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  Greatness And DeclineMonday, April 15th, 2024  
by Clive Bell

Having glanced at the beginnings of Christian art, we must not linger over the history of Byzantine. Eastern traders and artisans, pushing into Western Europe from the Adriatic and along the valley of the Rhone, carried with them the ferment. Monks driven out of the East by the iconoclast persecutions found Western Europe Christian and left it religious. The strength of the movement in Europe between 500 and 900 is commonly under-rated. That is partly because its extant monuments are not obvious. Buildings are the things to catch the eye, and, outside Ravenna, there is comparatively little Christian architecture of this period. Also the cultivated, spoon-fed art of the renaissance court of Charlemagne is too often allowed to misrepresent one age and disgust another. Of course the bulk of those opulent knick-knacks manufactured for the Carolingian and Ottonian Emperors, and now to be seen at Aachen, are as beastly as anything else that is made simply to be precious. They reflect German taste at its worst; and, in tracing the line, or estimating the value, of the Christian slope it is prudent to overlook even the best of Teutonic effort. For the bulk of it is not primitive or mediaeval or renaissance art, but German art. At any rate it is a manifestation of national character rather than of aesthetic inspiration. Most aesthetic creation bears the mark of nationality; very few manifestations of German nationality bear a trace of aesthetic creation. The differences between the treasures of Aachen, early German architecture, fifteenth-century German sculpture, and the work produced to-day at Munich are superficial. Almost all is profoundly German, and nothing else. That is to say, it is conscientious, rightly intentioned, excessively able, and lacking in just that which distinguishes a work of art from everything else in the world. The inspiration and sensibility of the dark ages can be felt most surely and most easily in the works of minor art produced in France and Italy. In Italy, however, there is enough architecture to prove up to the hilt, were further proof required, that the spirit was vigorous. It is the age of what Sig. Rivoira calls Pre-Lombardic Architecture - Italian Byzantine: it is the age of the Byzantine school of painting at Rome.

What the "Barbarians" did, indirectly, for art cannot be over-estimated. They almost extinguished the tradition of culture, they began to destroy the bogey of imperialism, they cleaned the slate. They were able to provide new bottles for the new wine. Artists can scarcely repress their envy when they hear that academic painters and masters were sold into slavery by the score. The Barbarians handed on the torch and wrought marvels in its light. But in those days men were too busy fighting and ploughing and praying to have much time for anything else. Material needs absorbed their energies without fattening them; their spiritual appetite was ferocious, but they had a live religion as well as a live art to satisfy it. It is supposed that in the dark ages insecurity and want reduced humanity to something little better than bestiality. To this their art alone gives the lie, and there is other evidence. If turbulence and insecurity could reduce people to bestiality, surely the Italians of the ninth century were the men to roar and bleat. Constantly harassed by Saracens, Hungarians, Greeks, French, and every sort of German, they had none of those encouragements to labour and create which in the vast security of the pax Romana and the pax Britannica have borne such glorious fruits of private virtue and public magnificence. Yet in 898 Hungarian scouts report that northern Italy is thickly populated and full of fortified towns. At the sack of Parma (924) forty-four churches were burnt, and these churches were certainly more like Santa Maria di Pomposa or San Pietro at Toscanella than the Colosseum or the Royal Courts of Justice. That the artistic output of the dark ages was to some extent limited by its poverty is not to be doubted; nevertheless, more first-rate art was produced in Europe between the years 500 and 900 than was produced in the same countries between 1450 and 1850.

