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Arabesque Art

Leaving for awhile the subject of sculptured Italian and French Ornament, it may be wel advert to that of painted; the more especially as for a short time, during which a great degree of for the preservation of old Roman vestiges of polychromatic decoration was exercised, a very high remarkable degree of perfection and beauty was attained. It is ever to be borne in mind the very wide difference that existed between the painted and carved arabesques of the ancients. The latter during the period of the Early Renaissance were almost entirely neglected, whilst the former were imitated with great success, as may be seen from the interesting pilaster panels, designed by Baccio Pintelli for the Church of Sant Agostino at Rome, and which form the subject of our woodcuts on this page.

Arabesque
Arabesque designed by
Baccio Pintelli for
the Church of Saint
Augustine, Rome.

Arabesque
Arabesque designed by
Baccio Pintelli for
the Church of Saint
Augustine, Rome.

The study of ancient Roman and Greek sculptures was naturally followed by that of the interior decorations in marble and stone, which throughout Italy abounded so profusely, and which every excavation brought to light, such, for instance, as perfect remains or shattered fragments ornamental vases, altars, friezes, pilasters, etc, groups or single figures, busts or heads, in medallions or on architectural backgrounds; fruit, flowers, foliage, and animals, intermixed with tablets of various forms, bearing allegorical inscriptions. An infinite variety of such gems of beauty offered themselves to the notice of the artists of that period who visited Rome for the express purpose of making drawings of such remains; and in transferring the subject so sketched to the modern arabesques, it was scarcely possible that the early artists should avoid also transferring to their paintings somewhat of the formal character inseparable from the sculptured and material character of the objects from which their original drawings had been made.

Such circumstances may go far to explain the difference we cannot fail to recognise between the imitation and the object imitated, in many of the first attempts to reproduce the painted decorations of the Romans of Imperial times. Among such diligent students, none was more conspicuous than was Pietro Perugino, during his residence in Rome at the latter part of the fifteenth century. How fully and to what good purpose he accumulated studies of ancient ornament was shown by the immediate commission he received from his fellow townsmen to decorate the vaults of their Exchange, or "Sala di Cambio", with frescoes, in which the ancient style and certain antique subjects should be vividly reproduced. This beautiful work of art, for such it proved to be, was executed soon after his return to Perugia from Rome; and manifests how deeply he must have drunk at the classic fountain of antique Art. It is, without doubt, the first complete reproduction of the "grotesques" of the ancients, and is singularly interesting, not only as establishing the claim of Pietro to be regarded as the first great and accurate reviver of this graceful style of decoration, but as having been the "trial-piece" on which so many "apprentice hands" were exercised, whose efforts subsequently carried it to the highest perfection.

The principal scholars of Perugino, whose labours there is little doubt materially aided in the elaboration of these graceful fancies, were Raphael, then aged sixteen or seventeen; Francesco Ubertini, better known as Bacchiacca; and Pinturicchio. And it is curious to trace the influence of the success of this their first attempt upon the after-career of each of the three. It led immediately to the employment of Raphael and Pinturicchio, in conjunction, in the decoration of the celebrated Library at Sienna, and subsequently, to the cultivation of such studies on the part of the former as induced his composition of the inimitable arabesques of the Loggie of the Vatican, and on that of the latter artist to the execution of the ceilings of the choir of Sta. Maria del Popolo, and those of the Apartamenti Borgia, at Rome. Bacchiacca became so completely enamoured of the style, that his whole life was devoted to painting animals, flowers, etc, in "grotesque" decoration; and he ultimately became famous throughout Italy as a perfect master of that variety of design.

In freedom and cleverness of drawing, in harmony of color, in brilliancy of touch, in nice balance of the "pieni" and "vuoti", and in close imitation of the paintings of the ancient Romans, this specimen is one of the most successful that has ever been executed, although, in delicacy of finish and refined study, it can scarcely be expected to equal the subsequent productions of Giovanni da Udine and Morto da Feltro.









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