The Great Age of Fresco: Giotto to Pontormo
Birnam Wood has come to Dunsinane. What was rooted in Florence, what was bound to the walls of churches and town halls, has been freed by newly refined techniques….
Professor Millard Meiss’s dramatic opening words of the Introduction to this catalogue reflect the sense of wonder and surprise which all visitors to this unprecedented exhibition must have experienced in New York and are now experiencing in London. These words may also betray something of the suppressed anxiety that underlies our wonder. Shakespeare does not tell us what happened to the cut-off branches of Birnam Wood after they had served their purpose. It is a relief to be told that after this extraordinary transplant operation at least most of the frescoes here exhibited will be returned to “the architectural fabric to which they so intimately belong.” Unfortunately this desirable solution is not always feasible where the building itself has been damaged or cannot offer enough protection, and thus the exhibition may after all become the forerunner of a new Museum, to daunt the tourist with acres of frescoes as he is daunted today by acres of altar paintings.
Not that the idea of treating murals like easel paintings is peculiar to our time. Vasari tells us that François I of France was so taken with Leonardo’s Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie that he “tried to find out in every way whether architects could be found who could make a scaffolding of timber and iron and so to frame it that it could be safely transported regardless of expense.” He did not succeed and thus, as Vasari remarks, the work stayed with the Milanese. This unsuccessful attempt is not mentioned in Ugo Procacci’s instructive summary of the history of the technique or techniques, which have been and are used to remove and reset the frescoes. By the nineteenth century, however, the practice was common enough for a number of fragments to be sold abroad: there are some, for instance, in the London National Gallery and in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
But both the need and the temptation to detach frescoes have increased enormously during the last few decades. Long before the catastrophe of the Florentine floods the greater catastrophe of the War led to the ruin of buildings with frescoed walls. The most famous of these was of course the Campo Santo in Pisa, and it was here that the destruction of the surface first revealed to the general public the preparatory drawings known as sinopie. Their unexpected charm in turn increased the temptation to take off frescoes, damaged and overpainted as they frequently were, and to look for what was underneath. The condition of many of these monuments, in fact, has visibly been getting worse even in undamaged buildings.
Opinions about the cause of this deterioration differ. Italian authorities appear to be somewhat reluctant to blame the side effects of tourism, the dust, the exhaust fumes, the vibrations caused by heavy traffic; they prefer to think that after some five hundred years many frescoes have really reached the end of their natural span and must be artificially kept alive. But there is evidence elsewhere that the motor car is a potent factor and that murals far from the roar of the traffic are generally in better condition than those in busy centers.
Be that as it may, the last few decades have witnessed an almost feverish activity in Italy to rescue the frescoes which were once the glory of Tuscan churches by detaching them carefully from their crumbling support. The first demonstration of these efforts for the public at large came in 1958 with an exhibition of detached frescoes and the underlying sinopie in the Forte di Belvedere high above the city of Florence. The work continued apace and a perusal of the catalogue shows that in fact some nine-tenths of the works here displayed had been removed from their setting before the Florentine floods necessitated further interventions. The oily mess from central heating systems that the Arno waters swept into churches thus only completed the process which the internal combustion engine had begun. But it dramatized the threat to our common heritage and elicited so generous a response that the Florentine authorities were moved to send these treasures across the seas as a token of their gratitude.
They have emphasized that this gesture cannot be repeated, but even as a one-time act it has served to remind us of the speed with which the dissolution is taking place. For there is no denying that the detachment of frescoes does dissolve the tightly knit fabric into which these works had once fitted both materially and metaphorically and that the extraction of the sinopie from underneath, which were not meant to be seen, is another symptom of this dissolution.
Admittedly all this is a matter of degree. Not only the altar paintings mentioned before, but nearly all the objects in our collections were once intended to serve a definite social purpose from which they were alienated by collectors. Works of art have always proved capable of serving a multiplicity of ends, and of surviving many shifts of emphasis, from utility to delight, from content to form; but there can be few occasions which provide more food for thought on this process of change than this exhibition. Its catalogue proves how rarely we know even the original context and purpose of the images with which we are here confronted.
