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  The Classical RenaissanceSaturday, April 13th, 2024  
by Clive Bell

The Classical Renaissance is nothing more than a big kink in the long slope; but it is a very big one. It is an intellectual event. Emotionally the consumption that was wasting Europe continued to run its course; the Renaissance was a mere fever-flash. To literature, however, its importance is immense: for literature can make itself independent of spiritual health, and is as much concerned with ideas as with emotions. Literature can subsist in dignity on ideas. Finlay's history of the Byzantine Empire provokes no emotion worth talking about, yet I would give Mr. Finlay a place amongst men of letters, and I would do as much for Hobbes, Mommsen, Sainte-Beuve, Samuel Johnson, and Aristotle. Great thinking without great feeling will make great literature. It is not for their emotional qualities that we value many of our most valued books. And when it is for an emotional quality, to what extent is that emotion aesthetic? I know how little the intellectual and factual content of great poetry has to do with its significance. The actual meaning of the words in Shakespeare's songs, the purest poetry in English, is generally either trivial or trite. They are nursery-rhymes or drawing-room ditties; -

"Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid."

Could anything be more commonplace?

"Hark, hark!
Bow, wow,
The watch-dogs bark;
Bow, wow,
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow!"

What could be more nonsensical? In the verse of our second poet, Milton - so great that before his name the word "second" rings false as the giggle of fatuity - the ideas are frequently shallow and the facts generally false. In Dante, if the ideas are sometimes profound and the emotions awful, they are also, as a rule, repugnant to our better feelings: the facts are the hoardings of a parish scold. In great poetry it is the formal music that makes the miracle. The poet expresses in verbal form an emotion but distantly related to the words set down. But it is related; it is not a purely artistic emotion. In poetry form and its significance are not everything; the form and the content are not one. Though some of Shakespeare's songs approach purity, there is, in fact, an alloy. The form is burdened with an intellectual content, and that content is a mood that mingles with and reposes on the emotions of life. That is why poetry, though it has its raptures, does not transport us to that remote aesthetic beatitude in which, freed from humanity, we are up-stayed by musical and pure visual form.

The Classical Renaissance was a new reading of human life, and what it added to the emotional capital of Europe was a new sense of the excitingness of human affairs. If the men and women of the Renaissance were moved by Art and Nature, that was because in Art and Nature they saw their own reflections. The Classical Renaissance was not a re-birth but a re-discovery; and that superb mess of thought and observation, lust, rhetoric, and pedantry, that we call Renaissance literature, is its best and most characteristic monument. What it rediscovered were the ideas from the heights of which the ancients had gained a view of life. This view the Renaissance borrowed. By doing so it took the sting out of the spiritual death of the late Middle Ages. It showed men that they could manage very well without a soul. It made materialism tolerable by showing how much can be done with matter and intellect. That was its great feat. It taught men how to make the best of a bad job; it proved that by cultivating the senses and setting the intellect to brood over them it is easy to whip up an emotion of sorts. When men had lost sight of the spirit it covered the body with a garment of glamour.

That the Classical Renaissance was essentially an intellectual movement is proved, I think, by the fact that it left the uneducated classes untouched almost. They suffered from its consequences; it gave them nothing. A wave of emotion floods the back-gardens; an intellectual stream is kept within the irrigation channels. The Classical Renaissance made absolute the divorce of the classes from the masses. The mediaeval lord in his castle and the mediaeval hind in his hut were spiritual equals who thought and felt alike, held the same hopes and fears, and shared, to a surprising extent, the pains and pleasures of a simple and rather cruel society. The Renaissance changed all that. The lord entered the new world of ideas and refined sensuality; the peasant stayed where he was, or, as the last vestiges of spiritual religion began to disappear with the commons, sank lower. Popular art changed so gradually that in the late fifteenth and in the sixteenth century we still find, in remote corners, things that are rude but profoundly moving. Village masons could still create in stone at the time when Jacques C&156;ur was building himself the first "residence worthy of a millionaire" that had been "erected" since the days of Honorius. But that popular art pursued the downhill road sedately while plutocratic art went with a run is a curious accident of which the traces are soon lost; the outstanding fact is that with the Renaissance Europe definitely turns her back on the spiritual view of life. With that renunciation the power of creating significant form becomes the inexplicable gift of the occasional genius. Here and there an individual produces a work of art, so art comes to be regarded as something essentially sporadic and peculiar. The artist is reckoned a freak. We are in the age of names and catalogues and genius-worship. Now, genius-worship is the infallible sign of an uncreative age. In great ages, though we may not all be geniuses, many of us are artists, and where there are many artists art tends to become anonymous.

