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The Gentle Genius

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Musée du Louvre, Paris
Raphael: Self-Portrait with Giulio Romano, 1519–1520

We can only be grateful to Bindo and Raphael for choosing to privilege beauty over conventional sobriety. And it is hard to feel entirely sober in the presence of Raphael’s portrait of his friend Baldassare Castiglione, clad in muted gray and black, but in what sensuous textures, and with what scintillating points of red and blue adding life to the fabric. This was a painter who saw beauty in every part of his friends, from their character to their choice of clothing. It is a pity that no portraits of Agostino Chigi survive (apparently they existed once).

Raphael pays homage to friendship of another sort in his Donna Velata, both the portrait of a beautiful sleeve and a beautiful woman, every stroke of it from his own hand, from the tendril of curling hair that barely brushes her face to the provocative finger that plays with the fastening of her bodice. The Donna Velata hangs under normal circumstances in the same room in Florence as Titian (in the Galleria Palatina), with Rubens just down the hall, and they make perfect company: the three men whose love affair with women and oil paint reached the ultimate pitch of jubilation.

Raphael’s assistants could never quite reach this level, though Giulio sometimes came close. Nonetheless, the gentle master consistently brought out the very best in the members of his workshop, as their creations with him and without him reveal consistently and unequivocally. In his own day, only Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Titian could rival his infectious exuberance and impeccable control. But neither Leonardo, nor Michelangelo, nor Titian could have produced the little vignette of the upper Tiber valley beneath the feet of Ezekiel’s apparition. The bird’s-eye view and the deeply receding space may well owe an essential debt to Leonardo (viewers at the Louvre can compare The Vision of Ezekiel with the valley behind the Mona Lisa), but the sun-soaked colors belong to Raphael alone.

The exhibition curators identify the painter of this entire panel as Giulio Romano, working from a drawing by Raphael. The surviving preparatory drawings, however, show only the apparition itself, a white-haired man perched somewhat awkwardly among the clouds on a quartet of flying beasts. The exquisite little landscape must have been added freehand. Giorgio Vasari, writing in 1550, assumed that the landscape was by Raphael. It looks that way to this writer, too.

Letters

Ezekiel and the Beasts February 21, 2013

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