Alps and Sanctuaries of Piedmont and the Canton Ticino, by Samuel Butler

Chapter XII

Considerations on the Decline of Italian Art

Those who know the Italians will see no sign of decay about them. They are the quickest witted people in the world, and at the same time have much more of the old Roman steadiness than they are generally credited with. Not only is there no sign of degeneration, but, as regards practical matters, there is every sign of health and vigorous development. The North Italians are more like Englishmen, both in body and mind, than any other people whom I know; I am continually meeting Italians whom I should take for Englishmen if I did not know their nationality. They have all our strong points, but they have more grace and elasticity of mind than we have.

Priggishness is the sin which doth most easily beset middle-class and so-called educated Englishmen: we call it purity and culture, but it does not much matter what we call it. It is the almost inevitable outcome of a university education, and will last as long as Oxford and Cambridge do, but not much longer.

Lord Beaconsfield sent Lothair to Oxford; it is with great pleasure that I see he did not send Endymion. My friend Jones called my attention to this, and we noted that the growth observable throughout Lord Beaconsfield’s life was continued to the end. He was one of those who, no matter how long he lived, would have been always growing: this is what makes his later novels so much better than those of Thackeray or Dickens. There was something of the child about him to the last. Earnestness was his greatest danger, but if he did not quite overcome it (as who indeed can? It is the last enemy that shall be subdued), he managed to veil it with a fair amount of success. As for Endymion, of course if Lord Beaconsfield had thought Oxford would be good for him, he could, as Jones pointed out to me, just as well have killed Mr. Ferrars a year or two later. We feel satisfied, therefore, that Endymion’s exclusion from a university was carefully considered, and are glad.

I will not say that priggishness is absolutely unknown among the North Italians; sometimes one comes upon a young Italian who wants to learn German, but not often. Priggism, or whatever the substantive is, is as essentially a Teutonic vice as holiness is a Semitic characteristic; and if an Italian happens to be a prig, he will, like Tacitus, invariably show a hankering after German institutions. The idea, however, that the Italians were ever a finer people than they are now, will not pass muster with those who know them.

At the same time, there can be no doubt that modern Italian art is in many respects as bad as it was once good. I will confine myself to painting only. The modern Italian painters, with very few exceptions, paint as badly as we do, or even worse, and their motives are as poor as is their painting. At an exhibition of modern Italian pictures, I generally feel that there is hardly a picture on the walls but is a sham — that is to say, painted not from love of this particular subject and an irresistible desire to paint it, but from a wish to paint an academy picture, and win money or applause.

The same holds good in England, and in all other countries that I know of. There is very little tolerable painting anywhere. In some kinds, indeed, of black and white work the present age is strong. The illustrations to “Punch,” for example, are often as good as anything that can be imagined. We know of nothing like them in any past age or country. This is the one kind of art — and it is a very good one — in which we excel as distinctly as the age of Phidias excelled in sculpture. Leonardo da Vinci would never have succeeded in getting his drawings accepted at 85 Fleet Street, any more than one of the artists on the staff of “Punch” could paint a fresco which should hold its own against Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Michael Angelo again and Titian would have failed disastrously at modern illustration. They had no more sense of humour than a Hebrew prophet; they had no eye for the more trivial side of anything round about them. This aspect went in at one eye and out at the other — and they lost more than ever poor Peter Bell lost in the matter of primroses. I never can see what there was to find fault with in that young man.

