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The Best of Both Worlds

Pisanello the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona, September 7—December 9, 1996

an exhibition at the Louvre, Paris, May 6—August 5, 1996, and at

Pisanello: le peintre aux sept vertus

catalog of the exhibition, edited by Dominique Cordellier
Paris: Réunion des Musées Nationaux, 518 pp., $135.00 (paper)

1.

In 1862 the historian of Veronese painting Cesare Bernasconi cast doubt on the idea that all the works of Pisanello that were once admired in Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan, Pavia, Mantua, and Naples could have disappeared altogether. Some of them, surely, must be languishing under misattribution to some other painter. No other artist from the fourteenth of the first part of the fifteenth century, with the possible exception of Giotto, had been so praised by his eminent contemporaries. Something more must have survived.1

And Bernasconi was quite right. A couple of years before, the Portrait of an Este Princess now in the Louvre had appeared in a Paris sale as a Piero della Francesca. The Vision of St. Eustace now in the National Gallery in London spent much of the nineteenth century under attribution to either Dürer or Jean Fouquet. But most spectacularly of all, a large and representative collection of Pisanello’s drawings had been purchased by the Louvre in 1856 as being by Leonardo da Vinci.

This was the so-called Codex Vallardi, named after the collector and dealer Giuseppe Vallardi, who had acquired it in 1829 from “a noble family living near Piacenza and related to the Archinto family of Milan.” Vallardi had published his own descriptive catalog of the “codex” (which was actually more of an album than a codex, and had been assembled in the sixteenth century) a year before selling it off for a hefty-sounding 35,000 francs. There were 318 drawings, of which one turned out to be a Holbein, a few more to be indeed by Leonardo and his followers. The bulk of the volume however is now thought to be by Pisanello and his workshop.

So what sort of a mistake was it that the Louvre made? It is hard to imagine what the mid-nineteenth-century Leonardo oeuvre looked like, as a whole, if it contained such diverse objects as a Flemish Medusa from around 1600 and these drawings from the first half of the fifteenth century. One has to remember that there is very little overlap between, for instance, the oeuvre of Leonardo as conceived by Carlo Amoretti in 1804, which has more than sixty paintings, and the recent “complete catalog” by Pietro C. Marani (1989), which lists twenty-five items, more than a third of which bear later nineteenth- or twentieth-century attributions. And then there is the question of what Leonardo’s drawings would have looked like, if known through the medium of engravings.2

Set this beside the paucity of works known in the 1850s to be by Pisanello: the portrait medals he designed; the two important frescoes in Verona, the Annunciation in St. Fermo and the St. George in St. Anastasia. What else? Moldering away in the collection of a certain Marchese Gian Battista Costabili in Ferrara, among what had once been a superb collection of largely Ferrarese paintings, now mostly in a shocking condition, there was Pisanello’s portrait of Lionello d’Este (now in Bergamo, Accademia Carrera) and his only signed panel, the Virgin and Child with St. Anthony and St. George. The latter, now belonging to the National Gallery in London, was described in detail by Sir Charles Eastlake in his diary for 1858, where we read that the blue of the sky had been almost rubbed to the ground and “the armour and dress of St. George [were] once beautifully finished, but now almost obliterated” and that the St. Anthony was in less good condition still.3

What we are looking at, in this famous picture, is a magnificent piece of restoration by a nineteenth-century Milanese expert, Giuseppe Molteni, to whose hands Eastlake consigned the picture after purchasing it in 1860. The catalog of the Paris exhibition tells us that Molteni was a friend not only of Eastlake and Otto Mündler (the National Gallery scout who located the painting for Eastlake), but also of Giovanni Morelli and Giambattista Cavalcaselle, the founders of connoisseurship. A good man, then, no doubt, and one who kept the company of good men, but when we read that Molteni not only made the picture legible, he also gave it a connoisseur’s interpretation, and that after his work very little of the original paint surface is visible except perhaps the face of St. George (which had been well preserved)—and that even there there has been repainting under the eye, on the cheek and the chin—then we begin to feel just a little giddy.

Enough has been said, perhaps, to establish that the man who persuaded the Louvre to buy the Vallardi drawings, Frédéric Reiset, was not being stupid when he accepted the attribution to Leonardo. Nor had he neglected to observe a connection with Pisanello—the drawings of medals. But what he thought was that, in the Pisanello material, he had the early drawings of Leonardo, and that the young Leonardo had been an admirer of Pisanello. This theory lasted for at least ten years—Reiset’s 1866 general inventory of the Louvre drawings lists nothing by Pisanello—but gradually the doubts crept in.

