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The Gentle Genius

Late Raphael

an exhibition at the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, June 12–September 16, 2012, and the Musée du Louvre, Paris, October 8, 2012–January 14, 2013
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Tom Henry and Paul Joannides.
Madrid: Museo Nacional del Prado, 382 pp., e35.00 (paper)
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Palazzo Pitti, Florence
Raphael and Giulio Romano: The Vision of Ezekiel, 1516–1517. The small figure of Ezekiel can be seen in the lower left-hand corner.

In its normal setting on a wall of the Galleria Palatina in the Pitti Palace in Florence, The Vision of Ezekiel, partly by Raphael, partly by Giulio Romano, is one small painting in a multitude of paintings, most of them clamoring loudly for attention: Titian’s Bella and Raphael’s Donna Velata vie for the crown of voluptuous textures—velvets, silks, pearls, hair, living flesh. Nearby we see Raphael’s portrait of Tommaso Inghirami in wall-eyed rapture, the veins veritably pulsing beneath the surface of his skin, and the circular compactness that lends his Madonna of the Chair its intimacy.

Amid all this beautiful clamor any viewer can probably be forgiven for missing out on what The Vision of Ezekiel has to offer beneath its strange image of God descending in a cloud of apocalyptic monsters: an infinitesimal landscape with a tiny Ezekiel in the foreground, no larger than a silverfish, transfixed by a burst of heavenly light. But what a landscape! Its lazy river recedes back into endless depths between steep wooded hills. In the space of perhaps two inches by eight, the painting takes us on a dizzying flight straight up the Tiber valley to the green heart of Umbria, to the road that still leads from bustling cities like Florence and Perugia to Rome. It is a landscape as softened by the slow action of wind and water as Leonardo’s famous drawing of the upper Arno valley is stark and spiky, and it is a vision no less evocative of nature’s omnipresence, of perspectival depth and the artist’s commanding eye—but all contained within the lower margin of a painting that is largely taken up with a bizarre, and entirely unnatural, celestial vision.

When The Vision of Ezekiel hung all by itself on a wall of the Museo Nacional del Prado this summer (it is now to be seen in Paris), it finally commanded its rightful attention as a phenomenal work of art, its only neighbor a large tapestry showing the same arresting subject (see illustration on page 63). Woven on Raphael and Giulio Romano’s design in Flanders by the Fleming Pieter van Aelst, this hanging once decorated a canopy bed in the Vatican Palace for Pope Leo X. In its textile version, Ezekiel’s bizarre vision of God, cherubs, and apocalyptic beasts floats on clouds in the pure blue-gray air, free of all earthly ties, including Ezekiel himself. Van Aelst, a master of his craft, evokes the radically diverse textures of divine flesh, fur, bursts of light, and vaporous clouds by minutely adjusting the color of his woolen filaments; in its effect, the tapestry is both a monument and a miniature.

In the painted Vision of Ezekiel, however, the most captivating passage is the most incidental: this incomparable, and incomparably tiny, miniature landscape. All of Raphael’s preparatory drawings (and those of his assistants) concentrate exclusively on the airborne vision. The landscape seems to have been painted almost as a whimsy, but if so, it is the whimsy of a master. In its perfection this lovingly painted portrait of a place flies in the face of conventional art-historical wisdom, which says that the old masters who managed large workshops entrusted this kind of background detail to assistants and concentrated their own efforts on the faces and hands of the major figures.

Certainly artists’ contracts often stipulated that the masters themselves would deal with hands and faces, but it is clear from the exhibition “Late Raphael,” mounted jointly by the Museo Nacional del Prado and the Musée du Louvre, that Raphael painted whatever part of a picture he chose: foreground, background, top, bottom, middle, everything, and, often enough, nothing at all after supplying the basic design. The only way to know what part of a painting he really touched is to look at it, carefully, in every detail, which the Prado version of the Raphael exhibition made it very easy to do. There are paintings in which the background steals the show, on a small scale like the Tiber valley at the bottom of The Vision of Ezekiel, or on a monumental scale, like the landscape that basks in sunlight behind the cold gray rocks where a painfully young John the Baptist in the Wilderness sits for a moment, stretching out a long shapely leg.

In The Madonna of Divine Love, a peaceful Madonna and Child rest at twilight with the infant John the Baptist while Joseph stands guard well behind them, almost out of the way, keeping watch over his family from a place within the crumbling vaults of an ancient Roman ruin, plunged into sudden darkness as a winter twilight shifts abruptly to night. If you stand at the right vantage, the ruin suddenly snaps into three dimensions as only Raphael’s paintings can do. He worked this figure of Joseph, and this background, with his own hand, and it is impossible to stop looking at them.