Fancy a street-Arab by Michael Angelo. Fancy even the result which would have ensued if he had tried to put the figures into the illustrations of this book. I should have been very sorry to let him try his hand at it. To him a priest chucking a small boy under the chin was simply non-existent. He did not care for it, and had therefore no eye for it. If the reader will turn to the copy of a fresco of St. Christopher on p. 209, he will see the conventional treatment of the rocks on either side the saint. This was the best thing the artist could do, and probably cost him no little trouble. Yet there were rocks all around him — little, in fact, else than rock in those days; and the artist could have drawn them well enough if it had occurred to him to try and do so. If he could draw St. Christopher, he could have drawn a rock; but he had an interest in the one, and saw nothing in the other which made him think it worth while to pay attention to it. What rocks were to him, the common occurrences of everyday life were to those who are generally held to be the giants of painting. The result of this neglect to kiss the soil — of this attempt to be always soaring — is that these giants are for the most part now very uninteresting, while the smaller men who preceded them grow fresher and more delightful yearly. It was not so with Handel and Shakespeare. Handel’s

“Ploughman near at hand, whistling o’er the furrowed land,”

is intensely sympathetic, and his humour is admirable whenever he has occasion for it.

Leonardo da Vinci is the only one of the giant Italian masters who ever tried to be humorous, and he failed completely: so, indeed, must any one if he tries to be humorous. We do not want this; we only want them not to shut their eyes to by-play when it comes in their way, and if they are giving us an account of what they have seen, to tell us something about this too. I believe the older the world grows, the better it enjoys a joke. The mediaeval joke generally was a heavy, lumbering old thing, only a little better than the classical one. Perhaps in those days life was harder than it is now, and people if they looked at it at all closely dwelt upon its soberer side. Certainly in humorous art, we may claim to be not only principes, but facile principes. Nevertheless, the Italian comic journals are, some of them, admirably illustrated, though in a style quite different from our own; sometimes, also, they are beautifully coloured.

As regards painting, the last rays of the sunset of genuine art are to be found in the votive pictures at Locarno or Oropa, and in many a wayside chapel. In these, religious art still lingers as a living language, however rudely spoken. In these alone is the story told, not as in the Latin and Greek verses of the scholar, who thinks he has succeeded best when he has most concealed his natural manner of expressing himself, but by one who knows what he wants to say, and says it in his mother-tongue, shortly, and without caring whether or not his words are in accordance with academic rules. I regret to see photography being introduced for votive purposes, and also to detect in some places a disposition on the part of the authorities to be a little ashamed of these pictures and to place them rather out of sight.

Sometimes in a little country village, as at Doera near Mesocco, there is a modern fresco on a chapel in which the old spirit appears, with its absolute indifference as to whether it was ridiculous or no, but such examples are rare.

Sometimes, again, I have even thought I have detected a ray of sunset upon a milkman’s window-blind in London, and once upon an undertaker’s, but it was too faint a ray to read by. The best thing of the kind that I have seen in London is the picture of the lady who is cleaning knives with Mr. Spong’s patent knife-cleaner, in his shop window nearly opposite Day & Martin’s in Holborn. It falls a long way short, however, of a good Italian votive picture: but it has the advantage of moving.

I knew of a little girl once, rather less than four years old, whose uncle had promised to take her for a drive in a carriage with him, and had failed to do so. The child was found soon afterwards on the stairs weeping, and being asked what was the matter, replied, “Mans is all alike.” This is Giottesque. I often think of it as I look upon Italian votive pictures. The meaning is so sound in spite of the expression being so defective — if, indeed, expression can be defective when it has so well conveyed the meaning.

I knew, again, an old lady whose education had been neglected in her youth. She came into a large fortune, and at some forty years of age put herself under the best masters. She once said to me as follows, speaking very slowly and allowing a long time between each part of the sentence; —“You see,” she said, “the world, and all that it contains, is wrapped up in such curious forms, that it is only by a knowledge of human nature, that we can rightly tell what to say, to do, or to admire.” I copied the sentence into my notebook immediately on taking my leave. It is like an academy picture.

But to return to the Italians. The question is, how has the deplorable falling-off in Italian painting been caused? And by doing what may we again get Bellinis and Andrea Mantegnas as in old time? The fault does not lie in any want of raw material: the drawings I have already given prove this. Nor, again, does it lie in want of taking pains. The modern Italian painter frets himself to the full as much as his predecessor did — if the truth were known, probably a great deal more. It does not lie in want of schooling or art education. For the last three hundred years, ever since the Carracci opened their academy at Bologna, there has been no lack of art education in Italy. Curiously enough, the date of the opening of the Bolognese Academy coincides as nearly as may be with the complete decadence of Italian painting.

