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   Chapter 10 BOTTICELLI

Promenades of an Impressionist By James Huneker Characters: 17252

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

The common identity of the arts was a master theory of Richard Wagner, which he attempted to put into practice. Walter Pater in his essay on The School of Giorgione has dwelt upon the same theme, declaring music the archetype of the arts. In his Essays Speculative John Addington Symonds said some pertinent things on this subject. Camille Mauclair in his Idées Vivantes proposes in all seriousness a scheme for the fusion of the seven arts, though he deplored Wagner's efforts to reach a solution. Mauclair's theory is that the fusion can only be a cerebral one, that actually mingling sculpture, architecture, music, drama, acting, colour, dancing can never evoke the sensation of unity. Synthesis is not thus to be attained. It must be in the idea of the arts rather than their material realisation. A pretty chimera! Yet one that has piqued the world of art in almost every century. It was the half-crazy E.T.W. Hoffmann, composer, dramatist, painter, poet, stage manager, and a dozen other professions, including that of genius and drunkard, who set off a train of ideas which buzzed in the brains of Poe, Baudelaire, and the symbolists. People who hear painting, see music, enjoy odorous poems, taste symphonies, and write perfumes are now classed by the omnipotent psychical police as decadents, though such notions are as old as literature. Suarez de Mendoza in his L'Audition Colorée has said that the sensation of colour hearing, the faculty of associating tones and colours, is often a consequence of an association of ideas established in youth. The coloured vowels of Arthur Rimbaud, which must be taken as a poet's crazy prank; the elaborate treatises by René Ghil, which are terribly earnest; the remarks that one often hears, such as "scarlet is like a trumpet blast"; certain pages of Huysmans, all furnish examples of this curious muddling of the senses and mixing of genres. Naturally, it has invaded criticism, which, limited in imagery, sometimes seeks to transfer the technical terms of one art to another.

Whistler with his nocturnes, notes, symphonies in rose and silver, his colour-sonatas, boldly annexed well-worn musical phrases, that in their new estate took on fresher meanings even if remaining knee-deep in the kingdom of the nebulous. It must be confessed modern composers have retaliated. Musical impressionism is having its vogue, while poets are desperately pictorial. Soul landscapes and etched sonnets are not unpleasing to the ear. What if they do not mean much? There was a time when to say a "sweet voice" would arouse a smile. What has sugar to do with sound? It may be erratic symbolism, this confusing of terminologies; yet, once in a while, it strikes sparks. There is a deeply rooted feeling in us that the arts have a common matrix, that they are emotionally akin. "Her slow smile" in fiction has had marked success with young people, but a "slow landscape" is still regarded suspiciously. The bravest critic of art was Huysmans. He pitched pell-mell into the hell-broth of his criticism any image that assaulted his fecund brain. He forced one to see his picture-for he was primarily concerned not with the ear, but the eye.

And Botticelli? Was Botticelli a "comprehensive"-as those with the sixth or synthetic sense have been named by Lombroso? Botticelli, beginning as a goldsmith's apprentice (Botticello, the little bottle), ended as a painter, the most original in all Italy. His canvases have a rare, mysterious power of evocation. He was a visionary, this Sandro Filipepi, pupil of the mercurial Fra Lippo Lippi and the brothers Pollajuolo, and his inward vision must have been something more than paint and pattern and subject. A palimpsest may be discerned by the imaginative-or, let us say, fanciful, since Coleridge long ago set forth the categories-whose secrets are not to be deciphered easily, yet are something more than those portrayed by the artist on the flat surface of his picture. He painted the usual number of Madonnas, like any artist of his period; yet he did not convince his world, or the generations succeeding, that this piety was orthodox. Suspected during his lifetime of strange heresies, this annotator and illustrator of Dante, this disciple of Savonarola, has in our times been definitely ranged as a spirit saturated with paganism, and still a mystic. Doesn't the perverse clash in such a complex temperament give us exotic dissonances? All Florence was a sounding-board of the arts when Botticelli walked its narrow ways and lived its splendid coloured life. His sensitive nature absorbed as a sponge does water the impulses and motives of his contemporaries. The lurking secrets of the "new learning"-doctrines that made for damnation, such as the recrudescence of the medi?val conception of an angelic neuter host, neither for Heaven nor Hell, not on the side of Lucifer nor with the starry hosts-were said to have been mirrored in his pictures. Its note is in Città di Vita, in the heresy of the Albigenses, and it goes as far back as Origen. Those who read his paintings, and there were clairvoyant theologians abroad in Florence, could make of them what they would. Painted music is less understandable than painted heresy. Matteo Palmieri is said to have dragged Botticelli with him into dark corners of disbelief; there was in the Medicean days a cruel order of intelligence that delighted to toy with the vital faith and ideals of the young. It was more savage and cunning when Machiavelli, shrewdest of men, wrote and lived. A nature like Botticelli's, which surrendered frankly to ideas if they but wore the mask of subtlety, could not fail to have been swept away in the eddying cross-currents of Florentine intellectual movements. Never mere instinct, for he was a sexless sort of man, moved him from his moral anchorage. Always the vision! He did not palter with the voluptuousness of his fellow-artists, yet his canvases are feverishly disquieting; the sting of the flesh is remote; love is transfigured, not spiritually and not served to us as a barren parable, but made more intense by the breaking down of the thin partition between the sexes; a consuming emotion not quite of this world nor of the next. The barren rebellion which stirred Botticelli's bosom never quite assumed the concrete. His religious subjects are Hellenised, not after Mantegna's sterner and more inflexible method, but like those of a philosophic Athenian who has read and comprehended Dante. Yet the illustrations show us a different Dante, one who would not have altogether pleased the gloomy exile. William Blake's transpositions of the Divine Comedy seem to sound the depths; Botticelli, notwithstanding the grace of his "baby centaurs" and the wreathed car of Beatrice, is the profounder man of the two.

