Saturday, January 13, 2007

John Ruskin on "Santa Croce"

"Mornings in Florence : being simple studies of Christian art, for English travellers" (l875-l877)

By John Ruskin 1819-1900


"If there is one artist, more than another, whose work it is desirable that you should examine in Florence, supposing that you care for old art at all, it is Giotto....

Now, if indeed you are interested in old art, you cannot but know the power of the thirteenth century. You know that the character of it was concentrated in, and to the full expressed by, its best king, St.Louis. You know St. Louis was a Franciscan, and that the Franciscans,for whom Giotto was continually painting under Dante's advice, were prouder of him than of any other of their royal brethren or sisters. If Giotto ever would imagine anybody with care and delight, it would be St. Louis, if it chanced that anywhere he had St. Louis to paint....

Wait then for an entirely bright morning; rise with the sun, and go to Santa Croce, with a good opera-glass in your pocket, with which you shall for once, at any rate, see an opus; and, if you have time, several opera.

Walk straight to the chapel on the right of the choir ("k" in your Murray's guide). When you first get into it, you will seenothing but a modern window of glaring glass, with a red-hot cardinal in one pane--which piece of modern manufacture takes away at least seven-eighths of the light (little enough before) by which you might have seen what is worth sight. Wait patiently till you get used to the gloom. Then, guarding your eyes from the accursed modern window as best you may, take your opera-glass and look to the right, at the uppermost of the two figures beside it. It is St. Louis, under campanile architecture, painted by--Giotto? or the last Florentine painter who wanted a job--over Giotto?

That is the first question you have to determine; as you will have henceforward, in every case in which you look at a fresco....

Your Murray's Guide tells you that this chapel of the Bardi della Liberta, in which you stand, is covered with frescos by Giotto; that they were whitewashed, and only laid bare in 1853; that they were painted between 1296 and 1304; that they represent scenes in the life of St. Francis; and that on each side of the window are paintings of St. Louis of Toulouse, St. Louis king of France, St. Elizabeth, of Hungary, and St. Claire,--"all much restored and repainted."

Under such recommendation, the frescos are not likely to be much sought after; and accordingly, as I was at work in the chapel this morning, Sunday, 6th September, 1874, two nice-looking Englishmen, under guard of their valet de place, passed the chapel without so much as looking in.

You will perhaps stay a little longer in it with me, good reader, and find out gradually where you are.

Namely, in the most interesting and perfect little Gothic chapel in all Italy--so far as I know or can hear. There is no other of the great time which has all its frescos in their place. The Arena, though far larger, is of earlier date--not pure Gothic, nor showing Giotto's full force. The lower chapel at Assisi is not Gothic at all, and is still only of Giotto's middle time. You have here, developed Gothic, with Giotto in his consummate strength, and nothing lost, in form, of the complete design.

By restoration--judicious restoration, as Mr. Murray usually calls it--there is no saying how much you have lost. Putting the question of restoration out of your mind, however, for a while, think where you are, and what you have got to look at.

You are in the chapel next the high altar of the great Franciscan church of Florence. A few hundred yards west of you, within ten minutes' walk, is the Baptistery of Florence. And five minutes' walk west of that is the great Dominican church of Florence, Santa Maria Novella.

Get this little bit of geography, and architectural fact, well into your mind. There is the little octagon Baptistery in the middle; here, ten minutes' walk east of it, the Franciscan church of the Holy Cross; there, five minutes walk west of it, the Dominican church of St. Mary.

Now, that little octagon Baptistery stood where it now stands (and was finished, though the roof has been altered since) in the eighth century. It is the central building of Etrurian Christianity,--of European Christianity.

From the day it was finished, Christianity went on doing her best, in Etruria and elsewhere, for four hundred years,--and her best seemed to have come to very little,--when there rose up two men who vowed to God it should come to more. And they made it come to more, forthwith; of which the immediate sign in Florence was that she resolved to have a fine new cross-shaped cathedral instead of her quaint old little octagon one; and a tower beside it that should beat Babel:--which two buildings you have also within sight.