Reiset and his friend, the vicomte Both de Tauzia, began to wonder whether it might not be a good idea to restrict Leonardo’s drawings to those executed in his habitual style. To do so involved saying goodbye to this immensely elongated Leonardo—who began drawing on parchment in the manner of the early fifteenth century and ended painting in oils in the manner of a seventeenth-century Flemish admirer of Caravaggio—or at least chopping off a section of this abnormally long-lived artist. The whole process of groping and deliberation took twenty years, and at the end of it the modern, encyclopedic artist, the genius of naturalist observation, was born.4 Reiset and Both de Tauzia went back to the documents, to the early accounts of Pisanello, and found that he had been praised for painting precisely the subjects for which the Louvre had the sketches—these boars, deer, dogs, leopards, these wonderful horses, these birds. And so they passed through disappointment to a sense that these drawings were among the museum’s great treasures. Today it is said that the scholars who wish to examine the Pisanellos may do so once—but only once in the whole of their lives. All the more reason, then, to profit from the current exhibition, either at the Louvre or in Verona.

Or both.

2.

The taste for Pisanello’s work, although quickly established once the oeuvre had been assembled, perhaps lagged a little behind the admiration for his Tuscan equivalents. Berenson wrote his essay on the Northern Italian School in 1907. He is full of praise, but what he singles out for censure is often something we would rather admire. Here he is on Pisanello’s predecessor, Altichiero: “Altichiero reduces the Crucifixion to something not far removed from a market scene, and the spectator is in danger of forgetting the Figure on the Cross by having his attention drawn to a dog lapping water from a ditch, a handsome matron leading a wilful child, or an old woman wiping her nose.”5 But we are children of Auden—we find truth in that dog, that willful child, and our curiosity is immediately aroused by the old woman wiping her nose (disappointingly, I don’t think that is what she is doing, but if it were, we would think it fine).

Berenson thought Pisanello unsurpassed in his rendering of single objects: “He painted birds as only the Japanese have painted them, and his dogs and hounds and stags have not been surpassed by the Van Eycks themselves.” But Berenson had a criterion, which he states and applies boldly: “The human figure must furnish the principal material out of which the graphic and plastic arts are constructed. Every other visible thing should be subordinated to man and submitted to his standards.” The art of Pisanello and the early Flemings, says Berenson, was “too naive.”

In their delight in nature they were like children who, on making the first spring excursion into the neighbouring meadow and wood, pluck all the wild flowers, trap all the birds, hug all the trees, and make friends with all the gay-coloured creeping things in the grass. Everything is on the same plane of interest, and everything that can be carried off they bring home in triumph.6

Apart from the tree-hugging, this describes fairly well what we admire in Pisanello. Everything is on the same plane of interest, in the sense that everything is subjected to enthusiastic analysis. There is a drawing of what must be a flayed greyhound (catalog number 246). One could attempt to rescue Berenson’s criterion by saying that man is the measure in this drawing in the sense that man is the inquiring spirit that found the dead dog, skinned it, and drew it.

But Berenson would never wish to be rescued from his teleology. Pisanello, he says, “draws more accurately, he paints more delightfully,” than Masaccio, Uccello, or Fra Angelico, but they are the greater artists because they are “the forerunners of the new movement, the begetters of artists as great as themselves, or even greater,” while Pisanello “remains essentially medieval, a little master, and his art dies with him.”

And Huizinga seems to agree with Berenson in The Autumn of the Middle Ages—he is not actually talking about Pisanello, but he could well have had him in mind when he argues against the tendency to identify Renaissance elements in the art of Claus Sluter and the brothers Van Eyck:

If certain historians of art have discovered Renaissance elements in it, it is because they have confounded, very wrongly, realism and Renaissance. Now this scrupulous realism, this aspiration to render exactly all natural details, is the characteristic feature of the spirit of the expiring Middle Ages. It is the same tendency which we encountered in all the fields of the thought of the epoch, a sign of decline and not of rejuvenation. The triumph of the Renaissance was to consist in replacing this meticulous realism by breadth and simplicity.

In other words, when Pisanello sets a dead wolf in front of himself, and arranges its limbs as if to show it running, but proceeds to draw it with such scrupulous realism that we can tell that what we are looking at is in fact a dead wolf—this is a sort of inquiry typical of the declining Middle Ages. But when Michelangelo dissects a human corpse, something else is going on. When Pisanello goes to the city gate, sits down, and draws a group of hanged men, from which we may learn what happens to the hanged body in progressive states of decay, this is an artistic endeavor that will “die with him.” But when, half a century later, Leonardo goes down to the Bargello to sketch the hanged Pazzi conspirator—that’s the Renaissance.

