Ascension of Saint John—a longitudinal section of a basilica, with an apse at one end. Similar results, by the way, emerged from the slightly earlier restoration of Giotto’s Bardi Chapel, next to this one in Santa Croce.
A large part of Miss Borsook’s text is composed of selections from the diary of the restoration, and very fascinating reading it is. Wonderfully frank—as frank as Tintori’s restoration itself—and unpretentiously written, it can be read not only as a documentation but also as the story of an exciting and contemporary event. It is typical of the honesty of the whole operation that changes of mind and errors are not at all suppressed, and neither are the pains of accomplishment (one beautiful painted vase took a week to clean) or the joys of discovery (of Saint John on Patmos: “Nov. 6, 1961…There is a hillock in the middle which by the afternoon looks like the ghost of an eagle”—and that is what it turned out to be). But the book is more than a diary; it is also a work of excellent scholarship, with a compilation of all known (and many previously unknown) archive and textual sources on the chapel, its decoration and history, so that it is a major contribution to Giotto studies. It would be a great pity, however, if it were read only by specialists, because it is a rare and readable account of something of our times that is going well; and surely the non-specialist reader must soon be satiated with broad perspectives and find equal delight in seeing one object in close-up. Its publication is, as we have said, courageous, for it is without precedent; it is very much to be hoped that future campaigns of restoration can be published in this way. The rumor is that some will.
MANY BELIEVE that there is little in fourteenth-century painting in Italy beyond Giotto and the Sienese that is either beautiful or important. This is convenient, but untrue. There were great artists in Venice, for example, and in Bologna there was one remarkable painter, Vitale, who was already painting in Giotto’s lifetime and died around 1360. He has been an obscure figure, little studied outside intermittent periodical literature. Now we have a full-length portrait in Cesare Gnudi’s Vitale da Bologna. This is certainly one of those books that owes its existence, in the first place, not so much to the public-spirited bank that fostered its original publication in Italy as to the compulsive necessity of an outlet for the author’s accumulated work, ideas, and enthusiasm. The subject is highly controversial, and Professor Gnudi takes a controversial point of view, with the result, naturally, that the text is argumentative. In consequence it is unlikely to appeal to the non-academic reader unless he is very much intrigued, as he might well be, by the paintings reproduced; if that is the case it must be said that he will not find it easy to disentangle the basic facts. The book is more surely aimed at the student of trecento painting, and in that case the fact that it is provocative, while always reasonable, is all to the good.
Professor Gnudi is not, of course, only concerned with the academic problems of authorship and chronology that are crucial for an understanding of this artist. He examines the strange blend of Vitale’s style and the way that blend changes; he describes its uniqueness, due in part to an independence of artistic character and in part also to the cross-currents of artistic geography, for Bologna was caught between the forces of Tuscan style and French Gothicism both courtly and popular. The exposition is convincing. As for the controversies—Professor Gnudi sets out the problems in an Introduction, arguing a unity of Vitale’s personality where other scholars have argued a division, and arguing a surprisingly early date for what he believes to be Vitale’s greatest monumental work, the Nativity fresco from Mezzaratta. This Introduction is heavy going, and might well be skipped by all but the most directly involved readers; for the unity of personality and rightness of chronology are either apparent from the subsequent survey of the artist’s career or they are not.
In my view Gnudi’s solutions seem very sensible, and brilliant as well, even if the element of doubt of which he is so conscious must remain. The reader of the English version may have some difficulty in following his analyses, as of the space in the Madonna dei Denti, or in understanding some of his observations, such as “transparent, silver light” (when is light opaque?); but his descriptive intention is subtle, the means are impressionistic and circumlocutory, and I think that the reader’s difficulties arise from the very different capacities of the English and Italian languages, and that this is not the undisciplined jargon it appears at first sight to be. I have only one serious criticism of the book. It is a monograph, in some respects very elaborate, but the elaboration is inconsistent. Illustrations are so lavish, for example, that it has been possible to duplicate in text-illustrations much of the material of the plates—which is a waste of the opportunity to give the reader comparative material to which Gnudi frequently refers (such as the illuminations of Pucelle) and which would have made understanding of his argument much easier. There are no reproductions of the kind that I regard as essential, showing frescoes in situ, so that their relationship to each other and to architecture within a church or chapel is comprehensible. And while the book has a bibliography, proper to a monograph, no dimensions are given for any work, which is unforgivable; if we want to think for ourselves, for instance, on the relationship between the Madonna dei Denti and its supposed wings (one that is not established in the text) we cannot begin to do so. The leveling effect in matters of scale is in any case one of the distortions characteristic of the illustrated book, and information for its correction should always be provided.