His life, veiled toward the last, was not a happy one, though he was recognised as a great painter. Watteau concealed some cankering secret; so Botticelli. Both belong to the band of the Disquieted. Melancholy was at the base of the Florentine's work. He created as a young man in joy and freedom, but the wings of Dürer's bat were outstretched over his head: Melencolia! There is more poignant music in the Primavera, in the weary, indifferent countenances of his lean, neuropathic Madonnas-Pater calls them "peevish"-in his Venus of the Uffizi, than in the paintings of any other Renaissance artist. The veils are there, the consoling veils of an exquisite art missing in the lacerated realistic holy people of the Flemish Primitives. Joyfulness cannot be denied Botticelli, but it is not the golden joy of Giorgione. An emaciated music emanates from the eyes of that sad, restless Venus, to whom love has become a scourge of the senses. Music? Yes, here is the "coloured hearing" of Mendoza. These canvases of Botticelli seem to give forth the opalescent over-tones of an unearthly composition. Is this Spring, this tender, tremulous virgin whose right hand, deprecatingly raised, signals as a conductor at the head of an invisible orchestra its rhythms? Hermes, supremely impassive, hand on thigh, plucks the fruit as the eternal trio of maidens with woven paces tread the measures of a dance whose music we but overhear. Garlanded with blossoms, a glorious girl keeps time with the pulsing atmospheric moods; her gesture, surely a divine one, shows her casting flowers upon the richly embroidered floor of the earth. The light filters through the thick trees; its rifts are as rigid as candles. The nymph in the brake is threatening. Another epicene creature flies by her. Love shoots his bolt in midair. Is it from Paphos or M

itylene! What the fable! Music plucked down from the vibrating skies and made visible to the senses. A mere masque laden with the sweet, prim allegories of the day it is not. Vasari, blunt soul, saw but its surfaces. Politian, the poet, got closer to the core. Centuries later our perceptions, sharpened by the stations of pain and experience traversed, lend to this immortal canvas a more sympathetic, less literal interpretation.

Music, too, in the Anadyomene of the Uffizi. Still stranger music. Those sudden little waves that lap an immemorial strand; that shimmering shell, its fan-spokes converging to the parted feet of the goddess; her hieratic pose, its modesty symbolic, the hair that serpentines about her foam-born face, thin shoulders that slope into delicious arms; the Japanese group, blowing tiny, gem-like buds with puffed-out cheeks; the rhythmic female on tiptoe offering her mantle to Venus; and enveloping them all vernal breezes, unseen, yet sensed on every inch of the canvas-what are these things but the music of an art original at its birth and never since reborn? The larger rhythms of the greater men do not sweep us along with them in Botticelli. But his voice is irresistible.

Modern as is his spirit, as modern as Watteau, Chopin, or Shelley, he is no less ethereal than any one of these three; ethereal and also realistic. We may easily trace his artistic ancestry; what he became could never have been predicted. Technically, as one critic has written, "he was the first to understand the charm of silhouettes, the first to linger in expressing the joining of the arm and body, the flexibility of the hips, the roundness of the shoulders, the elegance of the leg, the little shadow that marks the springing of the neck, and above all the carving of the hand; but even more he understood 'le prestige insolent des grands yeux.'"

For Pater his colour was cold, cadaverous, "and yet the more you come to understand what imaginative colouring really is, that all colour is no mere delightful quality of natural things but a spirit upon them by which they become expressive to the spirit, the better you like this peculiar quality of colour." Bernard Berenson goes further. For him the entire picture, Venus Rising From the Sea, presents us with the quintessence of all that is pleasurable to our imagination of touch and movement… The vivid appeal to our tactile sense, the life communicating movement, is always there. And writing of the Pallas in the Pitti he most eloquently said: "As to the hair-imagine shapes having the supreme life of line you may see in the contours of licking flames and yet possessed of all the plasticity of something which caresses the hand that models it to its own desire!"