I don’t get it. I don’t see the force of the distinction. But still, to read The Autumn of the Middle Ages when your head is full of images from the Paris exhibition is to see Pisanello illuminated again and again, but by intermittent flashes. The savage splendor, the “barbarity” of the northern courts evoked by Huizinga, the world of chivalry, of jousts and tournaments and heraldry, of war deemed beautiful, the world of Arthurian fantasy shaping actual bloody events—this is, too, Pisanello’s world. Giovanni Paccagnini, in his monograph, quotes a letter from Lodovico Gonzaga to his wife in 1453, in which he describes a battle against his own brother:

Yesterday morning the enemy came, in fine battle array, to the country between Valeggio and here; having received word that they had come to do battle, we resolved together with Messer Tiberto that it was time to act, so we mounted our horses and set off towards them. When we reached them, although they had the great advantage over us of being on top of a hill, we fought with them with the grace of God, of Our Lady and St. George. The battle was fought closely and bitterly for about two hours, and many men and horses were slain on both sides. It was one of the most beautiful battles we have ever seen, and we watched it from a fine vantage point, for there were neither trees nor rocks in the way….7

Huizinga has a section on the savagery of the vows made by the nobility in the Middle Ages. Paccagnini’s book describes the discovery, in the late 1960s, of Pisanello’s Mantua frescoes, which tell a story from the prose Lancelotin which the knights make vows such as: “In this month I shall fight no knight without beheading him. I shall send you the heads of those I defeat.”8

In an essay in the Paris catalog, Michel Pastoureau lays emphasis on the Arthurian culture within which Pisanello worked, and reminds us that it is false to take the Medicean court in Florence as the model for our idea of court life in the Renaissance throughout Italy. The Arthurian legends were the basis for the games the courts played in Milan, Verona, Mantua, Ferrara, Rimini, Urbino, and Naples. But it is wrong to posit, on the one hand, a late medieval court culture, backward-looking and chivalric and Arthurian; and, on the other hand, a forward-looking, modern, neoplatonist, humanist-inspired court. Pastoureau says that, in the middle of the fifteenth century, in all of princely Italy, the figure of Lancelot is certainly no less actual, no less influential, than that of Plato.

One cannot disentangle the Gothic from the classicizing culture. There were not two sets of artists—the ones who hadn’t yet heard the bad news, and who looked to the North, and the others who had tuned into the Renaissance, and who looked to classical antiquity. This is another point that takes us back to Huizinga:

The image of antiquity was not yet disentangled from that of the Round Table. In his poem Le Cuer d’amours espris King René depicts the tombs of Lancelot and Arthur side by side with those of Caesar, Hercules and Troilus, each adorned with its coat of arms. A coincidence in terminology helped trace the origins of chivalry to Roman antiquity. How would it have been possible to realise that the word miles in Roman writings did not mean what it did in medieval Latin, that is to say, “knight,” or that a Roman eques was not the same as a feudal knight?

In common with Pastoureau, the writers who show the greatest affinity for Pisanello’s work are those who have had, in some way, to drop the old terminology or to look at it afresh. Michael Baxandall is like that, both in Giotto and the Orators and in Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy. He pays attention to the classicizing way the humanists wrote about the act of painting, the way they understood what it had been in antiquity, and what they praised in their contemporaries. So a passage from Aristotle, much elaborated on by the humanists, becomes for Baxandall an appropriate introduction to the art of Pisanello: “Things which in themselves we view with distress, we yet enjoy contemplating if they are represented with great accuracy—the forms of the basest creatures, for example, and even of dead bodies.” This becomes a way of looking at the celebrated British Museum drawing of the hanged men, and the fresco in Verona in which the study is used. A city gate is depicted. It is characteristic of city gates that you find hanged men beside them. So the artist gives pleasure by depicting this distressing sight.

(Not that it was always distressing. Donne has a passage in a sermon in which he records the relief one would feel on arriving at a gibbet:

As he that travails weary, and late towards a great City, is glad when he comes to a place of execution, becaus he knows that is neer the town: so when thou comest to the gate of death, be glad of that, for it is but one step from that to thy Jerusalem.)9

Baxandall quotes passages such as the following from the Byzantine humanist Manuel Chrysoloras, which seem to capture the excitement of Pisanello perfectly.