This is an example of the way in which Italian boys begin their art education now. The drawing which I reproduce here was given me by the eminent sculptor, Professor Vela, as the work of a lad of twelve years old, and as doing credit alike to the school where the lad was taught and to the pupil himself. 22

So it undoubtedly does. It shows as plainly the receptiveness and docility of the modern Italian, as the illustrations given above show his freshness and naivete when left to himself. The drawing is just such as we try to get our own young people to do, and few English elementary schools in a small country town would succeed in turning out so good a one. I have nothing, therefore, but praise both for the pupil and the teacher; but about the system which makes such teachers and such pupils commendable, I am more sceptical. That system trains boys to study other people’s works rather than nature, and, as Leonardo da Vinci so well says, it makes them nature’s grandchildren and not her children. The boy who did the drawing given above is not likely to produce good work in later life. He has been taught to see nature with an old man’s eyes at once, without going through the embryonic stages. He has never said his “mans is all alike,” and by twenty will be painting like my old friend’s long academic sentence. All his individuality has been crushed out of him.

I will now give a reproduction of the frontispiece to Avogadro’s work on the sanctuary of S. Michele, from which I have already quoted; it is a very pretty and effective piece of work, but those who are good enough to turn back to p. 93, and to believe that I have drawn carefully, will see how disappointing Avogadro’s frontispiece must be to those who hold, as most of us will, that a draughtsman’s first business is to put down what he sees, and to let prettiness take care of itself. The main features, indeed, can still be traced, but they have become as transformed and lifeless as rudimentary organs. Such a frontispiece, however, is the almost inevitable consequence of the system of training that will make boys of twelve do drawings like the one given on p. 147.

If half a dozen young Italians could be got together with a taste for drawing like that shown by the authors of the sketches on pp. 136, 137, 138; if they had power to add to their number; if they were allowed to see paintings and drawings done up to the year A.D. 1510, and votive pictures and the comic papers; if they were left with no other assistance than this, absolutely free to please themselves, and could be persuaded not to try and please any one else, I believe that in fifty years we should have all that was ever done repeated with fresh naivete, and as much more delightfully than even by the best old masters, as these are more delightful than anything we know of in classic painting. The young plants keep growing up abundantly every day — look at Bastianini, dead not ten years since — but they are browsed down by the academies. I remember there came out a book many years ago with the title, “What becomes of all the clever little children?” I never saw the book, but the title is pertinent.

Any man who can write, can draw to a not inconsiderable extent. Look at the Bayeux tapestry; yet Matilda probably never had a drawing lesson in her life. See how well prisoner after prisoner in the Tower of London has cut this or that out in the stone of his prison wall, without, in all probability, having ever tried his hand at drawing before. Look at my friend Jones, who has several illustrations in this book. The first year he went abroad with me he could hardly draw at all. He was no year away from England more than three weeks. How did he learn? On the old principle, if I am not mistaken. The old principle was for a man to be doing something which he was pretty strongly bent on doing, and to get a much younger one to help him. The younger paid nothing for instruction, but the elder took the work, as long as the relation of master and pupil existed between them. I, then, was making illustrations for this book, and got Jones to help me. I let him see what I was doing, and derive an idea of the sort of thing I wanted, and then left him alone — beyond giving him the same kind of small criticism that I expected from himself — but I appropriated his work. That is the way to teach, and the result was that in an incredibly short time Jones could draw. The taking the work is a sine qua non. If I had not been going to have his work, Jones, in spite of all his quickness, would probably have been rather slower in learning to draw. Being paid in money is nothing like so good.

