"Italian Pre-Raphaelites." Eclectic Review 10, 5th ser. (Dec. 1855), 641-658.


Art. I.–The Life of Giovanni Angelico da Fiesoli. Translated from the Italian of Vasari by Giovanni Aubrey Bezzi. With Notes and Illustrations. Printed for the Arundel Society. 1850.

2. Giotto and His Works in Padua; being an Explanatory Notice of the Series of Woodcuts executed for the Arundel Society after the Frescoes of the Arena Chapel. By John Ruskin. Printed for the Arundel Society. Parts I. and II. 1854.

The above publications are issued by the Arundel Society, which was expressly established for promoting the knowledge of Art. . . . It has thus done good service to the cause of art in bringing into increased notice the period of the Italian Pre-Raphaelites. Of this early epoch, we now propose to treat: we shall endeavour to estimate the peculiar merits of these ancient works; to show their historical relation with the great masters of the fifteenth century, and coming down to our own times, to judge of the paintings and teachings of men who are known among us as the modern Pre-Raphaelites. . . .

. . . We will not now enlarge further upon these things, of which the public may ere this be well nigh satiated; we have already sufficiently, strongly, and fully expressed our opinion on the unrivalled though partial merits of these early masters, and it will therefore be the more readily conceded that no blind insensibility or predetermined prejudice has dictated the remarks which may follow upon the revival of this early Italian period in our modern English school.

In studying art through its past history, nothing is more strikingly manifest than the diversified characteristics which enter into and distinguish its different schools. If man himself were not equally diversified in character, if life and general history were not examples of contrasts as well as of analogies, if man is demon not less than angel, now holding communion with heaven, now grovelling on earth, it might be more difficult to explain and reconcile the works which he has left recording his passions or manifesting his aspirations. The entire philosophy of man can never be deduced by a partial and one-sided review of his manifestations. The philosophy of art, as of all other mental developments, must embrace all known examples: the basis on which it builds cannot be too wide or extended. We therefore rejoice that writers and artists have come forward to rescue from neglect early works of which we have already spoken in the highest terms. Such pictures teach a lesson specially needed in the art of our country, and lead to a reaction which, if it swerve not too greatly from the line of moderation, cannot fail of being salutary. . . .

It is only when the entire cycle of art shall be described that the varied genius of man will obtain expression. No true poet can be blotted out of the hemisphere of literature, no artist out of the scroll of art-history, without leaving a void in the consecutive but still incomplete genealogy of genius. In these days, every legitimate art-manifestation must grow out of the consummated history of art’s past development. Each separate school can teach something. The artist who would enlarge the individuality of a partial genius into universality must study not one school or master, but many. It is true that his special sympathies may rightly lead to the selection of a special master or epoch; he may thus make one special art-manifestation his primary aim; but unless he be content to sink into a narrow mannerist, he must bring to bear upon the central idea of his life and labours, all collateral lights, aids, and agencies. The artist must look to universal nature if he would correct and enlarge the individual bias of partial genius; and in like manner he must study art’s universal history, not in order to listen in egotistic delight to the echo of his own thoughts and words, but to catch the utterance of that varied and pervading genius, which, refusing to reveal its

full mystery to any one man or epoch, completes the entire art revelation in art’s consummated history. Thus, by a law of development in this art-creation, each manifestation leads to its succeeding phase by links which ought never to be forgotten or dissolved. Each school and master is but a portion of a greater whole, from which no part can be taken without marring the symmetry of the entire structure. We may know that the Venetian school is less thoughtful than the Roman, but is it, therefore, to be excluded from our art-studies and philosophy? The Roman, in turn, might, in like manner, be cast aside because it cannot boast of the colour of the Venetian. Admitting, therefore, that these early Italian masters attained a purity, an earnestness, and spirituality surpassing all other periods, is it reasonable, is it wise, to ignore, schools which are as undoubtedly supreme in other, and by no means despicable qualities? We dissent, therefore, from the creed of these Pre-Raphaelite Brethren, not because they worship what is unworthy of reverence, but because, in their too ardent and exclusive admiration for one circumscribed period, they ignore the full cycle of art’s history and development.

This pretended art revival has originated in and been sustained by collateral causes, which we now proceed to examine. A love of paradox, the craving for some startling eccentricity, the mental excitement involved in throwing aside old and unaccustomed guides for new, have, with some minds, a delusive fascination. Again, while there are men who are impelled by ambition and discontent, to launch into a fancy-created future, there are others who seek an escape from the present by turning their steps backwards to the past. In ecclesiastical matters, their sympathy with whatever Church can boast of remotest origin; in literature, they love old books, or new books in old bindings; and in art, in like manner, they prefer old prints, old coins, old pictures, or new pictures in the oldest manner. Now, far be it from us wholly to discourage this harmless dilettantism incident to refined and accomplished minds. We confess that we feel towards it a greater sympathy than for that confident and too complacent reliance on present unaided resources and capabilities, which looks upon the past only for self-congratulation on its own superior attainments. But still this indiscriminate worship of the old merely because it is old implies a blindness and weakness subversive of a rational and natural taste in art. This is the first cause we would assign for the present resuscitation of art-antiquity. It is thus evident that this art-phenomenon is only one form of a wider manifestation, having its origin in a tendency latent in humanity.

