Euphorion - Being Studies of the Antique and the Mediaeval in the - Renaissance - Vol. II
by Vernon Lee
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Author of "Studies of the 18th Century in Italy," "Belcaro," etc.








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Real and Ideal—these are the handy terms, admiring or disapproving, which criticism claps with random facility on to every imaginable school. This artist or group of artists goes in for the real—the upright, noble, trumpery, filthy real; that other artist or group of artists seeks after the ideal—the ideal which may mean sublimity or platitude. We summon every living artist to state whether he is a realist or an idealist; we classify all dead artists as realists or idealists; we treat the matter as if it were one of almost moral importance. Now the fact of the case is that the question of realism and idealism, which we calmly assume as already settled or easy to settle by our own sense of right and wrong, is one of the tangled questions of art-philosophy; and one, moreover, which no amount of theory, but only historic fact, can ever set right. For, to begin with, we find realism and idealism coming before us in different ways and with different meaning and importance. All art which is not addressing (as decrepit art is forced to do) faculties to which it does not spontaneously and properly appeal—all art is decorative, ornamental, idealistic therefore, since it consciously or unconsciously aims, not merely at reproducing the already existing, but at producing something which shall repay the looking at it, something which shall ornament, if not a place, at least our lives; and such making of the ornamental, of the worth looking at, necessarily implies selection and arrangement—that is to say idealism. At the same time, while art aims definitely at being in this sense decorative, art may very possibly aim more immediately at merely reproducing, without, selection or arrangement, the actually existing things of the world; and this in order to obtain the mere power of representation. In short, art which is idealistic as a master will yet be realistic as a scholar: it decorates when it achieves, it copies when it studies. But this is only half the question. Certain whole schools may be described as idealistic, others as realistic, in tendency; and this, not in their study, but in their achievement. One school will obviously be contented with forms the most unselected and vulgar; others will go but little out of their way in search of form-superiority; while yet others, and these we must emphatically call idealistic, are squeamish to the last degree in the choice and adaptation of form, anxious, to get the very best, and make the very best of it. Yet, on thinking over it, we shall find that realistic and idealistic schools are all, in their achievements, equally striving after something which is not the mere reproduction of the already existing as such—striving, in short, after decoration. The pupil of Perugino will, indeed, wait patiently to begin his work until he can find a model fit for a god or goddess; while the fellow-craftsman of Rembrandt will be satisfied with the first dirty old Jew or besotten barmaid that comes to hand. But the realistic Dutchman is not, therefore, any the less smitten with beauty, any the less eager to be ornamental, than the idealistic Italian: his man and woman he takes indeed with off-hand indifference, but he places them in that of which the Italian shall perhaps never have dreamed, in that on which he has expended all his science, his skill, his fancy, in that which he gives as his addition to the beautiful things of art—in atmosphere, in light, which are to the everyday atmosphere and light what the patiently sought for, carefully perfected god or goddess model of Raphael is to the everyday Jew, to the everyday barmaid, of Rembrandt.

The ideal, for the man who is quite coarsely realistic in his figures, exists in the air, light, colour; and in saying this I have, so to speak, turned over the page too quickly, forestalled the expression of what I can prove only later: the disconnection of such comparative realism and idealism as this (the only kind of realism, let us remember, which can exist in great art) with any personal bias of the artist, its intimate dependence upon the constitution and tendency of art, upon its preoccupations about form, or colour, or light, in a given country and at a given moment. And now I should wish to resume the more orderly treatment of the subject, which will lead us in time to the second half of the question respecting realism and idealism. These considerations have come to me in connection with the portrait art of the Renaissance; and this very simply. For portrait is a curious bastard of art, sprung on the one side from a desire which is not artistic, nay, if anything, opposed to the whole nature and function of art: the desire for the mere likeness of an individual. The union with this interloping tendency, so foreign to the whole aristocratic temper of art, has produced portrait; and by the position of this hybrid, or at least far from regularly bred creature; by the amount of the real artistic quality of beauty which it is permitted to retain by the various schools of art, we can, even as by the treatment of similar social interlopers we can estimate the necessities and tendencies of various states of society, judge what are the conditions in which the various schools of art struggle for the object of their lives, which is the beautiful.

I have said that art is realistic in its periods or moments of study; and this is essentially the case even with the school which in many respects was the most unmistakably decorative and idealistic in intention: the school of Giotto. The Giottesques are more than decorative artists, they are decorators in the most literal sense. Painting with them is merely one of the several arts and crafts enslaved by mediaeval architecture and subservient to architectural effects. Their art is the only one which is really and successfully architecturally decorative; and to appreciate this we must contrast their fresco-work with that of the fifteenth century and all subsequent times. Masaccio, Ghirlandajo, Signorelli, turn the wall into a mere badly made frame; a gigantic piece of cardboard would do as well, and better; the colours melt into one another, the figures detach themselves at various degrees of relief; those upon the ceiling and pendentives are frequently upside down; yet these figures, which are so difficult to see, are worth seeing only in themselves, and not in relation to their position. The masonry is no longer covered, but carved, rendered uneven with the cavities and protrusions of perspective. In Mantegna's frescoes the wall becomes a slanting theatre scene, cunningly perspectived like Palladio's Teatro Olimpico; with Correggio, wall, masonry, everything, is dissolved, the side or cupola of a church becomes a rent in the clouds, streaming with light.

Not so with the Giottesque frescoes: the wall, the vault, the triumphant masonry is always present and felt, beneath the straight, flat bands of uniform colour; the symmetrical compartments, the pentacles, triangles, and segments, and borders of histories, whose figures never project, whose colours are separate as those in a mosaic. The Giottesque frescoes, with their tiers and compartments of dark blue, their vague figures dressed in simple ultramarines, greens, dull reds, and purples; their geometrical borders and pearlings and dog-tooths; cover the walls, the ribbed and arched ceilings, the pointed raftering almost like some beautiful brown, blue, and tarnished gold leather-hangings; the figures, outlined in dark paint, have almost the appearance of being stencilled, or even stamped on the wall. Such is Giottesque painting: an art which is not merely essentially decorative, but which is, moreover, what painting and sculpture remained throughout the Gothic period, subservient to the decorative effect of another art; an art in which all is subordinated to architectural effect, in which form, colour, figures, houses, the most dramatic scenes of the most awful of all dramas, everything is turned into a kind of colossal and sublime wall-paper; and such an art as this would lead us to expect but little realism, little deliberate and slavish imitation of the existing. Yet wherever there is life in this Gothic art (which has a horrible tendency, piously unobserved by critics, to stagnate into blundering repetition of the same thing), wherever there is progress, there is, in the details of that grandiose, idealistic decoration, realism of the crudest kind. Those Giottesque workers, who were not content with a kind of Gothic Byzantinism; those who really handed over something vital to their successors of the fifteenth century, while repeating the old idealistical decorations; were studying with extraordinary crudeness of realism. Everything that was not conventional ornament or type was portrait; and portrait in which the scanty technical means of the artist, every meagre line and thin dab of colour, every timid stroke of brush or of pencil, went towards the merciless delineation not merely of a body but of a soul. And the greater the artist, the more cruel the portrait: cruellest in representation of utter spiritual baseness in the two greatest of these idealistic decorators; Giotto, and his latest disciple, Fra Angelico. Of this I should like to give a couple of examples.

In Giotto's frescoes at Santa Croce—one of the most lovely pieces of mere architectural decoration conceivable—there are around the dying and the dead St. Francis two groups of monks, which are astoundingly realistic. The solemn ending of the ideally beautiful life of sanctity which was so fresh in the memory of Giotto's contemporaries, is nothing beyond a set of portraits of the most absolutely mediocre creatures, moral and intellectual, of creatures the most utterly incapable of religious enthusiasm that ever made religion a livelihood. They gather round the dying and the dead St. Francis, a noble figure, not at all ecstatic or seraphic, but pure, strong, worn out with wise and righteous labour, a man of thought and action, upon whose hands and feet the stigmata of supernatural rapture are a mere absurdity. The monks are presumably his immediate disciples, those fervent and delicate poetic natures of whom we read in the "Fioretti di San Francesco." To represent them Giotto has painted the likeness of the first half-dozen friars he may have met in the streets near Santa Croce: not caricatures, nor ideals, but portraits Giotto has attempted neither to exalt nor to degrade them into any sort of bodily or spiritual interestingness. They are not low nor bestial nor extremely stupid. They are in various degrees dull, sly, routinist, prosaic, pedantic; their most noteworthy characteristic is that they are certainly the men who are not called by God. They are no scandal to the Church, but no honour; they are sloth, stupidity, sensualism, and cunning not yet risen to the dignity of a vice. They look upon the dying and the dead saint with indifference, want of understanding, at most a gape or a bright look of stupid miscomprehension at the stigmata: they do not even perceive that a saint is a different being from themselves. With these frescoes of Giotto I should wish to compare Fra Angelico's great ceremonial crucifixion in the cloister chapel of San Marco of Florence; for it displays to an extraordinary degree that juxtaposition of the most conventionally idealistic, pious decorativeness with the realism straightforward, unreflecting, and heartless to the point of becoming perfectly grotesque. The fresco is divided into two scenes: on the one side the crucifixion, the mystic actors of the drama, on the other the holy men admitted to its contemplation. A sense that holy things ought to be old-fashioned, a respect for Byzantine inanity which invariable haunted the Giottesques in their capacity of idealistic decorators, of men who replaced with frescoes the solemn lifeless splendours of mosaic; this kind of artistico-religious prudery has made Angelico, who was able to foreshorten powerfully the brawny crucified thieves, represent the Saviour dangling from the cross bleached, boneless, and shapeless, a thing that is not dead because it has never been alive. The holy persons around stand rigid, vacant, against their blue nowhere of background, with vague expanses of pink face looking neither one way nor the other; mere modernized copies of the strange, goggle-eyed, vapid beings on the old Italian mosaics. This is not a representation of the actual reality of the crucifixion, like Tintoret's superb picture at S. Rocco, or Duerer's print, or so many others, which show the hill, the people, the hangman, the ladders and ropes and hammers and tweezers: it is a sort of mystic repetition of it; subjective, if I may say so; existing only in the contemplation of the saints on the opposite side, who are spectators only in the sense that a contemplative Christian may be said to be the mystic spectator of the Passion. The thing for the painter to represent is fervent contemplation, ecstatic realization of the past by the force of ardent love and belief; the condition of mind of St. Francis, St. Catherine of Siena, Madame Guyon: it is the revelation of the great tragedy of heaven to the soul of the mystic. Now, how does Fra Angelico represent this? A row of saints, founders of orders, kneel one behind the other, and by their side stand apostles and doctors of the Church; admitting them to the sight of the super-human, with the gesture, the bland, indifferent vacuity of the Cameriere Segreto or Monsignore who introduces a troop of pilgrims to the Pope; they are privileged persons, they respect, they keep up decorum, they raise their eyes and compress their lips with ceremonious reverence; but, Lord! they have gone through it all so often, they are so familiar with it, they don't look at it any longer; they gaze about listlessly, they would yawn if they were not too well bred for that. The others, meanwhile, the sainted pilgrims, the men whose journey over the sharp stones and among the pricking brambles of life's wilderness finds its final reward in this admission into the presence of the Holiest, kneel one by one, with various expressions: one with the stupid delight of a religious sightseer; his vanity is satisfied, he will next draw a rosary from his pocket and get it blessed by Christ Himself; he will recount it all to his friends at home. Another is dull and gaping, a clown who has walked barefoot from Valencia to Rome, and got imbecile by the way; yet another, prim and dapper; the rest indifferent looking restlessly about them, at each other, at their feet and hands, perhaps exchanging mute remarks about the length of time they are kept waiting; those at the end of the kneeling procession, St. Peter Martyr and St. Giovanni Gualberto especially, have the bored, listless, devout look of the priestlets in the train of a bishop. All these figures, the standing ones who introduce and the kneeling ones who are being introduced, are the most perfect types of various states of dull, commonplace, mediocre routinist superstition; so many Camerlenghi on the one hand, so many Passionist or Propagandists on the other: the first aristocratic, bland and bored; the second, dull, listless, mumbling, chewing Latin Prayers which never meant much to their minds, and now mean nothing; both perfectly reverential and proper in behaviour, with no more possibility of individual fervour of belief than of individual levity of disbelief: the Church, as it exists in well-regulated decrepitude. And thus does the last of the Giottesques, the painter of glorified Madonnas and dancing angels, the saint, represent the saints admitted to behold the supreme tragedy of the Redemption.