This is the system of apprenticeship versus the academic system. The academic system consists in giving people the rules for doing things. The apprenticeship system consists in letting them do it, with just a trifle of supervision. “For all a rhetorician’s rules,” says my great namesake, “teach nothing, but to name his tools;” and academic rules generally are much the same as the rhetorician’s. Some men can pass through academies unscathed, but they are very few, and in the main the academic influence is a baleful one, whether exerted in a university or a school. While young men at universities are being prepared for their entry into life, their rivals have already entered it. The most university and examination ridden people in the world are the Chinese, and they are the least progressive.

Men should learn to draw as they learn conveyancing: they should go into a painter’s studio and paint on his pictures. I am told that half the conveyances in the country are drawn by pupils; there is no more mystery about painting than about conveyancing — not half in fact, I should think, so much. One may ask, How can the beginner paint, or draw conveyances, till he has learnt how to do so? The answer is, How can he learn, without at any rate trying to do? If he likes his subject, he will try: if he tries, he will soon succeed in doing something which shall open a door. It does not matter what a man does; so long as he does it with the attention which affection engenders, he will come to see his way to something else. After long waiting he will certainly find one door open, and go through it. He will say to himself that he can never find another. He has found this, more by luck than cunning, but now he is done. Yet by and by he will see that there is one more small, unimportant door which he had overlooked, and he proceeds through this too. If he remains now for a long while and sees no other, do not let him fret; doors are like the kingdom of heaven, they come not by observation, least of all do they come by forcing: let them just go on doing what comes nearest, but doing it attentively, and a great wide door will one day spring into existence where there had been no sign of one but a little time previously. Only let him be always doing something, and let him cross himself now and again, for belief in the wondrous efficacy of crosses and crossing is the corner-stone of the creed of the evolutionist. Then after years — but not probably till after a great many — doors will open up all round, so many and so wide that the difficulty will not be to find a door, but rather to obtain the means of even hurriedly surveying a portion of those that stand invitingly open.

I know that just as good a case can be made out for the other side. It may be said as truly that unless a student is incessantly on the watch for doors he will never see them, and that unless he is incessantly pressing forward to the kingdom of heaven he will never find it — so that the kingdom does come by observation. It is with this as with everything else — there must be a harmonious fusing of two principles which are in flat contradiction to one another.

The question whether it is better to abide quiet and take advantage of opportunities that come, or to go further afield in search of them, is one of the oldest which living beings have had to deal with. It was on this that the first great schism or heresy arose in what was heretofore the catholic faith of protoplasm. The schism still lasts, and has resulted in two great sects — animals and plants. The opinion that it is better to go in search of prey is formulated in animals; the other — that it is better on the whole to stay at home and profit by what comes — in plants. Some intermediate forms still record to us the long struggle during which the schism was not yet complete.

If I may be pardoned for pursuing this digression further, I would say that it is the plants and not we who are the heretics. There can be no question about this; we are perfectly justified, therefore, in devouring them. Ours is the original and orthodox belief, for protoplasm is much more animal than vegetable; it is much more true to say that plants have descended from animals than animals from plants. Nevertheless, like many other heretics, plants have thriven very fairly well. There are a great many of them, and as regards beauty, if not wit — of a limited kind indeed, but still wit — it is hard to say that the animal kingdom has the advantage. The views of plants are sadly narrow; all dissenters are narrow-minded; but within their own bounds they know the details of their business sufficiently well — as well as though they kept the most nicely-balanced system of accounts to show them their position. They are eaten, it is true; to eat them is our bigoted and intolerant way of trying to convert them: eating is only a violent mode of proselytising or converting; and we do convert them — to good animal substance, of our own way of thinking. But then, animals are eaten too. They convert one another, almost as much as they convert plants. And an animal is no sooner dead than a plant will convert it back again. It is obvious, however, that no schism could have been so long successful, without having a good deal to say for itself.