Another reason is to be found in the delight felt by connoisseurship in discovering merits unappreciable by the uninitiated multitude. To find and bring into notice neglected genius is a favourite resource with minds which can shine only by borrowed light. To call the oft-repeated, however intrinsically excellent, conventional and commonplace, and to reserve for peculiar worship what is distant, foreign, and necessarily beyond the sympathies of the multitude, doubtless may be presumed to argue a refined and discriminative taste. There is likewise an inherent tendency in each fashion in succession to wear itself out; and the conventional style of art, long established in England, having become, through endless repetition, hackneyed and commonplace, it was but consonant with the known oscillation which governs human affairs, that a reactionary movement should set in. The reaction is, of course, in an opposite direction to the antecedent tendency. Art critics having formerly placed the epoch of perfection a little too far onwards, it would now seem but a necessary reaction to remove art’s culmination to a period somewhat too far back. Hence, this resuscitation of an early art-period. We thus see that this modern revival is but one of those reactionary and vacillating movements that constitute the zig-zag career of human progression, which, by an inherent law of exaggeration, thus swerves from the right line of its destiny.

We can assign one more cause for this reversion to mediæval art. In art there has been waged an ever-recurring conflict between the classical and Christian elements. Cimabue, Giotto, Ghiberti, and Masaccio, were essentially Christian in spirit, striving after not so much a bodily beauty and perfection as for the expression of a spiritual state of experience–the pure and elevated manifestation of the Christian character. The change which undoubtedly came over the spirit of art, under the influence of the Medici, both in Rome and Florence, is usually ascribed to the study of the antique. That this change was an advanced movement; that the masterpieces of the classic period supplied manifest defects in then undeveloped Christian art; that it was desirable and necessary that the arts should pass through this phase on their onward career, we cannot for one moment doubt. We are ready, however, to join Mr. Ruskin and the Brethren, at least in a partial condemnation of the movement. The advantage gained was purchased, undoubtedly, at the expense of something lost. The æsthetic beauty of the classic remains was not the sole actuating principle in this onward movement. At the Vatican infidelity was enthroned; Christendom at its source was in spirit unchristianized; and classic literature, classic art and tastes revived amidst the expiring faith in the pure life and essence of Christianity. Our knowledge of Raphael’s later period, however, does not justify the imputation that this spirit of Antichrist sullied and infected the pure character of his works. Still it must be admitted that a classic revival had set in for evil as well as for good, and that synchronous with the movement, the fervent spirituality of early Christian art was on the wane. An analogous and parallel coincidence occurs in the art epoch of the French Revolution. Christianity is overthrown, and with the rise of infidelity classic art is once more ascendant. David and his followers moulded figures on canvas cold as the antique marbles which were the models, sceptical and faithless as the age out of which these creations sprang, inspired by the convulsive paroxysm of revolution in lieu of the quiet sustaining spirit which once breathed in Christian art. This country, likewise, has passed through a classic epoch, and is now possibly in the perihelion of the ecclesiastical orbit. Classic and its derivative Italian architecture was long exclusively the style not merely for palaces but for churches; and now, on the contrary, Gothic is equally imperative, not only for churches but for the palaces of secular legislation. This ecclesiastical and Christian revival is so clearly marked and widely diffused that it is scarcely needful to insist further on the fact. It is seen in the increased vitality of the Church, and its spirit is equally extended and diffused over our literature and our arts. The writings of the Fathers have been rescued from neglect, and with them, not unnaturally, the pictures of the middle ages. The modern Pre-Raphaelite school, therefore, has its rise in a still wider manifestation, and appeals, even in its anachronisms and eccentricities, to present existing tendencies and sympathies. The teaching of the Brethren is consonant with their practice, and accordant with the movement of which we speak. They tell us in a periodical entitled ‘Art and Poetry,’ that the art of the Greeks was not spiritual; that ‘their gods speak to us no longer as gods;’ ‘they have become mere images of stone and profane embodiments;’ that ‘Hellenic art wants everything which Christian art is full of;’ that ‘Ithuriel’s golden spear was not more antagonistic to Satan’s loathly transformation, than is Christian opposed to pagan art.’ Now, that one form of beauty is essentially antagonistic to any other of its genuine manifestations, cannot for one moment be admitted. We make this quotation merely to exemplify the conflict which from time to time has been waged, and is now again renewed, between classic and Christian art. This mistaken, because exclusive[,] sympathy for the ecclesiastical element, will likewise explain the otherwise somewhat anomalous advocacy of Mr. Ruskin. A man who can seriously tell his auditors in Edinburgh that iron architecture is not to be tolerated, because he finds no sanction for its use in the Bible, and because, thereby, the force of the Scripture image of the Corner Stone would be lost–who can seriously recommend the people of Edinburgh, in default of Gothic edifices, to annex at least a Gothic porch or Pointed window to their classic houses, is evidently so far the victim of enthusiasm, as ceasing to be a guide, to serve only as an extreme example. We know, with the certainty of an à priori argument, that through innate antipathies such a man, so committed, must necessarily condemn classic art as he abjures the pagan faith. We can no longer be astonished, when he denounces our modern English art, on the assumption, however false, of its denying Christ; and on the other hand, it is but natural that his hopes and sympathies should centre around mediæval art and its present revival, inasmuch as by a parallel assumption it alone is found to ‘confess Christ.’ That this is sound catholic or healthful criticism, we deny; but its refutation is not now our object. We confine ourselves to the statement of its antecedents; the premises being given, the conclusion, however startling, is thus easily understood. Having, therefore, in the first place, not only admitted but endeavoured to enforce the merits by which mediæval art and its recent revival rightly claim our attention and discriminative admiration, we have now enumerated certain accessory and incidental reasons that have given to the movement an additional and fictitious importance.