The Classical Renaissance was something different in kind from what I have called the Christian Renaissance. It must be placed somewhere between 1350 and 1600. Place it where you will. For my part I always think of it as the gorgeous and well-cut garment of the years that fall between 1453 and 1594, between the capture of Constantinople and the death of Tintoretto. To me, it is the age of Lionardo, of Charles VIII and Francis I, of Cesare Borgia and Leo X, of Raffael, of Machiavelli, and of Erasmus, who carries us on to the second stage, the period of angry ecclesiastical politics, of Clement VII, Fontainebleau, Rabelais, Titian, Palladio, and Vasari. But, on any computation, in the years that lie between the spiritual exaltation of the early twelfth century and the sturdy materialism of the late sixteenth lies the Classical Renaissance. Whatever happened, happened between those dates. And all that did happen was nothing more than a change from late manhood to early senility complicated by a house-moving, bringing with it new hobbies and occupations. The decline from the eleventh to the seventeenth century is continuous and to be foreseen; the change from the world of Aurelian to the world of Gregory the Great is catastrophic. Since the Christian Renaissance, new ideas and knowledge notwithstanding, the world has grown rotten with decency and order. It takes more than the rediscovery of Greek texts and Graeco-Roman statues to provoke the cataclysms and earthquakes with which it grew young.

The art of the High Renaissance was conditioned by the demands of its patrons. There is nothing odd about that; it is a recognised stage in the rake's progress. The patrons of the Renaissance wanted plenty of beauty of the kind dear to the impressionable stock-jobber. Only, the plutocrats of the sixteenth century had a delicacy and magnificence of taste which would have made the houses and manners of modern stock-jobbers intolerable to them. Renaissance millionaires could be vulgar and brutal, but they were great gentlemen. They were neither illiterate cads nor meddlesome puritans, nor even saviours of society. Yet, if we are to understand the amazing popularity of Titian's and of Veronese's women, we must take note of their niceness to kiss and obvious willingness to be kissed. That beauty for which can be substituted the word "desirableness," and that insignificant beauty which is the beauty of gems, were in great demand. Imitation was wanted, too; for if pictures are to please as suggestions and mementoes, the objects that suggest and remind must be adequately portrayed. These pictures had got to stimulate the emotions of life, first; aesthetic emotion was a secondary matter. A Renaissance picture was meant to say just those things that a patron would like to hear. That way lies the end of art: however wicked it may be to try to shock the public, it is not so wicked as trying to please it. But whatever the Italian painters of the Renaissance had to say they said in the grand manner. Remember, we are not Dutchmen. Therefore let all your figures suggest the appropriate emotion by means of the appropriate gesture - the gesture consecrated by the great tradition. Straining limbs, looks of love, hate, envy, fear and horror, up-turned or downcast eyes, hands outstretched or clasped in despair - by means of our marvellous machinery, and still more marvellous skill, we can give them all they ask without forestalling the photographers. But we are not recounters all, for some of our patrons are poets. To them the visible Universe is suggestive of moods or, at any rate, sympathetic with them. These value objects for their association with the fun and folly and romance of life. For them, too, we paint pictures, and in their pictures we lend Nature enough humanity to make her interesting. My lord is lascivious? Correggio will give him a background to his mood. My lord is majestic? Michelangelo will tell him that man is, indeed, a noble animal whose muscles wriggle heroically as watch-springs. The sixteenth century produced a race of artists peculiar in their feeling for material beauty, but normal, coming as they do at the foot of the hills, in their technical proficiency and aesthetic indigence. Craft holds the candle that betrays the bareness of the cupboard. The aesthetic significance of form is feebly and impurely felt, the power of creating it is lost almost; but finer descriptions have rarely been painted. They knew how to paint in the sixteenth century: as for the primitives - God bless them - they did their best: what more could they do when they couldn't even round a lady's thighs?