Thus much for the Giottesques. The Tuscans of the early Renaissance developed up to the utmost, assisted by the goldsmiths and sculptors, who taught them modelling and anatomy, that realistic element of Giottesque painting. Its ideal decorative part had become impossible. Painting could no longer be a decoration of architecture, and it had not yet the means of being ornamental in itself; it was an art which did not achieve, but merely studied. Among its exercises in anatomy, modelling, perspective, and so forth, always laborious and frequently abortive, its only spontaneous, satisfactory, mature production was its portrait work, Portraits of burghers in black robes and hoods; of square-jawed youths with red caps stuck on to their fuzzy heads, of bald and wrinkled scholars and magnificoes; of thinly bearded artizans; people who stand round the preaching Baptist or crucified Saviour, look on at miracle or martyrdom, stolid, self-complacent, heedless, against their background of towered, walled, and cypressed city—of buttressed square and street; ugly but real, interesting, powerful among the grotesque agglomerations of bag-of-bones nudities, bunched and taped-up draperies and out-of-joint architecture of the early Renaissance frescoes; at best among its picture-book and Noah's-ark prettinesses of toy-box cypresses, vine trellises, inlaid house fronts, rabbits in the grass, and peacocks on the roofs; for the early Renaissance, with the one exception of Masaccio, is in reality a childish time of art, giving us the horrors of school-hour blunders and abortions varied with the delights of nursery wonderland: maturity, the power of achieving, the perception of something worthy of perception, comes only with the later generation, the one immediately preceding the age of Raphael and Michael Angelo; with Ghirlandajo, Signorelli, Filippino, Botticelli, Perugino, and their contemporaries.

But this period is not childish, is not immature in everything. Or, rather, the various arts which exist together at this period are not all in the same stage of development. While painting is in this immature ugliness, and ideal sculpture, in works like Verrocchio's and Donatello's David, only a cleverer, more experienced, but less legitimate kind of painting, painting more successful in the present, but with no possible future; the almost separate art of portrait-sculpture arises again where it was left by Graeco-Roman masters, and, developing to yet greater perfection, gives in marble the equivalent of what painting will be able to produce only much later: realistic art which is decorative; beautiful works made out of ugly materials.

The vicissitudes of Renaissance sculpture are strange: its life, its power, depend upon death; it is an art developed in the burying vault and cloister cemetery. During the Middle Ages sculpture had had its reason, its vital possibility, its something to influence, nay, to keep it alive, in architecture; but with the disappearance of Gothic building disappears also the possibility of the sculpture which covers the portals of Chartres and the belfry of Florence. The pseudo-classic colonnades, entablatures, all the thin bastard Ionic and Corinthian of Aberti and Bramante, did not require sculpture, or had their own little supply of unfleshed ox-skulls, greengrocer's garlands, scallopings and wave-linings, which, with a stray siren and one or two bloated emperors' heads, amply sufficed. On the other hand, mediaeval civilization and Christian dogma did not encourage the production of naked of draped ideal statues like those which Antiquity stuck on countless temple fronts, and erected at every corner of square, street, or garden. The people of the Middle Ages were too grievously ill grown, distorted, hideous, to be otherwise than indecent in nudity; they may have had an instinct of the kind, and, ugly as they knew themselves to be, they must yet have found in forms like those of Verrocchio's David insufficient beauty to give much pleasure. Besides, if the Middle Ages had left no moral room for ideal sculpture once freed from the service of architecture; they had still less provided it with a physical place. Such things could not be set up in churches, and only a very moderate number of statues could be wanted as open-air monuments in the narrow space of a still Gothic city; and, in fact, ideal heroic statues of the early Renaissance are fortunately not only ugly, but comparatively few in number. There remained, therefore, for sculpture, unless contented to dwindle down into brass and gold miniature work, no regular employment save that connected with sepulchral monuments. During the real Middle Ages, and in the still Gothic north, the ornamentation of a tomb belonged to architecture: from the superb miniature minsters, pillared and pinnacled and sculptured, cathedrals within the cathedral, to the humbler foliated arched canopy, protecting a simple sarcophagus at the corner of many a street in Lombardy. The sculptor's work was but the low relief on the church flags, the timidly carved, outlined, cross-legged knight or praying priest, flattened down on his pillow as if ashamed even of that amount of prominence, and in a hurry to be trodden down and obliterated into a few ghostly outlines. But to this humiliated prostrate image, to this flat thing doomed to obliteration, came the sculptor of the Renaissance, and bade the wafer-like simulacrum fill up, expand, raise itself, lift itself on its elbow, arise and take possession of the bed of state, the catafalque raised high above the crowd, draped with brocade, carved with rich devices of leaves and beasts of heraldry, roofed over with a dais, which is almost a triumphal arch, garlanded with fruits and flowers, upon which the illustrious dead were shown to the people; but made eternal, and of eternal magnificence, by the stone-cutter, and guarded, not for an hour by the liveried pages or chaunting monks, but by winged genii for all eternity. Some people, I know, call this a degradation, and say that it was the result of corrupt pride, this refusal to have the dear or illustrious dead scraped out any longer by the shoe-nails of every ruffian, rubbed out by the knees of every kitchen wench; but to me it seems that it was due merely to the fact that sculpture had lost its former employment, and that a great art cannot (thank Heaven!) be pietistically self-humiliating. Be this as it may, the sculpture of the Renaissance had found a new and singularly noble line of work, the one in which it was great, unique, unsurpassed, because untutored. It worked here without models, to suit modern requirements, with modern spirit; it was emphatically-modern sculpture; the only modern sculpture which can be talked of as something original, genuine, valuable, by the side of antique sculpture. Greek Antiquity had evaded death, and neglected the dead; a garland of maenads and fauns among ivy leaves, a battle of amazons or centaurs; in the late semi-Christian, platonic days, some Orphic emblem, or genius; at most, as in the exquisite tombs of the Keramikos of Athens, a figure, a youth on a prancing steed, like the Phidian monument of Dexileus; a maiden, draped and bearing an urn; but neither the youth nor the maiden is the inmate of the tomb: they are types, living types, no portraits. Nay, even where Antiquity shows us Death or Hermes, gently leading away the beloved; the spirit, the ghost, the dead one, is unindividual. "Sarkophagen und Urnen bekraenzte der Heide mit Leben," said Goethe; but it was the life which was everlasting because it was typical: the life not which had been relinquished by the one buried there, but the life which the world danced on, forgetful, round his ashes. The Romans, on the contrary, graver and more retentive folk than the Greeks, as well as more domestic, less coffee-house living, appear to have inherited from the Etruscans a desire to preserve the effigy of the dead, a desire unknown to the Greeks. But the Etrusco-Roman monuments, where husband and wife stare forth togaed and stolaed, half reduced to a conventional crop-headedness, grim and stiff as if sitting unwillingly for their portrait; or reclining on the sarcophagus-lid, neither dead, nor asleep, nor yet alive and awake, but with a hieratic mummy stare, have little of aesthetic or sympathetic value. The early Renaissance, then, first bethought it of representing the real individual in the real death slumber. And I question whether anything more fitting could be placed on a tomb than the effigy of the dead as we saw them just before the coffin-lid closed down; as we would give our all to see them but one little moment longer; as they continue to exist for our fancy within the grave; for to any but morbid feelings the beloved can never suffer decay. Whereas a portrait of the man in life, as the throning popes in St. Peter's, seems heartless and derisive; such monuments striking us as conceived and ordered by their inmates while alive, like Michael Angelo's Pope Julius, and Browning's Bishop, who was so preoccupied about his tomb in St. Praxed's Church. The Renaissance, the late Middle Ages, felt better than this: on the extreme pinnacle, high on the roof, they might indeed place against the russet brick or the blue sky, amid the hum of life and the movement of the air, the living man, like the Scaligers, the mailed knight on his charger, lance in rest: but in the church below, under the funereal pall, they could place only the body such as it may have lain on the bier.

