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 his searching eyes. Unlike his portraits of others, Raphael’s self-portraits, at every stage of his life, never give anything away except his ravenous gaze.
Giovanni Santi was not a great painter, but he was certainly competent. On the whole, he leaves the impression that his hand could never quite keep up with his evident intelligence (Vasari explicitly calls attention to Santi’s refined intellect). He favored the sculptural figures and exotic colors of the elegant Tuscan painter Luca Signorelli, filling his panels with forest greens and sea greens, salmon pinks, wine reds, lemon yellows, turquoise, all applied with the meticulous accuracy of the Flemish and Burgundian painters who were so admired in Urbino and elsewhere in Italy. Inspired by the Northerners’ technical virtuosity, Santi makes the jacquard fabric that hangs behind the Madonna’s head seem to protrude its starchy folds and intricate brocades into real space, although curator Carol Plazzotta notes that Santi is more interested in the concept of verisimilitude than in its precise execution: the folds are all of different sizes.
Giovanni Santi also wrote poetry; his verse biography in vernacular terza rima of Federico da Montefeltro, the first Duke of Urbino and father of Giovanni Santi’s own patron, is still preserved in the Vatican Library, a substantial volume of well-wrought verse whose worn condition attests to generations of readers. The painter’s sizable, comfortable house still stands in Urbino, a civic landmark as dearly beloved by the Urbinati as Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s sprawling, refined palazzo. The little family’s idyll would not last long. Magia Ciarla died in 1491, when her son was eight years old; Giovanni Santi followed his wife three years later. At eleven, the orphaned Raphael was taken in by his great-uncle, a priest, and seems to have worked alongside the elder members of Giovanni Santi’s workshop, Bartolomeo di Maestro Gentile and Evangelista di Pian di Meleto, and probably also with the better-known painter Timoteo Viti, who returned to Urbino in 1495, the year after Giovanni Santi’s death. By the end of 1500, at the age of seventeen, Raphael had become master of his father’s workshop in his own right.
One of Raphael’s first independent commissions, an altarpiece in the nearby town of Tolentino, now broken up into pieces, once portrayed the Coronation of Saint Nicholas of Tolentino. Enough of the whole survives to show the hallmarks of Giovanni Santi’s influence on his son’s painting: details like the rainbow burst behind God as the heavens gape open to admit the holy epiphany, the sculptural solidity of the figures, the slight harshness of the flesh that comes from the contrast between stony lead whites and shocking pinks (the effect works better for conveying God’s majesty than for lending any kind of tenderness to the faces of the Virgin or the cherubim). The altarpiece shows something else as well: a fluidity to the lines, a shapeliness to the faces, a convincing depth to what is left of the pictured space, that Giovanni Santi could never have achieved himself. God’s hands and face seem to glow with the warmth of real flesh. These fragments of painting, like the little charcoal portrait of a boy not much younger than the painter of the Tolentino altarpiece, point already to an extraordinary talent.
That talent drew Raphael from Urbino to other cities of central Italy: first Città di Castello, where Luca Signorelli had been the dominant painter until Raphael arrived, and then Perugia, where eyes trained on the acerbic, linear Florentine style of Botticelli and Pollaiuolo and the monumental dignity of Piero della Francesca were newly enchanted by the soft modeling and pure primary colors of a native son, Pietro Vannucci, known to his contemporaries as “Perugino,” just as Raphael would eventually become “l’Urbinate.”