For in estimating the artistic value of a period one tends first to consider the splendour of its capital achievements. After that one reckons the quantity of first-rate work produced. Lastly, one computes the proportion of undeniable works of art to the total output. In the dark ages the proportion seems to have been high. This is a characteristic of primitive periods. The market is too small to tempt a crowd of capable manufacturers, and the conditions of life are too severe to support the ordinary academy or salon exhibitor who lives on his private means and takes to art because he is unfit for anything else. This sort of producer, whose existence tells us less about the state of art than about the state of society, who would be the worst navvy in his gang or the worst trooper in his squadron, and is the staple product of official art schools, is unheard of in primitive ages. In drawing inferences, therefore, we must not overlook the advantage enjoyed by barbarous periods in the fact that of those who come forward as artists the vast majority have some real gift. I would hazard a guess that of the works that survive from the dark age as high a proportion as one in twelve has real artistic value. Were a proportion of the work produced between 1450 and 1850 identical with that of the work produced between 500 and 900 to survive, it might very well happen that it would not contain a single work of art. In fact, we tend to see only the more important things of this period and to leave unvisited the notorious trash. Yet judging from the picked works brought to our notice in galleries, exhibitions, and private collections, I cannot believe that more than one in a hundred of the works produced between 1450 and 1850 can be properly described as a work of art.

Between 900 and 1200 the capital achievements of Christian art are not superior in quality to those of the preceding age - indeed, they fall short of the Byzantine masterpieces of the sixth century; but the first-rate art of this second period was more abundant, or, at any rate, has survived more successfully, than that of the first. The age that has bequeathed us Romanesque, Lombardic, and Norman architecture gives no sign of dissolution. We are still on the level heights of the Christian Renaissance. Artists are still primitive. Men still feel the significance of form sufficiently to create it copiously. Increased wealth purchases increased leisure, and some of that leisure is devoted to the creation of art. I do not marvel, therefore, at the common, though I think inexact, opinion that this was the period in which Christian Europe touched the summit of its spiritual history: its monuments are everywhere majestic before our eyes. Not only in France, Italy, and Spain, but in England, and as far afield as Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, we can see the triumphs of Romanesque art. This was the last level stage on the long journey from Santa Sophia to St. John's Wood.

With Gothic architecture the descent began. Gothic architecture is juggling in stone and glass. It is the convoluted road that ends in a bridecake or a cucumber frame. A Gothic cathedral is a tour de force; it is also a melodrama. Enter, and you will be impressed by the incredible skill of the constructor; perhaps you will be impressed by a sense of dim mystery and might; you will not be moved by pure form. You may groan "A-a-h" and collapse: you will not be strung to austere ecstasy. Walk round it, and take your pleasure in subtleties of the builder's craft, quaint corners, gargoyles, and flying buttresses, but do not expect the thrill that answers the perception of sheer rightness of form. In architecture the new spirit first came to birth; in architecture first it dies.

We find the spirit alive at the very end of the twelfth century in Romanesque sculpture and in stained glass: we can see it at Chartres and at Bourges. At Bourges there is an indication of the way things are going in the fact that in an unworthy building we find glass and some fragments of sculpture worthy of Chartres, and not unworthy of any age or place. Cimabue and Duccio are the last great exponents in the West of the greater tradition - the tradition that held the essential everything and the accidental nothing. For with Duccio, at any rate, the sense of form was as much traditional as vital: and the great Cimabue is fin de siècle. They say that Cimabue died in 1302; Duccio about fifteen years later. With Giotto (born 1276), a greater artist than either, we turn a corner as sharp as that which had been turned a hundred years earlier with the invention of Gothic architecture in France. For Giotto could be intentionally second-rate. He was capable of sacrificing form to drama and anecdote. He never left the essential out, but he sometimes knocked its corners off. He was always more interested in art than in St. Francis, but he did not always remember that St. Francis has nothing whatever to do with art. In theory that is right enough; the Byzantines had believed that they were more interested in dogmatic theology than in form, and almost every great artist has had some notion of the sort. Indeed, it seems that there is nothing so dangerous for an artist as consciously to care about nothing but art. For an artist to believe that his art is concerned with religion or politics or morals or psychology or scientific truth is well; it keeps him alive and passionate and vigorous: it keeps him up out of sentimental aestheticism: it keeps to hand a suitable artistic problem. But for an artist not to be able to forget all about these things as easily as a man who is playing a salmon forgets his lunch is the devil. Giotto lacked facility in forgetting. There are frescoes in which, failing to grasp the significance of a form, he allows it to state a fact or suggest a situation. Giotto went higher than Cimabue but he often aimed lower. Compare his "Virgin and Child" in the Accademia with that of Cimabue in the same gallery, and you will see how low his humanism could bring him. The coarse heaviness of the forms of that woman and her baby is unthinkable in Cimabue; for Cimabue had learnt from the Byzantines that forms should be significant and not lifelike. Doubtless in the minds of both there was something besides a preoccupation with formal combinations; but Giotto has allowed that "something" to dominate his design, Cimabue has forced his design to dominate it. There is something protestant about Giotto's picture. He is so dreadfully obsessed by the idea that the humanity of the mother and child is the important thing about them that he has insisted on it to the detriment of his art. Cimabue was incapable of such commonness. Therefore make the comparison - it is salutary and instructive; and then go to Santa Croce or the Arena Chapel and admit that if the greatest name in European painting is not Cézanne it is Giotto.