And that figure on the bier was the great work of Renaissance sculpture. Inanimate and vulgar when in heroic figures they tried to emulate the ancients, the sculptors of the fifteenth century have found their own line. The modesty, the simplicity, the awful and beautiful repose of the dead; the individual character cleared of all its conflicting meannesses by death, simplified, idealized as it is in the memory of the survivors—all these are things which belong to the Renaissance. As the Greeks gave the strong, smooth life-current circulating through their heroes; so did these men of the fifteenth century give the gentle and harmonious ebbing after-life of death in their sepulchral monuments. Things difficult to describe, and which must be seen and remembered. There is the monument, now in the museum at Ravenna, by a sculptor whose name, were it known, would surely be among the greatest, of the condottiere, Braccioforte: the body prone in its heavy case of armour, not yet laid out in state, but such as he may have been found in the evening, when the battle was over, under a tree where they had carried him to die while they themselves went back to fight; the head has fallen back, side-ways, weighed down by the helmet, which has not even been unbuckled, only the face, the clear-cut, austere features, visible beneath the withdrawn vizor; the eyes have not been closed; and there are few things more exquisite and solemn at once in all sculpture, than the indication of those no longer seeing eyes, of that broken glance, beneath the half-closed lids. There is Rossellino's Cardinal of Portugal at S. Miniato a Monte: the slight body, draped in episcopal robes, lying with delicate folded hands, in gracious decorum of youthful sanctity; the strong delicate head, of clear feature and gentle furrow of suffering and thought, a face of infinite purity of strength, strength still ungnarled by action: a young priest, who in his virginal dignity is almost a noble woman. And there is the Ilaria Guinigi of Jacopo della Quercia (the man who had most natural affinity with the antique of all these sculptors, as one may see from the shattered remains of the Fonte Gaia of Siena), the lady stretched out on the rose-garlanded bed of state in a corner of Lucca Cathedral, her feet upon her sleeping dog, her sweet, girlish head, with wavy plaits of hair encircled by a rose-wreathed, turban-like diadem, lying low on round cushions; the bed gently giving way beneath the beautiful, ample-bosomed body, round which the soft robe is chastely gathered, and across which the long-sleeved arms are demurely folded; the most beautiful lady (whose majestic tread through the palace rooms we can well imagine) that the art of the fifteenth century has recorded. There is, above all, the Carlo Marsuppini of Desiderio da Settignano, the humanist Secretary of the Commonwealth, lying on the sarcophagus, superb with shell fretwork and curling acanthus, in Santa Croce of Florence. For the youthful beauty of the Cardinal of Portugal and of the Lady Ilaria are commonplace compared with the refinement of this worn old face, with scant wavy hair and thin, gently furrowed, but by no means ploughed-up features. The slight figure looks as if in life it must have seemed almost transparent; and the hands are very pathetic: noble, firm hands, subtle of vein and wrist, crossed simply, neither in prayer nor in agony, but in gentle weariness, over the book on his breast. That book is certainly no prayer-book; rather a volume of Plato or Cicero: in his last moments the noble old man has longed for a glance over the familiar pages; they have placed the book on his breast, but it has been too late; the drowsiness of death has overtaken him, and with his last sigh he has gently folded his hands over the volume, with the faint, last clinging to the things beloved in this world.

Such is that portrait sculpture of the early Renaissance, its only sculpture, if we except the exquisite work in babies and angels just out of the nursery of the Robbias, which is a real achievement. But how achieved? This art is great just by the things which Antiquity did not. And what are those things? Shall we say that it is sentiment? But all fine art has tact, antique art most certainly; and as to pathos, why, any quiet figure of a dead man or woman, however rudely carved, has pathos; nay, there is pathos in the poor puling hysterical art which makes angels draw the curtains of fine ladies' bedchambers, and fine ladies, in hoop or limp Grecian dress, faint (the smelling bottle, Betty!) over their lord's coffin; there is pathos, to a decently constituted human being, wherever (despite all absurdities) we can imagine that there lies some one whom it was bitter to see departing, to whom it was bitter to depart. Pathos, therefore, is not the question; and, if you choose to call it sentiment, it is in reality a sentiment for line and curve, for stone and light. The great question is, How did these men of the Renaissance make their dead people look beautiful? For they were not all beautiful in life, and ugly folk do not grow beautiful merely because they are dead. The Cardinal of Portugal, the beautiful Ilaria herself, were you to sketch their profile and place it by the side of no matter what ordinary antique, would greatly fall short of what we call sculpturesque beauty; and many of the others, old humanists and priests and lawyers, are emphatically ugly: snub or absurdly hooked noses, retreating or deformedly overhanging foreheads, fleshy noses, and flabby cheeks, blear eyes and sunk-in mouths; and a perfect network of wrinkles and creases, which, hard as it is to say, have been scooped out not merely by age, but by low mind, fretting and triumphant animalism. Now, by what means did the sculptor—the sculptor, too unacquainted with sculptural beauty (witness his ugly ideal statues), to be able, like the man who turned the successors of Alexander into a race of leonine though crazy demi-gods—to insidiously idealize these ugly and insignificant features; by what means did he turn these dead men into things beautiful to see? I have said that he took up art where Graeco-Roman Antiquity had left it. Remark that I say Graeco-Roman, and I ought to add much more Roman than Greek. For Greek sculpture, nurtured in the habit of perfect form, art to whom beauty was a cheap necessity, invariably idealized portrait, idealized it into beauty or inanity. But when Greek art had run its course; when beauty of form had well-nigh been exhausted or begun to pall; certain artists, presumably Greeks, but working for Romans, began to produce portrait work of quite a new and wonderful sort: the beautiful portraits of ugly old men, of snub little boys, work which was clearly before its right time, and was swamped by idealized portraits, insipid, nay, inane, from the elegant revivalist busts of Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius down to the bonnet blocks of the lower empire. Of this Roman portrait art, of certain heads of half-idiotic little Caesar brats, of sly and wrinkled old men, things which ought to be so ugly and yet are so beautiful, we say, at least, perhaps unformulated, we think, "How Renaissance!" And the secret of the beauty of these few Graeco-Roman busts, which is also that of Renaissance portrait sculpture, is that the beauty is quite different in kind from the beauty of Greek ideal sculpture, and obtained by quite different means.

It is, essentially, that kind of beauty which I began by saying belonged to realistic art, to the art which is not squeamish about the object which it represents, but is squeamish about the manner and medium in which that indifferent object is represented; it is a kind of beauty, therefore, more akin to that of Rembrandt and Velasquez than to that of Michael Angelo or Raphael. It is the beauty, not of large lines and harmonies, beauty residing in the real model's forms, beauty real, wholesale, which would be the same if the man were not marble but flesh, not in a given position but moving; but it is a beauty of combinations of light and surface, a beauty of texture opposed to texture, which would probably be unperceived in the presence of the more regal beauty of line and colour harmonies, and which those who could obtain this latter would employ only as much as they were conducive to such larger beauties. And this beauty of texture opposed to texture and light combined with surface is a very real thing; it is the great reality of Renaissance sculpture: this beauty, resulting from the combination, for instance, in a commonplace face, of the roughness and coarser pore of the close shaven lips and chin with the smoothness of the waxy hanging cheeks; the one catching the light, the other breaking it into a ribbed and forked penumbra. The very perfection of this kind of work is Benedetto da Maiano's bust of Pietro Mellini in the Bargello at Florence. The elderly head is of strongly marked osseous structure, yet fleshed with abundant and flaccid flesh, hanging in folds or creases round the mouth and chin, yet not flobbery and floppy, but solid, though yielding, creased, wrinkled, crevassed rather as a sandy hillside is crevassed by the trickling waters; semi-solid, promising slight resistance, waxy, yielding to the touch. But all the flesh has, as it were, gravitated to the lower part of the face, conglomerated, or rather draped itself, about the mouth, firmer for sunken teeth and shaving; and the skin has remained alone across the head, wrinkled, yet drawn in tight folds across the dome-shaped skull, as if, while the flesh disappeared, the bone also had enlarged. And on the temples the flesh has once been thick, the bone (seemingly) slight; and now the skin is being drawn, recently, and we feel more and more every day, into a radiation of minute creases, as if the bone and flesh were having a last struggle. Now in this head there is little beauty of line (the man has never been good-looking), and there is not much character in the sense of strongly marked mental or moral personality. I do not know, nor care, what manner of man this may have been. The individuality is one, not of the mind but of the flesh. What interests, attaches, is not the character or temperament, but the bone and skin, the creases and folds of flesh. And herein also lies the beauty of the work. I do not mean its interest or mere technical skill, I mean distinctly visible and artistic beauty.