For the first time, around the turn of the sixteenth century, we can watch what happened when Raphael encountered a new artist’s work: he made a rapid study, and then just as quickly devoured it. The exotic colors he had learned from his father and Luca Signorelli give way to Perugino’s primary colors, his marmoreal flesh tones to Perugino’s smooth, flushed skin, its textures built up in translucent greenish glazes rather than Giovanni Santi’s opaque lead whites. As the London curator Tom Henry notes, Raphael also adopted Perugino’s clever trick of aiming a cluster of eyelashes straight from the iris of his figures’ eyes along their line of sight, giving their glances both physical direction and expressive purpose. At the same time, the younger artist’s departures from Perugino are just as evident; for if Perugino was an impeccable technician, Raphael was incomparable. Perugino’s Madonna of Humility may be a more polished, graceful production than Raphael’s nearly contemporary Crucifixion, but Raphael’s figures, still slightly awkward, lumber toward the imposing physical presence that Giotto first brought to Italian art in the late thirteenth century; the flying angels who collect the Lord’s blood in their chalices look back explicitly to this most stately of painters, and we realize that while Perugino may have been the artist of the hour, Raphael was already thinking about how to paint for all eternity. If we are to believe Vasari, Perugino often worked from dummies, and it shows in figures like the baby Jesus in his Madonna of Humility, a doll’s torso perched on real baby legs. Perugino also painted from real models, as we see from a fine preparatory drawing for his panel from the same triptych of Tobias and the angel. Still, when Raphael drew from life, he grasped as eagerly as Leonardo after its lingering traces to capture them in line, volume, and color.
Perugia’s other native painter, Bernardino di Betto, nicknamed “Pinturicchio” (“the little painter”), enjoyed a fame nearly equal to that of Perugino at the turn of the sixteenth century; in 1501, the richest man in Italy, the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, declared that “there are no other masters in Italy who are worth anything.” If Perugino was the more refined technician of the two, Pinturicchio was by far the more daring, a devoted pursuer of ancient Roman art who numbered among the first adventurers to explore the buried ruins of Nero’s Golden House in Rome. There he scrawled his name on one of its painted vaults as he sketched its vibrant ancient paintings by candlelight; the graffito still survives. Inspired by the art of Imperial Rome, Pinturicchio began to design his frescoes on a grandly architectural scale, for the grandest of patrons, Pope Alexander VI Borgia, and then, in 1502, for a Sienese cardinal, Francesco Piccolomini, who commissioned a frescoed life of his uncle, Pope Pius II, for the walls of a library inserted into a side chapel of Siena cathedral. Here, remarkably, Pinturicchio, the great innovator, began to rely on Raphael for his preparatory drawings in flagrant breach of his contract, which specified that Pinturicchio himself would create all the designs. Yet if the elder artist, literally immersed in Roman ruins for decades, had acquired an ancient Roman’s sense of architectural space, Raphael seems to have acquired that same feel for monumental grandeur from no more than Pinturicchio’s example.
Sometimes it is Raphael’s early efforts, by their very lack of success, that most clearly reveal the extent of his ambition, and they reveal it as pure hunger. A series of predellas, the little devotional panels that surrounded Italian altarpieces, show how doggedly Raphael strove to give his figures weight and volume even on a minute scale, to place them in plausible spaces so that worshipers in candlelit chapels would seem to see the holy events really played out in front of them. In these small, secondary paintings he experiments with the massing of figures in a crowd, and with challenging poses. An Agony in the Garden folds Christ’s disciples into complicated, difficult crouches. Fifteen years later, Raphael would portray these same disciples in a painted vortex that forms—an image of pure wind—the center of his phenomenal Transfiguration, spinning each of them off on his own headlong spiral trajectory, every twist and turn of a body in space now totally under control. In a little Pietà, Saint Nicodemus leans oddly over the dead Christ in an attitude somewhere between standing and kneeling (in fact he is standing behind an improbable knoll). Two thousand years before Raphael, the sculptor who carved the pediment for the great temple of Zeus at Olympia created a similar visual anomaly by concentrating so hard on conveying the substance of bodies behind drapery that even a freely hanging fold seems to have a solid leg behind it. And as at Olympia, these figures make so insistent, so weighty a claim on our attention that their occasional clumsiness hardly matters. The artist is learning before our eyes how bodies twist and turn, lengthen and foreshorten, spin in space or create the effect of architecture by nothing more than the way they stand next to one another.