And after speaking of Botticelli's stimulating line, he continues: "Imagine an art made up entirely of these quintessences of movement-values and you will have something that holds the same relation to representation that music holds to speech-and this art exists and is called lineal decoration. In this art of arts Sandro Botticelli may have had rivals in Japan and elsewhere in the East, but in Europe never!… He is the greatest master of lineal design that Europe ever had."

Again music, not the music nor the symbolism of the emotions, but the abstract music of design. Botticelli's appeal is also an auditive one. Other painters have spun more intricate, more beautiful scrolls of line; other painters sounded more sensuous colour music, but the subtle sarabands of Botticelli they have not composed. There is here a pleasing problem for the psychiatrist. Manifestations in paint of this species may be set down to some mental lesion; that is how Maurice Spronck classifies the sensation in writing about the verbal sensitivity of the Goncourts and Flaubert. The latter, you may remember, said that Salammbo was purple to him, and L'Education Sentimentale gray. Carthage and Paris-a characteristic fancy! But why is it that these scientific gentlemen who account for genius by eye-strain do not reprove the poets for their sensibility to the sound of words, the shape and cadences of the phrase? It appears that only prose-men are the culpable ones when they hear the harping of invisible harps from Ibsen steeplejacks, or recognise the colour of Zarathustra's thoughts. In reality not one but thousands sit listening in the chill galleries of Florence because of the sweet, sick, nervous music of Botticelli; this testimony of the years is for the dissenters to explain.

Fantastico, Stravaganie, as Vasari nicknamed Botticelli, has literally created an audience that has learned to see as he did, fantastically and extravagantly. He passed through the three stages dear to arbitrary criticism. Serene in his youthful years; troubled, voluptuous, visionary during the Medicean period; sombre, mystic, a convert to Savonarola at the end. He passed through, not untouched, a great crisis. Certain political assassinations and the Pazzi conspiracy hurt him to the quick. He noted the turbulence of Rome and Florence, saw behind the gay-tinted arras of the Renaissance the sinister figures of its supermen and criminals. He never married. When Tommaso Soderini begged him to take a wife, he responded: "The other night I dreamed I was married. I awoke in such horror and chagrin that I could not fall asleep again. I arose and wandered about Florence like one possessed." Evidently not intended by nature as a husband or father. Like Watteau, like Nietzsche, grand visionaries abiding on the other side of the dear common joys of life, these men were not tempted by the usual baits of happiness. The great Calumnia in the Uffizi might be construed as an image of Botticelli's soul. Truth, naked and scorned-again we note the matchless silhouette of his Venus-misunderstood and calumniated, stands in the hall of a great palace. She points to the heavens; she is an interrogation mark, Pilate's question. Botticelli was adored. But understood? An enigmatic malady ravaged his being. He died poor and alone, did this composer of luminous chants and pagan poems, this moulder of exotic dreams and of angels who long for other gods than those of Good and Evil. A grievously wounded, timid soul, an intruder at the portals of paradise, but without the courage to enter or withdraw. He had visions that rapt him up into the seventh heaven, and when he reported them in the speech of his design his harassed, divided spirit chilled the ardours of his art. And thus it is that many do not worship at his shrine as at the shrine of Raphael, for they see the adumbration of a paganism long since dead, but revived by a miracle for a brief Botticellian hour. Madonna and Venus! The Christ Child and Bacchus! Under which king? The artist never frankly tells us. The legends of fauns turned monks, of the gods at servile labour in a world that had forgotten them, are revived, but with more sublimated ecstasy than by Heine, when we stand before Botticelli and listen to his pallid, muted music.

He was born at Florence in 1446; he died May 27, 1510; in 1515, according to Vasari. A study of him is by Emile Gebhart, late of the French Academy. It is erudite, although oddly enough it ignores the researches of Morelli and Berenson. Gebhart attributes to Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi about eighty-five pictures, many of which were long ago in Morelli's taboo list-that terrible Morelli, the learned iconoclast who brought many sleepless nights to Dr. Wilhelm Bode of Berlin. Time has vindicated the Bergamese critic. Berenson will allow only forty-five originals to Botticelli's credit. Furthermore, Gebhart does not mention in his catalogue the two Botticellis belonging to Mrs. Gardner of Boston, a lamentable oversight for a volume brought out in 1907. Need we add that this French author by no means sees Botticelli in the musical sense? He is chiefly concerned with his historic environment. Gebhart's authorities are the Memoriale of Francesco Albertini; Anonyme Gaddiano, the manuscript of the Magliabecchiana, which precedes the Vasari edition; the Life of Botticelli, by Vasari, and many later studies, the most complete, he avers, being that of Hermann Ulmann of Munich, whose Sandro Botticelli, which appeared in 1893, is rigorously critical. Nevertheless, it is not as critical as Morelli's Italian Painters. Details about the typical ears, hands, and noses of the painter may be found therein. The last word concerning Botticelli will not be uttered until his last line has vanished. And, even then, his archaic harmonies may continue to sound in the ears of mankind.

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