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Giulio Romano

Roman architect and painter; b. 1492; d. 1546

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Giulio Romano, properly GIULIO DEI GIANNUZZI, also known as GIULIO PIPPI, a famous architect and painter, the best-known of Raphael‘s pupils, and the unique representative of the so-called “Roman School”; b. at Rome in 1492; d. at Mantua in 1546. At the age of 19, Giulio placed himself under Raphael, who had just finished after three years (1509-12) the Halls of the Segnatura and Heliodorus. In 1514, Raphael was appointed general overseer of works by Leo X, conducted in 1519 the excavations of ancient Rome, and found it difficult to carry out all his undertakings. It came thus to pass that the assistant was soon the factotum and right hand of the master, who during the later portion of his career seldom found time (except for a few portraits) to take a brush into his hands.

As an artist, Giulio has no originality; as a painter, he is merely a temperament, a prodigious worker. His manual dexterity is unaccompanied by any greatness of conception or high moral principle. He enlarged and executed in fresco or on canvas the drawings and studies completed by Raphael for his pictures. In this way were completed, within eight years, “Fire in the Borgo” (1513), the cartons of the “Acts of the Apostles” (1512-1514), the loggias of the Vatican (1514-1519), the frescoes of the Farnesina (1518), and many other famous works such as the “Lo Spasimo” (Christ bearing the Cross), the “Pearl”, the “Virgin with the Fish” (Madrid), the “St. Michael” of the Louvre, and “The Holy Family” executed for Francis I (1518). With all his cleverness Giulio never caught the real glow of Raphael‘s genius; the master’s divine ideas became vulgarized in passing through Giulio’s more material brain. Moreover he was carried away by the power of Michelangelo’s works (the Sistine Roof was uncovered in 1512), which, however, he misinterpreted as the brute force of physical strength. Thus Raphael‘s graceful figures often became in Giulio’s hands coarse muscular giants like the “Ignudi” and the “Prophets”. Giulio is also responsible for the brick-colored tones and plaster flesh-tints of the men and women in Raphael‘s later works, the artistic defects of which are in many cases entirely due to Giulio. A number of the master’s most beautiful conceptions have come down to us only under this imperfect form, spoiled for ever by the triviality and lack of delicacy of the execution, and the pity of it is that, on the strength of Raphael‘s signature, these works seemed to impress the seal of sanction on many serious defects in the French School of the seventeenth century. Much time and discussion would have been saved if in arguing over the famous “Transfiguration” (1520), for instance, it were admitted that in its present state, as completed by Giulio, it is impossible to say what the master’s original idea was, since the secret of it is buried with him in the grave. As for the “Battle of Constantine”, and the “Coronation of the Virgin”, it would be as well to admit that they retain nothing whatever of Raphael.

Although the sole interest of this early portion of Giulio’s career consists in the light it throws on Raphael‘s work, it is of greater artistic importance than all Giulio’s subsequent independent efforts. Yet even they are not without interest. They show us Giulio developing, though with undoubted talent, some of the defects and deadly vices which lay hidden in the Renaissance movement. The most serious of these defects is dilettanteism, or virtuosity for its own sake. Giulio had not with impunity devoted ten years simply to the execution of another’s ideas; he came to believe that in art the thought is of no account, the form everything. The necessary connection between the idea and its expression, between art and life, quite escaped him. This was the grave defect of the Italian spirit—the abuse of art, the worship of form, the indifference to subject, and it could hardly fail to prove fatal to an artist whom it had obsessed.

An opportunity of translating this erroneous principle to canvas on a large scale was afforded to Giulio by the Duke of Mantua. For 22 years (1524-1546) the artist was absolute master of all the works of art executed in that town. He entirely remodeled the interior decoration of the old palace (the Palazzo di Corte), lavishing on it all the resources of his inexhaustible fancy. He refashioned the interior of the cathedral; he raised the important church of San Benedetto, and he built from roof to cellar the famous Palace of Tajetto, near the gates of the town.