The Renaissance was a re-birth of other things besides a taste for round limbs and the science of representing them; we begin to hear again of two diseases, endemic in imperial Rome, from which a lively and vigorous society keeps itself tolerably free - Rarity-hunting and Expertise. These parasites can get no hold on a healthy body; it is on dead and dying matter that they batten and grow fat. The passion to possess what is scarce, and nothing else, is a disease that develops as civilisation grows old and dogs it to the grave: it is saprophytic. The rarity-hunter may be called a "collector" if by "collector" you do not mean one who buys what pleases or moves him. Certainly, such an one is unworthy of the name; he lacks the true magpie instinct. To the true collector the intrinsic value of a work of art is irrelevant; the reasons for which he prizes a picture are those for which a philatelist prizes a postage-stamp. To him the question "Does this move me?" is ludicrous: the question "Is it beautiful?" - otiose. Though by the very tasteful collector of stamps or works of art beauty is allowed to be a fair jewel in the crown of rarity, he would have us understand from the first that the value it gives is purely adventitious and depends for its existence on rarity. No rarity, no beauty. As for the profounder aesthetic significance, if a man were to believe in its existence he would cease to be a collector. The question to be asked is - "Is this rare?" Suppose the answer favourable, there remains another - "Is it genuine?" If the work of any particular artist is not rare, if the supply meets the demand, it stands to reason that the work is of no great consequence. For good art is art that fetches good prices, and good prices come of a limited supply. But though it be notorious that the work of Velasquez is comparatively scarce and therefore good, it has yet to be decided whether the particular picture offered at fifty thousand is really the work of Velasquez.

Enter the Expert, whom I would distinguish from the archaeologist and the critic. The archaeologist is a man with a foolish and dangerous curiosity about the past: I am a bit of an archaeologist myself. Archaeology is dangerous because it may easily overcloud one's aesthetic sensibility. The archaeologist may, at any moment, begin to value a work of art not because it is good, but because it is old or interesting. Though that is less vulgar than valuing it because it is rare and precious it is equally fatal to aesthetic appreciation. But so long as I recognise the futility of my science, so long as I recognise that I cannot appreciate a work of art the better because I know when and where it was made, so long as I recognise that, in fact, I am at a certain disadvantage in judging a sixth-century mosaic compared with a person of equal sensibility who knows and cares nothing about Romans and Byzantines, so long as I recognise that art criticism and archaeology are two different things, I hope I may be allowed to dabble unrebuked in my favourite hobby: I hope I am harmless.

Art criticism, in the present state of society, seems to me a respectable and possibly a useful occupation. The prejudice against critics, like most prejudices, lives on fear and ignorance. It is quite unnecessary and rather provincial, for, in fact, critics are not very formidable. They are suspected of all sorts of high-handed practices - making and breaking reputations, running up and down, booming and exploiting - of which I should hardly think them capable. Popular opinion notwithstanding, I doubt whether critics are either omnipotent or utterly depraved. Indeed, I believe that some of them are not only blameless but even lovable characters. Those sinister but flattering insinuations and open charges of corruption fade woefully when one considers how little the critic of contemporary art can hope to get for "writing up" pictures that sell for twenty or thirty guineas apiece. The expert, to be sure, is exposed to some temptation, since a few of his words, judiciously placed, may promote a canvas from the twenty to the twenty thousand mark; but, as everyone knows, the morality of the expert is above suspicion. Useless as the occupation of the critic may be, it is probably honest; and, after all, is it more useless than all other occupations, save only those of creating art, producing food, drink, and tobacco, and bearing beautiful children?

If the collector asks me, as a critic, for my opinion of the Velasquez he is about to buy, I will tell him honestly what I think of it, as a work of art. I will tell him whether it moves me much or little, and I will try to point out those qualities and relations of line and colour in which it seems to me to excel or fall short. I will try to account for the degree of my aesthetic emotion. That, I conceive, is the function of the critic. But all conjectures as to the authenticity of a work based on its formal significance, or even on its technical perfection, are extremely hazardous. It is always possible that someone else was the master's match as artist and craftsman, and of that someone's work there may be an overwhelming supply. The critic may sell the collector a common pup instead of the one uncatalogued specimen of Pseudo-kuniskos; and therefore the wary collector sends for someone who can furnish him with the sort of evidence of the authenticity of his picture that would satisfy a special juryman and confound a purchasing dealer. At artistic evidence he laughs noisily in half-crown periodicals and five-guinea tomes. Documentary evidence is what he prefers; but, failing that, he will put up with a cunning concoction of dates and watermarks, cabalistic signatures, craquelure, patina, chemical properties of paint and medium, paper and canvas, all sorts of collateral evidence, historical and biographical, and racy tricks of brush or pen. It is to adduce and discuss this sort of evidence that the Collector calls in the Expert.

Anyone whom chance or misfortune has led into the haunts of collectors and experts will admit that I have not exaggerated the horror of the diseases that we have inherited from the Classical Renaissance. He will have heard the value of a picture made to depend on the interpretation of a letter. He will have heard the picture discussed from every point of view except that of one who feels its significance. By whom was it made? For whom was it made? When was it made? Where was it made? Is it all the work of one hand? Who paid for it? How much did he pay? Through what collections has it passed? What are the names of the figures portrayed? What are their histories? What the style and cut of their coats, breeches, and beards? How much will it fetch at Christie's? All these are questions to moot; and mooted they will be, by the hour. But in expert conclaves who has ever heard more than a perfunctory and silly comment on the aesthetic qualities of a masterpiece?