LAST YEAR WAS the four-hundreth anniversary of the death of Michelangelo, and to mark this event Professor Frederick Hartt has planned a trilogy devoted to the artist’s work in painting, sculpture, and drawing. The first volume, on the paintings, has now appeared. Hartt enjoys an enviable reputation for the ability, rare among academic art historians, to write stylishly, evocatively, and enthusiastically. In this book he remains as readable as ever, but there are signs that this ability is slipping into facility, and his words begin to mean less. The style is now spoiled by loosely constructed and over-colored images that strictly mean nothing at all, such as “melodious sensuality,” “Michelangelo explored the chords and cadences of human flesh,” and so on. Passages of bewildering nonsense (there is one on page 13 that implies a degree of stupidity in Michelangelo that the author surely did not intend) are balanced by others of concise and individual characterization: I have not met a better description of Michelangelo’s sculptural process than “relentlessly driving the profiles around the hidden form.”
It is hardly to be expected that Hartt’s volume could be as innovatory as Gnudi’s or Miss Borsook’s: Michelangelo is a much-studied artist. The book seems to be directed to popularizing all this scholarship, and I hope it is right to assume that it is not for the specialist. If it was intended to bring home to the general reader the greatness of Michelangelo’s work, then it should perform that function well, and it can be recommended as doing so better than any other in English. Professor Hartt certainly inspires interest as he leads us through the paintings in this volume, and the completed trilogy will, I imagine, earn him the gratitude of many. At the same time this first volume is very far from being all it might have been.
It is very easy to disagree with Hartt, as with most speculative historians. Mere differences of viewpoint are irrelevant here, but it seems right to remark on a certain lack of accuracy, discipline, and sense of proportion that spoil this book and make it not only of limited value but also dangerous for the serious but impressionable student. It contains a quantity of errors of fact, most of them individually rather trivial; but these errors have an unfortunate tendency to be the supports for elaborate and overingenious interpretations. There is, in fact, a difference between what the author’s eye sees, which is generally an observation of more than ordinary value, and what his mind sees, which is more often than not pure fantasy; in other words he is much better at formal art history than at iconology. The treatment of the Doni Holy Family is a case in point. The mainly formal appreciation in the text is lively and sensitive to the qualities of the work, whereas the analysis of its meaning in the notes accompanying the plates is a hair-raising example of that pseudo-iconology that brings this serious discipline into disrepute. In the Doni Holy Family are some innocent, uncharacterized, and entirely normal background mountains out of which Hartt conjures a prophecy of the Virgin Birth (Daniel had a vision of a mountain from which a stone fell, but no stones are falling here). If these mountains are a prophecy, then so are all others in the history of Christian art. Immediately behind the Holy Family there is a semi-circular architectural foundation which is, we are told, at one and the same time crescent-shaped (and so a reference to the arms of the patron’s wife, a Strozzi), a dry tank or font (and thus a reference to Baptism), and the Fountain Sealed, from the Song of Songs (referring to the Virgin). And so it goes on and on. This kind of multiple exegesis, which runs riot through the interpretation of the Sistine Ceiling, is frankly rubbish for the most part, the product of an almost medieval inventiveness without evidence, skepticism, or control. Moreover, although it looks erudite it is in fact very easy once one knows the way around the handbooks, especially those with indexes. In the case of the Sistine Ceiling one feels that if the positions of the Prophets and Sybils had been shuffled the same process would yield an equally “amazing structure of interlocking allusions.” Hartt has not begun to think of the methodological problems of iconology—yet, when he uses his eyes on the Sistine Ceiling and says that its painted interlocking structure is like the vault of a Gothic cathedral, his remarks are pertinent.