But your business is not at present with them; but with these two earlier churches of Holy Cross and St. Mary. The two men who were the effectual builders of these were the two great religious Powers and Reformers of the thirteenth century;--St. Francis, who taught Christian men how they should behave, and St. Dominic, who taught Christian men what they should think. In brief, one the Apostle of Works; the other of Faith. Each sent his little company of disciples to teach and to preach in Florence: St. Francis in 1212; St. Dominic in 1220.

The little companies were settled--one, ten minutes' walk east of the old Baptistery; the other five minutes' walk west of it. And after they had stayed quietly in such lodgings as were given them, preaching and teaching through most of the century; and had got Florence, as it were, heated through, she burst out into Christian poetry and architecture, of which you have heard much talk:--burst into bloom of Arnolfo, Giotto, Dante, Orcagna, and the like persons, whose works you profess to have come to Florence that you may see and understand....

And here you stand beside the high altar of the Franciscans' church, under a vault of Arnolfo's building, with at least some of Giotto's colour on it still fresh; and in front of you, over the little altar, is the only reportedly authentic portrait of St. Francis, taken from life by Giotto's master.

Yet I can hardly blame my two English friends for never looking in. Except in the early morning light, not one touch of all this art can be seen. And in any light, unless you understand the relations of Giotto to St. Francis, and of St. Francis to humanity, it will be of little interest....

Now the gospel of Works, according to St. Francis, lay in three things. You must work without money, and be poor. You must work without pleasure, and be chaste. You must work according to orders, and be obedient.

Those are St. Francis's three articles of Italian opera. By which grew the many pretty things you have come to see here.

And now if you will take your opera-glass and look up to the roof above Arnolfo's building, you will see it is a pretty Gothic cross vault, in four quarters, each with a circular medallion, painted by Giotto. Thatover the altar has the picture of St. Francis himself. The three others, of his Commanding Angels. In front of him, over the entrance arch, Poverty. On his right hand, Obedience. On his left, Chastity.

Poverty, in a red patched dress, with grey wings, and a square nimbus of glory above her head, is flying from a black hound, whose head is seen at the corner of the medallion.

Chastity, veiled, is imprisoned in a tower, while angels watch her.

Obedience bears a yoke on her shoulders, and lays her hand on a book.

Now, this same quatrefoil, of St. Francis and his three Commanding Angels, was also painted, but much more elaborately, by Giotto, on the cross vault of the lower church of Assisi, and it is a question of interest which of the two roofs was painted first.

Therefore, please leave the little chapel for the moment, and walk down the nave, till you come to two sepulchral slabs near the west end, and then look about you and see what sort of a church Santa Croce is.

Without looking about you at all, you may find, in your Murray, the useful information that it is a church which "consists of a very wide nave and lateral aisles, separated by seven fine pointed arches." And as you will be--under ordinary conditions of tourist hurry--glad to learn so much, without looking, it is little likely to occur to you that this nave and two rich aisles required also, for your complete present comfort, walls at both ends, and a roof on the top. It is just possible, indeed, you may have been struck, on entering, by the curious disposition of painted glass at the east end;--more remotely possible that, in returning down the nave, you may this moment have noticed the extremely small circular window at the west end; but the chances are a thousand to one that, after being pulled from tomb to tomb round the aisles and chapels, you should take so extraordinary an additional amount of pains as to look up at the roof,--unless you do it now, quietly.

It will have had its effect upon you, even if you don't, without your knowledge. You will return home with a general impression that Santa Croce is, somehow, the ugliest Gothic church you ever were in. Well, that is really so; and now, will you take the pains to see why?

There are two features, on which, more than on any others, the grace and delight of a fine Gothic building depends; one is the springing of its vaultings, the other the proportion and fantasy of its traceries.

This church of Santa Croce has no vaultings at all, but the roof of a farm-house barn. And its windows are all of the same pattern,--the exceedingly prosaic one of two pointed arches, with a round hole above, between them.

And to make the simplicity of the roof more conspicuous, the aisles are successive sheds, built at every arch.

In the aisles of the Campo Santo of Pisa, the unbroken flat roof leaves the eye free to look to the traceries; but here, a succession of up-and-down sloping beam and lath gives the impression of a line of stabling rather than a church aisle.

And lastly, while, in fine Gothic buildings, the entire perspective concludes itself gloriously in the high and distant apse, here the nave is cut across sharply by a line of ten chapels, the apse being only a tall recess in the midst of them, so that, strictly speaking, the church is not of the form of a cross, but of a letter T.