We have seen the scholars at loggerheads over the genuineness of a picture in the National Gallery. The dispute rages round the interpretation of certain marks in the corner of the canvas. Are they, or are they not, a signature? Whatever the final decision may be, the picture will remain unchanged; but if it can be proved that the marks are the signature of the disciple, it will be valueless. If the Venus of Velasquez should turn out to be a Spanish model by del Mazo, the great ones who guide us and teach the people to love art will see to it, I trust, that the picture is moved to a position befitting its mediocrity. It is this unholy alliance between Expertise and Officialdom that squanders twenty thousand on an unimpeachable Frans Hals, and forty thousand on a Mabuse for which no minor artist will wish to take credit. For the money a judicious purchaser could have made one of the finest collections in England. The unholy alliance has no use for contemporary art. The supply is considerable and the names are not historic. Snobbery makes acceptable the portrait of a great lady, though it be by Boldini; and even Mr. Lavery may be welcome if he come with the picture of a king. But how are our ediles to know whether a picture of a commoner, or of some inanimate and undistinguished object, by Degas or Cézanne is good or bad? They need not know whether a picture by Hals is good; they need only know that it is by Hals.

I will not describe in any detail the end of the slope, from the beginning of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth century. The seventeenth century is rich in individual geniuses; but they are individual. The level of art is very low. The big names of El Greco, Rembrandt, Velasquez, Vermeer, Rubens, Jordaens, Poussin, and Claude, Wren and Bernini (as architects) stand out; had they lived in the eleventh century they might all have been lost in a crowd of anonymous equals. Rembrandt, indeed, perhaps the greatest genius of them all, is a typical ruin of his age. For, except in a few of his later works, his sense of form and design is utterly lost in a mess of rhetoric, romance, and chiaroscuro. It is difficult to forgive the seventeenth century for what it made of Rembrandt's genius. One great advantage over its predecessor it did enjoy: the seventeenth century had ceased to believe sincerely in the ideas of the Classical Renaissance. Painters could not devote themselves to suggesting the irrelevant emotions of life because they did not feel them. For lack of human emotion they were driven back on art. They talked a great deal about Magnanimity and Nobility, but they thought more of Composition. For instance, in the best works of Nicolas Poussin, the greatest artist of the age, you will notice that the human figure is treated as a shape cut out of coloured paper to be pinned on as the composition directs. That is the right way to treat the human figure; the mistake lay in making these shapes retain the characteristic gestures of Classical rhetoric. In much the same way Claude treats temples and palaces, trees, mountains, harbours and lakes, as you may see in his superb pictures at the National Gallery. There they hang, beside the Turners, that all the world may see the difference between a great artist and an after-dinner poet. Turner was so much excited by his observations and his sentiments that he set them all down without even trying to co-ordinate them in a work of art: clearly he could not have done so in any case. That was a cheap and spiteful thought that prompted the clause wherein it is decreed that his pictures shall hang for ever beside those of Claude. He wished to call attention to a difference and he has succeeded beyond his expectations: curses, like hens, come home to roost.

In the eighteenth century, with its dearth of genius, we perceive more clearly that we are on the flats. Chardin is the one great artist. Painters are, for the most part, upholsterers to the nobility and gentry. Some fashion handsome furniture for the dining-room, others elegant knick-knacks for the boudoir; many are kept constantly busy delineating for the respect of future generations his lordship, or her ladyship's family. The painting of the eighteenth century is brilliant illustration still touched with art. For instance, in Watteau, Canaletto, Crome, Cotman, and Guardi there is some art, some brilliance, and a great deal of charming illustration. In Tiepolo there is hardly anything but brilliance; only when one sees his work beside that of Mr. Sargent does one realise the presence of other qualities. In Hogarth there is hardly anything but illustration; one realises the presence of other qualities only by remembering the work of the Hon. John Collier. Beside the upholsterers who work for the aristocracy there is another class supported by the connoisseurs. There are the conscientious bores, whose modest aim it is to paint and draw correctly in the manner of Raffael and Michelangelo. Their first object is to stick to the rules, their second to show some cleverness in doing so. One need not bother about them.