Thus does the sculptor of the Renaissance get beauty, visible beauty, not psychologic interest, out of a plain human being; but the beauty (and this is the distinguishing point of what I must call realistic decorative art) does not exist necessarily in the plain human being: he merely affords the beginning of a pattern which the artist may be able to carry out. A person may have in him the making of a really beautiful bust and yet be ugly; just as the same person may afford a subject for a splendid painting and for an execrable piece of sculpture. The wrinkles and creases in a face like that of Benedetto da Maiano's Mellini would probably be ugly and perhaps disgusting in the real reddish, flaccid, discoloured flesh; while they are admirable in the solid and supple-looking marble, in its warm and delicate bistre and yellow. Material has an extraordinary effect upon form; colour, though not a positive element in sculpture, has immense negative power in accentuating or obliterating the mere line. All form becomes vague and soft in the dairy flaccidness of modern ivory; and clear and powerful in the dark terra cotta, which can ennoble even the fattest and flattest faces with its wonderful faculty for making mere surface markings, mere crowsfeet, interesting. Thus also with bronze: the polished, worked bronze, of fine chocolate burnish and reddish reflections, mars all beauty of line; how different the unchased, merely rough cast, greenish, with infinite delicate greys and browns, making, for instance, the head of an old woman like an exquisite withered, shrivelled, veined autumnal leaf. It is moreover, as I have said, a question of combination of surface and light, this art which makes beautiful busts of ugly men. The ideal statue of the Greeks intended for the open air; fit to be looked at under any light, high or low, brilliant or veiled, had indeed to be prepared to look well under any light; but to look well under any light means not to use any one particular relation of light as an ally; the surface was kept modestly subordinated to the features, the features which must needs look well at all moments and from all points of view. But the Renaissance sculptor knew where his work would be placed; he could calculate the effect of the light falling invariably through this or that window; he could make a fellow-workman of that light, present for it to draw or to obliterate what features he liked, bid it sweep away such or such surfaces with a broad stream, cut them with a deep shadow, caress their smooth chiselling or their rough grainings, mark as with a nail the few large strokes of the point which gave the firmness to the strained muscle or stretched skin. Out of this model of his, this plain old burgess, he and his docile friend the light, could make quite a new thing; a new pattern of bosses and cavities, of smooth sweeps and tracked lines, of creases and folds of flesh, of pliable linen and rough brocade of dress: something new, something which, without a single feature being straightened or shortened, yet changed completely the value of the whole assemblage of features; something undreamed of by nature in moulding that ugly old merchant or humanist. With this art which produced works like Desiderio da Settignano's Carlo Marsuppini and Benedetto da Maiano's Pietro Mellini, is intimately connected the art of the great medallists of the Renaissance—Pasti, Guacialotti, Niccolo Fiorentino, and, greatest of all, Pisanello. Its excellence depends precisely upon its independence of the ideal work of Antiquity; nay, even upon the fact that, while the ancients, striking their coins in chased metal dies, obtained an astonishing minuteness and clearness of every separate little stroke and dint, and were therefore forced into an almost more than sculptural perfection of mere line, of mere profile and throat and elaborately composed hair, a sort of sublime abstraction of the possible beauty of a human face, as in the coins of Syracuse and also of Alexander; the men of the fifteenth century employed the process of casting the bronze in a concave mould obtained by the melting away of a medallion in wax; in wax, which taking the living impress of the artist's finger, and recalling in its firm and yet soft texture the real substance of the human face, insensibly led the medallist to seek, not sharp and abstract lines, but simple, strongly moulded bosses; not ideal beauty, but the real appearance of life. It is, moreover, a significant fact that while the men who, half a century or so later, made fine, characterless die-stamped medals in imitation of the antique, Caradossi and Benvenuto for instance, were goldsmiths and sculptors, workers with the chisel, artists seeking essentially for abstract elegance of line; the two greatest medallists of the early Renaissance, Vittore Pisano and Matteo di Pasti, were both of them painters; and painters of the Northern Italian school, to whom colour and texture were all important, and linear form a matter of indifference. And indeed, if we look at the best work of what I may call the wax mould medallists of the fifteenth century, even at the magnificent marble medallions of the laurel-wreathed head of Sigismund Malatesta on the pillars of his church at Rimini, modelled by Pasti, we shall see that these men were preoccupied almost exclusively with the almost pictorial effect of the flesh in its various degrees of boss and of reaction of the light; and that the character, the beauty even, which they attained, is essentially due to a skilful manipulation of texture, and surface, and light—one might almost say of colour. We all know Pisanello's famous heads of the Malatesti of Rimini: the saturnine Sigismund, the delicate dapper Novello, the powerful yet beautiful Isotta; but there are other Renaissance medals which illustrate my meaning even better, and connect my feelings on the subject of this branch of art more clearly with my feelings towards such work as Benedetto's Pietro Mellini. Foremost among these is the perhaps somewhat imperfect and decidedly grotesque, but astonishingly powerful, naif and characteristic Lorenzo dei Medici by Niccolo real grandeur of whose conception of this coarse yet imaginative head may be profitably contrasted with the classicizing efforts after the demi-god or successor of Alexander in Pollaiolo's famous medal of the Pazzi conspiracy. Next to this I would place a medal by Guacialotti of Bishop Niccolo Palmieri, with the motto, "Nudus egressus sic redibo"—singularly appropriate to the shameless fleshliness of the personage, with his naked fat chest and shoulders, his fat, pig-like cheeks and greasy-looking bald head; a hideous beast, yet magnificent in his bestiality like some huge fattened porker. These medals give us, as does the bust of Pietro Mellini, beauty of the portrait despite ugliness of the original. But there are two other medals, this time by Pisanello, and, as it seems to me, perhaps his masterpieces, which show the quite peculiar way in which this homely charm of portraiture amalgamates, so as to form a homogeneous and most seemingly simple whole, with the homely charm of certain kinds of pure and simple youthful types. One of these (the reverse of which fantastically represents the four elements, the wooded earth, the starry sky, the rippled sea, the sun, all in one sphere) is the portrait of Don Inigo d'Avalos; the other that of Cecilia Gonzaga. This slender beardless boy in the Spanish shovel hat and wisp of scarf twisted round the throat; and this tall, long-necked girl, with sloping shoulders and still half-developed bosom; are, so to speak, brother and sister in art, in Pisanello's wonderful genius. The relief of the two medals is extremely low, so that in certain lights the effigies vanish almost completely, sink into the pale green surface of the bronze; the portraits are a mere film, a sort of haze which has arisen on the bronze and gathered into human likeness; but in this film, this scarce perceptible relief, we are made to perceive the slender osseous structure, the smooth, sleek, childish blond flesh and hair, the delicate, undecided pallor of extreme youth and purity, even as we might in some elaborate portrait by Velasquez, but with a spring-like healthiness which Velasquez, painting his lymphatic Hapsburgs, rarely has.

Such is this Renaissance art of medals, this side branch of the great realistic portraiture in stone of the Benedettos, Desiderios, and Rossellinos; a perfect thing in itself; and one which, if we muse over it in connection with the more important works of fifteenth century sculpture, will perhaps lead us to think that, as the sculpture of Antiquity, in its superb idealism, its devotion to the perfect line and curve of beauty, achieved the highest that mere colourless art can achieve—thanks to the very purity, sternness, and narrowness of its sculpturesque feeling—so also, perhaps, modern sculpture, should it ever re-arise, must be a continuation of the tendencies of the Renaissance, must be the humbler sister of painting, must seek for the realistic portrait and begin, perhaps, with the realistic medal.


This kind of realism, where only the model is ugly, while the portrait is beautiful; which seeks decorative value by other means than the intrinsic excellence of form in the object represented, this kind of realism is quite different in sort from the realisms of immature art, which, aiming at nothing beyond a faithful copy, is content with producing an ugly picture of an ugly thing. Now this latter kind of realism endured in painting some time after decorative realism such as I have described had reached perfection in sculpture. Nor was it till later, and when the crude scholastic realism had completely come to an end, that there became even partially possible in painting decorative realism analogous to what we have noticed in sculpture; while it was not till after the close of the Italian Renaissance period that the painters arose in Spain and the Netherlands who were able to treat their subjects with the uncompromising decorative realism of Desiderio or Rosellino or Benedetto da Maiano. For the purely imitative realism of the painters of the early Renaissance was succeeded in Italy by idealism, which matured in the great art of intrinsically beautiful linear form of Michael Angelo and Raphael, and the great art of intrinsically beautiful colour form of Giorgione and Titian. These two schools were bound to be, each in its degree, idealistic. Complete power of mere representation in tint and colour having been obtained through the realistic drudgery of the early Renaissance, selection in the objects thus to be represented had naturally arisen; and the study of the antique had further hastened and directed this movement of art no longer to study but to achieve, to be decorative once more, decorative no longer in subservience to architecture, but as the separate and self-sufficing art of painting. Selection, therefore, which is the only practical kind of idealism, had begun as soon as painting was possessed of the power of representing objects in their relations of line and colour, with that amount of light and shadow requisite to the just appreciation of the relations of form and the just relations of colour. Now art which stops short at this point of representation must inevitably be, if decorative at all, idealistically decorative; it must be squeamish respecting the objects represented, respecting their real structure, colour, position, and grouping. For, of the visible impressions received from an object, some are far more intrinsic than others. Suppose we see a woman, beautiful in the structure of her body, and beautiful in the colour of her person and her draperies, standing under a light which is such as we should call beautiful and interesting: of these three qualities one will be intrinsic in the woman, the second very considerably so, the third not at all. For, let us call that woman away and replace her immediately by another woman chosen at random. We shall immediately perceive that we have lost one pleasurable impression, that of beautiful bodily structure: the woman has taken away her well-shapen body. Next we shall perceive a notable diminution in the second pleasurable impression: the woman has taken with her, not indeed her well-tinted garments, which we may have bestowed on her successor, but her beautifully coloured skin and hair, so that of the pleasing colour-impression will remain only as much as was due to, and may have been retained with, the original woman's clothes. But if we look for our third pleasurable impression, our beautiful light, we shall find that unchanged, whether it fall upon a magnificently arrayed goddess or upon a sordid slut And, conversely, the beautiful woman, when withdrawn from that light and placed in any other, will be equally lovely in form, even if we cast her in plaster, and lose the colour of her skin and hair; or if we leave her not only the beautiful tints of her flesh and hair, but her own splendidly coloured garments, we shall still have, in whatsoever light, a magnificent piece of colour. But if we recall the poor ugly creature who has succeeded her from out of that fine effect of light, we shall have nothing but a hideous form invested in hideous colour.