We will further attempt to show that this modern school not only implies partial and exaggerated truth, but involves likewise positive error. It does not content itself with the simple assertion, that the earlier Italian masters attained to certain special and exclusive excellences. To this position, we have already given our assent. But it further maintains that these early men are better guides, and truer artists than either Raphael, Michael Angelo, or Leonardo da Vinci. This we utterly deny, and will now advance our reasons. To prevent mistake, we at once state that we are not the champions of the Post-Raphaelite masters. We are not the devoted admirers of Guido’s refined ideals, of Annibal Carracci’s, or Nicholas Poussin’s classical compilations, and we shall not now stop to insist on the paramount merits of Correggio, Titian, Veronese, or Tintoretto, in their several departments. We confine ourselves to the simple position, that art did not culminate with the Pre-Raphaelite painters; that the meridian of its power was not attained till Leonardo, Michael Angelo, and Raphael reached their zenith. On what ground have these great names been cast down from the eminence to which the suffrages of all times and countries have rightly raised them? Is the career of Leonardo, and the history of his greatest work, calculated to impair confidence and respect[?] ‘The Last Supper’ is said to be a compendium of all his studies and writings; we are told by Vasari, that to the heads of the apostles he gave so much beauty and majesty, that he was constrained to leave that of the Saviour unfinished, because he could not hope to find on earth, and he had not yet attained the power of presenting it to himself in imagination, that perfection of beauty and celestial grace requisite for the due representation of Divinity incarnate. The head of Judas was also still wanting. He did not think it possible to imagine the fitting features of a man, who, after so many benefits received, possessed a heart sufficiently depraved to betray his Lord. Throughout the work every feature is a study; each head the exponent of a well-marked and fully elaborated character; but we need not dwell on the merits of a painting happily so well known. . . .

We will now proceed to show that Raphael’s career was throughout one of advancement, and not, as is now pretended, a retrogression. . . . It is, nevertheless, just possible that all this mental striving, this earnest pursuit after the highest excellence in his art, may have but led him in a career of downward degeneracy. This we say is possible, but most improbable. It is just possible that such an apparent paradox might, on full examination, prove as true as it is startling. It is barely possible that the concurrent judgment of all subsequent times may be mistaken, and Mr. Ruskin and ‘the Brethren’ in these last days alone right. All this is possible, nevertheless most improbable.

The enthusiastic and exclusive admirers of the early masters should prefer Raphael’s youthful to his later matured manner is naturally incident to the fanaticism of their tastes. . . .

We have thus, it is hoped, succeeded in showing that the cry of Raphael’s degeneracy and fall is unfounded, and that the names of Leonardo, Michael Angelo, and Raphael, must still hold their accustomed supremacy in the realms of art. We have, likewise, in the course of our inquiries, seen upon what historical evidence the Pre-Raphaelite movement in this country rests. We have found in past records sufficient to account for the origin, if not to justify the career, of our present mediæval school. We have seen that its art antecedents are not only curious but instructive; that the ancient moral documents are titles to an honourable ancestry, if not the impassable limitations of future destiny. We have, on the present occasion more especially, concerned ourselves with the Italian Pre-Raphaelites; on a future opportunity, we may possibly examine more in detail the works and teachings of the men who, in our country, assume the manner and the name of these early progenitors.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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