So the power of creating is almost lost, and limners must be content to copy pretty things. The twin pillars of painting in the eighteenth century were what they called "Subject" and "Treatment." To paint a beautiful picture, a boudoir picture, take a pretty woman, note those things about her that a chaste and civil dinner-partner might note, and set them down in gay colours and masses of Chinese white: you may do the same by her toilette battery, her fancy frocks, and picnic parties. Imitate whatever is pretty and you are sure to make a pretty job of it. To make a noble picture, a dining-room piece, you must take the same lady and invest her in a Doric chiton or diploida and himation; give her a pocillum, a censer, a sacrificial ram, and a distant view of Tivoli; round your modelling, and let your brush-strokes be long and slightly curved; affect sober and rather hot pigments; call the finished article "Dido pouring libations to the Goddess of Love." To paint an exhibition picture, the sort preferred by the more rigid cognoscenti, be sure to make no mark for which warrant cannot be found in Rubens, Sarto, Guido Reni, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Raffael, Michelangelo, or Trajan's Column. For further information consult "The Discourses" of Sir Joshua Reynolds, P.R.A., whose recipes are made palatable by a quality infrequent in his dishes, luminosity.

The intellectual reaction from Classical to Romantic is duly registered by a change of subject. Ruins and mediaeval history come into fashion. For art, which is as little concerned with the elegant bubbles of the eighteenth century as with the foaming superabundance of the Romantic revival, this change is nothing more than the swing of an irrelevant pendulum. But the new ideas led inevitably to antiquarianism, and antiquarians found something extraordinarily congenial in what was worst in Gothic art. Obedient limners follow the wiseacres. What else is there for them to follow? Stragglers from the age of reason are set down to trick out simpering angels. No longer permitted to stand on the laws of propriety or their personal dignity, they are ordered to sweeten their cold meats with as much amorous and religious sentiment as they can exude. Meanwhile the new fellows, far less sincere than the old, who felt nothing and said so, begin to give themselves the airs of artists. These Victorians are intolerable: for now that they have lost the old craft and the old tradition of taste, the pictures that they make are no longer pleasantly insignificant; they bellow "stinking mackerel."

About the middle of the nineteenth century art was as nearly dead as art can be. The road ran drearily through the sea-level swamps. There were, of course, men who felt that imitation, whether of nature or of another's work, was not enough, who felt the outrage of calling the staple products of the "forties" and "fifties" art; but generally they lacked the power to make an effective protest. Art cannot die out utterly; but it lay sick in caves and cellars. There were always one or two who had a right to call themselves artists: the great Ingres overlaps Crome; Corot and Daumier overlap Ingres; and then come the Impressionists. But the mass of painting and sculpture had sunk to something that no intelligent and cultivated person would dream of calling art. It was in those days that they invented the commodity which is still the staple of official exhibitions throughout Europe. You may see acres of it every summer at Burlington House and in the Salon; indeed, you may see little else there. It does not pretend to be art. If the producers mistake it for art sometimes, they do so in all innocence: they have no notion of what art is. By "art" they mean the imitation of objects, preferably pretty or interesting ones; their spokesmen have said so again and again. The sort of thing that began to do duty for art about 1840, and still passes muster with the lower middle class, would have been inconceivable at any time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the death of George IV. Even in the eighteenth century, when they could not create significant form, they knew that accurate imitation was of no value in itself. It is not until what is still official painting and sculpture and architecture gets itself accepted as a substitute for art, that we can say for certain that the long slope that began with the Byzantine primitives is ended. But when we have reached this point we know that we can sink no lower.

We must mark the spot near which a huge impulse died; but we need not linger in the fetid swamps - or only long enough to say a word of justice. Do not rail too bitterly against official painters, living or dead. They cannot harm art, because they have nothing to do with it: they are not artists. If rail you must, rail at that public which, having lost all notion of what art is, demanded, and still demands, in its stead, the thing that these painters can supply. Official painting is the product of social conditions which have not yet passed away. Thousands of people who care nothing about art are able to buy and are in the habit of buying pictures. They want a background, just as the ladies and gentlemen of the ancien régime wanted one; only their idea of what a background should be is different. The painter of commerce supplies what is wanted and in his simplicity calls it art. That it is not art, that it is not even an amenity, should not blind us to the fact that it is an honest article. I admit that the man who produces it satisfies a vulgar and unprofitable taste; so does the very upright tradesman who forces insipid asparagus for the Christmas market. Sir Georgius Midas will never care for art, but he will always want a background; and, unless things are going to change with surprising suddenness, it will be some time before he is unable to get what he wants, at a price. However splendid and vital the new movement may be, it will not, I fancy, unaided, kill the business of picture-making. The trade will dwindle; but I suspect it will survive until there is no one who can afford ostentatious upholstery, until the only purchasers are those who willingly make sacrifices for the joy of possessing a work of art.

This article is a chapter from the classic book Art, by Clive Bell , published in 1913. It is in the public domain.

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