Letter from JAMES BARRY to EDMUND BURKE, written c. 4 May 1770 , at Florence

Source: Fryer, Works of Barry, i. 179-86.

This undated letter is written towards the end of Barry's stay in Florence; Barry arrived there on 26 April and left before 9 May (Pressly, Life and Art, p. 15). The opening remarks on Gothic architecture echo those in his letter to Burke, 22 May 1768.

Barry, mindful often of his reading of Vasari's Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, gives the Burkes an account of the art works he has seen in Florence. He wrote up a more formal record of what he saw in his 'Observations on Different Works of Art', Fryer, Works of Barry, ii. 33-44, where certain passages are repeated verbatim from this letter.

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My Dear Sirs,1

I left Rome the twenty second of April, and from some examples of Gothic architecture at Viterbo, Bolsena, Sienna, &c., I am altogether confirmed in the notion which struck me at Rome,2 that what is commonly called Gothic architecture is neither the invention of a Northern or Eastern people, as it is generally believed, but is really the state of corruption, to which this art arrived by a gradual process in the hands of the same people, the Greeks and Romans.3 Mr. Ramsay, in his Investigator you know, opposes the one to the other, merely to shew that there is no such thing as taste, nor any foundation whereupon we can ground our preference of the one, or our disrelish for the other.4 He may sit down, like the fox in the fable,5 and rail at taste and Grecian art as long as he pleases, but every rising nation will admire and imitate it, we are doing it, the French have done it before us, and the Italians before them. About the middle times of the Roman empire, they began to let fancy run wild, and forsake the Greek taste in small matters, then in greater: they by little and little lost the memory of the rules; and this manner called Gothic in architecture, was just the state which the art arrived to by insensible degrees, from Augustus to Theodoric,6 and the times after him. When they began to build Christian churches, their returns back to good taste and Greek art are just as gradual, and I have had infinite satisfaction here in Florence, (which you know has been the cradle of the arts) in tracing the footsteps of it. Vasari7 has been an excellent guide to me, he is a most candid noble minded fellow, and the warmth and enthusiasm with which he speaks of his countrymen he will never be accountable for, with any intelligent man who sees what they have done; as I now perfectly agree with Vasari in all that he has said of the times from Cimabue to Da Vinci at least.8 It will be to no purpose my repeating any thing after him, and if you recollect the three proems to his lives, they are invaluable.9

Many of the old things before Masaccio10 are perished, and the chapel of Masaccio was near undergoing the same fate, as the vile friars were about a year since going to white wash the walls, but were providentially prevented by an order from the grand Duke.11 I fear very much for several other dirty walls here, if the grand Duke goes away, as it is said he will. The large picture of Father Cimabue in the church of St. Maria Novella12 I have reverenced; there are so few remains of his other works, of Giotto's,13 or of the Greeks who were their masters, that there is no comparison now to be made, and for the Greek Christian pictures that remain at Rome, as I do not know identically when they were executed, I can determine nothing in the way of comparison.

I shall here allow myself a few bye remarks upon some few of the old Florentines. Vasari in his account of art divides it into three periods from Cimabue to Masaccio, and from him to Da Vinci, &c. who were authors of the perfect taste. I shall begin with Masaccio, in whom I see many particular things very nearly perfect: there is an amazing variety in his heads, naturally and well painted, the faces in particular are drawn with great accuracy, the attitudes of many of his figures are extremely natural and firm: they centre well upon their feet, and the feet are often in an excellent taste, and with great ability are put different ways in perspective. He has reached after every thing that is good, and one can easily find in him sound examples of perfection in every part of the art, except in sublimity, beauty, and knowledge of the minutiae, and the foreshortening of figures, Torsos, limbs, &c. His drapery is excellent, in a large manner, and well painted; the colouring of his heads is well, in some excellent.

The lower part of Raffael's Dispute of the Sacrament,14 (which is one of his best pictures, and that the best part of it) is exactly in the taste of Masaccio. There are five or six figures of Masaccio that would stand so well in it, that it would be almost impossible to distinguish Raffael's work from Masaccio's.