When it comes down to it, why should a master painter be interested only in foregrounds, or figures? From the beginning of his career to the end, Raphael exploited every bit of the surface available to him. He also exploited the physical position of his viewers. To achieve its full effect, for example, his last painting, the Transfiguration, needs to be seen from a distance that can only be achieved under present circumstances by standing in the door to the neighboring room of the Vatican Picture Gallery. Then the upper half of this tall, two-tiered painting turns into a whirling vortex, a wind from heaven that presses down two of the three apostles who bear witness to the scene, and yanks the third one upward as it pulls Jesus, Moses, and Elijah up into its vacuum.

The spiral effect of the Transfiguration’s divine tornado is as forceful as an El Greco, and El Greco must have seen this painting, with its gyrating space and its silvery glow, on the high altar of the Roman church of San Pietro in Montorio; the future Pope Clement VII, who had ordered the painting for his bishopric in France, could not bear the prospect of never seeing it again. The version of the painting displayed in the Prado is a copy by Raphael’s two assistants, Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni, an excellent painting, but stripped of all the greenery that enlivens the original, stripped of the luxuriant silver yellows and serpentine greens that only Raphael could create by applying layer after layer of pigment, incorrigibly limited to two dimensions. But Raphael’s red chalk preparatory drawings for the original Transfiguration stand by his associates’ copy of his great panel painting as a reminder that his chief means of sparking their enthusiasm was the exuberant force of his talent.

Raphael and his contemporaries seldom worked in isolation. They learned their trade as artists by joining a workshop in late childhood, eventually becoming assistants, then collaborators, and at last, if they were sufficiently lucky and sufficiently talented, masters in their own right. The “Late Raphael” exhibition focuses special attention on two of Raphael’s closest associates, Giulio Romano and Gianfrancesco Penni, the most prominent members of a big, diversified workshop that may have included as many as fifty people at one time, from young boys to mature specialists who were dominant figures in their respective fields. Thus, under the general label of “Raphael,” Giulio and Penni carried out drawings and paintings, Marcantonio Raimondi concentrated on engravings, Giovanni da Udine on stucco, still lifes, grotesques, and animals, Lorenzetto on sculpture, Luigi de Pace on mosaic, Antonio da Sangallo on architecture, each of them at the highest level of quality.

At the heart of it all, Raphael bound all these different sensibilities into a coherent group that produced huge quantities of art in virtually every medium, at the same time maintaining a distinctive, consistent style across the board. Sustaining this level of quality and consistency was an achievement in itself, but the most interesting aspect of the workshop was its harmony: Raphael, in his brash, violent age, apparently deployed his forces with the utmost gentleness. As a leader and manager of fractious human beings under tremendous pressure, he provides a model for the ages.

The exhibition concentrates (as a traveling show must) on what its curators call “moveable art”: specifically, in this case, drawings, paintings, and tapestries. The works on display, together with the catalog, are enough to suggest some clues to Raphael’s success as the head of what qualified, to all intents and purposes, as at least a company and perhaps as an outright industry. One wonders what the artist learned about management from his most important private patron, the wily Tuscan banker Agostino Chigi, whose Rome-based business extended its tentacles from London to Constantinople; the relationship with Chigi was one of the most important in the course of his career.

Consciously or unconsciously, curators Tom Henry and Paul Joannides themselves embody one of the reasons for Raphael’s success as the master of a workshop; though they often disagree about the authorship or date of drawings, paintings, and details, they have a clear, shared idea of Raphael, his enterprise, and his art, fully aware that their shared vision depends to a significant extent on subjective judgments. Next to nothing is known about many of the drawings and paintings they have chosen for exhibition, and the only way to make a deeper sense of them is to compare them with the works that are better documented. Enjoying them is another matter; “Late Raphael,” dates and authorship aside, is an exultation of beautiful art.

Henry and Joannides have chosen to aim the catalog texts primarily at specialist art historians and curators, for whom it provides both a valuable record of changing ideas about Raphael, his working methods, and the works themselves and the opinions of two scholars who have looked long and hard at the full range of Raphael’s work—Joannides at the drawings, Henry at the paintings. Through their careful sifting of mountainous data (the bibliography on Raphael is notoriously vast) they provide fascinating new insights into this genteel master and the squadron that most contemporaries called his “boys,” both because many of them were so extremely young, and because Raphael treated them with such affection. In his 1550 biography of Gianfrancesco Penni, fellow artist Giorgio Vasari reported that Raphael “took [Gianfrancesco] into his home, and together with Giulio Romano always treated them as if they were his own sons.” Fatherly Raphael had lost his own father at the age of eleven, but must have preserved loving memories, at least to judge from his portrayals of Saint Joseph as the most gentle and attentive of fathers.

Like an observant father, Raphael seems to have continued to put his hand everywhere and anywhere in the workshop, even when his interests had spread outward to encompass archaeology and ancient literature and his commissions poured in from all sides. These hands-on interventions seem to have been as essential to establishing his artistic authority as his sense of organization, his creative energy, and his agreeable personality, for when he does apply his hand to a painting no one can come near him, not even Giulio Romano, his most gifted associate.

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