And it has often occurred to me to wonder about this: how it is that when we see an ordinary living horse or dog or lion we are not moved to admiration, do not take them for something so very beautiful or reckon seeing them as something of very much importance. The same is true of trees, fish, and fowl, and also of human beings, a fair number of whom indeed we actively dislike. Yet when we see a representation of a horse, or ox, plant, bird, human being, or even, if you like, of a fly, worm, mosquito, or other such disagreeable things, we are much impressed and, when we see their representations, make much of them.10

And Baxandall says that “it is one of the most disconcerting facts of Quattrocento art history that more praise was addressed to Pisanello than to any artist of the first half of the century; in this sense—and it seems a reasonably substantial one—Pisanello, not Masaccio, is the ‘humanist’ artist.” What was praised was the variety of Pisanello’s realism. Here is a passage from a poem by Guarino da Verona:

You equal Nature’s works, whether you are depicting birds or beasts, perilous straits and calm seas; we would swear we saw the spray gleaming and heard the breakers roar. I put out a hand to wipe the sweat from the brow of the labouring peasant; we seem to hear the whinny of a war horse and tremble at the blare of trumpets. When you paint a nocturnal scene you make the night-birds flit about and not one of the birds of the day is to be seen….11

Among the things Bartolomeo Fazio singled out for praise in Pisanello’s lost fresco in the Doges’ Palace in Venice depicting Barbarossa with his son as suppliant was a scene in which a priest distorted his face with his fingers, to amuse some boys: “this, done so agreeably as to arouse good humour in those who look at it.” It was details like that—exactly the kind of thing Berenson objected to in Altichiero—which appealed to the Neapolitan humanist of the mid-fifteenth century. Fazio’s De Viris Illustribus praises four painters—Gentile da Fabriano, Jan van Eyck, Pisanello, and Rogier van der Weyden—and three sculptors—Ghiberti, his son, and Donatello. This is, as it were, what great art looked like in 1456. This is one humanist canon.

Both in critical estimation and in purely historical understanding, Pisanello has had a bumpy recent ride. It was only in 1908 that it was discovered that his first name was Antonio and not Vittore. His date of birth has still not been established; the Paris catalog is so austere as not even to speculate on it. The first reference is a document dated 1395, which is why there is a sort of sixth centenary to mark. A catalog of his drawings published in 1966 was rendered swiftly out of date by the dramatic discovery of the Mantuan frescoes for the Ducal Palace. It had anyway been severely restrictive as to what it assigned to the artist himself, and what to his school.

The Paris catalog and exhibition take a much broader view of the autograph oeuvre. One has to suppose, though, that Pisanello is not in a stable state—he may expand again, or contract again, as dramatically as he has done in the last century or so. And this, in a way, is part of the excitement. He is something of a newcomer, something of a newcomer, something of a disruptive influence, something of an exception to the old categories and rules.

Even the medals, by which he has been principally known for so long, have their unsolved problems. What do they mean, these blindfolded cats, these nude men with their enormous flower baskets held aloft, these faces of triple visage? And what put it into Pisanello’s head to make these things in the first place? In their scale and design they are practically without precedent. Scholars have considered models as widely divergent as Etruscan mirror-backs, the circular designs on Roman lamps, and the motifs of medieval seals. They have even asked whether Pisanello actually would have made these medals, rather than merely providing the drawings—what the division of labor would have been between designer, sculptor, and founder.12 Certainly he is praised by his contemporaries as a sculptor (do other kinds of relief, or free-standing works by his hand, languish under false attributions, as all those drawings and paintings did?) and signs himself as a painter. The prominence of those signatures, on something not so different from a coin, something made to the glory of a ruler, would never have been tolerated by other rulers, in other places, in other times. That speaks a lot for his status in those days, and for the willingness of his patrons to bask in some of his reflected glory.

  1. 1

    Cesare Bernasconi, Il Pisano: grand’artefice veronese….(Verona: Civelli, 1862), cited in Tout l’oeuvre peint de Pisanello, introduction by Michel Pastoureau (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).

  2. 2

    For the developing idea of Leonardo’s work, see A. Richard Turner, Inventing Leonardo (Knopf, 1993).

  3. 3

    Eastlake’s diary is in the National Gallery, London. Thanks to Nicholas Penny for showing me this passage.

  4. 4

    See Frédéric Reiset, “Une visite aux Musées de Londres en 1876,” in the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, XV (February 1877).

  5. 5

    Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance (Phaidon, 1952), p. 138.

  6. 6

    Berenson, Italian Painters of the Renaissance, pp. 143—144.

  7. 7

    Giovanni Paccagnini, Pisanello (Phaidon Press, 1973), p. 51.

  8. 8

    For a full discussion of these frescoes, their meaning and context, see Joanna Woods-Marsden, The Gonzaga of Mantua and Pisanello’s Arthurian Frescoes (Princeton University Press, 1988).

  9. 9

    George R. Potter and Evelyn M. Simpson, editors, The Sermons of John Donne, Volume 2 (University of California Press, 1955), p. 266.

  10. 10

    Michael Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators (Oxford University Press, 1971), p. 82.

  11. 11

    Baxandall, Giotto and the Orators, pp. 92-93.

  12. 12

    See Luke Syson, “The Circulation of Drawings for Medals in Fifteenth-Century Italy” in Designs on Posterity: Drawings for Medals, edited by Mark Jones (London: British Art Medal Trust, 1994).

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