My time was half over in Florence before I went to the picture galleries at all - not because I did not wish to go, but there was so much else to see and enjoy and admire. It is almost useless to speak of the pictures themselves. Those who have seen them know what they are; and to those who have not, no words would convey any idea. It was very interesting to me to realise how my own taste had altered. The outside of the Pitti, grand and massive as the building is, gives me no pleasure. Under the archway, and beyond the public entrance into the building, there is a little yard where a wonderful sight can be obtained of the Arabesque patterns which adorn the outside of the old Medici passage to the Uffizi. It is worth while to go through to look at them. Inside the galleries, pictures that used to be pointed out to me as the great gems in my youth seemed now comparatively uninteresting. Botticelli, whom I at that time never heard of, stands indeed a head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Two quite little cabinet pictures in one of the small rooms at the Uffizi gave me much to think of. One was the exquisite little 'Judith.' His rendering of the subject first gave me a kind of understanding why the old masters were so fond of the ghastly story which must have appealed to them from their own wars and dissensions. I have always hated the usual treatment of this subject - the bleeding corpse on the bed and the uplifted head in Judith's hand. But here the beautiful heroine widow, her deed accomplished, her country saved, trips home again with stately pride across the open country. Warriors are in the distance, fields and flowers in front, and her child-like innocent face is turned full towards one. In one hand she holds the emblem of peace, an Olive branch; in the other the sword of power. Behind her comes the maid with the handsome head of Holofernes in the meat-bag on her head. The maid's expression of mingled awe and admiration is quite as much beyond the time in variety of expression and powerful story-telling as is Judith's own, which shows one how she will shortly say with a loud voice: 'Praise, praise God, praise God, I say; for He hath not taken away His mercy from the House of Israel, but hath destroyed our enemies by mine hands this night.'
The other picture, 'Calumny,' is hung quite near. It is a little larger, and is unique and remarkable in every way; an allegorical picture full of thought. The idea was suggested to Botticelli by Lucian's description of a painting by Apelles. For the benefit of those as ignorant as I was I may as well say that Apelles was a famous painter at the Court of the first Alexander, and then of Ptolemy, about 330 B.C.; and that Lucian was a Greek writer of the time of Marcus Aurelius, and that his manuscripts were brought from Constantinople to Italy about 1425, and printed for the first time at Florence in 1496, Botticelli's own date being 1437-1515.
The whole picture is painted with the greatest finish and delicacy, and with an immense wealth of detail. In the background are three highly decorated arches, with a pure blue sky, tenderly graduated, showing through. In the middle of the picture is Calumny, hurrying towards the Judge, and attended by two women representing Hypocrisy and Treachery. Calumny drags a rather feeble young man, without clothes, by the hair of his head along the ground. He holds his hands up in an attitude of supplication, and is supposed to represent Innocence. Envy, a male figure clothed in shabby garments, stands between this group and the Judge's throne. Ignorance and Distrust are whispering into the long donkey's ears of the Judge. On the left of the picture is the black, draped figure of Remorse, who turns and looks at a beautiful naked young woman representing Truth. Calumny has seized and is carrying before the Judge Truth's lighted torch. It is impossible to look at this picture and not have brought to one's mind the wretched fate of the modern prisoner on the Devil's Island.
Had nothing been preserved to us of Botticelli's but these two pictures, I think we should have known that he was one of the men who were most in advance of their time, and one of the greatest painters the world has ever known. To my mind, the Botticellis in our own National Gallery give no sort of idea of his gifts and powers as seen at Florence.
An old friend, to whom I had written of my love of the early Tuscan painters when I was at Florence as a girl of twenty, answered me as follows, and I suppose many would agree with him:
'The modern taste for the very early Florentine masters must, I think, be an acquired one, and though in your own case it may have seemed spontaneous I doubt whether any intellectual taste or tendency is wholly self-formed in the case of a girl of nineteen. At that impressionable age living in a mental atmosphere congenial to it, you with your quick receptive temperament probably imbibed from those around you, whose opinions on art were entitled to your respect, and without any conscious effort or critical process of your own, that sentiment about the early Florentine masters to which the writings of Ruskin had already given so strong an impulse, and which was then the pervading sentiment of connoisseurs and persons interested in pictorial art. Perugino is the earliest master in whose works I can find Beauty - a quality essential to my enjoyment of Art as such. The earlier masters, Giotto, Cimabue, Taddeo Gaddi, Masaccio, Lippo Lippi, etc., seem to me only interesting.'
With regard to Botticelli I feel that he alone perhaps among the Tuscans strikes the note which Berenson alludes to in the following passage from his 'Venetian Painters,' and I like to feel that Berenson's optimism about modern art and life is true:
'Indeed, not the least attraction of the Venetian masters is their note of modernity, by which I mean the feeling they give us that they were on the high road to the art of to-day. We have seen how on two separate occasions Venetian painters gave an impulse to Spaniards, who in turn have had an extraordinary influence on modern painting. It would be easy, too, although it is not my purpose, to show how much other schools of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - such as the Flemish, led by Rubens, and the English, led by Reynolds - owed to the Venetians. My endeavour has been to explain some of the attractions of the school, and particularly to show its close dependence upon the thought and feeling of the Renaissance. This is perhaps its greatest interest, for, being such a complete expression of the riper spirit of the Renaissance, it helps us to a larger understanding of a period which has in itself the fascination of youth, and which is particularly attractive to us because the spirit that animates us is singularly like the better spirit of that epoch. We, too, are possessed of boundless curiosity. We, too, have an almost intoxicating sense of human capacity. We, too, believe in a great future for humanity, and nothing has yet happened to check our delight in discovery or our faith in life.'