IN CONTEMPORARY art history it is now fashionable to relate styles to historical, political, political, or economic events; there are dangers in this approach, but Hartt is not worried. Thus the “sad lunettes” of the Sistine Ceiling are a reflection of the dark days of papal history in 1511-12, which is naive; but if one accepts that date for the lunettes it is hard to disprove. This, however, is the kind of argument in which inaccuracies are fatal. Part of The Flood (designed in 1508, painted in 1509) is “a vivid commentary on…the impiety of the Schismatic Council of Pisa which had ordered Julius II…deposed”—but the Schismatic Council, invoked again to explain the Prophet Joel, also of 1508-9, happened in 1511. Even if the dates had been right, it seems to me that on this level of simplicity the cause-and-effect relationship does not work.
One other criticism of Hartt’s Michelangelo is of a very general kind. The perceptiveness and interest of his observations of the visual qualities of Michelangelo’s work are of a very high order for a non-specialist book, and they are what make it worth reading. This, however, is a book specifically about Michelangelo as a painter, and the text is indistinguishable from a book about Michelangelo tout court, edited so as to concentrate on the paintings. While the total artist is certainly not underestimated, it seems to me that the extent to which Michelangelo was immersed in and committed to the painter’s problems of his day is not properly stressed. We still persevere with that old platitude that his paintings are like polychrome sculpture. Hartt is rightly spellbound by the beauty of Michelangelo’s color, but he has no comment, for example, on the extraordinary development in the handling of color within the time-span of the Sistine Ceiling, one of the most headlong of such developments in the whole history of art. And it is typical of this shortcoming that there is more comment on the technique of Michelangelo’s sculpture than of his painting. Yet the way in which Michelangelo did make himself into a true painter (however reluctant he may have been to assume commissions for paintings) is one of the most moving indications of the integrity of the whole artist.
No one could criticize Hartt’s book as sicklied over with the pale cast of thought, but it is serious in the sense that the author has something urgent to say. It sheer vitality will for most people redeem any faults. In this respect it differs from Enzo Carli’s Italian Primitives, a competent but routine survey of panel-painting in Italy in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. There is little in this to surprise or interest the specialist, and it must have been aimed at the genera; reader. If that is so, then I believe Carli has misjudged that elusive but important person; anyone sufficiently sophisticated to open such a book no longer needs to be reminded, for instance, that these pictures are not “primitive” in the sense of incompetent. Nor, I would guess, does he want to be reminded so often of collisions on the crossroads of scholarship. If he does want a lively, stimulating guide to his own appreciation of this period of painting I doubt that he will find it here. Professor Carli’s text is reliable enough, and comprehensive enough, but neither expresses nor awakens much effort. And—although this is bound to be a personal view—it seems to me that there is a certain lack of critical judgment, perceiving for example neither the pedestrianism of Margaritone d’Arezzo nor the great stature of Coppo di Marcovaldo. It is hard to distinguish the giants from the pigmies.
SO FAR WE HAVE spoken only of the very varied texts of these books, but their illustrations, in all cases lavish in scale and number, also invite comment. Those in Miss Borsook’s book break a general rule. The color plates are in the minority, but they are excellent, and give a clear and accurate impression of the qualities of the original frescoes. The black-and-white plates, on the other hand, are wretchedly insensitive, at times illegible, and must have been bitterly disappointing for the restorer, the author, and the brilliant photographer (one might almost say artist) Nadir Tronci. The material given to the blockmakers was, in this case, ascertainably of superb quality, and the result of unrivaled experience and conscientiousness, all of which has been tragically wasted. In Gnudi’s Vitale da Bologna the monochrome reproductions are again far from perfect, but about evenly matched in quality with those in color. In the other two books the situation is more familiar: The black-and-white plates are less conspicuous but consistently better than those in color. The best are in Hartt’s Michelangelo, where there is only one horror (of the Bacchus); Hartt, moreover, chose his illustrations well, including, for example, a supplementary one of the Doni Holy Family in its original frame and a general view of the Sistine Chapel in which the context of the frescoes can be properly seen. The color-plates in these volumes, however, are of that uncertain truthfulness that seems to be accepted today; what I would like to question is whether we are right to do so.
