London: National Gallery, 320 pp., £25.00 (paper)
Curators at London’s National Gallery have wondered for several years how Raphael will play to the troubled, hurried world of the early twenty-first century. No artist has ever worked harder to disguise his labors: his elder contemporary Michelangelo sweated and hewed his way to glory, an ugly Titan whose only effortless-seeming work, the Pietà, grapples on the plane of ideas with the fathomless tragedy of a mother mourning her dead child. Leonardo struggles to snare life itself in a fury of drawing; many of his paintings were—and are—magnificent technical failures. Titian revels in his paints with voluptuous pleasure. But Raphael’s paintings sometimes look as if no one painted them at all. Like those Greek icons described as acheiropoiêtoi, “not made by hand,” they seem to have sprung into being of their own volition, or by divine decree. There has never been so fine a fresco painter, a seeming magician who can force chalky plaster to shimmer like velvet pile, quicken like flesh, or tingle on a sea breeze. Raphael was to painting what Mozart was to music, and like Mozart he died before he had turned thirty-eight. Unlike Mozart, however, Raphael died rich and well loved, the manager of a large, diversified workshop that applied precocious ideas of global marketing to what had hitherto been a jealously guarded craft.
The National Gallery’s exhibit of panel paintings and drawings concentrates on the first stages of Raphael’s career, to reveal, from many different directions, just how hard this smoothest of artists worked to achieve his famous facility. He began, like Mozart, at an impossibly early age. The London show opens by making a persuasive argument, through pictures, for the importance of the painter’s father to his meteoric rise. Giovanni Santi, however, was no Leopold Mozart, no domineering impresario. He worked as a painter for the court of Urbino, a small but influential duchy on the east coast of Italy, whose reigning lord, Guidobaldo da Montefeltro, served as a mercenary captain for more powerful Italian states (one of the family symbols was a fire-pot, the fifteenth-century equivalent of a hand grenade). Giorgio Vasari had little to say for Giovanni Santi as a painter, but he awarded Giovanni and his wife Magia di Battista Ciarla high praise as parents, for rather than sending baby Raphael out to a wet nurse in the countryside, they kept him at home, and that initial diet of mother’s milk, Vasari contends, lay at the heart of the painter’s sweet style. The London show invites us to associate the Virgin Mary in Giovanni Santi’s Madonna and Child, a panel of the early 1480s, with Magia Ciarla and their son—and indeed, what models could Santi possibly have preferred to the pair he had at home? Furthermore, the long, sleepy baby bears a tantalizing resemblance to the charcoal self-portrait of a solemn youth that opens the show. He is an attractive if unremarkable-looking young man, unremarkable, that is, except for …
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