This rough diagram will be sufficient to explain my thought respecting the relative degree to which the art dealing with linear form, that dealing with colour and that dealing with light, with the medium in which form and colour are perceived; is each respectively bound to be idealistically or realistically decorative. Now painting was aesthetically mature, possessed the means to achieve great beauty, at a time when of the three modes of representation there had as yet developed only those of linear form and colour; and the very possibility and necessity of immediately achieving all that could be achieved by these means delayed for a long time the development of the third mode of representation: the representation of objects as they appear with reference to the light through which they are seen. A beginning had indeed been made. Certain of Correggio's effects of light, even more an occasional manner of treating the flesh and hair, reducing both form and colour to a kind of vague boss and vague sheen, such as they really present in given effects of light, a something which we define roughly as eminently modern in the painting of his clustered cherubs; all this is certainly a beginning of the school of Velasquez. Still more so is it the case with Andrea del Sarto, the man of genius whom critics love to despatch as a mediocrity, because his art, which is art altogether for the eyes, and in which he innovated more than any of his contemporaries, does not afford any excuse for the irrelevancies of ornamental criticism; with him the appearance of form and colour, acted upon by light, the relative values of which flesh and draperies consist with reference to the surrounding medium, all this becomes so evident a preoccupation and a basis for decorative effects, as to give certain of his works an almost startling air of being modern. But this tendency comes to nothing: the men of the sixteenth century appear scarcely to have perceived wherein lay the true excellence of this "Andrea senza errori," deeming him essentially the artist of linear perfection; while the innovations of Correggio in the way of showing the relations of flesh tones and light ended in the mere coarse gala illuminations in which his successors made their seraphs plunge and sprawl. There was too much to be done, good and bad, in the way of mere linear form and mere colour; and as art of mere linear form and colour, indifferent of all else, did the art of the Italian Renaissance run to seed.

I said at the beginning of this paper that the degree to which any art is strictly idealistic, can be measured by the terms which it will make with portrait. For as portrait is due to the desire to represent a person quite apart from that person affording material for decoration, it is evident that only the art which can call in the assistance of decorative materials, independent of the represented individual, can possibly make a beautiful picture out of an ugly man; while the art which deals only with such visible peculiarities as are inherent in the individual, has no kind of outlet, is cornered, and can make of a repulsive original only a repulsive picture. The analogy to this we have already noticed in sculpture: antique sculpture, considering only the linear bosses which existed equally in the living man and in the statue, could not afford to represent plain people; while Renaissance sculpture, extracting a large amount of beauty out of combinations of surface and light, was able, as long as it could arrange such an artificial combination, to dispense with great perfection in the model. Nay, if we except Renaissance statuary as a kind of separate art, we may say that this independence of the object portrayed is a kind of analytic test, enabling us to judge at a glance, and by the degree of independence from the model, the degree to which any art is removed from the mere line and boss of antique sculpture. In the statue standing free in any light that may chance to come, every form must be beautiful from every point; but in proportion as the new elements of painting enter, in proportion as the actual linear form and boss is marked and helped out by grouping, colour, and light and shade, does the actual perfection of the model become less important; until, under the reign of light as the chief factor, it becomes altogether indifferent. In this fact lies the only rational foundation for the notion, made popular by Hegel, that painting is an art in which beauty is of much less account than in sculpture; failing to understand that the sum total of beauty remained the same, whether dependent upon the concentration of a single element or obtained by the co-operation of several consequently less singly important elements.

But to return to the question of portrait art. From what we have seen, it is clear that art which requires perfection of form will be reduced to ugliness if cramped in the obtaining of such perfection, whereas art which can obtain beauty by other means will still have a chance when reduced to imitate ugly object? Hence it is that while the realistically decorative art of the seventeenth century can make actually beautiful things of the portraits of ugly people, the idealistically decorative art of the Renaissance produces portraits which are cruelly ugly in proportion as the art is purely idealistic. Yet even in idealism there are degrees: the more the art is confined to mere linear form, to the exclusion of colour, the uglier will be the portraits. With Michael Angelo the difficulty was simplified to impossibility: he could not paint portrait at all; and in his sculptured portraits of the two Medicean dukes at S. Lorenzo he evaded all attempt at likeness, making those two men into scarcely more than two architectural monsters, half-human cousins of the fantastic creatures who keep watch on the belfries and gurgoyles of a Gothic cathedral. It is almost impossible to think of Michael Angelo attempting portrait: the man's genius cannot be constrained to it, and what ought to be mere ugliness would come out idealized into grandiose monstrosity. Men like Titian and Tintoret are at the other end of the scale of ideal decoration: they are bordering upon the domain of realism. Hence they can raise into interest, by the mere power of colour, many an insignificant type; yet even they are incapable of dealing with absolute ugliness, with absence of fine colour, or, if they do deal with it, there is an immediate improvement upon the model, and the appearance of truthfulness goes. Between the absolute incapacity for dealing with ugliness of Michael Angelo, and the power of compromising with it of Titian and Tintoret, Raphael stands half-way: he can call in the assistance of colour just sufficiently to create a setting of carefully harmonized draperies and accessories, beautiful enough to allow of his filling it up with the most cruelly ugly likeness which any painter ever painted. Far too much has been written about Raphael in general, but not half enough about Raphael as a portrait-painter; for by the side of the eclectic idealist, who combined and balanced beauty almost into insipidity, is the most terribly, inflexibly veracious portrait-painter that ever was. Compared with those sternly straightforward portraits of his Florentine and Roman time, where ugliness and baseness are never attenuated by one tittle, and alloyed nobility or amiability, as with his finer models, like the two Donis, husband and wife, and Bibbiena, is never purified of its troubling element; compared with them the Venetian portraits are mere insincere, enormously idealized pieces of colour-harmony; nay, the portraits of Velasquez are mere hints—given rapidly by a sickened painter striving to make those scrofulous Hapsburgs no longer mere men, but keynotes of harmonies of light—of what the people really are. For Velasquez seems to show us the temperament, the potentiality of his people, and to leave us, with a kind of dignified and melancholy silence as to all further, to find out what life, what feelings and actions, such a temperament implies. But Raphael shows us all: the temperament and the character, the real active creature, with all the marks of his present temper and habits, with all the indications of his immediate actions upon him: completely without humour or bitterness, without the smallest tendency to twist the reality into caricature or monstrosity, nay, perhaps without much psychologic analysis to tell him the exact meaning of what he is painting, going straight to the point, and utterly ruthless from sheer absence of all alternative of doing otherwise than he does. There is nothing more cruelly realistic in the world, cruel not only to the base originals but to the feelings of the spectator, than the harmony of villainies, of various combinations of black and hog-like bestiality, and fox and wolf-like cunning and ferocity with wicked human thought and self-command, which Raphael has enshrined in that splendid harmony of scarlet silk and crimson satin, and purple velvet and dull white brocade, as the portraits of Leo X. and his cardinals Rossi and Dei Medici.

The idealistic painter, accustomed to rely upon the intrinsic beauty which he has hitherto been able to select or create; accustomed also to think of form as something quite independent of the medium through which it is seen, scarcely conscious of the existence of light and air in his habit of concentrating all attention upon a figure placed, as it were, in a sort of vacuum of indifference;—this idealistic artist is left without any resources when bid to paint an ugly man or woman. With the realistic artist, to whom the man or woman is utterly indifferent, to whom the medium in which they are seen is everything, the case Is just reversed: let him arrange his light, his atmospheric effect, and he will work into their pattern no matter what plain or repulsive wretch. To Velasquez the flaccid yellowish fair flesh, with its grey downy shadows, the limp pale drab hair, which is grey in the light and scarcely perceptibly blond in the shade, all this unhealthy, bloodless, feebly living, effete mass of humanity called Philip IV. of Spain, shivering in moral anaemia like some dog thorough bred into nothingness, becomes merely the foundation for a splendid harmony of pale tints. Again, the poor little baby princess, with scarce visible features, seemingly kneaded (but not sufficiently pinched and modelled) out of the wet ashes of an auto da fe, in her black-and-white frock (how different from the dresses painted by Raphael and Titian!), dingy and gloomy enough for an abbess or a cameriera major, this childish personification of courtly dreariness, certainly born on an Ash Wednesday, becomes the principal strands for a marvellous tissue of silvery and ashy light, tinged yellowish in the hair, bluish in the eyes and downy cheeks, pale red in the lips and the rose in the hair; something to match which in beauty you must think of some rarely seen veined and jaspered rainy twilight, or opal-tinted hazy winter morning. Ugliness, nay, repulsiveness, vanish, subdued into beauty, even as noxious gases may be subdued into health-giving substances by some cunning chemist. The difference between such portraits as these and the portraits by Raphael does not however consist merely in the beauty: there is also the fact that if you take one of Velasquez's portraits out of their frame, reconstitute the living individual, and bid him walk forth in whatsoever light may fall upon him, you will have something infinitely different from the portrait, and of which your only distinct feeling will be that a fine portrait might be made of the creature; whereas it is a matter of complete indifference whether you see Raphael's Leo X. in the flesh or in his gilded frame.

Whatever may fairly be said respecting the relative value of idealistic and realistic decorative art is really also connected with this latter point. Considering that realistic art is merely obtaining beauty by attention to other factors than those which preoccupy idealistic art, that the one fulfils what the other neglects—taking the matter from this point of view, it would seem as if the two kinds of arts were, so to speak, morally equal; and that any vague sense of mysterious superior dignity clinging to idealistic art was a mere shred of long discarded pedantry. But it is not so. For realistic art does more than merely bring into play powers unknown to idealistic art: it becomes, by the possession of these powers, utterly indifferent to the intrinsic value of the forms represented: it is so certain of making everything lovely by its harmonies of light and atmosphere that it almost prefers to choose inferior things for this purpose. I am thinking at present of a picture by I forget what Dutchman in our National Gallery, representing in separate compartments five besotten-looking creatures, symbolical of the five senses: they are ugly, brutish, with I know not what suggestion of detestable temperament in their bloodshot flesh and vermilion lips, as if the whole man were saturated with his appetite. Yet the Dutchman has found the means of making these degraded types into something which we care to look at, and to look at on account of its beauty; even as, in lesser degree, Rubens has always managed to make us feel towards his flaccid, veal-complexioned, fish-eyed women, something of what we feel towards the goddesses of the Parthenon; towards the white-robed, long-gloved ladies, with meditative face beneath their crimped auburn hair, of Titian.

Viewed in one way, there is a kind of nobility in the very fact that such realistic art can make us pardon, can redeem, nay almost sanctify, so much. But is it right thus to pardon, redeem, and sanctify; thus to bring the inferior on to the level of the superior? Nay, is it not rather wrong to teach us to endure so much meanness and ugliness in creatures, on account of the nobility with which they are represented? Is this not vitiating our feelings, blunting our desire for the better, our repugnance for the worse?

