Centenary of a Cipher

Raphael Vrbinas:II Mito Della Fornarina

edited by Dante Bernini
Editrice Electa (Milan), 82 pp.

Raphael in der Alten Pinakothek

by Hubertus von Sonnenburg
Prestel Verlag (Munich), 127 pp.

The Drawings of Raphael

by Paul Joannides
University of California Press, 271 pp., $95.00


by Konrad Oberhuber
Mondadori (Milan), 207 pp., Lire 32,000


by Roger Jones and Nicholas Penny
Yale University Press, 256 pp., $35.00

A century ago Raphael was a fact of life. “Should you like to go to the Farnesina, Dorothea?” says Casaubon. “It contains celebrated frescoes designed or painted by Raphael, which most persons think it worth while to visit…. He is the painter who has been held to combine the most complete grace of form with sublimity of expression. Such at least I have gathered to be the opinion of the cognoscenti.” The fourth centenary of Raphael’s birth in 1883 was marked by the appearance of two great monographs. The first was the work of Eugene Müntz, the historian of High Renaissance Rome, and the second of Crowe and Cavalcaselle. “The life of Raphael,” we read in the preface to the second book,

has been the subject of countless biographies and essays in which admiration and praise were justly lavished on the greatest painter of any age….Yet the outcome has not been commensurate with the labor extended; and we are still without a life of Raphael which deals exhaustively with his relation to the art and artists of his own and previous centuries.

The fifth centenary has produced no successor to these books. If a student nowadays wishes to see Raphael’s work in its historical context, it is to Müntz or Crowe and Cavalcaselle that he must return.

The centenary of Raphael is the centenary of a cipher. Today we know no more about him as a human being than was known a hundred years ago. When we look at works by Michelangelo, we can visualize the person by whom, and the pressures under which, they were produced. They are the products of a real not an artistic personality. With Raphael this is not the case. Even Vasari, writing a mere thirty years after his death, saw him through a scrim of mystery. Suckled by his mother, not by a nurse, in order that he might “see the ways of his equals in his tender years,” Raphael was socially adroit and “as excellent as gracious, and endowed with a natural modesty and goodness sometimes seen in those who possess to an unusual degree a humane and gentle nature adorned with affability and good-fellowship, and he always showed himself sweet and pleasant with persons of every degree and in all circumstances.” Even the members of his studio (and they were a temperamental lot) “lived united and in harmony, all their evil humours disappearing when they saw him, and every vile and base thought deserting their minds.”

The trouble with this account is that it is incredible. The High Renaissance preeminently was a period of private enterprise in which success was unattainable without a strong ambition to excel, and an ambition to excel is not normally found in beatific characters. Raphael incurred the hatred of Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, and younger painters were threatened with assassination if they criticized his work. This resentment was in part directed at the kind of artist Raphael was. Lacking the blazing originality of…

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