We know only by analogy that these frescoes in churches were mostly commissioned to honor a Saint whose intercession was devoutly expected by a religious order, a confraternity, a parish, or an ordinary citizen who was concerned for the good of his soul and spent some money on the family chapel, often leaving an income from vineyards or other estates to the church to secure that Mass could be read in perpetuity for his benefit. We do not know how long these injunctions were observed in most cases. Often, we must suppose, the investment ceased to yield an income or the family became extinct in the course of time even where the black death did not hasten this process. A new patronage of a chapel often meant a renewal of the images on its walls. Often, but not always, for the religious function of these frescoes cannot be seen in isolation from their artistic worth.
Even an ordinary Florentine parish priest or merchant in the trecento would probably be aware of the widespread prestige which the local painters enjoyed. Dante, that fierce exile, had briefly alluded to the acclaim accorded to Giotto, who was subsequently invited by the citizens of Florence in the most flattering terms to settle there. It was a matter of pride for a workshop such as Taddeo Gaddi’s to claim a knowledge of Giotto’s methods and procedures, and we can be sure that the more discerning patrons would take such claims into account before they closed with a master craftsman. It is true that the traditional terms of contracts rarely reflect any special consideration for these masters. They were notoriously treated like any other tradesmen: they had to work to rigid stipulations and to guarantee the best quality of material and of workmanship. The documents sometimes included the promise not to leave the principal parts of their work to apprentices, but here as in other cases we cannot tell how seriously such assurances were taken, for obviously the patron had few means of checking and hardly any sanctions unless the appointed arbitrators of the Guild agreed that the work was not up to standard. The secrets of artistic teamwork were probably fairly impenetrable to outsiders even at the time, and have become much more elusive to an age which thinks of art as self-expression.
This, certainly, was not the way in which the trecento thought of Giotto, but the “cult of personality” was round the corner, when the frescoed chapel was no longer seen as a memorial to the patron and a reminder of his religious aspirations, but as a monument to one of the artists who constituted the city’s pride. Occasionally this pride took precedence over memory, and the most famous name was attached indiscriminately to works which looked remotely like claimants to that distinction. By 1510 the artistic monuments of Florence rivaled those of Rome in the minds of travelers: witness the first guidebook by Albertini which takes the tourist to churches for the sake of the art he can enjoy there.
In the middle of the sixteenth century Florence’s pride in having been the birthplace of the new art and the scene of its progress to the perfection of Michelangelo’s achievement found expression in the first history of the craft, Vasari’s Lives. It was Vasari who systematically inspected the monuments of the past to weave their changing style into a coherent story, and first collected drawings of earlier masters as documents illustrating the progress of the art. The shift of interest from the commissioned work to the procedure of the artist had received a fresh impulse. It was not a shift of which the greatest of the Florentines approved. Vasari tells us that Michelangelo made a bonfire of his own drawings before his death, because he disliked the idea of prying eyes tracing the steps of his creation from their inception to the finished work, which alone was meant for the world at large. But of course he could not stem the tide of taste and fashion.
A new attitude toward art was taking shape in the late Renaissance, though it was still confined to a small circle. Connoisseurs enjoyed the company of artists; they wanted to share in the miracle of creation at least vicariously, to peep over the artist’s shoulder while he was working, eavesdropping on the shop talk in the studio and discussing with the master those problems of his craft which happened to be in the center of topical interest. For this new type of patron the drawing was even more valuable than the finished product, because it recorded the process of creation. There is evidence that a similar attitude had existed among sophisticated art lovers in the ancient world, for Pliny tells us that the unfinished paintings of great masters were sometimes admired more than their completed works since “they showed the very thoughts of the artists.” To appreciate the radical nature of this reversal of values we need only try to imagine what the ordinary patron would have said or felt if the master whom he had entrusted with the images for the chapel had failed to complete them.