A great and charitable art, this realistic art of the seventeenth century, and to be respected for its very tenderness towards the scorned and castaway things of reality; but accustoming us, perhaps too much, like all charitable and reclaiming impulses, to certain unworthy contacts: in strange contrast herein with that narrow but ascetic and aristocratic art of idealism, which, isolated and impoverished though it may be, has always the dignity of its immaculate purity, of its unswerving judgment, of its obstinate determination to deal only with the best. A hard task to judge between them. But be this as it may, it is one of the singular richnesses of the Italian Renaissance that it knew of both tendencies; that while in painting it gave the equivalent of that rigid idealism of the Greeks which can make no compromise with ugliness; in sculpture it possessed the equivalent of the realism of Velasquez, which can make beauty out of ugly things, even as the chemist can make sugar out of vitriol.

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"Le donne, i cavalieri, l' armi, gli amori."


Throughout the tales of Charlemagne and his warriors, overtopping by far the crowd of paladins and knights, move two colossal mailed and vizored figures—Roland, whom the Italians call Orlando and the Spaniards Roldan, the son of Milon d'Angers and of Charlemagne's sister; and Renaud or Rinaldo, the lord of Montauban, and eldest of the famous four sons of Aymon. These are the two representative heroes, equal but opposed, the Achilles and Odysseus, the Siegfried and Dietrich, of the Carolingian epic; and in each is personified, by the unconscious genius of the early Middle Ages, one of the great political movements, of the heroic struggles, of feudalism. For there existed in feudalism two forces, a centripetal and a centrifugal—a force which made for the supremacy of the kingly overlordship, and a force which made for the independence of the great vassals. Hence, in the poetry which is the poetry of feudalism, two distinct currents of feeling, two distinct epics—-the epic of the devoted loyalty of all the heroes of France to their wise and mighty emperor Charlemagne, triumphant even in misfortune; and the epic of the hopeless resistance against a craven and capricious despot Charles of the most righteous and whole-hearted among his feudatories: the epic of Roland, and the epic of Renaud. Of the first there remains to us, in its inflexible and iron solemnity, an original rhymed narrative, "The Chanson de Roland," which we may read perhaps almost in the self-same words in which it was sung by the Normans of William in their night watch before the great battle. The centripetal force of feudalism gained the upper hand, and the song of the great empire, of the great deeds of loyal prowess, was consecrated in the feudal monarchy. The case was different with the tale of resistance and rebellion. The story of Renaud soon became a dangerous lesson for the great barons; it fell from the hands of the nobles to those of humbler folk; and it is preserved to us no longer in mediaeval verse, but in a prose version, doubtless of the fifteenth century, under the name, familiar on the stalls of village fairs, of "The Quatre Fils Aymon." But, as Renaud is the equal of Roland, so is this humble prose tale nevertheless the equal of the great song of Roncevaux; and even now, it would be a difficult task to decide which were the grander, the tale of loyalty or the tale of resistance.

In each of these tales,"The Chanson de Roland" and "The Quatre Fils Aymon," there is contained a picture of its respective hero, which sums up, as it were, the whole noble character of the book; and which, the picture of the dying Roland and the picture of the dying Renaud, I would fain bring before you before speaking of the other Roland and the other Renaud, the Orlando of Ariosto and the Rinaldo of Boiardo. The traitor Ganelon has enabled King Marsile to overtake with all his heathenness the rear-guard of Charlemagne between the granite walls of Roncevaux; the Franks have been massacred, but the Saracens have been routed; Roland has at last ceded to the prayers of Oliver and of Archbishop Turpin; three times has he put to his mouth his oliphant and blown a blast to call back Charlemagne to vengeance, till the blood has foamed round his lips and his temple has burst. Oliver is dead, the archbishop is dying, Roland himself is slowly bleeding to death. He goes down into the defile, heaped with corpses, and seeks for the bodies of the principal paladins, Ivon and Ivaire, the Gascon Engelier, Gerier and Gerin, Berenger and Otho, Anseis and Salamon, and the old Gerard of Rousillon; and one by one drags them to where the archbishop lies dying. And then, when to these knights Roland has at last added his own beloved comrade Oliver, he bids the archbishop bless all the dead, before he die himself. Then, when he has reverently crossed Turpin's beautiful priestly hands over his breast, he goes forth to shatter his sword Durendal against the rocks; but the good sword has cut the rock without shivering; and the coldness of death steals, over Roland. He stretches himself upon a hillock looking towards Spain, and prays for the forgiveness of his sins; then, with Durendal and his ivory horn by his side, he stretches out the glove of his right hand to God. "He has stretched forth to God the glove of his right hand; St. Gabriel has received it... Then his head has sunk on his arm; he has gone, with clasped hands, to his end. God sends him one of his cherubim and St. Michael of Peril. St. Gabriel has come with them. They carry the soul of the Count: up to paradise."

More solitary, and solemn and sad even, is the end of the other hero, of the great rebel Renaud of Montauban. At length, after a lifetime wasted in fruitless, attempts to resist the iniquity of the emperor, to baffle his power, to shame him by magnanimity into, justice, the four sons of Aymon, who have given up their youth, their manhood, the dearest things to their heart, respect to their father and loyalty to their sovereign, rather than countenance the injustice of Charlemagne to their kinsman, have at last obtained to be pardoned; to be pardoned, they, heroes, by this, dastardly tyrant, and to quietly sink, broken-hearted into nothingness. The eldest, Renaud, returning from his exile and the Holy Land, finds that his wife Clarisse has pined for him and died; and then, putting away his armour from him, and dressing in a pilgrim's frock made of the purple serge of the dead lady's robe, he goes forth to wander through the world; not very old in years, but broken-spirited; at peace, but in solitude of heart. And one evening he arrives at Cologne. We can imagine the old knight, only half aware of the sunshine of the evening, the noise of the streets, the looks of the crowd, the great minster rising half-finished in the midst of the town by the Rhine, the cries and noise and chipping of the masons; unconscious of all this, half away: with his brothers hiding in the Ardennes, living on roots and berries, at bay before Charlemagne; or wandering ragged and famishing through France; with King Yon brilliant at Toulouse, seeing perhaps for the first time his bride Clarisse, or the towers of Montauban rising under the workmen's hands; thinking perhaps of the frightful siege, when all, all had been eaten in the fortress, and his children Aymonnet and Yonnet, all thin and white, knelt down and begged him to slaughter his horse Bayard that they might eat; perhaps of that journey, when he and his brothers, all in red-furred robes with roses in their hands, rode prisoners of King Charles across the plain of Vaucouleurs; perhaps of when he galloped up to the gallows at Montfaucon, and cut loose his brother Richard; or of that daring ride to Paris, where he and his horse won the race, snatched the prize from before Charlemagne and sped off crying out that the winner was Renaud of Montauban; or, perhaps, seeing once more the sad, sweet face of the Lady Clarisse, when she had burned all her precious stuffs and tires in the castle-yard, and lay dead without him to kiss her cold mouth; of seeing once more his good horse Bayard, when he kissed him in his stall before giving him to be killed by Charlemagne. Thinking of all that past, seeing it all within his mind, and seeing but little of the present; as, in the low yellow light, he helped, for his bread, the workmen to heave the great beams, to carry the great stones of the cathedral, to split the huge marble masses while they stared in astonished envy; as he sat, unconscious of their mutterings, eating his dry bread and porridge in the building docks by the river. And then, when wearied, he had sunk to sleep in the hay-loft, dreaming perchance that all this evil life was but a dream and the awakening therefrom to happiness and strength; the jealous workmen came and killed him with their base tools, and cast him into the Rhine. They say that the huge body floated on the water, surrounded by a great halo; and that when the men of the banks, seeing this, reverently fished it out, they found that the noble corpse was untouched by decay, and still surrounded by a light of glory. And thus, it seems to me, this Renaud, this rebel baron of whose reality we know nothing, has floated surrounded by a halo of poetry down the black flood of the Middle Ages (in which so much has sunk); and when we look upon his face, and see its beauty and strength and solemness, we feel, like the people of the Rhine bank, inclined to weep, and to say of this mysterious corpse, "Surely this is some great saint."

Of each of these heroes thus shown us by the Middle Ages, the Italian Renaissance also, by the hand of two of her greatest poets, has given us a picture. And first, of Roland. Of him, of Count Orlando, we are told by Messer Lodovico Ariosto, that in consequence of his having discovered, in a certain pleasant grotto among the ferns and maidenhair, words graven on the rock (interrupted, doubtless, by the lover's kisses) which revealed that the Princess Angelica of Cathay had disdained him for Medoro, the fair-haired page of the King of the Moors; Count Orlando went straightway out of his mind, and hanging up his armour and stripping off his clothes, galloped about on his bare-backed horse, slaughtering cows and sheep instead of Saracens; until it pleased God, moved by the danger of Christendom and the prayers of Charlemagne, to permit Astolfo to ride on the hippogriffs back up to the moon, and bring back thence the wits of the great paladin contained in a small phial. We all know that merry tale. What the Renaissance has to say of Renaud of Montauban is even stranger and more fantastic. One day, says Matteo Boiardo, in the fifteenth canto of the second part of his "Orlando Innamorato," as Rinaldo of Montalbano, the contemner of love, was riding in the Ardennes, he came to a clearing in the forest, where, close to the fountain of Merlin, a wonderful sight met his eyes. On a flowery meadow were dancing three naked damsels, and singing with them danced also a naked youth, dark of eyes and fair of hair, the first down on his lips, so that some might have said it was and others that it was not there. On Rinaldo's approach they broke through their singing and dancing, and rushed upon him, pelting him with roses and hyacinths and violets from their baskets, and beating him with great sheaves of lilies, which burnt like flames through the plates of his armour to the very marrow of his bones. Then when they had dragged him, tied with garlands, by the feet round and round the meadow; wings, eyed not with the eyes of a peacock but with the eyes of lovely damsels, suddenly sprouted out of their shoulders, and they flew off, leaving the poor baron, bruised on the grass, to meditate upon the vanity of all future resistance to love.

