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ART. V. - Histoire de la Vie et des Eures de Raphael.
Par M. QUATREMÈRE DE QUINCY. Third Edition.
A good history of the art of painting is still a desideratum. Lanzi's, which is the best, and indeed the only one that deserves the name, is a very dull book to the general reader, and a perplexing one to such as seek for an accurate knowledge of the subject. In all such inquiries a strict chronological order is the most simple and satisfactory. Lanzi's arrangement into schools, and epochs of schools, is one that leaves no clear notion of the general progress of the art.
The same artists reappear at long intervals, as by changing their places of residence they are, at different periods of their lives, considered as belonging to the different schools ; and the reader is so often led backward, to take up the beginning of the art in a particular city, that all interest in the subject, as a whole, is lost. What we want to know first, and distinctly, is, by what steps the art has risen from rudeness to its highest point of excellence, and how it has declined. When we have acquired clear and well fixed notions on this point, and have learned readily to refer each name to its appropriate period in the general history, we can advantageously consider the subject as divided into classes, according to the place or manner of the artists. The same deficiency has often struck us in elementary books of political history. Many persons never acquire a clear idea of the general progress of the human race as one family, because they have read the histories of different nations separately, instead of first reading one general account of the whole, or those of different countries taken together during the same periods. Read in this way, history of all sorts wants the warp that should connect it into a consistent fabric.
Lanzi's work contains a great mass of valuable facts and learned research ; but another and more important deficiency than that just named, is, that it is composed in the spirit of an antiquarian, and not of a lover of the art.
Much space is taken up in the discussion of doubtful but unimportant facts, and in an enumeration of mere names of persons and paintings, of which we learn, after all, nothing but the names. Nine tenths of the artists recorded there, and whose works, wherever
known, are pointed out and described, have produced no effect upon the progress
of the art; nor is it ofien illustrated by any anecdotes connected with their labors or life. The work is very complete of its kind; but it leaves abundant room for such an author as M. de Quincy, to write a new and delightful history of the art; of which the book before us, as well as his life of Michel Angelo, should be portions.
We do not remember to have read any thing on the subject so interesting. And it is not a subject on which it is easy to write an agreeable book; because, however interesting the works of art are in themselves, they hardly admit of verbal description or criticism, addressed to those who are not already familiar with them. M. de Quincy complains of this difficulty; but he has surmounted it successfully by combining the personal character of Raphael so closely with his works, that we read the descriptions of his paintings rather as illustrations of the man, than as the principal objects of the book. The most profound and delicate criticism, thus applied, seems but a kind of biographical anecdote.
It may be remarked, in passing, that there is another reason which should deter a writer from attempting to describe in detail works of art, beside the difficulty of conveying any just notion of them by words. For it is as difficult to describe nature as art; and yet the attempt is, in one case, often
agreeable, and in the other always tiresome. We follow the traveller through real, and the romancer through imaginary scenes, with interest ; but Scott himself could not make a mere description of a Claude or a Raphael any thing but a skippingplace. The pleasure derived from description, consists not so much in any knowledge we acquire by it, as in the exercise to which it stimulates the imagination, in forming for itself a picture of the thing described ; and the imagination demands truth, as the basis of all its visions. There must be at least a temporary belief that the thing imitated is a reality, and not itself an imitation. A drawing of a statue, however beautiful, is inferior in interest to one that represents life directly, though far less perfect in its proportions. For the same reason, a painting from a scene of the acted drama, though wholly free from the appearance of representation, fails to excite the same interest it would, if we did not know it was from a play. We do not mean, that works of art may not suggest the noblest sentiments, and thus be the occasion of the finest
poetry. Byron produced nothing more exquisite than his description of the Dying Gladiator ; but then he described, not the marble in the Capitol, but the dying man in the amphitheatre ;
" And through his side the last drops ebbing slow
The arena swims around him, – he is gone
Butchered, to make a Roman holiday —.”
little of all this to be seen in the statue. It presents to the imagination one of the finest pictures in all poetry ; but it is obvious, that in reading it we think of the man, and wholly lose sight of the marble.