There is a portrait of Raffael here at the Altoviti palace,15 which is indeed altogether in the style of Leonardo da Vinci; and so is his Transfiguration16 in the same style; but his Dispute of the Sacrament is particularly of the leaven of Masaccio. Contemporary with Masaccio is Lorenzo Ghiberti,17 who seems to me to be the original source of that style in sculpture which we call Michelangelesque. He is astonishingly great for a man of the time he lived. His bronze figures at Orsan Michele in Florence, are exactly in the style of the cinque cento. 18 One of his evangelists in particular is so very like Michael Angelo's work,19 that I could hardly persuade myself it was done so long before Angelo's time. I cannot hesitate a moment in pronouncing that this figure was the model upon which Michael Angelo formed his manner: there is here the grand and fierce air of the face, the same loose play in the bend of the arms, at the fingers, wrist, and elbows, and the same contrast in the turn of the head. The minutiae of the naked is not as exact and well studied as in Michael Angelo. His gate of the Baptisterium of St. John, which was first executed, and which carried the prize from Donatello, Brunelleschi, and others, has great merit in it. 20The naked body of the Christ scourged is excellent. 21 There is a graceful turn in the parts of the figure, and they are well finished in a good proportion. The compositions of many of the stories smell of the age he lived in. They are for the most part stiff and little varied; but there are good parts in them. But in the second gate, which faces the cathedral, and which he finished some years after the first, it is the most astonishing thing that can any where be seen—how much he advanced art. I speak coldly of it, when I say, that though it has served as the model for basso-relievos22 ever since, yet it has never been equalled in any one part; the beautiful grouping of things, the happy perspective of his objects, his leaves and ornaments, and the laying out of his compositions, none of his successors have been able to touch him in. But these were only mechanical parts, in which they might imitate him at a distance. But the noble reaches of Ghiberti's imagination is only to be paralleled amongst the ancient basso-relievos. When Eve rises into creation at the command of God, she is supported by little Loves, who are ushering into view the sweetest idea of a woman that I ever saw.23 His little figure of Sampson, Vasari mentions, and his praises are well bestowed upon it.24 —In one word, this is the man that entirely removed the Gothic stiffness, and established in its place a poetical manner of treating things; ideas of true beauty and perfection on the one hand, and of real grandeur and sublimity on the other. And on the whole of his works he seems to have known every thing of art, but the expression of the soul in the countenance, which was reserved for his successor, Da Vinci, and the absolute knowledge of the detail of all the parts of the figure, which belongs to Da Vinci and Michael Angelo: but as this could not come into his little figures, they are many of them perfect.

Donatello is an excellent sculptor, but inferior to Ghiberti, and Vasari praises him too much. 25 Brunelleschi the architect, is also a most excellent sculptor.26 His Christ crucified, large as the life, in S. Maria Novella, is excessively well understood;27 as to the anatomy, better than any other work I know of that time. The attitude is good, with an agreeable air in the parts; the legs, thighs, knees, feet, &c. are well formed, and with very great truth, which indeed reigns throughout the whole. It appears a little meagre, and not in so beautiful, bold, and masterly a manner as Ghiberti.

I have been cruelly disappointed here with respect to L. da Vinci. I counted upon seeing in this his native city, in the duke's collection,28 some few drawings of the naked at least; in which, for every reason, he must have been most excellent: but here is nothing of him in the naked. His Medusa's head is in the gallery,29 and I will say nothing of it but this, that neither Raffael nor Michael Angelo, nor any other, ever did, or had ability enough to do any thing like it. But then what is there in it ? Nothing but an obscure gloomy head full of agony, with water in the eyes, and environed with snakes and venomous animals. His own portrait30 painted by himself, which is in the gallery, gave me an entire disrelish to all the other portraits that are there; so that you must not expect I should do otherwise than pass them over in silence.

Raffael's portrait in the Altoviti palace is just like his Transfiguration, highly and beautifully finished in Da Vinci's manner; a great strength, breadth, and relievo31 in the shadows; the hair is, to be sure, finished in the manner of another head of him, which I have a copy of, by single hairs, and in a painful laboured way: but he has contrived it so, that this hurts not the picture; it falls down in great and noble masses, which are adjusted in so large and free a manner, that it is at least equal to any thing he ever did: it is not only in every part of it without a fault, but sense, simplicity, beauty, and perfection prevail equally all over it, in the attitude, the character, and finish of the face, and the beautiful masses of the hair.

