“Old Masters” consists of thirty-five lines of free verse, divided into short verse paragraphs of two or four lines which, though irregular, often resemble stanzas. The poem is broken into two main sections, demarcated by a shift in the left margin; the first section is descriptive, while the second verges on invocation or prayer.
The title refers to the anonymous master-painters of the early Renaissance in Italy, in the eleventh or twelfth century. These artists painted scenes of religious importance and were employed by the Roman Catholic Church to depict events in the life of Christ, the miracles of saints, and well-known figures from the Bible. Many of them were themselves monks or were closely affiliated with religious orders.
The poem begins by emphasizing the anonymity of those Old Masters; they were not concerned, Zbigniew Herbert says, with signing their names to their work in order to achieve fame or notoriety in years to come. Rather, they suppressed their artistic egos, preferring to “dissolve” into the religious wonders they were depicting. As artists, they strove not for personal glory, but to portray the glory of God.
Herbert uses the Old Masters’ native Italian language when he describes their paintings in order to draw himself and the reader closer, linguistically, to the textures and visions that they would have experienced. The reader hears the actual words the painters used. The pink towers “di citta...
(The entire section is 450 words.)