Neither party has been quite consistent. Who ever is or can be? Every extreme — every opinion carried to its logical end — will prove to be an absurdity. Plants throw out roots and boughs and leaves; this is a kind of locomotion; and as Dr. Erasmus Darwin long since pointed out, they do sometimes approach nearly to what may be called travelling; a man of consistent character will never look at a bough, a root, or a tendril without regarding it as a melancholy and unprincipled compromise. On the other hand, many animals are sessile, and some singularly successful genera, as spiders, are in the main liers-in-wait. It may appear, however, on the whole, like reopening a settled question to uphold the principle of being busy and attentive over a small area, rather than going to and fro over a larger one, for a mammal like man, but I think most readers will be with me in thinking that, at any rate as regards art and literature, it is he who does his small immediate work most carefully who will find doors open most certainly to him, that will conduct him into the richest chambers.

Many years ago, in New Zealand, I used sometimes to accompany a dray and team of bullocks who would have to be turned loose at night that they might feed. There were no hedges or fences then, so sometimes I could not find my team in the morning, and had no clue to the direction in which they had gone. At first I used to try and throw my soul into the bullocks’ souls, so as to divine if possible what they would be likely to have done, and would then ride off ten miles in the wrong direction. People used in those days to lose their bullocks sometimes for a week or fortnight — when they perhaps were all the time hiding in a gully hard by the place where they were turned out. After some time I changed my tactics. On losing my bullocks I would go to the nearest accommodation house, and stand occasional drinks to travellers. Some one would ere long, as a general rule, turn up who had seen the bullocks. This case does not go quite on all fours with what I have been saying above, inasmuch as I was not very industrious in my limited area; but the standing drinks and inquiring was being as industrious as the circumstances would allow.

To return, universities and academies are an obstacle to the finding of doors in later life; partly because they push their young men too fast through doorways that the universities have provided, and so discourage the habit of being on the look-out for others; and partly because they do not take pains enough to make sure that their doors are bona fide ones. If, to change the metaphor, an academy has taken a bad shilling, it is seldom very scrupulous about trying to pass it on. It will stick to it that the shilling is a good one as long as the police will let it. I was very happy at Cambridge; when I left it I thought I never again could be so happy anywhere else; I shall ever retain a most kindly recollection both of Cambridge and of the school where I passed my boyhood; but I feel, as I think most others must in middle life, that I have spent as much of my maturer years in unlearning as in learning.

The proper course is for a boy to begin the practical business of life many years earlier than he now commonly does. He should begin at the very bottom of a profession; if possible of one which his family has pursued before him — for the professions will assuredly one day become hereditary. The ideal railway director will have begun at fourteen as a railway porter. He need not be a porter for more than a week or ten days, any more than he need have been a tadpole more than a short time; but he should take a turn in practice, though briefly, at each of the lower branches in the profession. The painter should do just the same. He should begin by setting his employer’s palette and cleaning his brushes. As for the good side of universities, the proper preservative of this is to be found in the club.

If, then, we are to have a renaissance of art, there must be a complete standing aloof from the academic system. That system has had time enough. Where and who are its men? Can it point to one painter who can hold his own with the men of, say, from 1450 to 1550? Academies will bring out men who can paint hair very like hair, and eyes very like eyes, but this is not enough. This is grammar and deportment; we want it and a kindly nature, and these cannot be got from academies. As far as mere technique is concerned, almost every one now can paint as well as is in the least desirable. The same mutatis mutandis holds good with writing as with painting. We want less word-painting and fine phrases, and more observation at first-hand. Let us have a periodical illustrated by people who cannot draw, and written by people who cannot write (perhaps, however, after all, we have some), but who look and think for themselves, and express themselves just as they please — and this we certainly have not. Every contributor should be at once turned out if he or she is generally believed to have tried to do something which he or she did not care about trying to do, and anything should be admitted which is the outcome of a genuine liking. People are always good company when they are doing what they really enjoy. A cat is good company when it is purring, or a dog when it is wagging its tail.