The Madonna della Seggiola at the Palace-Pitti is one of the best of Raffael's works;32 the face of the Madonna is singularly beautiful, and of the little kind like the Venus de Medicis.33 In the head of the Bambino34 is a character of nature and truth that I never saw in any thing else; the hands of the Madonna lie wonderfully in perspective, but are a little mannered and squadrate,35 so as not to correspond with the head; the arm of the Christ is also a little squadrato, and Michelangelesque, but these faults are hardly visible.

Baccio Bandinelli36 seems to me to be altogether unworthy of the age he lived in, coming after Masaccio, Ghiberti, &c. and contemporary with Da Vinci, Michael Angelo and Raffael: there is no one thing in any degree of perfection in Bandinelli; his Christ, supported by God the Father, is ill conceived, poorly characterized, and worse executed;37 it is heavy and out of all proportion, the legs are too short: his Adam and Eve are his best work,38 but unworthy any other man of the same time. The figures are bad in many parts, ordinary in others, and beautiful in none: they stand like posts to be looked at, as there is no story or circumstance that links them together, but the tree and the devil, which are in the midst. The Eve is as big as the Adam: they are both equally strong and equally feeble, male and female beauty is but poorly characterized in either. The Adam is particularly bad, his body ill made out and of a poor character.

As I spoke of Ghiberti in the general run of his works, I will return to him for a moment, just to tell you that the hands and arms of his St. John Baptist are admirably well made out, with great nature, simplicity, and knowledge of the minutiae.39 WhereeverWherever I can make exceptions for particular works of any man, I always do it to the utmost of my knowledge, and if I could speak in favour of any particular work of Bandinelli, I would do it here.

With respect to Fra. Bartolomeo,40 I cannot determine whether Raffael studied his manner of colouring or not: it rather appears to me, from every thing that I have seen, that the manner Raffael first adopted (after that of his master) was Masaccio's, which he after quitted for that of Leonardo Da Vinci.

In the Palace-Pitti is a Madonna, child and angels, &c. by Parmegiano;41 it is large as life, and the best picture I ever saw of him. Beauty and grace reign throughout the picture. There is vast truth and certainty of drawing, in the legs, heads, feet, &c. and, were it not that grace is pushed a little beyond the mark, this picture might stand unrivalled. He has not, as in others, an affectation of grace, but rather real grace, beauty, and elegance, carried a little too far, so as to lose nature and simplicity in action, and attitude.

Titian still holds his character with me, he is the man of all the world that paints in perfection. His Venus,42 in the gallery, is defective in no part of the drawing (which is more than I can say of any other figure of his) and there is a happy idea of beauty kept up throughout the head, body, and limbs. The character of beauty is of the small kind, like, very like the Venus de Medicis, which he certainly must have seen, for many reasons, before he painted it. Strange 43has altogether lost the character in his print, his figure is in every respect of too large and clumsy a style. The same might be said of his print of Titian's Danäe at Naples,44 and yet I will do Strange the justice to say, that he has happily kept the tone of both these figures (which is the material thing in Titian) and upon the whole, I believe there does not now live another engraver that would have done them as well.

The antique statue of the three graces,45 in the library of Sienna, are about the size of small life. They have lost some of the arms, and one of the heads. They appear to be of very good Greek workmanship, and the pictures of Raffael and Pinturicchio, also in the same library,46 have at first sight, much the look of Albert Durer.47 They are most wonderfully fresh and well preserved, infinitely beyond any thing of his at Rome. The perspective is admirable, the figures, though dressed in a Gothic and barbarous manner, are well and firmly drawn, and in a good proportion.

In the sacristy of Lorenzo at Florence, are some figures of Michael Angelo;48 parts of them are finished, and other parts only blocked out in the marble. I can say with truth that I admire some things in them as much as I ever did any thing; but other things are really very bad, caricature, and distorted: his Pieta in St. Peter's at Rome, his Christ at the Minerva, his Moses, and his Capella Sistina, are his best works. 49