Can this clumsy and ungraceful arrangement be indeed the design of the renowned Arnolfo?

Yes, this is purest Arnolfo-Gothic; not beautiful by any means; but deserving, nevertheless, our thoughtfullest examination. We will trace its complete character another day; just now we are only concerned with this pre-Christian form of the letter T, insisted upon in the lines of chapels.

Respecting which you are to observe, that the first Christian churches in the catacombs took the form of a blunt cross naturally; a square chamber having a vaulted recess on each side; then the Byzantine churches were structurally built in the form of an equal cross; while the heraldic and other ornamental equal-armed crosses are partly signs of glory and victory, partly of light, and divine spiritual presence.

But the Franciscans and Dominicans saw in the cross no sign of triumph,but of trial.

[Footnote: The following passage from the Dean of Westminster's perfect history of his Abbey ought to be read also in the Florentine church:--

"The nearest approach to Westminster Abbey in this aspect is the church of Santa Croce at Florence.

There, as here, the present destination of the building was no part of the original design,but was the result of various converging causes.

As the church of one of the two great preaching orders, it had a nave large beyond all proportion to its choir. That order being the Franciscan, bound by vows of poverty, the simplicity of the worship preserved the whole space clear from any adventitious ornaments.

The popularity of the Franciscans, especially in a convent hallowed by a visit from St.Francis himself, drew to it not only the chief civic festivals, but also the numerous families who gave alms to the friars, and whose connection with their church was, for this reason, in turn encouraged by them.

In those graves, piled with standards and achievements of the noble families of Florence, were successively interred--not because of their eminence, but as members or friends of those families--some ofthe most illustrious personages of the fifteenth century.

Thus it came to pass, as if by accident, that in the vault of the Buonarotti was laid Michael Angelo; in the vault of the Viviani the preceptor of one of their house, Galileo. From those two burials the church gradually became the recognized shrine of Italian genius."]

The wounds of their Master were to be their inheritance. So their first aim was to make what image to the cross their church might present, distinctly that of the actual instrument of death.

And they did this most effectually by using the form of the letter T, that of the Furca or Gibbet,--not the sign of peace.

Also, their churches were meant for use; not show, nor self-glorification,nor town-glorification. They wanted places for preaching, prayer, sacrifice, burial; and had no intention of showing how high they could build towers, or how widely they could arch vaults. Strong walls, and the roof of a barn,--these your Franciscan asks of his Arnolfo. These Arnolfo gives,--thoroughly and wisely built; the successions of gable roof being a new device for strength, much praised in its day.

This stern humor did not last long. Arnolfo himself had other notions; much more Cimabue and Giotto; most of all, Nature and Heaven. Something else had to be taught about Christ than that He was wounded to death. Nevertheless, look how grand this stern form would be, restored to its simplicity.

It is not the old church which is in itself unimpressive. It is the old church defaced by Vasari, by Michael Angelo, and by modern Florence. See those huge tombs on your right hand and left, at the sides of the aisles, with their alternate gable and round tops, and their paltriest of all possible sculpture, trying to be grand by bigness, and pathetic by expense. Tear them all down in your imagination; fancy the vast hall with its massive pillars,--not painted calomel-pill colour, as now, but of their native stone, with a rough,true wood for roof,--and a people praying beneath them, strong inabiding, and pure in life, as their rocks and olive forests. That was Arnolfo's Santa Croce. Nor did his work remain long without grace.

That very line of chapels in which we found our St. Louis shows signs of change in temper. They have no pent-house roofs, but true Gothic vaults: we found our four-square type of Franciscan Law on one of them.

It is probable, then, that these chapels may be later than the rest--even in their stonework. In their decoration, they are so, assuredly; belonging already to the time when the story of St. Francis was becoming a passionate tradition, told and painted everywhere with delight.

And that high recess, taking the place of apse, in the centre,--see how noble it is in the coloured shade surrounding and joining the glow of its windows, though their form be so simple. You are not to be amused here by patterns in balanced stone, as a French or English architect would amuse you, says Arnolfo. `You are to read and think, under these severe walls of mine; immortal hands will write upon them.`"

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