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CHAPTER VII THE RENAISSANCE PERIOD
    Initiation of the Renaissance period—Newly born passion for the antique—The Mæcenas and the collector—Plagiarians, imitators and fakers—Cola di Rienzi, archæologist—A collection of the fourteenth century—Artists, writers and travellers hunting for antiques—Niccoli, the Medicis, Cardinal Scarampi and others—The Medici collection dispersed by the Florentine mob.

The Renaissance fakers of art have a somewhat nobler pedigree when compared with those of other epochs. The early artists from whom they sprang were not actual imitators of the Greeks and Romans, but were inspired by them to reproduce that pagan expression which had deeply affected their artistic temperament. Were these artists doing it purely for art’s sake, or had they the hope that their work might pass as antique? The answer to this is perhaps to be deduced from the character of the age not yet fully ripe for artistic deception. The sentiment for, and cult of, the antique were certainly growing during this early part of the Renaissance; they did not come in a sudden burst, but had been gradually developing in the previous years.

As a matter of fact, already in the transitional period which prepared the highest artistic accomplishment of the Renaissance, collections and collectors were becoming not only eclectic in taste, but seem to have been guided by a real artistic fondness for the art of the past. It is no more a question of solid silver and jewels, but of statues and paintings. Catalogues no longer read like that of Charles VI of France: “Inventoire des joyaux, vaiselle d’or et d’argent estant au Louvre et en la Bastille à Paris appartenent à feu69 le roy Charles,” followed by a monotonous enumeration of jewels, vaiselle, etc., but are like that of the Medici collection, and include all the most varied expressions of art—sculpture, paintings, medals, carving, cameos, rare jewels, etc.

In the early part of the 14th century we know that Cola di Rienzi, the Roman Tribune, collected inscriptions. One of his biographers tells us that Cola “occupied himself every day with inscriptions cut into marble, which were to be found round Rome. No one could decipher the ancient epitaphs like him. He translated all the ancient writings and gave the right interpretation to these marbles.” It was between the years 1344–47 that Cola compiled a work on Roman inscriptions, re-edited a century later by Signorili in his Descriptio urbis Romæ.

Oliver Forza, or Forzetta, who flourished about the year 1335, seems to have owned the first complete collection of which we have notice. Forzetta was a wealthy citizen of Treviso. We know that in the above year of 1335 he came to Venice to buy several pieces for his collection, manuscripts of the works of Seneca, Ovid, Sallust, Cicero, Titus, Livius, etc., goldsmiths’ work, fifty medals that had been promised him by a certain Simon, crystals, bronzes, four statues in marble, others representing lions, horses, nude figures, etc. The latter seem to have belonged to an earlier collector named Perenzolo.

To point out that even outside Italy taste had changed at the beginning of the 15th century, we may quote the following description handed down to us by Guillebert de Metz. It gives a full account of the collection of Jacques Duchie, a Parisian, and indicates that at this early time Paris must have possessed more than one of these collections of art and curios.

“The house of master Duchie in the rue des Prouvelles,” says Guillebert de Metz, “the door of which is carved with marvellous artistry; in the courtyard there were peacocks and diverse fancy birds. The first hall is adorned with diverse pictures and instructive texts fixed to and hung on the walls.70 Another hall filled with all manner of instruments, harps, organs, viols, guitars, psalters, and others, upon all of which the said master Jacques knew how to play. Another hall was furnished with chess tables and other diverse kinds of games, great in number. Item, a beautiful chapel where there were stands to place books upon, marvellously wrought, which had been sent from diverse places far and near, to the right and to the left. Item, a study the walls of which were covered with precious stones and with spices of sweet odour. Item, several other rooms richly furnished with beds and with ingeniously carved tables and adorned with rich hangings and cloth of gold. Item, in another lofty room were a great number of cross-bows, some of which were painted with beautiful figures. Here were standards, banners, pennons, bows, pikes, swords, lances, battle-axes, iron and lead armour, pavais, shields, bucklers, cannon and other engines, with arms in abundance, and, briefly, there were also all manner of war implements. Item, there was a window of wonderful workmanship, through which you put a hollow iron mask through which you could look out and speak to those outside, if occasion arose, without making yourself known. Item, above the whole house was a square room with windows on every side from which one could overlook the town. And when it came to eating, food and drink were sent up by a pulley, because it would have been too high up to carry. And above the pinnacles of the house were beautiful gilt figures. This master Jacques Duchie was a handsome man ‘de honneste hebit’ and very distinguished; he kept well-mannered and well-trained servants of pleasing countenance, among whom was a master carpenter who was constantly at work at the mansion.”