Such are the things which the Middle Ages and the Renaissance found to tell us of the two great heroes of Carolingian poetry. And the explanation of how it came to pass, that for the Roland of the song of Roncevaux was substituted the Orlando of Ariosto, and for the Renaud of "The Quatre Fils Aymon" the Rinaldo of Matteo Boiardo—means simply that which I desire here to study: the metamorphoses of mediaeval romance stuffs, and, more especially, the vicissitudes of the cycle of Charlemagne.


We are apt to think of the Middle Ages as if they were the companion-piece to Antiquity; but no such ideal correspondence exists between the two periods. Antiquity is all of a piece, and the Middle Ages, on the contrary, are heterogeneous and chaotic. For Antiquity is the steady and uniform development of civilization in one direction and with one meaning; there are great differences between its various epochs, but they are as the differences between the budding, the blossoming, and the fading stages of one plant: life varies, but is one. The Middle Ages, on the other hand, are a series of false starts, of interruptions and of new departures; a perpetual confusion. For, if we think over them, we shall see that these centuries called mediaeval are occupied by the effort of one people, or one generation, to put to rights and settle down among as much as it can save of the civilization of Antiquity. And the sudden overwhelming of this people or this generation by another, which puts all the elaborate arrangements into disarray, adds to the ruins of Antiquity the ruins of more recent times; and then this destroying generation tries to put things straight, to settle down, and is in its turn interrupted by the advent of some new comer who begins the game afresh.

As it is with peoples, so also is it with ideas; scarcely has a scheme of life or of philosophy or of art taken shape and consistence before, from out of the inexhaustible chaos of mediaeval thought and feeling, there issue new necessities, new aspirations, which put into confusion all previous ones. The Middle Ages were like some financial crisis: a little time, a little credit, money will fructify, wealth will reappear, the difficult moment will be tided over; and so with civilization. But unfortunately the wealth of ideas began to accumulate in the storehouse only just long enough to bring down a rout of creditors, people who rifled the bank, and went home to consume or invest their money in order to be succeeded by others. Hence, in the matter of civilization, the Middle Ages ended in an extraordinary slow ruin, a bankruptcy like that which overtook France before '89, and from which, as France was restored by the bold seizure and breaking up of property of the revolution, the world was restored by the bold breaking of feudal and spiritual mortmain, the restoring of wasted energies to utility, of that great double revolution, the Renaissance and the Reformation. Be this as it may, mankind throughout the Middle Ages appears to have been in a chronic condition of packing up and unpacking, and packing up again; one after another a nation, a race, a philosophy, a political system came to the front and was pushed back again into limbo: Germans and Kelts and Latins, French civilization of the day of Abelard, Provencal civilization of the days of the Raymonds, brilliant and evanescent Hohenstauffen supremacy, papacy at Canossa and at Avignon, Templars triumphant and Templars persecuted; scholasticism, mysticism, feudalism, democracy, communism: influences all these perpetually rising up and being trodden down, till they all rotted away in the great stagnation of the fifteenth century; and only in one part of the world, where the conflict was more speedily ended, where one set of tendencies early triumphed, where stability was temporarily obtained, in Italy alone did civilization continue to be nurtured and developed for the benefit of all mankind. In such a state of affairs only such things could flourish and mature as were safe from what I have called, for want of a better expression, the perpetual unpacking and repacking, the perpetual being on the move, of the Middle Ages; and among such things foremost was art, the essential art of the times, architecture, which, belonging to the small towns, to the infinite minority of the democracy, who worked and made money and let the great changes pass over their heads, thrived almost as something too insignificant for notice. But it was different with literature. Cathedrals once built cannot so easily be changed; new peoples, new ideas, must accept them. But poetry—the thing which every nation insists upon having to suit its own taste, the thing which every nation and every generation carries about with it hither and thither, the thing which can be altered to suit every passing whim—poetry was, of all the fluctuating things of the Middle Ages, perhaps the most fluctuating. And fluctuating also because, as none of these various nations, tendencies, aspirations, dominated sufficiently long to produce any highly organized art, there remained no standard works, nothing recognizedly perfect, which would be kept for its perfection and gather round it imitations, so as to form the nucleus of any homogeneous tradition. The Middle Ages, so full of fashions in literary matters, possessed no classics; the minnesingers knew nothing of the stern old Teutonic war songs; the meistersaengers had forgotten the minnesingers; the trouveres and troubadours knew nothing of "The Chanson de Roland," and Villon knew nothing of them; only in Italy, where the Middle Ages came to an end and the Renaissance began with the Lombard league, was there established a tradition of excellence, with men like Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, handed down from generation to generation; even as, while in the north there came about the strange modification which substituted the French of Rabelais for the French of Chrestien de Troyes, the German of Luther for the German of Wolfram von Eschenbach, the Italian language, from Ciullo d'Alcamo almost to Boiardo and Lorenzo dei Medici, remained virtually identical. The result of this, which I may call the heterogeneousness and instability of the Middle Ages was that not merely literary forms were for ever arising and being superseded, but literary subject matter was continually undergoing a process of transformation. While in Antiquity the great epic and tragic stuffs remained well-nigh unaltered, and the stories of Valerius Flaccus and Apollonius Rhodius were merely the stories which had been current since the days of Homer, during the course of the Middle Ages every epic cycle, and every tale belonging thereunto, was gradually adulterated, mingled with, swamped by, some other cycle or tale; nay, rather, every other, cycle and every other tale, the older ones trying to save their popularity by admixture with the more recent, till at last all mythical significance, all historical meaning, all national character, all psychological reality, were lost in the chaotic result. And meanwhile, in the absence of any stable language, of any durable literary fashion, the Middle Ages were unable to give to these epic stuffs, at any one period of their life of metamorphose, a form sufficiently artistically valuable to secure anything beyond momentary vogue, to secure for them the immortality of the great Greek tales of adventure and warfare and love. Thus it came about that the epic cycle of Charlemagne, after supplanting in men's minds the grand sagas of the pagan North, was itself supplanted by the Arthurian cycle; that the Frankish stories absorbed the wholly discrepant elements of their more fortunate Keltic rivals; that both cycles, having lost all character through fusion and through obliteration by time, became more meaningless generation by generation and year by year, until when the Middle Ages had come to an end, and the great poets of the Renaissance were ready to give this old mediaeval epic stuff a definitive and durable artistic shape, there came to the hands of Boiardo and Ariosto, of Tasso and Spenser, only a strange, trumpery material, muddled by jongleurs and romance writers, and reduced to mere fairy stuff, taken seriously only by Don Quixote, and by the authors of the volumes of insane twaddle called after Amadis of Gaul and all his kinsmen.

Such a condition of perpetual change as explains, in my belief, why the mediaeval epic subjects were wanted, can be made clear only by examples. I shall therefore try to show the transformations which were undergone by one or two principal mediaeval epic subjects as a result of a mixture with other epic cycles; of a gradual adaptation to a new state of civilization; and finally of their gradual separation from all kind of reality and real interests.

First of all, let us look at the epic cycle, which, although known to us only in poems no older than those of the trouveres and minnesingers who sang of Charlemagne and Arthur, is in reality far more ancient, and on account of its antiquity and its consequent disconnection with mediaeval religious and political interests, was thrown aside even by the nations to which it belonged, by the Scandinavians who took to writing sagas about the wars of Charlemagne against Saracens, and by the Germans who preferred to hear the adventures of Welsh and Briton, Launcelots and Tristrams. I am alluding to the stories connected with the family and life of the hero called Sigurd by the Scandinavians, and Siegfried by the Germans. Of these we possess a Norse version called the Volsunga Saga, magnificently done into English by Mr. William Morris; which, although written down at the end of the twelfth century, in the very time therefore of Chrestien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, and Gottfried von Strassburg, and subsequently to the presumed writing of "The Chanson de Roland" and the Nibelungenlied, shows us in reality the product of a people, the distant Scandinavians of Iceland, who were five or six hundred years behind the French, Germans, and English of the twelfth century. In the Volsunga Saga, neither Christianity nor feudalism is yet dreamed of; and it is for this reason that I wish to compare it with the Nibelungenlied, in order to show how enormously the old epic stuff was altered by the new civilization. The whole social and moral condition of the two versions is different. In the old Scandinavian civilization, where the Viking is surrounded and served by clansmen, the feeling of blood relationship is the strongest in people's hearts; strangely and fearfully shown in the introductory tale of Signy, who, in order to avenge her father Volsung, killed by her husband, murders her children by the latter, and then, altered in face by magic arts, goes forth to the woods to her brother Sigmund, that, un-wittingly, he may beget with her the only man fit to avenge the Volsungs. And then she sends the boy Sinfjotli to the man he has hitherto considered merely as his uncle, bidding the latter kill him if he prove unworthy of his incestuous birth, or train him to vengeance. The three together murder the husband and legitimate children of Signy, and set the palace on fire; which, being done, the queen, having accomplished her duty to her kin, accomplishes that towards her husband, and calmly returns to die in the burning hall. Here (and apparently again in the case of the children of Sigurd and Brynhilt) incest becomes a family virtue. This being the frightful preponderance of the feeling of blood relationship, it is quite natural that the Scandinavian Chriemhilt (called in the Volsunga Saga, Gudrun) should not resent the murder of her husband Siegfried or Sigurd by her brothers at the instigation of the jealous Brynhilt (who has in a manner been Sigurd's wife before he made her over to Chriemhilt's eldest brother); and that, so far from seeking any revenge against them, she should, when her second husband Atli sends for her brothers in order to rob and murder them, first vainly warn them of the plot, and then, when they have been massacred, kill Atli and her children by him in order to avenge her brothers. The slackening of the tribal feeling, the idea of fidelity in love and sanctity of marriage belonging to Christianity and feudalism, rendered such a story unintelligible to the Germans of the Othos and Henrys. In the Nibelungenlied, the whole story of the massacre of the brothers is changed. Chriemhilt never forgives the murder of Siegfried, and it is not Etzel—Atli for the sake of plunder, but she herself for the sake of revenge, who decoys her brothers and murders them; it is she who with her own hand cuts off the head of Gunther to expiate his murder of Siegfried. To our feelings, more akin to those of the feudal Christians of Franconia than to those of the tribal Scandinavians of the Edda, the second version is far more intelligible and interesting—the story of this once gentle and loving Chriemhilt, turned by the murder of her beloved into a fury, and plotting to avenge his death by the death of all his kinsfolk, must be much grander and more pathetic than the story of this strange Gudrun, who sits down patiently beneath the injury done to her by her brothers, but savagely avenges them on her new husband, and her own and his innocent children; to us this persistence of tribal feeling, destroying all indignation and love, is merely unnatural, confusing, and repulsive. But this alteration for the better in one of the incidents of the tale is a mere fluke; and the whole main plot of the originally central figures are completely obliterated by the new state of civilization, and rendered merely trivial and grotesque. In the Volsunga Saga Sigurd, overcome by enchantments, has forgotten his wife (or mistress, a vague mythical relationship); and, with all sense of the past obliterated, has made her over to the brother of his new wife Gudrun; and Brynhilt kills her faithless love to dissolve the second marriage and be reunited with him in death. In the Nibelungenlied Siegfried, although the flower of knighthood, conquers by foul play the Amazon Brunhilt to reward Gunther for the hand of his sister; nay, in a comic and loathsome scene he forces her into the embraces of the craven Gunther; and then he gets killed by Brunhilt's machinations; when, after most unqueenly bickerings, the proud Amazon is brutally told by Siegfried's wife of the dirty trick which has given her to Gunther. After this, it is impossible to realize, when Siegfried is murdered and all our sympathies called on to his side, the utterly out-of-character, blackguardly behaviour which has brought the hero to his death. Similarly the conception of the character and position of Brynhilt is entirely disfigured and rendered inane in the Nibelungenlied: of that superb demi-goddess of the Scandinavians, burnt on the pyre with her falcons and dogs and horses and slaves, by the side of the demi-god Sigurd, whom she has loved and killed, lest the door of Valhalla, swinging after him, should shut her out from his presence; of her there remains in the German mediaeval poem only a virago (more like the giantesses of the Amadis romances) enraged at having been defeated and grotesquely and grossly pummelled into wedlock by a man not her husband, and then slanged like a fishwife by her envious sister-in-law.