The sketching clubs up and down the country might form the nucleus of such a society, provided all professional men were rigorously excluded. As for the old masters, the better plan would be never even to look at one of them, and to consign Raffaelle, along with Plato, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Dante, Goethe, and two others, neither of them Englishmen, to limbo, as the Seven Humbugs of Christendom.

While we are about it, let us leave off talking about “art for art’s sake.” Who is art that it should have a sake? A work of art should be produced for the pleasure it gives the producer, and the pleasure he thinks it will give to a few of whom he is fond; but neither money nor people whom he does not know personally should be thought of. Of course such a society as I have proposed would not remain incorrupt long. “Everything that grows, holds in perfection but a little moment.” The members would try to imitate professional men in spite of their rules, or, if they escaped this and after a while got to paint well, they would become dogmatic, and a rebellion against their authority would be as necessary ere long as it was against that of their predecessors: but the balance on the whole would be to the good.

Professional men should be excluded, if for no other reason yet for this, that they know too much for the beginner to be en rapport with them. It is the beginner who can help the beginner, as it is the child who is the most instructive companion for another child. The beginner can understand the beginner, but the cross between him and the proficient performer is too wide for fertility. It savours of impatience, and is in flat contradiction to the first principles of biology. It does a beginner positive harm to look at the masterpieces of the great executionists, such as Rembrandt or Turner.

If one is climbing a very high mountain which will tax all one’s strength, nothing fatigues so much as casting upward glances to the top, nothing encourages so much as casting downward glances. The top seems never to draw nearer; the parts that we have passed retreat rapidly. Let a water-colour student go and see the drawing by Turner, in the basement of our National Gallery, dated 1787. This is the sort of thing for him, not to copy, but to look at for a minute or two now and again. It will show him nothing about painting, but it may serve to teach him not to overtax his strength, and will prove to him that the greatest masters in painting, as in everything else, begin by doing work which is no way superior to that of their neighbours. A collection of the earliest known works of the greatest men would be much more useful to the student than any number of their maturer works, for it would show him that he need not worry himself because his work does not look clever, or as silly people say, “show power.”

The secrets of success are affection for the pursuit chosen, a flat refusal to be hurried or to pass anything as understood which is not understood, and an obstinacy of character which shall make the student’s friends find it less trouble to let him have his own way than to bend him into theirs. Our schools and academies or universities are covertly, but essentially, radical institutions and abhorrent to the genius of Conservatism. Their sin is the true radical sin of being in too great a hurry, and of believing in short cuts too soon. But it must be remembered that this proposition, like every other, wants tempering with a slight infusion of its direct opposite.

I said in an early part of this book that the best test to know whether or no one likes a picture is to ask one’s self whether one would like to look at it if one was quite sure one was alone. The best test for a painter as to whether he likes painting his picture is to ask himself whether he should like to paint it if he was quite sure that no one except himself, and the few of whom he was very fond, would ever see it. If he can answer this question in the affirmative, he is all right; if he cannot, he is all wrong. I will close these remarks with an illustration which will show how nearly we can approach the early Florentines even now — when nobody is looking at us. I do not know who Mr. Pollard is. I never heard of him till I came across a cheap lithograph of his Funeral of Tom Moody in the parlour of a village inn. I should not think he ever was an R.A., but he has approached as nearly as the difference between the geniuses of the two countries will allow, to the spirit of the painters who painted in the Campo Santo at Pisa. Look, again, at Garrard, at the close of the last century. We generally succeed with sporting or quasi-sporting subjects, and our cheap coloured coaching and hunting subjects are almost always good, and often very good indeed. We like these things: therefore we observe them; therefore we soon become able to express them. Historical and costume pictures we have no genuine love for; we do not, therefore, go beyond repeating commonplaces concerning them.

I must reserve other remarks upon this subject for another occasion.

22 Butler said of this drawing that it was “the hieroglyph of a lost soul.”— R. A. S.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:42