But Italy at the early part of this century was far more advanced. There was no question here of collectors of dubious taste or odd fancy for the simply curious; on the contrary we are confronted by real connoisseurs and genuine lovers of art, intelligent and eager hunters after all sorts of articles of virtu of past art; and also enlightened art patrons71 who were munificent toward their contemporary painters, sculptors and literary men.

Taste had changed, and some tendencies merely outlined at the time when religion seemed to absorb all the activities of art, were now in full growth. That which in the art of the Cosmati appeared to be a Byzantine aping Roman art, all that seemed plagiarism of this classic art in Nicola Pisano, takes an interestingly different course with Donatello, Brunellesco, and all of those artists whom a wrong convention calls the forerunners of the Renaissance instead of calling them the real creators of that great artistic movement.

The passion for the antique was reviving. It was no longer a question of sporadic cases but rather of a wide-spreading taste. Roman art was in the air. Besides Rienzi, this cult of antique memories had already claimed his friend Petrarch and the learned Dondi, a physician from Padua, who visited Rome in the year 1375 to crown a long course of study devoted to the antique. In a letter addressed to his friend Guglielmo da Cremona, Giovanni proclaims the superiority of antique art and is certain that modern artists will be the first to recognize the fact and learn from it. Poor and hard-working, Dondi regrets that his profession, his ailing patients, take so much of his time. But for the profession, “I would rise as high as the stars,” he naively declares.

Ciriaco d’Ancona, another great eager collector and intelligent hunter after fine things, visits the Orient and Greece in search of manuscripts and relics of art; Francesco Squarcione comes from the East, bringing to his native Padua fine Greek works, and is perhaps the first artist to devote himself to antiques, just as Niccolo Niccoli, a Florentine lover of art, represents at this time the learned amateur of taste.
Photo:
Alinari
Diomedes with the Palladium.

An imitation of the antique by Donatello’s School (?) and a free copy of Niccoli’s cameo, a Greek work. Palazzo Riccordi, Florence.

Niccoli is really one of the finest types of collectors. Born at a time when Florence demanded that each citizen should belong to one or other of the factions that kept civil war alive in the city, he nevertheless managed to keep free from72 all civil strife. His house was the temple of art and of neutrality. A friend of the powerful and wealthy Medicis, who by the way trusted to his infallible eye as a connoisseur whenever rare things were offered, Niccoli never took advantage of this unusual position, but kept himself far from all ambition and was possessed by the sole desire to collect art, study old manuscripts, and be an ever-obliging helper to students. The friends and admirers who came in flocks for advice, to borrow his rare manuscripts, or to visit his fine emporium of art, were always well received. Niccolo Niccoli was born in the year 1363. The son of a rich Florentine merchant he was forced in his youth to give all his activities to commerce. Liberated from the tie of a profession for which he had no call, he finally gave himself to his cherished study of art and literature, attending the lessons of Luigi Marsigli and Emanuele Chrysoloras. His studies were thus the stepping-stone to the collecting of antiquities. In the year 1414 his fame had already extended beyond the city walls. The Chancellor of the city of Padua addressed him in a letter as “clarissimus vetustatis cultor.” Notwithstanding his great wealth, such was his passion that but for the discreet help of the Medici, the powerful Cosimo and his brother Lorenzo, who became Niccoli’s benevolent bankers, on more than one occasion this enlightened amateur might have been forced to sell his precious collection, or at least do that which is most hateful to the true lover of art, sell the best that years of patient work had gathered together. What is most surprising is the fact that Niccoli managed to make one of the finest collections of art of his day almost without leaving his native city. We know of him as going once to Padua to secure a rare manuscript of Petrarch, and later on as accompanying his friend and protector, Cosimo Medici, to Verona, a trip the latter undertook in the year 1420. With Cosimo again he visited Rome, to be horrified at the mutilation inflicted upon the Eternal City by barbarians of all ages and denominations. Yet without moving from his native city, keen-eyed Niccoli managed to search the world73 with the help of agents and friends—some of them, no doubt, the practised servants of the Medicis. There was hardly a rare thing discovered, no matter where, but the fact came to Niccoli’s ears, and the “find” generally found its way to this enlightened Florentine’s collection. Once he even had the fortune to discover a fine sample of Greek art in Florence, a few steps from the door of his house. It was the well-known cameo which he attributed to Polycletus and which was afterwards so often reproduced by the artists of the Renaissance. Niccoli discovered this rare piece of chalcedony hanging round the neck of a street urchin. He asked him who his father was and found him to be a poor workman. He went to see him, and to the man’s surprise offered for the stone the round sum of 5 golden ducats. It is curious to trace the migrations of Niccoli’s “calcedonio,” as the piece was called later. When Cardinal Scarampi—the Patriarch of Aquileia and the most passionate collector of his time—came to Florence, he went to visit Niccoli and his collection. There he became so enamoured of the “calcedonio” that he proposed to buy it. Niccoli, who could hardly refuse the favour to the powerful and influential Cardinal, consented to part with the rare piece for 200 ducats. Later on the “calcedonio” entered the collection of Pope Paul II, to pass finally to that of Lorenzo il Magnifico. In an inventory belonging to the Medici family the gem is valued at 1500 golden florins.