Something like this reversal is reflected in Professor Meiss’s remark that the uncovering of the sinopie, the rough preliminary outlines under the frescoes,
represent one of the greatest additions ever made to our artistic heritage. They have brought to light a corpus of monumental drawings from a crucial period in Western painting. For the first part of this period, furthermore, we previously possessed very few drawings of any kind.
It is incontestable that the evidence provided by the sinopie is of tremendous interest to the historian of styles and techniques. But are we not subtly misinterpreting these traces of working procedures if we call them “drawings” and thus equate them with the treasured sketches of later masters? No one has set out the historical reasons which prompt these doubts with greater precision than Professor Meiss himself has done in the same Introduction. He tells us why the sinopia on the wall had gradually to give way to the drawing on paper. The standards of artistic inventiveness and originality had changed. The earlier technique had the inconvenience that the artist had to cover up the preliminary outline patch by patch before he actually painted the final stage. Such a procedure
was appropriate only to an era in which forms were relatively conventional. All heads, for instance, approximated canons to such a degree that the singularities of each could be remembered or invented as the artist quickly painted his daily patch without benefit of the drawing.
A period, we learn, in which art was seen as a personal creation “that had been studied and developed at leisure” could no longer rely on such summary methods. It developed the cartoon as a preparatory stage which could be worked out in detail and transferred to the wall by pricking so that the final phase could be executed without hesitation. The cartoon, to revert to Professor Meiss’s masterly formulation,
recorded on the final surface the highly individual form; the sinopia recorded on a preliminary surface the comparatively canonical form.
But does not this difference in function also reflect a profound difference in the psychological and aesthetic significance between the sinopia and the sketch? Raphael’s drawings for his frescoes in the Stanze may be compared to the drafts of a great poet, recording his inspiration, his search, his rejections, and his triumphant solutions. The sinopia is perhaps closer to the draft of a legal document which contains a large proportion of time-hallowed formulas. In drafting such a text the notary will not need to write out these formulas in full, but will simply indicate them with a few abbreviated scrawls which his scribe will be able to read and write out. These rapid strokes, then, may conceivably look similar to those of a poet driven along by the fury of inspiration, but their meaning bears no comparison. Although the parallel may be somewhat exaggerated, it reminds us that on Professor Meiss’s own showing the outlines which the early masters roughed out on the wall were not so much forms emerging from the depth of their minds as shorthand indications of schemata they and their apprentices almost knew by heart. The abbreviations and simplifications which delight the modern observer because they remind him of Matisse tell the historian that once communication served the need of the workshop and stood in no need of redundancies, while today it is the public who want to feel part of the workshop.
It is to this desire that Professor Meiss appeals when he still insists that the sinopie give us “the kind of insight provided for later paintings by much smaller preparatory drawings” and “that at this earlier time too creation was a process of sustained searching.” But surely even the most convention-bound craftsman will have to adjust the formula to the requirements of a particular scale and location. Granting the need for some degree of trial and error in any process of making, we might also argue that a careful inspection of the early sinopie in this exhibition confirms rather than refutes the conception of medieval painting as a craft demanding the mastery of traditional formulas.
The comment in and about the exhibition where the sinopie are often displayed side by side with the finished work gives the impression that we are in danger of losing contact with an art of this nature and find it easier to enjoy the rough indication than the finished work. Many seem almost to have lost the capacity of appreciating the subtle craftsmanship that goes into the careful modeling of a drapery with its changing tones and its delicate lights, the result of those methodical procedures which were once the pride of Florence and were described with loving care in the handbook by Cennino Cennini who recorded trecento workshop practices going back to the Gaddis and to Giotto. Even the artistic revolution of the next century with its need to rethink the formulas in the light of fresh demands for verisimilitude in spatial arrangement and expression did not lead to a break in this tradition: the surface craftsmanship is as rich and controlled in the frescoes by Andrea del Sarto and by Pontormo shown in this exhibition as it is in the earlier works. For though the exhibition leads up to the period which first appreciated the rough sketch as a record of inspiration, we are still far from the time when insistence on finish was dismissed as a sign of philistine ignorance.