From the peak that is Giotto the road falls slowly but steadily. Giotto heads a movement towards imitation and scientific picture-making. A genius such as his was bound to be the cause of a movement; it need not have been the cause of such a movement. But the spirit of an age is stronger than the echoes of tradition, sound they never so sweetly. And the spirit of that age, as every extension lecturer knows, moved towards Truth and Nature, away from supernatural ecstasies. There is a moment at which the spirit begins to crave for Truth and Nature, for naturalism and verisimilitude; in the history of art it is known as the early decadence. Nevertheless, on naturalism and materialism a constant war is waged by one or two great souls athirst for pure aesthetic rapture; and this war, strangely enough, is invariably described by the extension lecturer as a fight for Truth and Nature. Never doubt it, in a hundred years or less they will be telling their pupils that in an age of extreme artificiality arose two men, Cézanne and Gaugin, who, by simplicity and sincerity, led back the world to the haunts of Truth and Nature. Strangest of all, some part of what they say will be right.

The new movement broke up the great Byzantine tradition, and left the body of art a victim to the onslaught of that strange, new disease, the Classical Renaissance. The tract that lies between Giotto and Lionardo is the beginning of the end; but it is not the end. Painting came to maturity late, and died hard; and the art of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries - especially the Tuscan schools - is not a mere historical link: it is an important movement, or rather two. The great Sienese names, Ugolino, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, and Simone Martini, belong to the old world as much as to the new; but the movement that produced Masaccio, Masolino, Castagno, Donatello, Piero della Francesca, and Fra Angelico is a reaction from the Giottesque tradition of the fourteenth century, and an extremely vital movement. Often, it seems, the stir and excitement provoked by the ultimately disastrous scientific discoveries were a cause of good art. It was the disinterested adoration of perspective, I believe, that enabled Uccello and the Paduan Mantegna to apprehend form passionately. The artist must have something to get into a passion about.

Outside Italy, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, the approaches of spiritual bankruptcy are more obvious, though here, too, painting makes a better fight than architecture. Seven hundred years of glorious and incessant creation seem to have exhausted the constructive genius of Europe. Gothic architecture becomes something so nauseous that one can only rejoice when, in the sixteenth century, the sponge is thrown up for good, and, abandoning all attempt to create, Europe settles down quietly to imitate classical models. All true creation was dead long before that; its epitaph had been composed by the master of the "Haute &140;uvre" at Beauvais. Only intellectual invention dragged on a sterile and unlucky existence. A Gothic church of the late Middle Ages is a thing made to order. A building formula has been devised within which the artificer, who has ousted the artist, finds endless opportunity for displaying his address. The skill of the juggler and the taste of the pastrycook are in great demand now that the power to feel and the genius to create have been lost. There is brisk trade in pretty things; buildings are stuck all over with them. Go and peer at each one separately if you have a tooth for cheap sweet-meats.