Not dissimilar from certain modern and older types of collectors, Niccoli was what might be called a strange character. While spending large sums of money on his articles of virtu, he was almost parsimonious in his household, although he liked to drink from rare cups and set his table most richly with all sorts of precious vases. One of his peculiarities was always to be dressed in pink. He had an endless wardrobe of these rosy-hued garments and was as preoccupied with them as he was with the rare objects of his collection. These and other oddities were naturally the subject of gibes and sarcasm from friends and unfriendly humanists, but Niccoli never answered one written line,74 content to retaliate with his witty and cutting tongue. He certainly had the best of it in this curious duel, for he forced Aurispa and Filelfe to leave the town, and also, perhaps not through his sarcastic tongue alone but through some Medicean intrigue, compelled his enemies, Emanuel Chrysoloras, his former teacher, and Guarino to make themselves very scarce in the city.

Niccolo Niccoli’s name brings us straight to that of his protectors, the Medicis, the family who as collectors of art and fosterers of literature and philosophy surpassed every one of their age.

Cardinal Scarampi’s collection, that of Pietro Barbe, afterwards Paul II, and even the most complete of all, that of Niccoli, become rather minor stars when compared with the artistic treasures gathered by the Medicis for generations. This illustrious Florentine family seems to have been for centuries nothing but a succession of patrons of the fine arts.

“No art collection,” says Eugene Müntz in his Les Collections des Médicis, “has more deeply influenced the art of the Renaissance, no collection has passed through more trials than the one of this family. Ten generations of enthusiastic amateurs have given themselves to its enrichment; the greatest artists, Donatello, Ghiberti, Verrocchio, the two Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael have sought inspiration and models in the Medici collection. This while, by an unaccountable contradiction, all the revolutions that troubled the city of Florence seem to have continually threatened the existence of such an inestimable gathering.”

To be convinced of the extreme importance of the Medici collection one has but to reflect that what now remains of it in the Florentine museums or in well-known private hands is only the smallest part of those past treasures, which has managed to survive the pillage of the collection in the year 1494, when Piero Medici fled and the Medici palace was sacked by the populace and the remaining effects sold and dispersed by order of the Commune. What was later recovered75 by the family was only a small part of the collection. An idea of the magnitude of the Medici museum of art can be gained by perusing the accurate inventories still remaining in the Florentine archives, the list of the objects left by Cosimo the Elder to his son Piero and the catalogue of the collection belonging to Lorenzo il Magnifico, and finally the account of their money.

A brief study of the character of the two most important collectors of the Medici family, Cosimo and Lorenzo il Magnifico, will enable us to judge of the quality and tendencies of the amateur of the Renaissance.

The characteristics of the time in which Cosimo lived and the fact that he had spent a long period in exile, a misfortune brought upon him by jealousy, gave his inclinations as an amateur a different course from what they might otherwise have had. Thus, while on the one hand Cosimo never lost a chance to help artists and to acquire fine works of art, he was shrewd enough to do so without ostentation, to avoid arousing enmity from adversaries. Bu............
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