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JUDGMENT OF MICHAEL ANGELO-PAOLINE CHAPEL-GALLERIES AND
CHAMBERS OF RAPHAEL-COLLECTION OF PICTURES.
ADJOINING St. Peter's on the north is the Vatican or the Palace of the Pope, an irregular, enormous pile, covering an area twelve hundred feet in length by one thousand in breadth, and forming a congeries of buildings, which have been added one after another, from the days of Constantine to the present period. As no systematic plans or orders of architecture have been followed, and as the various sections have sprung up in ages widely differing in character, the exterior is without form and void, presenting nothing striking except its magnitude. Some of the twenty-five courts enclosed by these vast ranges of palaces are rather splendid, adorned with fountains, and the other usual embellishments. One peculiar feature prevails in the construction of these buildings. They conform to the original contour of the hill, rising one above another on the acclivity; and the extensive galleries, which have been opened in the interior, are in the forms of inclined planes, which may be considered an ornament rather than a defect.
The whole of the Vatican, except the suite of apartments appropriated to the Pope, is occupied as an immense repository of the fine arts -by far the most extensive and splendid in the world, not excepting the Gallery at Florence, or the Louvre at Paris. Several days were in. dustriously employed in examining its various compartments; and as many months might be passed without exhausting their interesting contents. But I am neither an artist nor an amateur, and a cursory notice of a few of the more prominent objects will alone be attempted. A mere specification of the articles in the Vatican would fill a volume, which nobody of course would read.
The entrance is by the Sala Regia or Regal Stair-way, a magnificent flight of steps, springing from the Porch of St. Peter's, near the equestrian statue of Constantine, and leading to the second story of the palace. First in the labyrinth of apartments,* which soon bewilder the visitant, and render either a pocket compass or a cicerone indispensable, is the Sala Regia or Royal Hall. It is filled with frescos ; and lest the subjects might be mistaken, the artists have adopted the precaution of giving long explanatory inscriptions in Latin. These ornaments are in no other respect interesting, than as illustrating the prevailing spirit of the Popes. The scenes delineated are all of a temporal, proud, imperious character. One represents the triumphal entry of Gregory XI. into Rome, after the restoration of the papal see from Avignon ; another, Gregory VII. receiving acts of humiliation from Henry IV.; a third, the reconquest of Tunis ; and a fourth, a victory over the Turks at Lepanto.
* The number of rooms in the Vatican is said to be thirteen thousand, and the palace to cover as much ground as the city of Turin. I did not take the trouble to count the one, or to measure the area of the other.
Expectation was on tiptoe, as the guide ushered us into the Sistine Chapel, the Sanctum Sanctorum of papal rites, and rendered still more sacred in the eyes of ordinary visiters, by the genius of Michael Angelo. This may be denominated the charnber of his peculiar presence, although in my estimation, it is very far from being the throne of his glory. Here the boldest, the most daring of artists attempted to portray the sublimest of subjects—subjects to which the
powers of even his imagination and his pencil were wholly inadequate. On the ceiling he endeavoured to give form to the Most High, surrounded by the hosts of heaven ; and the western wall is entirely covered with his fresco of the Last Judgment, to which he devoted three of the best years of his life. It is a melancholy thought, that so much talent and so much skill could scarcely redeem his efforts from ridicule ; and the only matter of astonishment is, that such a mind could have been so mistaken in the measure of its capacity. In his too lofty aspirations, he seems to have been led astray by the example of Dante,* venturing to follow his great predecessor through the depths of hell and to the heights of heaven, and fancying the pencil capable of delineating themes, which the muse had successfully sung. But however nearly allied in some respects are the kindred arts of poetry and painting, the former may sometimes present to the mind those shadowy images of thought, which the latter cannot safely embody and invest with the broader light of vision. The speaking shades of Virgil, or the warring angels of Milton, if reduced to the canvass by the ablest artists, would be no better than caricatures. Critics have selected
* That the artist had the scenes of the poet in his eye, is evident from the circumstance of the former having adopted the mixed theology of the latter. Dante in his Inferno does not scruple to make use of Charon and his boat to ferry over his christian ghosts; and the same machinery is delineated in the Last Judg.. ment.
portions of this celebrated work, on which they have lavished extravagant praises. Eustace says the eye of the Judge “flashes lightning,” as he pronounces the solemn and irrevocable sentence to the damned. Now, to say nothing of the impropriety of clothing the Saviour with such angry and revengeful terrors, the classical tourist must have possessed uncommon keenness of vision to discover the eye of the Judge at all, without the aid of an opera glass, defaced, dingy, and obscure as the picture is at present. I am free to confess, that it appeared to me a chaos of wild, incoherent, and ill-assorted images, where the spirits of the blessed and the cursed are scarcely distinguishable; and that I left the apartment with a full conviction, that if this fresco had been the production of an ordinary artist, nine out of ten would pass it over unobserved, or treat it with contempt. But the tenth man might be a connoisseur, and descry beauties which are concealed from vulgar eyes. It would certainly be less of a miracle, that even ninety-nine out of a hundred should be no judges of painting, than that Michael Angelo should be three years engaged on a single work, without producing any thing worthy of admiration. Such at least is Hume's rule of evidence.
