AN HOUR WITH THE PAINTERS
As a general thing it is well to distrust a Spaniard's superlatives. He will tell you that his people are the most amiable in the world, but you will do well to carry your revolver into the interior. He will say there are no wines worth drinking but the Spanish, but you will scarcely forswear Clicquot and Yquem on the mere faith of his assertion. A distinguished general once gravely assured me that there was no literature in the world at all to be compared with the productions of the Castilian mind. All others, he said, were but pale imitations of Spanish master-work.
Now, though you may be shocked at learning such unfavorable facts of 'Shakespeare and Goethe and Hugo, you will hardly condemn them to an Auto da fe, on the testimony even of a grandee of Spain.
But when a Spaniard assures you that the picture-gallery of Madrid is the finest in the world, you may believe him without reserve. He probably does not know what he is talking about. He may never have crossed the Pyrenees. He has no dream of the glories of Dresden, or Florence, or the Louvre. It is even possible that he has not seen the matchless collection he is boasting of. He crowns it with a sweeping superlative simply because it is Spanish. But the statement is nevertheless true.
The reason of this is found in that gigantic and overshadowing fact which seems to be an explanation of everything in Spain, - the power and the tyranny of the House of Austria. The period of the vast increase of Spanish dominion coincided with that of the meridian glory of Italian art. The conquest of Granada was finished as the divine child Raphael began to meddle with his father's brushes and pallets, and before his short life ended Charles, Burgess of Ghent, was emperor and king.
The dominions he governed and transmitted to his son embraced Spain, the Netherlands, Franche-Comte, the Milanese, Naples, and Sicily; that is to say, those regions where art in that age and the next attained its supreme development. He was also lord of the New World, whose inexhaustible mines poured into the lap of Europe a constant stream of gold. Hence came the riches and the leisure necessary to art.
Charles V., as well as his great contemporary and rival, Francis I., was a munificent protector of art. He brought from Italy and Antwerp some of the most perfect products of their immortal masters. He was the friend and patron of Titian, and when, weary of the world and its vanities, he retired to the lonely monastery of Yuste to spend in devout contemplation the evening of his days, the most precious solace of his solitude was that noble canvas of the great Venetian, where Charles and Philip are borne, in penitential guise and garb, on luminous clouds into the visible glory of the Most High.
These two great kings made a good use of their unbounded opportunities. Spain became illuminated with the glowing canvases of the incomparable Italians. The opening up of the New World beyond seas, the meteoric career of European and African conquest in which the emperor had won so much land and glory, had given an awakening shock to the intelligent youth of Spain, and sent them forth in every avenue of enterprise. This jealously patriotic race, which had remained locked up by the mountains and the seas for centuries, started suddenly out, seeking adventures over the earth. The mind of Spain seemed suddenly to have brightened and developed like that of her great king, who, in his first tourney at Valladolid, wrote with proud sluggishness Nondum - not yet - on his maiden shield, and a few years later in his young maturity adopted the legend of arrogant hope and promise, - Plus Ultra. There were seen two emigrations of the young men of Spain, eastward and westward. The latter went for gold and material conquest into the American wilds; and the former, led by the sacred love of art, to that land of beauty and wonder, then, now, and always the spiritual shrine of all peoples, - Italy.
A brilliant young army went out from Spain on this new crusade of the beautiful. From the plains of Castile and the hills of Navarre went, among others, Berruguete, Becerra, and the marvellous deaf-mute Navarrete. The luxurious city of Valentia sent Juan de Juanes and Ribalta. Luis de Vargas went out from Seville, and from Cordova the scholar, artist, and thinker, Paul of Cespedes. The schools of Rome and Venice and Florence were thronged with eager pilgrims, speaking an alien Latin and filled with a childlike wonder and appreciation.
In that stirring age the emigration was not all in one direction. Many distinguished foreigners came down to Spain, to profit by the new love of art in the Peninsula. It was Philip of Burgundy who carved, with Berruguete, those miracles of skill and patience we admire to-day in the choir of Toledo. Peter of Champagne painted at Seville the grand altar-piece that so comforted the eyes and the soul of Murillo. The wild Greek bedouin, George Theotocopouli, built the Mozarabic chapel and filled the walls of convents with his weird ghost-faces. Moor, or Moro, came from the Low Countries, and the Carducci brothers from Italy, to seek their fortunes in Madrid. Torrigiani, after breaking Michael Angelo's nose in Florence, fled to Granada, and died in a prison of the Inquisition for smashing the face of a Virgin which a grandee of Spain wanted to steal from him.