Let us take some specific cases. The color plates in Vitale da Bologna are generally well produced: they have a tendency to prettiness in relation to the originals, especially to the frescoes, and there is a general over-accentuation of the reds, but none of them is offensive. In Hartt’s Michelangelo we see that typical difference in quality, for which there is a technical explanation, between details of paintings and broad views of the whole or a large part. Some of the details of the Sistine Ceiling are rather good, since they do capture the unique properties of Michelangelo’s frescoes, but some representing whole compositions, like that of the Fall of Man, are insensitive and misleading, providing discrepancies between themselves and the color descriptions in the text. Some of the later plates, of the Last judgment or the Crucifixion of Saint Peter, are offensive and arbitrary, muddy and at the same time afflicted with an uncontrolled rash of cherry-red. A few are carelessly printed. The worst, however, are to be found in Carli’s Italian Primitives. When the reproductions were of paintings I happened to know quite well I found very few reminiscent of the individual coloristic qualities of the originals, and some do not recall paintings at all. That of the Bardi Saint Francis is a lurid, schematized fantasy, like something on a Christmas biscuit-box. Again, details are generally less unpleasant than whole complexes, but the reader who does not know the paintings may judge the standard of tolerance allowed if he compares them; there are a number of cases (compare plates 1, 4 and 5, or 20 and 21), in which it is astonishing that they are meant to represent the same painting. Purple, it seems, can be exchanged for blue, gray for green, and different reds lose their identify. There are shortcomings in technique here, but also in taste. It is probably true that anyone who believes a blurb gets what he deserves, but the assurance that the “spectacularly beautiful color plates (many with gold) will have great interest for art lovers and scholars” raises the question whether standards of fidelity and taste are high enough.
What is not in question is the difficulty of making good color plates, and in particular the difficulty of achieving consistent quality. But I do believe that we can do better than this; human beings can achieve technical miracles far more difficult when the necessity is felt and the will summoned. In the meantime there is another solutions; the exercise of criticism at an earlier stage should lead to the elimination of those color photographs that are failures, and their replacement with black-and-white. And perhaps until techniques can be improved it is better to restrict color illustrations to details, for that sensible and realistic compromise has been conspicuously successful in Giotto: The Peruzzi Chapel.
A FINAL COMMENT about translations. Two of these books, Carli’s and Gnudi’s, have been translated from Italian. One does not expect them to make as much sense as the originals, but they should be accurate and read with ease and enjoyment. They are not adequate on either count. In Italian Primitives there are sentences of utter nonsense, the style throughout is slipshod and journalistic (“…super-charged group of mourners,” “…Byzantine cant”). There are inaccurate terms and observations that are hard to credit to Professor Carli—“the pinnacle of a resplendent apse,” for example, or this description of the prophets in Cimabue’s Maestà: “blood brothers of the characters sculpted by Giovanni Pisano, that hand [sic] howling [sic] from the façade of the Cathedral of Florence [sic].” The translation of Vitale da Bologna is much better, and is indeed quite readable, but there are contradictions that all turn out, on investigation, to be distortions or misunderstandings of the Italian. For instance there is, in a short note on Vitale’s polyptych of San Salvatore, a double contradiction, which turns out to be due to an unnecessary interpolation and a mistranslation; and there are occasional comically unhappy renderings, like this comment on a Madonna that “bears the imprint of Vitale’s style, strengthened by Ottorino Non-farmale’s recent restoration” (“come ha confirmato il recente restauro…,” etc.).
Again, the difficulties of getting good translators to undertake this kind of work are very real, and must be recognized. But it seems that their contribution is at present undervalued; sometimes they are even anonymous. Their job, however, is as important as it is thankless, for their skill and care to a great extent determine the usefulness of a book. Perhaps publishing budgets should be adjusted so as to give the translation a larger share. At all events, if it is not standard practice to check the accuracy and literacy of all translations, it should be. In some cases, though not so much in those we have considered here, it is difficult to believe that anyone looked at them before they were published.