The old, consistent, grandly tragic tale of the mysterious incests and revenges of a race of demi-gods has lost its sense, its point in the attempt to arrange it to suit Christian and feudal ideas. The really fine portions of the Nibelungenlied are exactly those which have no real connection with the original story, gratuitous additions by mediaeval poets. The delicately indicated falling in love of Siegfried and Chriemhilt, the struggles of Markgraf Ruedger between obedience to his feudal superior and fidelity towards his friends and guests; and, above all, the canto of the death of Siegfried. This last is different, intensely different, from the rugged and dreary monotony of the rest; this most poetical, almost Spenserian or Ariostesque realization of the scene; this beautiful picture (though worked with the needle of the arras-worker rather than with pencil or brush) of the wood, the hunt, the solitary fountain in the Odenwald, where, with his spear leaned against the lime-tree, Siegfried was struck down into the clover and flowers, and writhed with Hagen's steel through his back. This canto is certainly interpolated by some first-rate poet, at least a Gottfried or a Walther, to whom that passage of the savage old droning song of death had suggested a piece of new art; it is like the fragments of exquisitely chiselled leafage and figures which you sometimes find encrusted—by whom? wherefore?—quite isolated in the midst of the rough and lichen-stained stones of some rude Lombard church. All the rest of the Nibelungenlied gives an impression of effeteness; there is no definiteness of idea such as that of the Volsunga Saga; the battles are mere vague slaughter, no action, no realized movement, or (excepting Ruedger) no realized motive of conduct. Shape and colour would seem to have been obliterated by repetition and alteration. Yet even these alterations could not make the tale of Siegfried survive among the Germans of the Middle Ages; nay, the more the alterations the less the interest; the want of consistency and colour due to rearrangement merely accelerated the throwing aside of a subject which, dating from pagan and tribal times, had become repugnant to the new generations. All the mutilations in the world could not make the old Scandinavian tales of betrayed trust, of revenge and triumphant bloodshed, at all sympathetic to men whose religious and social ideals were those of forgiveness and fidelity; even stripped of its incestuous mysteries and of its fearful tribal love, the tale of Sigurd and Brynhilt, reduced to the tale of Chriemhilt's revenge, was unpalatable: no more attempts were made at re-writing it, and the poems of Walther, of Gottfried, of Wolfram, of Ulrich, and of Tannhaeuser, full as they are of references to stories of the Carolingian and Arthurian cycles, nay, to Antique and Oriental tales, contain no allusion to the personages of the Nibelungenlied. The old epic of the Gothic races had been pushed aside by the triumphant epic of the obscure and conquered Kelts.

There are few phenomena in the history of ideas and forms more singular than that of the sudden conquest of the poetry of dominant or distant nations by the poetic subjects of a comparatively small race, sheared of all political importance, restricted to a trifling territory, and well-nigh deprived of their language; and of this there can be found no more striking example than the sudden ousting of the Carolingian epic by the cycle of Arthur.

The Kelts of Britain and Ireland possessed an epic cycle of their own, which came to notice only when they were dispossessed of their last strongholds by Saxons and Normans, and which immediately spread with astounding rapidity all over Europe. The vanquished race became fashionable; themselves, their art and their poetry, began to be sought for as a precious and war-enhanced loot. The heroic tales of the Kelts were transcribed in Welsh, and translated into Latin, by order of the Norman and Angevine kings, glad, it would seem, to oppose the Old Briton to the Saxon element. The Keltic songs were carried all over France by Breton bards, to whose music and rhymes, with only a general idea of the subjects, the neo-Latin-speaking Franks listened with the sort of stolid satisfaction with which English or Germans of a hundred years ago listened to Italians singing Metastasio's verses. But soon the songs and tales were translated; and French poets imitated in their language, northern and southern, the graceful metres of the Keltic lays, and altered and arranged their subjects. So that, in a very short time, France, and through it Germany, was inundated with Keltic stories. This triumph of the vanquished race was not without reason. The Kelts, early civilized by Rome and Christianity, had a set of stories and a set of heroes extremely in accordance with mediaeval ideas, and requiring but very little alteration. The considerable age of their civilization had long obliterated all traces of pagan and tribal feeling in their tales. Their heroes, originally, like those of all other people, divinities intimately connected with natural phenomena, had long lost all cosmic characteristics, long ceased to be gods, and, manipulated by the fancy of a race whose greatness was quite a thing of the past, had become a sort of golden age ideals—the men of a distant period of glory, which was adorned with every kind of perfection, till it became as unreal as fairyland. Fairyland, in good sooth, was this country of the Keltic tales; and there is a sort of symbolical significance in the fact of its lawgiver Merlin, and its emperor Arthur, being both of them not dead, like Sigurd, like Dietrich, like Charlemagne and Roland, but lying in enchanted sleep. Long inaction and the day-dreaming of idleness had refined and idealized the heroes of this Keltic race—a race of brilliant fancy and almost southern mobility, and softened for a long time by contact with Roman colonists and Christian priests. They were not the brutal combatants of an active fighting age, like the heroes of the Edda and of the Carolingian cycles; nor had they any particular military work to do, belonging as they did to a people huddled away into inactivity. Their sole occupation was to extend abroad that ideal happiness which reigned in the ideal court of Arthur; to go forth on the loose and see what ill-conditioned folk there might yet be who required being subdued or taught manners in the happy kingdom, which the poor insignificant Kelts connected with some princelet of theirs who centuries before may have momentarily repelled the pagan Saxons. Hence in the Keltic stories, such as they exist in the versions previous to the conquest by the Norman kings, and previous also to any communications with other peoples, the distinct beginning of what was later to be called knight-errantry; of heroes, creations of an inactive nation, having no special military duties, going forth to do what good they may at random, unforced by any necessity, and following a mere aesthetico-romantic plan of perfecting themselves by deeds of valour to become more worthy of their God, their King, and their Lady: religion, loyalty, and love, all three of them mere aesthetic abstractions, becoming the goal of an essentially aesthetic, unpractical system of self-improvement, such as was utterly incompatible with any real and serious business in life. Idle poetic fancies of an inert people, the Knights of the Round Table have no mission save that of being poetically perfect. Such was the spirit of Keltic poetry; and, as it happened, this spirit satisfied the imaginative wants of mediaeval society just at the moment when political events diffused in other countries the knowledge of the Arthurian legends. The old Teutonic tales of Sigurd, Gudrun, and Dietrich, had long ceased to appeal, in their mutilated and obliterated condition, to a society to whom tribal feeling and pagan heroism were odious, and whose religion distinctly reproved revenge. These semi-mythological tales had been replaced by another cycle: the purely realistic epic, which had arisen during the struggles between the Christian west against the pagan north-east and the Mohammedan south, and which, originating in the short battle-songs narrating the exploits of the predecessors and help-mates of Charlemagne, had constituted itself into large narratives of which the "Song of Roland" represents artistic culmination. These narratives of mere military exploits, of the battles of a strong feudal aristocracy animated by feudal loyalty and half-religious, half-patriotic fury against invading heathenness, had perfectly satisfied the men of the earliest Middle Ages, of the times when feudalism was being established and the church being reformed; when the strong military princelets of the North were embarking with their barons to conquer new kingdoms in England and in Italy and Greece; when the whole of feudal Europe hurled itself against Asia in the first Crusades. But the condition of things soon altered: the feudal hierarchy was broken up into a number of semi-independent little kingdoms or principalities, struggling, with the assistance of industrial and mercantile classes, to become absolute monarchies; princes who had been mere generals became stay-at-home diplomatists, studious of taxation and intrigue, surrounded no longer by armed vassals, but by an essentially urban court, in constant communication with the money-making burghers. Religion, also, instead of being a matter of fighting with infidel invaders, turned to fantastic sectarianism and emotional mysticism. With the sense of futility, of disappointment, attendant on the later Crusades, came also a habit of roaming in strange countries, of isolated adventure in search of wealth or information, a love of the distant, the half-understood, the equivocal; perhaps even a hankering after a mysterious compromise between the religion of Europe and the religions of the East, such as appears to have existed among the Templars and other Franks settled in Asia.

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