The wish to identify with the artist, to share in the thrills of creation but not in its pains, has led to an increasing shift from the product to production. Art in its turn has responded with its present emphasis on “action” or the impermanent “happening.” Needless to say, a good deal of critical confusion has entered into this process, which began with the depreciation of the formula in favor of spontaneity and has ended in the devaluation of any kind of skill that can be taught or learned.
It is only in the performing arts that this process has been halted by the obvious demands of mastery. It is here, therefore, that it can most easily be seen that spontaneity and mastery are not mutually exclusive, though there may be a certain degree of tension between them. It can be an exhilarating privilege once in a while to hear an accomplished musician play a piece at sight and thus to participate in his pleasures of discovery. It may also happen that a performance may sound stale and over-rehearsed. But it is the hallmark of the great artist that such mishaps are rare and that he can retain the zest of creation to the end. He does so precisely because he knows that his effort will ultimately bring the work closer to the idea he has in his mind instead of taking it further away. His skill and his care help him to realize his intention in that process of trial and error, of daring and self-criticism, that accompanies all true creation. In preferring the first stage to the later elaboration we may be in danger of insulting unwittingly the artist and his work.
But did not artists sometimes have to compromise? Were they not forced to adjust to tastes and standards which were not their own but those of their patrons? Is this possibility not inherent in the craftsman’s status which the documents reveal?
There is at least one work in the exhibition which suggests such an interpretation, but even here we must be careful not to project our twentieth-century standards into the past. The problem concerns a dramatic change of plan for the fresco of an Annunciation in the Oratory of San Galgano at Montesiepi near Siena, attributed to the Lorenzetti workshop and possibly to the great Ambrogio Lorenzetti himself. The preparatory drawing on the wall shows a most striking departure from convention. Here the artist emphasized to an unusual extent the account of the Gospel that, on receiving the Angel’s salutation, the Virgin was “troubled” and was told to “fear not.” She is often shown drawing back, as for instance in Simone Martini’s Uffizi Annunciation, but the first sinopia developed this motif, unconventionally showing the Virgin sitting on the ground and seeking the support of a column behind her in her sudden fright.
We would of course love to know who rejected this extreme solution—whether the master himself, the patron, or the ecclesiastical authority. It is tempting to think that it was the latter, and that the conventionalism of trecento art was supported or even enforced by the Church. But we cannot be sure, all the less as we know that the degree to which the Virgin displayed fear at that moment remained a subject of artistic rather than ecclesiastical debate up to the high Renaissance. None other than Leonardo da Vinci came out strongly in favor of decorum in these matters, and ridiculed a painting he had seen in which the announcing angel “appeared to be chasing Our Lady out of her room…while it seemed as if she in despair would throw herself from a window.” The degree to which holy personages should be shown to yield to fear and weakness may have been seen as an artistic problem.
There is an interesting parallel also in the work of Albrecht Dürer. This time it is Christ in the Agony in the Garden whom the master showed lying prostrate, with outstretched hands, the face buried in the ground in a woodcut for the “Small Passion” which he subsequently replaced by a much more restrained rendering. In these cases too our bias is all for the wild against the tame, but this too is a bias.
The problem posed by the detachment of works of art from their original setting lies precisely in the temptation to indulge this kind of bias unchecked. We cannot jump out of our skins or forget to which century we belong. But even an unprepared tourist who enters a village church in Italy, guidebook in hand, will be made aware of the emotional needs which the frescoes were intended to serve. Whatever his outlook on religion, whatever his knowledge of history, the experience will provide an aid for the understanding of these images which we can ill afford to miss. Some time ago André Malraux launched the slogan of the “Museum Without Walls” to indicate the changes that have come about in our attitude to the art of the past through the ubiquity of photographs and other reproductions. Unless we remain on our guard we may yet witness the counterpart, the stripped church, the wall without the Museum.