Painting, outside Italy, was following more deliberately the road indicated by architecture. In illuminated manuscripts it is easy to watch the steady coarsening of line and colour. By the beginning of the fourteenth century, Limoges enamels have fallen into that state of damnation from which they have never attempted to rise. Of trans-Alpine figuration after 1250 the less said the better. If in Italian painting the slope is more gentle, that is partly because the spirit of the Byzantine renaissance died harder there, partly because the descent was broken by individual artists who rose superior to their circumstances. But here, too, intellect is filling the void left by emotion; science and culture are doing their work. By the year 1500 the stream of inspiration had grown so alarmingly thin that there was only just enough to turn the wheels of the men of genius. The minor artists seem already prepared to resign themselves to the inevitable. Since we are no longer artists who move, let us be craftsmen who astonish. 'Tis a fine thing to tempt urchins with painted apples: that makes the people stare. To be sure, such feats are rather beneath the descendants of Giotto; we leave them to the Dutchmen, whom we envy a little all the same. We have lost art; let us study the science of imitation. Here is a field for learning and dexterity. And, as our patrons who have lost their aesthetic perceptions have not lost all their senses, let us flatter them with grateful objects: let our grapes and girls be as luscious as lifelike. But the patrons are not all sensualists; some of them are scholars. The trade in imitations of the antique is almost as good as the trade in imitations of nature. Archaeology and connoisseurship, those twin ticks on palsied art, are upon us. To react to form a man needs sensibility; to know whether rules have been respected knowledge of these rules alone is necessary. By the end of the fifteenth century art is becoming a question of rules; appreciation a matter of connoisseurship.

Literature is never pure art. Very little literature is a pure expression of emotion; none, I think is an expression of pure inhuman emotion. Most of it is concerned, to some extent, with facts and ideas: it is intellectual. Therefore literature is a misleading guide to the history of art. Its history is the history of literature; and it is a good guide to the history of thought. Yet sometimes literature will provide the historian of art with a pretty piece of collateral evidence. For instance, the fact that Charles the Great ordained that the Frankish songs should be collected and written down makes a neat pendant to the renaissance art of Aachen. People who begin to collect have lost the first fury of creation. The change that came over plastic art in France towards the end of the twelfth century is reflected in the accomplished triviality of Chrétien de Troyes. The eleventh century had produced the Chanson de Roland, a poem as grand and simple as a Romanesque church. Chrétien de Troyes melted down the massive conceptions of his betters and twisted them into fine-spun conceits. He produced a poem as pinnacled, deft, and insignificant as Rouen Cathedral. In literature, as in the visual arts, Italy held out longest, and, when she fell, fell like Lucifer, never to rise again. In Italy there was no literary renaissance; there was just a stirring of the rubbish heap. If ever man was a full-stop, that man was Boccaccio. Dante died at Ravenna in 1321. His death is a landmark in the spiritual history of Europe. Behind him lies that which, taken with the Divina Commedia, has won for Italy an exaggerated literary reputation. In the thirteenth century there was plenty of poetry hardly inferior to the Lamento of Rinaldo; in the fourteenth comes Petrarch with the curse of mellifluous phrase-making.

May God forget me if I forget the great Italian art of the fifteenth century. But, a host of individual geniuses and a cloud of admirable painters notwithstanding, the art of the fifteenth century was further from grace than that of the Giottesque painters of the fourteenth. And the whole output of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries is immeasurably inferior to the great Byzantine and Romanesque production of the eleventh and twelfth. Indeed, it is inferior in quality, if not in quantity, to the decadent Byzantine and Italian Byzantine of the thirteenth. Therefore I will say that, already at the end of the fourteenth century, though Castagno and Masolino and Gentile da Fabriano and Fra Angelico were alive, and Masaccio and Piero and Bellini had yet to be born, it looked as if the road that started from Constantinople in the sixth century were about to end in a glissade. From Buda-Pest to Sligo, "late Gothic" stands for something as foul almost as "revival." Having come through the high passes, Europe, it seemed, was going to end her journey by plunging down a precipice. Perhaps it would have been as well; but it was not to be. The headlong rush was to be checked. The descent was to be eased by a strange detour, by a fantastic adventure, a revival that was no re-birth, a Medea's cauldron rather, an extravagant disease full of lust and laughter; the life of the old world was to be prolonged by four hundred years or so, by the galvanising power of the Classical Renaissance.

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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