The Paoline Chapel, near the Sistine, built by Paul III. is a dusky, gloomy, and cheerless shrine, exhibiting its proud decorations to very little effect. On the sides of the altar stand two beautiful porphyry columns which were taken from the temple of Romulus at the Forum, almost literally exemplifying the maxim of "robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Among the ornaments is a rich and fantastic tabernacle, wrought of pure crystal ; but such is its position in an obscure corner, that a beam of light seldom reaches and pierces the translucent gem. Here also are two pictures by Michael Angelo—the Conversion of St. Paul and the Crucifixion of St. Peter. Owing to a bad light and other circumstances, they do not attract much attention.
We visited the celebrated galleries of Raphael several times. They open on three sides from the second story of the Palace of the Pope, into one of the principal courts of the Vatican, and command a most enchanting view of Rome and its environs. I often turned from the mimic creation of Raphael, to the sublimer works of Nature herself, presented in the blue summits of the Alban hills, and the long line of mountains beyond, brightened by the pure azure of Italian skies. The ceiling of these extensive galleries, stretching to the distance of perhaps three hundred feet, is divided into numerous compartments, and covered with frescos by Raphael and his scholars. The subjects are all scriptural, furnishing a series of illustrations of sacred history, from the creation of the world to the crucifixion of the Saviour, arranged
in chronological order. This Herculean labour was undertaken at the request or perhaps more properly by the injunction of Leo X.; and any defects in the design are ascribable to the Pope rather than to the artist. The latter has done all that mortal could do with such subjects; but even his inimitable skill has failed to impart a very high degree of interest to the work, any farther than as associated with his imperisha
In looking at the tiresome compartments, one seems to see the divine artist upon the scaffolding, in the midst of his pupils, toiling at his daily task, with a sort of mechanical indifference, and attempting contrary to his own judgment, to comply with the wishes of his patron. Such will always be the effect, when genius is shackled with authority, and is not left free to follow its own inspirations. When was a good poem or a good picture produced in the way of job-work, and under the control of a superior ? Raphael was never so great, as when left perfectly to himself, exempt alike from the trammels of schools, and the impertinent suggestions of Popes and Cardinals. His portrait of La Fornarina, the personification of his feelings and affections, has done more for his fame, than all the frescoed walls, which papal splendour ever called into being.
Not one visitant in fifty, except mere artists, has the patience to examine the almost innumerable compartments of this ceiling minutely, although the whole was executed under the immediate superintendence of the greatest master of any age. I shall not be at the pains to describe what others scarcely take the trouble to inspect. The commencement of the series is emphatically his own, both in delineation and colouring; and here his bust has been appropriately placed, at the head of the galleries. His creation is divided into four sections: the first exhibits a view of chaos, shapeless and void: in the second, the nascent globe appears in form, emerging from darkness and consusion: in the third, trees and plants are seen springing forth from the carth: and the fourth arrives at the birth of animated nature. In the attempted delineation of scenes, which so far transcend human efforts, an image of the Creator himself is presented in the guise of an old man, sprawling upon the ceiling, busy at his six-days work of making a world, and darting his strained limbs into chaos, to separate and reduce the discordant elements! Can there be a greater burlesque upon the simple grandeur of the scriptures—“ let there be light, and there was light ?” Yet this caricature, (for so with all its beauty of execution it may be called,) was from the pencil of Raphael himself. Is there need of farther argument to dissuade other artists from similar attempts, and to induce them to circumscribe their efforts within the boundaries of human skill ? The daring flights of Italian genius, and the mad pre
sumption of approaching the throne of the Eternal, with the hope of bringing his image down to the humble conceptions of mortals, have often brought to my mind the apostrophe of the poet:
- Oh sons of earth! attempt ye still to rise,
The Chambers of Raphael constitute a more interesting portion of the Vatican. They are four in number, opening into one another ; and the walls are occupied by sixteen separate paintings in fresco, all of his design, and a large proportion of them executed by himself. The dimensions of the rooms are perhaps twenty feet by thirty, presenting an immense area, to be filled as the tablets of his exhaustless fancy. These taken collectively form a great study for artists, affording an almost endless variety of invention, composition, and colouring ; while each picture delights the mere visitant by some peculiar points of excellence. I visited the chambers repeatedly, and always with increased pleasure. At first sight, the reality did not equal my high anticipations. The apartments do not enjoy intrinsically a very favourable light; and as the frescos have been defaced and obscured by the hordes of northern barbarians, who converted the halls into barracks, a cursory view often produces disappointment, and close attention is required to discover all their merits. In the choice of subjects, Raphael was here left more free to follow the dictates of his own good sense, and the impulse of his superior genius, than in the galleries projected by Leo; though in this splendid exhibition of talent, a connexion with the papal court is visible, and its malign influence has foisted in many a ridiculous episode, for the sake of giving immortality to Popes and their parasites.
The four pictures in the first hall commemorate the military achievements and the religious acts of Constantine the Great, comprising the vision of the cross and his harangue to his army before the victory over Maxentius ; the battle of the Ponte Molle, alluded to in a former letter ; the Baptism of the first Christian emperor at the font of St. John Lateran ; and the Donation of patrimony to the church. All these are great historical events, and afforded fine themes for the em. bellishments of the pencil. They were designed by Raphael, but were not executed till after his death, by Julio Romano, his favourite pupil. Critics consider them master-pieces of their kind.
The second apartment is peculiarly interesting, all the frescos having been designed and coloured by the mighty master himself. One of