It is especially in these two palaces, which were almost entirely painted by him or his pupils that Giulio marks an epoch in the history of art. His lively but superficial fancy, incapable of deep emotion, of religious feeling, or even of observation, attracted him to neutral subjects, to mythological paintings, and imaginary scenes from the world of fable. There-in under the cloak of humanism, he gave expression to a sensualism rather libertine than poeticl, an Epicureanism unredeemed by any elevated or noble quality. It is this that wins for Giulio his distinctive place in art. His conception of form was never quite original; it was always a clever and “bookish” compromise between Raphael and Michelangelo. His sense of color grows ever louder and uglier, his ideas are void of finesse, whatever brilliancy they show is second-hand. His single distinctive characteristic is the doubtful ease with which he played with the commonplaces of pagandom. In this respect at least, paintings like those of the “Hall of Psyche” (1532) are historical landmarks. It is the first time (even if we include the Farnesina) that an appeal is made to the senses with all the brutal frankness of a modern work_ Unlike Raphael‘s “Galatea” and his “Three Graces”. Examples of Elysian happiness in a race in the state of innocence, Giulio’s decorations resemble saturnalia of lubricity itself. The vulgarity of the drawing leaves no illusion as to the nature of its intention; nothing remains of the ancient myth, thus stripped of all its ideal signification, but what serves to excite the senses. Thus art, losing all moral import, sinks inevitably to the level of a game of conventional rules, and the cloak of fiction serves only to disguise the grossness of the instincts, which have ousted every laudable ideal.

Such was the result of “art for art’s sake” in his case, and the danger of such principles was aggravated by the superstitious reverence for the antique in the sixteenth century. The word antique was held to purify and sanctify everything: all things were lawful in the name of erudition, the antique became a fetish. In the Hall of Troy (1534-1538) in the Palazzo di Corte, and in his “Triumph of Titus and Vespasian” in the Louvre, Giulio, following in the footsteps of Mantegna, had given evidence that he too was among the learned, the connoisseurs, the men of disinterested culture, and no doubt concluded that he was thereby entitled to dispense with the claims of morality in the rest of his works. It was not long until the same specious reasoning became the fashion in Europe. Primatice introduced it to the Court of Fontainebleau; and Rubens, who spent eight years (1600-1608) at the Court of Mantua, brought it back with him to Flanders. Giulio is the originator of those lascivious pictures, dating from 1630 to 1638, which are in the Prado and Torre de la Pareja galleries at Madrid. Mantua, Giulio’s town, rather than Rome was the teacher of the seventeenth century. The consequences of these principles were disastrous. The antique, indeed, could only be the religion of the few, but, by constituting fable the sole vehicle of the beautiful, Giulio, vulgarian though he was, fell into the error of “aristocratizing” art, and thus of severing its indispensable bond with the real. Henceforth its public became fewer; art, becoming the property of an intellectual class, was exposed to all the risks inherent in caste and party spirit. It was now a privileged possession, a code-language for use only among the initiated. Emancipated from morality (thanks to the sophism of the antique), deprived of the necessary support of reality, and immune from the common sense verdict of the general public, it gave utterance only to aimless, useless, soulless, lifeless abstractions. As example may be cited the most famous of Giulio’s works, the “Hall of the Giants” (1532-1534) in the Palace of the Tajetto. It is difficult to say whether the artist was here the dupe of his imagination, or whether the work was the result of a jocose wager, for it is certainly a freak, a shock like those that used to startle the yokels in the Gardens of Castello and of Pratolino.

But the effect here is brought about by such palpable illusion, the imposture is so enormous, it demands so many concessions from the spectator, it presupposes such a lack of all critical power on his part, that it is hard to understand such a pleasantry, though for Giulio’s sake one would gladly wish it such. The effort is so out of proportion to the result that one cannot repress a feeling of pity. Such a lack of dignity comes as a shock. There is, of course, in the Italian genius a substratum of scepticism, of irony, of parody, which outsiders can never quite realize. But was it worth while to heap Pelion on Ossa, to shake the whole world, to create such a cataclysm of color, merely to raise a smile? Or can it be that the logical outcome of the doctrine of “art for art’s sake” is nothing more or less than the bizarre and the burlesque?

Distinguished by such characteristics and marked by such defects, Giulio Romano occupies nevertheless an important place in the history of art. More than any other, he aided in propagating the pseudo-classical, half-pagan style of art so fashionable during the seventeenth century, and it is mainly through his influence that after the year 1600 we find so few religious painters in Europe. It was reserved to a Dutchman—Rembrandt—to reconcile art and morality once more. By his influence as a pupil of Raphael, Giulio contributed to spread the evil germs of Italian Art—carelessness of finish, bravura, lack of sincerity, lack of truth, mannerism, love of the grotesque. He painted many altar-pieces; the best is the “Stoning of St. Stephen” in S. Stefano at Genoa, executed before leaving Rome, when the mantle of Raphael was still on him. His Madonnas, such as the “Madonna della Gatta” (Naples), the “Madonna della Catina” (Dresden), are mere genre pictures without feeling or religious depth, having the sort of abstract beauty we expect in bas-reliefs. The “Nativity” of the Louvre is an attempt to reproduce the chiarooscuro of Corregio.


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