The events of the life of Raphael are few and simple ; yet there is a great deal to be learned of his character and genius, both of which were in the highest degree remarkable. When we consider the low state in which he found his art, three hundred years after its revival in Italy; the unequalled height to which he carried it; the immense number and magnitude
of his works; their perfectly original, yet purely natural style; the high poetical power they exhibit ; the lofty station he maintained at the most polished court in Europe ; his easy superiority over all competitors, among whom were two men whom a philosophical historian of our own times has called the greatest geniuses of their age ; and that he accomplished all this before he was thirty-seven years old, — we shall find few names in history that deserve to be more distinguished. And what gives, perhaps, still greater interest to his life, is the singularly beautiful character he preserved through a life of such arduous emulation and brilliant success.
With all the confidence of genius, which in him never faltered, not a word nor an act is recorded of him that marks a feeling of arrogance or jealousy. He seems to have had a consciousness of his own superiority, which prevented his comparing himself either with those beneath him, or those with whom he was contending. He went on in his own career, calmly and confidently, aiming at excel
lence himself, doing justice to all, but fearing none ; learning modestly of all, however inferior to himself, who had any thing to teach ; and aiding others with all that he could impart. With the exception of a doubtful charge, of partaking in the licentiousness of a most corrupt age, which, we shall see in the sequel, was at least exaggerated in the account given of his death, his character was as admirable as his genius. It was as full of dignity and truth, as of grace and gentleness.)
Raphael Sanzio was born in 1483, at Urbino, a small duchy of the papal state.
His father, and several others of the family, had been painters. He appears to have been an only child, and to have early given indications of extraordinary talent. Having from nature a feeble constitution of body, he was educated at home with great tenderness; but could hardly have had any extensive instruction in general learning, as he went very early into his father's studio, as a pupil in his art. That was soon found to be too confined a sphere for his rapidly developing genius; and, at twelve years of age, he was removed to the school of Pietro Vanucci of Perugia, then esteemed one of the best painters of Italy.
And here, in order to understand the progress of Raphael, it is necessary to have some distinct notion of the state of the art, at the time of his becoming a pupil of Perugino. Lionardo da Vinci was really the founder of modern painting. With bis works begins the strongly-defined difference between the old and the new schools. Indeed, in his Last Supper, he seems, at one step almost, to have invented the whole art; so different is it from all that had been produced before, and so like, in the general principles it displays, to the best paintings of his successors. And yet, having made this great and successful effort before the middle of his life, such was the versatility and inconstancy of this wonderful genius, that he has left little more than enough to show, how much was lost to the world by his want of perseverance in any one pursuit. A profound natural philosopher and mathematician, a skilful engineer, a painter, sculptor, and architect, a poet and a musician, he was equally distinguished in the abstruse sciences and in the graceful arts ; but with all these acquirements he accomplished comparatively little for bis own fame, or the good of the age in which he lived. Much of his time was employed in mechanical contrivances, and chemical and other experiments, which were then supposed to be merely the amusements of
an idle mind. He has been reproached as a trifler, by one popular writer on that period of history, who was probably ignorant of his extraordinary attainments in science; wbile by another of later date, and of better information, he has been called not only the greatest genius of his age, but so far beyond it in his knowledge, as to render doubtful the commonly received opinions respecting the history of philosophy ; and either to have foretold by prophecy some of the greatest discoveries of later times, or to have recorded those of a still earlier age, of which no other record remains.* not be doubted, that so profound a thinker had important results in view, even in those experiments which appeared most like trifling ; and yet it cannot be denied, that he wasted in a variety of pursuits, the energy that, if devoted to any one, would have placed him above all competition, and conferred lasting benefits on the world. Some of the most important truths of natural philosophy and science, and among them the first discovery, as far as we know, of the true system of the universe, seem to have been acquired by him only to gratify his thirst for knowledge; and to have been thrown aside before they were made known to the world, or applied to any practical purposes. And so little has he enjoyed even the honor of his discoveries, that they are now to be found only in manuscripts, of which the existence was unknown until they had become objects of mere curiosity ; and which a strange apathy has, to the present day, permitted to remain unpublished
Such was his love of novelty and discovery, that he sacrificed to it his best fame as an artist, by making, on his most labored paintings, experiments in grounds and vehicles, that have in some cases entirely destroyed them. His great work, the Last Supper, perhaps the greatest work of the art, on which he employed years of labor, and more of study, perished very early; in consequence, as is said, of some untried process having been employed in the composition of the wall on which it was painted. After having been repeatedly retouched, and even repainted, nothing of it has remained within our time, that could indicate its original beauty and grandeur. Our best knowledge of it is derived from a copy in oil, said to have been nearly contemporaneous. And from that copy,
* Hallam's “ History of Literature in the Middle Ages."