I have four little daintily printed volumes published in 1834 - an early work of the well-known authoress Mrs. Jameson, who has written so much on Italian art. These books are not without interest to the student of life, art, or art criticisms. The two last volumes are a reprint of a still earlier work, which had a success in its day, called 'The Diary of an Ennuyée.' The book is still interesting to me, not only for its démodée style, but also as being a kind of 'Pot-Pourri' of the day. This 'Diary of an Ennuyée' contains an account of the author's stay at Florence, which is my reason for mentioning the book here. Her reflections are young and genuine, and the courage with which she lays them down gives them a human interest. I feel considerable sympathy with what she says about Michael Angelo. She thus speaks of the Medici statues: 'In a little chapel in San Lorenzo are Michael Angelo's famous statues - the Morning, the Noon, the Evening, and the Night. I looked at them with admiration rather than with pleasure; for there is something in the severe and overpowering style of this master which affects me disagreeably, as beyond my feeling and above my comprehension. These statues are very ill-disposed for effect; the confined cell (such it seemed) in which they are placed is so strangely disproportioned to the awful and massive grandeur of their forms.
'There is a picture by Michael Angelo, considered a chef-d'œuvre, which hangs in the Tribune to the right of the Venus. Now if all the connoisseurs, with Vasari at their head, were to harangue for an hour together on the merits of this picture, I might submit in silence, for I am no connoisseur; but that it is a disagreeable, a hateful picture is an opinion which fire could not melt out of me. In spite of Messieurs les Connoisseurs and Michael Angelo's fame, I would die in it at the stake. For instance, here is the Blessed Virgin - not the "Vergine Santa d'ogni grazia piena," but a Virgin whose brickdust-coloured face, harsh unfeminine features, and muscular masculine arms give me the idea of a washerwoman (con rispetto parlando!) - an infant Saviour with the proportions of a giant! And what shall we say of the nudity of the figures in the background? - profaning the subject and shocking at once good taste and good sense. A little further on the eye rests on the divine Madre di Dio of Correggio. "What beauty, what sweetness, what maternal love and humble adoration are blended in the look and attitude with which she bends over her Infant!'
Just as a contrast to this bald dislike of Michael Angelo, which I more or less share, I will copy, as an example of modern subtle scholarly criticism, a sentence on the same picture from Pater's 'Renaissance' - a book to be read indeed:
'When the shipload of sacred earth from the soil of Jerusalem was mingled with the common clay in the Campo Santo at Pisa, a new flower grew up from it, unlike any flower men had seen before - the Anemone, with its concentric rings of strangely blended colour, still to be found by those who search long enough for it in the long grass of the Maremma. Just such a strange flower was that mythology of the Italian Renaissance which grew up from the mixture of two traditions, two sentiments - the sacred and the profane. Classical story was regarded as so much imaginative material to be received and assimilated. It did not come into men's minds to ask curiously of science concerning the origin of such story, its primary form and import, its meaning for those who projected it. The thing sank into their minds, to issue forth again with all the tangle about it of mediæval sentiment and ideas.
'In the Doni Madonna in the Tribune of the Uffizi Michael Angelo actually brings the pagan religion, and with it the unveiled human form, the sleepy-looking fauns of a Dionysiac revel, into the presence of the Madonna, as simpler painters had introduced there other products of the earth, birds or flowers; while he has given to that Madonna herself much of the uncouth energy of the older and more primitive "Mighty Mother."'
Is it possible to see side by side more different criticisms of the same picture? And it is not only the difference of a young woman and a scholarly man; it means the immense march the world has made altogether in the understanding of its own evolution.
To return to Mrs. Jameson. She runs on with her criticisms through the sights of Florence. Most of the pictures she admires are certainly not those that excite the greatest admiration in these days. The name Botticelli is never once mentioned by her, any more than it is thirty years later by George Eliot in her notes on Florentine art in the diary published in her Life. Pater, on the contrary, tells us that Sandro Botticelli is the only contemporary mentioned, whether by accident or intention, by Leonardo in his treatise on painting.
I only possess the translation of this treatise published in 1835. Just lately a new 'Life and Works' of Leonardo, by Eugene Muntz, has been published by Heinemann, but it is 42s. net.
To leave high things for low, Mrs. Jameson touches on the society of the day at Florence and parties at the Countess of Albany's, etc. She gives an amusing story of a travelling young lord who, when presented with the Countess of Albany's card, exclaimed:
'The Countess of Albany! Ah! - true - I remember! Wasn't she the widow of Charles the Second who married Ariosto?' There is in this celebrated bévue a glorious confusion of times and persons.
For those interested in the byways of history a well-known modern author, Vernon Lee, has written a 'Life' of this Countess of Albany. I think it the most interesting of Vernon Lee's books that I have read. It was published in the 'Eminent Women' series - why, I cannot imagine; for it seems to me as incongruous as Hawthorne's 'Life' being in the 'English Men of Letters' or Lady Hamilton's picture having a place in the National Portrait Gallery.