THE THIRD MORNING. BEFORE THE SOLDAN.
His great point, however, in this fresco, is the assertion of the reality of the stigmata against all question. There is not only one St. Thomas to be convinced; there are five; - one to each wound. Of these, four are intent only on satisfying their curiosity, and are peering or probing; one only kisses the hand he has lifted. The rest of the picture never was much more than a grey drawing of a noble burial service; of all concerned in which, one monk, only, is worthy to see the soul taken up to heaven; and he is evidently just the monk whom nobody in the convent thought anything of. (His face is all repainted; but one can gather this much, or little, out of it, yet.)
Of the composition, or "unity and harmony of the whole," as a burial service, we may better judge after we have looked at the brighter picture of St. Francis's Birth - birth spiritual, that is to say, to his native heaven; the uppermost, namely, of the three subjects on this side of the chapel. It is entirely characteristic of Giotto; much of it by his hand - all of it beautiful. All important matters to be known of Giotto you may know from this fresco.
'But we can't see it, even with our opera-glasses, but all foreshortened and spoiled. What is the use of lecturing us on this?'
That is precisely the first point which is essentially Giottesque in it; its being so out of the way! It is this which makes it a perfect specimen of the master. I will tell you next something about a work of his which you can see perfectly, just behind you on the opposite side of the wall; but that you have half to break your neck to look at this one, is the very first thing I want you to feel.
It is a characteristic - (as far as I know, quite a universal one) - of the greatest masters, that they never expect you to look at them; seem always rather surprised if you want to; and not overpleased. Tell them you are going to hang their picture at the upper end of the table at the next great City dinner, and that Mr. So and So will make a speech about it; you produce no impression upon them whatever, or an unfavourable one. The chances are ten to one they send you the most rubbishy thing they can find in their lumber-room. But send for one of them in a hurry, and tell him the rats have gnawed a nasty hole behind the parlor door, and you want it plastered and painted over; - and he does you a masterpiece which the world will peep behind your door to look at for ever.
I have no time to tell you why this is so; nor do I know why, altogether; but so it is.
Giotto, then, is sent for, to paint this high chapel: I am not sure if he chose his own subjects from the life of St. Francis: I think so, - but of course can't reason on the guess securely. At all events, he would have much of his own way in the matter.
Now you must observe that painting a Gothic chapel rightly is just the same thing as painting a Greek vase rightly. The chapel is merely the vase turned upside-down, and outside-in. The principles of decoration are exactly the same. Your decoration is to be proportioned to the size of your vase; to be together delightful when you look at the cup, or chapel, as a whole; to be various and entertaining when you turn the cup round; (you turn yourself round in the chapel;) and to bend its heads and necks of figures about, as it best can, over the hollows, and ins and outs, so that anyhow, whether too long or too short-possible or impossible - they may be living, and full of grace. You will also please take it on my word today - in another morning walk you shall have proof of it - that Giotto was a pure Etruscan-Greek of the thirteenth century: converted indeed to worship St. Francis instead of Heracles; but as far as vase-painting goes, precisely the Etruscan he was before. This is nothing else than a large, beautiful, coloured Etruscan vase you have got, inverted over your heads like a diving-bell.' [Footnote: I observe that recent criticism is engaged in proving all Etruscan vases to be of late manufacture, in imitation of archaic Greek. And I therefore must briefly anticipate a statement which I shall have to enforce in following letters. Etruscan art remains in its own Italian valleys, of the Arno and upper Tiber, in one unbroken series of work, from the seventh century before Christ, to this hour, when the country whitewasher still scratches his plaster in Etruscan patterns. All Florentine work of the finest kind - Luca della Robbia's, Ghiberti's, Donatello's, Filippo Lippi's, Botticelli's, Fra Angelico's - is absolutely pure Etruscan, merely changing its subjects, and representing the Virgin instead of Athena, and Christ instead of Jupiter. Every line of the Florentine chisel in the fifteenth century is based on national principles of art which existed in the seventh century before Christ; and Angelico, in his convent of St. Dominic, at the foot of the hill of Fesole, is as true an Etruscan as the builder who laid the rude stones of the wall along its crest - of which modern civilization has used the only arch that remained for cheap building stone. Luckily, I sketched it in 1845. but alas, too carelessly, - never conceiving of the brutalities of modem Italy as possible.]
Accordingly, after the quatrefoil ornamentation of the top of the bell, you get two spaces at the sides under arches, very difficult to cramp one's picture into, if it is to be a picture only; but entirely provocative of our old Etruscan instinct of ornament. And, spurred by the difficulty, and pleased by the national character of it, we put our best work into these arches, utterly neglectful of the public below, - who will see the white and red and blue spaces, at any rate, which is all they will want to see, thinks Giotto, if he ever looks down from his scaffold.